Volin, The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921, Book III: Struggle for the Real Social Revolution, Part II: Ukraine (1918-1921)

Chapter Two

Formation of the Makhnovist Insurrectionary Army

Soon Makhno became the rallying point for all the insurgents [in his region]. In every village, the peasants created secret local groups. They rallied to Makhno, supported him in all his undertakings, followed his advice and suggestions. Many detachments of partisans -- those already in existence as well as newly formed ones -- joined his groups seeking co-ordinated action. The need for unity and activity on a general scale was recognised by all the revolutionary partisans. And all were of the opinion that this unity would best be achieved under Makhno's direction. Such was also the opinion of several large bands of insurgents who until then had been independent of one another. Notable among these were the large band commanded by Kurilenko (who operated in the Berdyansk region), that commanded by Shchus' (in the Dibrivka region), and that of Petrenko-Platonov (in the Grichino region). They all spontaneously joined Makhno. In this way the unification of the detached units of partisans in the southern Ukraine into a single insurrectionary army under Makhno's supreme command came about naturally, through the force of events and the will of the masses.

The vast and irrepressible peasant insurrection finally succeeded in completely disorganising the occupation troops and the Hetman's police. The counter-revolution, supported by foreign bayonets, steadily lost ground. The end of the war and the political turmoil that followed in Germany and Austria gave it the coup de grace. At the end of 1918, the German and Austrian troops left the country. The Hetman and the landlords fled once again, this time never to return.

From this moment, three very different basic forces were active in the Ukraine: Petliurism, Bolshevism and Makhnovism. We have spoken enough about Bolshevism for the reader to recognise, without difficulty and without our having to explain them, its goals and tactics in the Ukraine. And we have just given an adequate explanation of the independent peasant movement called Makhnovism.

It remains for us to describe briefly the essential nature and the activity of the Petliurist movement. From the first days of the Revolution of February, 1917, the Ukrainian liberal bourgeoisie, fearing the "excesses" of the "Muscovite" revolution and seeking to avoid them in their own country, came out in favour of the national independence of the Ukraine. Once Tsarism was overthrown, they could try to achieve this with some hope of success, since all of the Left Russian political parties had solemnly proclaimed the right of the peoples to do in full liberty whatever they wished with their own lives.

Supported by several other strata of the Ukrainian population, such as the rich peasants (kulaks), the liberal intellectuals, etc., the bourgeoisie created a vast autonomist, nationalist and separatist movement, which envisaged complete detachment from the "Pan-Russian" State. Realising, however, that the movement could not hope for substantial and lasting success unless it developed a popular armed force on which it could depend in case of need, the guides of the movement, Simon Petliura and others, turned their attention to the mass of Ukrainian soldiers at the front and behind the lines. They proceeded to organise them, on a national basis, into special Ukrainian regiments.

In May 1917, the leaders of the movement organised a military congress which elected a general military committee, to direct the movement. Later this committee was enlarged and named the Rada (Council, in Ukrainian). In November 1917, at the Pan-Ukrainian congress, this became the Central Rada, a kind of parliament of the new Ukrainian Democratic Republic. Finally, a month later, the Central Rada solemnly proclaimed the independence of this Republic.

This event was a serious blow to Bolshevism, which had just taken power in Great Russia, and naturally wanted to establish itself in the Ukraine, despite the "rights of the peoples". Therefore, the Bolsheviks, in all haste, sent their troops into that region. A furious struggle took place between them and Petliura's detachments, around Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. On January 25th, 1918, the Bolsheviks took the city, installed their government, and soon began to extend their power throughout the Ukraine.

They only succeeded partially. The Petliura government, the politicians of the separatist movement, and their troops, retired into the western part of the country where they dug in and protested against the occupation of the Ukraine by the Bolsheviks. It is probable that a little later the latter would have set forth to extinguish the autonomist movement. But the immediate situation prevented this. In March and April, 1918, they retreated into Great Russia, giving way to the Austro-German army of occupation in conformity to the clauses of the Brest-Litovsk treaty.

