Chapter 10: The meaning of the national problem in the Makhnovshchina; The Jewish question

Submitted by Steven. on September 27, 2010

All that has just been said about the Makhnovshchina shows that it was a true popular movement of peasants and workers, and that its essential goal was to establish the freedom of workers by means of revolutionary self-activity on the part of the masses.
From its beginnings, the movement included poor peasants of all nationalities who lived in the region. The majority naturally consisted of Ukrainian peasants. Six to eight percent were peasants from Great Russia. Then there were Greeks, Jews, Caucasians and other poor people of various nationalities. The Greek and Jewish settlements scattered in the region of the Sea of Azov maintained constant links with the movement. Several of the best commanders of the revolutionary army were of Greek origin, and until the very end the army included several special detachments of Greeks.
Composed of the poorest peasants, who were united by the fact that they all worked with their own hands, the Makhnovist movement was founded on the deep feeling of fraternity which characterizes only the most oppressed. During its entire history it did not for an instant appeal to national sentiments. The whole struggle of the Makhnovists against the Bolsheviks was conducted solely in the name of the rights and interests of the workers. Denikin's troops, the Austro-Germans, Petliura, the French troops in Berdyansk, Wrangel - were all treated by the Makhnovists as enemies of the workers. Each one of these invasions represented for them essentially a threat to the workers, and the Makhnovists had no interest in the national flag under which they marched.
In the "Declaration" published by the Revolutionary Military Council of the army in October, 1919, in the section dealing with the national question, the Makhnovists stated:

When speaking of Ukrainian independence, we do not mean national independence in Petliura's sense, but the social independence of workers and peasants. We declare that Ukrainian, and all other, working people have the right to self-determination not as an "independent nation," but as "independent workers."

On the question of the language to be taught in schools, the Makhnovists wrote the following:

The cultural-educational section of the Makhnovist army constantly receives questions from school teachers asking about the language in which instruction should be given in the schools, now that Denikin's troops have been expelled.
The revolutionary insurgents, holding to the principles of true socialism, cannot in any field or by any measure do violence to the natural desires and needs of the Ukrainian people. This is why the question of the language to be taught in the schools cannot be solved by our army, but can only be decided by the people themselves, by parents, teachers and students.
It goes without saying that all the orders of Denikin's so-called "Special Bureau," as well as General Mai-Maevsky's order No. 22, which forbids the use of the mother tongue in the schools, are null and void, having been forcibly imposed on the schools.
In the interest of the greatest intellectual development of the people, the language of instruction should be that toward which the local population naturally tends, and this is why the population, the students, the teachers and the parents, and not authorities or the army, should freely and independently resolve this question.
Cultural-Educational Section of the Makhnovist Insurgent Army
(Put' k Svobode No. 10, October 18, 1919.)

