The Petrenko incident: an opening shot in the attack by the Bolsheviks on the Revolution

A short account of the attack by the Bolsheviks on the detachment led by the revolutionary Petrenko in May 1918 at Tsaritsyn.

"It seemed to Antonov-Ovseenko [commander-in-chief of Soviet troops in 'South Russia' in 1918] that the only reliable forces available [to oppose the Austro-German invasion] were the Latvian International detachments, as well as the detachment of the anarchist Petrenko, who on March 24 at Zvenigorodka [90 miles southeast of Kiev] engaged the German forces in battle on his own." from Twelve Wars for Ukraine by Viktor Savchenko (Kharkov, 2006)

After the conclusion of the Brest Litovsk treaty in spring 1918 the Soviet government surrendered the Ukraine to the invading forces of the Austrians and Germans in alliance with the Central Rada. The various revolutionary detachments, whether Bolshevik, anarchist or “non-party” beat a hasty retreat to Tsaritsyn ( later called Stalingrad, now Volgograd) from the Melitopol front and from the Taganrog peninsula. Reassembling at Tsaritsyn the Red Army troops were well fed as a result of supplies obtained by the food requisition squads. The last unit to retreat from the front was the well organised detachment led by N. Petrenko, known as the “Siberian detachment”. It had two echelons of cavalry and infantry. Petrenko had been contacted by Maria Nikiforova at Tsarevokonstantinovka station in April 1918 when she attempted to gain support for an attempt to free Gulyai Polye from the Austro-Germans. However she abandoned this plan when she became acquainted with the fact that access to Gulyai Poye was blocked at Pologi. The Petrenko detachment had stayed at the front at Tsarevokonstantinovka station until the last to save the Berdyansk detachment led by the anarchist sailor Mokrousov. However on hearing that the Mokrousov unit had managed to escape from Berdyansk on barges they decided to retreat themselves. According to unconfirmed reports Petrenko was from Siberia, although Makhno was told by combatants in the battalion that relatives of Petrenko lived in Siberia but that Petrenko and his father were natives of the Ukraine. This detachment then prepared to move to the Siberian front to combat the invasion of the White forces of Admiral Kolchak and Dutov which Petrenko claimed to have received permission for from the central Soviet authorities.

Petrenko was a typically colourful partisan leader. Clad completely in leather, he was described as around 28 years old, solidly built with a deep, hoarse voice, with a Mauser dangling from a belt and often passing a Mills bomb from hand to hand. He is described by Makhno as an unaffiliated revolutionary although several Soviet sources describe him as an anarchist. The Tsaritsyn authorities under the control of the Bolshevik troika Minin, Gulakov and the newly appointed Voroshilov in the Tsaritsyn Revolutionary Committee (RevKom) prepared to receive the fleeing combatants and organised three filter and assembly points at Kotelnikovo, Sarepta and at the suburban train stations of Tsaritsyn. Already several groups of infantry and cavalry were disarmed and checked for loyalty to the revolution, and if approved handed weapons and escorted to the front. The others received demobilisation certificates and were sent back home . However, this system set up by the authorities was flouted by well-organised anarchist detachments who assembled at Tsaritsyn fully armed. Some lodged in the city whilst the forces of Petrenko grouped around an armoured train at Vladikavkaz train station and another anarchist flying detachment encamped at the station and hamlet of Elshanka.The Bolshevik troika decided to disarm the Petrenko detachment. Makhno in his memoirs of this period (he was in Tsaritsyn after himself having to flee from Gulai Polye) believed that Trotsky as supreme commander of the Red Army was implicated in this decision whilst another source states that Trotsky was “sharpening his teeth” on Petrenko as a rehearsal for a general onslaught on peasant and worker autonomy and on “independent-minded” partisan leaders. Petrenko went to Tsaritsyn in order to sort the situation out so that the detachment could proceed onwards to Siberia. This was refused and the RevKom then proceeded to prepare an armed attack on the detachment. On the refusal of the Petrenko detachment to disarm the Tsaritsyn revolutionary Committee ordered an armed attack on them.
Both Nestor Makhno and the Bolshevik commander PA Sinyukov gave eye-witness accounts of the events. On April 24th, ( this appears to be the old calendar and other dates give new calendar dates of May 16th or May 12-13th) according to Sinyukov, the RevKom paid a “friendly visit” to Elshanka on a small train armed with a cannon and four machine guns with 60 men each armed with 4 grenades. Negotiations with Petrenko, according to Sinyukov, lasted all night over vodka and tea. Throughout Petrenko expressed friendship towards the Revkom. A deal was reached, again according to Sinyukov, to disarm the anarchist flying detachment at Elshanka, with the Petrenko detachment getting half of the weapons. At 6am Sinyukov convened the combatants to a rally and through a ruse managed to disarm the anarchists at Elshanka. There was unrest within the Petrenko detachment about this, with the opinion that after the Elshanka disarmament that of their own detachment would follow. This shortly followed. Sinyukov says that the Petrenko detachment fired the first shot and that in response the Bolshevik artillery let off a barrage that destroyed Petrenko’s staff car. Petrenko’s forces, according to this version, were forced to retreat and were split into two. Petrenko was finally captured by Red cavalry at Karpovka and taken to the city jail.

