2. Agafya Andreyevna

by N. Sukhogorskaya

In the local schools there were students who were Makhnovists, though they only attended school when Makhno was in town. These were grown men aged twenty and upwards. Some of them said to the teachers: "Move me up to the next class or else you'll be in trouble with Makhno." But this did not significantly influence the marks teachers gave and whether or not they recommended students should repeat a year. Some Makhnovists were given low marks, just like any other students were, and to be fair to Makhno he didn't meddle in educational matters.

Generally speaking, Makhno left the teachers alone. The Makhnovists only ever killed one teacher, an old ethnic German whose son was an officer. As I said earlier, the bodies of people who had been killed were always left lying in the streets for some time afterwards. Relatives had to go to Makhno to ask permission to bury the body. The dead German lay in the main street all day, and a detachment of mounted Makhnovists took pleasure in desecrating the body. One bandit kept trying to get his horse to crush the dead man's skull with its hooves. But the horse pranced around, jumping back and forth over the corpse, and however much the Makhnovists goaded it, it wouldn't do what they wanted. Then the enraged Makhnovist took his whip, beat his horse bloody, and galloped off.

The Makhnovists hated the intelligentsia. Members of the intelligentsia, especially men, were afraid to go outside when the Makhnovists were in control of the town. The Makhnovists once wanted to kill an acquaintance of mine simply because he wore a broad-rimmed hat. "Fancy hat - you must be a damn intellectual. I'd better bump you off", one Makhnovist said to his face. This scared the living daylights out of him and he ran away as fast as his legs would carry him. But this was an exception, and the treatment of intellectuals was largely civil. This was due to the fact that Makhno's third wife, Agafya Andreyevna Kuzmenko - who later used Galina as a first name because it sounded more refined - had also once been a teacher in Gulyai-Polye. She therefore considered herself a benefactor and the patron of the schools and the intelligentsia in general. She worked at a school until her relationship with Makhno. Agafya Andreyevna taught Ukrainian. She was a proud Ukrainian and was in favour of national independence for the Ukraine. I don't know when Makhno too became a proponent of Ukrainian national independence, but he was one, just as he had once been an anarchist. Makhno often changed colour, he was a real political chameleon. In fact he only wanted Ukrainian independence so he could become the country's leader. That's why Makhno killed Grigoryev, who he considered a dangerous opponent. Makhno loved power and the fear it instilled in people. He enjoyed people's esteem and all the trappings of power. I once saw Makhno and his wife arrive in town riding on a wonderful carriage clad all round in blue cloth and drawn by three mouse-grey horses. The people stood and bowed, taking off their fur caps, and Makhno and his wife answered their subjects with a condescending nod. A real Gulyai-Polye monarch.

In 1920 Gulyai-Polye changed hands almost monthly. Skirmishes and gunfire were virtually a daily occurrence. There was fighting and gunfire every single week from January to August, if not longer. Quite often we had to run home from work amidst machinegun fire, or with shrapnel in the air. On the worst days shells from six-inch guns and other lighter artillery were raining down. But then the artillery fire would subside, there would be more rifle and machinegun fire, the sound of horses' hooves that had been faint now grew louder and clearer. A new victor was entering the town.

I remember one time the Whites took the village. They were chasing a man and thought he had hidden down in our cellar. Fighting still raged in the background and the soldiers' rifles, held at the ready, were smoking. "Everyone out of the cellar and up against the wall!", they yelled. "If we find him hiding there - you'll all be shot!"

We all crawled up out into the courtyard. The gunfire in the village continued unabated, bullets filled the air, and we were all terrified at the thought that someone had perhaps really taken refuge down in the cellar. What would happen to us then? But everything turned out all right in the end.

The Whites came, and then the Reds. They considered all the townsfolk dyed-in-the-wool Makhnovists, so there were many arrests, interrogations, etc.

We remained in Gulyai-Polye and gradually got used to all the perils, hiding during the fighting in cellars and basements. Between engagements we would go for walks and look for safer, better-protected places to hide. Discussing where to run and hide the next time and where was safest became a pastime. People took their valuables to the cellars when they went to hide because their houses and flats were often looted while they were away. Not by Makhnovists, but by simple thieves. Makhnovists, by contrast, went and took things in front of people's eyes when they were at home. Everyone knew that their house or flat was going to be burgled, but life was dearer than belongings, and looting was just something you had to come to terms with. There was a teacher who, when danger was at hand, put on everything she owned - both her thick winter coat and her other lighter coat, as well as several dresses. She even found a way of wearing two pairs of galoshes, and at the end of it she cut a very voluminous figure. Sometimes, when hurrying to hide, she would get stuck in a fence where the opening was too narrow and had to be pushed through.

The population was afraid of all military forces, and of Makhno above all. They all came for a while and then left again, sometimes quite quickly, and when Makhno returned he was always angry and vengeful. The Makhnovists' vengeance was terrible. A young peasant girl was shot in our courtyard for daring to speak to the Reds when they were in control of the town. Not to mention if something had been betrayed to the enemy. Even suspicion of something small, harmless and unfounded, could lead to torture or even death. Makhno said: "If just one person informs I'll slaughter the whole neighbourhood." Those were not empty words - he was in a position to do what he said, and his retributions took quite a toll on the German and Jewish communities.