Thus we see that national prejudices had no place in the Makhnovshchina. There was also no place in the movement for religious prejudices. As a revolutionary movement of the poorest classes of the city and the country, the Makhnovshchina was a principled adversary of all religion and of every god. Among modern social movements, the Makhnovshchina was one of the few in which an individual had absolutely no interest in his own or his neighbour's religion or nationality, in which he respected only the labour and the freedom of the worker.
This did not keep the movement's opponents from seeking to discredit it in this field. In the Russian press as well as abroad, the Makhnovshchina was often pictured as a very restricted guerrilla movement, foreign to ideas of brotherhood and international solidarity, and even tainted with anti-Semitism. Nothing could be more criminal than such slanders. In order to shed light on this question, we will cite here certain documented facts which relate to this subject.
An important role was played in the Makhnovist army by revolutionaries of Jewish origin, many of whom had been sentenced to forced labour for participation in the 1905 revolution, or else had been obliged to emigrate to Western Europe or America. Among others, we can mention:
Kogan - vice-president of the central organ of the movement, the Regional Revolutionary Military Council of Gulyai-Pole. Kogan was a worker who, for reasons of principle, had left his factory well before the revolution of 1917, and had gone to do agricultural work in a poor Jewish agricultural colony. Wounded at the battle of Peregonovka, near Uman, against the Denikinists, he was seized by them at the hospital at Uman where he was being treated, and, according to witnesses, the Denikinists killed him with sabres.
L. Zin'kovsky (Zadov) - head of the army's counter-espionage section, and later commander of a special cavalry regiment. A worker who before the 1917 revolution was condemned to ten years of forced labour for political activities. One of the most active militants of the revolutionary insurrection.
Elena Keller - secretary of the army's cultural and educational section. A worker who took part in the syndicalist movement in America. One of the organizers of the "Nabat" Confederation.
Iosif Emigrant (Gotman) - Member of the army's cultural and educational section. A worker who took an active part in the Ukrainian anarchist movement. One of the organizers of the "Nabat" Confederation, and later a member of its secretariat.
Ya. Alyi (Sukhovol'sky) - worker, and member of the army's cultural and educational section. In the Tsarist period he was condemned to forced labour for political activity. One of the organizers of the "Nabat" Confederation and a member of its secretariat.
We could add many more names to the long list of Jewish revolutionaries who took part in different areas of the Makhnovist movement, but we will not do this, because it would endanger their security.
At the heart of the revolutionary insurrection, the Jewish working population was among brothers. The Jewish agricultural colonies scattered throughout the districts of Mariupol', Berdyansk, Aleksandrovsk and elsewhere, actively participated in the regional assemblies of peasants, workers and insurgents; they sent delegates there, and also to the regional Revolutionary Military Council.
Following certain anti-Semitic incidents which occurred in the region in February, 1919, Makhno proposed to all the Jewish colonies that they organize their self-defence and he furnished the necessary guns and ammunition to all these colonies. At the same time Makhno organized a series 0f meetings in the region where he appealed to the masses to struggle against anti-Semitism.
The Jewish working population, in turn, expressed profound solidarity and revolutionary brotherhood toward the revolutionary insurrection. In answer to the call made by the Revolutionary Military Council to furnish voluntary combatants to the Makhnovist insurgent army, the Jewish colonies sent from their midst a large number of volunteers.
In the army of the Makhnovist insurgents there was an exclusively Jewish artillery battery which was covered by an infantry detachment, also made up of Jews. This battery, commanded by the Jewish insurgent Shneider, heroically defended Gulyai-Pole from Denikin's troops in June, 1919, and the entire battery perished there, down to the last man and the last shell.
In the extremely rapid succession of events after the uprising of 1918-19, there were obviously individuals who were hostile to Jews, but these individuals were not the products of the insurrection; they were products of Russian life. These individuals did not have any importance in the movement as a whole. If people of this type took part in acts directed against Jews, they were quickly and severely punished by the revolutionary insurgents.
We described earlier the speed and determination with which the Makhnovists executed Grigor'ev and his staff, and we mentioned that one of the main reasons for this execution was their participation in pogroms of Jews.
We can mention other events of this nature with which we are familiar.
On May 12, 1919, several Jewish families - 20 people in all - were killed in the Jewish agricultural colony of Gor'kaya, near Aleksandrovsk. The Makhnovist staff immediately set up a special commission to investigate this event. This commission discovered that the murders had been committed by seven peasants of the neighbouring village of Uspenovka. These peasants were not part of the insurrectionary army. However, the Makhnovists felt it was impossible to leave this crime unpunished, and they shot the murderers. It was later established that this event and other attempts of this nature had been carried out at the instigation of Denikin's agents, who had managed to infiltrate the region and had sought by these means to prepare an atmosphere favourable for the entry of Denikin's troops into the Ukraine.
On May 4th or 5th, 1919, Makhno and a few commanders hurriedly left the front and went to Gulyai-Pole where they were awaited by the Extraordinary Plenipotentiary of the Republic, L. Kamenev, who had arrived from Khar'kov with other representatives of the Soviet government. At the Verkhnii Tokmak station, Makhno saw a poster with the words: "Death to Jews, Save the Revolution, Long Live Bat'ko Makhno."
"Who put up that poster?" Makhno asked.
He learned that the poster had been put up by an insurgent whom Makhno knew personally, a soldier who had taken part in the battle against Denikin's troops, a person who was in general decent. He presented himself immediately and was shot on the spot.
Makhno continued the journey to Gulyai-Pole. During the rest of the day and during his negotiations with the Plenipotentiary of the Republic, he could not free himself from the influence of this event. He realized that the insurgent had been cruelly dealt with, but he also knew that in conditions of war and in view of Denikin's advance, such posters could represent an enormous danger for the Jewish population and for the entire revolution if one did not oppose them quickly and resolutely.
When the insurrectionary army retreated toward Uman in the summer of 1919, there were several cases when insurgents plundered Jewish homes. When the insurrectionary army examined these cases, it was learned that one group of four or five men was involved in all these incidents - men who had earlier belonged to Grigor'ev's detachments and who had been incorporated into the Makhnovist army after Grigor'ev was shot. This group was disarmed and discharged immediately. Following this, all the combatants who had served under Grigor'ev were discharged from the Makhnovist army as an unreliable element whose re-education was not possible in view of the unfavourable conditions and the lack of time. Thus we see how the Makhnovists viewed anti-Semitism. Outbursts of anti-Semitism in various parts of the Ukraine had no relation to the Makhnovshchina.
Wherever the Jewish population was in contact with the Makhnovists, it found in them its best protectors against anti-Semitic incidents. The Jewish population of Gulyai-Pole, Aleksandrovsk, Berdyansk, Mariupol', as well as all the Jewish agricultural colonies scattered throughout the Donets region, can themselves corroborate the fact that they always found the Makhnovists to be true revolutionary friends, and that due to the severe and decisive measures of the Makhnovists, the anti-Semitic leanings of the counter-revolutionary forces in this region were promptly squashed.
Anti-Semitism exists in Russia as well as in many other countries. In Russia, and to some extent in the Ukraine, it is not a result of the revolutionary epoch or of the insurrectionary movement, but is on the contrary a vestige of the past. The Makhnovists always fought it resolutely in words as well as deeds. During the entire period of the movement, they issued numerous publications calling on the masses to struggle against this evil. It can firmly be stated that in the struggle against anti-Semitism in the Ukraine and beyond its borders, their accomplishment was enormous. We have at hand an appeal published by Makhnovists together with anarchists referring to an anti-Semitic incident which took place in the spring of 1919 - an incident which was undoubtedly linked to the beginning of Denikin's general offensive against the revolution. Here is an abridged version of the text:


During the painful days of reaction, when the situation of the Ukrainian peasants was especially difficult and seemed hopeless, you were the first to rise as fearless and unconquerable fighters for the great cause of the liberation of the working masses... This was the most beautiful and joyful moment in the history of our revolution. You marched against the enemy with weapons in your hands as conscious revolutionaries, guided by the great idea of freedom and equality... But harmful and criminal elements succeeded in insinuating themselves into your ranks. And the revolutionary songs, songs of brotherhood and of the approaching liberation of the workers, began to be disrupted by the harrowing cries of poor Jews who were being tormented to death... On the clear and splendid foundation of the revolution appeared indelible dark blots caused by the parched blood of poor Jewish martyrs who now, as before, continue to be innocent victims of the criminal reaction, of the class struggle... Shameful acts are being carried out. Anti-Semitic pogroms are taking place.
Peasants, workers and insurgents! You know that the workers of all nationalities - Russians, Jews, Poles, Germans, Armenians, etc. - are equally imprisoned in the abyss of poverty. You know that thousands of Jewish girls, daughters of the people, are sold and dishonoured by capital, the same as women of other nationalities. You know how many honest and valiant revolutionary Jewish fighters have given their lives for freedom in Russia during our whole liberation movement... The revolution and the honour of workers obliges all of us to declare as loudly as possible that we make war on the same enemies: on capital and authority, which oppress all workers equally, whether they be Russian, Polish, Jewish, etc. We must proclaim everywhere that our enemies are exploiters and oppressors of various nationalities: the Russian manufacturer, the German iron magnate, the Jewish banker, the Polish aristocrat... The bourgeoisie of all countries and all nationalities is united in a bitter struggle against the revolution, against the labouring masses of the whole world and of all nationalities.
Peasants, workers and insurgents! At this moment, when the international enemy - the bourgeoisie of all countries - hurries to the Russian revolution to create nationalist hatred among the mass of workers in order to distort the revolution and to shake the very foundation of our class struggle - the solidarity and unity of all workers - you must move against conscious and unconscious counter-revolutionaries who endanger the emancipation of the working people from capital and authority. Your revolutionary duty is to stifle all nationalist persecution by dealing ruthlessly with all instigators of anti-Semitic pogroms.
The path toward the emancipation of the workers can be reached by the union of all the workers of the world.
Long live the workers' international!
Long live the free and stateless anarchist commune!
Executive Committee of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Gulyai-Pole region.
"Nabat" Anarchist Group in Gulyai-Pole.
Commander of the Makhnovist Insurrectionary Army, Bat'ko Makhno.
Chief of Staff of the Makhnovist Insurrectionary Army, B. Veretel'nikov.
Village of Gulyai-Pole
May 1919.

