A short biography of Voldemar Antoni, mentor of revolutionary leader Nestor Makhno and one of the founders of the Gulyai-Polye anarchist movement.
"In my life I had the good fortune to fall as a teenager under the ideological influence of the anarchist and revolutionary Vladimir Antoni (known in revolutionary circles as " Zarathustra ").” Nestor Makhno in Gulyai Polye in the Russian Revolution (1929)
Voldemar Antoni was born on April 4th 1886 at Gulyai Polye, the son of the Czech mechanic Henrik Aloisevich Antoni and the German Susana Yakovlevna Bonelis. There was a daughter and one other son born to the family. Bohemian Czechs had first settled in the Ukraine in 1862 following conflict with German domination. His mother died in 1895 and Voldemar went to live and work with his uncle who ran an inn on the main market square. The nine year old Voldemar met the seven year old Nestor Makhno at a fairground that year and they became friends. In 1899 he began work at the agricultural machines factory run by the industrialist Krieger at the age of thirteen. Quiet but friendly, bespectacled with a pale complexion, the tall youth always dressed smartly.
In 1902 he moved with his father to Ekaterinoslav, settling in the suburb of Amur. In 1904 he appears to have become an anarchist communist operating under the name of Zarathustra and to have been exiled or obliged to move to Gulyai Polye for his activities. Here he worked as a lathe operator as well as teaching in the first Gulyai Polye primary school. He re-established relations with his old schoolmates and in conversation revealed his political and social views. He was still in contact with the strong anarchist movement in Ekaterinoslav. He worked to set up a dynamic group of young workers and peasants, together with the young peasant Alexander Semeniuta*. This group operated under the name of the Union of Poor Peasants (SBH).As well as Ekaterinoslav it had contacts with anarchists in Moscow, Geneva and Paris. The establishment of the group was confirmed by the visit to Gulyai Polye from Ekaterinoslav of Nikolai Muzil (Rogdaev), interestingly also of Czech origin, who delivered a lecture on anarchism in 1904. The SBH had fifty core members and a circle of 200 supporters and sympathisers known as “massists”. It carried out the dissemination of illegal anarchist propaganda through word and leaflets, an education programme among the local population, the countering of the Black Hundreds style organisation the Union of the Archangel Gabriel, the expropriation of funds from local landowners, industrialists and banks, and the burning of the estates of various active reactionaries. This rural organisation of anarchist communists was one of the first in the Russian Empire. Whilst others were set up in the Kiev, Poltava , Kherson and Kharkhov regions of the Ukraine, none proved as durable as that at Gulyai-Polye.
Nestor Makhno fell under the influence of Antoni, seeing him as his ideal older brother. At the suggestion of Antoni he even read Don Quixote by Cervantes whilst working as a swineherd in spring 1906. The now famous photo of Makhno sitting to the left of Antoni and with other members of the group was taken in a photographic studio in Gulyai-Polye on May 1st 1907.
On the 26th July 1906 Antoni carried out an armed raid with Makhno and Alexander and Prokop Semeniuta at the Gaichur station to net some funds for the financing of propaganda. Other expropriations followed.
In September 1907 Makhno committed the error of lending a gun to a Social Revolutionary friend who proceeded to fire on his ex-girlfriend who had jilted him, then attempting to kill himself. Makhno was subsequently arrested and when Antoni went to attempt to pass him a message, he himself was arrested. The local police chief Karachentsev, a zealous pursuer of the local anarchists, supervised a severe interrogation. They failed to get an admission of guilt from either anarchist., Karachentsev remarking that: “ As for the other one, Antoni, when I interrogated him, having him beaten at will, he dared declare to me..”You, dead meat, you’ll never get anything out of me!” And yet I gave him a good taste of the ‘swing’”. Antoni was only released after one month, Makhno after ten. In the coming period Karachentsev dismantled the anarchist grouping resulting in many arrests and several shootings and executions. Both Antoni and Alexander Semeniuta were forced to flee.
