The Ukrainian peasant Nestor Makhno visited Moscow in June, 1918 and had extensive interviews with the Bolshevik leaders Sverdlov and Lenin. This account amounts to two chapters from his memoirs and deals with his encounters with the Bolsheviks.
The Ukrainian peasant anarchist Nestor Makhno visited Moscow in June 1918 and was granted extensive interviews with the Bolshevik leaders Sverdlov and Lenin. Many years later Makhno, an exile in France, wrote his memoirs of the tumultuous years 1917-18. "My Visit to the Kremlin" is a translation of the two chapters which deal with his encounters with the Bolshevik titans. Excerpts from these interviews have been quoted in various works in English but the full account was presented here for the first time (1979). (i)
(This pamphlet was sent by us to a Moscow publisher in 1992 and will appear in a re-translated edition in Russia for the first time simultaneously with this new edition - 1993 note).
Moscow in June 1918
In June 1918 the Bolshevik regime was enjoying a brief respite from the rigours of revolution and civil war. Although surrounded on all sides by hostile forces, the Bolsheviks were in no immediate military danger. This welcome hiatus, lasting from the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (march 1918) to the collapse of the Central Powers at the end of the year, allowed the Bolsheviks to consolidate their political and military strength.
From the point of view of the Russian anarchists, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk represented the watershed of the Revolution. In coming to terms with the Central Powers, the Bolsheviks had paid a staggering price in territory and resources. But, more importantly, they had preferred to make a pact with the imperialists rather than attempt to propagate the Revolution through popular initiatives, in particular, by partisan warfare. (ii)
Shortly after Brest-Litovsk the Bolsheviks turned against their erstwhile allies, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries and the anarchists. The Cheka, ostensibly created to suppress counter-revolutionaries, was unleashed on the Bolsheviks' critics on the left. The immediate pretext for the suppression of the Moscow anarchists occurred when the representative of the US government complained his automobile had been stolen by anarchists. (According to a representative of the British Government, Bruce Lockhart, it was Trotsky's car that was taken). 0n the night of April 11, twenty-six anarchist centres were raided by the Cheka. The largest centre, the House of Anarchy on Malaia Dimitrovka Streeet (formerly the Chamber of Commerce) was the scene of a fierce battle. Dozens of anarchists and Chekists were killed and hundreds arrested during the night of terror. (iii) This unequal battle was repeated in many other Russian cities.
The official suppression of the anarchists was not without repercussions within the Communist Party itself. (iv) For a time after Brest-Litovsk a group within the top leadership associated with Bukharin contemplated a coup against Lenin, in order to halt the rapid slide to the right. But these dissidents soon reverted to uncritical support of the regime. (v)
The Ukraine in 1918
While the Revolution had already spent itself in Russia, in the Ukraine it had hardly begun. The Ukraine was predominantly a peasant region: in 1918 only one per cent of the population could be classified as industrial workers and these were concentrated in a few centres in the east and south. The peasants of the Ukraine reacted slowly to the overthrow of Tsarist power and the resulting political vacuum. But their revolution gradually gained momentum, until it became an all-encompassing movement with few parallels in the history of popular insurrection. (vi)
After the February revolution in 1917, a weak nationalist government, the Central Rada (vii) was established in Kiev. This government failed to gain recognition from either the Provisional Government ln Petrograd or the successor Bolshevik regime. Early in1918 a Bolshevlk army under General Antonov invaded the Ukraine. The Central Rada was unable to muster popular support to repel the invasion force, which consisted almost entirely of non-Ukrainian soldiers. After the invaders captured Kiev in early February, the Central Rada signed a peace treaty with the Central Powers and sought military aid against the Bolsheviks. Austrian and German troops then entered the Ukraine, clearing it of Russlan troops and various partisan groups by the end of April. Once they had occupied the Ukraine, the Central Powers proceeded to loot the country of alI the foodstuffs and raw materials they could lay their hands on. Finding the Central Rada more of a nuisance than an aid in this project, the occupying forces engineered a coup by the aristocratic landowner Pavel Skoropadsky on April 29th. Skoropadsky proclaimed himself Hetman of alI the Ukraine. (viii) The Hetmanate represented a return to feudal reaction complete with elaborate costumes and religious-historical ceremonies. In the countryside the revolutionary elements were driven underground or into exile.
