Notes on the Makhnovista, Nestor Makhno and the Russian Civil war in the Eastern Ukraine

The following article is advanced notes for a section on the Makhnovista I was working on for the Anarchist FAQ. I temporarily abandoned work on this a and have recently realised I'm not going to get a change to return to it for a least another few months. Therefore I'm putting these notes on the web in the hope that they are some use (forgive the terrable spellings). They start with a long history of the military events followed by the constructive activities of the Makhnovista. The final section which I had only started was intended to answer Bolshevik slanders of the Makhnovista.


The key Leninist defence of the actions of the Bolsheviks in the Russia and revolution is that they had no other choice. Complaints against the Bolshevik attacks on the pro-Soviet left are met with a mantra involving the white terror, the primitive state of Russia and the reactionary peasantry, the 14, 17 or even 27 invading imperialist armies and other such 'forces of nature' which we are to believe could only be met by a centralised authoritarian regime that would flinch at nothing in order to survive. But embarrassingly for the Leninists numerous examples exist both from revolutionary Russia at the time and from earlier and later revolutions that suggest far from state terror being the most efficient way of defending the revolution other methods existed which looked to the massive creative energies of the working masses unleashed by the revolution.

In geographical terms the most large scale example of this is found in the South Eastern Ukraine. For much of the Civil War this area operated without a centralised state apparatus on the basis of Free Soviets. The space in which this happened was created by a partisan force that instead of using the efficiency of executions for desertion, tsarist officers appointed over the rank and files soldiers wishes and saluting so loved by the Bolsheviks instead operated as a volunteer army with elected officers and a voluntary discipline. This movement was the Makhnovista, named for its commander, the Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno.

The Ukraine probably saw more fighting in the Russian Civil War then any other area. It was also the only area which anarchists managed to liberate, if only for a brief period. To do so they fought the Austrian and German armies, Nationalists, Bolsheviks and the White Armies of Denkin and then Wrangel. There were smaller skirmishes involving Cossacks returning to the Don and independent 'Green' bands. The anarchists fought all these various armies over the four years their movement was in existence. This war was not only bloody but saw constant shifts of fronts, advances and retreats and changes from near conventional war to mobile partisan war. The consequences of this was that no area of territory was a safe 'rear' area for any period of time and so little constructive activity was possible. Despite this and the many flaws of the anarchist movement their activity in the Ukraine demonstrated that an alternative to the supposedly necessary methods of the Bolsheviks did exists.

Two distinct aspects of the anarchist movement existed, a political and non-military structure called the Nabat (Alarm) federation which operated through the soviets and collectives and a military command structure known after is commander Nestor Makhno as the Makhnovschyna. It is useful to first summarise the military campaigns of these years in order to understand the limits to constructive activity that could be carried out. A brief idea of the depth of fighting in these years can be seen by considering the town as the centre of the Makhnovists, Hulyai Pole which changed hands no less then 16 times in the period from 1917 - 1921.

March 1917 - February 1919

Makhno spent the years from 1910 to 1917 in Butyrki prison, Moscow doing hard labour because of his anarchist activities before this period. With the February revolution he along with many other political prisoners was released and spent the first three weeks of March 1917 working with anarchists in Moscow

He returned to Hulyai Pole on 24 March and because he was the towns only returning political prisoner immediately came to prominence. He founded a Peasants union within a week and soon the propaganda of the anarchist group became popular enough that the Serbian Machine Gun company quartered in Hulyai Pole joined the May Day parade. In this period he also played a role in the strike of wood and metal workers and peasant rent strike in June. In August he initiated a meeting of local landlords and took all their ownership documents, a district peasant meeting then decided to divide all land equally.

During the Konilov affair the anarchists in Hulyai Pole organised a "committee for the Salvation of the Revolution" and the seizure of weapons off the local army. [1] By the 25 Sept./8 Oct. final last of the land was taken off the landlords and divided between the peasants.

Nestor Makhno

There followed a brief period when constructive activity was begun, also marked by the first major military operation when on 29 Dec./11 January 1918 Makhno led 800 from Hulyai Pole to Olexandrivske to aid in the disarming of Cossacks. Some 250,000 roubles were taken from banks for distribution to the peasants and significantly a food for textiles transfer arranged with a Moscow factory. However on March 3 the Bolsheviks signed the Brest - Litovsk peace treaty thus handing the revolutionary Ukraine over to Austria without making any attempt to first arm the population. Within a week Austria had conquered the entire region, and had begun the repression of the revolution.