One day I had the misfortune of witnessing the torture of someone suspected of informing on the Makhnovists. A man of colossal build burst into our courtyard, pushing along a young peasant in front of him and acting as if it were some game. The peasant was of average height, but alongside his giant tormentor he looked like a child. Now the hulk of a fellow led the peasant up to the wall and pressed his head against it. He ordered his victim to bash his head against the wall and do it proper and hard. Several other Makhnovists stood by watching, they began to sing and forced the peasant to dance. By now the young man's head was badly hurt, blood was flowing down his face and tears streaming from his eyes, but the thugs just slapped him in the face and ordered him to keep dancing. The poor fellow fell to the ground, you could see he was dizzy. Then they unsheathed their sabres and began jabbing him in the ribs. He didn't even groan or scream. This poor tormented fellow was an ordinary farmer lad who they suspected, without foundation, of having informed on the Makhnovists to the Reds.

Makhno's espionage was very effective, and he personally took part in the gathering of information. I mentioned earlier how Makhno strolled about Pologi and Gulyai-Polye while the towns were under Austro-Hungarian control. I also saw how he walked around town when it was controlled by the Whites, disguised as an old woman nibbling sunflower seeds. An acquaintance pointed him out to me when he was playing stallholder at the market; once he pretended to be a beggar, and once he even got married in a church, skilfully disguised as the bride. Makhno knew everything that went on in Gulyai-Polye, and his intelligence service knew even more. When Makhno ordered his spies to find out something, just for "encouragement" he promised them: "If you don't find out, you're dead!" Short and sharp. And he did kill, without hesitation. This "encouragement" worked very well, and Makhno's intelligence service was incredibly successful.

Makhno only left town when enemy troops were at the point of entering it from the other side. He had no infantry and all his troops were mounted, be it on horseback or on tachanki, four-wheeled carts pulled by two horses and in most instances mounted with a machinegun. Enemy infantry simply could not engage the Makhnovists. One summer a detachment of Red military school cadets from Leningrad (or rather Petrograd, as it was still called at the time) was sent to fight Makhno. Splendid young soldiers. We told them about the Makhnovists' strengths and how cunning Makhno was. We warned them that infantry were no match for mounted troops. But they just laughed, green as they were. Then they were sent to try and catch Makhno, all 160 of them. Makhno intentionally let them come up close to draw them into a chase and then made the foot soldiers pursue the Makhnovists for around 40 km before accepting battle. Only about 30 of the young Bolsheviks made it back to Gulyai-Polye, and now they knew from bitter experience that infantry alone was no use against Makhno. After that I never saw a pure infantry detachment in Gulyai-Polye again - if infantry did come, it was always accompanied by cavalry.

Makhno moved fast and no-one knew where he was and in which direction he was heading. In case of danger the Makhnovists left to hide in Dibrovsky Forest about 40 km from Gulyai-Polye. This was a large forest where they had underground tunnels with substantial quantities of hidden supplies and equipment.

I met Agafya Andreyevna several times. Once she arrived in the village and suggested organising a fund-raising evening for poor school teachers. The Makhnovists had just returned from a campaign and had a lot of money. "They'd just spend it all on booze and card games anyway," she said. "For all they care the school could be closed down, there'd be no money, and the teachers would go hungry".

There was no refusing our "patron" - she would be deeply offended, and Makhno's revenge would follow - so the teachers had no choice but to organise the fund-raiser. All of us who were there that evening were afraid. It was known that the Reds were planning a raid on Gulyai-Polye and was on their guard. The Makhnovists set up machineguns around the theatre. It seemed the shooting would begin at any moment and we would be forced to run for shelter.

Teachers and some white-collar workers were forced to staff the buffet. The premises of the picture theatre, where there were always social events or film screenings in the evenings, was full of people, including Makhnovists. First a Ukrainian play was put on, followed by a variety show with a range of Ukrainian songs. The choir was very good. The main performance had still not begun, although the time it was scheduled for had long passed. Makhno had not yet arrived and they didn't dare begin without him. Finally the band struck up a flourish: Makhno had arrived with his wife and all the hetmans. As soon as they had taken their seats up in the boxes the main performance began.

The buffet did exceptionally good business - the Makhnovists paid generously for everything. All of a sudden a sailor came up to my table of the buffet and began using sign language to show me what he wanted. Makhno had a devoted follower who was a mute and would kill whoever Makhno took a dislike to - he just needed to be given a sign. Once the man had no weapon with which to kill the designated victim, so he simply sprang on him and sunk his teeth into his throat. The mute always wore a sailor's uniform. I automatically assumed that it was the same mute standing at my table. My heart sank to my boots, and when the mute took it into his head to start writing me little intimate notes I lost my head. What was I to do? I most certainly was not going to go off anywhere with him, and the thought of running away was no consolation - where would I run to? They'd catch me anyway. But then I remembered what someone had taught me to say in a pickle: that I was busy. I wrote the mute a note to this effect, and then he gave up the game. To top it all off he even started talking. It had all just been for fun, a practical joke to frighten me. The real mute, as it turned out, had been poisoned not long before that evening, be it intentionally or by accident.

