The Russian Revolution in Ukraine

Nestor Makhno

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

1 May 1917. Ten years had passed since I last participated in this labour holiday so I made a special effort to carry out agitational work to organize its celebration among the workers, the soldiers of the artillery detachments, and the peasants.

I collected all the documents relating to the actions of the workers of the cities during the last days of April and presented them to our group, so that our members could prepare their own interpretations for agitational work among the peasants, workers, and soldiers.

The commander of the 8th Serbian regiment sent a delegation to us to sound us out on the wish of this regiment of the Serbian state to participate with the toilers of Gulyai-Pole in the workers' holiday. Of course we had no objection, even when they proposed to take part fully armed. We relied on our own strength which was quite sufficient to disarm this regiment, if necessary.

Demonstrations began in the streets of Gulyai-Pole at 9:00 a.m. The assembly point of all the demonstrations was Market Square, now knows as Martyrs of the Revolution Square.

Without wasting any time, the anarchists delivered the news about the actions of the Petrograd proletariat of April 18-22, pressuring the government to dismiss ten capitalist ministers and transfer all power to the Soviets of Peasants', Workers', and Soldiers' Deputies. The anarchists described how these actions were suppressed by force of arms. This news transformed the character of the demonstration which became hostile to the Provisional Government and all the socialists who took part in that government.

The commander of the 8th Serbian regiment made haste to lead his troops back to their quarters. Part of the artillery detachment declared their solidarity with the anarchists and joined the ranks of the demonstrators.

The demonstrators were so numerous that their procession seemed endless. After passing a resolution, "Down with the Government and all the parties responsible for inflicting this disgrace on us...", they marched through the streets singing the March of the Anarchists. In ranks five to eight abreast it took several hours for their column to pass.

The mood was so elated and hostile to the Government and its agents, that the politicians of the Public Committee and the officers of the artillery detachment took refuge at the headquarters of the Serbian regiment. The only exceptions were two officials who were favourites of the soldiers: the anarchist sympathizer Shevchenko and the artist Bogdanovich. The Militia, which during its brief existence had yet to make a single arrest, disappeared entirely from Gulyai-Pole.

The anarchists told the mass of demonstrators about the Chicago anarchist martyrs. The demonstrators honoured their memory by kneeling with bowed heads and then asked the anarchists to lead them without delay to fight against the Government, its agents, and the bourgeoisie.

The day passed, however, without violence.

At that time the authorities of Aleksandrovsk and Ekaterinoslav were keeping a close eye on Gulyai-Pole and would have liked nothing better than to provoke us prematurely to battle.

The whole month of May was devoted to intensive work in the peasant congresses of Gulyai-Pole and Aleksandrovsk.

At the Aleksandrovsk congress I reported that the toiling peasantry of Gulyai-Pole did not trust the Public Committees to carry out the work of the Revolution and had taken control of the local committee. And I explained just how this was done.

The delegates of the peasants at this congress congratulated the peasants of Gulyai-Pole and promised to follow their example. The S-Rs at the congress registered their approval but the S-Ds and Kadets complained that the approach taken by the peasants of Gulyai-Pole towards the Public Committees ran counter to the general political line of the new government. According to them the taking over of established territorial administrations (the Public Committees) by a peasant organization was ruinous to the revolutionary cause for it was undermining the prestige of the local government organs.

One of the peasants exclaimed: "You're absolutely right! That's exactly what we're doing. We shall try in each of our districts to subvert the governmental pretensions of these Public Committees until we adapt them to our own outlook, until they accept our right to freedom and independent action in the seizing of the land from the pomeshchiks."

This declaration from the ranks of the peasant delegates sufficed to quiet the S-Ds and Kadets. Otherwise the peasant delegates would have left the meeting hall. The S-Ds and Kadets had no desire to be left in an empty hall for at this period of the Revolution they still hoped to master the revolutionary mood of the toilers.