Soon, preceding the Austro-Germans, the Petliurists re-entered Kiev. Their government proclaimed the new National Ukrainian Republic. This also only lasted for a few weeks. It was much more to the advantage of the Austro-Germans to come to terms with the old lords and masters of the Ukraine than with the Petliurists. With the support of their military forces, the Germans unceremoniously deposed the republican government and replaced it with the absolute authority of their regent: the Hetman Skoropadsky. Petliura himself was imprisoned for some time and had to disappear temporarily from the political arena.

But the disintegration of the Hetman's regime was not long in coming. The immense peasant insurrection soon began to deliver powerful blows at him. Recognising Skoropadsky's weakness, the Petliurovtzi went energetically to work. Circumstances favoured them. The peasants being in revolt, hundreds of thousands of insurgents were only waiting for an appeal to march against the Hetman's government. Since they possessed sufficient means to assemble, organise and arm a part of these forces, the Petliurovtzi advanced and took several large cities and districts almost without resistance. They subjected the provinces thus conquered to a new kind of power: the "Directorate", with Petliura at its head. Thus they quickly extended their power over a good part of the Ukraine, taking advantage of the absence of other aspirants, especially the Bolsheviks.

In December 1918, Skoropadsky fled and Petliura's "Directorate" solemnly entered Kiev. This event excited great enthusiasm in the country, while the Petliurovtzi did everything they could to magnify their success, and posed as national heroes.

In a short time, their power again extended over the major part of the Ukraine. It was only in the south, in the region of the Makhnovist peasants' movement, that they encountered serious resistance. There they had no success; on the contrary, they experienced several serious reverses.

Nevertheless, in all the great cities of the country the Petliurists triumphed, and this time the domination of the autonomist bourgeoisie seemed assured. But this success was illusory. The new power had hardly had time to install itself when it began to disintegrate. Millions of peasants and workers who, at the moment of the overthrow of the Hetman, were within the orbit of the Petliurovtzi were soon disillusioned and began to leave Petliura's ranks en masse.

"They sought another vehicle for their interests and aspirations. The major part dispersed into the cities and villages and there adopted a hostile attitude toward the new power. Others joined the insurrectionary bands of the Makhnovists. The Petliurovtzi were thus as soon disarmed as they had been armed by the march of events. Their idea of bourgeois autonomy, bourgeois national unity, could only last for a few hours among the revolutionary people. The burning breath of the popular revolution reduced this false idea to ashes and left its supporters in complete impotence. At the same time, military Bolshevism was rapidly approaching, from the north, expert in methods of class agitation and firmly resolved to take power in the Ukraine. Just one month after the entry of Petliura's Directorate into Kiev, the Bolshevik troops entered in their turn. From there, the Communists' power was extended over the greater part of the Ukraine." (P. Arshinov, op. cit., p. 106.)

Thus, soon after the fall of the Hetman and the departure of the Austro-Germans, the Moscow government hastened to reinstate in the Ukraine its authority, its functionaries, its cadres of militants and especially its troops and police.

But in the western and southern parts it was soon halted, on the one hand by the nationalist elements of Petliura, who had retired there once more, and on the other, by the authentic independent movement of the peasant masses, guided by Makhno. Petliura, chased from the heart of the country, did not consider himself beaten; having retired into the region least accessible to the Bolsheviks, he tried to resist -- wherever he could -- both them and Makhno's "peasant bands". As for the independent peasant movement, it was soon obliged to face not only Petliura's bourgeoisie (before going into action, subsequently, against the monarchist attempts of Denikin and Wrangel) but also the usurpations of the Bolsheviks. Thus, the situation in the Ukraine became more complicated than ever. Each of the three forces present had to fight the other two: the Bolsheviks against Petliura; Petliura, against the Bolsheviks and Makhno; Makhno against Petliura and the Bolsheviks. Later, this confusion was further complicated by the appearance of a fourth element, the intervention of nationalist and monarchist Russian generals seeking to re-establish the old Russian Empire in its historical integrity and on its absolute basis. From that moment (summer, 1919) each of the four forces carried on a bitter struggle against the other three.

We must add that in these chaotic circumstances the Ukraine became a free field for the exploits and audacious sorties of real gangs of armed bandits, composed of elements dislocated by the aftermath of war and the Revolution and living by pure brigandage. Such bands overran the country in all directions; they had hideouts in every corner; they operated almost without interference in the central Ukraine.[1]

It is easy to imagine the fantastic chaos in which the country was plunged and the improbable combinations which were formed, broken, and reformed during the three years of fighting (from the end of 1918 to 1921) until Bolshevism finally prevailed over the others.

