1. Gulyai-Polye in 1918

by N. Sukhogorskaya

The village of Gulyai-Polye[1] in the Zaporozhye district of the Ukraine is located about 6 km from the railway station of the same name. It was Makhno's home town and chosen place of residence, and when it was under the control of the Makhno movement it was often referred to as "Makhnograd", i.e. Makhno City. Gulyai-Polye is a rather large, sprawling village with around 2,000 houses. When I was in Gulyai-Polye there were about ten parish schools, three high schools, a technical college, two churches, a synagogue, a bank, a post-office, many mills and dairies, and a cinema. Ethnic Ukrainians made up the bulk of the population. There were very few Russians, most of them teachers and white-collar workers, but there was a sizeable Jewish community - merchants, tradesmen, etc. - that lived in harmony with the Ukrainian peasantry.

The village was actually more like a small town, and quite a lively one at that. The streets were wide and long and had raised wooden footpaths. On the outskirts of Gulyai-Polye there was a river Chornaya (Black River), one of the thousands of rivers of the same name in Russia and the Ukraine. The vegetation around Gulyai-Polye was sparse. 

That was how Gulyai-Polye was in the summer of 1918 when I was sent there for "rest and recreation". The village had been taken by Austro-Hungarian troops shortly before my arrival, and the most influential person in the village prior to their arrival had been Makhno who was later to become so famous.

Nestor Ivanovich Makhno[2] was born into a modestly comfortable local peasant family. Makhno's father died when he was quite young, leaving his mother to bring up five sons alone. Nestor stood out among his brothers and legends soon arose around him. Old people in the village told me that when he was christened the priest's chasuble caught fire. They said this was an old omen meaning the child would grow up to be an infamous bandit[3]. I didn't ever hear much about Makhno's youth, but I was told that when he was about 18 and working at a factory he got involved in a group of expropriators. They called themselves anarchists, a term fashionable at the time. The gang was soon broken up and Makhno and his accomplices were sent to jail. After serving their prison sentence they were banished.

However, the February Revolution of 1917 came and Makhno was released. He returned home and immediately became the leading personality in the village. Legends added to his fame: the old one about his christening and the new one about his son. Makhno's first wife, a peasant girl, bore him a son, and at birth the baby already had teeth. This was an evil omen and people started saying that the Antichrist had been born. As it turned out, the "Antichrist" soon died and the truth of the prophesy could not be gauged, but the tale began to be told. I should mention briefly that Makhno later had two other wives, a telegraphist[4], and then a teacher - the famous Agafya Andreyevna.

When the Austrians took control of Gulyai-Polye Makhno had to go underground, which was a great blow to his pride, especially because the arrest warrant listed him and his brothers as Bolsheviks. The whole family had to hide in the forest. At that time Makhno still had only a handful of active supporters - a small but eager band of adherents. Occasionally Makhno would kill or hold up and rob an Austrian soldier, but the first Makhnovists did not harm the local population, and this significantly increased their popularity.

The Austrian troops went to great lengths to catch Makhno and his comrades. Two of Makhno's brothers were soon caught and killed. Only three of the Makhno brothers survived, including Nestor and his elder brother Savely, a dull-witted, vicious fellow. It is around this time that my personal memories of the Makhno movement begin.

Makhno was brave and daring by nature, and the partisan struggle against the Austrians taught him to be particularly resourceful. I first saw Makhno when the village was in the hands of the Austrians. He was strolling calmly down the main street. He wasn't much to look at - short, narrow-shouldered, with light brown bobbed hair and a flat, slightly ape-like face. He looked like he was about 30. He was wearing a soldier's uniform and a sabre hung from his belt. He reminded me very much of a village constable.

Makhno would have made no impression at all had it not been for his gaze. At first I thought I was the only one who was afraid when he looked at me with his cold, grey, steely eyes - they were really hypnotic! I later learned that even the most inveterate Makhnovist bandits could not withstand his gaze and began to tremble when he looked at them. I remember Makhno was walking down the street and people parted before him. My small son was toddling along at that moment and happened to run right into Makhno. A passer-by wanted to oblige Batko Makhno and rushed up to move the child away, but Makhno condescended and said to the boy: "Keep on walking, laddie, don't be frightened!" Everyone who witnessed the scene was moved by these unexpectedly kind words.

Not only the ordinary villagers were afraid of Makhno, but also his very own comrades-in-arms. I once witnessed how Makhno beat a drunken Makhnovist with a lead-tipped whip out in the street for some minor misdemeanour; the man cringed and kissed Makhno's feet and the hooves of his horse, crying and begging: "Forgive me, Batko, I won't do it again!" However, this did not mean that Makhno was opposed to alcohol in principle. He only punished people for "untimely" drunkenness in dangerous situations when the enemy was near. He himself only drank in his free time when he was not concerned with military tasks. But when he did drink he drank himself almost into a stupor and became an absolute fiend. In this state he would go out and kill a personal enemy or torture and execute prisoners. One time when he was under the weather he hacked to death 13 prisoners-of-war, red Siberian fusiliers, purely for his own enjoyment.

Makhno set up his detachment while the Austrians were in the Ukraine, and especially in Gulyai-Polye. There was a lot of discontent because the Austrians and Germans took all they could from the peasants, and the way they treated the population was disgraceful, to say the least.