Makhno left the Ukraine top reach Moscow only to find the Cheka had attacked the anarchists there, killing or wounding 40 anarchists and taking 500 prisoner. Despite this Makhno met Lenin in Moscow who arranged for fake passport so he could return to the Ukraine. He did so at the end of June.

July 1918 - Feb. 1919

Opposition to the German backed Hetman regime was mounting and frequently met with brutal repression, including reprisal executions. Makhno was forced to live underground and on the move, secretly meeting with others with the Austrians always close behind. The night of 26 September saw Hulyai Pole briefly liberated and on the retreat from this Makhnos small band grew. When the Austrians cornered them they launched a surprise counter attack and routed the Austrians. This became known as the battle of Dibrivki and it is from this date, 5 October 1918 the Makhno is given the honary nickname 'Batko', meaning little father [2]. At the same time a local federation of anarchist groups had come into existence and for the next two months already existing partisan groups sought out and joined the growing army.

In this period Makhno with portable printing equipment was raiding the occupying garrisons and troop trains in the Southern Ukraine. Normal practise was to execute the officers and free the troops, in this period the moral of the occupying troops had crumbled and revolutionary propaganda had made inroads into many units. This was also effecting the nationalist troops and on 20 November the first nationalist unit defectected to the Makhnovista. This encouraged them to return to Hulyai Pole on the 27 December and there the insurrectionary Staff was formed, this body was to led the army in the coming years and consisted initially of four old and trusted friends and three political comrades. The Makhnovist presence allowed the setting up of a local soviet and the re-opening of the anarchist clubs. German forces started pulling back to the major cities and on December 14 the Hetman fled Kiyiv. In the resulting vacuum the Makhnovista rapidly expanded taking in most of the South East Ukraine and setting up fronts against local whites. The nationalists had taken power in the rest of the Ukraine under Petliura and on the 15th December the Makhnovista reached an agreement whereby in return for arms and ammunition they allowed the nationalists to mobilise in the Makhnovista area.

This was a temporary and pragmatic arrangement at the same time the Makhnovista had set up links with Bolshevik partisans to the south and before dawn on the 26th the Bolshevik and Makhnovista forces launched a joint attack on the nationalists at Katerynoslav [3], the city was taken but held only briefly when a nationalist attack on the 29th drove out all the insurgent forces with heavy losses, in the south white re-enforcement's led to the insurgents being pushed North and losing Hulyao Pole

The year 1919

1919 opened with the nationalists under Petliura driving back the advance of the Makhnovista in the west and white re-enforcement's landing in the ports of the south. This led to an alliance being signed in early Feb. in which the Partisan units entered the Red Army as distinct formations and the Red Army in the area formed a brigade to be known as "the third Transdnieper Batko Makhno brigade" [4] with Makhno as commander. The whites were repulsed and Hulyai Pole retaken and the front pushed some distance east-wards. In March the Red Army attacked eastwards in the course of this Dybenko, commander of the Trandneiper division recommended one of Makhnos commanders for a medal [5].

April saw serious losses for the Makhnovista as they held back a white advance from the Donbas (east), some of the Bolshevik controlled sections of the Red Army refused to come to their aid as they were more interested in the Crimea (south). This period saw the most sustained control of the region around Hulyai Pole and the Bolsheviks increasing unease with anarchist influence in the area. They re-started the slander campaign to the alarm of Anatov the overall front commander who replied in response to an article in Kharkiv Ivesta "The article is the most perverted fiction and does not in the least correspond to the existing situation. The insurgents fighting the whites are on a level with the Red Army men, but are in a far worse condition for supplies" [6].

Complaints about the activities of the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka also arose in this period. This may have been part of the reason for the revolt of another partisan commander Hryhoriyiv in the central Ukraine. The Red Army pulled out their troops from the front lines facing the white to put down this revolt, leaving the Makhnovista on their own. Despite this Makhnos forces, now numbering 20,000 were ordered to resume the attack on the whites, they advanced for the first few days but then a white counter attack forced them into retreat and broke the front. Makhno resigned as Red Army commanders and the RSV summoned a fourth congress for June 15th. Trotsky not only banned this congress but took the lead in slandering the Makhnovista and calling for their elimination. Throughout this period the white advance continued, over running Hulyai Pole on 5 June and massacring the local defenders. A 48 hour truce with the Bolsheviks was broken when the Bolsheviks executed five of Makhnos staff for distributing leaflets advertising the banned fourth congress.

