The Russian Revolution in Ukraine

Nestor Makhno

Chapter 28: The successes of the German-Austrian armies and the Ukrainian Central Rada against the Revolution; Agents of the Counter-Revolution and the struggle against them

In March, 1918 the city of Kiev and most of Right Bank Ukraine was occupied by expeditionary armies of the imperial German and Austro-Hungarian empires. After reaching an agreement with the Central Rada, directed by Ukrainian socialists under the presidency of the ancient SR Professor M. Hrushevsky, these armies entered Ukrainian territory and began a vile attack against the Revolution.

With the direct assistance of the Central Rada and its agents, the German and Austro-Hungarian command extended a network of counter-revolutionary espionage over the whole Ukraine. While the expeditionary armies and the troops of the Central Rada were still on the right bank of the Dnepr, the Left Bank part of Ukraine was already infested with their numerous agents, spies, and provocateurs.

During this period, not a day passed in Gulyai-Pole itself, or in its raion, without some meeting where there was an attempt to induce the toilers to repudiate the Revolution for the benefit of the counter-revolution.

This infiltration by spies and provocateurs of the most revolutionary part of Ukraine, namely the Left Bank region, had the logical effect of uniting all the Ukrainian chauvinists of Gulyai-Pole into a "revolutionary" organization which labelled itself as "socialist-revolutionary". At the head of this organization stood the agronomist Dmitrenko, P. Semenyuta-Riabko, A. Volokh, Volkov, and Prekhodko. These last four were lieutenants. Most of them were owners of large estates and one of them, Volkov, owned a dry goods store.

These landowner-lieutenants had long regarded the work of the Revolution with anger and spite, for it deprived them of their lands to the benefit of the community as a whole. However, they called themselves revolutionaries and under this phoney label they engaged in a struggle against the activities of the Revkom, the Soviet, and the Land Committee. When they had convinced themselves that the ideological inspiration behind these revolutionary entities, as well as the initiator of solutions to the agrarian and social-political questions for the whole raion, was the Anarchist Communist Group, they tried, first behind the scenes and then openly, to accuse anarchists generally and the Anarchist Communist Group in particular of being "thieves" and "bandits" who did not respect "either the laws of the Revolution or the limits which cannot be exceeded".

These "revolutionaries" cited as an example other raions where the anarchists had not penetrated the ranks of the toilers and where the population did not try to resolve the land question without permission from the Provisional Government, up to the moment when the new government took over, "the government of Bolshevik-bandits"! – whined these 'revolutionaries'.

"While here, in Gulyai-Pole, and in the neighbouring raions," said these characters, "this question was resolved by brigandage starting in 1917. And all thanks to the anarchists."

Such accusations against the anarchists by people covering themselves with the banner of socialism diminished only themselves and their ideas.

The Gulyai-Pole peasants had organizational connections with the anarchists that went back 11 years during most of which the anarchists had to live an underground existence. And during the past year the peasants had seen the anarchists openly in the vanguard of the Revolution and were convinced that the anarchists would always be on the right road with them. So the peasants hissed these newly minted "revolutionaries" when they gratuitously insulted the anarchist by comparing them with thieves and bandits.

As for the anarchists, they could only point out the work they had accomplished, along with the toilers, in the previous months including setting up the agrarian communes on the former properties of the pomeshchiks.

And the village toilers, recognizing that the anarchists were correct in their understanding of the meaning of the Revolution and of the rights of the toilers to liberate themselves entirely from all the bonds of slavery, continued to engage in revolutionary work themselves, despite all the traps set for them by their enemies.

Equality, freedom to think for yourself, and independence for each and everyone in Gulyai-Pole and its raion led to the following results: the workers acquired self-esteem and began to understand their place in life and in the struggle against their oppressors, whether from the Right or from the Left. This healthy course of the toilers to affirm their rights to liberty and independence worried the statists who, frightened at the idea of seeing their authoritarian principles go down the drain, began to take action against the toilers and spared none of the means at their disposal.