Nestor Makhno was 27 when he visited the Russian capital in 1918. He had spent a third of his life behind bars, including seven years in Moscow's Butyrki prison. Arrested in 1908 for anarchist activities in the region of his native village of Guylai-Polye, he was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labour. Released by the February Revolution, he returned to Gulai-Polye. The only surviyor of the revolutionary group which had been crushed there a decade earlier (x). Makhno immediately threw himself into organising unions, communes and soviets- The Central Rada's authorily scarcely extended into the region of the Ukraine where Makhno was active; the local peasant groups proceeded to expropriate the landed gentry on their own initiative. When the Bolsheviks invaded lhe Ukraine for the first time in January 1918, Makhno and his anarchist partisan group assisted them by expelling the weak forces of the Central Rada from the Left Bank Ukralne (east of the Dnieper river).
Three months later when the Bolsheviks were pushed out of the eastern end of the Ukraine by combined Austro-German and Central Rada forces, Makhno's partisans and several other anarchist bands retreated with them. At the end of April a conference of Ukrainian anarchists was held in the coastal town of Taganrog, temporarily under Bolshevik control. The conference decided on a policy of organising an underground movement in the Ukrainian villages. Makhno was delegated to make a two-month trip to Russia to contact other anarchist groups and determine the Bolsheviks' attitude towards anarchist activity in the Ukraine (xi). Makhno made his way alowly across the chaotic hinterland of young Soviet Russia, surviving several harrowing adventures. Arriving in Moscow at the beginning of June, he met with the leading anarchists as well as representatives of other political factions. The anti-Bolshevik left was leading a tenuous existence, still tolerated by the authorities, but deprived of freedom of action.Coming from a region where revolutionary activity was still on the upswing and the old social order had yet to be overthrown, Makhno was impatient with the stagnation and defeatism he encountered in Moscow . In his memoirs he writes disparagingly of the “paper revolution” of the Russian intellectuals as opposed to the vigorous anarchist movement he expected to evolve in the Ukraine (xii).
Lenin and Sverdlov
Makhno's ostensible purpose in visiting the Kremlin was to apply for a free room ticket. But one can be sure he hoped to sound out the Bolshevik leaders on their attitude toward peasant revolution in the Ukraine. In this he was eminently successful. In June 1918 the Bolshevik government was still sufficiently flexible and informal that a "semi-literate peasant" (as Makhno describes himse!f) could wander through the corridors of power and meet face to face with lhe mightiest leaders. After a chance encounter with Bukharin, Makhno spoke next to Sverdlov's secretary, then Sverdlov himself, who later introduced Makhno to Lenin. The Bolshevik leaders were generally young men, not much older than Makhno, with long records of experience in the revolutionary movement. Bukharin was 30, Sverdlov 33 when Makhno met them. Lenin at 48 had long been referred to by his associates as the "Old Man”. At one point in 1918 Lenin remarked to Trotsky, “If the White Generals kill us, you and me, do you think Bukharin and Sverdlov could manage things?" (xiii) This indicates that Makhno was able to meet three of the top four Bolsheviks (Trotsky seems to have been in Moscow at the time but was totally occupied in organising the Red Army).
Yakov Sverdlov is little remembered today because of his early death In March 1919, a victim of the world-wide influenza epidemic. But in 1918, as chairman of the AII-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets he was technically the head of the Soviet state. Of more practical significance, Sverdlov was also the de facto General Secretary of the Russian Communist Party, a position later made more famous by his eventual successor, Josef Stalin.