The troops occupying Gulyai-Polye were ethnic Hungarians, non-Slavs. The Austrian commanders intentionally deployed them so they would be unable to understand the language of the locals.

The Austrians set about energetically instituting "order" and restoring the "sacred right of private property". They began by flogging all peasants who they found in the possession of goods appropriated during agrarian revolts. They used corporal punishment in even greater measure to combat the Makhno movement which was going from strength to strength. The Austrians would seize a peasant who they for whatever reason considered a Makhno supporter - not halting before villagers of venerable age - and proceeded to flog them in front of the whole village to set a warning example.

The Austrians made short shrift of real Makhnovists who they simply lynched in the main street in front of the local administration office opposite the high school. This "decoration" hung from the lampposts for several days. The Austrians did not give permission for the bodies to be taken down for burial, and later they interred the bodies themselves so no-one would be able to find them.

Like I said, the Makhnovists paid back the Austrians in kind. They caught them and killed them wherever they could and by whatever means possible. Whenever Austrians were killed Gulyai-Polye was forced to pay a collective fine. The villagers had no choice but to pay. Dissatisfaction grew, and with it Makhno's detachment.

In September 1918 the Austrians left Gulyai-Polye. The Makhnovists made full use of the situation. They plundered the enemy's baggage trains and killed the stragglers. Infuriated, the Austrians returned and fighting ensued. Then they withdrew again, but this proved costly for the local population. As soon as the Austrians had left the Makhnovists reoccupied Gulyai-Polye and started taking revenge on wealthier members of the population or whoever they took a dislike to. At this time I was on a business trip to another town. When I saw the newspaper headlines that Makhno had killed the entire population of Gulyai-Polye, I dropped work and rushed back to Gulyai-Polye where I had left my son. No, Makhno hadn't killed everyone, but whoever had had any contact with the Austrians or had simply done business with them fled if they could. This was sensible because Makhno had promised to bump off all "friends" of the Austrians. But as a rule the refugees didn't get far - the Makhnovists blew up bridges, trains were stopped, and everyone Makhno "wanted" was taken off the trains, detained on the roads, etc.

I succumbed to the general panic and also decided to flee Gulyai-Polye for Berdyansk. A mass of people from the surrounding towns and villages had gathered at Pologi railway station, a railway junction 20 km from Gulyai-Polye. The station was chock-full - there was an impenetrable crowd, and people of every age and social status were sitting or lying on the floor.

Austrians troops were still in Pologi but were about to be evacuated. All Austrians were being withdrawn from the Ukraine. The railway station was brightly illuminated and soldiers paced up and down on patrol since the Austrian headquarters were located here temporarily. However, Makhno himself was strolling about among the refugees and observing the crowd. He was disguised as a worker in dark glasses. I hadn't seen him very often but other people recognised him and pointed me out to me. Many of the people at the station had seen Makhno numerous times and recognised him immediately, but no-one even thought of delivering him to the Austrians. There would be no protection for us if we did. The local village authorities were themselves afraid of Makhno, and the Austrians were leaving. No-one cared about us.

I will never be able to forget that terrible night in Pologi. I stepped out of the brightly illuminated station into the pitch blackness of the street. It was a dark, autumn night, but there was a bright reddish glow all along the horizon -throughout the area the farms of the Germans and Makhno's personal enemies were on fire. It was eerie, and I wished the night would pass. Back in the brightly lit halls of the railway station I felt even worse than out on the street. There were rumours upon rumours like a never-ending radio broadcast: about derailed trains, bridges being blown up, people being killed or dragged out of trains and bestially tortured. Unfortunately the rumours were true and not exaggerated or invented. People assembled at the station in ever greater numbers. They were victims of these events, or rather, their dependants and relatives. Most of them were women - at that stage Makhno still did not touch women. In particular I remember one Jewish mother whose three sons had all been dragged out of the train and killed on the way to Aleksandrovsk - one of them was just a schoolboy of 16. Panic reigned at the station, the air was rent with moans and crying. Everyone was filled with fear and thought the same things would happen to them too.

Finally our train set off. They said that the bridge on the way to the next station, Kirlovka, had been blown up, but it bridge turned out to be intact. Almost all of us lay on the floor of the carriage because we were afraid of being shot at through the windows. But to out great surprise and relief the train made it to Berdyansk without incident.


1. In this translation place names etc. are given in their Russian form rather than Ukrainian.
2. For those unfamiliar with Russian and Ukrainian names: the first element is the given name, the second is the "patronymic" based on the name of the father, and the third is the surname. It is the same with Makhno's wife Agafya Andreyevna Kuzmenko mentioned later. The combination of given name + patronymic is often used in everyday speech, thus the frequent occurrence of "Agafya Andreyevna".
3. In Soviet parlance anarchists and Makhnovists were frequently referred to as "bandits", and consciously or unconsciously Sukhogorskaya is following this fashion.
4. In their book "Dorogi Nestora Makhno" (Proza publishers, Kiev, 1992) A.V. & V.F. Belash mention a woman called Tina, "a telephone operator from the village of Bolshaya Mikhaylovka in Aleksandrovsk Uyezd (=district). Makhnovist agent. Makhno's partner from October 1918 to March 1919. Not a member of any party. Still alive in 1930."

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