The Struggle Against the State

Alexandre Skirda


Among the articles by Nestor Makhno left out of this anthology, we might mention the one on the peasantry and the Bolsheviks (1), where he sets out the (in fact, quite well-known) socio-economic differentials between the wealthy peasants, or kulaks, the middle peasantry or serednyakis, the poor peasants or bednyakis, and the farm laborers or batrakis. Categories that the Bolsheviko-Stalinist policy of developing rural capitalism in the 1920s tended to reduce to its extremities alone: to the kulaks and the batrakis, to the detriment of the overwhelming majority of the peasantry. We know, here, that from 1929 to 1934, this policy was escalated in such a way as to lead to the utter dispossession of the peasants of their land, and this at the price of the holocaust of its times, which has been underplayed thus far, for this "de-kulakisation" cost the lives of 15 million victims, according to reliable estimates. Let it be noted that this was the real epilogue to the civil war, for this genocide affected primarily those regions of Russia, the Ukraine and Don and the Volga, which had been the areas then most refractory to the new regime. As for the results of this demented warfare against people on the land, these were extremely retrograde: the kulaks, previously a tiny minority, were replaced by the Kulak-State, whilst the survivors of the slaughter, re-christened "kolkhozians" - which is to say, farm workers - were reduced in their circumstances to the status of real State serfs. Unfortunately, Makhno did not have access to adequate information about this criminal policy on the part of Stalin and his henchmen, which is what makes his piece obsolete.

In his Open Letter to the Central Committee of the Russian CP (2) which appeared in 1928, Makhno expressed his outrage at a misrepresentation of his dealings with Bela Kun, at the time of his second treaty with the Red Army in September 1920. He clarified another historical point in his How the Bolsheviks Lie (3). He re-established the truth about the anarchist sailor Anatoly Zhelezniakov, who broke up the sitting of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918. Makhno defended that action and explained that Zhelezniakov, a Black Sea sailor and delegate to Kronstadt, had played one of the most active roles in 1917. Makhno merely expressed regret that the fiery sailor, who enjoyed great prestige among his colleagues, had not simultaneously seen fit to dismiss Lenin and his "Soviet of People's Commissars" which "would have been historically vital and would have helped unmask the stranglers of the revolution in good time." In a short piece, England's Policy and the World Tasks of the Revolutionary Toilers (4), he lashed British imperialism and floated the idea that there was no way of resisting its plans for the revolution and the USSR, by virtue of the fact that, inside the USSR, "there is neither freedom of speech, nor of assembly, nor of the press, nor of independent organization for workers." As a result, there was not a thing worth defending as long as there was this denial of justice vis-à-vis their "rights to be free and responsible."

We might also cite his Appeal on Behalf of the Anarchist Black Cross, where he labored the need for aid for libertarians around the world, and in particular in the USSR, persecuted for their beliefs.

For access in French to all Makhno's output, one has only to look to his Memoirs - nigh on six hundred pages of them - which is to say, seek out some publisher to publish them, something we have not been successful in doing, despite numerous fruitless overtures thus far. It might also be desirable if Arshinov's History of the Makhnovist Movement was republished in a new translation as soon as possible (the translation by Volin being, occasionally, flawed), again necessitating the goodwill of some heavyweight publisher. Those two books would certainly not be going over old ground, either with regard to each other, or to my monograph on Makhno, for the latter was actually planned as a complementary project.