At the moment when the Ukrainian nationalist "revolutionary" organization of Gulyai-Pole unleashed their dirty campaign against the anarchists, the victorious advance of the counter-revolutionary German and Austro-Hungarian armies, preceded by detachments of the also counter-revolutionary Central Rada, had already crushed the Revolution in Right-Bank Ukraine. The Revolution there was rendered defenceless by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk concluded between the Bolshevik Party and the titular heads of these armies, Wilhelm of Germany and Karl of Austria-Hungary. I really don't know if the Ukrainian socialist-chauvinists, who had agreed to an alliance with foreign tsars against the popular Revolution were even aware how odious their action was towards the Revolution. But their followers, the rank-in-file nationalists, certainly knew it because they clung to this shameful alliance and the armed support it provided them as a unique means to liberate Ukraine from the Revolution and re-establish the rule of the pomeshchiks.

Every day at their meetings the socialist "revolutionary" nationalists of Gulyai-Pole bragged that the counter-revolutionary armies of the Germans and Austro-Hungarians and the counter-revolutionary detachments of the Central Rada were smashing and crushing all the living forces of the Revolution as they advanced. Now the revolutionary toilers believed in freedom of speech and the inalienable right to have one's own opinions, so the "revolutionary" socialists were not restrained from spreading their odious propaganda. In fact they felt encouraged to organize a General Assembly of the toilers of Gulyai-Pole.

This Assembly promised to be most interesting. The organizers had posed the following question: who are the toilers of Gulyai-Pole who support the Central Rada [and consequently German and Austro-Hungarian militarists who were leading a 600,000 strong army against the Revolution], and who were the toilers who were against the Central Rada? And if against, under which banner did they march?

All the speakers competed in seeing how low they could stoop. The lied shamelessly. For "Mother Ukraine" and her independent government, her prisons, her jailers, and her executioners, everything must submit without resistance: the Revolution and liberty, and the toilers of the cities and villages who, advancing in the front line of the Revolution had adopted its best goals and worked to develop them.

"In the contrary case, in the case of resistance," said the socialist-chauvinist orators, "we shall exterminate everything by force, assisted by our allies, by our brothers. [They meant Wilhelm II of Germany and Karl of Austria-Hungary with their armies.]

Those who do not resist the powerful armies of our allies will receive from the German command, through the intermediary of the Central Rada, sugar, cloth, and shoes from the thousands of trains which are following them." [There was a great shortage of these items at that moment.]

But for those who resist, they will be no mercy! Entire villages and towns will be destroyed by fire; the populations will be lead into captivity and one prisoner in ten will be shot.

And the others? The others, for their treason, will receive a terrible punishment from their own Ukrainian brothers…"

Upon hearing these declarations, I spoke up and requested that all the speakers belonging to the Party which organized the meeting be prepared to back up their claims with verifiable data.

Next I addressed a few words to the citizens present on the statements presented by the speakers about the shameful alliance of the Central Rada with the emperors and drew some conclusions from what had been said by these speakers and by their opponents.

And the meeting concluded on a note of disapproval of the speakers and all the ideas they advanced before the mass of toilers present. A resolution was passed by an overwhelming majority calling on all the toilers to support active armed struggle against the Central Rada and the counter-revolutionary German and Austro-Hungarian armies.

This resolution did not satisfy the organizers of the meeting. They asked the assembly to be specific: under what banner would this struggle be led against the Central Rada and its allies who had "fraternally extended a hand to help save Ukraine"?

The assembly responded to their demand. It voted and, as a result, divided into three groups. One group threw their lot in with the organizers of the meeting, i.e. the Central Rada; another rallied around the Left SR Mirgorodsky; and the third remained loyal to the Anarchist Communist Group of Gulyai-Pole.

During the attempt to count the members of each group, Mirgorodsky's bunch fused with the organizers of the meeting. It was hard to understand the role of the Left SR Mirgorodsky in this situation. We tried to question his behaviour, but he couldn't come up with a satisfactory answer. He realized the error of his jesuitical manoeuvre only after the meeting.

