Chapter 10 The Russian Revolution and the Makhnovist Movement

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 10, 2018

ANARCHISM IS A doctrine which in the past was associated as intimately with Russia as Communism is today. Two great Anarchists, Bakunin and Kropotkin, were Russians, and in Russia itself the anarchist movement reached formidable proportions and, by its widespread practice of terrorist assassination, made itself feared by the oppressors of the Russian people.

Anarchism was preceded in Russia by the movement of Nihilism, which has often been confused with both Anarchism and the Social Revolutionary Movement, but was really an intellectual current among the younger intelligentsia and never manifested itself as a political movement. Turgenev’s best novel, “Fathers and Sons” dealt with the nihilist view of life. The nihilists accepted no established principle, code or creed, and from this position they built up an opposition to any kind of authority and demanded freedom for the sovereign individual. Thus, philosophically, the ideas of the nihilists were closely linked with those of the anarchists, but their exponents never attempted to convert them into revolutionary terms.

Nevertheless, nihilism evoked a state of mind among the educated classes of Russia that made them begin to doubt the justice of the existing society, and in doing this it prepared for the great revolutionary movements that were to arise in Russia in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Anarchism was introduced into Russia in the early 1870’s by the disciples of Bakunin, particularly Nechaieff and Sazhin, who worked under the name of Armand Ross. Nechaieff was a young fanatic whose ruthless and Jesuitical methods did little good to the revolutionary cause, but who was later, during his long incarceration in the dungeons of Petropavlovsk, to expiate his errors in the most heroic struggle, carried on for years, to assist the revolution from his prison cell. It was Nechaieff who originated the doctrine of “propaganda of the deed”, according to which the revolutionaries should attract the attention and support of the people by means of spectacular assassinations of the oppressors. This theory was followed by many of the Russian anarchists, and also by the party of the People’s Will, better known as the Social Revolutionaries, whose ideas, while not truly anarchist, were libertarian in tendency and much influenced by the teachings of Bakunin.

The Russian anarchists of the pre-Revolutionary years were men and women of extreme devotion, and many of them acted fearlessly in terroristic exploits which they knew could end only in detection and punishment by death or a long and terrible imprisonment. The names of some, like Sergei Stepniak, became famous in Western Europe, but the majority went to the scaffold, or the not less real death of prison, without any fame beyond their immediate circle of revolutionaries.

Apart from the anarchist movement proper, there were also the followers of Tolstoy, who preached a form of non-violent anarchism, and whose method of struggle, if not his anarchism, was later to be adopted by the Indian leader Gandhi. The Tolstoyans were particularly active in their opposition to militarism, and for this reason they, like certain pacifist religious sects such as the Doukhobors, suffered very greatly from the persecution of the Tsarist authorities, a persecution which was later to be continued by the Bolsheviks.
During the first decade of the nineteenth century the empire of the Tsars began to show evident signs of disintegration. The war against Japan ended in military defeat and economic crisis, and in 1905 the Russian workers rose against their masters. In this rising the anarchists took an active part alongside the members of other revolutionary movements, and when the insurrection was broken and suppressed with characteristic brutality, they suffered bitterly for their participation.

The years that followed were rendered difficult by increased oppression. Many anarchists were murdered by the State; many more were incarcerated in the political dungeons of Petropavlovsk and Schüsselburg or exiled to the cold desert of Siberia. But they maintained their struggle throughout the dark years and it was largely owing to the propaganda carried out by the anarchists among both the urban workers and the peasants that there arose the demands for workers’ control of factories and land which were to assume such importance during the Revolution of 1917.

The revolution, which in the decade following 1905 seemed even further away than it had before the abortive rising, was precipitated by external events. The strain of the Japanese war had violently shaken the stability of Tsarism. The war of 1914 with its enormous slaughter of the badly armed Russian troops, its thorough disorganisation of the economic and social life of the country, and its defeats on a far greater scale than those inflicted by the Japanese, brought down the rotten fabric in ruins. Early in 1917 the soldiers, peasants and workers rose against their oppressors, and the old regime was swept away.

During the February revolution the Anarchists were released from prison and returned from Siberia to take their part in the building of the new world of the revolution. Many exiles, including Kropotkin, Bill Shatov and Fanya Baron, returned from Europe or America. During the early months of 1917 the Anarchists worked among the industrial workers and peasants, inciting them to take the factories and land into their own hands and to set up councils of workers that would take the place of the government. This propaganda found a wide response among the Russian people, and during the months up to October there was a great movement for the taking of the factories by the workers and the land by the peasants.