This strikes us as the appropriate point to review some publications and new information which have come to out attention since our book (the product of eighteen years of research and authentication, which is to say, no spur of the moment affair, which is more than can be said for most publications in the field) was published. Broadly speaking, we have a parade of the sensational aspects of certain charges or claims, in such a way as to push into the background the true significance of the Makhnovist insurgent movement. This is the case, say, with the publication by Pavel Litvinov (grandson of Stalin's Foreign Affairs minister) of a samizdat text (a self-published, clandestine text) entitled Nestor Makhno and the Jewish Question (5). The author strives to show that Makhno was never an anti-Semite: quite the opposite, in fact, he "deserves to have his memory respected and honored by the Jews." That would be an attractive approach, were it not that he is trying doors that are already gaping wide open, for, as we have indicated, even Bolshevik historical writings have always rebutted that absurd allegation. Furthermore, Litvinov connects this issue with the re-emergence of Jewish nationality and indeed with the attempt to establish a revolutionary Jewish "Zion" in the Ukraine! What is rather positive though is that Litvinov seizes upon the opportunity to rehearse the chief characteristics and achievements of the Makhnovist movement, especially its active role in the defeat of the Whites. We might note that the essential sources he uses have been published outside Russia: some are drawn from Russian anarchist reviews and works published in France and the United States during the 1920s and 1930s: which is to say that these have, in spite of everything, achieved their purpose by helping to re-establish the true facts of the matter. Aside from the odd inaccuracy - Makhno working in Paris as a cinema technician! - Litvinov's work should be read, especially in Israel and by Jewish readers, given that many of them are still believers in "tales" about Makhno. On the other hand, it has nothing new to offer Western readers with access to much more exhaustive texts and writings on the topic: so it is hard to understand the sensational publicity that certain French and Italian anarchists have afforded him (6). Maybe this is because, for a very long time, there was a dearth of historical and theoretical studies of anarchism, which explains why many anarchists have become "a ready market" and applaud the moment that some academic or anybody outside of the movement and not sharing its ideas deigns to show some interest in Anarchy!

We have also come by a copy of another handwritten text in Russian, dealing with the life of Leon Zadov-Zinkovsky, commander of the unit that smuggled a seriously wounded Makhno into Rumania in August 1921. The manuscript's author, one Jacob Gridin, presents himself as a former member of the NKVD (the Cheka was at first renamed the GPU, then NKVD, before adopting the current straightforward title of KGB) who has emigrated to Israel. According to Gridin, Zadov - who had been in charge of the Makhnovist intelligence service for a while - allegedly contacted the GPU during his exile in Rumania and rendered them stalwart services. In particular he is supposed to have lured a captain from French Counter-espionage into an ambush in the Ukraine and murdered him in his sleep, all to demonstrate his bona fides to the GPU and secure his own rehabilitation, as well as that of his brother. This little spy story even includes a pretty young exploited widow whom Zadov supposedly set himself the task of consoling! The edge to the whole thing is that it is alleged here that Zadov is alleged to have been issued with orders from his superiors in Moscow to "liquidate" Makhno, who is supposed to have been staying in 1922 in one of the best hotels in Warsaw (in reality, he was enjoying the "delights" of a long and uncomfortable stay in the political prison in the city!). Zadov is supposed to have accomplished his mission successfully and to have lived in comfort until the "nasty" Stalinist purges of 1938, when he fell into the trap.

As we have no knowledge about the real fate of Zadov, there is every scope for embroidery upon his fate: however, there is rather too much unlikeliness here and we should remember, first, that in Bolshevik studies Zadov and his brother are portrayed as the executors of Makhno's "dirty work," and above all as implacable killers of Bolsheviks: second, that they had been convinced anarchist militants since 1905, something that had earned them several years in tsarist prisons, and third, that they had repeatedly proved their commitment to the Makhnovist movement's cause.

All of this makes us very skeptical about such absurdities about them, unless there is some confusion with quite different individuals. Moreover, further revelations along similar lines are to be expected of Soviet Jewish émigrés, for a fair number of them are either, as is the case with Gridin, ex-members of the GPU, or privileged members of the State apparatus and other sectors of the regime, or indeed the children or parents of such. Obviously there can be no question of placing the slightest credence in misinformation exercises of this sort, unless we can be very sure that there is the documentary evidence or tangible proof to back up their ramblings (7).

In our book, we made reference to the existence of a handwritten set of memoirs on Makhno by Ida Mett, a member of the Delo Truda group from 1925 to 1928. One small press has had the splendid idea of turning these out as a 28-page pamphlet (out of the original six and a quarter pages!), with the addition of a few personal remarks on the "radicality of Nestor Makhno, wherein he shows himself to be resolutely modern, thereby outstripping practically and historically the anarchist ideology. For Makhno, the revolution cannot in any way be the authentication of any ideology - even be it anarchist - but spells the doom of all ideologies" (8). For some years now, it has been fashionable to bandy the word "ideology" about indiscriminately in every direction, but if one takes the word to mean a coherent view of life and society, it would be a good idea to compare these glib, empty assertions with the views spelled out plentifully in the writings of Makhno as set out in the foregoing anthology. As for Ida Mett's text, we have already outlined its limitations. Some of its remarks are cringe-making: Makhno was "jealous of the Jews," but "had it in him to be a Jew's friend without any effort of will"(?) and was also "jealous of intellectuals" and, more to the point, "jealous" of the careers of the Red generals Budyenny and Voroshilov, so much so that "his head was willy-nilly, filled notions that he too could have made a Red Army general. Yet he himself never said as much to me."(!) Such a "telepathic" analysis does much to undermine the impact of such an evaluation and may even come within a hair's breadth of common calumny and tittle-tattle: it would be better left unsaid. Ida Mett, whom we ourselves knew, deserves to be remembered by other, more pertinent writings.


