Chapter 07: The long retreat of the Makhnovists and their victory; Execution of Grigor'ev; Battle of Peregonovka; Rout of Denikin's troops; Period of freedom

Submitted by Steven. on September 27, 2010

As we already mentioned, Makhno retired with a small cavalry detachment when he left his post as commander of the insurrectionary army. He went to Aleksandrovsk. There, in spite of the fact that the Bolsheviks sought his head on the front in the vicinity of the Gyaichur Station, he succeeded in officially turning over the command as well as the affairs of the insurrectionary division to the new brigade commander who had just been appointed by the Bolsheviks. Makhno did this because he desired to leave his post openly and honestly so that the Bolsheviks would have no pretext for accusing him of anything with regard to the affairs of the division he commanded. Makhno needed to act with prudence. Forced to play their game, Makhno did it honourably.
In the meantime Denikin's offensive dealt a heavy blow to the labouring masses. A large number of fleeing peasants set out to look for Makhno whom they considered their popular leader. Numerous insurgents, scattered throughout the region, converged toward him. At the end of two weeks a completely new insurrectionary detachment was formed under Makhno's command. With this detachment, as well as some parts of the original insurrectionary army who arrived in the vicinity of Aleksandrovsk, Makhno prepared to stop Denikin's divisions, retreating step by step, seeking to orient himself and take stock of the situation.
Rapidly overrunning the Ukraine, Denikin's army did not forget about Makhno's presence; they remembered the enormous efforts and losses he had caused them during the previous winter. They assigned a whole army corps consisting of 12 to 15 regiments of cavalry, infantry and artillery, to fight against Makhno. But this was not only a war against the Makhnovist army. Nearly every village which was occupied by Denikin's troops was the scene of fire and bloodshed. Peasants were plundered, violently abused, and killed. This was the officers' revenge against the revolution.
From the first days of Denikin's occupation of Gulyai-Pole, a large number of peasants were shot, dwellings were destroyed, and hundreds of carts and wagons filled with food and other possessions of the Gulyai-Pole inhabitants were sent by Shkuro's Cossacks to the Don and the Kuban. Almost all the Jewish women of the village were raped.
This is why Makhno's retreating army was followed by thousands of peasant families who abandoned their villages, bringing with them their livestock and their belongings. A veritable migration stretched over hundreds of miles. A vast "empire on wheels" followed the army on its march westward. In the course of the retreat this enormous mass of refugees spread throughout the whole Ukraine. Most of them lost their homes and belongings forever; many lost their lives.
Makhno began by digging in on the Dnepr, near Aleksandrovsk, and for some time held the Kichkass bridge.1 However, overwhelmed by the superior forces of the enemy, he retreated to Dolinskaya and from there toward Elisavetgrad. Meanwhile the Red Army troops lost all their importance in the Ukraine. Many of them were transferred to Great Russia, and the rest began to vacillate and to show distrust of their commanders.
For Makhno, the time had come to call them to his ranks.
But his attention was turned elsewhere.
Already for a long time a dark stain had marred the face of the Ukrainian revolution, a stain which Makhno never lost from view. This was Grigor'ev's movement.
Grigor'ev's forces had begun to dwindle shortly after he had rebelled against the Soviet power; however, he was far from having lost all of them. With several detachments he set his defences in the government of Kherson and carried on guerrilla warfare against the Bolsheviks. The total number of detachments under his command or under his influence included several thousand men. These troops carried out frequent raids against small Red Army units stationed in the important villages of the region, disarmed them, occupied the villages, and destroyed railroad tracks. The destruction of railways was their most common practice. Grigor'ev used the following technique to damage railways: at a junction, where the rails came close to each other, he removed all the spikes from a tie under two or three rails; he then hitched several pairs of healthy oxen to the loosened rails, which caused all the rails freed from the tie to bend into a semi-circle.
Grigor'ev was quite skilful in guerrilla warfare. It was he rather than the Bolsheviks who held power in the region of Znamenka, Aleksandriya and Elisavetgrad. The war which Grigor'ev had declared against the Soviets was not inspired by revolutionary motives, but first of all by personal motives and later by counter-revolutionary ones. Lacking any stable ideology, he held on to whatever was nearest at hand: first Petliura, then Bolshevism, then Petliura again, and finally Denikin.
Grigor'ev himself was without a doubt a counterrevolutionary adventurer, but the region and the masses which he led were revolutionary. This is why Makhno decided to include these masses among the revolutionary forces. This could only be done if Grigor'ev and his staff were removed. With his usual skill and energy, Makhno set out to unmask and publicly execute Grigor'ev. The Bolshevik statists who had fought for several months against Grigor'ev had found nothing better to do than put a price on his head (half a million roubles for the person who killed him; half of this sum was offered to the person who killed one of his accomplices, as was announced in June 1919 in several Ukrainian journals). The revolutionary peasant Makhno, with a view to the needs of the revolution, decided to expose and denounce Grigor'ev publicly and in a revolutionary manner. In order to gain access to him, Makhno established relations with Grigor'ev and his detachments, as if to unify all the guerrilla forces.
