The Russian Revolution in Ukraine

Nestor Makhno

Chapter 24: Suppression of the zemstvo territorial units; formation of a Revkom by members of the Soviet; search for funds

During the time that I, along with our bunch of energetic revolutionary peasants, worker-anarchists, and sympathetic-to-anarchism non-party revolutionaries were absent from Gulyai-Pole, guests turned up in the village – agents of the Central Rada. These were landowners of Gulyai-Pole who had been appointed sub-lieutenants during the War and had now been sent into the countryside and villages to preach the idea of an independent Ukraine supporting itself on the backs of the "haidamaks" and the Cossacks.

We arrived in Gulyai-Pole at night and during that same night I was informed by soldiers just returned from the Front that they had held a meeting at which agents of the Central Rada announced that troops of the Rada were concentrating in Podolia and around Kiev. These agents invited the Frontoviks to organize themselves here and seize power over the raion where there was currently a power vacuum.

As an added incentive, a certain Vulfovich, a Frontovik who called himself a "Maximalist", presented to the assembly several anonymous letters which affirmed that there existed in Gulyai-Pole and its raion some kind of benevolent society which could make regular subsidies to an organization of Frontoviks, etc., etc.

I immediately decided to arrest the "Maximalist" Vulfovich. At 1 a.m. I went to the secretary of the Anarchist Communist Group, Comrade Kalashnikov, and together we summoned a number of comrades. After talking things over, we arrested Vulfovich. He protested, declaring that he would protest to the Anarchist Communist Group. (He knew I made regular reports to the Group about my actions while occupying official positions. The Group decided collectively if my actions were consistent with the tasks the Group had set itself. The same procedure was followed for any members serving on Soviets or Public Committees as a result of being elected by the toilers.)

He was convinced that I would get in trouble for arresting him. But I told him that he had been arrested in order to clarify from whom he had received the anonymous letters about a society in Gulyai-Pole and its raion which had money available for funding the organization of troops for the Central Rada. Vulfovich stopped his swaggering; in fact, he entirely caved in and told us everything. He said he received the letters an hour before the meeting from Citizen Althausen, owner of a hotel in Gulyai-Pole and the uncle of Naum Althausen, a provocateur well known to our group.

Citizen Althausen was also arrested right away. I explained to him the reason for his arrest and said that, along with Vulfovich, he would be remanded by the Soviet to a tribunal of the General Assembly of Peasants and Workers of Gulyai-Pole.

Citizen Althausen realized that this matter was taking a serious turn. The General Assembly would demand to know the details of the existence in the raion of a secret funder of the Central Rada. He preferred to tell the truth right away.

"The Jewish community in Gulyai-Pole," he said, "are afraid of the Ukrainian nationalists. That's why they decided to take the initiative to seek them out and offer them financial support. Then in the event of their triumph they would know that the Jews supported an independent Ukraine and those who struggled for it."

He added: "You realize, Citizen Makhno, there's nothing going on here that could harm the Revolution. The only loss would be to our Society because it would be paying this money out of its own pocket." And he pointed at his left pocket.

The comrade members of the Soviet of Peasants' and Workers' Deputies, hearing that Gulyai-Pole was in an uproar, hurried to join us. They were outraged by the conduct of the Jewish community and demanded the arrest and interrogation of all its leaders with the aim of finding out the truth about their odious behaviour in relation to the freedom of Gulyai-Pole.

Realizing the hatred that the knowledge of this act of the Jews would provoke among the non-Jewish population of Gulyai-Pole, I tried to keep the lid on things. I advised that we limit ourselves to interrogating Althausen and then make a detailed report to the General Assembly. We would ask that the whole Jewish community not be held responsible for the acts of a few.

The comrades from the Soviet agreed with me and trusted my judgement in this matter. Citizens Vulfovich and Althausen were immediately released.

Anyone who aspires to write an authentic history of Gulyai-Pole would need to have been present at that General Assembly of Peasants and Workers. The insurgency in Gulyai-Pole and its raion was unique in the annals of the Revolution, an uprising which, taking birth among the oppressed peasants, was sustained by all the toilers of the raion. When external forces tried to suppress it, the Revolution in Gulyai-Pole exploded into a colossal movement which, alas, never reached its full development. It would be necessary to be present, I say, to be convinced of the seriousness and the extreme care with which the toilers approached a question which in other places in Ukraine would have given rise to beatings and killings of poor Jews, the innocent victims throughout Russian and Ukrainian history who have not enjoyed peace up to this time.

Certainly I had something to do with the way things were handled, but I made no attempt to diminish the significance of the problem and laid out all the evidence before the assembly. The assembly decided to leave matters to the conscience of the Jewish community. But it issued a stern warning to the leaders of that community that a repetition of actions inimical to the freedom of Gulyai-Pole would be answered in a different way. They would then be dragged before a revolutionary tribunal.