We must add, and emphasise, with Arshinov, that the whole activity of the Bolsheviks in the Ukraine was pure usurpation, imposed by force of arms, a usurpation that they did not even try to conceal.

Installing their government first at Khar'kov, then at Kiev, they sent their troops through the regions already liberated from the power of the Hetman and created the organs of Communist power by military force.

"When the Bolsheviks occupied some place by main force, and had driven out Petliura's partisans, as well as in places where the region was free and the workers their own masters, the Communist Power was established by military order. The workers' and peasants' councils (Soviets) which had supposedly created this power appeared later, the deed having been accomplished and the power already consolidated. Before the Soviets, there were 'revolutionary committees' and before the 'committees' there were simply the military divisions." (P. Arshinov, op. cit., p. 129).

We have seen that, because of many special circumstances, the social revolution began in the Ukraine, not through the seizure of power by a political party of the extreme Left, but, without any question of power, through an immense spontaneous revolt of the peasants against their new oppressors.

In the beginning, this revolt was like a tempest. With exasperated fury, the peasant masses devoted themselves to the violent destruction of all that they hated, all that had oppressed them for centuries. At this time no positive element appeared in the work of destruction. But little by little, events developed, the movement of the revolutionary peasants became organised and unified, and realised ever more precisely its fundamental constructive tasks.

Since we can only summarise events and must leave out many details, we will set forth immediately the essential characteristics of the Makhnovist movement, characteristics which manifested themselves increasingly during the events that followed the collapse of the Hetman's regime and the end of the German occupation.

These characteristics of the movement can be divided into two different groups: the virtues and merits, on the one hand, and the weakness and mistakes, on the other, for the Makhnovist movement was not irreproachable, and some of its failings allowed the Bolsheviks to slander and defame it.

The advantages of the movement were:

  1. Its complete independence of all tutelage, of any party, of politics in any form and from any source -- the really libertarian spirit of the movement. This fundamental and highly important quality was due (a) to the initial spontaneity of the peasant insurrection; (b) to the personal influence of the libertarian Makhno; (c) to the activity of other libertarian elements in the region (Makhno being himself absorbed by the task of fighting did his best to attract other libertarians who were able to work in complete freedom); (d) to the lessons taught by the experiences of the insurgents in their day-to-day contacts with political parties. This libertarian tendency of the movement manifested itself in a deep-rooted defiance of the non-working or privileged elements, in a refusal of dictatorship over the people by any organisation, and in the idea of a free and complete self-administration by the workers themselves of their local affairs.
  2. The free, federative (and hence more solid) co-ordination of all the forces of the movement into a vast, freely organised and disciplined social movement.
  3. The healthy and advanced ideological influence which the movement exercised over a wide section of the country, containing some seven million inhabitants.
  4. The incomparable fighting valour of the revolutionary peasant army, an army which, despite its perpetual lack of weapons and ammunition, despite the constant and shameful betrayals which it suffered, despite other terrible difficulties, was able to resist for nearly four years all the usurpations and all the forces of oppression [active in the Ukraine].
  5. The organisational and strategic and military genius, as well as the other exceptional qualities of that guide of the fighting nucleus of the movement, the anarchist Nestor Makhno.
  6. The rapidity with which the peasant masses and the insurgents, despite extremely unfavourable circumstances, became acquainted with libertarian ideas and sought to apply them.
  7. Certain positive achievements which the movement made, in so far as circumstances permitted, in economics and in the field of social and revolutionary militancy.

The disadvantages of the movement were:

  1. The almost continual necessity of fighting and defending itself against all kinds of enemies, without being able to concentrate on peaceful and truly positive works.
  2. The continued existence of an army within the movement. For an army, of whatever kind it may be, always and inevitably ends by being affected by certain serious faults, by a special kind of evil mentality.
  3. The insufficiency of libertarian intellectual forces within the movement.
  4. Certain personal defects of Makhno. Outside of his organisational and military genius, his libertarian ardour and his other remarkable military qualities, Makhno possessed serious weaknesses of character and education. In certain respects, he was not equal to his task. These weaknesses -- we will have occasion to return to them -- diminished the scope and the moral significance of the movement.
  5. A certain casualness, a lack of necessary distrust, towards the Communists.
  6. The absence of a vigorous organised workers' movement, which could support that of the peasant insurgents.
  7. The constant shortage of arms and ammunition. The Makhnovists nearly always had to arm themselves with weapons captured in combat from their enemies.

