Chapter 11: Makhno's personality; Biographical notes on some members of the movement

Submitted by Steven. on September 27, 2010

Makhno's Personality

The Makhnovshchina is a revolutionary mass movement created by the historical living conditions of the poorest sectors of the Russian peasantry. Whether or not Makhno had existed, this movement would inevitably have risen from the depths and would have expressed itself in original forms. From the very first days of the revolution, it rose out of the depths of the people in various parts of Russia. If it had not appeared in the Ukraine, it could just as well have appeared elsewhere. Its seeds were carried by the Russian revolution. The conditions in the Ukraine in 1918 helped the movement to break through in a torrent and to consolidate its position to some extent. From its very beginnings, this movement, stemming from the lowest depths of society, thrust forward an impressive array of personalities who were until then unknown, but who possessed an indomitable spirit, a remarkable revolutionary instinct, and enormous abilities in the field of military strategy. Such individuals at the beginning of the movement included: Kalashnikov, the Karetnik brothers, Vasilevsky, Marchenko, Vdovichenko, Kurilenko, Gavrilenko, Petrenko, Belash, Shchus', Ivan and Aleksandr Lepetchenko, Isidor Lyutyi, Veretel'nikov, Chubenko, Tykhenko, the Danilov brothers, L. Zinkovsky, Krat, Seregin, Taranovsky, Puzanov, Troyan, and many others, less well-known. All of them were pioneers of the Makhnovist movement, its standard-bearers and admirable guides. The movement also found a general leader worthy of holding this post in the person of Nestor Makhno.
We knew Makhno during the three stages of his development.
The first stage begins when he was condemned to forced labour as a young revolutionary. In prison he did not distinguish himself from the others - he led the same life as the other prisoners, he was in irons, he sat in the dungeons, he responded to the roll call. His only characteristic that attracted attention was his tireless energy. He was constantly engaged in discussions and controversies, and flooded the prison with his writings. He had a passion for writing on revolutionary and political themes. While in prison, he loved to make up verses, and he was more successful at poetry than at prose. At this time he was very proud of being called an anarchist, believing that nothing was more sublime and beautiful than the world of anarchist ideas. During the imperialist war he was absolutely a stranger to the patriotic fever which took hold of at least half of the political prisoners. Kropotkin's calls to support one of the two warring sides profoundly distressed him, but did not in any way convince him.
The second stage of Makhno's development extends from March 1, 1917, to the summer of 1918. During this time he undertook feverish revolutionary activity in the region of Gulyai-Pole. Unions of workers and peasant associations in Gulyai-Pole, the first soviet of workers and peasants which met there, were the results of Makhno's untiring activity in 1917. He became extremely popular among the peasants of the region, but since the revolution brought forward numerous energetic individuals, he was not particularly distinguishable. But one trait was unique to him: when he was among comrades, he would often retreat into himself, and would unexpectedly make decisions which affected his whole life.
And finally, the third stage includes his activity in the ranks of the revolutionary insurrection from the time of the Hetman until today.
It is unquestionable that the insurrection of the peasant masses, the field of revolutionary and military activity, was the context in which his personality was able to develop fully.
In the spring of 1919, when we saw him for the first time in this new environment, as a leader of the revolutionary insurrection, he was already a completely new and transformed individual.
Outwardly he had not changed, but internally he was a different person. He was completely consumed by his activity. His every movement expressed the strength of his will and his shrewdness. At this time he was completely occupied with the struggle against Denikin on the southern front. The energy with which he engaged in this activity was colossal. He spent weeks and entire months at the front, standing guard and fighting in the ranks with the other insurgents. And when he came to Gulyai-Pole, he spent all his time working with the staff. This work continued late into the night. Only after everything was done did Makhno go to sleep. At five or six o'clock of the following morning, he was already waking the other members of the staff. He also took an active part in daily meetings and assemblies which were held in Gulyai-Pole itself or in neighbouring villages. Nevertheless, he always found time to spend one or two hours at a peasant wedding to which the young bridegroom had invited him two or three weeks earlier. He related to the peasants as one of their own, remained vitally interested in their lives, and in general he lived the same life they lived.