Appendix to Chapter 10

Order No. 1.

From the Commander of the Ukrainian Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army, Bat'ko Makhno.
To all the commanders of the infantry: corps, brigades, regiments, battalions, companies, platoons, and sections; cavalry: brigades, regiments, squadrons, and platoons; artillery: divisions, batteries. To all heads of staffs, garrisons. To all revolutionary insurgents without exception.
1. The goal of our revolutionary army, and of every insurgent participating in it, is an honourable struggle for the full liberation of the Ukrainian workers from all oppression. This is why every insurgent should constantly keep in mind that there is no place among us for those who, under the cover of the revolutionary insurrection, seek to satisfy their desires for personal profit, violence and plunder at the expense of the peaceful Jewish population.
2. Every revolutionary insurgent should remember that his personal enemies as well as the enemies of all the people are the rich bourgeoisie, regardless of whether they be Russian, or Jewish, or Ukrainian. The enemies of the working people are also those who protect the unjust bourgeois regime, i.e., the Soviet Commissars, the members of repressive expeditionary corps, the Extraordinary Commissions which go through the cities and villages torturing the working people who refuse to submit to their arbitrary dictatorship. Every insurgent should arrest and send to the army staff all representatives of such expeditionary corps, Extraordinary Commissions and other institutions which oppress and subjugate the people; if they resist, they should be shot on the spot. As for any violence done to peaceful workers of whatever nationality -- such acts are unworthy of any revolutionary insurgent, and the perpetrator of such acts will be punished by death.
3. All acts of individual requisition or confiscation as well as any exchange of horses or vehicles with the peasants without written authorization from the supply commander will be severely punished. Every insurgent should realize that requisitions of this type would only attract to the ranks of the insurrectionary army hooligans of the worst type, individuals thirsting for wealth and eager to carry out shameful acts which distort our liberatory revolutionary movement under the very cover of the revolutionary insurrection.
I appeal to all insurgent militants to take it upon themselves to protect the honour of our truly revolutionary insurrectionary army by opposing every unjust act either among ourselves or among the working people whom we are defending.2 We cannot practice injustice among ourselves. We cannot mistreat even one son or daughter of the working people for whom we are fighting. And every insurgent who takes part in such an act covers himself with shame and brings upon himself the punishment of the popular revolutionary army.
4. In the interests of the revolution and of a just struggle for our ideals it is necessary to maintain the most rigorous fraternal discipline in our ranks. The greatest respect and obedience in military matters toward your chosen commanders are absolutely indispensable. This is required by the importance of the cause which has fallen to us to defend, which we will honourably carry to its conclusion, but which we will lose if we do not maintain discipline among ourselves. This is why I require the commanders and the insurgents to maintain strict discipline among themselves and in all their actions.
5. Drunkenness is to be considered a crime. It is a still greater crime for a revolutionary insurgent to show himself drunk in the street.
6. Every insurgent travelling from one village to another should be ready for combat. The relations with the peaceful population in the villages and on the roads should be above all amicable and comradely. Remember, comrade commanders and insurgents, that we are the sons of the great working people, that all the workers are our brothers and our sisters. The cause for which we fight is a great one, which demands that we be untiring, generous, full of brotherly love and revolutionary honour. That is why I call on all revolutionary insurgents to be real friends of the people and true sons of the revolution. This is the source of our power and the guarantee of our victory.
Commander of the Ukrainian Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army, Bat'ko Makhno.
Hamlet of Dobrovelichkovka,
government of Kherson.
August 5, 1919.

  • 1This order was published at the time of the unification and organization of all the insurrectionary forces into a single army; when, after the forced retreat from the region of Gulyai-Pole, the detachments who had served under Grigor'ev and the Red Army troops who had come from Novy Bug to join the Makhnovists were incorporated into the insurrectionary army in the region of Elisavetgrad-Pomoshchnaya.
  • 2i.e. to struggle against injustice in the insurgents' own environment and in the insurgents' relations to the environment of the working people - P.A.