To avoid complete chaos Makhno gave secret order for his units to stay in the Red Army for the moment and took refuge in the Chorno - Znamenski forest before continuing the retreat north and skirmishing with Red Army units. Makhno began discussions with Hyrhorivyviv whose territory he had retreated to. This was problematic to say the least, Hyrhorivyviv revolt had been tinged with anti-semitism and had seen at least one major pogrom, this and his proposal for an alliance with the whites against the red led them to plan his downfall for the course of a mass meeting of 20,000 insurgents on the 27 July. Chubenko shot and wounded Hyrhorivyviv at this, Makhno finished him off and immediately the Makhnovista units posted nearby surrounded and disarmed the leading Hryhoriyivists.

At the end of July Makhno recalled the troops he had earlier left in the Red Army and by mid-August these had met up with the other force which now included some of Hyrhorivyviv troops, an army of some 15,000. At Mykolaiv the Red Army units were defecting to Makhno in large numbers due in part to the feeling that the Red Army were abandoning the defence of the Ukraine. This was the start of Denikins massive push north and Petliuras push east, during which the Makhnovista enter a non-aggression pact with Petliura which enabled them to off load over 1,000 wounded.

By the end of September the Makhnovista were forced to fight the numerically superior whites. After two days of desperate fighting the whites were routes and two regiments were destroyed, Makhnos forces then conduced an incredible rapid advance in three directions helped by their mobile cart transported infantry, in three days smashing three reserve regiments and at the greatest point advancing 235 miles east. On the 6 Oct. a drive to the south started which took key white ports and captured a huge quantity of equipment including 600 trucks of British supplied ammunition and an aeroplane. This was disastrous for Denkin whose forces had reached the north most point on their advance on Moscow for these ports were key for his supply routes, the advance continued cutting the railway route and so stopping all shells reaching Denkins Moscow front.

Denkin was forced to send some of his best troops from the Moscow front to drive back the Makhnovista and British boats were sent to towns on the coast where Makhno might retreat through [7]. The key city of Katernoslav was taken with the aid of a workers uprising on November 9th and held for a month before the advancing white and a typhoid epidemic which was to devastate the Makhnovista ranks by the end of the year forced them out of the city. In December the Red Army advance made possible by Makhnos devastation of Denkins supply lines continued.

Stalemate, January - October 1920

In December the Red Army advance made possible by Makhnos devastation of Denkins supply lines continued. By early January they had split white forces into three, secret order to the 45th division issued on January 4th also instructed them to "annihilate Makhnovist bands" [8]. Unaware of this the Makhnovista put out propaganda leaflets directed at the Red Army rank and file appealing to them as comrades. At Olexandrivske on December 5th talks occurred between a representative of the Makhnovista and the commander of the 45th divisions 1st brigade, these broke down when Uborevich ordered the Makhnovista to the Polish front in a pretext designed to put the blame for future hostilities on the Makhnovista. They refused and on Jan. 9th, Yegorov, commander of the Red Army southern front used this pretext to outlaw Makhno. This was the signal for nine months of bitter fighting between the Red Army and the Makhnovista. Military events in this period are confused, with the Red Army claiming victory again and again only for the Makhnovista to appear somewhere else. Hulyai Pole changed hands on a couple of occasions.

Wrangel began a limited offensive in June and desperate for men decided to appeal to the Makhnovista for an alliance. There response was simple and direct, they decided to immediately execute his delegate and publish both his letter and a response in "The Road to Freedom" [9]. Of course even this did not stop the Bolsheviks later claiming such an alliance existed!!

In July and August the Makhnovista went on the offensive, raiding the Bolsheviks in three provinces and attacking the Red Army infrastructure but Wrangel again began an offensive in September, driving the Red Army back, although on the 24th Kamenev was still declaring the need for "the final liquidation of the Makhno band" [10] by the 29th the Ukrainian Politburo was responding positively to Makhnovista overtures for a new alliance against the whites.

