Anarchists in the Gulag (and prison and exile)

Bolshevik repression of anarchists after 1917

Posts Tagged ‘Nestor Makhno

80th Anniversary of the death of Nestor Makhno

leave a comment »

It’s 80 years since the death of Nestor Makhno in Paris.

We’ve posted a couple of pieces – a contemporary tribute from the anarchists of Toronto and John Manifold’s poem Makhno’s philosophers.

Elsewhere, the British Library blog has an interesting – book-focused of course – post by Olga Kerziouk, Curator Ukrainian Studies, called “Back in tachanka days” (after the first line of Manifold’s poem: a tachanka was a peasant-cart-with-machine-gun, a favourite Makhnovist weapon).

Worldcat has a number of books by Makhno listed:

Don’t forget, the three volumes of Makhno’s memoirs  – The Russian Revolution in Ukraine, Under the Blows of the Counterrevolution and The Ukrainian Revolution – are available in English thanks to the efforts of Malcolm Archibald and Black Cat Press in Edmonton

Olga Kerziouk, Curator Ukrainian Studies
Olga Kerziouk, Curator Ukrainian Studies

Written by gulaganarchists

6, July 2014 at 5:47 pm

Posted in Sources / Links

Tagged with

Makhno’s Philosophers

with one comment

Back in tachanka days, when Red and Green
Pursued in turn each other and the White,
Out on the steppe, I’m told, there could be seen
A novel sight

Professors of philosophy, whom war
From some provincial faculty dismissed
To seek new pastures on the Black Sea shore,
Fell in with Makhno – anarchist,

Terrorist, bandit, call him what you will –
Who spared their lives and, either for a laugh
Or from some vague respect for mental skill,
Attached them to his staff.

Their duties were not hard. For months or years,
Lacking a porch in which to hold debate,
These peripatetics, ringed by Cossack spears,
Had leisure to discuss The State.

With flashing pince-nez, while the sabres flashed,
They sat berugged in carts in deep dispute,
Or in some plundered village hashed and thrashed
The nature of The Absolute

Bergsonians quite enjoyed it: from the first
They’d known Duration to depend on Space.
But Nietzscheans found their values arsey-versed
By Supermen of unfamiliar race.

And, whereas Platonists got mulligrubs,
Cynics were cheerful – though I’ll not deny
They grumbled when obliged to share their tubs
With hogs from Epicurus’ sty.

On quiet nights, bandits would form a ring
And listen with amazed guffaws
As syllogisms flew, and pillaging
Was reconciled with Universal Laws.

Symposia were held, whereat the host
(taught by the Hegelians of the Left)
In stolen vodka would pronounce a toast
To Proudhon’s dictum: Property is Theft!

How did this idyll end? Theres some confusion.
Makhno, I fear was caught –
Perhaps he let his native resolution
Get sicklied o’er with other peoples thought.

But what of his philosophers? I feel
Certain they reached an Academe at last
Where each in his own manner might conceal
His briefly bandit past.

To fool the OGPU or the CIA
Would not be hard for any skilled expounder
Of Substance and Illusion, growing grey
But ever metaphysically sounder.

Yet each might feel at times old memories stir,
And know himself, as ever, set apart:
Once, among bandits a philosopher;
Now, among academics, Green at heart.

In fact – I’ve wondered- take Professor X –
Mightn’t his arid manner be a blind?
Are those lack-lustre eyes, behind those specs,
Truly the mirror of his mind?

Or is the real man, far away
From Kantian imperatives, once more
Roaming the steppe, not as a waif and stray
But waging revolutionary war?

Although his tongue belabours
The stony boundaries of a bloodless creed,
His soul is back again among the sabres
Yelling, “The Deed! The Deed!”

John Manifold

Manifold (a long time Australian CP member) has inaccuracies (like Makhno getting caught, for instance), I wonder where he learned this story? What is most interesting is not that, but the way, with a revolutionary situation to enthuse over, he is interested in comparative navel-gazing. Well, it saves him from asking what the red cavalry were up to!

In KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 9, 1997


Written by gulaganarchists

6, July 2014 at 4:27 pm

Posted in Texts

Tagged with ,

The Truth about Nestor Makhno

with one comment

Nestor Makhno, for years the leader of the rebel peasantry of the Ukraina, died on July 25 in the Tenon Hospital after long months of illness. His remains were cremated in the Père-Lachaise cemetery, at Paris.

Nestor Makhno was one of the outstanding personalities of the Russian Revolution, a man remarkable in many regards. While still in his teens he became interested in the revolutionary movement and at 17 he was already an active member of an anarchist group in the Ukraina. In 1908 the Tsarist Government condemned him to death, but owing to his youth the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was incarcerated in the notorious Butirki Prison, at Moscow, one of the worst hells of the Russian penal system, where the naturally rebellious spirit of Makhno earned him frequent and severe punishment. In spite of it Nestor succeeded in turning his imprisonment to good account; he spent his time in studying and improving the elementary education he had received as a boy. The February Revolution opened the doors of his prison, as it did for thousands of other victims of Tsardom.

Makhno returned to his native Ukraina and there devoted himself to the revolutionary enlightenment of the masses. A splendid organizer and effective agitator, his work speedily showed results. He became particularly popular among the southern peasantry. During the occupation of Ukraina by the German-Austrian forces, Makhno organized very successful guerrilla warfare against the invaders. From a little handful of armed men, who had to procure guns and ammunitions from the enemy, his faithful band constantly grew in numbers and strength, till at one time Makhno’s peasant army consisted of 40,000-60,000 men, including cavalry and artillery. A thorough Anarchist, Makhno waged war against all forces which sought to subject Ukraina to new tyranny and exploitation. For this reason [he fought] the Whites as well as the Bolsheviki when the latter attempted to establish an allegedly “revolutionary” despotism in the South. Makhno clearly distinguished between the interests of the revolution and of the masses as against those of Bolshevik Party rule. He and his povstantsi (rebel peasant) army had for their definite purpose to free Ukraina from the tyranny and government in any form, be it white or red. Makhnovstchina, as the Makhno peasant uprising in Ukraina was called, was a thoroughly libertarian revolutionary movement of the masses in the South of Russia, of utmost significance. Nestor Makhno was the heart and the spirit of that great movement. His great ability as a leader, his personal courage and almost reckless devotion to his anarchist ideal of liberation earned for him the trust, respect and admiration of the Ukrainian masses. His revolutionary integrity and unusual military judgment inspired his army to deeds of almost incredible heroism and self-sacrifice in behalf of the revolutionary cause. His followers christened him “Batko” Makhno (beloved little father), which was the highest expression of popular respect and affection.

But though Makho fought against the establishment of Bolshevik rule in the Ukraina, he never hesitated to come to the aid of the Bolsheviki when the interests of the revolution demanded it. Thus in 1919 the Makhno army practically saved Moscow from being taken by General Denikin when the latter had almost routed the Bolshevik forces. Again in 1920 it was Makhno and his povstantsi who helped in finally defeating Wrangel and his White armies.

The Bolsheviki always appealed to Makhno for aid whenever their own military forces failed to halt the advance of the White enemy. But in spite of being repeatedly saved from destruction by Makhnovtsi, the Bolsheviki continuously planned to annihilate Makhno and his army. True to the psychology of all despotism, the Bolsheviki Government could not tolerate the fact that a large part of Russia – practically the whole of Ukraina – refused to recognise the rule of the Bolsheviki. Fully knowing that Makhno was a true Anarchist who strove to liberate the south from every tyranny, and in spite of the great services done by Makhno’s army to the revolution, the Bolsheviki denounced both Makhno and his peasant followers as bandits and counter-revolutionists. They set a price on Makhno’s head, dead or alive, and even stooped to sending secret emissaries to Makhno’s camp to murder him.