A multitude of legends about Makhno are spread by the peasants and workers of the Ukraine; they represent Makhno as exceptionally brave, extremely shrewd and invincible. In fact, when one knew him personally and watched him at work, one became convinced that he was more remarkable than all the legends about him.
Makhno is a man of historic action. The three years of his revolutionary struggle are filled with incessant deeds, one more remarkable than the other.
The central characteristic of Makhno's personality is his enormous willpower. It seems as if this man of small stature was made of a particularly hard material. He never backed away from an obstacle once he had resolved to surmount it. During the most difficult moments of his life, when catastrophes took place at the front, or when his best friends perished before his eyes, he outwardly remained completely calm, almost as if this did not concern him. Yet, even if he did not externally show his pain, he suffered more than others from these incidents. When, after the rupture of the military and political agreement in November and December, 1920, the Bolsheviks, knowing who their adversary was and hoping to avoid their errors of the preceding summer, threw against Makhno four armies, Makhno faced a catastrophic situation. But he did not lose his psychological equilibrium. His calm was in fact amazing: he paid no attention to the thousands of shells which decimated the insurgent troops nor to the imminent danger of being crushed at any instant by the enormous Red Army. To an external observer this composure of Makhno might have appeared like the composure of a mentally deranged individual. But only an outsider could have gotten such an impression. Those who knew Makhno saw that this calm represented an extraordinary effort of the will to victory over the enemy.
Makhno has the determination of a real hero, as opposed to the determination of those who act behind people's backs and at their expense. In all important situations Makhno marched in the front lines, and was the first to risk his life. Whether he rushed into battle with a detachment, or the entire army set out on a march of ten or fifteen miles, Makhno was always in the front lines, in the saddle if he was well, in a wagon if he was wounded. This is a rule without exceptions.
Makhno is undoubtedly gifted with great military talent. What difficulties he and his army met in the Ukraine! He always emerged from them with honour. The defeat which he inflicted on Denikin's divisions at Uman - divisions commanded by experienced generals educated at the military academy - and the way he disrupted the rearguard of the Denikinist army, are historical monuments to Makhno's military abilities. These are not the only monuments.
In terms of his revolutionary and social conceptions, Makhno is an anarchist-communist. He is fanatically devoted to his class - the poor, oppressed peasantry which is denied all rights.
Makhno is intelligent and shrewd. This trait, which he inherited from the people and which was nurtured by his peasant surroundings, is evident in everything he does. He fully deserves the devotion and affection of his army and of the peasantry. In these surroundings he is considered their own, unique and outstanding. "Bat'ko is one of us," say the insurgents. "He is happy to drink with us, talk with us, and fight shoulder to shoulder with us." These words give the best possible characterization of Makhno as a son of the people. His links with the people were planted in rich black soil. There was hardly anyone in Russia who enjoyed the popularity and affection of the masses as much as Makhno. The peasants are profoundly proud of him. But he has never sought to profit from this affection, to use his position; on the contrary, he frequently ridiculed his position with a typically Ukrainian sense of humour.
Makhno was able to employ the firm and forceful hand of a leader. He was in no way inherently authoritarian, but in the midst of action he always found the necessary firmness, without introducing an authoritarian tendency into the movement, but at the same time not compromising it for lack of cohesion.
It is well known how much significance the Bolsheviks attached to the fact that the peasants called Makhno "Bat'ko." In Chapter 3 we described how and in what circumstances he was given this name. After 1920 he was usually called "Malyi" ("Shorty"), a nickname referring to his short stature, which was introduced by chance by one of the insurgents.1
Makhno's personality contained many superior characteristics - spirit, will, courage, energy and activeness. Taken together, these traits created an imposing impression, and made him remarkable even among revolutionaries.
