Chapter 08: Errors of the Makhnovists; Second Bolshevik assault on the insurgent region

Submitted by Steven. on September 27, 2010

The exertions of the Makhnovists in their struggle against Denikin were colossal. The heroism of their six-month struggle had been visible to everyone. Throughout the extensive area of the liberated region, they alone carried the revolutionary thunder and prepared the grave for Denikin's counter-revolution. This is how the broad masses of the cities and villages understood the events which took place.
This circumstance led many Makhnovists to the conclusion that they were now protected from all Communist provocations in view of the understanding of the workers and peasants. It was thought that the Red Army, coming from the north, would now understand the falsity of the Communist Party's accusations of the Makhnovists; that this army would not be taken in by a new hoax or provocation by the Party, but would on the contrary make common cause with the Makhnovists as soon as the two met. Furthermore, the optimism of certain Makhnovists went so far as to consider it unlikely, in view of the widespread Makhnovist leanings among the people, that the Communist Party would dare to organize a new attack against the free people.
The military and revolutionary activity of the Makhnovists corresponded to this attitude. They limited themselves to occupying part of the region between the Dnepr and the Don, and did not seek to advance northward and consolidate themselves there, thinking that when the two armies met, an appropriate tactic would be worked out. In addition, some militants were convinced that exaggerated importance should not be given to the military, even if revolutionary, aspect, but that it was necessary to concentrate on the activity of the masses of workers and peasants, to encourage them in the work of revolutionary construction. Congresses of workers and peasants - district, regional, provincial - these were to be the practical tasks of the day. This is how the revolution was to be helped and saved from the Bolshevik impasse.
The optimism of the Makhnovists and their attitude about the need to concentrate mainly on constructive work in the region were perfectly healthy, but did not in any way correspond to the situation which was developing in the Ukraine, and consequently did not lead to the anticipated results.
There was first of all Bolshevism. By its very nature it could never, under any circumstances, allow the free and open existence of a popular movement from below, such as the Makhnovshchina. Whatever the public opinion of the workers and peasants, Bolshevism, on first contact with the movement, would take all measures to annihilate it. This is why the Makhnovists, situated at the heart of the popular activity of the Ukraine, should have begun by protecting themselves from this threat. Their desire to devote themselves principally to positive work - a profoundly justified and revolutionary desire - was untenable in the specific circumstances of the Ukraine after 1918. The country had been traversed several times by Austro-Germans, by Petliurists, by Denikinists, by the Bolsheviks. In 1919 the insurgent region had been swept from one end to the other by a wave of Cossacks heading in one direction, and four months later by the same wave heading in the opposite direction, devastating everything in its path. This avalanche was followed immediately by the numerous troops of the Red Army, who inflicted on the revolutionary people the same unremitting devastation.
Consequently, in the summer of 1919 the situation in the insurgent region made large-scale revolutionary construction absolutely impossible. It seemed as though a gigantic grate composed of bayonets shuttled back and forth across the region, from north to south and back again, wiping out all traces of creative social construction. In these conditions the Makhnovists were forced to concentrate on military affairs, to combat enemy forces.
We must continue to take into account the conditions of life in the region.
In the autumn of 1919, the annihilation of Denikin's counter-revolution was the main task of the Makhnovists in the context of the Russian revolution. The Makhnovists completed this task. But this did not complete their historical mission in the Russian revolution at this time. The country in revolt, liberated from Denikin's troops, urgently required the immediate organization of defence throughout its whole territory. Without such defence, the country and all the revolutionary possibilities given to it by the liquidation of Denikin, were in constant danger of being wiped out by the statist army of the Bolsheviks, which had been sent into the Ukraine in pursuit of Denikin's retreating troops.
It is therefore incontestable that, in the autumn of 1919, one of the historic tasks imposed on the Makhnovshchina by the course of events was the creation of a revolutionary army strong enough to permit the revolutionary people to defend their freedom, not only in an isolated and limited area, but in the whole territory of the Ukrainian insurrection.
During the fierce struggle against Denikin, this would certainly not have been an easy task, but it was historically necessary and entirely possible, since the major part of the Ukraine was in the midst of revolution and was Makhnovist in spirit. The units of insurgents who flocked to join the Makhnovists came not only from the southern Ukraine, but also from the north - for example the insurrectional division of Bibik, who occupied Poltava. Furthermore, certain detachments of the Red Army came from Central Russia to the ranks of the Makhnovists, thirsting to fight for the social revolution under the banner of the Makhnovshchina. Among others, fairly numerous troops came from the government of Orel, under the command of Ogarkov. They arrived at Ekaterinoslav toward the end of October, 1919, having fought battles on the way against the Bolshevik as well as the Denikinist armies.