On Makhno's initiative, a congress of insurgents from the governments of Ekaterinoslav, Kherson and Tauride was called for July 27, 1919, in the village of Sentovo near Aleksandriya. The agenda of the congress included the establishment of a program of action for the entire insurrectionary Ukraine which would correspond to the needs of the moment. Nearly 20,000 people came - peasants and insurgents, Grigor'ev's detachments and Makhno's troops. Among the many scheduled orators were Grigor'ev, Makhno, and other representatives of the two movements. Grigor'ev was the first to speak. He invited the peasants and the insurgents to devote all their forces to chasing the Bolsheviks out of the country, without rejecting any allies. Grigor'ev said that for this purpose he was even ready to ally with Denikin. Afterward, when the yoke of Bolshevism was broken, the people would themselves see what they had to do. This declaration was fatal to Grigor'ev. Makhno and his comrade Chubenko spoke immediately after Grigor'ev, and declared that the struggle against the Bolsheviks could be revolutionary only if it were carried out in the name of the social revolution. An alliance with the worst enemies of the people - with generals - could only be a counter-revolutionary and criminal adventure. Grigor'ev invited participation in this counter-revolution, and consequently he was an enemy of the people. Following this, Makhno demanded before the entire congress that Grigor'ev immediately answer for the appalling pogrom of Jews which he had organized in Elisavetgrad in May, 1919, as well as other anti-Semitic actions. "Scoundrels like Grigor'ev are the shame of all the Ukrainian insurgents; they cannot be tolerated in the ranks of honest revolutionary workers." Such was Makhno's final indictment of Grigor'ev. Grigor'ev saw that the situation was going badly for him. He reached for weapons. But it was too late. Simon Karetnik - Makhno's comrade - shot him with a Colt revolver, while Makhno himself shouted "Death to the Ataman!" and also shot him. Grigor'ev's assistants and the members of his staff ran to his help, but they were shot on the spot by a group of Makhnovists who had been placed on guard. All this happened during two' or three minutes before the eyes of the entire congress.
After the initial agitation over the events that have just been described, the congress heard the declarations of Makhno, Chubenko and other representatives of the Makhnovshchina, and approved the act, considering it historically necessary. According to the record of the proceedings of the congress, the Makhnovshchina assumed all responsibility for the events which had just taken place and for their consequences. The assembly also decided that the partisan detachments formerly under Grigor'ev's command would henceforth be part of the general insurrectionary army of the Makhnovists.2
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We have already mentioned that the small numbers of Soviet troops who had remained in various parts of the Ukraine were suspicious of their commanders. They considered the shameful flight of the Soviet authorities from the Ukraine to be a defection from the revolutionary cause. Makhno was considered the only revolutionary hope in the country. All those who desired to struggle for freedom converged toward Makhno. This spirit also pervaded the Red Army units that had remained in the Ukraine. At the end of July, Bolshevik detachments in the Crimea mutinied, deposed their commanders, and set out to join Makhno's army. This mutiny was organized by Makhnovist commanders who had remained in the ranks of the Red Army: Kalashnikov, Dermendzhi and Budanov. Large numbers of Red Army soldiers advanced from Novi Bug to Pomoshchnaya looking for Makhno, bringing with them, as captives, their former commanders: Kochergin, Dybets and others. These troops met the Makhnovists at Dobrovelichkovka in the government of Kherson at the beginning of August, 1919. For the Bolsheviks this defection was a major blow, since it reduced their military forces in the Ukraine to almost nothing.
Makhno halted for the first time in the region between Pomoshchnaya, Elisavetgrad and Voznesensk (near Odessa) in order to regroup the troops which were arriving from all sides. Four infantry and cavalry brigades, an artillery division and a regiment of machine-gunners were formed here, consisting of about 15,000 soldiers. A special cavalry squad of 150 to 200 always accompanied Makhno, and are not counted in the total number of soldiers. It was with these forces that the Makhnovists undertook an offensive against Denikin's troops. The encounters took on a desperate character. Several times Denikin's army was pushed back thirty to fifty miles eastward. During the struggles the Makhnovists captured from Denikin's troops three or four armoured trains, one of which was enormous - the "Invincible." But supported by new reinforcements, Denikin's troops once again pushed the Makhnovists westward. Denikin had great superiority in numbers and weapons. On the other hand, Makhno's army was almost completely out of cartridges. Two out of three of their attacks against Denikin's troops had the sole aim of capturing munitions. In addition the Makhnovists had to battle against some Bolshevik troops retreating from Odessa to the north. This is why it became necessary to retreat further and leave the region of Elisavetgrad-Pomoshchnaya-Voznesensk.