Notwithstanding all the dangers and difficulties of that revolutionary period, and in spite of repeated Bolshevik treachery, Makhno continued for 4 years (1917-1921) loyally to serve the revolutionary cause. He had fought the German invaders and he continued his fight against every reactionary force which sought to subjugate the people of Ukraina, including the armies of Denikin, Skoropadsky, Petlura, Grigorief and others.

Whites as well as the Bolsheviki hated Makhno and his peasant army with a deadly and irreconcilable hatred. Justly so, for was not the very existence of the Makhno movement a challenge and a defiance to all governments and oppression? In the denunciation of Makhno the Bolsheviki went even further than the whites. Secret conspiracies and open military attacks failed to destroy Makhno and his followers, the Bolsheviki decided to kill him morally. It was they who FIRST SPREAD THE LIE that Makhno was a pogromshtchik, a Jew baiter, and that his army was guilty of pogroms against the Jews. But the people of Ukraina knew better than that. They knew that no Bolshevik general ever protected the Jews against pogroms with the energy and zeal of Makhno. They knew that Makhno was an Anarchist and internationalist, and that he was ruthless in suppressing the least sign of racial persecution. Some of his closest friends were Jews, and a number of well-known Russian-Jewish Anarchists were his most trusted advisors and members of the educational department of the Makhno army. It is true that occasional, though very rare cases of assaults on Jews had happened in the territory occupied by Makhno’s forces. But in every case it was proven that such excesses were committed by individual members of the army, and that Makhno was merciless in punishing such offenders. In this connection it is well to remember that the Bolshevik red Army was also not free from such excesses, yet no one would think of accusing the leaders of the Bolshevik army of encouraging pogroms. As to Makhno, he personally and publicly shot Grigorief, the chief of a White band of notorious pogromers, as an object lesson for his entire army and the entire people of Ukraina.

A true anarchist, a great revolutionary mass leader was lost to us by the death of Nestor Makhno. He died, poor, alone and almost deserted far away from the people he so loved and served so faithfully. But his spirit always remained with the masses of Russia, and with his last breath he confidently hoped that some day the oppressed, much-suffering people will rise in their might to sweep away forever the tyranny and despotism of Bolshevism.

Published by the Libertarian groups of Toronto (1934)

In KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 23, July 2000



Written by gulaganarchists

6, July 2014 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Texts

Tagged with

The Ukrainian Revolution (July-December 1918) by Nestor I. Makhno [Book Review]

leave a comment »

This is a vital primary source on the Makhnovist movement. Makhno, both a peasant and anarchist, articulates the rage against the landowners which drove the revolution:

“We are fighting for the freedom of all those dominated and degraded by the power of your sort of people, the people who support thrones occupied by dunces […] who build prisons in which are left to rot those whom your mendacity transforms into criminals and thieves. You build scaffolds to hang the very best and bravest of those who fight for the freedom of the oppressed. In fact, it is scarcely possible to enumerate the actions of your class, which are criminal toward those by whose labour, by whose sweat and blood, you and your fellow social parasites are able to maintain your life style.” (p.109-110)

Makhno’s skill as a guerrilla commander is clear in the historical record, and reflected in his account here. However, Makhno wanted victory – a new social order – rather than being satisfied with vengeance. And while the physical battles inevitably occupy the bulk of the text, there are also signs of the difficulty of creating a new society in a war zone: see the discussion of mills and dairies on p116-17. Not strong enough to defend them if they were collectivised, the owners were left with a new, lower, price scale, and the threat of return visit to enforce it.

Memoirs inevitably carry echoes of later disputes about what happened. There’s some hindsight in his disappointment with the failure of “urban anarchists” to engage with the Makhnovist movement. Also, there’s the critique of the performance of anarchists which led Makhno to the Platform: “According to these dictums, one should preach to the masses and incite them to take the path of revolution, but at the same time one should refrain from leading these masses in an organized manner” (p182).