The banner of the Makhnovshchina rose spontaneously and floated over the whole Ukraine. It was only necessary to take certain measures in order to merge all the numerous armed formations which were wandering over the whole Ukraine into a single, powerful, popular and revolutionary army that could have stood guard around the territory of the revolution.
Such a force, defending the whole revolutionary territory, and not merely a narrow and limited region, would have been the most persuasive argument against the Bolsheviks accustomed as they were to work and deal with force.
However, intoxication with the victories, as well as a certain carelessness, prevented the Makhnovists from creating a force of this sort in time. This is why, from the time the Bolsheviks entered the Ukraine, the Makhnovists were obliged to withdraw into the limited area of Gulyai-Pole. This was a serious military error, an error which the Bolsheviks were not slow in turning to their advantage, and an error whose consequences soon fell heavily on the Makhnovists and on the entire revolution in the Ukraine.
* * *
A typhus epidemic which spread all over Russia attacked the Makhnovist army as well. In October, half the men were sick. This was the main reason why the Makhnovists were obliged to abandon Ekaterinoslav when the city was attacked, toward the end of November, by a strong force of Denikin's army commanded by General Slashchev. These troops were retreating toward the Crimea, and their temporary occupation of Ekaterinoslav had no significance.
The Makhnovists regrouped in the region between the cities of Melitopol', Nikopol' and Aleksandrovsk. The staff of the army halted in Aleksandrovsk. News of the Red Army's approach had been heard for some time. Envisaging a fraternal meeting, the Makhnovists did not make any preparations for a collision.
At the end of December, several divisions of the Red Army arrived in the region of Ekaterinoslav and Aleksandrovsk. The encounter between the Makhnovists and the Red Army soldiers was warm and comradely. A general meeting was organized at which the combatants of both armies shook hands and declared that they would fight together against their common enemy: capitalism and counterrevolution. This alliance lasted for about a week. Some units of the Red Army even showed a desire to go over to the Makhnovist ranks.
Then the commander of the Makhnovist army received an order from the Revolutionary Military Council of the 14th Corps of the Red Army to move the insurrectionary army to the Polish front. Everyone immediately understood that this was the first step of the Bolsheviks towards a new attack on the Makhnovists. Sending the insurrectionary army to the Polish front meant removing from the Ukraine the main nerve centre of the revolutionary insurrection. This was precisely what the Bolsheviks wanted: they would then be absolute masters of the rebellious region, and the Makhnovists were perfectly aware of this. Furthermore, the order itself aroused the indignation of the Makhnovists: neither the 14th Corps nor any other unit of the Red Army had any ties whatsoever with the Makhnovist army; least of all were they in a position to give orders to the insurrectionary army, which alone had supported the whole weight of the struggle against the counter-revolution in the Ukraine.
The Revolutionary Military Council of the Makhnovist insurrectionary army replied immediately to the order issued by the 14th Army Corps. This response stated (lacking the written documents, we cite from memory): The Makhnovist insurrectionary army has demonstrated its revolutionary spirit better than anyone else. It will remain at its revolutionary combat post by staying in the Ukraine, and not by travelling to the Polish front, the significance of which they do not understand. Furthermore, this departure is physically impossible because half the men, the entire staff and the commander himself are in the hospital with typhus. The Revolutionary Military Council of the Makhnovist insurrectionary army considers the order of the 14th Army Corps misplaced and a provocation.
This reply of the Makhnovists was accompanied by an appeal to the soldiers of the Red Army calling on them not to be duped by the provocative manoeuvres of their commanders. Having done this, the Makhnovists broke camp and set out for Gulyai-Pole. They arrived without hardships and without incidents. The soldiers of the Red Army showed no desire to oppose the move of the Makhnovists. Only a few small detachments and some isolated individuals who fell behind the rest of the movement were held by the Bolsheviks.