However, Makhno lacked the theoretical knowledge needed to understand politics and history. Because of this he frequently could not formulate broad revolutionary generalizations and conclusions, or simply refused even to consider them.
The vast movement of the revolutionary insurrection demanded that new social and revolutionary formulas be found that would be adequate to its nature. By reason of his inadequate theoretical knowledge, Makhno was not always equal to this task, and in view of the position which he occupied in the revolutionary insurrection, this defect had repercussions on the whole movement.
We believe that if Makhno had possessed more extensive knowledge in the fields of history and political and social sciences, the revolutionary insurrection would have recorded, instead of inevitable defeats, a series of victories which would have played a colossal and perhaps decisive role in the development of the Russian revolution.
In addition, Makhno possessed one characteristic that sometimes diminished his dominant qualities: at times he exhibited a certain carelessness. Though full of energy and will, he occasionally showed, in times of exceptionally serious crisis, a frivolity that was incompatible with the seriousness demanded by the gravity of the situation.
To give one example, the results of the victory over Denikin's counter-revolution in the fall of 1919 were not sufficiently exploited in the direction of developing a pan-Ukrainian insurrection, although the moment was particularly favourable for such a task. The reason for this was a certain intoxication with victory, as well as a powerful and erroneous sense of security and a measure of inattentiveness; the leaders of the insurrection, with Makhno at their head, installed themselves in the liberated region without giving sufficient attention to the persistence of the White danger or the peril of Bolshevism, which was descending from the north.
But Makhno grew and developed together with the growth and development of the Russian Revolution. Every year he became more intense. In 1921 he was much more profound than he had been in 1918-1919.
In studying Makhno's personality, one should not forget the unfavourable conditions in which Makhno had lived from his infancy: the almost complete lack of education among those who surrounded him and the complete absence of experienced and enlightened help in his social and revolutionary struggle. In spite of this, Makhno has brought about immortal achievements in the Russian revolution, and history will rightfully list him among the most remarkable individuals of this revolution.
To our great surprise, the majority of contemporary Russian anarchists, pretending to play a leading role in the field of anarchist thought, were not able to recognize the salient qualities of Makhno's personality. Many of them saw and judged him from a Bolshevik perspective, getting their materials from the hands of State agents, or else limited themselves to trifles. In this context, P. A. Kropotkin was a striking exception.
"Tell Comrade Makhno from me to take care of himself, for there are not many people like him in Russia."
These words were spoken by Kropotkin in June, 1919, i.e., when there was no information on Makhno in Central Russia other than the official distortions.
At an enormous distance, and on the basis of a few isolated facts, Kropotkin's penetrating insight recognized in Makhno an important historical figure.

Biographical Notes on Some Members of the Movement

We conclude this chapter with brief notes on some of the principal participants in the movement. The biographical materials which we had collected about them were lost at the beginning of 1921, and consequently we are obliged to limit ourselves to extremely summary notes.
Simon Karetnik was a peasant from Gulyai-Pole - one of the poorest of the village. He worked as a farm labourer, and only attended school for one year. He participated in the movement from its first days, and was an anarchist-communist from 1907. He showed a remarkable military talent. He was wounded many times in the fighting against Denikin. After 1920 he often replaced Makhno as supreme commander of the army; he commanded the corps which was sent to the Crimea against Wrangel. He was a member of the Council of Revolutionary Insurgents of the Ukraine. After Wrangel's defeat, the Bolsheviks sent him to Gulyai-Pole, ostensibly to attend a military conference, but he was treacherously seized on route, and was shot at Melitopol'. He left a widow and several children.
Marchenko was the son of a family of poor peasants from Gulyai-Pole. His education was incomplete. An anarchist-communist since 1907, he was one of the first insurgents of the Gulyai-Pole region. He was imprisoned and wounded several times in the combats against Denikin's troops. During the last two years of the insurrection, he commanded the Makhnovist cavalry and was a member of the Council of Revolutionary Insurgents. He was killed in January, 1921, near Poltava, during a battle against the Reds. He left a widow.