And thus the issue was settled. The right of Jews to participate in meetings of the Soviets, to take part in the debates and decisions, was not abrogated in any way. We acknowledged the right of each person, without distinction, to freely express their opinion, provided they accepted and respected the right to destroy all that was harmful to the development of social Revolution, because the new Society which was struggling to be born demanded great sacrifices and prodigious efforts from our collective, creative forces.

* * * * *

Up to this time in Gulyai-Pole and its raion there existed a territorial unit known as the "zemstvo". But this term was no longer used because the Soviet had taken over all the social functions and, with the approval of the General Assembly of peasants, set up a Revkom charged with organizing and training our revolutionary armed forces.

The following were invited to belong to the Revkom: the Anarchist Communist Group, the SRs (there were a few of them in the raion), and the Ukrainian SRs grouped around the "Prosvit" movement (having as leader the agronomist Dmitrenko). As for the Bolsheviks, there just weren't any of them.

The formation of the Revkom was the result of tactical considerations by the Soviet which were endorsed by the Anarchist Communist Group. The Revkom, as an independent revolutionary entity authorized by the triumphant Left Bloc, would allow us to do a better job organizing the peasantry.

Our strength at that time did not allow us to address the needs of urban workers and indeed we still cherished vain illusions about our anarchist comrades in the cities. They existed in a vacuum without any connection with the revolutionary course of events and engaged in sterile discussions, totally useless for our work.

In setting up the Revkom, the Soviet was faced with the question: which member should be entrusted with the ideological direction of the Revkom? The Soviet wanted to have an anarchist in this position and appointed me although I by no means pursued the job. I knew that no matter where I ended up, the Revkom would follow the line of the Anarchist Communist Group, studied and refined by the Soviet and the Revkom and supported by the population.

As a result of prolonged discussion, the leadership of the Revkom, constituted as a military-revolutionary body, was entrusted to me. This position demanded initiative and decisive action.

After my departure from the Soviet there was a move to install Maxim Shramko as the new chairperson. A non-party worker-sailor, he was former head of the zemstvo, a post which I had categorically refused. (I even left Gulyai-Pole temporarily when they were electing the zemstvo head in order to avoid listening to the arguments of the peasants trying to persuade me to run for this position.) But Shramko, after I had gone to the front in Aleksandrovsk, gathered a band of marauders and led them to the Kosovtze-Tkhomirov estate (about two kilometres from Gulyai-Pole) which, on my initiative, had been converted to an orphanage. He tore apart the valuable library (only half the books were ever salvaged) and removed the window frames. By doing this he discredited himself in the eyes of the peasants who had previously held him in high esteem. He was not entrusted with the chair of the Soviet and instead was given the task of making an inventory of equipment and livestock available on the estates of the pomeshchiks in preparation for the redistribution planned for the spring.

The chair of the Soviet was awarded to the Comrade Luc Korostilev, an active member of our group before the Revolution, now only a fellow traveller.

The Anarchist Communist Group asked that the functions of the Revkom be clearly defined. The Revkom declared publicly that its main task was the revolutionary organization of the toilers in order to unite all of them in the struggle to maintain the development and triumph of the Revolution. The Revkom recognized that the Revolution was under attack from all sides by enemies which were trying to reduce the toilers to a passive instrument in the hands of political parties struggling to seize power.

Then the Anarchist Communist Group demanded that the Revkom take the initiative in disarming a battalion of the Berdyansk 48th regiment which was stationed in the city of Orekhov (35 versts from Gulyai-Pole). These troops were more or less evenly divided between supporters of General Kaledin and supporters of the Central Rada. The Revkov was still too weak to take on an action of this sort (which the Anarchist Communist Group understood), but expressed its whole-hearted support for the idea. The Anarchist Communist Group then arranged to collaborate with the Aleksandrovsk Federation of Anarchists. The two groups converged on Orekhov from two sides and disarmed the battalion.

The reaction from the ruling authorities of the Left Bloc was one of enthusiastic approval. Their regional commander, Bogdanov, said he was amazed and overjoyed at the actions of the anarchists and impatiently expected the weapons seized from the battalion to be turned over, either to him or to the Aleksandrovsk Revkom. He felt confident this would happen because M. Nikiforova, still a member of that Revkom, had taken part in the seizure of weapons.

But there was no way that was going to happen.

