A short biography of Ossip Tsebry, Makhnovist partisan who carried on the armed struggle into the 1940s
In 1993 the Kate Sharpley Library produced a pamphlet Memories of a Makhnovist Partisan, a translation from the French of an originally Russian article that had been included in a booklet by Alexandre Skirda on Makhno. The article had originally been serialised in the Russian exile anarchist communist paper Dielo Truda-Probuzdeniye in 1949 and 1950. It was written by one Ossip Tsebry. No biographical information on him, apart from that given in the article, was forthcoming on him. Apart from Albert Meltzer’s clumsy and garbled swipe at Arshinov and the Organisational Platform in the foreword, the pamphlet was interesting for the information it gave on peasant revolutionism in the Ukraine and support for the Makhnovist movement. The pamphlet ends with the defeat of the detachment Tsebry was in, with the modest statement that “I crossed into Poland, and then via Austria and Yugoslavia reached France”. How modest Tsebry was will be revealed in this fragmentary account of his life.
Ossip Vassilivitch Tsebry was born in the village of Tartaki in the western Ukraine, two kilometres outside the town of Zhmerinka. His father Vassili Grigoryevitch Tsebry was held in high regard in the village. He had done his military service in St Petersburg where he had been influenced by a volunteer soldier first-class, who held Bakuninist-anarchist ideas, and who had imparted them to Vassili and his fellow soldiers whilst spending his spare time educating them in reading and writing. These ideas were imparted to Ossip in his turn.
With the revolution of 1917, the villagers of Tartaki decided to work together communally following Vassili’s proposals at a mass meeting. With the invasion of the Austro-German forces and the regime of Hetman Skoropadsky the Tartaki villagers set up a self-defence unit. This participated in the defeat of Skoropadsky. Ossip continued fighting in a unit against the forces of Petliura. In October 1920 a small detachment under the command of Ossip Tsebry was sent to join the Makhnovists. This joined up with other volunteers at the village of Yaroshenko. It now became the Anarcho-Makhnovist Battle Detachment led by Korshun and numbering 350 combatants.
On the road to Kharkov at the village of Dachevo the detachment was attacked by infantry units of the Red Army. With the support of the local population, the detachment continued its operations, and disarmed militia in the village of Pyatigorye. It went on to winter in the village of Tetiev. Peasants there harboured combatants who helped them with agricultural work.
The Korshun detachment went on to defeat a force of 500 Red Army soldiers. It established contact with the main headquarters of Nestor Makhno. In spring 1921 the detachment numbering 500 headed to Znamenka, fighting Red units on the way and suffering heavy losses. In August the detachment linked up with the far larger one led by the Makhnovist commander Viktor Belash at Tatievka. After this was crushed by the Reds, Ossip along with two comrades moved to Poland, then to Austria and Yugoslavia.
In 1922 Ossip was in Bosnia. He moved to the village of Rosavats which was inhabited by a community of Rusyns (the Rusyns, also known as the Ruthenes, are a Slavic group speaking a language close to Ukrainian. They are to be found in communities in Poland, the Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Slovakia as well as Yugoslavia. They have never had a nation state. Andy Warhol and the poor man’s Burt Reynolds, Tom Selleck come from Ruthene stock) At a large meeting of the villagers he volunteered to work as a teacher, and this was enthusiastically accepted. In November, he began to teach 85 children, and in the evenings taught adults for one and a half hours. In January 1923 at Ossip’s suggestion the village established itself as an anarchist commune. It built its own one class village school, created producers' cooperatives, one of them called Makhno, a home for the elderly, a day nursery, a sawmill, a mill, a brickyard, a bakery, a creamery, a dairy, a smithy, a distillery, a tannery as well as acquiring agricultural machinery. It set up windmills and a small turbine to generate electricity. Ossip working together with the villagers obtained documents that showed that there were another 850 hectares of common land that could be used by the village.
Those regarded as a social nuisance like drunks and thieves were put into employment that brought out the best in them. Ossip saw that three drunks were appointed to the distillery where they became excellent workers and gave up drink. Similarly, when a thief was appointed night watchman, he fully justified the confidence shown in him!
The Rosavats commune linked up with 400 people from other villages and districts, expanding its influence over the area. All communards were well fed, well dressed and shod on every day of the year, not just feast days. This was all accomplished within five years.
In 1927, Russian Whites with their priests suddenly descended on the village. An ex-officer in the forces of the White leader Wrangel got a post in the county police. The Whites tried to force the villagers to build a church but they refused. The authorities then arrested Ossip and imprisoned him at Belgrade. After 8 days, he was expelled from Yugoslavia and he then illegally made his way to Austria, and then to France.
Ossip later learned that the villagers had protested against his deportation but were severely beaten. The community was forced to break up the commune property and revert to individual cultivation. Resistance continued, however. A priest and two monks were found dead -"poisoned by mushrooms" the villagers informed the authorities. A week later a church burnt down. With the victory of Tito's partisans, the resistance finally came to an end with villagers “invited” to move to the Ukraine by the Soviet consulate.
When in 1941 Nazi troops invaded the Ukraine Ossip managed to get to Kiev and here in 1942 created a guerrilla unit, independent of both the Stalinists and the Ukrainian nationalists, with the title of the Green Guard. This fighting unit based itself on anarchist and Makhnovist methods of organisation. Details of the actions taken by the detachment are vague- it appears to have fought both the Nazis and the Red Army- but by winter 1943 it was defeated by the Nazis, and Ossip was hidden by peasants for a few months. He was finally captured, but fortunately not recognised, which saved his life. He was thrown into a concentration camp and was only freed in 1945 by the Allies.
He emigrated to the United States in 1946. He was a member of the Russian Federation of Anarcho-Communist Groups in the United States and Canada and contributed to its journal Dielo Truda- Probuzdeniye which published his fragmentary memoirs. He contributed to the paper up until its demise in 1958.