Grigory Vasilevsky was the son of poor peasants of Gulyai-Pole. He received an elementary education. An anarchist before 1917, he participated in the Makhnovist movement from its beginnings. A personal friend of Makhno, he replaced him several times at the head of the army. He was killed in December, 1920, in the course of a battle against the Red Cossacks in the government of Kiev. He left a widow and some children.
B. Veretel'nikov was a peasant of Gulyai-Pole. Later he worked in a local foundry, and afterwards in the Putilov factory in Petrograd. First a Socialist-Revolutionary, he became an anarchist in 1918. A very gifted orator and organizer, he actively participated in all the phases of the Russian Revolution. In 1918 he returned to Gulyai-Pole, devoted himself mostly to propaganda and became very popular in the region. For some time he performed the functions of chief of staff of the army. In June, 1919, he marched at the head of a hastily formed unit to try to defend Gulyai-Pole against the forces of Denikin; about 10 miles from Gulyai-Pole, near Svyatodukhovka (dist. of Aleksandrovsk), he was surrounded by the enemy and perished with his entire detachment, continuing to fight until the very end. He left a widow and children.
Petr Gavrilenko was a peasant from Gulyai-Pole, an anarchist since the 1905 revolution, and one of the most active militants of the Makhnovist movement. He played an important role as commander of the Third Corps of Makhnovist Insurgents in the defeat of Denikin's troops in the fall of 1919. During all of 1920 he was a prisoner of the Bolsheviks in Khar'kov. On the basis of the military-political agreement between the Makhnovists and the Soviet authority, he was freed and immediately went to the Crimea to take part in the struggle against Wrangel, where he served as chief of the field staff of the Makhnovist army. After the destruction of Wrangel, he was treacherously seized by the Bolsheviks in the Crimea, and as far as we know, he was shot at Melitopol'. He was a military leader and a prominent revolutionary.
Vasily Kurilenko was a peasant from the village of Novospasovka who received a summary education. He was an anarchist. He commanded a cavalry regiment and was a member of the Council of Revolutionary Insurgents. As a skilled horseman, in 1919 he was invited by the Bolsheviks to the post of commander of a Red cavalry unit after the Makhnovists had been declared outlaws. After conferring with Makhno and other comrades, he accepted the post and held back Denikin's advance in the region of Ekaterinoslav. At the time of the military and political agreement, he was delegated by the Makhnovists to negotiate with the Bolsheviks. In 1920 he was wounded several times in battles against the Whites and the Reds. He was a popular speaker in large public meetings. He was killed in a skirmish with the Reds in the summer of 1921, and left a widow.
Viktor Belash was a peasant from Novospasovka who received an elementary education. He was an anarchist. From 1919 he commanded a Makhnovist regiment and took part in the attack on Taganrog. He was later chief of staff of the army. To revenge his participation in the Makhnovist movement, Denikin's troops killed his father, his grandfather and his two brothers, and burned all that belonged to them. He was a member of the Council of Revolutionary Insurgents, and a skilful military strategist. He elaborated all the plans concerning troop movements and assumed responsibility for them. He was captured by the Bolsheviks in 1921, and was under the threat of being shot. His fate is unknown.
Vdovichenko was a peasant from Novospasovka who received an elementary education. He was an anarchist. He commanded a special detachment of insurgent troops and was one of the most active participants in the revolutionary insurrection. He was extremely popular and greatly loved among the peasants of the Sea of Azov region and among the insurgents. He played a considerable part in the defeat of Denikin's forces in the fall of 1919. In 1921 he was seriously wounded and imprisoned by the Bolsheviks. Though threatened with death, he disdainfully turned down their proposal to transfer to their service. His fate is unknown.
