Chapter 30: Egorov’s urgent summons; the loss of our military sector

It was a very tense moment. The Ukrainian nationalist organization seemed to be moribund. Its members didn't say anything, they mostly just did what they were asked to do.

The artillery and infantry were tuned up. We intended to advance but didn't have panoramic sights for our cannon. We sent a telegram to Belenkevich: could he not provide us with new panoramic sights? We didn't get an answer. At night Ukrainian SRs – the agronomist Dmitrenko and two youths – the fanatical nationalists P. Kovalenko and Mikita Konoplya – cut all the telegraph and telephone wires outside of Gulyai-Pole. This deprived me of connections with the staff of the Red Army command. I made sure all the peasants were informed about this evil deed. After a few hours connections were re-established. I got word from Belenkevich that the panoramic sights and spare parts for the cannons and machine guns should be found in certain boxes in a certain railway car. Everything turned up and was distributed where needed.
In the meantime proclamations of the Ukrainian socialists-nationalists appeared in Gulyai-Pole and throughout the raion explaining the alliance of the Central Rada with their German "brothers" who were helping the sons of Ukraine "liberate the Ukraine from the yoke of the katzaps". This proclamation concluded with an appeal to the population to help the Central Rada and its German and Austro-Hungarian brothers finish off the enemy... .

At the same time a rumour was spreading among the inhabitants of Gulyai-Pole to the effect that the German troops were destroying all the towns and villages in their path which offered resistance to them and the Central Rada. And, on the other hand, those citizens who co-operated with them were provided with all the necessities, including sugar, footwear, and textiles.

More and more often and loudly began to be heard among the population outbursts such as: "—and what if the Germans burn villages?... Then they will burn Gulyai-Pole!... What will happen to our children, our parents?!... ." And then one the agents of the Central Rada blurted out the word "delegation" which was quickly seized upon and repeated from one person to the next among the toilers of Gulyai-Pole.

This word attracted my attention. I called a meeting of the Revkom, the Soviet, and the A-K Group and proposed to publish an appeal headed by the following lines: "The soul of the traitor and the conscience of the tyrant are as black as the night in springtime". I also wanted to organize a meeting to explain to the whole population of Gulyai-Pole the provocative meaning of the term "delegation", etc.

At that very moment I learned that several supporters of the Central Rada had just arrived in Gulyai-Pole and were trying to convince the population that they had been made prisoners by the Bolsheviks while returning from the External Front but had succeeded in escaping. I also learned that under the direction of the father of one of these so-called escapees, Tikhon Byk, a delegation was being prepared to treat with the German command.

I therefore asked the comrades to organize the meeting as quickly as possible and went looking for Tikhon Byk. When I found him, I demanded an explanation of this "delegation". He offered denials for a long time, but when he realized this was useless, he told me not to involve myself in this question: "It's the people's business." I left him in peace, declaring that for such an action the people themselves would wring his neck and do the same to all those who tried to defend him.

The appeal was published and the meeting convened, a meeting at which everyone agreed on the necessity of an immediate departure for the front. During the meeting I received a telegram from the commander of a Red Guard detachment, Egorov, summoning me urgently to his headquarters on the Verkhnij-Tokmak – Fedorovka railway line.

I had to make a hurried trip to Commune #1, of which I was a member. I had received a report that about ten drunken sailors had arrived there from the headquarters of the Red Army reserve forces. They had shot one of the members of the Commune. It was necessary to get them out of there without more bloodshed. I succeeded in convincing the sailors to leave. Then I went to the station of Pologi and took the train for Egorov's headquarters.

Half way there I learned that he had withdrawn in the direction of Uzovo, so I travelled on the branch line Verkhnij-Tokmak – Tsarevokonstantinovka. At Tsarevokonstantinovka I met Belenkevich and his reserve armies which had retreated from Pologi. They had also lost touch with Egorov's headquarters. They didn't expect to re-establish a connection until nightfall. I was worried about not having caught up with Egorov by now. And the knowledge that I needed to be in Gulyai-Pole on the morning of April 16, no matter what, increased my anxiety.

I had just decided not to spend any more time looking for Egorov and return to Gulyai-Pole when Comrade Belenkevich said to me: "If Comrade Egorov summoned you, you must try to see him before leaving for the front. He has probably decided not to send your battalion to Chaplino because this sector had already been evacuated by us."