The Bolsheviks, realising that an open propaganda for their political object of seizing and operating the government in order to set up a Socialist state would make little appeal to the Russians, decided on the Machiavellian tactic of appearing to support the anarchist ideas, and, led by Lenin, put about as their own slogans the demands already made popular by the anarchists of “All Power to the Soviets” and “The factories to the workers and the land to the peasants”. These slogans were in fact diametrically opposite to their own objects of state socialism and a party dictatorship, but without them, as Lenin realised, they would have had no chance at all of gaining the power they desired.

By the time of the October Revolution, the real social revolution had already been achieved in the expropriation of private owners and the taking of the means of production by the producers themselves. The October revolution merely gave governmental recognition to what had already been achieved. But it did this in order to destroy that achievement. The Bolsheviks climbed to power on the pretence of destroying the old State and establishing workers’ control of production. In fact, they perpetuated the state as a means of consolidating their own power and began very soon to destroy the workers’ control of production that already existed by bringing all the functions of society under the control of the centralised Bolshevik state. The methods of treachery and coercion they used to this end are well known and, indeed, are admitted and condoned by their own partisans on the grounds of political expediency.

Most of the Anarchists took part in the October Revolution under the impression that they were really helping to precipitate the social revolution. Throughout Russia they took an active part in the organisation of social services and food supplies to the cities, and in the expulsion from power of the reactionary forces. As soon, however, as the Bolsheviks had consolidated their control, they began to turn on their former allies, and the anarchists were the first to be attacked. In April, 1918, the Anarchist headquarters in Moscow was bombarded with artillery by the orders of Trotsky. Many of the Anarchists were arrested and all Anarchist activities were forbidden. In spite of this persecution, the Anarchists continued in their efforts for social, educational and economic reconstruction, in the hope that the Revolution could continue in spite of the increasingly authoritarian attitude of the Bolsheviks.

When the White interventionists attacked Russia, the Anarchists were foremost in their efforts to repel them. During the advance of Yudenich on Petrograd, Shatov and his fellow anarchists organised and led the workers out from the factories, an intervention which was decisive in saving Petrograd. But in this period the movement that was most important in defeating the White invaders was that among the anarchist peasants of the Ukraine, organised by Nestor Makhno. Makhno was a Ukrainian peasant who had become associated with the Anarchist movement just after the Revolution of 1905. At seventeen he was involved in the assassination of a Tsarist police captain, and for this was sentenced to death, which was afterwards commuted to imprisonment for life. He spent a decade in a Moscow gaol and then, in February 1917, was released with the other political prisoners and returned to his Ukrainian village of Gulyai Polye. His sufferings had given him considerable prestige among the local peasantry, and he became the organiser of the trade unions and the local soviet in his district. In August 1917, he led the peasants in the expropriation of the landowners, some months before the Bolshevik decrees “legalising” the accomplished facts.

At this time the Ukraine was a cockpit of conflicting parties. Firstly the Ukrainian Nationalists, under Petlura, attempted to set up a bourgeois reformist state. Early in 1918 the Red Armies entered the Ukraine and put the Nationalists out of power. Petlura appealed to the German Authorities, and in their turn the Red Armies were driven from the Ukraine. The Germans, however, did not reinstate Petlura, but instead set up their own puppet Skoropadsky. This situation was accepted by the Communists in the treaty of Brest Litovsk.
The peasants of the Ukraine fought back against the barbarity of the occupying armies and formed themselves into bands to maintain their resistance. Makhno started to organise the peasants of his district for guerrilla activity. Starting with a band of five men, he began a campaign against all the enemies of peasant freedom, Germans and Austrians, Whites and bourgeois nationalists. He soon gained many recruits, organised his men into mobile groups which conducted surprise attacks and ambushes, and armed them with equipment captured from the opposing forces. The peasants throughout southern Ukraine began to look towards these anarchist bands as their saviours from oppression.

The retreat of the German troops at the end of 1918 left their dupe, Skoropadsky, without any support, and his regime collapsed. For a short time Petlura managed to hold power in Kiev, but he was soon displaced by the Red Armies. While this struggle was proceeding in the north; the peasants of the south were organising free soviets in the country districts, and laying the foundations of an anarchist communist society.