Petr Rybin (Zonov) was a metal-worker, from the government of Orel. At the time of the Tsarist reaction he emigrated to America, where he immediately took part in the revolutionary syndicalist movement, and played a significant role as member of the Union of Russian Workers of the United States and Canada. At the beginning of the 1917 revolution he returned to Russia by way of Japan and Vladivostok, and arrived at Ekaterinoslav. There he took an active part in the syndicalist movement and became popular among the workers. Toward the end of 1917, Ekaterinoslav workers delegated him to the pan-Ukrainian conference of representatives of trade unions and factory committees. The conference adopted the Rybin Plan, which called for the unification of industry and the reconstruction of transportation. Following this, on the suggestion of the Bolsheviks, Rybin lived in Khar'kov, where he worked in the union of metal-workers and in other key sectors of industry and transportation. During the summer of 1920 he came to the conclusion that it was absolutely impossible to work with the Bolsheviks, since they directed all their efforts against the interests of the workers and peasants. It should be noted that Rybin had worked with the Bolsheviks as an assiduous and painstaking trade union worker, and did not dream of making his anarchist leanings known to the Soviet authorities. Even though limiting himself to this role, he found it impossible to serve the interests of the working class under the Communist dictatorship. In the fall of 1920 his thoughts turned toward the Makhnovists, and he went to the camp of the insurgents, where he worked with great energy in the cultural section of the movement. Shortly after his arrival, he was elected member of the Council of Revolutionary Insurgents, and served as secretary. Rybin had enormous energy, and was very well organized and cultured in his work habits. In January, 1921, he left the Makhnovist camp for a time and returned to Khar'kov. He intended to call Rakovsky by telephone and give his frank opinion about Rakovsky and the other authors of the treacherous attack against the Makhnovists and the anarchists. It is very probable that he carried out his plan and that this was the cause of his death. Five days after his arrival in Khar'kov, he was arrested by order of the Cheka, and was shot a month later. He was shot by the Bolsheviks, who had so recently predicted a brilliant career for him, calling him an outstanding organizer and theoretician of the workers' movement.
Kalashnikov was a very young insurgent who had attended the municipal school. He was the son of a worker, and was a 2nd lieutenant in the Tsarist army before the revolution. In 1917 he became secretary of the anarchist-communist organization in Gulyai-Pole. He was an exceptionally brave and talented commander. He was principal organizer of the uprising of Red troops at Novi Bug in the summer of 1919. At first he commanded the 1st brigade of the insurrectionary army, and then the 1st Donets corps of the Makhnovist army. He was killed by a shell in the summer of 1920 in a battle against the Red Army. He left a widow and a child.
Mikhalev-Pavlenko was the son of peasants of Great Russia. He was a member of an anarchist group in Petrograd, and arrived in Gulyai-Pole at the beginning of 1919. He organized and commanded the engineering corps of the Makhnovist army. He had the particularly pure and delicate spirit of a young idealist. On June 11th or 12th, 1919, while serving on an armoured train which was engaged in the fight against Denikin's troops, he was treacherously seized with his comrade Burbyga, by order of Voroshilov, commander of the 14th Army, and was executed on June 17, 1919, at Khar'kov.
Makeev was a worker of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, and a member of the anarchist organization in that city. At the end of April, 1919, he arrived in Gulyai-Pole with 36 comrades who belonged to the same organization. He first devoted himself to propaganda. Later he was elected to the staff of the Makhnovist army. At the end of November, 1919, while commanding an insurrectionary detachment in the region of the Zaporozh'e Station, he was killed in a battle against the troops of General Slashchev.
Vasily Danilov was the son of a poor Gulyai-Pole family, and a blacksmith by trade. He was a soldier in the artillery, and took part in the revolutionary insurrection from its very first days. In the Makhnovist army he held the responsible post of chief of artillery supplies.
