Peter Arshinov Archive
Transcription/Markup: Andy Carloff
Online Source: RevoltLib.com; 2021
The revolutionary insurrectionary movement of the Ukrainian peasants and workers at first had the character of a tempestuous sea. Throughout the immense stretches of the Ukraine, the masses seethed, rushing into revolt and struggle. Highhanded pomeshchiks and representatives of power were killed or chased from their midst. The destructive side of the movement was dominant. The positive side seemed to be lacking. The movement did not yet offer a clear and precise plan for the organization of the free life of the peasants and workers. But gradually, in the process of its development, the real content of the movement was revealed and formed. After the unification of the majority of the insurrectionary currents under Makhno’s leadership, the movement found the unity which it had lacked, its backbone. From this time on it represents an accomplished and clearly defined social movement with its specific ideology and its own plan for the organization of the life of the people. It is the most powerful and the highest point of the revolutionary insurrection, the Makhnovshchina.
The characteristic traits specific to this movement are: a profound distrust of non-working or privileged social groups; suspicion of political parties; rejection of all dictatorships over the people by any and all organizations; rejection of the principle of the State; complete self-direction of the working people in all their affairs. The primary and concrete form of this self-direction consists of free working councils of peasants’ and workers’ organizations. “Free” means that they would be absolutely independent of all forms of central power, taking part in the general economic system on the basis of equality. “Working” means that these councils would be based on the principle of work, composed only of workers, serving their interests and their will, and giving no access to political organizations. (See “The General Positions of Makhnovists on the Free Councils of Workers’ and Peasants’ Organizations.”) This was the banner under which the Makhnovshchina entered the arena of social struggle.
The Makhnovshchina originated in the stormy era of contemporary Ukrainian life in the summer of 1918, when the entire peasantry thundered in revolt. From the first days of its existence until its very last moments, it did not have a single day of peace. As a result its growth and its entire evolution followed a specific, double path — the path of introducing its basic ideas to the vast masses of the people, and the path of enlarging and consolidating its military forces. From the day when all the military-revolutionary detachments were united in a single army, this army became the sole revolutionary army of the masses. The fact that the Ukraine was in a constant state of war was the reason why the best organizational powers of the movement were engaged in the army. This army involuntarily became both the armed self-defense of the peasants, and the leader of their entire movement, their revolutionary avant-garde. The army organized and actively led the offensive against the pomeshchik counter-revolution, drew up the plan for the struggle, and coined the slogans of the day. Nevertheless, 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.
The attitude of the Makhnovshchina toward State power, toward political parties, toward unproductive groups, became the attitude of the peasants, and conversely, the interests of the poorest peasants and workers, their hardships and their thoughts, became the interests, the hardships and the thoughts of the Makhnovshchina. Thus the Makhnovist movement developed through mutual interaction, and soon became an immense social phenomenon in Russian life.
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In October and November 1918, Makhno’s detachments began a general attack against the Hetman’s counterrevolution. At this time the Austro-German troops, influenced by the political events taking place in their countries, were already disorganized, and lacked their former force and energy. Makhno took advantage of this. He negotiated, and established relations of neutrality with units of soldiers who had caught the revolutionary spirit. These units allowed themselves to be disarmed, and the Makhnovists were able to arm themselves at their expense. Where Makhno failed to get on good terms with the Austro-Germans, he chased them from the region by force. After a fierce three-day battle Makhno definitively occupied Gulyai-Polye. There he consolidated his position and organized the general staff of his army. Everywhere people sensed the approaching end of the Hetman’s reign, and the peasant youth thronged in large numbers toward Makhno. Already at this time his army consisted of several infantry and cavalry regiments with one battery and numerous machine guns.
None of the Hetman’s troops were in the region. The State Varta (Guard) scattered in the face of the extraordinary growth of the insurrectionary army. Makhno’s army remained the sole army in this enormous region. But the Hetman still held Kiev. So Makhno and his troops headed north, occupying the railway junctions of Chaplino, Grishino, Sinel’nikovo, reaching the city of Pavlograd, where he turned west in the direction of Ekaterinoslav. There he encountered the forces of Petliura.
The Petliurists, having seized power in a number of cities, considered themselves the real masters of the country. They formed their army by gathering a number of peasant detachments; then they decreed a general mobilization with the aim of creating a regular national army. They considered the Makhnovist movement an important episode in the Ukrainian revolution and hoped to attract it into their sphere of influence and bring it under their direction. They sent Makhno a series of political questions: what was his opinion of the Petliurist movement and of Petliura’s government; how did he envision the political structure of the Ukraine; would he not find it desirable and useful to work in common with Petliura for the creation of an independent Ukraine? The response of Makhno and his staff was brief. They declared that in their opinion the Petliurist movement was a bourgeois nationalist movement whose road was entirely different from that of the revolutionary peasants; that the Ukraine should be organized on the basis of free labor and the independence of the peasants and workers from every political power. Not union, but only struggle was possible between the Makhnovist movement of the working people and the Petliurist movement of the bourgeoisie.
Shortly after, Makhno marched toward Ekaterinoslav in order to throw out the Petliurist government. Petliura had large military forces there. Protected by the Dnieper River, the Petliurists were almost invincible in this city. Makhno’s detachments stopped at Nizhne-Dneprovsk, where there was a city committee of the Communist Party which disposed of some local armed forces. Makhno, being known in the region as a valiant revolutionary hero and a very gifted military guide, was offered the command of the Party’s workers’ detachments by this Committee. Makhno accepted.