The retreat took place in the midst of incessant combat. The troops Denikin sent against Makhno distinguished themselves by their energy and obstinacy. The regiments of officers were particularly remarkable for their bravery - especially the First Simferopol' and the Second Labinski regiments. Entering into battles against them, Makhno could not help admiring their courage and their defiance of death. Denikin's cavalry merited the highest praise. As Makhno declared, it was truly a cavalry that justified its name. The very numerous cavalry of the Red Army, organized later, was a cavalry in name only; it was never able to carry on hand-to-hand combat, and engaged in combat only when the enemy was already disoriented by the fire of cannons and machine guns. During the entire civil war the Red cavalry always avoided a confrontation with the Makhnovist cavalry, even though the Red cavalry always outnumbered the Makhnovist. The Caucasian cavalry regiments and Denikin's Cossacks always accepted combat with sabres and charged on the enemy at full speed, without waiting for the enemy to be disorganized by cannon fire.
But even these elite troops succumbed more than once in combat against the Makhnovists. The commanders of Denikin's regiments said in their papers, which often fell into the hands of Makhnovists, that nothing in their entire campaign had been as difficult and more horrible for them than these fierce battles against Makhno's cavalry and artillery.
From the middle of August, 1919, this corps of Denikin's army began to exert powerful pressure on Makhno's troops, seeking to encircle them on all sides. Makhno saw that the smallest error on his part could be fatal for his entire army. That is why he carefully sought the moment when he could deal a decisive blow to the enemy. In the north Denikin's troops were already nearing Kursk. Makhno took this circumstance into account, and considered that the further they moved in this direction, the easier it would be to attack them from the rear. In addition to these considerations, Makhno was forced to retreat westward because of the pressure of the enemy's numerically superior forces. Near the end of August, Denikin's army corps, which already weighed so heavily on Makhno, was reinforced by new troops from near Odessa and Voznesensk. The situation worsened. The insurgent army then decided to abandon the vicinity of the railroads, and blew up all the armoured trains accessible to them. The retreat continued along country roads, from village to village. Denikin's troops continued to follow. Their goal was not only to defeat, but to liquidate Makhno's army altogether.
This retreat, carried out in the midst of daily battles, lasted more than a month, until Makhno's army arrived near the city of Uman, occupied by the troops of Petliura. Petliura was in a state of war with Denikin. The question was raised - what was to be done about Petliura's army? Declare war on them, or adopt some other tactic toward them? At this time Makhno's army had about 8,000 wounded soldiers who were deprived of all medical aid and who comprised an enormous train in the rear of the army, which seriously hindered its movements and its military operations. After an examination of all sides of the question, it was decided that military neutrality be proposed to the Petliurists. In the meantime, a Petliurist delegation arrived from Uman to Makhno's camp and described the point of view of the Petliurist command about the general situation: being at war with Denikin, the Petliurists wanted to avoid the formation of a new front and hoped to avoid a military encounter with the Makhnovists. This corresponded perfectly with the wishes of the Makhnovists. A Makhnovist delegation was sent to Zhmerinka to conclude a pact according to which both sides agreed to maintain strict military neutrality toward each other, disregarding the political differences which divided them. Furthermore, the Petliurists agreed to take the wounded Makhnovists into their hospitals.
Makhno as well as the rest of the army were obviously aware that this neutrality was superficial, and that any day Petliura could be expected to make common cause with Denikin for a united attack against the Makhnovists. But for the Makhnovists it was a question of gaining one or two weeks of respite, to avoid an attack from the rear - the western flank - and not to be caught in a military trap. In fact, the Makhnovists' attitude toward the Petliurists had hardly changed. While relating to the Petliurist soldiers as brothers, the Makhnovists continued their earlier propaganda against the Petliurist authorities. The Revolutionary Military Council of the Makhnovist Army published a pamphlet entitled "Who is Petliura?" in which Petliura is unmasked as a defender of the privileged classes who deserves to be destroyed by the workers. Many of Petliura's soldiers were Makhnovists in spirit and by tradition, and if Denikin's offensive had not taken such a fierce course, many of them would undoubtedly have been drawn to the ranks of the Makhnovists. The Makhnovists thought about this constantly; the Petliurist leaders suspected it and, recalling the case of Grigor'ev, they maintained a guarded attitude toward the Makhnovists.
The Makhnovist suspicions about the Petliurists' intention to establish relations with Denikin for the purpose of joint action against Makhno started to be confirmed. According to the pact with the Petliurists, the Makhnovist Army was to occupy a territory of 7 square miles near the village of Tekuche in the vicinity of Uman. Petliura's forces were dispersed to the north and west; Denikin's to the east and south, around Golta. This part of the pact, which had been arranged by the Petliurists, soon began to arouse suspicion. And after a few days, information arrived that the Petliurists were negotiating with Denikinist commanders to work out a plan for cooperating to surround and exterminate Makhno's troops. At the same time, on September 24-25, four or five Denikinist regiments appeared at the rear of the Makhnovists, on their western side. These regiments could only have gotten there by passing through the territory occupied by the Petliurists, namely with the help or at least the acquiescence of the Petliurists.