In the middle of January, 1920, the Bolsheviks declared Makhno and the members of his army outlaws for their refusal to go to the Polish front. This date marked the beginning of a violent struggle between the Makhnovists and the Communist power. We will not go into all the details of this struggle, which lasted nine months. We will only note that it was a merciless struggle on both sides. The Bolsheviks relied on their numerous well-armed and well-supplied divisions. In order to avert fraternization between the soldiers of the Red Army and the Makhnovists, the Bolshevik commander sent against the Makhnovists a division of Lettish sharpshooters and some Chinese detachments, that is to say, units whose members had not the slightest idea of the true meaning of the Russian revolution and who blindly obeyed the orders of the authorities.
* * *
In January the Makhnovists were disorganized by the typhus epidemic. All the members of the staff had typhoid fever. Makhno himself had contracted a particularly acute form of typhus. The majority of the soldiers of the army had to leave the ranks because of the illness, and were scattered in the villages. It was in these conditions that the Makhnovists had to face their numerous enemies and to care for Makhno, who was unconscious for many days. It was a moment of concern, sacrifice and devoted care for their leader. The insurgents, simple peasants from the surrounding villages, were deeply moved by Makhno's dangerous situation. Being sick, he could be taken prisoner by the Red Army from one day to the next. It was perfectly clear to all that the loss of Makhno would be a terrible blow to the entire peasantry, a loss with consequences that could not be imagined. So the peasants did everything they could to prevent this. One should have seen the solicitude with which they transported Makhno from one hut to another in Gulyai-Pole and other villages, shielding him from the Red soldiers sent after him; one should have seen how, more than once, at the critical moment when Makhno's hiding place was discovered, the peasants sacrificed themselves, seeking to gain time to transport him to a safer place - one had to have seen all this in order to understand with what fanatic devotion the peasants were ready to defend their leader, and to what degree they valued him. It was only due to this exceptional devotion that Makhno's life was saved at this critical moment.
* * *
Though the Bolshevik troops were much more numerous, Makhno and his detachments constantly kept out of their reach. But the Bolsheviks managed to establish themselves solidly in several places, and to stop the free development of the region, which had begun in 1919. It was then that mass executions of peasants began.
Many will remember that the Soviet press, in articles on the struggle with Makhno, cited the number of Makhnovists defeated, captured or shot. But this press always neglected to mention that the victims were usually not insurgents in Makhno's army but local peasants of various villages who sympathized with the Makhnovshchina. The arrival of Red divisions in a village meant the immediate arrest of many peasants, who were later executed either as Makhnovist insurgents, or as hostages. The commanders of various Red divisions were particularly fond of this savage and vile method of struggle against the Makhnovshchina, preferring it to open struggle against Makhno. It was especially the units of the 42nd and 46th Red Rifle divisions who indulged in this type of activity. The village of Gulyai-Pole, which passed from one side to the other several times, suffered the most. Each time the Bolshevik troops entered the village or were obliged to leave, the commanders rounded up several dozen peasants, arresting them unexpectedly in the streets, and shot them. Every inhabitant of Gulyai-Pole can tell horrifying stories about this Bolshevik practice. According to the most moderate estimates, more than 200,000 peasants and workers were shot or seriously injured by the Soviet authorities in the Ukraine at that time. Nearly as many were imprisoned or deported to various parts of Russia and Siberia.
Naturally the Makhnovists - revolutionary sons of a people in revolution - could not remain indifferent to such a monstrous distortion of the revolution. They replied to the Bolshevik terror with blows no less severe. They employed against the Bolsheviks all methods of guerrilla warfare which they had formerly used in their struggle against the Hetman Skoropadsky. Whenever the Red Army units entered into combat with the Makhnovists, the battle followed all the rules of war, and it was unfortunately the simple soldiers of the Red Army who were the main victims of such encounters, soldiers who had been sent into the battle under compulsion and who in no way deserved such a. fate. But this could not be avoided. When the Makhnovists captured Red prisoners they disarmed the soldiers and set them free; those who wished could join the insurgent ranks; but the commanders and Party functionaries were generally killed, except for the rare instances when the soldiers asked that they be spared.
