Nestor Makhno – Alexander Berkman

Nestor Makhno

Alexander Berkman

 

The Bolshevik Myth – CHAPTER XXV

This is an extract from The Bolshevik Myth by Alexander Berkman. The entire work is available at the Anarchy Archives by clicking on the title.

Greatly interested in the personality and activities of Makhno, I induced Yossif to sketch his story in its essential features.

Born of very poor parents in the village of Gulyai-Pole (county of Alexandrovsk, province of Yekaterinoslav, Ukraina), Nestor spent a sunless childhood. His father died early, leaving five small boys to the care of the mother. Already at the tender age of eight young Makhno had to help eke out an existence for the family. In the winter months he attended school, while in the summer he was “hired out” to take care of the rich peasants’ cattle. When not yet twelve years old, he went to work in the neighboring estates, where brutal treatment and thankless labor taught him to hate his hard taskmasters and the Tsarist officials who always sided against the poor. The Revolution of 1905 brought Makhno, then only sixteen, in touch with socialist ideas. The movement for human emancipation and well-being quickly appealed to the intense and imaginative boy, and presently he joined the little group of young peasant Anarchists in his village.

In 1908, arrested for revolutionary activities, Makhno was tried and condemned to death. Because of his youth, however, and the efforts of his energetic mother, the sentence was subsequently commuted to penal servitude for life. He spent seven years in the Butirki prison in Moscow, where his rebellious spirit continually involved him in difficulties with the authorities. Most of the time he was kept in solitary confinement, chained hand and foot. But he employed his leisure to good advantage; he read omnivorously, being particularly interested in political economy, history, and literature. Released by the February Revolution, he returned to his native place, a convinced Anarchist, much ripened by years of suffering, study, and thought.

The only liberated political in the village, Makhno immediately became the center of revolutionary work. He organized a labor commune and the first Soviet in his district, and systematically encouraged the peasants in their resistance to the big landowners. When the Austro-German forces occupied the country, and Hetman Skoropadsky by their aid sought to stifle the growing agrarian rebellion, Makhno was one of the first to form military units for the defense of the Revolution. The movement grew quickly, involving ever larger territory. The reckless courage and guerrilla tactics of the povstantsi brought panic to the enemy, but the people regarded them as their friends and defenders. Makhno’s fame spread; he became the avenging angel of the lowly, and presently he was looked upon as the great liberator whose coming had been prophesied by Pugatchev in his dying moments.*

Continued German oppression and the tyranny of the home masters resulted in the organization of povstantsi units throughout the Ukraina. Some of them joined Makhno, whose forces soon reached the size of an army, well provisioned and clad, and supplied with machine guns and artillery. His troops consisted mostly of peasants, many of whom returned to their fields to follow their usual occupations when their district was temporarily freed from the enemy. But at the first sign of danger there would issue Nestor’s call, and the farmers would leave their homes to shoulder the gun and join their beloved leader, upon whom they bestowed the honored and affectionate title of bat’ka (father).

The spirit of Makhnovstchina swept the whole southern Ukraina. In the northwest there were also numerous povstantsi units, fighting against the foreign invaders and White generals, but without any clear social consciousness and ideal. Makhno, however, assumed the black flag of the Russian Anarchists as his emblem, and announced a definite program: autonomous communes of free peasants; the negation of all government, and complete self-determination based on the principle of labor. Free Soviets of peasants and workers were to be formed of delegates in contra-distinction to the Bolshevik Soviets of deputies; that is, to be informative and executive instead of authoritarian.

The Communists appreciated the unique military genius of Makhno, but they also realized the danger to their Party dictatorship from the spread of Anarchist ideas. They sought to exploit his forces in their own interests, while at the same time intent upon destroying the essential quality of the movement. Because of Makhno’s remarkable success against the occupation armies and counter-revolutionary generals, the Bolsheviki proposed to him to join the Red Army, preserving for his povstantsi units their autonomy. Makhno consented, and his troops became the Third Brigade of the Red Army, later officially known as the First Revolutionary povstantsi Ukrainian Division. But the hope of the Bolsheviki to absorb the rebel peasants in the Red Army failed. In the Makhno territory the influence of the Communists remained insignificant, and they found themselves even unable to support their institutions there. Under various pretexts they interdicted the conferences of the povstantsi and outlawed Makhno, hoping thus to alienate the peasantry from him.

But whatever the relations between the Bolsheviki and Makhno, the latter always came to the rescue of the Revolution when it was threatened by the Whites. He fought every counter-revolutionary enemy who sought to establish his rule over the Ukraina, including Hetman Skoropadsky, Petlura, and Denikin. He eliminated Grigoriev, who had at one time served the Communists and then betrayed them. But the Bolsheviki, fearing the spirit of Makhnovstchina, continually tried to disorganize and disperse its forces, and even set a price on Makhno’s head, as Denikin had done. Repeated Communist treachery finally brought a complete rupture, and compelled Makhno to fight the Communists as bitterly as the reactionists of the Right.