On the evening of September 25, the Makhnovists were completely surrounded by Denikin's troops. The bulk of Denikin's forces remained concentrated to the east, but the city of Uman was also in Denikin's power. The Makhnovists had to act quickly. The fate of the entire insurgent army was in question.
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The Makhnovist retreat had covered more than 400 miles and had lasted close to four months. It had been unimaginably difficult. The insurgents lacked clothes and shoes. Through torrid heat, enveloped by clouds of dust, under a hail of bullets and shells, they went further and further away from their own region toward an unknown destination. But they were all animated by the idea of victory over the enemy, and they valiantly endured the rigors of the retreat. Only occasionally did the least patient among them cry out: "Turn around! Toward the Dnepr!" But implacable necessity kept pushing them further from the Dnepr and their birthplace, their proud region. With inexhaustible patience, with their will stretched to the limit, they rallied around their leader under continual enemy fire. Uman was the end of the retreat. It was impossible to go anywhere else. The enemy was on all sides. It was there that Makhno, with the usual simplicity with which he was able to evoke heroism in his comrades, declared that the retreat had only been a necessary strategic measure, and that the real war was about to begin, not later than the following day, September 26th.
The disposition of Denikin's troops in the north as well as on other fronts was learned. Makhno became convinced that fate was offering him a marvellous opportunity - the possibility of dealing a deathblow to the entire counterrevolution of Denikin. It seemed to him that this could actually be carried out. It was only a question of breaking the fist which, right here at Uman, pressed down on the Makhnovist army.
On the evening of September 25 the Makhnovist troops, who until then had been marching westward, suddenly turned all their forces eastward and marched straight toward the main forces of Denikin's army. The first encounter took place late in the evening near the village of Kruten'koe, where the Makhnovist first brigade attacked a Denikinist unit. Denikin's troops retreated to take up better positions and to draw the Makhnovists after them. But the Makhnovists did not pursue them. This misled the vigilance of the enemy, who concluded that the insurgents were still moving westward. However, in the middle of the night, all the Makhnovist forces, stationed in several villages, began marching eastward. The enemy's principal forces were concentrated near the village of Peregonovka; the village itself was occupied by the Makhnovists. (See map, pp. 156-157.)
The fighting started between 3 and 4 a.m. It kept mounting in intensity and reached its peak by 8 a.m., in a hurricane of machine gun fire on both sides. Makhno himself, with his cavalry escort, had disappeared at nightfall, seeking to turn the enemy's flank. During the whole battle that ensued there was no further news of him. By 9 in the morning the outnumbered and exhausted Makhnovists began to lose ground. They were already fighting on the outskirts of the village. From all sides enemy reinforcements brought new bursts of fire to bear on the Makhnovists. The staff of the insurrectionary army as well as everyone in the village who could handle a rifle, armed themselves and joined in the fighting. This was the critical moment, when it seemed that the battle and with it the whole cause of the insurgents was lost. The order was given for everyone, even the women, to be ready to fire on the enemy in the village streets. All prepared for the supreme hour of the battle and of their lives. But suddenly the machine-gun fire of the enemy and their frantic cheers began to grow weaker, and then to recede into the distance. The defenders of the village realized that the enemy was retreating, and that the battle was now taking place some distance away. It was Makhno who, appearing unexpectedly, at the very moment when his troops were driven back and were preparing to fight in the streets of Peregonovka, had decided the fate of the battle. Covered with dust and fatigued from his exertions, he reached the enemy flank through a deep ravine. Without a cry, but with a burning resolve fixed on his features, he threw himself on the Denikinists at full gallop, followed by his escort, and broke into their ranks. All exhaustion, all discouragement disappeared from among the Makhnovists, - "Bat'ko is here! Bat'ko is fighting with his sabre!" - could be heard everywhere. And with redoubled energy they all pushed forward, following their beloved leader, who seemed doomed to death. A hand-to-hand combat of incredible ferocity, a "hacking," as the Makhnovists called it, followed. However brave the First Officers' Regiment of Simferopol' may have been, they were thrown into retreat, at first slowly and in an orderly manner, trying to halt the impetus of the Makhnovists, but then they simply ran. The other regiments, seized by panic, followed them, and finally all of Denikin's troops were routed, and tried to save themselves by swimming across the Sinyukha River.