In 1909 together with Alexander Semeniuta he returned to Gulyai-Polye to attempt to kill Karachentsev. The latter was lured to a performance at the local theatre on November 22nd. It appears he was an enthusiast of drama, although the more mundane reason of checking up on the possibility of subversive ideas might have been the motivation for his visit (the local amateur dramatic group was under anarchist influence. It was there that Makhno had met Nazar Zuychenko who introduced him to the anarchist group. It is possible that the play was specifically put on by the theatre group to lure Karachentsev. The theatre group survived until 1927 although its members were constantly persecuted because of their perceived involvement in the Makhnovist movement). Semeniuta shot the police chief dead and then went into hiding for a year finally being surrounded at a house by Don Cossacks on May 1st 1910. In the fighting that ensued Semeniuta shot himself rather than be captured. His lover, Marta Piven, who was an anarchist communist originally from Alexandrovsk, was seriously wounded. A Don Cossack rescued her from the burning house (she was still alive in 1966 when Antoni met up with her in the Ukraine). Meanwhile Antoni appears to have become discouraged leaving the Ukraine for Paris. Here he mixed in anarchist circles and it was here in 1909 that he received a letter from the Jewish anarchist Azik (Izaak) Honovich Vilkhov. Azik had been a member of the Union of Poor Peasants and had lived at the Jewish colony of Novozlatopolye near Gulyai-Polye. He had fled to Argentina following persecution by the Tsarist police and invited Antoni to join him. Antoni moved there in the same year under the false name of Grigori A. Lyapunov. The bad economic conditions in Buenos Aires made him move on and he worked building a railroad in the Brazilian jungle, harvesting on the Argentinian pampas, and hunting wild boars with Russian Old Believers at the foot of the Andes.
In 1928 he lived on a small island in the Uruguay River with his eight sons where he engaged in beekeeping. This proved to be a successful venture.He was still in contact with Makhno who sent him two of his books of his memoirs for his comments. Antoni regularly sent unsolicited money to support Makhno and his family in the following year, although he never asked for news from Makhno.
In 1941 he joined the Communist Party in Uruguay and in 1944 M. Churkin the Soviet attaché at Montevideo thanked him in writing for a donation he had given to the Soviet Red Cross.
Severe floods ruined his beekeeping enterprise in the early sixties. In 1962 he decided to return to the Soviet Union. His wife refused this so he journeyed back without her on a Russian whaling ship, together with his daughter, three sons and two grandchildren, even earning some money working on the ship during the voyage.
However despite Antoni’s apparent embracing of the Communist Party, he and his family were treated with suspicion by the Soviet authorities. They could not forget that he had been the mentor of Makhno and had laid the foundations for the movement in Gulyai-Polye. The family was sent to a cotton growing collective in Kazakhstan where they lived in bad conditions in a tent on the steppe. The collective had previously been a special camp for the correction of enemies of the people. Instead of receiving a pension at the age of 77, Antoni was forced to continue working. However members of the family were able to use their marriage connections with officials in the Communist Party to enable transfer to the Ukraine. Antoni ended up in Nikopol in 1963. He was not allowed to use his real name by the authorities, continuing to use that of Lyapunov. He worked as a watchman. He still had trouble obtaining a pension. In the meantime he began writing his memoirs. In 1967 he was finally given a pension following a decision at district level.
He died on May 15th 1974 at Nikopol and was buried under his real name in the local cemetery. He bequeathed his memoirs to the local history museum at Gulyai Polye.
Antoni’s memoirs raise a number of worrying questions. As can be seen from above Makhno greatly admired Antoni. From the position of Makhno to the left of Antoni in the group photograph he appears to have his trust and his sending of funds from South America to Makhno in Paris also indicates a continued support. However Antoni insisted that he addressed only personal correspondence with Makhno’s family. In his memoirs he calls Makhno "drachlivy" loosely translated as meaning feisty, and unfit for secret work. This may have been initiated by the incident with the gun, which led to both of their arrests. Antoni also wrote that Makhno got drunk on vodka and then became involved in fights with the police and that Makhno was only let into the inner group of the Union of Poor Peasants whilst Antoni was away from Gulyai Polye and against his previous advice. Were these Antoni’s real feelings or were they coloured by his need to protect himself in his old age and with his arduous struggle to obtain a pension?
*Alexander Konstantinovich Semeniuta (1883-1910). Born in Gulyai Polye to a poor peasant family, Alexander was only educated to primary level. In 1902 he was conscripted and whilst serving in Odessa came in contact with the Bialystok organisation Chernoe Znamia (Black Banner) and became a member of the organisation. He deserted in 1903, becoming involved in armed attacks on the authorities.
Sources: Skirda, A. Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack. AK Press.
Malet, M. Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War.MacMillan Press.
http://www.pseudology.org/Eneida/AntoniVG.htm (online article on Antoni)
http://www.makhno.ru/lit/chop/1.pdf (Vladimir Chop on Antoni)