Despite the fusion of the two groups, the supporters of the Central Rada still found themselves in an absolute minority. The resolution voted by the citizens present was ratified by them and there were further put-downs of the Central Rada and the foreign armies which were marching with it.
Then the leader of the Ukrainian nationalist organization – which called itself socialist-revolutionary – the sub-lieutenant Paul Semenyuta-Riabko, mounted the tribune and in a warlike voice announced to the toilers:

"Never mind! You'll be sorry some day. But there won't be forgiveness for all, especially not for the anarchists! The hour is fast approaching when our army will enter Gulyai-Pole. We'll deal with you then. Remember, our allies, the Germans, are powerful! They will help us re-establish order in the country and you won't be seeing any more anarchists around here!"

These hysterical utterings and threats roused the indignation of all the toilers. The anarchist peasants of Gulyai-Pole immediately spoke up and declared that they accepted the challenge of sub-lieutenant Semenyuta-Riabko. "But we ask," said one of the anarchists, "that sub-lieutenant Semenyuta-Riabko give details about what's going to happen when the Germans arrive in Gulyai-Pole."

Then sub-lieutenant Semenyuta-Riabko provided those details: "The Germans will help the Central Rada impose its laws on the country and re-establish order which means that the anarchists will be imprisoned. You can preach your ideas in prison!" he cried, carried away with his anger.

In the audience some voices were raised: "Throw him out!" "Beat him up!"

The anarchists again delegated one of their members to declare to everyone present that it was now perfectly clear to them that the Ukrainian nationalist organization was counting on the arrival in Gulyai-Pole of the counter-revolutionary German armies. With the help of this brutal force, the nationalists were promising to "punish" the Revolution.

"No, not the Revolution, just the Bolsheviks and the anarchists," replied a voice from the group of the Ukrainian nationalist SRs, standing around their leader, sub-lieutenant Semenyuta-Riabko.

"Very well! Then be aware, gentlemen nationalists, that we anarchists will respond to your vile challenge!" declared the secretary of the Anarchist Communist Group.

With these words the meeting came to an end. The toilers of Gulyai-Pole, outraged by the threats of Semenyuta-Riabko, went home angry and insulted.

The supporters of Semenyuta-Riabko surrounded him and, encouraged by their leader's laughter, made nasty comments to the toilers who were leaving: "Go on home! We're going to wait for the response of the anarchists... ."

Three or four hours after the meeting I submitted officially to the Revkom on behalf of the Anarchist Communist Group the following question: "How does the Revkom, as the organizer of revolutionary unity and solidarity in the work of defending the Revolution, regard the threat addressed to the anarchists by the Ukrainian nationalist organization? Does the Revkom think it ought to do something about this threat, or not?"

The Revkom studied this question the very same day and responded to the Anarchist Communist Group that it placed no political importance on the threats of the leader of the Ukrainian nationalist "socialists", sub-lieutenant Semenyuta-Riabko, directed at the anarchists. The organization of nationalists was in essence not revolutionary, and its vacuous and irresponsible chatter could do nothing to harm the work of the Revolution.

Nevertheless, the Anarchist Communist Group did not agree with the Revkom's position regarding the clearly counter-revolutionary threats of the nationalists and declared a second time, in a note addressed to the Revkom, that it was a mistake to tolerate opinions contrary to the principles of revolutionary solidarity. The note demanded that the Revkom publish an appeal to the population, condemning in no uncertain terms the counter-revolutionary organization of the nationalist-socialists and their threats against the anarchists and the anarchist ideal specifically.

The Anarchist Communist Group declared if the Revkom did not act in this matter, it would be obliged to recall its members from the Revkom and could no longer support it in any fashion in the future.

