Revolutionary Ukraie – Morpheus

Russia: Revolution, Counter-Revolution
An Anarcho-Communist Analysis of the Russian Revolution



The revolution in the Ukraine took a different course from many other parts of the former Russian empire mainly as a result of the Brest-Litovsk treaty, in which the Bolsheviks agreed to allow the Central Powers to take over the Ukraine. In addition, the Bolshevik party was relatively weak in Ukraine and the Ukrainian anarchists were better organized than the Russian anarchists. An anarchist revolution developed in the Ukraine, based on village assemblies, communes and free soviets. A partisan militia was formed to fight against counter-revolutionary armies that were attempting to forcibly re-impose the state and class society. This militia succeeded in defeating the Germans, Austrians, Ukrainian Nationalists, and the White armies of Denikin and Wrangel. It was not, however, able to defeat the Bolsheviks, who used their far superior resources to conquer the Ukraine in 1921.

At first the revolution in the Ukraine took a course similar to the rest of the Russian empire. Soviets were formed, land was expropriated, etc. The Germans and Austrians set up a puppet dictatorship headed by Hetman Skoropadsky. This government launched a counter-revolution, restoring the landlords to power and oppressing the peasants. The people living in Ukraine did not have a say in the treaty delivering them to the Austro-German imperialists and did not particularly want to be ruled by the Central Powers. So they rebelled. Peasant insurrections erupted all throughout the Ukraine against the Hetman government and it’s imperialist masters. Peasants formed partisan units to wage guerilla warfare. (101) These partisans formed links with each other and eventually formed the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine. The existence of this movement lends support to left-wing critics of the Brest-Litovsk treaty, who argued in favor of a revolutionary guerilla war.

A major organizer in this peasant war was the anarcho-communist Nestor Makhno. Prior to the German takeover Makhno had been active in the peasant and workers movement, acting to help expropriate the means of production and overthrown capitalism. The RIAU was also called the Makhnovists (after Nestor Makhno), the insurgent army and the black army after it’s distinctive black flags (black being the color of anarchism). Although named after Makhno, “The movement would have existed without Makhno, since the living forces, the living masses who created and developed the movement, and who brought Makhno forward merely as their talented military leader, would have existed without Makhno.” (102) Many other anarchists also played significant roles in organizing the insurgent army, although it was not a purely anarchist army. Most members of the movement were not well versed in anarchist theory; they became anarchists more on the basis of their own experience:

“Ukrainian peasants had little reason to expect any good from the state. For decades the Russian regime gave the peasants only national and sociopolitical oppression, including conscription for military service, [and] taxation, … Experiences with the ‘Reds,’ ‘Whites,’ Germans, and Austro-Hungarians had taught them that all governments were essentially alike – taking everything and giving nothing. Therefore, the peasants were more apt to revolt than to create or support a national government. They felt the Revolution gave them the right to secure the land and to live peacefully on it. … they wanted to be left alone to arrange their lives and affairs.” (103)

There was also a civilian anarchist organization during the revolution, the Nabat confederation. This was a synthesist organization that combined all the different anarchist tendencies into one organization. In Ukraine at this time the main forms of anarchism were anarcho-communism, anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-individualism. The Nabat federation published anarchist newspapers, spread anarchist ideas and attempted to defend and further the revolution. Nabat occasionally criticized the Makhnovist army as well, neither was simply the tool of the other.

The RIAU was not a traditional army but a democratic one. In many ways this was a continuation of the military democracy created during 1917, with soldier committees, general assemblies, etc. It was similar to the democratic militias created by anarchists in the Spanish revolution and the democratic militaries in many other revolutions. Officers in the ordinary sense were abolished; instead all commanders were elected and recallable. “Unlike the Red Army, none of the well-known Maknovist commanders came from the ranks of Tsarist officers.” (104) Regular mass assemblies were held to discuss policy. The army was based on self-discipline, with all of the army’s disciplinary rules approved by soldier assemblies. Unlike the Red and White armies the RIAU relied on voluntary enlistment instead of conscription.

This partisan army was quite effective. Especially when defending their own communities, democratic militias are quite capable of fighting battles effectively. Traditional militaries have an ultra-hierarchical undemocratic structure primarily to defend elite rule, which is what their main purpose is. Traditional militaries are used by elites for their own benefits, to suppress rebellions, conquer other countries, etc. all of which primarily benefits the elite more than the rank and file soldier. A democratic army might refuse to do these things and so are not very good at achieving the goals set for them by elites. Authoritarians thus disparage democratic armies as “ineffective” because they defend elite rule and democratic militaries are ineffective at defending elite rule. In terms of defending their communities from hostile attack democratic militias have been shown to be effective many times in history, including the Makhnovists.