This congress of Aleksandrovsk ended with the passing of a revolution about the transfer of the land into the hands of labouring society without compensation. A provincial committee was elected. The S-Rs rejoiced while the S-Ds and Kadets were furious. The peasant delegates dispersed to their own districts, resolved to organize themselves without the assistance of these political "prattlers", to unify their villages in order to carry out a common armed struggle against the pomeshchiks. "Otherwise," they said, "the Revolution will perish and we shall again be left without land... ."

When M. Shramko and I returned from the provincial congress of Aleksandrovsk and reported the results to the Peasants' Union of Gulyai-Pole raion, the peasants regretted very much having sent us to this congress. They said: "It would have been better for us not to participate in this congress, rather we should have held our own congress here in Gulyai-Pole for the raions of Aleksandrovsk uyezd. We are convinced that here we would have made more rapid progress towards our goal of seizing the land for social use. But it's too late now. We hope our Gulyai-Pole Committee of the Peasants' Union will make known our position on this question not only to peasants of Aleksandrovsk uyezd, but also to those of the adjacent uyezds: Pavlograd, Mariupol', Berdyansk, and Melitopol'. Let them know we won't be satisfied with resolutions it is necessary to act."

This stance on the part of the peasants gave rise to the Declaration of the Gulyai-Pole Peasants' Union stating that "the toiling peasants of the Gulyai-Pole raion believe in their inalienable right to proclaim as communal property the lands of the pomeschchiks, the monasteries, and the State, and intend to carry this into effect in the near future." A special leaflet was issued urging the toiling peasantry to prepare themselves for this act of justice.

The voice of the Gulyai-Pole peasants was heard far beyond the borders of Ekaterinoslav gubernia. Delegates from peasant villages in other provinces began to arrive in Gulyai-Pole for consultations. This went on for several weeks. As Chairman of the Peasants' Union, I was constantly busy with these delegations.

Comrades from other organizations had to fill in for me in my regular duties while I carried on discussions with the visiting delegates. To some I gave advice, to others direct instructions on how to organize the peasants into unions and prepare them for the seizure of the land. And having seized the land from the oppressors, the next step would be either to set up agricultural communes on the former estates, or divide up the land and distribute it to the needy.

Most of the delegations told me: "It would be a good thing if Gulyai-Pole were to act first."

"Why?" I asked. The answer was always the same: "We don't have any organizers. We read little and hardly any information reaches us. Agitators haven't appeared among us... and we would not even have read the proclamations of your Union and the Anarchist Communist Group if our sons who work at the Yuzovsky Mine had not sent them to us."

Listening to the voice of the downtrodden countryside, I felt pain but also anger. I cursed the comrades holed up in the cities, forgetting the oppressed countryside. And yet the triumph of the Revolution ultimately would depend on the countryside. Meanwhile the Provisional Government was already beginning to slow down the revolutionary process, to take control. The creative development of the toilers, gradually becoming conscious of themselves and their rights, was being replaced by written programs meaningless for the real life of the country.

And the more this mental anguish tormented me, the more I was moved to search out the most out-of-the-way corners of the countryside, together with my comrades, to tell the peasants the truth about their situation and about the state of the Revolution. I was willing to set aside all commitments in Gulyai-Pole for the moment, to carry this message to the peasants, for unless they threw their fresh energies into the struggle, the Revolution was doomed.

This work kept me away from Gulyai-Pole for several days. At this time I was cheered by the imminent return of P. A. Kropotkin to Russia, knowing he would draw the attention of the comrades to the oppressed countryside. And who knows? maybe our old mentor, Uncle Vanya (Nikolai Rogdaev), who had been so active in Ukraine in tsarist times, would also return, along with other comrades less well-known but very active in the old days. Then our activity would get a real boost. The toiling masses would receive thoroughgoing replies to the questions which tormented them. The voice of anarchism would be heard everywhere in the oppressed countryside and would collect and group under its banner the toiling masses to do battle with the pomeshchiks and factory owners for a new world of freedom, equality, and solidarity among all the people.

I believed in this project to the point of fanaticism, and on its behalf I became more and more absorbed in the everyday life of the peasants and workers. I strongly urged the Gulyai-Pole Anarchist Group to do the same.


On to Chapter 8 The workers' strike

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

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