As he often did, Makhno had recourse to a military ruse. He loaded a train with his troops and sent it across the Dnieper bridge straight into the city, disguised as a workers’ [commuter] train. The risk was great. If the Petliurists had discovered this ruse a few minutes before the train stopped, the whole troop would have been captured. But the same risk cleared the Makhnovists’ path to victory. The train entered the central station, where the revolutionary troops unexpectedly disembarked and immediately occupied the station as well as its surroundings. In the city itself a fierce battle broke out in which the Petliurists were defeated. But a few days later, due to the faulty vigilance of a Makhnovist garrison, the city was retaken by the Petliurists, who had returned with new forces from Zaporozh’e. During the retreat, there were two assassination attempts against Makhno in Nizhne-Dneprovsk. Both times the bombs thrown at him failed to go off. The Makhnovist army retreated to the Sinel’nikovo region, where it dug in and established a front between itself and the Petliurists on the north-west frontier of the insurgent region. Petliura’s troops, composed chiefly of insurgent peasants or conscripts, rapidly disintegrated upon contact with the Makhnovists. And soon this front melted away without a battle. An immense space of several thousand miles was liberated from all authority and all troops.
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Statists fear free people. They claim that without authority people will lose the anchor of sociability, will dissipate themselves, and will return to savagery. This is obviously rubbish. It is taken seriously by idlers, lovers of authority and of the labor of others, or by the blind thinkers of bourgeois society. The liberation of the people in reality leads to the degeneration and return to savagery, not of the people, but of those who, thanks to power and privilege, live from the labor of the people’s arms and from the blood of the people’s veins. The Russian revolution gives an example of how thousands of families from the privileged class — clean, well nourished and well groomed — fell to decadence and savagery. The revolution deprived them of their servants, and in a month or two they were covered with dirt, they were mangy. The liberation of the people leads to the savagery of those who live from its enslavement. As for the working people, it is precisely from the day when they become really and completely free that they begin to live and to develop intensely. The peasants of the Gulyai-Polye region made this plainly visible. For more than six months — from November 1918 to June 1919 — they lived without any external political authority. They not only maintained social bonds with each other, but they also created new and higher forms of social relations — free workers’ communes and free councils of working people.
After the expulsion of the pomeshchiks from the liberated regions, the land came into the hands of the peasants. But many of the peasants understood that the task was not finished, that it was not enough to appropriate a plot of land and be content with it. From the hardships of their lives they learned that enemies were watching them from all sides, and that they must stick together. In several places there were attempts to organize social life communally. In spite of the hostility of the peasants toward the official communes, in many places in the Gulyai-Polye region peasant communes were formed, called “working” communes and “free” communes. The first free commune, called Rosa Luxemburg, was organized near the village of Pokrovskoe. All of its members were indigent. At first it only contained a few dozen members, but later the number exceeded three hundred. This commune was created by the poorest local peasants. In consecrating it to the memory of Rosa Luxemburg, they gave witness to their impartiality. With a simplicity and generosity typical of peasants, they honored the memory of a revolutionary heroine, unknown to them, who had been a martyr in the revolutionary struggle. The internal life of the commune had nothing in common with the doctrine for which Rosa Luxemburg had struggled. The commune was based on anti-authoritarian principles. Its development and growth began to exercise great influence over the local peasants. The Communist authorities tried to intervene in the internal life of the commune, but they were not admitted. The commune firmly called itself free, working, and foreign to all authority.
About five miles from Gulyai-Polye, on a former estate, another commune was formed, which consisted of poor peasants of Gulyai-Polye. It was called simply Commune No. 1 of the Gulyai-Polye peasants. About thirteen miles away were Commune No. 2 and Commune No. 3. There were communes in a number of other places. Admittedly, the communes were not numerous, and included only a minority of the population — especially those who did not have well-established farmlands. But what was most precious was that these communes were formed on the initiative of the poor peasants themselves. The Makhnovists never exerted any pressure on the peasants, confining themselves to propagating the idea of free communes.
The communes were not created on the basis of example or caprice, but exclusively on the basis of the vital needs of peasants who had possessed nothing before the revolution and who, after their victory, set about organizing their economic life on a communal basis. These were not at all the artificial communes of the Communist Party, in which people assembled by chance worked together — people who only wasted the grain and damaged the soil, who enjoyed the support of the State and thus lived from the labor of those whom they pretended to teach how to work. These were real working communes of peasants who, themselves accustomed to work, valued work in themselves and in others. The peasants worked in these communes first of all to provide their daily bread. In addition, each found there whatever moral and material support he needed. The principles of brotherhood and equality permeated the communes. Everyone — men, women and children — worked according to his or her abilities. Organizational work was assigned to one or two comrades who, after finishing it, took up the remaining tasks together with the other members of the commune. It is evident that these communes had these traits because they grew out of a working milieu and that their development followed a natural course.
However, these seeds of free communism did not nearly represent all the constructive economic and social activities of the peasants. On the contrary, they only grew slowly and gradually, whereas the political situation demanded from the peasants immediate and general attention. It was indispensable to establish institutions which unified first a district composed of various villages, and then the districts and departments which composed the liberated region. It was indispensable to find general solutions for problems common to the entire region. It was indispensable to create organs suitable for these tasks. And the peasants did not fail to create them. These organs were the regional congresses of peasants and workers. During the period when the region remained free, there were three such congresses. Here the peasants strengthened their contacts, oriented themselves, and defined the economic and political tasks which they faced. At the first regional congress which took place on January 23, 1919, in the town of Bol’shaya Mikhailovka, the peasants directed their attention mainly to the danger from the movements of Petliura and Denikin.