Makhno hastened to take advantage of this situation, which he understood perfectly. He sent his cavalry and artillery at full speed in pursuit of the retreating enemy, and himself went at the head of the best mounted regiment by a shortcut which would enable him to catch the fugitives from behind. The pursuit continued for 8 to 12 miles. At the critical moment when Denikin's troops reached the river, they were overtaken by the Makhnovist cavalry, and hundreds of them perished in the river. Most of them, however, had time to cross to the other bank, but there Makhno himself was waiting for them. The Denikinist staff and the reserve regiment which was with it were surprised and taken prisoners. Only an insignificant part of these troops, who had raged for months in the stubborn pursuit of Makhno, managed to save themselves. The First Simferopol' Regiment of officers and several others were entirely cut down by the insurgents' sabres. The route of their retreat was strewn with corpses for over two miles. However horrible this spectacle was to some, it was only the natural outcome of the duel between Denikin's army and the Makhnovists. During the entire pursuit, the Denikinists had had no thought except to exterminate the insurgents. The slightest error on Makhno's part would inevitably have led to the same fate for the revolutionary insurrectionary army. Even the women who supported the Makhnovist army or fought alongside the men would not have been spared. The Makhnovists were experienced enough to know this.
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The following legend about Pugachev is told among the peasants of Great Russia. After his uprising he fell into the hands of the authorities. He told the noblemen sitting around him: "In this uprising I only gave you a foretaste. But wait: soon after me will come the real broom - it will sweep all of you away." Makhno showed himself to be this historic broom of the people in all his revolutionary insurrectionary activity, and especially when he defeated the Denikinists.
Once Denikin's fist was broken, the Makhnovists immediately set out in three directions. They literally swept through villages, towns and cities like an enormous broom, removing every vestige of exploitation and servitude. The returned pomeshchiks, the kulaks, the police, the priests, the Denikinist mayors and officers in hiding - all these were swept out of the victorious path of the Makhnovist movement. Prisons, police stations and posts - all these symbols of the people's servitude were destroyed. All those who were known to be active enemies of the peasants and workers were condemned to death. Pomeshchiks and major kulaks perished in great numbers. This fact suffices to show the mendacity of the myth spread by the Bolsheviks about the so-called kulak character of the Makhnovshchina. In fact, wherever the Makhnovist movement developed, the kulaks sought the protection of the Soviet authorities, and found it there.
The army returned to the Dnepr at an incredible pace. The day after the defeat of Denikin's troops at Peregonovka, Makhno was already more than 60 miles away from the scene of the battle. Accompanied by his escort, he marched about thirty miles ahead of the rest of the troops. On the following day the Ivlakhnovists occupied Dolinskaya, Krivoi Rog and Nikopol'. The day after, the Kichkass Bridge across the Dnepr was taken at a trot, and the city of Aleksandrovsk was occupied. In their furious advance, it seemed as though they were entering an enchanted kingdom: no one had yet heard of the events at Uman; no one knew where the Ivlakhnovists were; the authorities had taken no precautionary measures and were caught in the lethargy that characterizes the rearguard. This is why the Makhnovists everywhere struck their enemies unexpectedly, like a bolt of lightning. Aleksandrovsk was followed by Pologi, Gulyai-Pole, Berdyansk, Melitopol', Mariupol'. At the end of ten days the entire southern Ukraine was freed of Denikin's troops and authorities.
The Makhnovists' occupation of the southern Ukraine, especially the regions bordering on the Sea of Azov, represented a mortal danger to Denikin's entire counterrevolutionary campaign. In fact, the supply base of Denikin's army was located in the region between Mariupol' and Volnovakha. When Berdyansk and Mariupol' were taken, immense stores of munitions were gained. At Volnovakha shells were stacked in tiers. To be sure, all these supplies did not fall immediately into the hands of the Makhnovists; the battle around Volnovakha raged for five days. But, since all the railroads of the region were in the insurgents' hands, no war material could reach Denikin's troops. Denikinist reserve regiments stationed throughout the region were annihilated. Consequently all this gigantic base of artillery was blockaded by the Makhnovists, and not a single shell could be sent to Denikin's northern front or to any other front.
The Denikinists hurriedly sent against Makhno the reserve troops stationed near Taganrog; but these troops were also routed and the flood of the Makhnovshchina flowed toward the bottom of the Donets Basin and northward. By October 20th the Makhnovists occupied Ekaterinoslav and its surroundings. It was then that the Denikinists recognized the situation as it was. They announced that the centre of their campaign had to shift from the north to the south; that the fate of their campaign would be decided in the south. General Mai-Maevsky told the Cossacks: Our lands are directly threatened; the enemy rages in the south endangering our homes; we must rush there to protect our lands (Mai-Maevsky's speech was published in a Denikinist newspaper).
In view of the situation, Denikin's best cavalry troops, commanded by Mamontov and Shkuro, were transferred from the northern front to the Gulyai-Pole region. But it was already too late. The fire was raging throughout the whole country, from the shores of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov to Khar'kov and Poltava. Due to fresh reinforcements and numerous armoured cars, the Whites momentarily succeeded in making the Makhnovists retreat from Mariupol', Berdyansk and Gulyai-Polye. But the Makhnovists, in turn, occupied Sinel'nikovo, Pavlograd, Ekaterinoslav and other cities and localities. During October and November, the struggle again became fierce, and Denikin's troops again underwent some enormous defeats. Denikin's Caucasian regiments suffered the greatest losses, especially the Chechen cavalry and others, who perished by the thousands. Toward the end of November these troops declared categorically that they refused to continue fighting against Makhno. They abandoned their posts in Denikin's army and returned home to the Caucasus. Thus began the general disintegration of Denikin's army.
