The Russian Revolution in Ukraine

Nestor Makhno

Chapter 6: The role of teachers. Our work in the public committee

Earlier I said the elementary school teachers of Gulyai-Pole had supported us from the time of my first speech before the assembly of peasants and workers. But I neglected to mention what this support was based on. The teachers agreed with my comment that it was shameful for the working intelligentsia to remain inactive at such a critical moment. The peasantry was experiencing great difficulties due to the lack of participation of the intelligentsia in their movement.

Now the teachers threw themselves into practical work. They took part in the elections to the Public Committee, were nominated and elected. Of the 14 teachers in Gulyai-Pole, six were elected by the peasants.

The peasantry, with the help of the Anarchist Communist Group, took a close look at the services rendered by the intelligentsia to the peasants and workers. They observed that historically the activities of the village teachers could be divided into three phases. Beginning in 1900, the teachers had gone to work with enthusiasm to enlighten the village poor. But the reaction setting in after 1905 put an end of this energetic and high-minded impulse on the part of the teachers. Their work in the villages faltered. Only on the eve of the World War did the teachers stir themselves again, with faith and hope, to renew their work in the backward villages. But the War, this sudden, bloody blow against civilization, deflected them from their task. The teachers as a whole became the most fervent patriots, and their cultural-educational work was directed to the profit of the war-effort... .

It's true that only three or four of the Gulyai-Pole teachers passed through each of these stages in their own professional careers. The rest were all young and had not yet experienced such inevitable vicissitudes in their own careers. They all applied themselves sincerely to work with the peasants and workers. Some of them, like A. Korpussenko, G. Belouss, Lebedev, G. Kuzmenko, and Maria Alekseyeva, despite having no experience in practical revolutionary work, made every effort to make themselves useful to the vanguard of peasants and workers. In these early months of the Revolution, the teachers did not aspire to direct the movement of peasants and workers. This fact allowed the teachers to work closely and in harmony with the labouring poor.

At first the peasants regarded the teachers with suspicion. But there came a moment, in the exhilarating rush of events, when everyone was inspired with the spirit of the Revolution and came together in the name of its success. Then the peasants and workers accepted the teachers among themselves. At such a moment the peasants elected teachers to the Public Committee. It was also at this time that the Peasants' Union moved to take control of the Public Committee of Gulyai-Pole. This control was exercised through its own delegation to the Public Committee. I recall the first day we went to the Public Committee, myself and five comrades. We thought our presence would provoke a scandal, that the Committee would not accept a delegation from the Peasants' Union sent to oversee their work. But things turned out just the opposite. We were met with open arms by those members of the Committee noted for their political chicanery the representatives of the merchants and shop-owners and those from the Jewish community. These people had got on the Committee to look after their own interests. But now they declared nothing would please them more than friendly collaboration with the peasants in the field of social reconstruction. Up to the moment, it seems, they had not found practical means to convince the peasantry of their disinterested concern. "And now, happily, the peasants themselves have shown the way!" exclaimed one of these slimy characters. So they greeted us, the representatives of the peasants.

Thus six members of the Peasants' Union were co-opted into the Public Committee. It was essential for them to stand firm in this post, so fraught with danger to the cause of the peasants, and not fall under the influence of ideas inimical to the revolutionary goals of the peasantry. Special vigilance was required of members of the Peasants' Union who found themselves in institutions such as the Public Committee, which never made a move without orders from the central government or its agents of the S-R or Kadet variety. The peasant delegates had to remain steadfast in their convictions as they were confronted with problems posed to the labouring classes by the developing Revolution, a Revolution which had so far taken shape only in a political sense. With each passing month the actions of the labouring classes were changing the character of the Revolution, liberating it from its initial political framework.

The Peasants' Union considered the matter of its delegation to the Public Committee very carefully, according to the reports of the Anarchist Communist Group. The mandate of the delegation was formulated as follows: "The Peasants' Union of Gulyai-Pole, empowering six of its members (N. Makhno, F. Krat, Andrei Semenyuta, P. Korostelyev, G. Sepega, and M. Shramko) to attend all the meetings of the Public Committee and monitor its politics, considers it important that members of the Union control the Land Section of the Committee." (From the minutes of the Peasants' Union for April, 1917.)

This last question was crucial for the labouring peasantry as the Land Sections of the Public Committees, following directions from the Centre, were insisting the peasants continue to pay rent to the landlords, pending the resolution of the land question by the Constituent Assembly. The peasants, on the other hand, given some political freedom by the Revolution, considered their slavery and exploitation at the hands of the idle landlords at an end.

The peasants were still badly organized and scarcely prepared to cope with the problems posed by the seizure of land from the landlords, the monasteries, and the State, and its declaration as social property. That's why they insisted the Union should get control of the Land Section. In fact the peasants insisted the business of the Land Section be submitted to the members of the Anarchist Communist Group. But we, the members of the Group, entreated them not to formulate this demand for the time being, as we wished to avoid premature armed struggle with the authorities of Aleksandrovsk (our uyezd). Meanwhile the Group resolved to lead an intensive agitation in Gulyai-Pole and the surrounding region to encourage the peasants to pressure the Public Committee to abolish its Land Section and allow them to organize independent Land Committees.

This propaganda was greeted by the peasants with enthusiasm. However, from the central authorities came an order to the Public Committee stating that the Land Sections were part of the Public Committees and must not be abolished but rather renamed "Land Departments"... . (And later, as we shall see, the Land Departments were renamed "Land Committees" by the government itself.)

Carrying out our mandates from the Peasants' Union, we succeeded in gaining control of the Land Department which I was put in charge of. With the support of the Peasants' Union and the Public Committee itself, as well as the approval of the A-K Group, I became for a time the de facto ideological leader of the whole Public Committee.

Our group embarked on this dangerous path thanks solely to my influence. I was driven to this course by my reading of our anarchist press during the first two months of the Revolution. Not a trace could I find of any efforts on the part of the anarchists to create a powerful organization which would master the psychology of the toiling masses and show its organizing skills in developing and defending the nascent Revolution. I saw this movement so dear to me splintered as in the past into various groupuscles. So I made up my mind to provide an impetus towards unification of the movement by setting an example with an anarcho-communist group from the downtrodden countryside. This was all the more important to me as I sensed a certain disdain for the countryside among our urban propagandists.


On to Chapter 7 The first of May. Relationship of the peasants to the land question

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