The Gulyai-Pole Anarchist Communist Group had persistently followed its own line from July-August, 1917: to gain the hearts and minds of the peasantry and to encourage and support in them the spirit of freedom and independence. The best members of the Group, many of whom had already perished, had been struggling to do this for 12 years. Now, when the Group had emerged from the underground and could speak openly, it proselytized its ideal with the sincerity and persistence of an apostle in clear and simple language accessible to the peasants without recourse to nebulous, meaningless phrases from yesteryear. The Group wanted to see its work brought to fruition; it decided this was the appropriate moment to create a military force without which the labouring classes would not be able to cope with their numerous enemies. The Aleksandrovsk Federation supported us in this. Therefore all the weapons: rifles, grenade launchers, and machine guns were transported to Gulyai-Pole and officially placed at the disposition of the Gulyai-Pole Revkom.

The toilers of Gulyai-Pole and the neighbouring villages and countryside became still more resolute. They sent their own representatives to Gulyai-Pole with declarations about their willingness, both young and old, to take up arms to defend their independence and freedom from any power, even the revolutionary power of the Left Bloc if it should try to interfere with the new forms of life which the peasants had freely developed among themselves.

I, as director of the Revkom, would have been entirely tied up in its business if our Revkom had been like the other ones of that time. But every day, even several times a day, the Anarchist Communist Group pulled me away from my work to meet with various representatives of the peasantry from various villages or even other raions. These peasants never failed to present themselves at the office of the Anarchist Communist Group to find out the latest plans of the Group, plans which had not yet been publicized by our itinerant propagandists. We went over our projects with them, trying to decide where would be a good place to begin such and such and how to defend our work from the authorities.

"What happiness!" exclaimed the peasants who visited the Anarchist Communist Group, the Revkom, or the Soviet. "We are really starting to feel the soil of liberty under our feet." And their joy was immense.

Our work took on gigantic proportions. But our financial resources were completely inadequate.

I and number of the other comrades were preoccupied with this problem because the organization of combat forces required a considerable outlay of money. I knew that I had only to apply to the Aleksandrovsk Revkom and they would send the necessary funds. But I didn't want us to do this, either in my own name or on behalf of the Group, because my goal was to create a revolutionary bloc of peasants entirely independent of any political party and especially of any government institution.

After long hesitation, I decided to propose that the Group discuss the following: in Gulyai-Pole there was a branch of the Commercial Bank which we had deliberately not confiscated so far. The funds of the bank were located in the Aleksandrovsk State Treasury, but the branch still carried on paper work, hoping that after the October Revolution it could return to its old job of earning profits for the idle rich. It occurred to me to propose to the bank that it deposit a certain sum of money for the needs of the Revkom.

I recall that we wrestled with this idea for over a week. The Group was against the idea in principle. It is only with difficulty that I extracted a promise from the Group not to prevent me from presenting this question to the Revkom. I promised to take full responsibility if the bankers refused to go along with my proposition voluntarily.

In giving its consent, the Group warned me that, according to our internal code, it could require me to give up the Revkom and the Soviet and confine myself exclusively to working for the Group. I was always prepared for this. I had even insisted on this more than anyone else when we drafted the articles concerning the unity of the Group and the duties of members towards the Group and its work.

I received a guarantee from the Group that our other members on the Revkom would support my proposition to ask the banks to contribute 250,000 roubles for the needs of the Revkom. Then I called a joint meeting of the Revkom and the Executive Committee of the Soviet.

I opened the meeting by announcing that there were unverified rumours that Central Rada was carrying on negotiations for a peace treaty with the Germans and that the Bolsheviks, breaking with their Left SR allies and with the revolutionary population, were also in a big hurry to make peace with the German kaiser.

"It's true," I said to the gathering, "that these stories must be verified and that will be done in the next few days. But I can personally affirm in complete certainty that the Central Rada has already concluded a dishonourable alliance with the German and Austrian emperors, Karl and Wilhelm. [Note: I had some letters from Odessa and Khotin, delivered by a comrade, which confirmed this news.]

This is the decisive moment of the Revolution. Victorious will be those who prepare themselves in time. We must arm ourselves to the teeth and we must arm the whole population, since the Central Rada and the Bolsheviks, by allying themselves with the emperors, will kill the Revolution. We must prepare to be attacked, we must repel the attack and thus save our revolutionary conquests.

We must make our way without any compromises, without any dependence on the revolutionary authority of the Left Bloc, the same as we did for the Central Rada and the coalition of Kerensky with the bourgeoisie. To succeed, we must act independently on all fronts of the Revolution."

Then I explained that we needed money and that the uyezd Revkom in Aleksandrovsk would be delighted if we asked it for money but that this would be fatal for the Revolution in Gulyai-Pole. For that would give the uyezd authorities a lever to try to suppress our liberty and independence.

"But we need money and the money we need is right here in Gulyai-Pole or, at least, we can get it here without having to suck up to the authorities and give them the idea that we will soon be prostrating ourselves before them. As long as we use our heads, we won't have to go begging."

Several voices interrupted: "Tell us, Comrade Makhno, where is this dough and how can we access it for the common good?"