The complete defeat of the Denikinists in their struggle against the Makhnovshchina in southern Russia determined the fate of their entire campaign against the Russian revolution.
It is necessary to emphasize the historic fact that the honour of having annihilated the Denikinist counter-revolution in the autumn of 1919 belongs almost entirely to the Makhnovists. If the insurgents had not won the decisive victory at Peregonovka, and had not destroyed the Denikinist supply lines for artillery, food and ammunition, the Whites would probably have entered Moscow in December, 1919. The battle between the Whites and the Reds near Orel was relatively insignificant. In fact, Denikin's southern retreat had already begun before this battle, having been provoked precisely by the defeat of its rearguard. All the subsequent military operations of the Denikinists had the sole purpose of protecting their retreat and evacuating their munitions and supplies. Along the whole length of the route from Orel through Kursk to the shores of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, the Red Army advanced almost without resistance. Its entry into the Ukraine and the Caucasus was carried out exactly the same way as its entry had been carried out a year earlier, at the time of the fall of the Hetman - along paths that were already cleared.
* * *
Purely military concerns absorbed nearly all the forces of the Makhnovists at this time. The state of war in the region was absolutely unfavourable to internal creative activities. Even so, the Makhnovists demonstrated the necessary initiative and diligence in this domain as well. First of all, wherever they went they undertook to prevent an important misunderstanding: the possibility of being taken for a new power or party. As soon as they entered a city, they declared that they did not represent any kind of authority, that their armed forces obliged no one to any sort of obligation and had no other aim than to protect the freedom of the working people. The freedom of the peasants and the workers, said the Makhnovists, resides in the peasants and workers themselves and may not be restricted. In all fields of their lives it is up to the workers and peasants themselves to construct whatever they consider necessary. As for the Makhnovists - they can only assist them with advice, by putting at their disposal the intellectual or military forces they need, but under no circumstances can the Makhnovists prescribe for them in any manner.3
Aleksandrovsk and the surrounding region were the first places where the Makhnovists remained for a fairly long time. They immediately invited the working population to participate in a general conference of the workers of the city. When the conference met, a detailed report was given on the military situation in the region and it was proposed that the workers organize the life of the city and the functioning of the factories with their own forces and their own organizations, basing themselves on the principles of labour and equality. The workers enthusiastically acclaimed all these suggestions; but they hesitated to carry them out, troubled by their novelty, and troubled mainly by the nearness of the front, which made them fear that the situation of the city was uncertain and unstable. The first conference was followed by a second. The problems of organizing life according to the principles of self-management by the workers were f examined and discussed with animation by the masses of workers, who all welcomed this idea with the greatest enthusiasm, but who only with difficulty succeeded in giving it concrete forms. Railroad workers took the first step in this direction. They formed a committee charged with organizing the railway network of the region, establishing a detailed plan for the movement of trains, the transport of passengers, the system of payment, etc. From this point on, the proletariat of Aleksandrovsk began to turn systematically to the problem of creating organs of self-management.
Shortly after the workers' meetings, a regional congress of peasants and workers was called at Aleksandrovsk for October 20, 1919. More than 200 delegates took part, among whom 180 were peasants, and the rest workers. The congress dealt with: a) military questions (the struggle against Denikin; reinforcement and maintenance of the insurrectionary army); b) questions dealing with constructive activity in the region.
The congress continued for nearly a week and was characterized by a remarkable spirit on the part of those present. This was largely due to specific circumstances. First of all, the return of the victorious Makhnovist army to its own region was an extremely important event for the peasants, since nearly every family had one or two of its members among the insurgents. But still more important was the fact that this congress met in conditions of absolute freedom. There was no influence emanating from above. Besides all this, the congress had an excellent militant and speaker in the anarchist Volin, who, to the amazement of the peasants, lucidly expressed their own thoughts and wishes. The idea of free Soviets genuinely functioning in the interests of the working population; the question of direct relations between peasants and city workers, based on mutual exchange of the products of their labour; the launching of a stateless and egalitarian social organization in the cities and the country - all these ideas which Volin developed in his lectures, represented the very ideas of the peasantry. This was precisely the way the peasants conceived the revolution and creative revolutionary work.
During the first day the representatives of political parties naturally attempted to introduce a spirit of discord into the work of the congress, but they were censured by the entire congress, and the work of the congress continued with complete harmony among the participants.
The final days of the congress resembled a beautiful poem. Concrete resolutions were followed by magnificent bursts of enthusiasm. All were moved by confidence in their own strength and by faith in the power of the revolution. A spirit of true freedom, such as is rarely experienced, was present in the hall. Everyone saw before him and really grasped the enormous project which was worthy of all one's energy and for which one would willingly die. The peasants, among whom there were old and even ancient men, said that this was the first congress where they felt not only perfectly free, but also real brothers in relation to each other, and that they would never forget it. And indeed it is hardly likely that anyone who took part in that congress could ever forget it. It remained engraved forever on the memories of many, if not of all, as a beautiful dream about a life in which true liberty would bring people together, giving them the opportunity to live united at heart, joined by a feeling of love and brotherhood.