Readers will be glad to hear Black Cat Press are planning two more books by Makhno: A Rebellious Youth (1888-1917), and The Makhnovshchina and its erstwhile allies – the Bolsheviks (covering 1919-21).

This is the usual high quality production from Black Cat Press. As well as maps, footnotes and a glossary and appendices, there’s an excellent introduction: “The Makhnovists were not backward looking rustics who romanticized the past but people whose experience of the modern world in southeastern Ukraine with its mix of rural and industrial life had give them a glimpse of what the future could be like with a different social system.” (p.xiii)

The Ukrainian Revolution (July-December 1918) by Nestor I. Makhno, introduction by Vsevolod Volin. Published by Black Cat Press. ISBN 9781926878058

From KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 74-75, August 2013 [Double issue]

Written by gulaganarchists

18, August 2013 at 5:10 pm

Nestor Makhno Rides Again [Book review]

leave a comment »

Nestor Makhno – Anarchy’s Cossack: The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine 1917-1921 by Alexandre Skirda, published by AK Press and the Kate Sharpley Library.

Nestor Makhno is probably the most frequently and unjustly maligned figure in anarchist history because he symbolises libertarian revolt in the Ukraine against both White and Red autocracy.

This book is overdue: no biography of Makhno has appeared in English since Michael Malet’s in 1982. Nestor Makhno – Anarchy’s Cossack was first published in French that year, after 18 years of research, and updated in 1999 and 2001. In 400+ pages Skirda covers a remarkable range of sources, from Makhnovist memoirs to very early and very late Soviet material. Skirda is obviously sympathetic to Makhno, but everything is firmly grounded in the evidence of his research, and no myth about Makhno is left unexamined. As usual, Skirda’s not afraid to share either his opinions or his dry humour. The result is a substantial and illuminating study of Makhno’s life. It also gives much new information on the Makhnovist movement – and its enemies. The chronological account is followed by several important analytical chapters. These cover Makhno’s character, the relationship between Anarchism and the Makhnovschina, the allegations of ‘banditry’ and anti-Semitism against Makhno, sources, and the fate of Makhno’s partner Galina Kuzmenko and their daughter Elena (Lucie). Finally, thirty pages of documents from the Makhnovists are reprinted.

Early life

Makhno came from a poor peasant family in the town of Gulyai-Polye, at the very bottom of the tsarist social pyramid. If that didn’t incline him to revolt, in his memoirs (quoted on p.19) he repeats the advice given him by a workmate who’d violently interrupted some gentry beating another stable lad: ‘Little Nestor, if one of your masters should ever strike you, pick up the first pitchfork you lay hands on and let him have it…’

The revolution of 1905 politicised him, and by 1906, in his late teens, he was involved in the Gulyai-Polye anarchist group. After 1905 an epidemic of combat groups undermined tsarism. The Gulyai-Polye group was no exception: propaganda was combined with expropriations and gun battles with the police. Arrested in 1909 and tried in 1910, Makhno was first sentenced to death, then reprieved and given hard labour for life. His time in prison was significant in several ways. He met Arshinov, the anarchist worker who was to become an almost lifelong comrade, and devoured the prisoners’ collective library. Less good, though prophetic in a way, was meeting (in his own words) ‘intellectuals who seek from the socialist idea and from their militancy only the means of ensconcing themselves as masters and governors.’ (p.31) Also, Makhno’s uncompromising attitude earned him several visits to solitary where he picked up the tuberculosis that later killed him.


The February revolution of 1917 overthrew tsarism and unleashed the creative energies of workers and peasants. It also freed Makhno from Moscow’s Butyrki prison. He returned home to throw himself into social reconstruction alongside survivors of the Gulyai-Polye anarchist group, pushing for social revolution and expropriation of the landowners. Makhno always remained consistent in his revolutionary programme: destruction of the forces of repression and encouraging peasants to the take the land, workers the factories, and calling free soviets (ie meetings) to coordinate their activities.