The Petliurists were in the process of organizing a new government in the country. Making use of a misleading slogan, “defense of the country,” they carried out a general mobilization, thus tightening the knot of a new slavery around the revolutionary people. The revolutionary peasantry of the entire Azov seacoast decided to struggle energetically against this danger. They organized several detachments and commissions and sent them to the region occupied by Petliura’s Directorate with the aim of explaining to the broad masses the falsity of the new democratic power, calling on them to disobey this authority, to boycott the mobilization and to continue the insurrection until the overthrow of this power.
The counter-revolution of Denikin represented an even greater danger for the liberated region. It declared war on the entire Russian revolution in all its aspects and represented one of the general counter-revolutionary currents which aimed at the restoration of the deposed monarchy. This counter-revolution appeared as soon as the nobility came to itself and looked around after the fall of Czarism. Generals Kornilov, Kaledin, Krasnov, Alekseev, Kolchak and Denikin were all leaders of the same general monarchist counterrevolution in Russia. They were the living debris of the overthrown monarchy. If many of them had recourse to democratic slogans and marched under constitutional banners, they did this only for tactical reasons. They made these concessions because of the requirements of the times in order to carry through successfully the first stages of the restoration of the monarchy. Any form of republican spirit was absolutely foreign to them.
The second regional congress of peasants, workers and insurgents was held three weeks after the first congress, on February 12, 1919 in Gulyai-Polye. At this congress, the danger which the impending counter-revolution of Denikin represented for the liberated region was thoroughly examined. Denikin’s army consisted of varied counterrevolutionary elements: former Czarist officers and Imperial Cossacks. The peasants were perfectly aware of the nature of the confrontation between them and this army. They took all the measures necessary to reinforce their self-defense. The insurrectionary army of the Makhnovists at this time numbered around 20,000 volunteer fighters. But many of them were worn out by fatigue, having engaged in incessant battles for five or six months. Moreover, Denikin’s troops were rapidly growing stronger, immensely endangering the free region. The second congress of peasants, workers and insurgents thus resolved to call the inhabitants of the region to a ten-year, voluntary and egalitarian mobilization. The mobilization was to be voluntary, based on the conscience and good will of each. The decree of the congress had no other meaning than to emphasize, to sanction by its moral authority, the need to strengthen the insurrectionary army with new soldiers. “Egalitarian” mobilization meant that the peasants of various villages, towns or districts were expected to take on themselves the obligation of furnishing soldiers on an egalitarian basis.
Once the resolutions of the second congress were made known to the peasants of the region, each village began to send to Gulyai-Polye masses of new volunteers desiring to go to the front against Denikin. The number of such fighters was enormous. Unfortunately, there was a shortage of arms in the region, and as a result new insurrectionary detachments could not be formed at the opportune moment. This had unavoidable consequences for the region during Denikin’s general offensive in June, 1919. We will return to this later.
To coordinate the struggle against Petliura and Denikin, to maintain and support the social relations among the working people of the region, to take care of the needs for information and communication, and finally to put into practice the various measures which were adopted by the congress, the second congress established a Regional Revolutionary Military Council (Soviet) of peasants, workers and insurgents. It was made up of representatives from 32 districts from the governments of Ekaterinoslav and Tauride, as well as insurrectionary detachments. This Council embraced the whole free region. It was supposed to carry out all the economic, political, social and military decisions made at the congress, and thus was, in a sense, the supreme executive organ of the whole movement. But it was not at all an ft authoritarian organ. Only strictly executive functions were assigned to it. Its role was to carry out the instructions and decisions of the congress of workers and peasants. At any moment it could be dissolved by the congress and cease to exist.
After the creation of the Regional Council the social activity of the region became more intense. In all the towns and villages, problems common to the entire area were examined and resolved. These included principally the military problem, the problem of provisions, and the question of local self-management. We have already spoken of the military measures taken by the peasants with a view to the needs of the moment and of the region. The problem of provisions was not yet resolved on an extensive scale with a view to the interests of the whole population of the region. This problem was to be resolved on this scale at the 4th regional congress of peasants, workers, insurgents and soldiers of the Red Army called for June 15, 1919, but outlawed by the Soviet authorities. We will speak of this later. As for the insurrectionary army, the peasants undertook to supply it. A central supply depot for the army was organized at Gulyai-Polye, where food and forage were brought from all parts of the region, to be taken from there to the front.
With respect to the organs of social self-government, the peasants and workers of the entire region held to the idea of Free Working Soviets. Unlike the political Soviets of the Bolsheviks and other socialists, the free Soviets of workers and peasants were to be organs of social-economic self-management. Each soviet was only to carry out the will of the local workers and their organizations. Among themselves the local Soviets established indispensable links and thus formed larger economic and territorial relations, organs of popular self-management.
Nevertheless, the constant state of war in the entire region made the creation and functioning of these organs very difficult, and the organization was never carried through to its logical conclusions.
The general statutes on the Free Soviets of peasants and workers were not published until 1920. Before that date, the general principles of these Soviets appeared in the “Declaration” of the revolutionary military council of the Makhnovist army, in the chapter on the system of Free Soviets.