But let us return to the events, for throughout the account that follows we will have occasion to observe both the merits and defects of the movement sufficiently to be able to judge it as a whole.

In October 1918, Makhno's detachments, united into a revolutionary army of partisans, began a general attack on the Hetman Skoropadsky's forces. In November, the German and Austrian troops were completely disoriented both by the events on the western front, and by those inside the country they were occupying. Makhno took advantage of this state of affairs. In certain places, he treated with these troops, obtained their neutrality and even managed to disarm them without difficulty, thus gaining possession of their arms and ammunition. Elsewhere, he defeated them in battle. For example, after a bitter fight of three days, he occupied the whole of Gulyai-Pole.

Everywhere the end of the Hetman's regime was expected. The Ukrainian troops and the Hetman's guard (varta) were nearly all dispersed before the extraordinary growth of the insurrectionary movement. The young peasants flowed en masse into Makhno's army, which was unable to arm all these volunteers and had to turn most of them away. Nevertheless, the Makhnovist insurgent army [was already able to equip] several regiments of infantry and cavalry, while it also had a little artillery and many machine-guns.

Soon it had become master of a very large region, which was liberated of all power. But the Hetman still held Kiev. Makhno therefore set out for the north. He occupied the important railroad stations at Chaplino, Grishino and Sinel'nikovo, and the city of Pavlograd. He then turned west, in the direction of Ekaterinoslav.

There he encountered the organised and completely equipped forces of Petliura. At this period, the petliurovtzi considered the Makhnovist movement an important episode in the Ukrainian revolution. Not knowing it well, they hoped to attract these "bands of rebels" into their sphere of influence and place them under their own control. Very amicably, they addressed to Makhno a series of political questions: What was his opinion of the Petliurist movement and Petliura's government? How did he conceive the future political structure of the Ukraine? Would he not find it desirable and useful to work in common for the creation of an independent Ukraine?

The Makhnovists' reply was to the point. They declared, that in their opinion Petliurovshchina was a bourgeois nationalist movement whose road was entirely different from that of the revolutionary peasants, that the Ukraine should be organised on a basis of free labour and the independence of the peasants and workers, that they did not accept union with anyone, and that nothing but struggle was possible between Makhnovshchina, the movement of the workers, and the Petliurovshchina, the movement of the bourgeoisie.

The events which followed this "exchange of views" illustrate the kind of tangle that was common in the struggles of the Ukraine. Makhno's army stopped at Nizhne-Dneprovsk, a suburb of Ekaterinoslav and prepared to attack the city. There was also a Bolshevik committee there, who possessed a few troops, but not enough for action. Makhno being known in the region as a valiant revolutionist and a very gifted military guide, this "Committee" offered him the command of the party's workers' detachments. Makhno accepted.

As he often did, he had recourse to a ruse, which was full of risk but promised a great deal if it should succeed. He loaded a train with his troops and sent it from Nizhne-Dneprovsk right into the railway station of Ekaterinoslav. As he knew, such trains brought the working people from the suburbs into Ekaterinoslav, and usually they passed through without obstacle or inspection. If, by chance, the ruse had been discovered before the train stopped, the whole troop would have been taken prisoner. But it went through unhindered and stopped in the station. In an instant the Makhnovists occupied the station and its surroundings. A fierce battle broke out in the city. The Petliurists were defeated. They beat a retreat and abandoned Ekaterinoslav. They were not pursued, for Makhno contented himself, for the moment, with taking possession of the town and reorganising his forces.

A few days later, the Petliurists counterattacked with reinforcements, beat Makhno's army and regained the city. But they in turn did not feel strong enough to pursue the Makhnovists. The Insurrectionary Army retreated again into the Sinel'nikovo region, where it dug in and established a front between itself and the Petliurists on the north-west frontier of the insurgent region.