The end, October 1920 - August 1921

So by October 1920 the success of the Wrangel offensive was again forcing the Bolsheviks and Makhnovista to put aside their differences and take on the common enemy. This decision required some argument on the Makhniovist side, some of the insurgent staff saw the Reds as a bigger threat. But a deal was reached and on October 2nd, Frunze, the new Red Army commander of the Southern Front ordered a cessation of hostilities against the Makhnovists [11]. A statement from the Soviet of the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Ukraine (Makhnovists) explained the treat as necessitated by the white offensive but also representing a victory over the "high handed communists and commissars" in forcing them to recognise the "free insurrection".

Sometime between the 10 and 15 October the final agreement was signed which is reproduced in full below

Section 1. Political Agreement.

1. All Makhnovists and anarchists are to be freed immediately.

2. There is to be the fullest freedom of agitation and propaganda both of speech and press for Makhnovist and anarchist ideas and attitudes, excepting appeals for the violent overthrow of the Soviet government, and on condition of respecting the military censorship.

3. There is to be free participation in election to the Soviets . .

Section 2. Military Agreement.

1. The Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine (Makhnovists) is to become part of the armed forces of the republic, as a partisan army operationally subordinate to the high command of the Red Army. It will keep its established internal structure, and will not adopt the bases or principles of regular Red units.

2. The Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine (Makhnovists), when advancing through Soviet territory or on crossing a front, is not to accept into its ranks any Red Army detachment, or deserters therefrom . . .

3. The Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine (Makhnovists) shall inform the toiling masses which follow it of this agreement, and shall request the cessation of military actions against the Soviet authorities. To expedite the successful realisation of common aims, the Soviet government is to publish this agreement at once.

4. The families of combatants belonging to the Makhnovist . . . Army now residing on Soviet territory shall enjoy the same privileges as the families of Red soldiers ....

Fourth Clause of the Political Agreement.

In view of the fact that one of the main activities of the Makhnovist movement is the struggle for the self-administration of the toilers in their localities, the Makhnovist Army puts forward a fourth clause of the political agreement, as follows: 'The local worker and peasant population, shall be free, in the area of operations of the Makhnovist Army, to organise free institutions of economic and political self-administration, as also their autonomous and federative links - by agreement - with the State organs of the Soviet Republic' [12].

The agreement is highly significant as in itself it disproves many of the Bolsheviks slanders about the Makhnovista and it proves the suppression of the anarchist press to have been on political grounds. The Fourth clause is the cause of Lenin and Trotsky's toying with the idea of allowing the Makhnovista the south-eastern Ukraine as an anarchist experiment.

Bolshevik propaganda poster equating Makhno with the whites

Bolshevik poster equating Makhno (left) with the whites

Even before the agreement came into effect the Makhnovista were fighting alongside the Bolsheviks and between October 4 and 17 Hulyai Pole was retaken by the Olexandrivske which included 10,000 Makhnovista. On October 22 Olexandrivske was taken with 4,000 white prisoners and from then to the early November the Makhnovista cut through Wrangels rear, hoping to cut off his retreat by seizing the Crimean passes. The whites fought a skilful rearguard which together with the new white fortifications on the peninsula held up the advance. But by the 11th, his hold in the Crimea gone Wrangel had no choice but to order a general retreat to the ports and a evacuation. Even the Bolsheviks had to acknowledge that "The Makhnovist units fulfilled their military tasks with no less heroism then the Red Army units" [13].

On hearing this success on 16 November the reaction of the Makhnovista still at Hulyai Pole was cynical but realistic, "It's the end of the agreement. I'll bet you anything that the Bolsheviks will be on us within the week" [14]. They were not wrong, already Frunze, the Red Army commander had ordered two entire cavalry armies to concentrate near Hulyai Pole at the same time as he ordered the Makhnovista forces to the Caucasus Front! By 24 November Frunze was preparing for the treachery to come, in order 00149 which was not sent to the Makhnovista units saying if they had not departed to the Caucasus front by the 26th "the Red regiments of the front, who have now finished with Wrangel, will start speaking a different language to these Makhnovist youths" [15].

Of course this treachery went right to the top, just before the 26th 'deadline' (which Makhno not having seen the orders was unaware of) Lenin urged Rakovski, head of the Ukrainian government to "keep a close watch on all anarchist and prepare documents of a criminal nature as soon as possible, on the basis of which charges can be preferred against them" [16]. Indeed it later appeared the treachery had been prepared from at least 14 or 16 November as prisoners captured later stated they had received undated anti-Makhnovist proclamations on that date [17].