As I recall, several members of the Revkom asked me if I agreed with the demands of the Group and if I would submit to its decision if it recalled its members from the Revkom. I responded that the demands of the Anarchist Communist Group were justified and that, although I was not a delegate from the Group but rather from the Soviet, I intended to respect the decision of the Group and act accordingly. Then the members of the Revkom decided unanimously, without discussion, to review the two notes of the Anarchist Communist Group again and summon the leaders of the Ukrainian nationalist organization to try to smooth over the conflict which had arisen between them and the anarchists.

But it was already too late...

The Anarchist Communist Group made the Revkom aware that it had declared terror against all those who dared, now or in the future (in the case of victory of the Counter-Revolution over the Revolution), to persecute the anarchist ideal or its anonymous adherents. The first act in this campaign was the execution of Semenyuta-Riabko, an act which had already been carried out by members of the Group.

Actually, Semenyuta-Riabko had been killed around the same time the Anarchist Communist Group made its declaration to the Revkom. The Group had not received a timely answer from the Revkom to their second note and took matters into its own hands. The news of this execution made a very strong impression on the Revkom. Its members were shook up – they could neither act nor speak and appeared completely stunned as the representatives of the Group calmly dealt with current business.

The next day, around 10 a.m., a delegation from the organization of Ukrainian nationalists arrived at the Revkom and consulted with me, requesting my intervention in the conflict between their Ukrainian Organization (UO) (they didn't call themselves nationalists) and the Anarchist Communist Group.

When I passed this information on to the members of the Revkom, they totally refused to examine this affair, declaring that Semenyuta-Riabko, dazzled by the success of the counter-revolutionary Austro-German armies, lost his senses which prevented him from understanding that the Revolution was not yet beaten and was still capable of striking back at its enemies.

Threatening the anarchists with the arrival of counter-revolutionary troops and prison was a flagrant act of injustice towards the Revolution, the Revolution which almost the entire population supported. The killing of the person who made this threat and boasted of a Counter-Revolution supported by the bayonets of the emperors' armies and the Central Rada, was an act in defence of the Revolution.

But it came too late. The anarchists should have killed him the moment this counter-revolutionary had threatened them in saying that as soon as his German and Austro-Hungarian friends showed up, he would make it his business to see that the anarchists were locked up.

"Since the leader of the Ukrainian nationalist organization was an enemy of the Revolution," declared the members of the Revkom, "we consider it quite inadmissible to concern ourselves with this incident and to have it mentioned in the minutes of our meetings.

With the knowledge and approval of his organization, sub-lieutenant Semenyuta-Riabko uttered a vicious threat against the anarchists; it thus belongs to this organization to straighten out this matter, to withdraw the threat and carefully redefine its socio-political position with regard to the Revolution. Only then can the UO be admitted to the Revkom and avoid similar conflicts in the future."

The delegation left the Revkom and returned to its comrades, bearing the censure of the Revokom against the whole UO.

I must say that personally I did not approve of this response, but I couldn't protest while the delegation was present. Only after it had left did I affirm once more that the Revkom stood for revolutionary unity and solidarity. As such it should be prepared to enter into negotiations with organizations which requested its intervention in cases where errors of judgement had occurred, errors which could provoke conflicts like the one created by the UO which had led to the death of its leader.

Already when the Anarchist Communist Group first approached the Revkom about the threat against the anarchists, I had said that it was necessary to intervene in this conflict. But the majority of members of the Revkom had objected, claiming that if the Revkom stayed out it the whole thing would blow over and be forgotten.

Now I repeated again: if the Revkom had reacted right away to my desire to maintain the revolutionary honour of the Group of which I was a member, the Group which had close ideological ties with the Revkom in the defence and development of the Revolution, it is entirely possible that the Group would not have killed the agent of the counter-revolutionary Central Rada.

"It's true that it's too late to do anything now," I said to my comrades on the Revkom, "but it's not too late to act to avoid retaliatory assassinations on the part of the nationalists which – I must declare it openly – will unleash terror against all those who – consciously or just through stupidity – have become agents of the dirty work of the Central Rada and its German allies."