Before long, however, the anarchists were faced by the danger of the White Armies under Denikin, who, assisted with money and arms from the Allied powers, were advancing north into the Ukraine. The guerrilla army succeeded in holding off the superior White forces from passing further north into the body of Russia, but the Bolsheviks saw their success with jealousy and feared the possibility of the Ukraine being held by an anarchist movement which had already gained such prestige among the peasantry. As soon as they felt secure enough, therefore, they declared Makhno an outlaw, and shot as many known anarchists as they could seize. Makhno, in hiding, continued to fight a guerrilla action against the Whites. Without his assistance the Red Armies were being pushed steadily out of the Ukraine, and at last Makhno decided to intervene. He issued an appeal to the anarchists who had remained in the Red Army, and they immediately deserted their Bolshevik commanders and rejoined him in the south. They formed an army of fifteen thousand men, and began another offensive against the Whites. They were, however, very short of ammunition (even during the period of so-called alliance the Bolsheviks starved the anarchists of war materials) and had to retreat, until eventually the anarchist columns were cornered a hundred miles from the Romanian frontier. But, by means of a successful ruse, the White army was routed. This action started the general withdrawal of the interventionist forces, which proved the turning point of the civil war and, ironically, saved Russia not for the Revolution but for the Bolshevik tyranny.

After Uman, the anarchists proceeded to free the Ukraine, taking by surprise the towns in the interior which had not yet learnt of the events on the sea coast. They even took the industrial centres of Ekaterinoslav and Alexandrovsk, and held them until typhus halved their effective power and enabled the main White Army, retreating from the north, to dislodge them.

The Whites were followed by the Reds, and again Makhno had to face the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks ordered the anarchist troops to the Polish frontier, but they refused to go, and fighting broke out between the two armies, which lasted for nine months, and was carried on by the Bolsheviks with the utmost brutality, including the execution of all prisoners.

This internecine struggle continued until, during the war between Russia and Poland, the Whites, who had continued to hold the Crimea, advanced once more into the Ukraine. For a time Makhno had to fight both the Bolsheviks and Wrangel, and it was not until the Polish war took an unexpectedly bad turn that the former decided to serve their own ends by accepting Makhno’s proposals for joint action.

An agreement was made in October 1920. Among its political clauses were undertakings on the part of the Bolsheviks to set free all anarchists in prison and to allow freedom of press and propaganda. Afurther clause, subject to ratification by the Moscow authorities, allowed tentatively for the territory held by the anarchists to be granted “free organs of political and economic self-government, in autonomous and federative connection, based on agreements with the government organs of the Soviet Republic.” It is in accordance with Communist morals that the last clause should never have been ratified, that the two former clauses should not have been fulfilled, and that during the period of the “accord” with Makhno the persecution of anarchists should have continued throughout Russia.

The campaign resulted in the rapid defeat of Wrangel, whose army was driven out of the Ukraine, back into Crimea, and there was totally destroyed. Having used the anarchists for their own salvation, the Bolsheviks now decided to remove the danger represented by the anarchist forces and the free Soviets in the Ukraine.
The Red Army moved into south Ukraine, and Makhno found himself once more an outlaw. Once again he started a guerrilla campaign, but this time the forces against him were of greater numerical superiority than before and had managed to detach him from his own district. In addition, his own early success, together with the Tambov peasant revolt and the Kronstadt rising against the Leninist tyranny (described in detail by Alexander Berkman and Anton Ciliga), had awakened the Bolshevik leaders to the fact that they must make at least some concessions to the peasants if they were to remain secure in power. They therefore instituted the New Economic Policy, which placated many of the farmers and caused a split in the country districts, which robbed the anarchists of the solid body of support they could previously expect from the peasants.
Eventually in 1921, isolated with a tiny band of followers, Makhno was forced to fly south and seek refuge in Romania. He was put in a concentration camp, from which he later escaped to Poland, where he was again imprisoned. The Russians attempted to obtain his extradition, but the Poles refused, and in 1923 Makhno was allowed to leave Poland. He went to Paris and there lived in poverty and oblivion, until his death in 1934

Today, in Russia, his name is obscured and sullied by scandal, and the Anarchism he represented is driven into the recesses of men’s hearts by one of the cruellest oppressions in history. But, when the governing class of Russia is destroyed in the revolution that will follow the present war, the libertarian beliefs that owed so much to Russians and had so great an influence in the 1917 Revolution will certainly reappear.