Yossif’s story was interrupted by the arrival of the friends whom I had met at the datcha on the previous occasion. Several hours were spent in discussing matters of Anarchist organization, the difficulty of activity in the face of Bolshevik persecution, and the increasingly reactionary attitude of the Communist Government. But, as usual in the Ukraina, the subject gradually converged upon Makhno. Someone read excerpts from the official Soviet press bitterly attacking and vilifying Nestor. Though the Bolsheviki formerly extolled him as a great revolutionary leader, they now painted him as a bandit and counter-revolutionary. But the peasants of the South — Yossif felt confident — love Makhno too well to be alienated from him. They know him as their truest friend; they look upon him as one of their own. They realize that he does not seek power over them, as do the Bolsheviki no less than Denikin. It is Makhno’s custom upon taking a city or town to call the people together and announce to them that henceforth they are free to organize their lives as they think best for themselves. He always proclaims complete freedom of speech and press; he does not fill the prisons or begin executions, as the Communists do. In fact, Nestor considers jails useless to a liberated people.

“It is difficult to say who is right or wrong in this conflict between the Bolsheviki and Makhno,” remarked the Red Army man. “Trotsky charges Makhno with having willfully opened the front to Denikin, while Makhno claims that his retreat was caused by Trotsky purposely failing to supply his division with ammunition at a critical period. Yet it is true that Makhno’s activities against Denikin’s rear, especially by cutting the White Army off from its artillery base, enabled the Bolsheviki to stem the advance on Moscow.”

“But Makhno refused to join the campaign against the Poles,” the Pessimist objected.

“Rightly so,” Yossif replied. “Trotsky’s order sending Makhno’s forces to the Polish front was meant only to eliminate Nestor from his own district and then bring the latter under the control of the commissars, in the absence of its defenders. Makhno saw through the scheme and protested against it.”

“The fact is,” the Pessimist persisted, “that the Communists and the Makhnovtsi are doing their best to exterminate each other. Both sides are guilty of the greatest brutalities and atrocities. It seems to me Makhno has no object save Bolshevik-killing.”

“You are pitifully blind,” retorted Yasha, an Anarchist holding a high position in a Soviet institution, “if you can’t see the great revolutionary meaning of the Makhnovstchina. It is the most significant expression of the whole Revolution. The Communist Party is only a political body, attempting — successfully indeed — to create a new master class over the producers, a Socialist rulership. But the Makhno movement is the expression of the toilers themselves. It’s the first great mass movement that by its own efforts seeks to free itself from government and establish economic self-determination. In that sense it is thoroughly Anarchistic.”

“But Anarchism cannot be established by military force,” I remarked.

“Of course not,” Yossif admitted. “Nor does Nestor pretend to do so. ‘I’m just clearing the field,’ — that’s what he always tells the comrades visiting him. ‘I’m driving out the rulers, White and Red,’ he says, ‘and it’s up to you to take advantage of the opportunity. Agitate, propagate your ideals. Help to release and to apply the creative forces of the Revolution.’ That is Nestor’s view of the situation.”

“It is a great mistake that most of our people stay away from Makhno,” Yasha declared. “They remain in Moscow or Petrograd, and what are they accomplishing? They can do nothing but fill Bolshevik prisons. With the povstantsi we have an exceptional chance of popularizing our views and helping the people to build a new life.”

“As for myself,” announced Yossif, “I am convinced that the Revolution is dead in Russia. The only place where it still lives is the Ukraina. Here it holds out a rich promise to us,” he added confidently. “What we should do is to join Nestor, all of us who want to be active.

“I disagree,” the Pessimist objected.

“He always disagrees when there is work to be done,” Yossif retorted with the inimitable smile that took the sting out of even his sharpest words. “But you, friends” — he faced the others — “you must clearly realize this: October, like February, was but one of the phases in the process of social regeneration. In October the Communist Party exploited the situation to further its own aims. But that stage has by no means exhausted the possibilities of the Revolution. Its fountain head contains springs that continue to flow to the height of their source, seeking the realization of their great historic mission, the emancipation of the toilers. The Bolsheviki, become static, must give place to new creative forces.”

Later in the evening Yossif took me aside. “Sasha,” he spoke solemnly, “you see how radically we differ in our estimate of the Makhno movement. It is necessary you should learn the situation for yourself.” He looked at me significantly.

“I should like to meet Makhno,” I said.

His face lit up with joy. “Just as I have hoped,” he replied. “Listen, dear friend, I have talked the matter over with Nestor — and, by the way, he is not far from here just now. He wants to, see you; you and Emma, he said. Of course, you can’t go to him,” Yossif smiled at the question he read in my eyes, “but Nestor will arrange to take any place where your Museum car may happen to be on a date agreed upon. To secure you against Bolshevik persecution, he will capture the whole Expedition — you understand, don’t you?”

Affectionately placing his arm about me, he drew me aside to explain the details of the plan.

Notes:

* Old tradition. Yemilian Pugatchev, leader of the great peasant and Cossack uprising under Catherine II, was executed in 1775.

Source: The Anarchy Archives. The text is from Dana Ward’s copy of Alexander Berkman, The Bolshevik Myth, New York: Boni and Liveright, 1925.

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