In which we examine Nestor's roller-coaster year from exile to ascendancy in Ukraine. Along the way he rubs shoulders with notables, heroically restrains himself from murdering Lenin in a work-meeting, high-fives Kropotkin and also dresses in women's clothes to spy on his enemies.
This is part four 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 previous episode, where we talk about Nestor's return to Ukraine from a Moscow prison and his organizing in his hometown click here.
While we are talking about sources, as usual, we're going to discuss at least briefly about all the interesting things I couldn't afford to fit into the video. The source for this comes from Makhno's own writings on the year of 1918 (February-July). It's worth a read.
The battle with the Cossacks (and Maria Nikiforova's excoriation of them, post-fight) can be found in the first volume of Makhno's writings, as well as Archibald's work (the only one I'm aware of) on Maria Nikiforova.
Some things I couldn't include in the episode (but Makhno covers in his auto-biography's second volume) are listed below. Most of these things happened in between the sentence where I say "Makhno went to Moscow"--there is a lot I didn't have time to go into, and as a result the episode understandably tilts to Makhno's activities after his return to Ukraine and he begins fighting in earnest. Let's begin the picaresque.
- Makhno's Nervous Breakdown Makhno was a high strung man--passionate, idealistic. When he got the telegram that Huliapolye had fallen, he entered into a fugue state. He recounts that he had no memory of receiving the bad news--member of the Red Guard troops he was with had to remind him later. Makhno collapsed in the train-station, swearing, and sobbed into a Red Army trooper's lap for quite a bit of time. This was something that happened to Makhno in periods of acute distress--recall his reaction, last episode, upon seeing one his tormentors walking down the street without a care in the world. Makhno staggered away and had a mild fit, agonized over his breakdown--while wondering if he should shoot his tormentor like a dog in the street (though he decided against it).
More notably, Patterson quotes from Makho's own work later in the war, when undercover, he stumbles across a selbschutz (Mennonite 'self-defense' squad). Makhno and his friends ask the Mennonites if they had anything to do with the razing and pillaging of a local village, the smoke from which was still visible. The selbschutz happily admit to it, and Makhno storms off to a nearby hill, overlooking the devastated village. To paraphrase Makhno "...quite unconsciously I pulled out my revolver and placed it against my forehead." Makhno couldn't reconcile the devastation he was seeing with his vision of equality, even though his forces hadn't been responsible for this particular incident. The lack of remorse on the part of this particular selbschutzen detail doubtless rankled him. This callousness hardened his heart somewhat, and Makhno went back down the hill, ordered his men to arrest the selbschutzen and promptly executed them on the spot. This occurred after his return from Moscow.
2. Maria Nikiforova’s ‘show-trial’—in Taganrog. While Makhno was still reeling from the bad news about Huliapolye, he fell in with Maria Nikiforova at Taganrog. Maria Nikiforova was arrested before Makhno’s eyes by people nominally on her side, i.e. the Bolsheviks. When she asked her arresting officer, a man she knew personally, why she was being taken into custody he said ‘I don’t know’. It was clear to everyone involved at this time that the Bolsheviks were trying to smear Nikiforova by accusing her of "pillaging"--a vague and nebulous term that could mean anything. Letters of support turned what the Bolsheviks had hoped would be a short show-trial followed by Nikiforova's execution into an actual trial. An officer in the Red Army with seniority, Ovseyenko, wrote a glowing recommendation of Nikiforova, saying:
"The detachment of the anarchist Maria Nikiforova, as well as Maria Nikforova herself, are well known to me. Instead of concerning yourself with disarming such military units, I would advise you to concern yourself with creating them."
Worse, for the prosecution, Nikiforova's heavily armed band refused to integrate into the Red Army of the area--and threatened to spring their boss if the trial didn't result in exoneration. Makhno rallied and lobbied on her behalf in speech after speech, and an armored train full of anarchists came down as well to make it clear which side they were on. The trial was, remarkably, fair and impartial, and Nikiforova was exonerated on all-counts and re-armed. This did not stop the Bolsheviks from recycling the same charges to put Nikiforova on trial again later--which she also miraculously survived.
3. The Collapse of the Don Soviet Republic which Makhno witnessed firsthand. The Don Soviet Republic was a short-lived ephemeral state under the rulership of cossacks in the Red Army. However, they over-taxed and expropriated foodstores from the peasant population, making themselves unpopular with the common people and making themselves vulnerable to Austro-Hungarian forces and White Army Cossacks. Makhno describes the fall of Rostov on the Don rather laconically:
"A truly nightmarish scenario developed. When the evacuation [of Rostov] began, among the population especially the Cossack part of it (which was wavering between supporting the left-wing Reds or the right-wing Whites), sprang up gangs of robbers which were led by professional thieves who roamed about the country in those days, fishing in troubled waters. Pillaging grew with extraordinary rapidity and on a fantastic scale and it grew under the influence exclusively of the basest passions of thievery and revenge: revenge on those who welcomed the victory of the Counterrevolution and on those who habitually occupied a neutral position."