Thus we see that the vast peasant masses and some of the workers, having liberated themselves from the regime of the Hetman and other authorities, undertook the immense task of constructing a new life in theory and in practice. We see that, although surrounded on all sides by various hostile forces, the working masses took healthy and reasonable measures for the defense of their region and its spark of freedom. The creation of a whole series of free working communes, the desire to create organs for social and economic self-management, were the first steps of the peasants and workers toward the construction of a free and independent life. There is no doubt that the entire mass of working people, if they had remained free, would have followed this path and would have carried out this construction with many healthy, original and wise elements, thus laying the foundation for a truly free workers’ society.
But already the mortal enemy of freedom and labor-Authority — approached the region. From the north came the State army of the Bolshevik-Communists, and from the southeast, the army of General Denikin.
Denikin arrived first. Already in the period of the peasant struggle against the Hetman, and especially during the first days after his fall, several counter-revolutionary detachments commanded by General Shkuro had infiltrated into the Ukraine along the Don and Kuban Rivers and had approached Pologi and Gulyai-Polye. This was the first threat of the new counter-revolution against the liberated region. Naturally the Makhnovist insurgent army moved its forces in this direction. At this time it consisted of several extremely well-organized infantry and cavalry regiments. The Makhnovist infantry was equipped in a very unusual and original way. They moved like cavalry, with the aid of horses, not on horseback but in light carriages with springs, called Tachanka in the southern Ukraine. This infantry, forming one or two rows, usually traveled at a rapid trot together with the cavalry, covering 40 to 50 miles a day, and if necessary 60 to 70.
Denikin was counting on the confused general situation in the Ukraine, and especially on the struggle between the Petliurist Directorate and the Bolsheviks; he hoped to occupy most of the Ukraine without much difficulty, and to establish his front, at least at the beginning, beyond the northern limits of the government of Ekaterinoslav. But he unexpectedly encountered the well-organized and tenacious army of Makhnovist insurgents. After several battles, Denikin’s detachments had to beat a retreat in the direction of the Don River and the Sea of Azov. In a short time all the territory from Pologi to the sea was liberated. The Makhnovists occupied several important railway stations and the cities of Berdyansk and Mariupol’. It was from this moment — January 1919 — that the first front against Denikin was established — a front along which the Makhnovist army for six months contained the flood of the counter-revolution pouring in from the Caucasus. This front was later extended for more than 60 miles to the east and northeast of Mariupol’.
The fighting on this front was stubborn and fierce. Denikin’s forces, following the example of the Makhnovists, used the partisans’ tactics. Their cavalry detachments would penetrate deep into the region, then spread out rapidly, destroying, burning and massacring all they could reach; then they would vanish and appear suddenly in another place, to commit similar destruction. It was exclusively the laboring people who suffered from these incursions. Denikin’s forces took revenge for the help which the peasants gave to the insurgent army and for their hostility toward the counter-revolutionaries; in this way they hoped to provoke a reaction against the revolution. The Jewish population which had lived for a very long time in independent colonies in the Azov region also suffered from these raids. Denikin’s detachments massacred Jews on every visit, thus seeking to provoke an anti-Semitic movement which would have prepared the ground for their definitive invasion of the Ukraine. General Shkuro was particularly noteworthy in these counterrevolutionary incursions.
However, for more than four months, despite their well-trained and well-armed troops, despite their furious attacks, Denikin’s forces could not subdue the insurgent troops who were full of revolutionary ardor and quite as skillful at guerrilla warfare. On the contrary. General Shkuro more than once received such blows from the Makhnovist regiments that only hasty retreats of 50 to 90 miles toward Taganrog and Rostov saved him from catastrophe. During this period the Makhnovists advanced at least five or six times to the walls of Taganrog. The hatred and fury of Denikin’s officers toward the Makhnovists took incredible forms. They subjected Makhnovist prisoners to torture, mangled them by exploding shells, and there were instances when they burned prisoners alive on sheets of red-hot iron.
During this bitter four-month struggle, Makhno’s military talent was revealed in a striking manner. His reputation as a remarkable war leader was recognized even by his enemies, the Denikinists. This, obviously, did not prevent General Denikin from offering half a million rubles to whoever killed Makhno.
The revolutionary insurrection was an attempt of the masses of the people to carry out in practice the unrealized aspirations of the Russian revolution. The insurrection was an organic continuation of the massive movement of workers and peasants of October, 1917, and was propelled by the same goals as this movement and imbued with a profound sense of brotherhood toward working people of all nationalities and regions.
Let us describe a characteristic event. At the beginning of 1919, the Makhnovist insurgents, having thrown back Denikin’s troops toward the Sea of Azov after a hard fight, captured a hundred carloads of wheat from them. The first thought of Makhno and the staff of the insurgent army was to send this booty to the starving workers of Moscow and Petrograd. This idea was enthusiastically accepted by the mass of insurgents. The hundred carloads of wheat were delivered to Petrograd and Moscow, accompanied by a Makhnovist delegation which was very warmly received by the Moscow Soviet.
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The Bolsheviks entered the region of the Makhnovshchina much later than Denikin. The Makhnovist insurgents had already been fighting Denikin for three months; they had driven him out of their region and established their line of defense to the east of Mariupol’ when the first Bolshevik division, commanded by Dybenko, arrived at Sinel’nikovo.