The RIAU won countless battles against incredible odds. Makhno “was a master of tactics. … he displayed great skill in the techniques of guerilla warfare: the ability to work without a fixed based, the ability to retreat as well as advance, and stratagems of various kinds.” (105) They employed guerilla tactics and their close links with the peasantry to their advantage. “The army was never a self-sufficient force. It always derived its revolutionary ideas from the vast masses, and defended their interests. The peasant masses, on their side, considered this army as the leading organ in all facets of their existence.” (106) Peasants supported the army with supplies, horses, food, information and “at times large masses of peasants joined the detachments to carry out in common some specific revolutionary task, battling alongside them for two or three days, then returning to their fields.” (107) The partisans were virtually indistinguishable from ordinary non-partisan peasants, which they used to their advantage. In 1918 they were able to defeat Ukrainian nationalists during a battle at Ekaterinoslav, despite being outnumbered and outgunned, by “boarding what appeared to be an ordinary passenger train, sending it across the river into the center of the town” (108) and launching a surprise attack on the enemy. (109) They used peasant carts to move quickly, and could infiltrate enemy positions by hiding under hay in them and springing out to surprise and often defeat the enemy. In retreat Makhnovists could bury their weapons and join the local peasant population.

When enemy forces were captured they would usually shoot the officers and release the rank and file soldiers. They encouraged the released soldiers to spread the revolution to their homeland and spread unrest. (110)

The Makhnovshchina came under massive attack from the Whites. The south, near and including parts of Ukraine, was a strong hold of the White counter-revolution. General Denikin commanded the Whites in the south for most of this period, until 1920 when General Wrangel took over. Despite this, the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine was able to successfully drive out multiple white invasions from Denikin and then Wrangel.

The RIAU was outgunned and outnumbered in many battles, yet managed to win anyway. One example was on September 25th 1919 at the village of Peregonovka when some militias, after retreating 400 miles, found themselves surrounded by Denikin’s White army. They succeeded in turning Denikin flank with a tiny force of cavalry and in the ensuing panic Denikin’s army was routed. This action was one of the most massive defeats inflicted on them. Denikin came the closest of any white General to victory. In October of that same year he came within 120 miles of Moscow. The Red army was eventually able to beat him and save their dictatorship, but had the Anarchists not done significant damage to his army in Ukraine Denikin may well have taken Moscow. (111) The Bolshevik Victor Serge admitted that the Makhnovists “inflicted a defeat on General Denikin from which the later was never to recover.” (112)

The RIAU also acted to counter anti-Semitic pogromists attempting to impose their authority on Jews. For example, when in the summer of 1919 five men in Uman engaged in pogroms against Jews Makhnovists shot them. Many Jews played an important role in the movement and the movement had good relations with Jewish peasants and workers. Makhno encouraged Jews to organize self-defense and furnished them with weapons. (113) The Makhnovists also shot Grigor’ev, who was an opportunist attempting to establish his own little fiefdom over the population and led vicious anti-Semitic pogroms. (114) The Jewish historian M. Tcherikover, an expert on the persecution of Jews in Russia and Ukraine (and who was neither an anarchist nor a revolutionary), said, “of all these armies, including the Red Army, the Makhnovists behaved best with regard the civil population in general and the Jewish population in particular. … Do not speak of pogroms alleged to have been organized by Makhno himself. That is a slander or an error. Nothing of the sort occurred.” (115)

The RIAU did not implement a state or impose their authority on the population but instead handed power over to the peasants (or proletarians in the cities), upon with the army was based. “Makhno’s Insurgent Army … was the quintessence of a self-administered, people’s revolutionary army. It arose from the peasants, it was composed of peasants, it handed power to the peasants.” (116) The insurgent army did not stand above the population and give them orders. Peasants organized themselves from the bottom up, without a state. The RIAU had no monopoly on legitimate violence. All these militias did was defend their communities from people attempting to impose a state on them. The RIAU did not enforce the rule of anyone over the rest of the population. Its’ purpose was to prevent any group of people from imposing their rule over anyone else. In this case, the various capitalist factions (Bolsheviks, Whites, Austrians, Nationalists, etc.) were trying to impose their authority on the peasants and workers so they ended up fighting the capitalists. People could organize themselves as they saw fit, so long as they didn’t impose their authority on others. As one participant put it:

“As soon as they entered a city, they declared that they did not represent any kind of authority, that their armed forces obliged no one to any sort of obligation and had no other aim than to protect the freedom of the working people. The freedom of the peasants and the workers … resides in the peasants and workers themselves and may not be restricted. In all fields of their lives it is up to the workers and peasants themselves to construct whatever they consider necessary.” (117)

When RIAU forces entered a city or town they posted on the walls notices to the population making statements such as:

“This army does not serve any political party, any power, any dictatorship. On the contrary, it seeks to free the region of all political power, of all dictatorship. It strives to protect the freedom of action, the free life of the workers against all exploitation and domination. The Makhno Army does not therefore represent any authority. It will not subject anyone to any obligation whatsoever. Its role is confined to defending the freedom of the workers. The freedom of the peasants and the workers belongs to themselves, and should not suffer any restriction.” (118)

“One of the most remarkable achievements of the Makhnovists was to preserve a freedom of speech more extensive than any of their opponents.” (119) Non-anarchist groups were free to organize and advocate their views so long as they did not attempt to impose authority upon others. Several non-anarchist groups published regular newspapers, including Bolshevik, SR and Left SR papers.

The Insurgent Army was the armed wing of a mass movement aiming to completely transform society. In the liberated areas the state and class society were abolished in favor of free organization from the bottom up. Prisons were abolished, in some cases physically destroyed. (120) Private property was abolished and land was redistributed. Peasant assemblies ran the villages and held regional congresses based on mandated and recallable delegates. Although based mainly in the rural areas, at it’s height the movement included cities where workers took over their workplaces and implemented self-management.

Free soviets were formed. Unlike the Soviets in Russia these free soviets were actually controlled from below. Political parties did not play a significant role in the free soviets. Representatives instead followed the mandates of the assemblies they came from. (121)
In most villages the repartitional system was in place. Individual households were assigned a plot of land, but no more than they could use themselves, and what they produced was theirs to keep. Some peasants chose to take this further and formed “free communes.” Unlike in the Mir, in these communes land was worked in common and the produce shared among the members. Communes were run by general assemblies of all members and usually set up on former estates of landlords. These combined individual freedom with radical egalitarianism. Individuals in the communes were given whatever personal space they desired; any member who wanted to cook separately or take food from the communal kitchens to eat in their quarters was free to do so. Those who preferred to eat in common could also do so. They also decided to implement anti-authoritarian schooling based on the ideas of Francisco Ferrer. (122) These free communes were very similar to the rural collectives set up on a large scale during the Spanish Revolution. “Very few peasant movements in history have been able to show in practice the sort of society and type of landholding they would like to see. The Makhnovist movement is proof that peasant revolutionaries can put forward positive, practical ideas.” (123)

The development of these anarchic institutions was limited by the civil war situation. The Makhnovshchina was caught between several major armies, several of which vastly outnumbered and outgunned them. They unfortunately had no choice but to focus their energies on the military struggle instead of the construction of a new society. The constant attacks by the Whites, Reds and others disrupted the development of the free society. Invading armies would smash the free communes and attempt to destroy these organs of self-management. In times of relative peace these institutions could begin to flourish, but in times of greater conflict the rapid changing of territory made the setting up of permanent organizations more difficult.

Successful counter-revolution in the Ukraine did not come from the Whites, who were defeated by the Insurgent Army, but from the Reds. While the RIAU and Reds were both fighting the Whites the Bolsheviks took a friendlier attitude towards the Makhnovists. The Bolsheviks and Makhnovists even made alliances against the Whites. The Bolsheviks in Ukraine “were not very effective. They fought only along the railways and never went far from their armored trains, to which they withdrew at the first reverse, sometimes without taking on board all their own combatants.” (124) As part of one of the alliances the Bolsheviks were supposed to supply arms to the Insurgent Army, but they “refused to give arms to Makhno’s partisans, failing in [their] duty of assisting them.” (125) The Bolsheviks launched three assaults on the Makhnovists, the final one succeeded in destroying the movement. After the civil war was over the Bolsheviks invaded and imposed their dictatorship on the Ukraine, suppressing the revolution. The Reds allied with the Makhnovists when they could use the Makhnovists against the Whites, and then betrayed them when the Whites were no longer a danger. (126)