Petliura's troops, composed chiefly of insurgent peasants, or conscripts, rapidly disintegrated upon contact with the Makhnovists, and soon this front melted away without a battle. Later, Ekaterinoslav was occupied by the Bolsheviks who, for the moment, did not risk going beyond the city. Makhno did not feel that his forces were sufficient to hold both Ekaterinoslav and the vast liberated region. He decided to leave the city to the Bolsheviks and only ensure control of the frontiers of his region. Thus, to the south and east of Ekaterinoslav, a vast area of several thousand square kilometres was free from all authority and all troops. At Ekaterinoslav the Bolsheviks ruled, and to the west the Petliurists dominated the country.

The Makhnovist peasants took advantage of the freedom and relative peacefulness of their region - which unfortunately was of short duration - to accomplish certain positive tasks.

For some six months, from December 1918 to June 1919, the peasants of Gulyai-Pole lived without any political power. Not only did they not break the social bonds between them, but, quite to the contrary, they created new forms of social organisation: free workers' communes and Soviets.

Later on, the Makhnovists formulated their social ideas - and particularly their conception of the Soviets - in a pamphlet entitled "General Theses of the Revolutionary Insurgents (Makhnovists) concerning the Free Workers' Soviet." According to the insurgents, the Soviets should be absolutely independent of all political parties; they should be part of a general economic system based on social equality, their members should be real workers, should serve the interests of the working masses and obey only their will, and their initiators should not exercise any power.

As for the communes, in several places attempts were made to organise social life on a communal, just and equalitarian basis, and the very peasants who showed themselves hostile to the official communes [of the Bolsheviks] proceeded enthusiastically to set up free communes.

The first commune, called "Rosa Luxemburg", was organised near the town of Prokovskoie. At first it only contained a few dozen members, but later the number exceeded three hundred. This commune was created by the poorest peasants of the locality. In consecrating it to the memory of Rosa Luxemburg, they gave witness to their impartiality and nobility of sentiment. They had known for some time that Rosa Luxemburg was a martyr of the revolutionary struggle in Germany. The basic principles of the commune did not correspond at all to the doctrines for which Rosa Luxemburg had struggled. But the peasants justly wanted to honour a victim of the social struggle. This commune was based on the non-authoritarian principle. It accomplished very good results and ultimately exercised a great influence over the peasants of the neighbourhood.[2]

Seven kilometres from Gulyai-Pole another commune was established, which was simply called "Commune No. 1 of the Gulyai-Pole Peasants." It was also the work of poor peasants. Twenty kilometres away were communes Nos. 2 and 3. There were also some in other places.

All these communes were created freely, by a spontaneous impulse of the peasants themselves, with the help of a few good organisers, for the purpose of providing the necessities of life for the working people. They had no resemblance to the artificial and so-called "exemplary communes" which were run very inefficiently by the Communist authorities, where there were usually assembled ill-assorted elements, who had been gathered together at random, and were incapable of doing serious work. These so-called "communes" of the Bolsheviks did nothing but waste grain and ruin the land. Subsidised by the State, that is by the government, they lived off the labour of the people while pretending to teach them to work.

The communes [at Gulyai-Pole] with which we are here concerned were real working communes. They gathered authentic peasants, accustomed from infancy to hard work. They were based on real material mutual aid and on the principle of equality. Everyone -- men, women and children -- had to work, each to the extent of his ability. The organising functions were confided to comrades who could fulfil them adequately. Their task accomplished, these comrades rejoined the common work side by side with the other members of the commune. These, sound, serious principles were due to the fact that the communes arose from the workers themselves and their development followed a natural course.

The Makhnovist partisans never exerted any pressure on the peasants, confining themselves to propagating the idea of free communes. The latter were formed on the initiative of the poor peasants themselves.

It is interesting and significant to observe that the ideas and activities of the Makhnovist peasants were similar in all respects to those of the Kronstadt rebels in 1921. This proves that when the labouring masses have the opportunity of thinking, seeking and acting freely, they gradually find the same course, whatever the place, the surroundings, or even - we might add - the time, as one can see by examining previous revolutions. Independent of all other reasoning, this should lead us to believe that, on the whole, this course is the right, just and true course for the workers. To be sure, for many reasons, the labouring masses have up to the present never been able to keep to this course. But the possibility of not abandoning it, or following it to the end, is only a question of time and development.