We come now to one of the most intriguing bibliographical novelties. In our biography of Makhno, we mentioned the existence of hitherto unpublished manuscripts by Volin to which we had been unable to gain access. These had been in the possession of Rosa Dubinsky, widow of the first publisher of Volin's posthumous The Unknown Revolution and then seized manu militari by Volin's eldest son, Igor Eichenbaum, who at the time held political views far removed from his father's. On the basis of what Rosa Dubinsky has told us, the historian Daniel Guerin seems to have played a questionable role at that time. He has since sent us a denial wherein he claims that "this matter proceeded unbeknownst to him" (9). Hereby noted.

We also learned later that there were several copies of these manuscripts in circulation: one with Daniel Guerin, then the secretariat for History of the French Anarchist Federation, and, finally, a copy was placed by Leo Eichenbaum, Volin's second son, with the "Sound and Picture Archive" set up by Roland Fornari (10). Thanks to the kindness of the latter, we were able to consult these famous unpublished notes by Volin. What do they contain? Well, to our great amazement, there is, for a start, and above all, the conclusion to The Unknown Revolution, which all four of the successive editions of the book deliberately discarded! The text is quite substantial - a hundred and ten pages - and only that part dealing with the Volin-Trotsky meeting in New York, a little before they returned to Russia in 1917, was used by Daniel Guerin in the latest edition of his anthology Ni Dieu, ni Maître. Given that he also saw to the publication of the most recent editions of The Unknown Revolution, we asked him why these had been deprived of the "conclusion" which was a natural part of the book. His answer to us was that the decision had been made jointly with Igor Eichenbaum, because it struck them that the conclusion's contents "weakened" the remainder of the book. Having read it in our turn, we are not of that mind, for it seems to us to fit perfectly with the psycho-moral analyses of Volin and, whereas he is mistaken in depicting world events "from 1914 up to September 1947" as the "destructive period of the world revolution," the constructive phase being due to "pass a lot quicker," mistakes are still possible, but there cannot, as we see it, be any case for censoring a posthumous work of its "conclusion," which ought to make sense of the whole thing. It is our hope that in some forthcoming edition of the book, this lacuna may be well and truly filled. Those unpublished papers also include Volin's correspondence from the period towards the end of his life, where he touches upon the matter that concerns us here. In a letter to one Henri, dated 4.11.1944 in Marseilles, he rounded upon someone called Frémont who was alleged to have "peddled rumors about his relations with Makhno." Frémont had had it from "Makhno's own lips that, from a certain point onwards, he and I had not been on as friendly terms as previously. It may even be the case that Makhno turned him against me somewhat," and Frémont had supposedly made the "silly charge" against him that he had "stolen some documents from Makhno." As "formal and palpable proof of the nonsensicality of that crude concoction" Volin cited three arguments in his defense.

  1. He claimed to have "sacrificed two full years of his activities, in 1921-1923, to bringing out Arshinov's History of the Makhnovist Movement," and he added, "And I do mean 'sacrificed', for I could have devoted my free time to my own literary output as I was pressed to do and as I was interested in doing".

  2. He had taken a back seat in deference to Arshinov for he himself had spent only six months with the Makhnovist movement, whereas Arshinov had been with it right to the end and was thus better "qualified to write a history of it." Later he simply made use of that history and made do with adding a few personal anecdotes in that part of his The Unknown Revolution dealing with the Makhnovist movement. That amounts only to a banal statement of the facts as far as any alert reader is concerned, but it is good to find Volin himself making the point.