While the RIAU was fighting against the Whites the Bolshevik press hailed them as the “nemesis of the Whites” and portrayed the movement positively. (127) When the Reds turned against the Insurgent Army they demonized the movement, spewing all sorts of lies and slanders. The Bolsheviks claimed that the Makhnovists were anti-Semitic Pogromists, that they were Kulaks, that they supported the Whites and all sorts of other nonsense. Many Jews participated in the movement and many Jews present claimed that the accusation of being anti-Semitic Pogromists were false including L. Zin’kovsky, Elena Keller, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Voline and Sholem Schwartzbard. The Central Committee of Zionist Organizations during the civil war listed many groups committing Pogroms including the Whites, Grigor’ev and Reds, but did not accuse the Insurgent Army of engaging in Pogroms. The Bolsheviks called any peasant who opposed them a ‘Kulak.’ The movement was based mostly on poor peasants, most of the commanders were poor peasants – most of the exceptions were proletarians. Its’ policies, including the free communes, redistribution of land, and the abolition of wage labor & private property, favored poor peasants. Due to it’s heavy reliance on local peasants the movement would not have been able to survive for as long as it did if it depended only Kulaks (no more than a fifth of the population). The Bolsheviks’ own press refutes the allegation that the Makhnovists worked with the Whites; when the Red & Black Armies were fighting together against the Whites the Makhnovists they were Makhno was hailed as the “nemesis of the Whites.” In exile General Denikin himself said that the Makhnovshchina was, “most antagonistic to the idea of the White movement.” (128) Victor Serge, who was a member of the Russian Communist party at the time, said in his memoirs (and elsewhere) that these slanders were all lies. (129)

The Bolsheviks were able to defeat the Revolutionary Insurgent Army for several reasons. The Bolsheviks had vastly superior numbers and vastly superior resources compared to the Makhnovists. They had significant industrialized areas; the Makhnovists did not. Most of the fighting the Whites engaged in against Ukraine happened at the height of the civil war when they were also battling the Red Army. When the Red Army defeated the Anarchists the civil war was over, they had fewer enemies to worry about and could focus more forces on Ukraine. Third, the Makhnovists made the mistake of trusting the Leninists. They made several deals with them, which the Bolsheviks broke, and believed that the conflict with them would be fought mainly in the ideological realm through propaganda and similar means. (130) It ended up being fought on the military front. It was a mistake for the movement to ally with the Bolsheviks.

The RIAU were able to repel several of the Red’s initial attacks. The Red Army was initially incapable of dealing with the unusual guerilla tactics employed by the resisting peasants. Eventually they realized that they were fighting against an armed self-acting population, and would need a different strategy. (131) As one Red officer pointed out:
“This ‘small war’ requires different organization, different training of troops, from the war against Wrangel or, let us say, against the White Poles. Our units maintained a cumbersome, burdensome rear; hence, we acted slowly, heavily, while Makhno, on the other hand, [used] speed and bold maneuver. We have not considered the environment that nourishes the criminal bands. They have their bases, that is, certain segments of the population, a flexible structure, stand behind them.” (132)

So they developed a different strategy: station units in all occupied territories and have them terrorize the population:

“The third campaign against the Makhnovists was at the same time a campaign against the Ukrainian peasantry. The general aim of this campaign was not merely to destroy the Makhnovist army, but to subjugate the dissatisfied peasants and to remove from them all possibility of organizing any type of revolutionary-guerilla movement. … The Red Divisions traveled through all the rebel villages in the insurgent region and exterminated masses of peasants on the basis of information provided by local kulaks.” (133)

“On the occupation of a village by the Red Army the Cheka would hunt out and hang all active Makhnovite supporters.” (134) These attacks ultimately succeeded in subduing the population and imposing the dictatorship of the party over the proletariat on the Ukraine. The Reds “concentrated huge numbers of troops against them and stepped up brutal actions against peasants who sheltered them. This counter insurgency strategy, which the US later used in Vietnam, succeeded because of the relatively small size and isolation of the Eastern Ukraine.” (135) They won because they resorted to war crimes.