At this same meeting, the Revkom designated three of its members: Moise Kalinichenko, Paul Sokruta, and myself, who were to form a commission with the nationalists to find a way to avoid killings by either side.

Representing the chauvinists on the commission was a certain Dmitrenko, a convinced SR, who was president of the Prosvita organization.
The Anarchist Communist Group was represented by its secretary, A. Kalashnikov.

After some discussion, it appeared that the Ukrainian Organization disassociated itself entirely from the threat addressed by Semenyuta-Riabko to the anarchists.

The representative of the UO, Dmitrenko, declared that Semenyuta-Riabko's threat could be explained by his boundless enthusiasm and empathy for the suffering of his people. The UO disapproved of this threat and considered it in contradiction with its ideas.

But Dmitrenko was not sincere. His declaration was only a political manoeuvre on the part of the UO.

We understood this, and Comrade Kalashnikov replied that "We see in this threat the desire of the whole UO to attack the anarchists for their tenacious struggle against the invasion of revolutionary territory by the counter-revolutionary armies of the German and Austro-Hungarian emperors and the troops of the Central Rada."

"The Anarchist Communist Group believed it had a duty to kill the instigator of this enterprise directed against the anarchists and against their ideas. The Group killed him and is prepared in the future to kill any scoundrels like him."

After this I went to a meeting of the Anarchist Communist Group where I asked the comrades to renounce terror, but my view was attacked by a whole bunch of them. They viewed my appeal as a defence of the agents of the Counter-Revolution and they scoffed at me, not holding anything back.

I found their audacity irritating, but I was also glad to see that I didn't intimidate them and began to feel more strongly that my work among the younger members of the Group had not been in vain.

In spite of the ridicule, my considerations for and against terror were ultimately adopted by the Group as the basis on which to review its declaration of terror and, after a series of meetings and serious discussions among the comrades, the Group renounced its previous resolution and recorded in the minutes that so long as the enemies of the Revolution restricted themselves to verbal attacks without taking up arms, terrorist acts would not be applied against them.

The younger members of the Group had a lot of trouble understanding this decision and more than once they suggested that "Comrade Makhno wants to convert the most hidebound counter-revolutionaries into revolutionaries. Comrade Makhno has thereby delivered a heavy blow to the unity of the Group", etc.

However the moment was such that no one wanted to desert the Group. For it was the moment when the Counter-Revolution, borne on the bayonets of the German armies, clearly had the upper hand over the defenders of the Revolution which consisted of a few isolated units of Red Guards. Consequently, for a raion like Gulyai-Pole which could mobilize significant forces for the defense of the Revolution, we needed to pursue a different set of tactics. We needed to push strongly for peace between the different parties, for equality and toleration of different revolutionary opinions, because Gulyai-Pole was becoming the centre of the spiritual and military forces which could save the Revolution.

That's why I didn't pay much attention to the naive protests of my young friends. I was confronted with the huge problem of organizing battalions of volunteers to fight the Central Rada and its allies, the German and Austro-Hungarian armies, 600,00 strong.

I felt that the Revkom had been negligent in this area of its work and insisted that all the detachments in the raion which were under the control of the Revkom should be organized as battalions with a complement of 1,500 soldiers each.

The Anarchist Communist Group, in my opinion, had to set an example in this domain just as it had in its other revolutionary work. Otherwise it would trail behind the revolutionary events. It would separate itself from the toilers of the oppressed villages and would be reduced to the level of hundreds of other anarchist groups in Russia which had no influence on the ideas which guided the masses of toilers who had faith in the Revolution but were not able on their own to define its essential core and defend it from the distortions of the chiefs of political socialism.

The Group took this circumstance into consideration and showed militant qualities of the first order in organizing armed forces for the defence of the Revolution.

Other groups in the cities and villages of other raions wasted time in fruitless discussions, along the lines of: "Is it really anarchist for an anarchist group to create revolutionary combat units? Would it not be preferable for such groups to distance themselves from such activity, contenting themselves with not preventing their members from participating in this 'semi-anarchist' work?"