The Soviet authorities and their agents often depicted the Makhnovists as pitiless assassins, giving long lists of soldiers of the Red Army and members of the Communist Party put to death by them. But the authorities were always silent about the essential fact, namely about the circumstances in which these soldiers or Party members had been killed. They were always victims of combats started or provoked by the Communists themselves, combats which were forced on the Makhnovists when they were cornered by the Bolsheviks. War is war; there are always victims on both sides. But the Makhnovists understood perfectly that they were making war, not against the soldiers of the Red Army as a group or against any of them individually, but against the handful of rulers who directed this mass, who disposed of them, and who valued the life of a Red soldier only to the extent that it was useful for the preservation of their power. This is why, although they often struggled bitterly against the Red Army units, once the battle was over the Makhnovists related to the soldiers of the Red Army with the same spirit of brotherhood and friendship which characterized relations among themselves. One can only admire the tact, the self-restraint and the revolutionary honour with which the Makhnovists turned to the soldiers of the Red Army: not one of the soldiers of this army taken prisoner by the Makhnovists was made to suffer by them. And this happened at a time when all the Makhnovists who fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks were invariably shot on the spot.
But the Makhnovists had completely different relations with the chiefs of the Red Army and with the Party aristocracy. They considered them the only real culprits of all the evils and all the horrors which the Soviet power imposed on the region. These chiefs had deliberately annihilated the freedom of the people and transformed the insurgent region into a wound from which the blood of the people flowed. And the Makhnovists treated them accordingly: when they were caught they were usually killed.
The Bolshevik terror against the Makhnovists contained all the symptoms of terror inherent in a ruling caste. If Makhnovist prisoners were not shot on the spot, they were imprisoned and subjected to all types of torture to force them to repudiate the movement, to denounce their comrades and to take employment with the police. The assistant to the commander of the 13th insurgent regiment, Berezovsky, was taken prisoner by the Bolsheviks and became an agent of the Special Section (Cheka); but according to him, he did this only after being subjected to torture. Similarly, the Bolsheviks more than once offered freedom to the commander of the engineering corps of the Makhnovist army, Chubenko, if he would agree to assist them in killing Makhno. Assassinating Makhno with the help of any imprisoned Makhnovist was the constant concern of the Bolsheviks during the entire summer of 1920. Here is a text of a document published by the Makhnovists after an unsuccessful attempt by the Bolsheviks to assassinate Makhno:


For two months the staff headquarters of the Ukrainian revolutionary insurgents has been receiving information from many sources about the fact that the ruling Communist-Bolshevik Party, unable in spite of all its regiments and divisions to vanquish the independent and free insurrection of the Makhnovshchina in open combat, has been plotting, with the help of mercenaries, to assassinate the leader of the revolutionary insurrection, comrade Nestor Makhno.
We possess precise information about the fact that a special section has been instituted for this purpose in the All-Ukrainian Cheka, headed by experienced Bolshevik executioners Mantsev and Martynov. The personnel of this special section is recruited exclusively among former naletchiki ("bandits") who are condemned to death and buy their lives through services rendered to the Cheka.
Among the agents provocateurs, there are some who have had connections with the anarchist movement, for example: Peter Sidorov, Tima-lvan Petrakov, Zhenya Ermakova (Anna Sukhova), Chaldon and Burtsev. Their links to the anarchist movement were mainly military. We have also been informed that one of these agents provocateurs is "Big Nicholas" - an individualist who last year edited the journal K Svetu (Toward the Light) in Khar'kov, and who is also known as Vasili.
There are no limits to the treachery of this band of provocateurs. Having learned many of the clandestine names and addresses of anarchists at the time of Denikin's invasion, they burst into the comrades' quarters and carried out outright pogroms; it goes without saying that all the anarchists whom they knew, and who were more or less hostile to the Bolshevik authorities, were arrested and shot.
After having operated this way in Khar'kov and Odessa, this unsavoury band, headed by its boss, Mantsev, moved to Ekaterinoslav in order to prepare the assassination of Bat'ko Makhno from there, and to recruit collaborators.
However, the "revolutionary" Bolsheviks have evidently forgotten, during the three years they have ruled, the type of sincerity with which agents provocateurs served the Tsarist government, and how many times a Petrov emerged from their ranks, who succeeded in redeeming his honour. Such is the case again. Among the provocateurs bought by the Bolsheviks in exchange for money and the promise to have their lives spared, there are people who, haunted by moral obligations or possibly by the awareness of their betrayal, manage to thwart all the ventures of Mister Mantsev and his friends.