At 3am on the 26th the attacks on the Makhnovista started, alongside this one of the Makhnovista commanders was lured to a meeting by the Bolsheviks, seized and shot. Often the Makhnovista forces managed to break through the encircling Bolsheviks but only after taking heavy losses, of the 2000 - 4000 cavalry at Simferopol only 250 escaped. By the 1st December Rakovsi reported the imminent demise of the Makhnovists to the Kharkiv soviet only to have to eat his words when Makhno routed the 42 division on the 6th, retaking Hulyai Pole and 6000 prisoners of whom 2000 joined his forces [18].

Frunze brought in extra forces and on 6th December ordered "In addition to the annihilation of the Makhnovists, the bandit infested region is to be totally disarmed..."19. Plagued by desertions it was also ordered that all Makhnovist prisoners were to be shot for even in the Azov acts of sabotage were being carried out by sailors to prevent their deployment against the Makhnovista. By mid-December Frunze was deploying further cavalry units, and "specially chosen air detachments" to pursue Makhno. All this pressure was paying off because although Makhno repeatedly broke through encirclements and picked up deserters from the Red Army his forces were being eroded by the far greater numbers employed against them.

Makhno was forced to leave his home areas of operations and flee east, then west again, by early January his forces had been fought 24 battles in 24 days. This pattern continued throughout March and April into May. In June the Bolsheviks changed their strategy to one of predicting where Makhno was heading and garrisoning troops in that area, in one battle on 15 June Frunze himself was almost captured. Despite this the insurgents were very weak and their peasant base was exhausted by years of war and civil war. In the most sympathetic areas Red Army troops were garrisoned on the peasants. This and the summer drought caused Nestor to give up the struggle in mid August and instead fighting his way to the Dniester with the last of his forces and crossing into Romania on August 26. Some of his forces which stayed behind were still active for a short time, in November 1921 the Cheka seized 20 machine guns and 2,833 rifles in the new Zaporizhya province alone.

Constructive section

The Makhnovista was a mass movement, despite the choas brought on by the Civil war and the constant need to fight the nationalists, the whites or the Red Army its constructive efforts showed that there was an alternative route the Russian revolution could have followed other then the authoritarian dictatorship that Leninists then and now claimed was inevitable if the revolution was to be saved.

Military Organisation

The Makhnovista offered a complete different model of military organisation to that of the Red Army.

Early in 1918, after the signing of the Brest Livitosk Treaty the Bolsheviks re-introduced Czarist officers into the army alongside bourgeois military discipline. The death penalty for disobedience under fire was reintroduced, as was saluting officers, special forms of address, separate living quarters and privileges for officers. Officers were appointed rather then elected. They argued this had to be done to win the war. In response to anarchist criticism Trotsky went so far to say "The elective basis is politically pointless and technically in expedient and has already been set aside by decree" [20].

In 1936 the Leninist Communist Party in Spain was to make very similar arguments about the need for regular army discipline to win the war. Aileen O'Carroll in her essay "Freedom and Revolution" argues that "The conventional army structure evolved when feudal kings or capitalist governments required the working class to fight its wars for them. These had to be authoritarian institutions, because although propaganda and jingoism can play a part initially in encouraging enlistment, the horrors of war soon expose the futility of nationalism. A large part of military organisation is aimed at ensuring that soldiers remain fighting for causes they do not necessarily believe in. Military discipline attempts to create an unthinking, unquestioning body of soldiers, as fearful of their own side as of the other. [21]"

In short in both Russia and Spain the Bolsheviks wanted an army that would obey them regardless of whether the individual soldiers felt they were doing the correct thing, indeed whom would obey through fear of their officers even when they knew what they were doing was wrong.

The Makhnovista army was not by any means a perfect model of anarchist military organisation, indeed it can be argued that there can be no perfect model as all military organisation requires some sort of compromise with anarchist principles But in contrast to the Bolsheviks the following can be said of it

1. None of the well known Makhnovista commanders came from the ranks of Tsarist officers except Lashkevich who had been an ensign [22]. The Makhnovista army was thus proletarian in nature at all levels whereas the Red Army was commanded by members of the middle and ruling class.

2. The commanders were essentially chosen by their units, this was often not by formal election but rather were chosen informally by the bands of partisans they joined up with. Voline says "...all army unit commanders, including the staff..were either elected or accepted without reservation [23]". Even the Bolsheviks sometimes implicitly acknowledged this for instance "These (Makhnovist) treacherous military tactics and the particular composition of the army need a completely trusted, cunning, experienced and courageous commander, and such were the Makhnovists" [24].