The peasant Anarchist Communist Group of Gulyai-Pole advanced the following credo:

"Revolutionary toilers, form battalions of volunteers to save the Revolution! The state socialists have betrayed the Revolution in Ukraine and are leading the black forces of reaction from foreign countries! In order to counter this attack an immense force of revolutionary toilers is necessary. The revolutionary toilers will find the necessary strength by forming these battalions of volunteers and will triumph over the intrigues of their enemies, both of the right and of the left!"

The Revkom and all the soviets of the raion took up this credo and promoted it actively.

There were, to be sure, especially among the tribe of Ukrainian nationalists, individuals who opposed this credo. But the discussions on this question were conducted in a more civilized fashion. There were no references to the bayonets of the German and Austro-Hungarian counter-revolutionary armies and no threats of reprisals against the opponents of the criminal politics of the Central Rada. Now even the nationalists seemed to realize that the politics of the Central Rada was directed against the Ukrainian working people and their revolutionary conquests. The Ukrainian toilers were asserting themselves ever more freely and clearly in overcoming the most formidable obstacles raised against them by their enemies on the path of Revolution. These enemies were: on the Right – the bourgeoisie; on the Left – the state socialists who sought to take advantage of the situation to give a false interpretation of the goals of the Revolution and thereby subjugate the Revolution entirely to the needs of the state.

It was a very heavy situation. All of us, members of the Anarchist Communist Group and the revolutionary peasant worker organizations, felt it. And then a scandal broke out which involved the Union of Metal and Carpentry Workers. The executive of this union demanded that the Anarchist Communist Group and the Soviet recall Comrade Lev Schneider from the Provincial Soviet.

This demand was motivated by the fact that Comrade Schneider had not fulfilled his mandate; consequently, the factories and mills of Gulyai-Pole, as well as the blacksmith shops, locksmith shops, and other workshops were receiving little or no iron, steel, coal, and other raw materials which they required.

Confronted with this criticism of its responsible representative, the Anarchist Communist Group, after conferring with the Soviet, recalled Lev Schneider to Gulyai-Pole so that he could explain the reasons which prevented him from fulfilling his mandate.

But, Comrade Schneider had already contracted the disease of carelessness and irresponsibility which infected certain of our anarchist comrades in the cities. He responded that he couldn't return to Gulyai-Pole as he was too burdened, so he said, with tasks assigned to him by the Provincial Soviet. He invited the Anarchist Communist Group to nominate another representative in his place.

Such an attitude towards the organizing the toilers of the whole raion on the part of a member of the Anarchist Communist Group and someone who was respected by the toilers, incited the Group to sent him an urgent telegram demanding his immediate return to Gulyai-Pole, where he would have to answer to the Anarchist Communist Group, the Soviet, and the Trade Union. If he refused to come, the Group would be obliged to send two comrades to fetch him.

Comrade Schneider knew that this was not an idle threat and that the Anarchist Communist Group would shortly track him down and arrest him for having compromised the Group before the Soviet and the Trade Union and, consequently, before all the toilers. He could very well end up being shot.

Two days after receiving this terse telegram, Comrade Schneider turned up in Gulyai-Pole and made his report to the Soviet and to the Group. His mandate was withdrawn and Comrade Schneider went back to the Kerner factory to run his lathe again.

While the Group was occupied with sorting out this case, the agents of the Central Rada and their German allies were not losing any time. They seized on the case of Lev Schneider and harped on it at meetings of the toilers.

It was necessary to fight stubbornly against the slanders. We had to go to all the villages and hamlets and be present at all the meetings organized by the agents of the Rada or of General Eichorn. This took up a lot of our time and kept some our best comrades from the most pressing working of our Group – the creation of an armed front against the Counter-Revolution.

On to Chapter 29 Consolidation of the detachments; formation of a single Front with the Left Bloc

Back to Chapter 27 The agrarian communes; their organization; their enemies

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