In which things escalate as usual, only moreso. The Free Ukrainian Territory under Makhno is at the high point of its power during the Russian Civil War, we meet pedant and war-criminal extraordinaire Trotsky, and explore the Red and Black armies teaming up to defeat the White army under Denikin.
This is part five of a seven part series on the Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Ivanovich Makhno. If you want to get some context from the time of Catherine the Great (and her en-serfment policies), the dissolution of the Hetmanate and Crimean Khanate and Pugachev's uprising against Catherine the Great, click here. Or if you like to live dangerously, and fly without instruments or context, continue on ahead without clicking a single link. I dare you.
For a brief history of the Russia Civil War through music click here.
For my previous work on the callous and comically incompetent reign of Alexander Kolchak during the Russian Civil War in Siberia click here.
For the episode where we discuss Nestor's troubled childhood, the Mennonites and whacky assassination antics, click here.
For the episode where we talk about Nestor's return to Ukraine from a Moscow prison and his organizing in his hometown click here.
For the previous episode covering the horrors of 1918 (along with Makhno's long picaresque journey to Moscow, his daring return and all that I couldn't condense into a fifteen minute talk) click here.
Sources (and things I couldn't fit into the episode)
- Grigoriev's Execution:
Makhno describes Grigoriev's execution as follows in his essay "The Makhnovschina and Anti-Semitism" (1927). Found in The Struggle Against the State and Other Essays.
"Upon learning all this [that Grigoriev had planned executed anti-semitic atrocities throughout Ukraine] I promptly declared Grigoriev, the ataman of Kherson--a Socialist Revolutionary--a Denikinist agent and open pogromist, directly culpable for the actions of his supporters against the Jews.
At the Sentovo meeting on 27 July 1919, Grigoriev was denounced for what he was and executed on the spot for all to see. The execution and reasons for it were announced thus: 'The pogromist Grigoriev has been executed by Makhnovist leaders: Batko Makhno, Semyon Karetnik and Alexist Chubenko. The Makhnovist movement accepts fulls responsibility before History for this action.' That declaration was endorsed by the members of the Soviet Insurgent Army and the Socialist Revolutionary Party members present, including Nikolai Kopornitsky...this was the sort of treatment I always reserved for those who had carried out pogroms or were in the throes of preparing them."
Makhno prefaces this by saying that he believed that Grigoriev was attracted to the Makhnovists because he thought that he could get carte blanche to launch pogroms. Makhno initially accepted the Red Cossack leader's defection, but then sent people to corroborate Grigoriev's claims--and found out about the ataman's horrifying record. Makhno (writing in 1927) claims he suspected that on top of this, Grigoriev was suspected of harboring Denikinist tendencies and was plotting a betrayal of his own, so Makhno beat him to it.
Some sources have Agafya Kuzmenko (Makhno's wife and no stranger the casual violence of the Russian Civil War) executing Gregoriev, other sources say another officer pulled the trigger. In any case, it hardly matters who killed him.
Accusations of anti-semitism would dog the Black Army--though there is no evidence that Makhno approved of or ordered such atrocities. Makhno made a firm point of shooting pogromists on sight, but one of the Black Army's weaknesses was that its troops often operated without orders, and sometimes were drunk. It got so bad that in 1918 Makhno attempted to ban alcohol of any kind to active-duty troops. The high bleed-rate between bandit-groups, armies and peasants looking to settle old grudges or simply act out their worst impulses makes establishing claims of anti-semitism in the Black Army hard to source, but we can be certain that Makhno was not an anti-semite, and didn't tolerate them in his army.
Certainly the higher levels of the army were against it and carried out aggressive sentences against anyone committing such crimes ("immediately shot"), correctly viewing it as against the anarchist principle of solidarity and revolutionary justice. Still, the Bolsheviks certainly encouraged these rumors of anti-semitism as a propaganda weapon against Makhno, to the point where he wrote two stinging rebuttals while in Paris, naming all the people he had executed for the crime he was accused of and naming Bolshevik troops who engaged in pogroms.
2. The Eichenfeld Massacre ( November,1919)
Patterson dedicates a whole chapter of Makhno and Memory to the Eichenfeld Massacre. He goes into great length describing his sources (Mennonite, Makhnovist, Red Army, Ukrainian peasants) and their interpretations of the events that left over seventy dead. This is best summed up by Patterson:
"On the night of Saturday, 8 November 1919, a squadron of Makhnovist cavalry surrounded the Mennonite village of Eichenfeld in the Jasykowo colony. The village was blocked off at both ends and a massacre ensued. By the time the riders left, seventy-five Mennonites lay dead, numerous women had been raped, houses were burned to the ground and cartloads of personal belongings were stolen. On Tuesday, the survivors that had fled for safety returned to Eichenfeld to bury their loved ones in twelve unmarked mass graves. The terror continued over the following week, with the death toll rising to 136 over the surrounding area."