On June 20, one hour after the arrival of a group of revolutionary insurgents (Makhnovists) in Turkenovka, ten miles from Gulyai-Pole, a certain Fedya Glushchenko, who during the preceding year had worked in counter-espionage for the insurrectionary army, and who had just arrived in the village, approached Comrade Makhno in the street and said to him nervously: "Bat'ko, I have some very important information for you!..." Comrade Makhno instructed him to make his communication to Comrade Kurilenko, who was nearby. Fedya declared that he and another person, who at that time stood on the street close to Comrade Makhno, had been sent there to assassinate Bat'ko Makhno. Kurilenko cautiously approached the other person and succeeded in disarming him. He was carrying a Mauser revolver, a Browning and two bombs, and Fedya himself had a Colt revolver.
The other individual was Yakov Kostykhin, a naletchik who had the nickname "Bad Yashka." He quickly described, in detail and with all sincerity, verbally as well as in writing, everything he was supposed to do at the instigation of Mister Mantsev, toward whom he showed no respect. They had received 13 thousand roubles in Tsarist paper money and a sum of Soviet money. A detailed plan of the projected assassination had been carefully worked out in Ekaterinoslav by Mantsev, Martynov and Fedya. Kostyukhin was under Fedya's orders. Fedya also had the mission of winning over to his side the former head of counter-espionage of the First (Donets) Makhnovist Corps, Lev Zadov. Kostyukhin, knowing that he deserved only to die, offered his services for any purpose whatever. Naturally this offer was rejected, and he was executed the following day. Just before he died, he cursed Fedya for having led him here and then betrayed him.
Fedya declared that he had been arrested by Mantsev and had been offered the choice between death and working under the orders of the Cheka with a view to assassinating Makhno. He chose the latter proposition, with the intention, he said, of warning Comrade Makhno in time. He remained firm and declared that he deserved to die for his participation in the Cheka; but he repeated that he had done this in order to be able to warn his comrades and to die by their hands. The insurgents obviously could not let collaboration with the Cheka go unpunished, whatever the motives which had induced Fedya to do this, since a revolutionary cannot under any circumstances collaborate with the police. On June 21 Fedya Glushchenko was executed together with Kostyukhin. He died calmly, saying that he fully deserved to die, but he asked that his Makhnovist comrades be informed that he did not die as a villain, but as a true friend of the insurgents who had accepted service with the Cheka only so that his death would save the life of Bat'ko Makhno. "God help you!" were his last words.
Thus ended the treacherous attempt of the All-Ukrainian Cheka to use mercenaries to assassinate the leader of the revolutionary insurrection, comrade Makhno.
Council of Ukrainian Revolutionary Insurgents (Makhnovists) June 21, 1920.

All through the year of 1920 and even later, the Soviet authorities carried on the fight against the Makhnovists pretending to be fighting banditry. They engaged in intense agitation to persuade the country of this, using their press and all their means of propaganda to uphold the slander both inside and outside of Russia. At the same time, numerous infantry and cavalry divisions were sent against the insurgents, for the purpose of destroying the movement and pushing its members toward the gulf of real banditry. The Makhnovist prisoners were pitilessly put to death, their families - fathers, mothers, wives, relatives - were tortured and killed, their property was pillaged or confiscated, their houses were destroyed. All this was practiced on a large scale. A superhuman will and heroic efforts were needed by the vast masses of insurgents, in the face of all these horrors committed daily by the authorities, to retain intact their rigorously revolutionary position, and not to fall, in exasperation, into the abyss of banditry. But the masses never lost their courage, they never lowered their revolutionary banner, but remained to the end faithful to their task. For those who saw it during this hard and painful period, this was a genuine miracle, demonstrating how deep was the faith of these working masses in the revolution, how strong their devotion to the cause whose ideas had won them over.
* * *
During the spring and summer of 1920, the Makhnovists had to carry on the struggle, not merely against detachments of the Red Army, but against the whole Bolshevik system, against all its governmental forces in the Ukraine and Great Russia. This is why the insurrectionary troops were sometimes obliged - so as to avoid encountering an enemy of too superior numbers - to leave their region and make forced marches of 600 miles or more. Sometimes they had to retreat to the Donets Basin, sometimes to the governments of Khar'kov and Poltava. These involuntary wanderings were put to considerable use by the insurgents for propaganda purposes, and every village in which they halted for a day or two became a vast Makhnovist auditorium.
It was during this nomadic period, in June-July, 1920, that a higher organ to direct the activity of the army and the entire movement was constructed: the Council of Ukrainian Revolutionary Insurgents (Makhnovists), consisting of seven members elected or ratified by the mass of the insurgents. This Council was divided into three sections: military affairs and operations, organization and general control, education and culture.

  • 1Extract from the proceedings of a Council session.