… and Civil War

Though the tsarist system had collapsed, there were plenty of candidates itching to restore power and put the workers and peasants back in their place. Makhno and his comrades encouraged and initiated the resistance to their plans. The first Makhnovist insurgents harried the Austro-German occupation, and the old landowners who returned with it. At this early stage the Makhnovist was of dealing with prisoners was set, which was much more discriminating than other groups in the civil war:

‘The Varta members [Police] and members of the band of landowners were shot out of hand for, despite warnings, they had persisted in their repressive activities. As for the Austrian soldiers, they were fed then released on promising to fight no more against the revolutionary peasants; they were issued with provisions and a bottle of vodka but stripped of their kepis – this symbolic act indicated their “demilitarization.”’ (p.62)

After this, the Makhnovist Revolutionary Insurgent Army fought the Whites who wanted to restore either tsarism complete or the Constituent Assembly. The Bolsheviks were happy to see Makhno fight the Whites. But once the Makhnovists had broken Denikin’s White forces at the battle of Peregonovka (September 1919) they were forced to defend themselves against the Bolsheviks, who could not tolerate anything outside the power of the party. The Makhnovists had to be crushed as soon as possible: the libertarian idea threatened their hold on power, and their hold on their soldiers. A whole regiment came over to the Makhnovists, declaring:

‘During our two years’ service with the Red Army, we reached the conclusion that the whole social regime of our lives relied wholly upon the rule of commissars and that in the last analysis it would lead us to slavery without precedent in history

‘Because they conduct an implacable fight against the wealthy and the lords; because they stand for free union and soviets among the workers and peasants, without the dictatorship of any party; because they fight so that the workshops, factories and land may pass into the hands of the workers and peasants; because the Makhnovists fight for all these goals, we also find ourselves at their side because of these very same aspirations, we, yesterday’s Red soldiers and today’s free revolutionaries’ (p.183) [1]

The Makhnovists made a second alliance with the Bolsheviks to defeat the White General Wrangel (1920). The moment he had fled the Crimea, the Red Army were ordered to turn their machine guns on their recent allies. As the Bolshevik Yefimov confessed: ‘A good explanation needed to be devised to explain why, after an agreement had been concluded, the Red Army nonetheless had to wipe out the Makhnovists.’ (p.240) [2] Nothing held the Bolsheviks back this time. Many Makhnovists died fighting or were executed by the Cheka. Makhno had to fight is way to exile in Rumania. With a handful of survivors, he crossed the border in August 1921.

Makhno’s significance

Makhno had the essentials of a partisan: caution to avoid defeats and bravery; cunning to make and take chances of victory. However, he couldn’t have held out for so long against so many enemies without popular support. This support was fundamentally political. The peasants and revolutionaries who joined and supported Makhno were not all anarchists, but they knew he was on their side. He was fighting for what they wanted: not rights on paper, but land and freedom. The Makhnovist movement embodied their slogan ‘For the oppressed, against the oppressor, always!’

Myths and Legends

Skirda reports some of the popular legends which attached themselves to Makhno. Most of these (entering the enemy’s camp in disguise, the helpful stranger) are the sort that have been told about local heroes from Robin Hood to Pretty Boy Floyd. Other myths, however, were deliberately created to demonise him and the movement generally.

Bolshevik propaganda created a stereotyped ogre of Makhno. As could only be expected of someone capable of the ‘sin’ of opposing the Bolshevik Party, (Dzherzinsky, head of the Cheka, p.185) he must be a bloodthirsty bandit. Evidence was irrelevant ‘it was primarily a political argument, essential in order to dismiss one’s adversary and deny him right of reply.’ (p.337)