I've posted this image before on this blog, but it is worth restating how many ephemeral states and polities sprouted during the course of the Russian Civil War. There were anarchists states besides the Free Territory, a Union of Sailors and Builders, even an Emirate in the Northern Caucuses, not to mention a formidable Siberian independence movement that took forever to stifle. Some lasted a week, some months, others years.
Everything was in flux, is the point I'm trying to make here, and Makhno was skimming along the surface of stormy waters indeed.
4. Makhno nearly executed by ‘mistake’ in Tikhoretskaya. Leaving Rostov, Makhno came upon the city of Tikhoretskaya. Upon arriving he was immediately arrested by the local Red (Red in this context meant anyone who was politically left wing so someone who was calling themself Red could be an anarchist, a Left-SR, a Menshevik or Bolshevik etc.). Makhno thought that he and his companions were arrested (and due to be shot) as a joke at first. From his work:
"We went, and the authorities arrested us and politely informed us we were subject to be shot under martial law.
At first I thought the representative of the government was joking and I replied:
"It's nice that we're being shot under martial law, instead of the normal way..." But then I saw that they weren't joking. They assigned two armed cossacks to us, and those dunderheads, without standing on ceremony, began to discuss out loud how well dressed we were and that their only regret was that my clothes would be too small for them."
It turned out that no, it was not in fact a joke. Makhno immediately tried to talk his way out, showing his papers, the whole schmeer. Makhno and his companion are beaten with rifle butts, accused of being robbers and counter-revolutionaries and told to just shut up. Makhno got impatient, smacked one of his guards and in his words, "raised a ruckus" until the guards left the room. Only after prevailing to see the head of the Revkom (who wasn't pleased at this attempted railroading of innocent people) did Makhno and his party escape this nearly fatal misunderstanding. One line that particularly jumped out at me was before he was released, Makhno reflected: "It seemed as if this government [of Tikhoretskaya], like tsardom, was maintaining itself by whips and rifle butts." Indeed, this was typical of Bolshevik-governments--seeking any pretext to kill their political rivals even in the midst of fighting the White Army, but disguise it as 'suppressing counterrevolutionaries/bandits'.
5. Petrenko and Red Guards at Tsaritsyn. Makhno continues his picaresque journey through Ukraine. He comes upon the city of Tsaritsyn--and his old friend and Ukrainian partisan Petrenko, leading an army there. However, the government of Tsaritsyn isn't too jazzed about Petrenko having an army so close to them and order him to disarm. Petrenko refuses, and to make a long story short, the new government sent out Red Army troops to force Petrenko's compliance, something that makes Makhno furious. He writes:
"We Ukrainians were seized with horror. After retreating from Ukraine we hoped in Russia to encounter our free and independent fellow toilers who were embarked on a project of revolutionary construction. Instead we encountered political adventurers who approached us under the flag of socialism and promised us to help us rid ourselves of the centuries-old slavery. Everywhere we encountered a lie, and the orders and bullying of leaders who supported this lie."
Despite being outnumbered, Petrenko's Ukrainians defeat the Red Army but didn't capitalize on their victory--they just wanted this misunderstanding cleared up. Petrenko met the officials of Tsaritsyn, who promptly arrested and imprisoned him. His unit is broken up into constituent pieces and absorbed by the Red Army.
Makhno actually spends a fair amount of time advising Petrenko's troops on how to bust their leader out of jail--and to do it quickly, before the Bolsheviks come up with a reason to execute Petrenko. Makhno said that the way the jail is guarded a dozen or so men with pistols and grenades could take it. Petrenko's army was stalled by the Bolsheviks administrata--who assured Petrenko's people that he would be released, then had Petrenko charged as a counterrevolutionary. He was then executed by the Cheka.
Flags of truce and moments of negotiation, ironically, were particularly dangerous--they were often used as pretexts for assassinations or imprisonment. You were never safe, not really, during the Russian Civil War. A footnote in Makhno's writing adds to this tragedy:
"Indeed Makhno found himself in the same position as Petrenko in June 1919 [a year later] when Voroshilov, now occupying the dual positions of Narkom of Internal Affairs in the Ukrainian Soviet government and the commander of the 2nd Ukrainian Red Army, invited him to a meeting for "negotiations". Voroshilov was under orders from Trotsky to arrest Makhno, who undoubtedly would have been shot. Warned in advance by a Red intelligence officer, Makhno barely made his escape."
6. Makhno eventually reached Moscow via Astrakhan. He observed the widening rift between the Left SR's and the Bolsheviks--in fact, in July of 1918, in an attempt to restart a war with Germany (and thus make the Bolsheviks even more unpopular, a hefty feat indeed) the Left SRs assassinated the german ambassador in Moscow, Mirbach. He also finds time, as we discuss in the Q and A below, to drop in on his hero, Kropotkin.