At this point Makhno himself, as well as the. entire insurrectionary movement, were essentially unknown to the Bolsheviks. Until then he had been spoken of in the Communist press — in Moscow and in the provinces — as a bold insurgent of great promise for the future. His fight with Skoropadsky, then with Petliura and Denikin, brought him the good will of the Bolshevik leaders. They did not doubt that the Makhnovist revolutionary detachments, which had fought against so many different counter-revolutions in the Ukraine, would be incorporated into the Red Army. Consequently they sang Makhno’s praises in advance, and devoted whole columns of their newspapers to him, without having made his acquaintance. The first meeting between the Bolshevik military command and Makhno took place in March 1919, under the same auspices of praise and good will. Makhno was immediately invited to join the Red Army with all his detachments in order to create a united front in the struggle against Denikin. The political and ideological differences between the Bolsheviks and the Makhnovist peasants were considered completely natural and were not in any way considered an obstacle to a union on the basis of a common cause. The Bolsheviks let it be understood that the specific characteristics of the insurrectionary army would not be violated.
Makhno and the staff of the insurrectionary army were perfectly aware that the arrival of Communist authority was a new threat to the liberty of the region; they saw it as an omen of a civil war of a new kind. But neither Makhno nor the staff of the army nor the Regional Council wanted this war, which might well have a fatal effect on the whole Ukrainian revolution. They did not lose sight of the open and well organized counter-revolution which was approaching from the Don and the Kuban, and with which there was only one possible relationship: that of armed conflict. This danger increased from day to day. The insurgents retained some hope that the struggle with the Bolsheviks could be confined to the realm of ideas, in which case they could feel perfectly secure about their region, for the vigor of the revolutionary ideas together with the revolutionary common sense of the peasants and their defiance of elements foreign to their free movement were the best guarantee of the region’s freedom. According to the general opinion of the leaders of the insurrection, it was necessary for the movement to concentrate all forces against the monarchist counter-revolution, and not to be concerned with ideological disagreements with the Bolsheviks until that was liquidated. It was in this context that the union between the Makhnovists and the Red Army took place. We will see later that the leaders of the Makhnovshchina were mistaken in their hope to find in the Bolsheviks only ideological adversaries. They failed to take into account the fact that they were dealing with accomplished and violent statists. Mistakes which do not lead to ruin may be useful. And this mistake did the Makhnovists some good.
The insurrectionary army became part of the Red Army under the following conditions: a) the insurrectionary army will retain its internal organization intact; b) it will receive political commissars appointed by the Communist authorities; c) it will only be subordinated to the Red supreme command in strictly military matters; d) it cannot be removed from the front against Denikin; e) it will receive munitions and supplies equal to those of the Red Army; f) it will retain its name of Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army, and its black flag.
The Makhnovist insurrectionary army was organized according to three fundamental principles: voluntary enlistment, the electoral principle, and self-discipline.
Voluntary enlistment meant that the army was composed only of revolutionary fighters who entered it of their own free will.
The electoral principle meant that the commanders of all the units of the army, including the staff, as well as all the men who held other positions in the army, were either elected or accepted by the insurgents of the unit in question or by the whole army.
Self-discipline meant that all the rules of discipline were drawn up by commissions of insurgents, then approved by general assemblies of the various units; once approved, they had to be rigorously observed on the individual responsibility of each insurgent and each commander.
All these principles were maintained by the Makhnovist army when it joined the Red Army. It was first called the Third Brigade, then the First Revolutionary-Insurrectionary Ukrainian Division, and still later it became the “Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine (Makhnovist).” All political questions were excluded from the alliance, which remained exclusively military. As a result, the life of the region, its social and revolutionary development, continued to follow the same path — the path of self-activity of the working people who did not allow any authority to enter the region. We will see later that this was the sole reason for the Bolsheviks’ armed aggression against this region.
Since the creation of the Regional Council in February, 1919, the region had been solidly united. The idea of free working Soviets reached the most distant towns of the region. In the circumstances of the time, the creation of these Soviets proceeded slowly, but the peasants held consistently to this idea, feeling that it was the only sound basis on which a really free community could be constructed. At the same time the problem of direct and solid union between the peasants and the urban workers arose. Such a union was to be established directly with the workers enterprises and organizations, outside of State organs. This union was indispensable for the consolidation and subsequent development of the revolution. The peasants were perfectly aware that its accomplishment would inevitably provoke a struggle with the State and governmental Party, who would certainly not renounce its hold over the masses without a struggle. However, the peasants did not feel that this danger was too serious, for they considered that once they and the workers were united, they could easily defy any political power. And above all, forms of union with the workers which were not direct and which did not lead to the suppression of authority and thus to its opposition, were out of the question. For it was precisely this form of union between city and village which made possible the consolidation and further development of the revolution. “Worker, give us your hand” — such was the call of the Gulyai-Polye revolutionary peasants to the city. For the peasants of the liberated region this was the only reasonable appeal. In their village they were completely free; they disposed of themselves, and of the product of their labor, independently. Naturally they wanted to see the urban workers in the same situation and sought to approach them directly, avoiding all political, governmental or other unproductive organizations which had caused them too much suffering in the past. They also wanted the workers to come to them just as directly.
This is how the problem of union with the city workers was raised and discussed, until it finally became an objective of the whole insurrectionary region.
It is obvious that in the face of such attitudes, political parties could have no success in the area. When they appeared with statist plans of organization, they were received coldly, indifferently, sometimes even with hostility, as people who came uninvited to meddle in other people’s affairs. The Communist authorities who penetrated into all parts of the region were received as foreigners and intruders.
