A short biography of Anton Matrosenko, anarchist communist and active in Makhnovist cultural activities
Matrosenko came from the Bulgarians who had settled in Ukraine in the Azov region. He was born into a farm labourer’s family in the overwhelmingly Bulgarian village of Sofievka, in the Berdyansk district. Apparently the family Ukrainised the name from Matrosov, or it was later Ukrainised by Makhnovists , among whom Anton was later to be very popular. He started working from an early age grazing the herds of the German settlers. He joined the Novospasovka group of anarchist communists in 1907. He was very talented artistically, able to sing and recite and dance well, a good amateur actor, and a dab hand at the accordion. Fond of jokes and cheerful when drunk, Anton proved to be a favourite among the Makhnovists.
He took an active part in the uprising in 1918 against the Hetman Skoropadsky, who was backed by the Austro-Hungarian and German forces. He participated from the first in the Makhnovist movement and was a member of its cultural and educational section from June 1919 and head of its theatre section. On May 29, 1920, in Aleksandrovka, he was elected a member of the Makhnovist cultural enlightenment team and directed the Makhnovist mobile theatre. Theatre was very popular with both Makhno and the Makhnovists in general, as an enlightening and propagandistic art form. The Makhnovists retained a theatrical section even in the worst of times. The Makhnovist commander Alexander Kalashnikov praised the powers of theatre at a Makhnovist gathering. During the civil war, the interest in theatre of the population of Gulyai Polye did not waver, and in fact increased. Peasants, workers and the rural intelligentsia (teachers and students) all took part in theatrical productions.
Anton was particularly fond of the writing of Taras Shevchenko, a founder of modern Ukrainian literature, and often read verses from Shevchenko’s work Kobsar at Makhnovist rallies and gatherings in villages occupied by the Makhnovists. In addition he translated Makhnovist texts into Bulgarian.
Later, in 1920, Matrosenko directed the Makhnovist mobile theatre and was a member of the cultural and educational department of the Council of Revolutionary Insurgents of Ukraine (RRPU).
It was Matrosenko who persuaded Makhno to give his consent to a full length portrait by the local artist Anastasiy Bryantsev from the village of Andrievka. Matrosenko’s cultural and educational section operated from the building of the former Peasant Bank and the portraits of Makhno and Taras Shevchenko hung there. The future artist Alexander Komorny described the entry of the Makhnovists into the village of Popovka in early autumn 1918, with a tachanka flying a red flag with Death to the bourgeoisie Capital inscribed upon it, and how Matrosenko and Trofim Vdovichenko, a leading member of the Novospasovka anarchist communist group and gifted Makhnovist commander, addressed the crowd. He noted that they both dressed in expensive black fur coats with astrakhan collars, with astrakhan hats and Mausers in wooden holsters hanging from their coats.
Komorny describes how later in spring 1919 Matrosenko, accompanied by the Makhnovist commander Fedor Shchus, visited Bryantsev’s studio in Andrievka to commission banners for the Makhnovists. In the course of this it was decided to commission a portrait of Makhno. The following day Makhno arrived, limping on a crutch and stick, as a result of a bullet that had broken all the bones in his ankle. Komorny and Bryantsev carried out preliminary sketches, but Makhno was unable to sit for very long because of the pain. During the course of the sittings, Makhno stayed next door to Bryantsev’s studio in the house of a famous bookbinder, who was later rewarded for this hospitality by being shot by the Bolsheviks in December 1920. In the end it was decided, due to Makhno’s discomfort to finish the portrait using a full length photo taken by the Berdyansk photographer Yampolsky. Shchus suggested that Makhno posed with a Mauser in one hand, to which he replied, “Maybe put a dagger between my teeth and a grenade in my hand?”. Everyone laughed, except Shchus, who was displeased.
The portrait appears not to have survived, but the photo is featured above.
In April 1921 he was hiding with Vdovichenko on the Novoivanovka farm near Novospasovka. Surrounded by a Red punitive detachment, he shot himself rather than surrender to the tender mercies of the Cheka.