Sverdlov's qualifications for these exalted positions were his many years of service to the Bolshevik underground and his slavish devotion to Lenin. Unlike his colleagues in the top echelon, Sverdlov had no reputation as a theorist. Indeed, according to a biographical sketch written by another Bolshevik leader, Sverdlov "had no ideas ... he never originated anything.” Sverdlov was noted rather for his organising talents and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Party. (xiv) In his capacity as Party Secretary, Sverdlov was constantly called upon to make quick judgments of character in assigning Party members to suitable posts. Presumably it was his ability to size up people which caused him to devote so much time to an obscure peasant agitator and commend him to Lenin's attention.
Since these interviews were written by Makhno many years after the event, it is necessary to consider the accuracy of his account. Evidently the Bolshevik leaders made a strong impression on Makhno and he must have discussed his encounters with them thoroughly with his Moscow comrades. So while the record cannot be taken as a literal transcript, it seems reasonable to infer that it represents a close approximation to what actually transpired.
But it must be remembered that in writing his memoirs, an effort he pursued doggedly under the most difficult circumstances, Makhno was not interested primarily in serving the needs of professional historians. Rather he was writing to the Ukrainian peasants and workers whose aspirations he had tried to advance, explaining the interpretations of their lost revolution. In this connection, the authenticity of Makhno's clashes with the Bolsheviks over Ukrainian sovereignty is open to question. He portrays Sverdlov and Lenin as Great Russian chauvinists and himself as a supporter of some form of Ukrainian autonomy. (xv) There is little doubt Sverdlov and Lenin were opposed to Ukrainian autonomy in 1918, but for Makhno at that time “Ukrainian" was more of a political than a national designation, reserved for his enemies the adherents of the Central Rada. So the emphasis on his nationality may be a later interpolation. Makhno's views on the national question evidently underwent some development during his exile, although his commitment to anti-statism precluded his becoming a nationalist.
Notes to the Translator's Introduction:
David Footman in "Civil War in Russia" (London 1961), chap 6. Paul Avrich, "The Russian Anarchists" (Princeton 1967) pp.210-211. Michael Palij, "The Anarchism of Nestor Makhno 1918-21" (Seattle 1976) chaps 7,9.
(ii) Voline, "The Unknown Revolution 1917-1921" (Detroit 1974) pp 239-246
(iii) Avrich, "The Russian Anarchists". pp 183-185. In anarchist historiography, this event is comparable to the suppression of left-wing militants in Barcelona in May 1937 by the Communist and republican forces.
(iv) The name of the party was changed from Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party (Bolshevik) to Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) in March 1918. The capital of the Russian state was moved at the same time from Petrograd to Moscow.
(v) Robert V. Daniels, "The Conscience of the Revolution", chap.3.
(vi) Arthur E. Adams, "The Great Ukrainian Jacquerie", in Taras Hunczak, ed. "The Ukraine 1917-1921, A Study in Revolution" (Cambridge, Mass. 1977)
(vii) 'Rada' means 'council' and is the Ukrainian equivalent of the Russian word 'soviet'.
(viii) 'Hetman' is roughly translated as 'chieftain' and was the title held by leaders of the Ukrainian Cossacks during the 17th and 18th centuries.
(ix) Palij, "Anarchism of Nestor Makhno", chap. 1.
(x) The same, pp.67-70
(xi) The same, chap. 8.
(xii) The same, pp 90-91.
(xiii) Leon Trotsky, "My Life" (New York 1930) p. 338. Trotsky replied, "Perhaps they won't kill us."
(xiv) Anatol Lunacharsky, "Revolutionary Silhouettes" (London 1967). Lunacharsky includes the bizarre detail that Sverdlov was in the habit of dressing entirely in black leather.
(xv) Frank Sysyn, "Nestor Makhno and the Ukrainian Revolution", in Hunczak (already mentioned).