  3. He refers to his work as 'literary editor' of Volumes II and III of Makhno's memoirs which appeared in Russian in 1936 and 1937. Followed by the translations into French of his forewords to both volumes, as well as part of his introduction to the Makhnovist movement, lifted from The Unknown Revolution.

Volin closed a second letter to Henri on 11.11.1944 with the wish that his clarifications "will satisfy comrades' curiosity" and "prove (to them) that the lies about my conduct are simply the result of a crude and stupid calumny capitalizing upon the ignorance of many comrades regarding the truth of the matter." Without knowing more about the precise content of this "calumny" we can only note Volin's arguments and leave the individual reader to make of them what he will.

Let us make special note of Volin's explanation of the fate of Makhno's manuscripts: Galina Kuzmenko, Makhno's wife, was forced to burn her husband's trunk during the German occupation and brought the fact to Volin's attention before leaving for Germany in 1942. We might note her thoughtlessness in doing so; she would have been better advised to entrust them to trustworthy friends or to some library.

In other letters to Marie Louise (Berneri?) Volin outlines the complete story of his writings on the Russian revolution, in fact of the gestation of The Unknown Revolution. He also promises there a forthcoming work on Makhno, but admits finding problems "getting to grips with it." He was depending upon making use of the notes that he had used for lectures on Makhno in 1935-36. His TB denied him the time to do so and he succumbed to it shortly afterwards, leaving the project at the notes and drafts stage, all of it nonetheless amounting to some 236 pages, partly typed. Let us have a look at the contents.

The text is entitled "Makhno, a Contribution to Studies of the Enigma of the Personality". Drafted in 1945, it deals in broad terms with the Russian revolution and furnishes autobiographical details about Volin himself. Its primary interest for our purposes is its disclosure of Volin's input into Arshinov's History of the Makhnovist Movement. It was on Volin's insistence that Arshinov mentioned the movement's flaws and those of Makhno himself, after he had told him that "set alongside the tremendous positive aspects to the movement, what few shortcomings there may have been are really of no consequence" (pages 31, 45 and 126). According to Volin this "overlooking" of the movement's weaknesses is very much to be regretted because these "in his estimation, outweigh the positive sides of it." That critique sets the tone for his whole approach: he switches back and forth between eulogy and the most acerbic criticism, for instance, in a thumbnail sketch of Makhno: "He was an extremely complex personality, 'muddled' might be the right word: a sort of formidable 'raw' genius, replete with flaws, boorishness and sophistication on a par with his marks of genius. . . ". "Beyond question, he is to be numbered in the Russian revolution among that type of personality that one never manages to understand completely, personalities that remain in History forever a little 'elusive'. . . Enormous positive aspects coexisting alongside profound negative traits. . . ." (page 38).

In an unfinished chapter entitled "the nub of the matter," Volin upbraids the existence among the "Ukrainian peasantry, as indeed among peasants (and in fact manual workers generally) all over the world, of a hybrid feeling of diffidence, contempt and sullen hostility that can sometimes boil over into acute fits of hatred, vis-à-vis intellectuals, "non-manual" workers and "non-peasants". He then denounces the "very widespread and harmful prejudice among revolutionary militants": "concealing from the 'public' and from ordinary party militants for as long as they can manage it, the weak sides, 'shadows,' shortcomings and deficiencies of the movement". For his part, he had, with "desperate studiousness and in dribs and drabs" catalogued the "dark sides" of Makhno's personality: in 1938, he "was already in possession of a fair bit of information", but, "by the time he had reached the end of his work (late 1941), knew a lot more. . . ". We might wonder at these belated revelations for, as he himself admits, although he had spent six months on Makhno's company in 1919-1920, he had not "known a thing about the personal, intimate life that would have afforded him an insight into the very depths of the personality (of Makhno)". Furthermore, Makhno "had never made the slightest gesture to strike up a more personal friendship with him". Thus, in order to unlock his true personality, he would use as his chief source the confidences of Galina Kuzmenko, Makhno's wife, who was contradicted, it seems, by certain "Makhnovist commanders" who had fled to France (unfortunately, Makhno never named these) while allegedly looking upon her as a "mismatch" with Makhno.