The constructive activity of the peasants was not confined to these experiments in free communism. Tasks that were much vaster and more important were not slow in presenting themselves. It was necessary to find a common practical solution for various problems which concerned the whole region, and for this it was indispensable to establish general institutions, first embracing a district, later a department, and finally the whole region.

The peasants did not fail. They had recourse to periodic congresses of peasants, workers and partisans. During the period that the region remained free, there were three such regional congresses. They permitted the peasants to strengthen their contacts, to orient themselves more certainly in the complex circumstances of the moment, and to determine clearly the economic, social and other tasks that had to be done.

The First Regional Congress took place on January 23rd, 1919, in the town of Bol'shaya Mikhailovka. It was primarily concerned with the danger of the reactionary movements of Petliura and Denikin. The Petliurists were in the process of reorganising their forces in the west of the country for a new offensive. As for Denikin, his preparations for civil war disturbed the peasants and partisans still more. The congress formulated measures for resistance to the two forces. Moreover, patrol action, increasingly important, was already occurring nearly every day on the south-eastern border of the region.

The Second Congress met three weeks later, on February 12, 1919, at Gulyai-Pole. Unfortunately, the imminent danger of an offensive by Denikin against the free region prevented the congress from devoting itself to the problems, however important, of peaceful construction. The sessions were entirely occupied by questions of defence and fighting against the new invaders.

The insurrectionary army of the Makhnovtzi numbered at this moment around 20,000 volunteer fighters. But many of them were worn out by fatigue, having had to fight incessantly on the frontier against Denikin's advance guard and other attempts at penetration. Moreover, Denikin's troops were rapidly growing stronger.

After long and passionate debates, the congress resolved to call all the inhabitants of the region to a general voluntary and equalitarian mobilisation. By "voluntary mobilisation" it meant that while this appeal, sanctioned by the moral authority of the congress, emphasised the need for fresh troops in the insurrectionary army, no one was compelled to enlist: the appeal was directed to everyone's conscience and good will. By "equalitarian mobilisation" it meant that in filling out the army, attention would be given to the personal situation of each volunteer, so that the weight of the mobilisation would be distributed .and supported by the population as equally and justly as possible.

As a kind of general directing body for the fight against Petliura and Denikin, to maintain and support, during the fighting, the economic and social relations among the workers themselves and also between them and the partisans, to take care of the needs for information and control, finally to put into practice the various measures which were adopted by the congress and which might be taken up by succeeding conferences, this Second Congress established a regional Revolutionary Military Council (Soviet) of peasants, workers and partisans.

This council embraced the whole free region. It was supposed to carry out all the economic, political, social and military decisions made at the congress. It was thus, in a certain sense, the supreme executive of the whole movement. But it was not at all an authoritarian organ. Only strictly executive functions were assigned to it. It confined itself to carrying out the instructions and decisions of the congress. At any moment, it could be dissolved by the congress and cease to exist.

Once the resolutions of this Second Congress were made known to the peasants of the region, each new town and village began to send to Gulyai-Pole, en masse, new volunteers desiring to go to the front against Denikin. The number of these new fighters was enormous and surpassed all expectations. If it had been possible to arm and train all of them, the tragic events which followed would never have occurred. Moreover, the whole Russian Revolution might have been switched to a new course. The "miracle" which the libertarians had hoped for might have happened.

Unfortunately, arms were scarce in the region. That is why they did not succeed in forming new detachments at the opportune moment. They had to turn away ninety per cent, of the volunteers who came to enlist. This had unavoidable consequences for the region during Denikin's general offensive in June 1919.



1. Much later, the Bolsheviks, using their habitual method of slander, tried to identify the independent peasant movement and Makhno personally with these counter-revolutionary bandit elements. From what has been said, the reader should already be able to recognise the facts, and the difference between the men and the myths.

2. It was destroyed on June 9 and 10, 1919, by the Bolsheviks during their genera! campaign against the Makhnovist region.

On to 3. Denikin's Offensives and Final Defeat

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