This incident has prominence in Mennonite oral and written sources, with some placing Makhno at the scene of the massacre (we know from his own papers he wasn't). However, the incident looms large in Mennonite collective memory, and is a sample of the sort of violence that was common in the Russian Civil War. The evidence suggests that the Ukrainian peasants joined the Maknovists in the sack of Eichenfeld (remember how tensions between the land-rich Mennonite colonies and the land-poor Ukrainians had been building even before the fall of the Russian empire, and in the context of the civil war, many people took the opportunity to try and slaughter their neighbors by throwing in with whatever army was passing through to benefit themselves).
There is some discussion that the Mennonites own practices provoked the attack, and some that minimize the role of the selbschutzen. Regardless of the reason for the attack, it was an atrocity. Terror for terror's sake was horrifying common during the Russian Civil War. Makhno is remarkable in that he attempted to curb terror's use and impose a moral system of revolutionary justice over it, a venture he ultimately failed in. Other leaders, like Lenin, Trotsky and Denikin, leaned into and proscribed it--Makhno tried to stop it.
There are more sources on this online, but I'll leave this section with another summarizing quote from Patterson (which references the Silbertal massacre from last episode).
"Makhno's alleged incident with Shchus illustrates this. Shchus was guilty of executing unarmed Germans, which according to Makhno's policy, should have led to Shchus's expulsion from the movement. Makhno went further and threatened Shchus with execution. In the account, we see a confrontation between Shchus's terrorism and Makhno's attempt to uphold some sort of guiding ethical code. Terror was victorious in the end as Makhno did not follow through with his threat. Amidst the contingencies of the civil war, could Makhno have afforded to execute a commander second in popularity only to himself? Regardless, justice for the colonists [at Silbertal and Eichenfeld] was absent and would be increasingly so as the civil war progressed.
While there is no clear evidence Makhno participated in or directly sanctioned the massacres in 1919, his movement's behavior was increasingly terroristic. Particularly the activities of the kontrrazvedka [counter-intelligence] coupled with Makhno's public declaration of war against the bourgeoisie helped inflame existing tensions between peasants, Makhnovists and Mennonites. At the height of Makhnovist power in fall 1919, local peasant bands joined the Makhnovists to employ terror in pursuit of their own form of retribution. Embittered by land hunger and mindful of the colonists's collaboration with the Austro-German occupation, these groups vented their rage...in an inversion of the original revolutionary impulse for justice, terror now became an end in itself, with the rhetoric of justice a convenient handmaiden for the pursuit of wholesale slaughter."
3. Leon Trotsky is just the worst
Major thanks to the Russian Rulers and History Podcast for their excellent work on Trotsky (here, here and here). It is from his work that I got the tidbit about Trotsky being a lousy tipper from his time in exile in America. The podcast also notes that Trotsky foresaw the 'one-party-rule' system of Bolshevism, and threw his weight behind it rather than any morally or philosophically consistent system of communism.
I also drew on Isaac Deutscher's research on Trotsky (The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921) for more on Trotsky's attitudes towards power. One note in particular stands out:
"Carried away by his desire to justify his desire to justify the measures he sponsored, he, the rebel par excellence, the expounder of permanent revolution, came very near to talking like an apologist for past systems of coercion and exploitation."
TL;DR: Trotksy was more than ok with autocracy as so long as he and his party were the ones doing the oppressing, as seen by his formation of the Red Army, rampant use of terror via the Cheka and war-communism. We will examine this more in-depth in our discussion of the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921.
The second volume of Deutscher's work contains direct quotes from his time observing the Makhnovists and can be found online here.
You can all but smell Trotsky's panic in the following passages as he equates Makhno with the executed Red Army cossack (and pogromist) Gri
goriev, and (richly) accuses the Makhnovites of being formed around a cult of personality. For Trotsky, all things that aren't stringently Bolshevik/Leninist (and thus beholden to him) are threats, illegitimate and kulaks. And the Bolsheviks would NEVER stoop so low as to have a cult of personality (cough cough Lenin).
4. Whatever happened to Maria Nikiforova?
The best source on Maria Nikiforova is Malcolm Archibald's Atamansha: The Story of Maria Nikiforova--the Anarchist Joan of Arc.