Nestor Makhno, who had arrived in the neighbourhood the day before, gives a completely different account. He does not mention the alleged Elshanka incident but describes the attack on the Petrenko detachment which he says was outnumbered by the Reds six or seven times. As he says: “We Ukrainian revolutionaries were seized with horror. After retreating from Ukraine we hoped in Russia to encounter our free and independent fellow toilers who were embarked on a project of revolutionary construction. Instead we encountered political adventurers who approached us under the flag of socialism and promised to help us rid ourselves of centuries-old slavery. Everywhere we encountered a lie, and the orders and bullying of the leaders who supported this lie.” Makhno noted the revolutionary élan of the Petrenko detachment and that: “the workers and peasants of Petrenko’s detachment believed in their own righteousness, and this belief inspired in them the spirit of revolutionary fortitude. No one had compelled them to hold weapons in their hand, they had all volunteered to fight for the genuine liberation of the toilers.” He notes that the Petrenko forces forced the Reds to retreat and that the population of the village of Olshansk and other villages nearby supported them, bringing them bread, water and salt and collecting rifles and ammunition and supplying them with information on the troop movements of the Reds.

The Bolsheviks then proposed talks, but towards the end of these Petrenko was seized and thrown into jail. The Cheka probably shot him in their cellar almost immediately but the RevKom kept this quiet for days. By a ruse his detachment was dissolved and its fighters placed in different loyal Red Army units. Shortly after Makhno visited some of them and discussed the liberation of Petrenko from the Cheka jail. Makhno offered them a small group of Gulai Polye anarchists ready to help with this task, but this plan came to nothing when some of the conspirators were suddenly sent to the front.

The attack on the Siberian detachment and the shooting of Petrenko awakened Makhno to the full perfidy of the Bolshevik administration. It was not the first act in the counter revolution that the Bolsheviks were implementing (earlier in April the Bolsheviks had attacked anarchist clubs and offices in Moscow and other centres and Trotsky had whipped Red Army troops into an anti-anarchist frenzy in the week beforehand). It was however one of the first moves by Trotsky and his associates to begin a clampdown on the armed bands defending the Revolution, to neutralise or liquidate those partisan commanders of an “independent mind” and to begin to implement Trotsky’s vision of a hierarchical Red Army, a vision totally opposed to that of the genuine revolutionary forces.



Makhno, N. (2010) Under the blows of the counterrevolution. Black Cat Press Article by V.Yashchenko The defeat of the Ukrainian anarchists at Tsaritsyn
Thanks to Malcolm Archibald for information from Viktor Savchenko.

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Jul 12 2010 10:13


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Jun 24 2010 11:58

interesting stuff, thank you for posting

Jun 24 2010 17:17

More coming up on murky machinations of Trotsky and his pals and the strange death of Red commander Shchors, the shooting of the Red partisan commander Bogunsky (aka Shary) the execution of Captain Shchastny etc.

Jun 24 2010 19:35

I look forward to it...

Jun 25 2010 01:22

From the book Twelve Wars for Ukraine by Viktor Savchenko (Kharkov, 2006):

"It seemed to Antonov-Ovseenko [commander-in-chief of Soviet troops in 'South Russia' in 1918] that the only reliable forces available [to oppose the Austro-German invasion] were the Latvian International detachments, as well as the detachment of the anarchist Petrenko, who on March 24 at Zvenigorodka [90 miles southeast of Kiev] engaged the German forces in battle on his own."

Jun 25 2010 08:04

Thanks Karetelnik, II'll incorporate that into the body of the text, if I may.

Jun 25 2010 22:09