3. The organisation of the army was elastic and innovative, units merged and split as needed and for the Makhnovista used the equivalent of motorised infantry for the first time by carrying the infantry in light horse drawn carts. This often enabled them to cover incredible amount of ground as in the final offensive in 1921 against Wrangel.

4. Whereas the Red Army seized food from the Peasants and alienated them the Makhnovista worked in co-operation with the local Peasants, as Makhno explains there system "I asked the assembled population to say openly where the Kulaks (rich farmers) as to get hold of two or three sheep to make a soup for the insurgents. The peasants would bring some bread to go with the soup, and thus the insurgents would be fed. [25]" The Red Armies actions meant they acted as a recruitment agent for the whites, the Makhnovista had to rely on the peasants for support and indeed when the peasants became exhausted in 1921 this was part of the reason they were then forced into exile.

5. For the most part the Makhnovista army unlike all others was a volunteer army although attempts were made to mobilise all those born between 1889 and 1898 after the third congress. This congress told them to assemble at certain points, organise themselves and elect their officers but this mobilisation never took place [26]. Indeed throughout the period unlike all the other armies the Makhnovista were short of weapons and not volunteers.

6. Most importantly the army was answerable to the local Soviets and to the congresses of soviets.

Makhno with army council

Makhno with the army staff

Social Organisation

The methods advocated by the leading Makhnovista for social organisation and decision making was the 'Freetoilers Soviet of peasant and worker organisations'. This meant they were to be independent of all central authority and composed of those who worked and not political parties. They were to federate on a local, then regional and then national level and power within the federation was to be horizontal and not vertical [27]. Such a system was in opposition to the Bolshevik practise of Soviets defined and dominated by political parties with a vertical decision making structure that reached its highest point in the Bolshevik Central Committee and the state.

This conflict is shown by the 1920 agreement in the Bolsheviks in which the Makhnovista looked for but the Bolsheviks never gave agreement to clause 4 reading "The local worker and peasant population, shall be free, in the area of operations of the Makhnovist Army, to organise free institutions of economic and political self-administration, as also their autonomous and federative links - by agreement - with the State organs of the Soviet Republic".

Indeed as one Bolshevik writer pointed out "The forth point was fundamental to both sides, it meant the system of free Soviets, which was in total opposition to the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat" [28]. Indeed the Makhnovista idea of free soviets was to be echoed in demands one and two of the Kronstadt revolt in 1921.

In practise the war left little room for the construction of such soviets apart from in the Spring of 1919 and briefly in October and November of 1920. Most of the actual activity happened in and around Hulyai Pole. Congress of Soviets were also successfully held on

A congress for the fourth of June 1919 never met because of the treacherous attack by the Red Army that preceded it, indeed four Makhnovista commanders were executed by the Red Army for advertising this congress. Likewise the congress in Olexandrivske in November 1920 was also prevented by the second Bolshevik betrayal.

The congress from 27 October to 2 November in Olexandrivske can serve as an example of how these functioned. One delegate was to be elected per 3000 people and one delegate per Red Army unit (at the time the Makhnovista were again part of the Red Army). This gave 270 mostly Peasant delegates, 6 of the 18 workers delegates who were Menshivks walked out when the Congress supported the concept of free soviets.

The congress passed a number of resolutions, concentrating on the care of the wounded and the poorest part of the population, a voluntary mobilisation, voluntary peasant contributions to feed the army, forced levies on the Bourgeoisie. The congress also discusses the thorny problem of the Kontrrazvedka, the Makhnovista 'secret police', which shows that unlike the Bolshevik soviets which avoided discussing the Cheka or similar 'sensitive' issues [29].

Outside of the congresses the work of local Soviets was to be co-ordinated through the Revolutionary Military Soviet (RVS), the first RVS was set up by the 2nd congress and consisted of one delegate for each of the 32 volsts the Makhnovista had liberated. The RVS was to be answerable to the congresses and limited to implementing their decisions but the difficult military situation meant this seldom happened. When it did (the 3rd Congress) the Congress had no problems with its actions in the previous period. After the Olexandrivske congress the RVS consisted of 22 delegates including three known Bolsheviks and four know Makhnovista, the Bolsheviks considered the remaining delegates "anarchists or anarchist sympathisers".