At first the Bolsheviks hoped to absorb the Makhno-yists into the ranks of Bolshevism. This was a vain hope. The insurgent masses obstinately followed their own path. They wanted nothing to do with the governmental organs of the Bolsheviks. In certain places armed peasants drove the“Extraordinary Commissions” (Chekas) out of their villages, and at Gulyai-Polye the Communists did not even dare to establish such an institution. Elsewhere the attempts to implant Communist institutions resulted in bloody collisions between the population and the authorities, whose situation became very difficult.
It was then that the Bolsheviks began an organized struggle against the Makhnovshchina, both as an idea and as a social movement.
They began the campaign in the press. The Communist press began to treat the Makhnovist movement as a kulak (wealthy peasant) movement, its slogans as counter-revolutionary, and its activity as harmful to the revolution.
Direct threats to the guides of the movement were made by the newspapers and by the central authorities. The region was definitively blockaded. All the revolutionary militants leaving Gulyai-Polye or returning to it were arrested. Supplies of ammunition and cartridges were reduced considerably. All this was a bad omen.
On April 10, 1919, the Revolutionary Military Council convened the third regional congress of peasants, workers and insurgents. The congress was to determine the immediate tasks and to consider the perspectives of revolutionary life in the region. The delegates of 72 districts, representing more than two million people, took part in the work of the congress. This work took place in a lively atmosphere. I regret that I have no transcripts of the proceedings, for from them one would have been able to see clearly with what wisdom and clarity the people sought their own course in the revolution and their own popular forms for a new life. Toward the end of its session the Congress received a telegram from Dybenko, commander of the Bolshevik division, which declared the organizers of the Congress outlaws, and the Congress itself, counter-revolutionary.
This was the first direct assault of the Bolsheviks on the freedom of the region. The entire Congress understood perfectly the full significance of this attack and immediately voted an indignant resolution protesting this attack. The protest was immediately printed and distributed among the peasants and workers of the region. Several days later the Revolutionary Military Council of the region gave a detailed reply to the Communist authorities (in the person of Dybenko) in which they emphasized the role of the Gulyai-Polye region in the revolution, and unmasked those who in reality were engaged in counter-revolutionary practice. This response characterizes the positions of both parties, and we include it in its entirety:
“Comrade” Dybenko declares that the Congress called at Gulyai-Polye for the 10th of April is counterrevolutionary, and puts its organizers outside the law. According to him, the severest repression should strike them. We quote his telegram verbatim:
“Novoalekseevka, No. 283, April 10, 2:45 p.m. Forward to Comrade Batko Makhno, General Staff of the Aleksandrovsk Division. Copy to Volnovakha, Mariupol’, to transmit to Comrade Makhno. Copy to the Gulyai-Polye Soviet:
“Any Congress called in the name of the Revolutionary Military General Staff, which is now dissolved by my order, shall be considered manifestly counterrevolutionary, and its organizers will expose themselves to the severest repressive measures, to the extent of their being declared outlaws. I order that steps be taken immediately so that such measures may not be necessary. Signed: Dybenko.”
Before declaring the congress counter-revolutionary, “Comrade” Dybenko has not even taken the trouble to find out by whom and for what purpose this congress was called. Thus he says that it was called by the dissolved Revolutionary Staff of Gulyai-Polye, whereas in reality it was called by the Executive Committee of the Revolutionary Military Council. Consequently, having called the congress, the members of the Council do not know whether they have been declared outlaws, or whether the congress is considered counter-revolutionary by “Comrade” Dybenko.
If this is the case, permit us to explain to “Your Excellency,” by whom and for what purpose this congress — in your opinion counter-revolutionary — was called, and then it might not seem as terrible as you represent it.
As has already been said, the Congress was called by the Executive Committee of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Gulyai-Polye region, at Gulyai-Polye itself, on April 10. It was the Third Regional Congress of Gulyai-Polye, called for the purpose of determining the future free conduct of the Revolutionary Military Council. (You will see, “Comrade” Dybenko, that three of these “counter-revolutionary” congresses have taken place.) A question now arises — where does the Revolutionary Military Council come from, and for what purpose was it created? If you do not already know that, “Comrade” Dybenko, we are going to tell you. The Regional Revolutionary Military Council was formed following a resolution of the Second Congress, which took place at Gulyai-Polye on February 12 of this year (you see that it was a long time ago — you were not even here yet). The Council was created to organize the fighting men and to proceed to a voluntary mobilization, for the region was surrounded by Kadets, and the insurrectionary detachments, composed of the first volunteers, did not suffice to hold a very extended front. There were no Soviet troops in our region at that time. Furthermore the population did not count very much on their intervention, considering that the defense of its region was its own duty. It is for this purpose that the Revolutionary Military Council was created. It was composed, following the resolution of the Second Congress, of a delegate from each district; in all there were 32 members, each representing the districts of the governments of Ekaterinoslav and Tauride.
We will give you later some more details about the Revolutionary Military Council. For the moment, the question arises: where did the second regional congress come from? Who called it? Who authorized it? Were those who called it outlaws? And if not, why not? The second regional congress was in fact called at Gulyai-Polye by an initiating group composed of five persons elected by the first congress. This second congress took place on February 12, and to our great astonishment, the persons who called it were not outlawed. For, you see, at that time there were no heroes here who dared to suppress the rights of the people, rights won with their own blood. Thus another question arises: where did the first congress come from and who called it? Were those who called it outlawed? And if not, why not? “Comrade” Dybenko, you are still, it seems, rather new to the revolutionary movement of the Ukraine, and we shall have to tell you about its very beginnings. That is what we are going to do, and after learning these facts, you will perhaps shift your sights a little.