The congress resolved numerous problems concerning the insurrectionary army, its organization and reinforcement. It was proposed that men up to the age of 48 enlist in this army. In keeping with the spirit of the congress, this enrolment would be voluntary, but as general as possible, in view of the extremely dangerous situation of the region. Earlier we already mentioned the meaning of the voluntary 10-year mobilization which was proposed at the second regional congress on February 12, 1919. The resolution on mobilization passed by the October congress had the same meaning. The congress decided that the supplying of the army would be done primarily by free gifts from the peasants, in addition to spoils of victory and requisitions from privileged groups. In the domain of internal constructive activity, the congress limited itself for the time being to indicating general guidelines - that the workers, without any authority, should themselves organize their lives by their own efforts and means.
When the peasants left, they emphasized the need to put the decisions of the congress into practice. The delegates took away with them copies of the resolutions in order to make them known all over the countryside. It is certain that at the end of three or four weeks the results of the congress would have been known all over the region and that the next congress, called on the initiative of the workers and peasants themselves, would not have failed to attract the interest and active participation of great masses of workers. Unfortunately, the freedom of the working masses is continually threatened by its worst enemy - authority. The delegates hardly had time to return to their homes when many of their villages were again occupied by Denikin's troops, coming by forced marches from the northern front. To be sure, this time the invasion was only of short duration; it was the death agony of a dying enemy. But it halted the constructive work of the peasants at the most vital moment, and since another authority, equally hostile to the freedom of the masses - Bolshevism - was approaching from the north, this invasion did irreparable harm to the workers' cause: not only was it impossible to assemble a new congress, but even the decisions of the first could not be put into practice.
In the city of Ekaterinoslav, which was occupied by the insurgent army at the time of the congress, conditions were even less favourable for constructive activity in the economic sphere. Denikin's troops, who were driven out of the city, managed to dig in on the left bank of the Dnepr River. Daily, for a whole month, they bombarded the city from their numerous armoured trains. Each time the cultural section of the insurrectionary army managed to call a meeting of the city's workers, the Denikinists, who were well informed, fired great numbers of shells, especially on the places where the sessions were to be held. No serious work, no systematic organization was possible. It was possible to hold only a few meetings in the centre and the suburbs of the city. The Makhnovists did, however, succeed in publishing their daily newspaper, Put' k Svobode, which was soon supplemented by a daily edition in the Ukrainian language Shlyakh do Voli.4
Secondly, the Bolsheviks in their arguments hide from the masses the exceptional situation of the city at that time: during the whole time that the Makhnovists remained there, it was not only in a state of siege, but actually under bombardment. Not an hour passed without shells bursting. It was this situation, and not the Makhnovist army, that prevented the workers from setting out, on the spot, to organize life according to the principles of self-management.
Throughout the liberated region, the Makhnovists were the only organization powerful enough to impose its will on the enemy. But they never used this power for the purpose of domination or even to gain political influence; they never used it against their purely political or ideological opponents. The military opponents, the conspirators against the freedom of action of the workers and peasants, the state apparatus, the prisons - these were the elements against which the efforts of the Makhnovist army were directed.
Prisons are the symbol of the servitude of the people. They are always built only to subjugate the people, the workers and peasants. Throughout the centuries, the bourgeoisie in all countries crushed the spirit of rebellion or resistance of the masses by means of execution and imprisonment. And in our time, in the Communist and Socialist State, prisons devour mainly the proletariat of the city and the countryside. Free people have no use for prisons. Wherever prisons exist, the people are not free. Prisons represent a constant threat to the workers, an encroachment on their consciousness and will, and a visible sign of their servitude. This is how the Makhnovists defined their relationship to prisons. In keeping with this attitude, they demolished prisons wherever they went. In Berdyansk the prison was dynamited in the presence of an enormous crowd, which took an active part in its destruction. At Aleksandrovsk, Krivoi-Rog, Ekaterinoslav and elsewhere, prisons were demolished or burned by the Makhnovists. Everywhere the workers cheered this act.