Volin outlines a very eulogistic sketch of Makhno's good qualities: "I should say a speedy and thorough grip of the truth, which he managed to divine from life overall. . . A precise, acute and never-weakening attention to everything that he regarded as significant in life, whether his own or life in general... possession of an extremely solid and luminous over-arching idea, is also a mark of genius". "A boundless audacity and temerity with regard not just to fighting but to life as a whole. . .  He strove to make life what he wanted it to be". "A specific talent for fighting, by which I do not mean a military talent . . . he never lost his sang-froid, his daring and he conducted himself with such simplicity and precision and simultaneously with clear, cool tactics until such time as his object was achieved". However, as a "lop-sided man of genius, whose nervousness also was in excess of the norm", the more Makhno "learned of the marks of genius, the more he knew of its high points and of its lows" (pages 58-63 ).

After these roses, the thorns. Volin notes that Makhno and he were temperamentally incompatible, so much so that, when Makhno had him released from the Cheka prison in October 1920, he hesitated before joining him in the Ukraine. Furthermore, according to him, Makhno had an annoying habit of flourishing his revolver at the slightest pretext, even to the extent of threatening his future comrade with it, perhaps to "test his mettle"(?) as well as members of the Makhnovist movement's soviet, and above all, of gunning down where they stood certain deserters from the front or insurgents guilty of outrages. He supposedly killed people "without having delved into their case and without knowing if they were innocent or guilty" (pages 138). If there is any substance to this, that reproach strikes us as the most significant of Volin's criticisms for, as far as the rest goes, we seem to be dealing with something of an obsession on his part, deriving probably from the run-ins they had had as émigrés, both personally (Makhno had accused Volin of dishonesty) and theoretically (Volin supported the Anarchist Synthesis whilst Makhno was an enthusiast of the Platform).

We might also note a few surprising inaccuracies in Volin's information; he has Makhno dying a year earlier than in fact he did and credits him with having had as his real name the pseudonym - Mikhnienko - under which he had declared himself on his arrival in France. These mix-ups and recriminations might perhaps be explicable in terms of Volin's circumstances at the time when he was drafting most of these notes: under the German occupation, in Marseilles, he had every reason to fear the Gestapo and the Petainist Milice and well knew the rigors and deprivation of clandestine life. However it seems to us that the key to the animosity between the pair can be traced to the contrast to which we referred earlier between the activist peasant and the moralizing intellectual unconnected with social practice (11). Volin appears also to have nurtured resentment because he recalled that in Berlin in 1925, seeing Makhno again for the first time in several years, he told him that "Arshinov, an intellectual and Makhno a peasant" were a "team" and that they had to remain "inseparable". Makhno supposedly would not listen to him (12) and "threw it all up" by "getting maybe more drunk than before". His was "undoubtedly a nature with the talents of a genius, capable of actively and doggedly pursuing whatever goal he had set himself, a man who had a marvelous know-how and who could at the same time topple from such heights into the deepest depths, until he turned into a 'human derelict'(!)" (Page 75). Likewise, in the Ukraine he had refused to suffer his "moral influence" (page 142) preferring that of the "camarilla" made up of a section of the Makhnovist commanders. For all his "qualities", Makhno remained, as far as Volin was concerned, "an ignorant, uncultivated, uneducated fellow" (page 60), especially as he had an "aversion to anything that was not peasant. Being himself 100 percent peasant, he was completely familiar with peasant life and inclined to criticize anyone who was not a peasant. He did not have much confidence in workers because the worker, according to him, had already been so to speak demoralized by the mad, bad life in the towns and in industry where he stood alongside the bosses. He had even less confidence in intellectuals and poked fun at them. Given that, it was very hard to talk to him about the flaws of his organization because he retorted with all sorts of mockery that left you nonplused and denied you every chance of settling matters one way or another" (page 134). Elsewhere, Volin mentions these traits of Makhno's character even more explicitly: "blind confidence in the peasantry, distrust of all the other classes of society: a certain contempt for intellectuals, even anarchist ones" (page 49).

This is the nub of the matter and the spot where the knife went into Volin! As a "morally irreproachable" intellectual, he had high hopes of acting as a keeper of conscience, in order to steer it along the "right road". Instead of which Makhno had refused his advice, perhaps mockingly, in order to fall back upon his base instincts as a "muzhik"! As if to confirm this, whilst in exile in Paris, Volin one day labeled him a muzhik (which must have been an insult equivalent in his eyes to "ignorant brute" or some such) and an anarchist honor board had to be assembled to smooth over the falling out (13).