This news stunned me! I decided to wait for nightfall when Comrade Belenkevich had re-established contact with Egorov's headquarters.

Around 9 p.m. I sent a telephone message to both the headquarters in Gulyai-Pole and the Revkom, warning them that I had been delayed for an indefinite period.

At midnight I received from Pologi, by way of Tsarekonstaninovka, news that Gulyai-Pole had been traitorously surrendered to the Germans and the troops of the Central Rada.

I didn't believe this incredible news which bore no signature. However, at 1 a.m. I telephoned Pologi station and asked if they had sent the telephone message at midnight. The operator told me: "Yes, two young men with weapons came in and one of them sent the message you have received. He refused to provide a signature."

I tried to contact Gulyai-Pole, but I was told that Gulyai-Pole is not answering.

Just as I was getting ready to leave for Gulyai-Pole I received news that Egorov's headquarters was at Volnovakha, about 45 or 50 kilometres from Tsarevokonstantinovka. I decided to go there, but, when I arrived, I learned the Egorov had already left for Dolya. I telegraphed: "Will Egorov's headquarters stay long at Dolya?" and received the reply that it had already left for Taganrog.

I left the telegraph office and headed for the locomotive. At this moment Belenkevich's echelon arrived at the station. Who should jump down from the train but my nephew Foma (son of my oldest brother) who, looking distraught, handed me a letter.

I tore open the envelope and read what follows, which was already out of date:

"Nestor Ivanovich: no sooner had you left Gulyai-Pole than Tikhon Bik also left with some of the nationalists. Two stories circulated here: one said that they were going to follow you and treacherously kill you... . So be very careful during your return trip, especially at Pologi station... . The second said that T. Bik left with a secret delegation from Gulyai-Pole to the German forces. Immediately after he left, I sent two of our friends to his home. His wife said that he had gone to visit relatives for two days... . I have just learned, while writing these lines, that some kind of delegation from the Central Rada and the German armies has arrived in Gulyai-Pole. But it is hidden for the moment and not showing itself to the population. I have taken all measures to arrest this delegation... but am not sure of success. Please return quickly; without your presence we are all sad and depressed... . – signed: Your faithful B. Veretel'nik. April 15, 1918.

I began to question my nephew about Gulyai-Pole but my voice trembled and I was overcome with nervous exhaustion. Closing my eyes, I collapsed on a bench, motioning to my nephew that I couldn't listen to him... . A few minutes later I sat in my railway car and left for Tsarevokonstantinovka – Pologi – Gulyai-Pole.

As a result of the retreat of the echelons of the Red Guards, I was held up three or four hours between Volnovakha and Tsarevokonstantinovka. Arriving at Tsarevokonstantinovka, I received more news from Gulyai-Pole, more worrisome still. I read:

"My dear Nestor Ivanovich. During the night of April 16, on a counterfeit order supposedly signed by you, the anarchist detachment was recalled from Chaplino and disarmed en route. All our comrades from Gulyai-Pole, all the members of the Revkom and the Soviet have been arrested and expect to be turned over to the German military and Central Rada authorities to be executed. This treason was directed by the nationalists A. Volokh, I. Volkov, Osip Solovej, commander of artillery V. Sharovskij, and others. Three hours before we were arrested, the Jewish or Central Company was assigned garrison duty. The miserable traitors deceived the Jews and forced them to carry out their vile scheme.

At the time of our arrest we were all disarmed and beaten with blows from rifle butts. Some of our guys who were still armed fired on the enemy.

They say the bourgeoisie is gloating.

Our friend Aleksis Marchenko was apprehended by the leaders of the traitors but he succeeded in escaping. A group of young Jews was send to find him. Marchenko responded with a few shots, threw two or three grenades, and disappeared. But he was captured about 15 kilometres from Gulyai-Pole by Jews from the Mezhirichi colony, taken to Gulyai-Pole, and handed over to the headquarters of the traitors.

They say that the mood of the peasants is downcast. There is hatred towards the Jews for their behaviour.

I am transmitting this letter to you through the sentinel Sh., indicating through whom he can get it to you. If you receive it, come quickly with some kind of force to rescue us.

Your faithful B. Veretel'nik.