7. Meeting with Lenin and Sverdlov in Moscow. Makhno wasn't a fan of most Russian cities, Moscow in particular--complaining that the anarchists he finds there aren't doing much by his estimation, and that one could hardly find bread unless one went into a back-alley and paid an exorbitant fee.
However, in this rootless time in his life, Makhno managed to secure an audience with Sverdlov and Lenin. While no corroborating documentation from Lenin or Sverdlov exists to confirm this meeting, Makhno records it. This has led some to doubt the veracity of the report, but I'm inclined to believe Makhno. Makhno saw everything through a revolutionary lens, and had little reason to lie about something like this--whereas Lenin and Sverdlov would have ample reason to conceal negotiations with a known anarchist, a political ideology they were trying to stamp out.
A really subtle way to tell whether Makhno thinks someone is an asshole is whether they use the phrase 'South Russia' instead of 'Ukraine'. Both Sverdlov and Lenin make this mistake. Makhno corrects them without getting outwardly angry, but it's a tense conversation--Makhno doesn't want to out himself as an anarchist (though he does) given the Bolshevik track record with them. However, he manages to achieve his goal.
Makhno convinces the two Bolshevik leaders to give him false papers to get back into Ukraine, with the aim of furthering revolution there. Remember, Ukraine is technically under the auspices of Austro-Hungary right now, so anything that the Bolsheviks can do to destabilize it (and from their point of view, eventually re-absorb it into the Russian empire) with minimal risk to themselves is something they'd sponsor.
Makhno would survive both of those two men, Sverdlov and Lenin. Sverdlov, as noted above, dies in 1919, and in August of 1918 Lenin is nearly assassinated by Fanny Kaplan after Lenin banned (and purged) the Left SR political party. Her bullets don't kill him outright--but they do incapacitate Lenin and leave him with serious health problems for the rest of his life, accelerating his death in 1924.
8. Makhno is outfitted with papers by Zatonsky (under Lenin's orders) to return to Ukraine. Makhno is outfitted with a false passport by Zatonsky of the Cheka and given transport to the Ukrainian border. This would be unremarkable in and of itself if it wasn't for the fact that Zatonsky would show up like a bad penny in Makhno's life nearly a year later. According to a footnote in Makhno's work:
"A year later, when Makhno had been declared an outlaw by the Soviet regime, Zatonsky entered his life again. Makhno was married to Galina Kuzmenko in her home village of Pischany Brod in July 1919, apparently at the insistence of her father. Later a punitive detachment led by Zatonsky arrived at the village and executed everyone connected with the wedding, including Makhno's father-in-law, the priest and several schoolteacher friends of Galina. A schoolboy who protested against the murder of his teacher was also executed. Galina's mother escaped death by jumping out a window in her home and hiding in bushes. Learning of this massacre, Makhno sent his deputy Fedir Shchus to deal with the situation. Shchus captured several members of the detachment still in the village and executed them but Zatonsky had already left the area. Later Zatonsky's detachment was liquidated in a clash with the Makhnovists but again Zatonsky survived."
Zatonsky escaped Makhno's wrath, but didn't escape Stalin's Great Purge and was executed by firing squad din 1938. Makhno made it over the border to Ukraine without incident--indeed, he was shocked at how easy it was to just walk on in. He made his way to Huliapolye through roundabout means.
9. Makhno’s reconnaissance habits. To quote the annotations to Makhno's work: "Throughout the Civil War Makhno was known to don disguises and carry out his own reconnaissance missions...His repertoire included female impersonations. This harks back to his membership in an amateur theatre group as a teenager."
After reading that, I'm having a really hard time not imagining Nestor Makhno adopting a Flatbrush accent and saying, "Nyeah, what's up doc?"
10.Letter to Kropotkin (1919). I will present this as Makhno wrote it in 1919 (I know, I'm jumping ahead a bit) as a closing bit of optimism, so rare in this whole distressing period of history. So I kept his typos in.
Dear Petr Alekseyevich!!!,,
Knowing the food supply in Russia and considering how this might affect your old bones, I talked things over with some of my comrades and we decided to send you a few pounds of victuals which we think you should have. Along with this I'm sending you several issues of our insurgent newspaper, "The Road to Freedom" and leaflets published by us. And I ask of you as a comrade who is close and dear ot us southerners to write us a letter about the insurgency of our region which is accurately described in our newspaper.
Besides this it would be very important to the peasants if you could write an article for our newspaper about social construction in villages which have not yet succumbed to the world of violence.
Firmly I press your hand,
"Batko" N. Makhno
Here's the Q and A from this week's show--had some great questions. Keep them coming!