"I'll explain that to you in good time. But first I want to say a word about what I see in our own ranks and in the ranks of our enemies. Of course our enemies are of various sorts on the various fronts but they say they are fighting for liberty; against reaction; whereas in practice they are fighting for reaction, against liberty.

Comrades, none of us here will deny that among the toiling peasants the desire for independence and freedom from economic and political slavery has grown and grown. And who helped the peasants to develop in this way? Why the Revolution itself and the persistent, hard-working members of the Anarchist Communist Group of which I am a member.

What the results will be of this raised consciousness among the peasants it's hard to say at the moment, since we have so many enemies and so very few friends. And our friends aren't even where we need them. They are holed up in the cities and show themselves occasionally. I'm referring to the anarchists. They and only they do not want the oppressed countryside to remain oppressed by the urban authorities. But they make little effort to help the oppressed peasants compared to what they could be doing. There are reasons for this, it's true, but it's difficult to explain and hardly worth the effort. Nevertheless the anarchists are always with us in spirit!"

[My speech was interrupted by applause and cries of "Long live anarchism! Long live the anarchists – our friends!"]

Calm yourselves, friends, I'm getting to the main point. The main point is that we must arm ourselves, we must arm the whole population so that the Revolution will have a powerful army so we can begin to build the New Society ourselves, with our own means, with our own reason, our own work, and our own will.

The toilers of this raion have, since the autumn of 1917, begun this task but now find themselves menaced by the black forces of reaction: the authority, on the one hand, of the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs; on the other hand, the Ukrainian Central Rada. The Central Rada, I'm reliably informed, has formed an alliance with the rulers of Austria and Germany and with their help will deliver, under the banner of saving ‘Mother Ukraine', death to all the wonderful revolutionary gains made by the Ukrainian toilers.

Arming the whole population is feasible only if the population recognizes its necessity. During the past week, I have received here at the Revkom, and the secretary of the AK Group has received at his office, many representatives of the peasants from all over the raion who have spoken with one voice about the necessity of arming of the people.

But this isn't enough: we must go out to the peasant assemblies and hear the same will expressed there. Then we must discuss with the peasants how we can realize this goal with the best results. So now we need to send out propagandists everywhere. We'll have to interrupt the peasants' preparations for spring sowing so we can borrow wagons and horses. Or we can rent conveyances. Either way we must pay for them. So we need money.

We don't have any money, but our enemies do – right here in Gulyai-Pole in the homes of the pomeshchiks and merchants. Their bank is almost next door!

I must say to you, nevertheless, comrades, that the bank vault is empty. All the cash is in the State Bank in Aleksandrovsk. But we can still have it. It's a matter of accepting my proposition.

The whole time the Revolution has been going on, the Credit Bank in Gulyai-Pole has been speculating and pillaging at the expense of labour. Truly, it should have been expropriated long ago and its assets transferred to a common fund for the toilers. Neither the Coalition Government of Kerensky nor the Bolshevik-Left-SR government have done so and they have prevented the revolutionary people from doing so. That's why I propose that the Gulyai-Pole Raion Revkom resolve to disregard the Left Bloc government and demand that the directors of the bank hand over to the Revkom 250,000 roubles to be used for revolutionary goals and that they do so within 24 hours."

This resolution was passed unanimously.

The next day I went to the bank and informed the directors about this resolution. They asked the Revkom to extend the time limit to three days. Then they called a general meeting of their depositors at which the SD Zbar was the Revkom's representative. With his encouragement, the depositors signed cheques proportional to the size of their deposits in the bank. As for those depositors who didn't show up at the bank meeting, they received visits from an agent of the bank accompanied by a member of the Revkom. In the course of four days all the cheques were collected and on the fifth day a member of the Revkom empowered by the bank travelled to Aleksandrovsk and received the correct sum of money.

The toilers of Gulyai-Pole thus assured the success of the first stages of the Revolution by acquiring the pecuniary means for revolutionary propaganda and the organizing of Labour against Capital and State Power.

Part of the money was put at the disposal of the Soviet for social needs. A second portion was, on my initiative, set aside for founding and maintaining an orphanage for children who had lost their parents as a result of war. A third part, the largest, was turned over to the Revkom. Half of this sum was made available for the temporary use of the Provisioning Section of the Soviet. This section, created by the Soviet and approved by the General Assembly of peasants and workers, was directed by Comrade Seregin from the Anarchist Communist Group. The function of this section was to provide the population with necessary goods of consumption. It was so successful at this that it soon attracted the envy of the central authorities who began to place obstacles in its way.

On to Chapter 25 How the exchange of goods between city and village was organized and how we struggled to make it work

Back to Chapter 23 My observations on the Left Bloc in Aleksandrovsk

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