The first regional congress took place on January 23 of this year at the insurrectionary camp at Bol’shaya Mikhailovka. It was composed of delegates from the districts situated near the front against Denikin. The Soviet troops were then far away, very far away. Our region was isolated from the whole world, on one side by Denikin’s troops, on the other by the Petliurists. At that time there were only the insurgent detachments, with Batko Makhno and Shchus’at their head, and these dealt continuous blows to the Petliurist and White armies. The organizations and social institutions in the various towns and villages did not at that time always bear the same name. In one town there was a Soviet, in another a Popular Administration, in a third a Revolutionary Military Staff, in a fourth a Provincial Administration, and so forth. But the spirit was equally revolutionary every-where.The first congress was organized to consolidate the front and to create a certain uniformity of organization and action in the whole region.
No one called it; it met spontaneously. By the wish and with the approval of the population. At this congress the proposal was made to rescue from the Petliurist army our brothers who had been mobilized by force. To this end a delegation composed of five persons was elected. It was given the task of presenting itself to Batko Makhno’s staff and to other staffs if need be, and of entering the army of the Ukrainian Directorate (of Petliura), in order to explain to our brothers that they had been fooled and that they should leave that army. In addition, the delegation was instructed, upon its return, to call a second, larger congress, for the purpose of organizing the whole region which had been delivered from the counterrevolutionary bands, and of creating a more powerful defense front. The delegates, on returning from their mission, therefore called the second regional congress, outside of any party, any authority, or any law. You, “Comrade” Dybenko, and the other lovers of laws, were then far, far away, and since the heroic guides of the insurrectionary movement did not want power over the people who had just broken with their own hands the chains of slavery, the Congress was not proclaimed counter-revolutionary, and those who called it were not declared outlaws.
Let us return to the Regional Council. At the time of the creation of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Gulyai-Polye region, the Soviet Power appeared in our region. Following the resolution passed by the Second Congress, the Regional Council did not drop its work when the Soviet authorities appeared. It had to carry out the instructions of the congress. The Council was not an organ of command, but an executive organ. It thus continued to work to the best of its ability, and as always followed the revolutionary course in its work. Little by little, the Soviet authority began to erect obstacles to the activity of the Revolutionary Military Council. The Commissars and other high functionaries of the Soviet government began to treat the Council as a counter-revolutionary organization. It was then that the members of the Council decided to call a third regional congress on April 10 at Gulyai-Polye to determine the future conduct of the Council, or to liquidate it if the congress considered this necessary. And so the congress took place. Those who came to the congress were not counter-revolutionaries, but people who had been the first to raise the flag of the insurrection and social revolution. They came to it to help coordinate the general struggle of the region against all oppressors. The representatives of the 72 districts, as well as those of several insurgent units, participated in the congress. All of them found that the Military Revolutionary Council was necessary; they even enlarged its Executive Committee and instructed the latter to carry out a voluntary and egalitarian mobilization of the region. This congress was somewhat astonished to receive “Comrade” Dybenko’s telegram declaring it “counterrevolutionary,” inasmuch as this region had been the first to raise the flag of insurrection. That is why the congress voted a lively protest against this telegram.
Such is the picture that should open your eyes, “Comrade” Dybenko. Come to your senses! Think! Have you, a single person, the right to declare counterrevolutionary a population of a million workers, a population which by itself, with its own calloused hands, threw off the chains of slavery, and which is now in the process of building its own life, according to its own will?
No! If you are really a revolutionary, you should come to help this people in its fight against the oppressors, and in its work in building a new, free life.
Can there exist laws made by a few people who call themselves revolutionaries which permit them to outlaw a whole people who are more revolutionary than they are themselves? (For the Executive Committee of the Council represents the whole mass of the people.)
Is it permissible, is it admissible, that they should come to the country to establish laws of violence, to subjugate a people who have just overthrown all law-makers and all laws?
Does there exist a law according to which a revolutionary has the right to apply the most severe penalties to a revolutionary mass, of which he calls himself the defender, simply because this mass has taken the good things which the revolution has promised them, freedom and equality, without his permission?
Should the mass of revolutionary people perhaps be silent when such a revolutionary takes away the freedom which they have just conquered?
Do the laws of the revolution order the shooting of a delegate because he believes he ought to carry out the mandate given him by the revolutionary mass which elected him?
Whose interests should the revolutionary defend: those of the Party or those of the people who set the revolution in motion with their blood?
The Revolutionary Military Council of the Gulyai-Polye region holds itself above the pressure and influence of all parties, and only recognizes the people who elected it. Its duty is to accomplish what the people have instructed it to do, and to create no obstacles to any left socialist party in the propagation of ideas. Consequently, if one day the Bolshevik idea succeeds among the workers, the Revolutionary Military Council — from the Bolshevik point of view a manifestly counter-revolutionary organization — will necessarily be replaced by another organization, “more revolutionary” and more Bolshevik. But meanwhile, do not interfere with us, do not try to stifle us. If you and your like, “Comrade” Dybenko, continue to carry on the same policy as before, if you believe it good and conscientious, then carry your dirty little business to its conclusion. Outlaw all the organizers of the regional congresses called when you and your Party were at Kursk. Proclaim counterrevolutionary all those who first raised the flag of the insurrection, of the social revolution in the Ukraine, and who thus acted without waiting for your permission, without following your program to the letter. Also outlaw all those who sent their delegates to the regional congresses which you call counter-revolutionary. Finally, outlaw all the vanished comrades who, without your permission, took part in the insurrectionary movements for the liberation of all the working people. Proclaim forever illegal and counter-revolutionary any congress called without your permission, but know that in the end truth will triumph over force. Despite your threats, the Council did not abandon its duties, because it has no right to do this and because it has no right to usurp the rights of the people.