The military chaos of 1920 saw the RVS dissolved and replaced by the Soviet of Revolutionary Insurgents of the Ukraine, which consisted of seven members elected by the insurgent army. Its secretary was a left Socialist Revolutionary. The RVS's in addition to making decisions between Congresses carried out propaganda work including the editing of the Makhnovista paper 'The road to Freedom' and collected and distributed money.

The Communes

Despite the difficult military situation communes were established principally near Hulyai Pole in the Autumn of 1917 and continued in the February to March period of 1918. They re-appeared in early 1919. There were four of these communes within five miles of Hulyai Pole and many more further afield. These communes consisted of around 10 families or 100 to 300 people and although each had Peasant anarchist members not all the members were anarchists.

They were set up on the former estates of Landlords, the number 1 commune which Makhno worked on was on the estate of Klassen. When re-founded in 1919 this commune was named after Rosa Luxemburg the Marxist revolutionary who had recently been murdered in the German revolution. By the spring sowing it had 285 members working 340 acres of land. [30] The communes represented a way that poor and middle peasants could pool capital to work estates that they could not have worked otherwise.

The cities

The Makhnovista only liberated two cities for a brief period, Olexandrivske for four weeks and Katerynoslav for one week and later five weeks. As a rule the rank and file they had little or no experience of life in the cities and this placed severe limits on their ability to understand the specific problems of the workers there. In addition in the cities the Bolsheviks had more support then they did. Finally the lack of established anarchist influence in the cities meant the workers were generally not prepared to repeat the successful experiments of Petrograd and Moscow of direct exchange with the peasantry.

In Olexandrivsk they held two initial conferences and urged the workers to restart production under their own self-management and to open up direct exchange with the peasantry. The workers however looked to the Makhnovista to pay them wages, including back pay for the period under the whites. Makhno responded in the case of the rail workers that they get the trains running and change sufficient tariffs to generate their wages. However he exempted military traffic from this tariff which was of course unpopular as most of the traffic was military.

Despite these problems some trains were got running and a few factories reopened. However the problems were multiplied by the Olexandrivske congress when the unions only sent observers, 1/3 of whom walked out after Makhno called them "lapdogs of the bourgeoise". After the congress 18 plant committees stated that they and their unions would disclaim all connection with the congress. Makhno responded by calling those delegates who had walked out "thieves and cowards". At this stage the Makhnovista left Olexandrivske in the face of Red Army assaults.

Katerynoslav saw some minor successes, the tobacco workers won a collective agreement that had long been refused, the bakery workers where importantly there was an anarcho-syndicalist influence undertook the socialisation of the industry, drawing up plans to feed

Money and Finance

One of the major problems in the south east Ukraine was that each invading army introduced its own currency and refused to recognise the preceding currency. Although the Peasantry was mostly self-sufficient the workers of the city were badly effected by this. Alongside this each of these currencies suffered massive inflation through the Civil War. The transport system was also in chaos so barter did not offer much of a remedy.

The Makhnovista wished to abolish money but in the short term they tried to deal with this problem by declaring all currencies legal tender. The Makhnovista confiscated all currencies from the Bourgeoise and the banks and tried to alleviate the suffering in the cities by distributing this currency. It is estimated that in the month they occupied the city of Katerynoslav they distributed between 3 and 10 million roubles which would have been enough to feed up to 13,000 families for a month. The main recipients were poor local people, released prisoners and the families of Red Army men. Alongside this the Makhnovista distributed large quantities of flour, salt and sausage they had confiscated.

The Peasants

The Bolsheviks as Marxists saw the Peasants as petit bourgeoise and uninterested in the revolution except as a means to grab their own plot of land. Their idea of land collectivisation was limited to state ownership. The Bolshevik land strategy can be summed up as mobilising the poor peasantry (the poorest 40%) against the rest on the one hand, and mobilising the city worker against the Peasants (through forced grain confiscation on the other). Here as elsewhere the Bolsheviks claimed this strategy was the objectively necessary (only possible) one in the circumstances. And here again the Makhnovista demonstrate this to be a lie.