In fact, out of the 236 handwritten pages supposedly dealing with Makhno, only a very few relate directly to the subject, most being given over to all manner of digressions. To back up his criticisms, Volin cites some specific instances in which he was an eye-witness or a protagonist: the remainder is only impressions, hearsay evidence and inconsequential confidences from Makhno's wife, which seems little very slight basis for the gravity of the charges he brings. It strikes us as obvious then that the credence to be placed in these should be measured alongside the degree of enmity that he bore Makhno. He would have been better advised to describe in detail, not just a few episodes, but the entirety of his time with the Makhnovist insurgents, unless he spent that time "cloistered" in his cultural activities and deliberately avoided mingling with the "muzhiks" and speaking directly and pertinently to them, without having to rely upon second-hand information. He could also have reviewed the circumstances that prefaced his arrival in the insurgent camp: it was Makhno in person who despatched a detachment to rescue him from the clutches of the Petliurist partisans. It was also at the suggestion and instigation of Makhno that he was appointed chairman of the Revolutionary Military Soviet of the insurgent movement for several months, and again Makhno who made his release one of the conditions upon the implementation of the military and political treaty agreed with the Bolsheviks in 1920. He also omits to mention the "deposition" he made before a Chekist investigating magistrate, a "deposition" critical, to say the least, of the Makhnovists, for soviet historians have since used it to discredit them (14).

In substance, all of these random jottings, awash with sweeping generalizations, strike us as revealing more about the author's personality than about Makhno's: which is probably why they have remained unpublished thus far. However, despite their obvious exaggerations, these texts deserve to be better known, as certain passages from them are of definite value for the period. As for Makhno's "true" personality, that emerges sufficiently from all his writings - memoirs and articles alike - for us to avoid reference to the anarchist "rumor mill" in search of further "sensational" disclosures.

In the context of this bibliographical update, let us note the oral testimony of the historian Oleg Koshchuk, who is of Ukrainian extraction. His mother was interned in Poland in the same camp as Makhno and remembers that certain Petliurists wanted to attempt the libertarian's life, probably remembering some skirmish that went against them. At which point, it was intimated to them by highly-placed nationalist leaders that any move against Makhno would be construed as an act of hostility towards the Ukrainian cause. Despite their political differences, ethnic solidarity came into play here to unite Ukrainians from both banks of the river Dniepr.



1. Delo Truda, February-March 1928, No. 33-34, pp. 7-9.
2. Delo Truda, June-July 1928, No. 37-38, pp. 10-12.
3. Delo Truda, March 1927, No. 22, p.12.
4. Delo Truda, July-August 1927, No. 10-12.
5. P. Litvinov, Nestor Makhno et la question juive, 21 typewritten pages dated 18 June 1982, Moscow. This text has been published by the magazine Vremya i my (Time and Us) in Israel, No. 17, 1983.
6. A - Rivista Anarchica, 8 November 1983, Milan (Italy).
7. A 16-page manuscript.
8. Ida Mett, Souvenirs sur Nestor Makhno, Paris 1983, pp. 25-26.
9. Letter to the author, 27 December 1982.
10. Address: 5 rue Caplat, 75018 Paris.
11. Nestor Makhno, le cosaque de l'Anarchie pp. 323-326 and 358-360
12. Perhaps he did not agree with the definition of this anarchist "holy trinity?"
13. Minutes of the meeting can be found in the papers of Rene Fuchs. See Archives Jean Maitron.
14. Not that this stopped them from upbraiding him as well: the most recent one, Semanov, even alleges, apropos his "editing" of Makhno's Memoirs, that he "was a parasite" on Makhno. S.N. Semanov "The Makhnovshchina and its collapse" in Voprosy Istorii (Questions of History) Moscow, 1966, No. 9, p. 52 (note 81). Let us point out also a little-known something: Volin's brother, Boris Eichenbaum (1886-1959) was the theoretician of the "formalist" school, and later an important literary critic under the Stalin regime.  


From "The Struggle Against the State and other essays" by Nestor Makhno
Edited by Alexandre Sirda
Translated by Paul Sharkey
Published by AK Press

Source: Spunk Press

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