Revolutionary Military Council of the Gulyai-Polye region:
Koval’, Petrenko, Dotsenko and other members.
After this, the question of the Makhnovshchina was treated in high Bolshevik circles in a clear and definite manner. The official press, which already earlier had misrepresented the Makhnovist movement, now set out to abuse it systematically, deliberately inventing and attributing to it all types of absurdities, villainies and crimes. The following example will give a fair notion of the Bolshevik way of behaving. At the end of April or the beginning of May, 1919, General Shkuro, misled by a Makhnovist prisoner, sent a letter to Makhno in which, after praising his innate military talents and expressing regret that this talent had been engaged on a false revolutionary path, suggested to Makhno that his army be united with Denikin’s for the salvation of the Russian people. When this letter was read at a large meeting of revolutionary insurgents, everyone ridiculed the naivety and the stupidity of the counter-revolutionary general, who did not even know the ABCs about the revolution in Russia and in the Ukraine. They published this letter in their newspaper Put’ k Svobode for the purpose of ridicule. The entire letter, followed by derisive comments, was published in Put’ k Svobode No. 3. What did the Communist-Bolsheviks do then? They found this letter in the Makhnovist newspaper, reprinted it in their newspapers and declared shamelessly that they had intercepted this letter, that negotiations about an alliance were taking place between Makhno and Shkuro, and even that this alliance had been formed. The entire Bolshevik war of ideas against the Makhnovists was carried out in this form.
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In mid-April, 1919, high officials in the Communist government began a thorough investigation of the insurgent region. On April 29, the Commander of the southern front, Antonov, arrived in Gulyai-Polye in order to become acquainted with Makhno himself, with the Makhnovist front and the disposition of the insurrection. On May 4 and 5, the Extraordinary Plenipotentiary of the National Defense Council, L. Kamenev, arrived together with other government officials from Khar’kov. Kamenev’s entry into Gulyai-Polye was friendly and left nothing to be desired. He complimented the assembled peasants and insurgents as heroes who had liberated the region from the Hetman’s power on their own, and had defended it successfully against Petliura and Denikin. It seemed that the revolutionary self-activity of the peasants had found in Kamenev its greatest admirer. However, in his official interview with Makhno, the members of the staff, and the Regional Council, Kamenev spoke a language which had nothing in common with the self-activity of the working people. When the question of the Revolutionary Military Council was raised, Kamenev found the existence of this Council absolutely inadmissible under Soviet power, and demanded that it be dissolved.
As can be expected from a statist, Kamenev confused two completely different institutions: the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic, created by the ruling Party, and the Revolutionary Military Council of the working masses, directly created by them as their executive organ. The first of these councils could, in fact, be dissolved very easily: by order of the Central Committee of the Party; but the second council cannot be dissolved except by the masses who created it. Only counter-revolutionary power could dissolve it despite the masses, but in no case could revolutionaries do so.
And this was what Kamenev was told. This answer was obviously disagreeable to him, and gave rise to a heated discussion. Nevertheless, Kamenev as well as Antonov parted warmly, expressed to the Makhnovists their deep appreciation, and wished them well. Kamenev embraced Makhno and assured the Makhnovists that the Bolsheviks would always find a common language with them as with all true revolutionaries, and that they could and should work together.
Were the visits of these high Bolshevik People’s Commissars to Gulyai-Polye really as friendly as their warm wishes suggested, or did their friendliness already then hide their irreconcilable hostility toward the insurgent region? More likely the second. The developments which took place in the region soon after this meeting showed that the idea of a military campaign against the region and the free insurrectionary movement had already been ripening for a long time in the Bolshevik world. The visits of Antonov and Kamenev to Gulyai-Polye can only be considered as reconnaissance before aggression. These visits brought no changes in the relations between the Bolsheviks and the Makhnovshchina. The agitation carried out by their press did not diminish; on the contrary, it became more violent. They did not cease to invent lies, each more shameful and abominable than the preceding one. All this revealed that the Bolsheviks wanted to prepare the workers and the Red Army troops to accept their armed attack against the free region. A month earlier they had made an attempt to assassinate Makhno. The commander of an insurgent regiment, Padalka, bribed by the Bolsheviks, accepted their “commission” to attack Gulyai-Polye from the side of Pokrovskoe, and to capture Makhno and his staff. The plot was discovered by Makhno himself while he was at Berdyansk, minutes before he was to leave for Gulyai-Polye. It was possible to foil this plan only thanks to an airplane which was found at hand and with which Makhno succeeded in covering the distance between Berdyansk and Gulyai-Polye in two hours and some minutes. The organizers of the plot were unexpectedly caught and executed.
More than once Makhno was warned by comrades employed in Bolshevik institutions not to go either to Ekaterinoslav or to Khar’kov, or anywhere else if he were called, since any official summons would be a trap where death would await him. In short, every new day made it increasingly obvious that the Bolsheviks were preparing to resolve the question of ideological influence in the Ukraine by military means. The revolt of Grigor’ev unexpectedly stopped them, and caused them to temporarily change their attitude toward the Makhnovshchina.