Malet estimates that in 1917 you could divide the Peasantry into three broad categories as follows

In 1917 the Hulyai Pole peasants were amongst the first to seize landlords land. Most of this was either distributed to poor peasants or used to set up communes where the peasants themselves and not the state self-managed the land. This redistribution, initiated by Makhno was responsible for the armies later popularity and its ability to depend on the Peasants for food etc. But this system also did not seek to divide the village, instead even the Kulak and landlord was entitled to as much land as they and their family could work. The abolition of wage labour in the countryside was also the method the anarchists were to use in Spain to divide up the land some 20 years later.

This last fact was the basis for Bolshevik accusations that the Makhnovista were based on the Kulaks but it is quite obvious that this 20% of the population could not have sustained the Makhnovista army from 1918 to 1921. The Makhnovista strategy has been called the united village theory, and their idea, again as in Spain 20 years later, was that the Kulaks would in time be won over. As they put it, "The toiling peasantry will itself turn effortlessly on the Kulaks, firstly by adopting the Kulaks surplus land for general use, then naturally drawing the Kulak elements into the social organisation" [32].

The widespread support for the Makhnovista can be explained by several factors,

Firstly and most importantly rather then attempt to tell the Peasants what to do and how to divide the land they advocated the formation of Free Soviets through which these decision could be made

Secondly they distributed some of the property they confiscated from the bourgeoise amongst the peasantry

Thirdly they arranged the arranged direct exchanges of goods between the towns and country as in early 1918 when corn was shipped directly to a Moscow factory in return for textiles without state interference. In 1919 1500 tons of grain was sent by train to Petrograd and Moscow where the commander of the train was to exchange it again for textiles.

They established self-managed communes (see commune section)


Weren't the Makhnovista just Kulaks (Rich Peasants)

This is one of the favourite accusations of the Bolsheviks but it fails to stand up to any scrutiny. The following points contradicts it

1. The movement could not have survived four years if just 20% of the population supported it

2. Up to June 1919 Makhnovista land policy emphasised and equal share for the poorest peasantry, not just of land but also of live and dead stock

3. All sources accept that in the autumn of 1919 at least Makhnos support was overwhelming and came from all sections of the population [33].

4. If Makhnos base was as weak as claimed there would have been no need for the Bolsheviks to enter into alliances with him, particularly in the Autumn of 1920 when the Makhnovista held no significant liberated area.

5. Even after the defeat of Wrangel and the subsequent Bolshevik betrayal Makhnos mass base allowed him to remain active for months.

6. Even Trotsky, (himself the son of a rich peasant!) lets the cat out of the bag when he said that "The liquidation of Makhno does not mean the end of the Makhnovschyna, which has its roots in the ignorant popular masses" [34].

7. The main Makhnovista had the following occupations [35]

More on the Russian Revolution


Unless otherwise stated references are to Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War by Mike Malet

1 page 5
2 page 17
3 page 23
4 page 26
5 page 30
6 Anatov-Ovseyenko, Vol 4, pp. 113 - 14, cited in Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War
7 page 49
8 page 54
9 page 60
10 Korolivsky, S. M. (ed.), Grazhdanskaya Voina na Ukraine 1918-20, Vol. 3, p. 522, cited in Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War
11 page 64
12 Arshinov, Istoriya, pp. 171-3, cited in Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War
13 Teper, I. Makhno (Kharkiv, 1924), p. 113, cited in Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War
14 Arshinov, Istoriya, p. 180, cited in Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War
15 Frunze, Izbrannie, Vol 1., p. 427 , cited in Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War
16 Gruppa, p. 24, cited in Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War
17 page 71
18 page 72
19 Frunze, Izbrannie, Vol 1., p. 433 , cited in Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War
20 Leon Trotsky, Work, Discipline, Order, pp171-172
21 Aileen O' Carroll, Red & Black Revolution 1. also at
22 page 93
23 Volin, The Unknown Revolution, page 110.
24 Kubanin, M., Makhnovschina (Leningrad, 1927), p. 175 quoted in Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War
25 Makhno, n., Ukrainskaya Revoliutsiya, Memoirs, vol. 1 (Paris 1929), p. 74 , quoted in Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War
26 pager 105
27 page 107
28 Kubanin, M., Makhnovschina (Leningrad, 1927),pp. 158-9, quoted in Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War
29 page 110
30 page 121
31 page 117
32 Kubanin, M., Makhnovschina (Leningrad, 1927),pp. 113, quoted in Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War
33 page 119
34 Trotski, Kak Vooruzhalas Revoliutsiya (Moscow 1923-5). Vol. 2, pt.1, p.207, quoted in Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War
35 page 122