16 April. 9 a.m."

While I read this letter from Comrade Veretel'nik, the detachment of Maria Nikiforova arrived at Tsarevokonstantinovka station. I informed her of the events which had just unfolded in Gulyai-Pole. She immediately telephoned the commander of a detachment of Red Guards, a certain sailor Polupanov who was currently engaged in combat with "White Guards" in Mariupol'. Maria Nikiforova proposed that he return to Tsarevokonstantinovka in order to launch an attack against Gulyai-Pole with her.

The sailor Polupanov replied that he couldn't go back that way and advised Nikiforova to evacuate the Tsarevokonstantinovka–Pologi area before the Germans cut off her retreat.

While this was going on, the detachment of the sailor Stepanov arrived in Tsarevokonstantinovka and, shortly after, the Siberian detachment of Petrenko, composed of two echelons of cavalry and infantry.

Nikiforova asked Stepanov to return with her to Pologi and from there, with the protection of two armoured cars, move on Gulyai-Pole. Stepanov declared that he had attached to his echelon several wagons of fugitives which he was delivering to Comrade Belenkevich. Then he intended to go on to Taganrog. Indeed, he left immediately.

Nikiforova and Petrenko (the commander of the Siberian detachment) decided to return to Pologi and occupy Gulyai-Pole by force in order to free all the anarchists and other revolutionaries being held there. They also intended to gather up the revolutionary armed forces which had been deceived and help them evacuate Gulyai-Pole, or, at any rate, to collect any weapons which might otherwise fall into the hands of the Germans.

While the detachments were preparing to leave, I paced up and down the platform, tearing out my hair and regretting bitterly that I had not sent the detachment formed by the A-K Group from Gulyai-Pole to the Front. Then I received a third letter from Comrade Veretel'nik:

"My dear friend Nestor Ivanovich, the infamous leaders of the treason, terrified by I know not what, have freed me as well as Comrade Gorev on condition, however, that we leave Gulyai-Pole.

Comrade Gorev and I have profited from this circumstance to organize in each sotnia a meeting with the participation of the older peasants. At these meetings, the peasants voted for resolutions demanding the immediate release of everyone arrested, especially the anarchists, and sent these resolutions to the headquarters of the traitors. All our comrades were freed.

Many of the young Jewish workers, and all of the bourgeoisie, with the exception of M. E. Helbuch and Levy, have run off somewhere for fear of vengeance. However no one here has laid a hand on them because all our comrades understand quite well that the leaders of the treason involved them in their scheme in order to set them up for a pogrom.

The Germans are approaching Gulyai-Pole. Our comrades are hiding in groups. The peasants are concealing the rifles, machine guns, and ammunition and are dispersing, some to the fields, some to the neighbouring villages.

Some of my friends and myself plan to remain in Gulyai-Pole up to the last minute. Perhaps we shall succeed in killing Lev Shneider. At the moment our comrades were arrested at the office of the A-K Group, he was the first to enter with the haidamaks. He ripped up our banner and tore up and trampled on the portraits of Kropotkin, Bakunin, and Sasha Semenyuta. This vile act was witnessed by numerous workers and peasants.

I myself have not seen Lev Shneider, but I've heard from a number of sources that he has been blabbing away to the haidamaks. We'll talk about him later. Be careful not to fall into the paws of the Germans. It's better if you don't come to Gulyai-Pole. You can't do anything more for us now: the Germans have occupied Orekhov and Pokrovskoe, and they will probably be in Gulyai-Pole in two or three hours.

We will find you.

For the time being, we careful.

Your faithful B. Veretel'nik

April 16, 3 p.m."

As soon as I finished reading this letter I hurried to Maria Nikiforova and together we ran to Comrade Petrenko. I read both of them the letter of Veretel'nik and told them that it was my opinion that it was too late to go to Gulyai-Pole which must already be occupied by the Germans. As for driving them out of Gulyai-Pole, it was unthinkable with only our two detachments. Moreover, the Germans would be able to prevent us from getting anywhere close to Gulyai-Pole.

If it was true they had occupied the city of Orekhov, it was then probable they were approaching Pologi. And if it was true the Red Guards had abandoned Chaplino to the Germans and evacuated Grishino, then Gulyai-Pole was already well behind the German front.