After that "pleasant acquaintance" I calmed down a little and continued at the buffet. I saw Agafya Andreyevna. She came up to greet me as if I were a newcomer, and invited me up to the box with her partner, Makhno. She was a very attractive brunette, tall, shapely, with wonderful dark eyes and a complexion which, although dark, seemed fresh and healthy. She didn't look at all like a bandit. Because she was short-sighted she wore a pair of eye glasses with a pince-nez, which even suited her.

Although my first impression was relatively favourable, I went up to the box in fear, and for good reason. I was shown to a seat right between Makhno and his wife, and behind and in the neighbouring boxes was the entire general staff of the Makhnovist movement and all the leaders. Agafya Andreyevna was very friendly, as were the Makhnovists, yet there I sat racked with fear. After all, I knew they were reckoning with an attack and that all the people around me were not trustworthy. They even tried to "calm" me by saying: "Of course some bombs are going to be thrown today. All of us leaders are here, and the Reds know it". I couldn't stand the pressure and asked Agafya Andreyevna when she was expecting the attack. She sympathised and promised to tell me when it would be time for me to leave.

Makhno was dressed in a dark-coloured uniform, his field dress. Agafya Andreyevna was wearing a dark blue men's suit - a light, tight-fitting coat, and wide trousers. A tall, black astrakhan cap was on her head. Makhno sat there sober and seemingly discontented, though everyone very much liked the play. In the intervals the Makhnovists drank beer, home-distilled vodka that they had brought in by the crateful that evening, and other drinks. Everyone looked fearfully at Makhno - his discontent was bound to manifest itself in one way or another. But then someone started singing Makhno's favourite song: "Our Makhno, Tsar and God, from Gulyai-Polye to Polog' ." The band caught up the tune and Makhno began to smile. He cheered up and even went down to dance. Agafya Andreyevna, on the other hand, stayed upstairs with her people and wouldn't let me leave. They were all talking Ukrainian, the play was in Ukrainian, a Ukrainian hopak was danced on stage, and the songs that were sung were also Ukrainian.

Around eleven o'clock Makhno's wife said to me: "It's time for you to go now." I left, and as soon as I got home the shooting started. The intelligence service had conveyed correct information - the Makhnovists were warned and ready and were able to leave the cinema unharmed with no casualties. The Makhnovists' machineguns fought off the Reds, preventing them from coming anywhere near the cinema.

Makhno's wife, from my impression, was not a malevolent woman. Once she visited the house where I rented a room. She was wearing a sealskin coat and light-coloured boots. She was attractive and smiled, and she seemed more like an elegant lady than the wife of a bandit who would herself go into battle or fire a machinegun. It was said that she had single-handedly killed several Makhnovists who she caught plundering and raping.[1] The Makhnovists were afraid of her too. They used to call her Mat (Mother), just as they called Makhno Batko (Father). She stayed away from Makhno's bouts of drinking, but she did love to play cards. She played with large stakes since she had a lot of money which came not from hard work but from banditry.

While Agafya Andreyevna sat with us that evening she told us about herself and her family. Her parents were conservative, religious peasants.[2] At first they were upset about their daughter's relationship with Makhno, but later they calmed down a little when they found out the couple were married. That's what Makhno told them, but I don't know if it was really true because Makhno didn't believe in going to church. In any case, her mother and father were not overly fond of their son-in-law. Agafya Andreyevna's parents lived in a village about 100 km from Gulyai-Polye, and one day the old couple were killed in an attack by the Whites. Agafya Andreyevna never forgave the Whites for this and spoke of her parents' death with great bitterness and emotion. Her brother and sister-in-law were all that now remained of her immediate family. This brother, who was in no way interested in politics or the Makhno movement, was forced to tag along behind the Makhnovists with his family. In general, the Makhnovists always took dependants and household members with them when they left, for they were in mortal danger as well. Makhno's mother also moved with the insurgents or, owing to her age, was put in safe hiding somewhere. One person the Makhnovists took along with them was a roughly nine-year-old boy, the son of a friend and comrade of Makhno's who had been killed. The boy had a small horse, and he often accompanied the detachment even when it went out on campaign. No attention was given to families - when it came to battle the common cause took priority over the welfare of individuals, and a family had to find its own way out of trouble.

Agafya Andreyevna told us that she rebuffed Makhno when he first made approaches to her. She was very frightened and hid , but then she gradually grew used to him. Besides, a teacher's life in a small town was neither cheerful nor sweet, and her relationship with Makhno gave her power and a life full of adventure, worlds apart from the otherwise dull life of a provincial town. Agafya Andreyevna was quite an intelligent woman and she had interesting tales to tell.


1. In a biographical note A.V. & V.F. Belash (op. cit.) refer to Agafya Andreyevna as "a proud Ukrainian with anarchist leanings, a tireless defender of women's rights".
2. A.V. & V.F. Belash (op. cit.) mention that Agafya Andreyevna came from the family of a Kiev gendarme, a former peasant from Peschany Brod in Kiev Province.

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