As historian Michael Palij, one of the few American historians to write a book on the Makhnovshchina, said, “The history of the Makhno movement, despite its significance to the history of the Ukrainian Revolution and the Russian Civil War, has generally been neglected.” (136) The Makhnovshchina are frequently ignored in accounts of the Russian Revolution and in the rare cases where it is mentioned they are smeared, repeating one or more of the old (usually Bolshevik-originated) slanders. This is true of both left wing and right-wing accounts of the revolution. There are two main reasons for this. Partly it is the outcome of the sources on the Revolution. Many historians, especially in the earlier decades after the revolution, basically had to rely on Red, White or Nationalist propaganda as sources, although this is less true today. Partly this is because of ideology – history in Russia was written by the victors and in the West was written by White sympathizers. Both of these groups are obviously very hostile towards a peasant movement opposed to both groups. There are exceptions to this, though; a few non-anarchist historians have analyzed the movement. Christopher Read included a well-written section on the Makhnovists in his book From Tsar to Soviets. Michael Malet and Michael Palij have both written good monographs on the subject, Malet’s book is arguably the best book ever written on the subject. In addition there are various eyewitness accounts and anarchist histories of the movement.

The Makhnovshchina was not perfect. The hero worship of Makhno isn’t terribly anarchistic, there were a couple occasions where military democracy was not followed as closely as it should have, allying with the Bolsheviks was a big mistake and there were other flaws. But it was vastly superior to the totalitarian state implemented by Lenin and Trotsky. The fact that they were able to defeat the whites, nationalists and foreign imperialists without a state, let alone the one-party dictatorship implemented by the Bolsheviks, proves that Lenin’s repressive policies were not necessary to defeat the Whites. The Makhnovshchina disproves the Leninist claims that censorship, party dictatorship, etc. was necessary to defeat the Whites. The imperialist invasion and conquest of the Ukraine by the Bolsheviks further shows how counter-revolutionary they really were. The construction of a free society that was begun in the liberated areas also shows that a stateless and classless society is possible. The regions where the state was abolished did not turn into complete chaos, quite the opposite – the areas where states ruled were wracked with unrest and quite chaotic. Anarchy is order; government is chaos.


101 Arshinov, Peter A History of the Makhnovist Movement (1918-1921) Black & Red, Detroit 1974, p. 47-51
102 Arshinov, ibid, p. 19
103 Palij, Michael The Anarchism of Nestor Makhno, 1918-1921: An Aspect of the Ukrainian Revolution University of Washington Press, Seattle 1976, p. 58
104 Malet, Michael Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War Macmillan Press Ltd, London 1982, p. 91
105 Malet, ibid, p. 85
106 Arshinov, op. cit., p. 82
107 Arshinov, op. cit., p. 61
108 Read, Christopher From Tsar to Soviets: the Russian People and their Revolution 1917-1921 Oxford University Press, New York 1996, p. 260
109 Arshinov, op. cit., p. 84
110 Arshinov, op. cit., p. 57; Footman, David Civil War in Russia Praeger, New York 1962, p. 293; Anarchist FAQ H.6.4
111 Arshinov, op. cit., p. 141-145
112 Serge, Victor Memoirs of a Revolutionary Oxford University Press, London 1963, p. 121
113 Arshinov, op. cit., p. 209-220
114 Arshinov, op. cit., p. 109-118, 134-137; Malet, op. cit., p. 138-140; Palij, op. cit., p. 160-174
115 quoted by Voline The Unkown Revolution Free Life Editions, New York 1975, p. 699
116 Read, op. cit., p. 260
117 Arshinov, op. cit., p. 148
118 Palij, op. cit., p. 59
119 Malet, op. cit., p. 175
120 Malet, op. cit., p. 179-180
121 Malet, op. cit., 107-113; Arshinov, op. cit., 81-82, 90-91
122 Malet, op. cit., 117-125; Arshinov, op. cit., 86-87; Anarchist FAQ H.6.7
123 Malet, op. cit., 121
124 Guerin, Daniel Anarchism: From Theory to Practice Monthly Review Press, New York 1970, p. 100
125 Guerin, op. cit., p. 101
126 Malet, op. cit., p. 126-137; Palij, op. cit., p. 148-159, 175-177, 209-241
127 Palij, op. cit., p. 227
128 Quoted in Malet, op. cit., p. 140
129 For detailed refutations of these slanders see: Malet op. cit., p. 117-125, 168-174, 140-142; Arshinov, op. cit., p. 209-220; Voline, op. cit., 695-700; Anarchist FAQ sections H.6.8 through H.6.12
130 Palij, op. cit., p. 231; Arshinov, op. cit., p. 159-172
131 Palij, op. cit., p. 231-241
132 Quoted on Palij, op. cit., p. 238
133 Arshinov, op. cit., p. 207
134 Footman, op. cit., p. 292
135 Flood, Andrew “Can You Have An Anarchist Army?” 2000.
136 Palij, op. cit., ix
The complete version of Russia: Revolution, Counter-Revolution is here.
Source: Morpheus


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