Whereas Comrades Nikiforova and Petrenko had begun by putting me down, saying I understood nothing of their strategy and didn't appreciate the combat resources of their detachments, they now hastened to turn their echelons from the Pologi direction to the direction of Volnovakha. They stopped talking about Pologi and Gulyai-Pole.

I asked them: "Why are you in such a hurry? Have you received some bad news about this sector?" M. Nikiforova replied that the Germans had occupied the stations of Pologui and Verkhnij-Tokmak and that they had thereby cut off the anarchist detachment of Comrade Mokrousov on the Verkhnij-Tokmak – Berdyansk line.

"If you wish," said M. Nikiforova, "you can sit in my wagon. I am going to give the order to my echelon to continue on in the direction of Volnovakha–Yuzovka." And she added softly, with a slight smile, excusing herself: "You were totally right to say it was too late to go to Gulyai-Pole. All the approaches are occupied by the Germans."

However I declined to retreat with M. Nikiforova's detachment, declaring I would remain there for the time being, especially since Petrenko's detachment had decided to spend the night there. I was hoping that some of my comrades from Gulyai-Pole would show up. I had, indeed, upon first learning that Gulyai-Pole had been betrayed to the Germans, sent Aleksandr Lepetchenko there with the mission of explaining to the "communards" the direction they must take in their flight and recommended that he accompany them. As for Comrades Veretel'nik, Gorev, Marchenko, Polonskij, Kalashnikov, Petrovskij, Lyutyi, Savva Makhno, S. Shepel, M. Kalinichenko, P. Sokruta, and others, Aleksandr Lepetchenko was to tell them to leave Gulyai-Pole as quickly as possible and head for the Red Front. There they would find me.

During the time that Petrenko's detachment was at the Tsarevokonstantinovka station, I was able to greet a number of comrades who had remained at Gulyai-Pole up until the arrival of the German and Austro-Hungarian forces, preceded by a reconnaissance squadron of the Central Rada about 40 - 50 strong. They told me the story of everything that had happened in Gulyai-Pole in the two days following my departure. They had tears in their eyes as they told me about the foul treason of Lev Schneider, a comrade of our Group, and of the Jewish regiment tricked by the gang of traitors.

They also told me about the entry of the German and Austro-Hungarian forces and the detachment of the Central Rada. They told about the local agents of the Central Rada, citizens of Gulyai-Pole, in particular sub-lieutenants A. Volokh, I. Volkov, L. Sakhno-Prikhod'ko (SR), Pidojma, and some others – small fry but vicious – such as Osip Solovej, V. Sharovskij (SR), and the agronomist Dmitrenko. This bunch prepared themselves to receive the hangmen of the Revolution – the Germans and Austro-Hungarians – hoping to prove that they were also killers of the Revolution and all that was best in it.

This crème-de-la-crème of the Ukrainian patriots, the so-called "flower of our people", were ready to follow the example of the German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers who, leaving their own countries to suffer from hunger and cold, leaving their fathers and mothers, their wives and children, had come here to kill their counterparts. The nationalists, not content with supporting these conscious or unconscious assassins, these destroyers of the people's revolutionary achievements, wanted to do worse things. They were ready to march at the head of these murderers and arsonists, fight the toilers, and drown them in blood. And all so that their masters, who had traitorously covered themselves with the flag of socialism, would let them keep their gold epaulets as sub-lieutenants and their right to own the land.

These proclaimers of the idea of the occupation of revolutionary territory by the counter-revolutionary German and Austro-Hungarian armies, and the subsequent annihilation of the revolutionary toilers, handed over to the foreign troops as they passed through Gulyai-Pole machine guns, hundreds of rifles, and our cannons!

The commander of the German forces thanked them for their "loyalty". These odious proclaimers of the idea of occupation, along with others who were in tune with the new counter-revolutionary regime, did not conceal their joy at this compliment from the powerful.

What a disgrace!

And so a desire for vengeance was born in the soil of the revolutionaries. Vengeance against all those who trampled on the toiling population, enslaved, tortured, crushed politically and socially.

No more pity for the enemies of the toilers! No more pity for all those who try to oppose our revolutionary activity! That's what I told my comrades then and that's how I acted.

The reader will see how this worked out in the next volumes of my memoirs.