Equally the Bolshevik Party (when it suited their interests) portrayed Makhno as an anti-Semite for the same reason: ‘to cheaply dismiss the professed aims of the movement, only to acknowledge later on, once their defeat had been finalized – as indeed the Bolsheviks did – that such charges had had no substance to them.’ (p.341) Skirda provides ample quotations from the Bolsheviks themselves (as well as independent writers) to back this up. As Cherikover says ‘of all these armies, the Red Army included, it was Makhno’s army which behaved best toward the civilian population generally and the Jewish population in particular.’ (p.339) [3]

Among some anarchists, the image persists that even if Makhno did fight for freedom, he was violent, uncivilised and generally bedevilled with ‘personal failings’. The culmination of this is the idea that Makhno was busy drinking himself to death during his exile in Paris. Skirda questions this view, arguing that Voline (the ultimate source for many of these claims) is not the neutral or friendly witness some assume. While Makhno and Voline had worked together during the years of the Makhnovist revolt, they were hardly best mates. Their relationship worsened in exile, taking opposite sides in the debates about organisation of the 1920’s. Thus Voline, while he did know Makhno, had fallen out with him. Much of Voline’s testimony was also given when Makhno was dead and could not respond. While he was alive, Makhno probably gave as good as he got in the slanging match, including accusing Voline of arranging to be ‘captured’ by the Cheka!

Some may accuse Skirda of trying to romanticise Makhno in challenging this view, but the evidence for it is weak or lacking, what good does it do maintain it? Skirda paints a different view of these years of exile where, despite poverty, tuberculosis and unhealed wounds, Makhno wrote extensively, both on his experiences and about coming struggles. He notably warned the Spanish comrades that communists there ‘will follow in the footsteps of the Jesuit Lenin or even of Stalin, not hesitating to assert their monopoly over all the gains of the revolution.’ (p.282) [4]


Nestor Makhno – Anarchy’s Cossack restores a great deal of forgotten history, both in Makhno’s life and in the Makhnovist struggle for the third revolution against ‘socialist’ absolutism. It’s an excellent introduction to this piece of anarchist history, and the Russian Revolution in general. If the Russian experience bears out the anarchist contention that a revolution controlled by the party will only benefit the party, then the history of the Makhnovist movement refutes the Bolshevik idea that the masses cannot defend or direct themselves without the leadership of their vanguard. History will be better placed to judge the likes of Lenin and Trotsky thanks to this reminder of the revolutionary alternative to Bolshevism.

Makhno himself knew that the best form of defence was attack. Hopefully Skirda (or do we have another volunteer?) will now turn his hand to a history of the Bolshevik Party and its role in strangling the revolution.

T. Chanka

[1] ‘Appeal’ by 522nd Red Regiment, published in Volna [Detroit], December 1921, no. 24, p. 15-16.
[2] ‘The operations against Makhno from January 1920 to January 1921’ in Collection of Works from the Military and Scientific Association in the Military Academy [in Russian], Moscow: 1921. Book one, p.192-212.
[3] quoting Voline, The Unknown Revolution, p.675 (p.699 in the English edition.)
[4] ‘Letter to the Spanish Anarchists’ published in Probuzdeniye [Detroit] June-October 1932. (Also reprinted in The Struggle Against the State and Other Essays)



Written by gulaganarchists

23, November 2011 at 10:49 am

“at this point the comrade summarised the Makhnovist movement…”

leave a comment »

“I am not a miliciano, but I have been to Russia, where I experienced the revolution and was able to observe the way in which the anarchists were liquidated (at this point the comrade summarised the Makhnovist movement). I have been in Spain for the past eight months, and I know that as long as we have weapons in our hands, everything is possible.”

by Sacha Pietro aka Sacha Piotr see

Taken from the minutes of the Extraordinary assembly of militians, Barcelona, March 1937, as reprinted in The Story of the Iron Column: Militant Anarchism in the Spanish Civil War by Abel Paz. Which has just been copublished by AK Press and the Kate Sharpley Library.

The story of the Iron Column by Abel Paz published: a personal view

Written by gulaganarchists

25, September 2011 at 4:05 pm