* * *
It gives us great satisfaction to be able to state that the Makhnovists fully applied the revolutionary principles of freedom of speech, of thought, of the press, and of political association. In all cities and places occupied by the Makhnovists, they began by lifting all the prohibitions and repealing all the restrictions imposed on the press and on Political organizations by one or another power. Complete freedom of speech, press, assembly and association of any kind and for everyone was immediately proclaimed. During the few weeks that the Makhnovists spent at Ekaterinoslav, five or six newspapers of various political orientations appeared: the right Socialist-Revolutionary paper, Narodovlastie (The People's Power), the left Socialist-Revolutionary paper, Znamya Vosstanya (The Standard of Revolt), the Bolshevik Zvezda (Star), and others. However, the Bolsheviks hardly had the right to freedom of press and association because they had destroyed, wherever they had been able to, the freedom of press and association of the working class, and also because their organization at Ekaterinoslav had taken a direct part in the criminal invasion of the Gulyai-Pole region in June, 1919; it would only have been just to inflict a severe punishment on them. But, in order not to injure the great principles of freedom of speech and assembly, the Bolsheviks were not disturbed, and could enjoy, along with all the other political tendencies, all the rights inscribed on the banner of the proletarian revolution.
The only restriction that the Makhnovists considered necessary to impose on the Bolsheviks, the left Socialist-Revolutionaries and other statists was a prohibition on the formation of those "revolutionary committees" which sought to impose a dictatorship over the people. In Aleksandrovsk and Ekaterinoslav, right after the occupation of these cities by the Makhnovists, the Bolsheviks hastened to organize Revkoms (Revolutionary Committees) seeking through them to establish their political power and govern the population. At Aleksandrovsk, the members of the Revkom went so far as to propose to Makhno a division of spheres of action, leaving Makhno the military power, and reserving for the Committee full freedom of action and all political and civil authority. Makhno advised them to go and take up some honest trade instead of seeking to impose their will on the workers; he even threatened to put to death the members of the Revkom if they undertook any authoritarian measures against the working population. At Ekaterinoslav, a similar Revkom was dissolved the same way. In this context the Makhnovists' attitude was completely justified and consistent. To protect the full freedom of speech, press, and organization, they had to take measures against formations which sought to stifle this freedom, to suppress other organizations, and to impose their will and dictatorial authority on the workers. And when, in November, 1919, the commander of the Makhnovist Third (Crimean) Insurrectional Regiment, Polonsky, was implicated in the activities of an authoritarian organization of this type, he was executed along with other members of the organization.
Here is the Makhnovist text regarding freedom of the press and of association:

1. All socialist political parties, organizations and tendencies have the right to propagate their ideas, theories, views and opinions freely, both orally and in writing. No restriction of socialist freedom of speech and press will be allowed, and no persecution may take place in this domain.
Remark: Military communiqu├ęs may not be printed unless they are supplied by the editors of the central organ of the revolutionary insurgents, Put' k Svobode.
2. In allowing all political parties and organizations full and complete freedom to propagate their ideas, the Makhnovist insurgent army wishes to inform all the parties that any attempt to prepare, organize and impose a political authority over the working people will not be permitted by the revolutionary insurgents, such an act having nothing in common with the free dissemination of ideas.
Ekaterinoslav. November 5, 1919.
Revolutionary Military Council of the Makhnovist Insurgent Army.

In the course of the whole Russian revolution, the period of the Makhnovshchina was the only period in which the freedom of the working masses found full expression. However painful and unstable the situation in Aleksandrovsk, and especially in Ekaterinoslav, where shells from the armoured trains of Denikin's army fell daily, the workers of these two cities could for the first time in their history say and do anything they wanted, and as they wanted. In addition, they at last held in their own hands the tremendous possibility to organize their life and their work themselves, according to their own judgments and their own understanding of justice and truth.
At the end of the month the Makhnovists were forced to leave Ekaterinoslav. But they had time to demonstrate to the working masses that true freedom resides in the hands of the workers themselves, and that it begins to radiate and develop as soon as statelessness and equality are established among them.

  • 1One of the most important railway bridges in Russia, spanning the Dnepr near Aleksandrovsk.
  • 2The record of the proceedings of the congress, the record of Makhno's and Grigor'ev's speeches, as well as a number of other documents, were lost during the armed struggles of 1920.
  • 3In certain cities the Makhnovists appointed a commander. His function consisted only of serving as a contact man between the troops and the population, and of informing the population about measures taken by the army which might have repercussions on the life of the inhabitants and which the military command felt it opportune to take. These commanders had no authority over the population and did not interfere in any way with their civil life.
  • 4One of the favourite arguments of the Bolsheviks against the Makhnovists is the claim that the insurgents did nothing during their stay at Ekaterinoslav to achieve a constructive organization of the life of that city. But in saying this, the Bolsheviks hide from the masses two circumstances of extraordinary importance. In the first place, the Makhnovists were neither a party nor an authority. In Ekaterinoslav, they acted as a revolutionary military detachment, guaranteeing the freedom of the city. In this capacity, they were in no way obliged to try to achieve a constructive revolutionary program. This task could only be carried out by the workers of the place. The Makhnovist army could at most help them with its opinions and advice, with its spirit of initiative and its organizational ability, and it did this. As for the fable according to which the Makhnovists declared to the railway workers who came to them for help that they (the Makhnovists) did not need railroads, since they had good horses as well as the Steppes - this gross invention was started by Denikin's newspapers in October, 1919, and from that source the Bolsheviks took it to serve their own ends.