She survived a second show trial (with the same recycled charges) by the Bolsheviks in Moscow. This was remarkable in and of itself--most people didn't survive one, let alone a second, and even the Chekhists, according to Archibald, had some doubts about touching a heroine of the revolution. Her sentence was to be off the front lines for 6 months, which she talked down to 3. When Trotsky declared Makhno an outlaw in June of 1919, Maryusa decided to cut off the heads of the various snakes threatening the anarchist movement. That is to say, terror and assassination.
But she'd money for that first. Killing well-connected people ain't cheap. So she got it in her own typically dramatic fashion--Archibald has an excellent quote about this:
"Meeting Makhno in his railway car, she demanded money for her terrorist activities. Makhno cursed and pulled out a revolver.
He was too slow. Maryusa already had her gun out. After an acrimonious discussion, Makhno gave her 250,000 rubles from his treasury and told her to get lost."
Man, nobody fundraises like Maria Nikiforova. Never one to stand around, Maria Nikiforova divided her druhzhina into three sections with the following objectives, according to Archibald:
1) Go to Siberia and blow up the headquarters of Alexander Kolchak (they just missed him, and the squad was absorbed into the Siberian anti-White army partisans).
2) Go to Kharkov to free Makhnovist prisoners and blow up the Cheka headquarters there. Unfortunately, the Bolsheviks had already killed the prisoners and abandoned the city so the group went onto Moscow and succeeded in killing 12 high-ranking Bolsheviks and injuring 55 more. They were hunted down by Chekhists, but rather than surrender, blew themselves up taking several Chekhists with them.
3) The third group, with Nikiforova and her husband, went to Denikin's headquarters in the Crimea with the express goal of blowing him straight out of the planet's atmosphere. This, sadly, did not succeed, and Maria Nikiforova was recognized by chance on the street, captured and executed.
Bad luck, really.
Maryusa's name was still respected and feared even after death--according to Archibald, three separate women impersonated Maria Nikiforova after execution to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies.
Speaking of Denikin (do we have to?)
5. Denikin is only barely worse than Trotsky
I mean, that bar was set really, really low for that. Pogromist extraordinaire and a mediocre general, Denikin in many ways embodied the worst of the Russian Imperial military class (you know, besides Kolchak, who we've already discussed). Anyone who's rallying cry is "Save Russia, beat the Jews!" deserves every single bad thing that happens to them and worse.
According to Makhno's papers, the Makhnovists held off Denikin's initial foray into the Ukraine for about six months before being forced to ally with the Red Army to drive him out. Denikin was routed by their combined forces and was forced into exile, ultimately ending up in France.
But the crazy thing, to me at least, as that he and Makhno were in France at the same time (1926 onwards). He fled when Paris fell to the Nazis, and ended up 'helping' the Allies.
I admit, it would have been a nice turn of fate for him to take a wrong turn down a Paris street any time before 1934 and run into Nestor Makhno, who lived there with his family. Makhno would have immediately shot him (as was his practice with anti-semites and White Army officers), and the world would have been a cleaner place for it.
Again, another stain on the Allies war record is not imprisoning or executing Denikin for his well-documented crimes during the Russian Civil War. Worse still was the results of Operation Keelhaul, where America and the Allies disregarded Denikin's one good idea ( namely: don't repatriate Russian/Slavic POWs/political prisoners back to their home countries. Thanks to Stalin's orders during WW2, all who were captured were considered traitors and at best would be sent to gulags, at worst, executed).
Denikin was allowed to immigrate to America, lived in New York for a time, and died in 1947 outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. He lived too long, and did infinitely more bad than good in the scope of his life. According to Wikipedia, Putin has drawn on Denikin's work on the Russian Civil War to help justify his invasion of Ukraine, stating: "He [Denikin] says nobody should be allowed to interfere between us. This is only Russia's right."
There was no upside to Anton Denikin. He was a vile little turd and the world was worse-off for him having drawn breath.
*In this episode, I make a serious mistake in the video and timeline. Due to my excitement and haste in making this series, I took feverish notes and didn't triple check them when recording. As a result, I made the mistake of transposing Makhno's greatest victory (over Denikist general Slaschev at Peregonovka in 1919 after a long retreat, then dramatically rolling back White Army gains in a matter of days in a masterstroke that stopped Denikin's troops from reaching Moscow) to 1920 and against Wrangel. I incorrectly state that Makhno was instrumental to defeating Wrangel's push towards Moscow--when Wrangel was damage control and largely active in the center of Ukraine and Crimea a year later. The lesson is this: when recording, always have a primary or good secondary source to hand! Your own notes cannot be trusted!
If you missed the Q&A, never fear! The video is right here!