Chernoknizhnyi was an elementary school teacher in the village of Novo Pavlovka, district of Pavlograd. At the second congress of peasants, workers and insurgents held at Gulyai-Pole, he was elected president of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Gulyai-Pole region, and continued to carry out this function until the insurgent region was defeated by the Bolsheviks and Denikinists in June, 1919. For his participation in the insurrectionary movement, the Soviet authority declared him an outlaw.
Shchus' was a poor peasant from the village of Bol'shaya Mikhailovka. He was a seaman. At the beginning of the revolution, he was one of the first and most active partisans in the southern Ukraine. As early as April, 1918, he headed an insurrectionary detachment which fought against the Austro-German troops. In the struggle against the Hetman's authority and the Austro-Germans, he demonstrated remarkable energy and courage. Among the insurgents and throughout the southern Ukrainian region, his popularity was almost equal to that of Nestor Makhno. He occupied important positions in the Makhnovist insurrectionary army; he was commander of a cavalry unit, head of the army staff, and finally chief of staff of a special unit of insurrectionary soldiers. He was killed in June, 1921, in the government of Poltava, during a battle against the Red Cavalry.
Isidor Lyutyi was a Gulyai-Pole peasant who had finished primary school. He was a painter by profession. He was an anarchist, and one of the first and most active of the revolutionary insurgents. He was a member of the army staff and one of Makhno's closest aides. He was killed in a battle against the Denikinists near Uman in September, 1919.
Foma Kozhin was a peasant who did not belong to any party. He commanded the machine-gun regiment in the Makhnovist army and later became commander of a special detachment. He played an important role in the defeat of Denikin in the fall of 1919, and in the defeat of Wrangel in 1920. He was wounded several times in these battles. In August 1921 he was seriously wounded in a battle against the Red Army. His fate is unknown.
Ivan and Aleksandr Lepetchenko were Gulyai-Pole peasants and anarchists. They were among the first insurgents against the Hetman Skoropadsky. They worked actively at the front and in the interior of the insurrectionary region. Aleksandr Lepetchenko was shot-by the Bolsheviks in the spring of 1920 in Gulyai-Pole as an eminent Makhnovist. Ivan Lepetchenko retained his post in the Makhnovist army until the very end.
Seregin was a peasant, and an anarchist after 1917. He took part in the insurrection from the beginning, and was head of the supply section of the insurrectionary army.
Grigory and Savva Makhno were brothers of Nestor Makhno.
Grigory Makhno took part in the struggle against the counter-revolution at the Tsaritsyn front, occupying the post of chief of staff of the 37th brigade of the Red Army in 1918 and the beginning of 1919. Joining the insurrectionary army in the spring of 1919, he served as aide to the chief of staff. He was killed near Uman in a battle against the Denikinists in September, 1919, at the same time as Isidor Lyutyi.
Savva Makhno was the oldest of the Makhno brothers. He took part in the insurrection from the time of the Austro-German occupation. At the beginning of 1920 he was seized by the Bolsheviks in Gulyai-Polye, not in the course of a battle, but in his own home, and shot, mainly because he was the brother of Nestor Makhno. He left a large family.
* * *
Lacking sufficient documentation, we are not able to furnish more or less complete biographical information about the long list of active Makhnovists who played important roles in the movement, as for example:
Garkusha, commander of a special regiment of Makhnovist insurgents, killed in 1920;
Kolyada, member of the army staff;
Dermendzhi, liaison officer;
Pravda, chief of transport;
Bondarets, who commanded all the cavalry, and was killed in 1920;
Chubenko, head of the demolition command;2 Brova, commander of a special detachment;
Domashenko, staff commander;
Zabud'ko, commander of a special detachment;
Tykhenko, head of the supply section;
Buryma, head of the demolition command;3 Chumak, treasurer of the army;
Krat, administrator of the economic section; and many others.
All of them emerged from the lowest levels of the working population at the most heroic and revolutionary moment of their lives and served the cause of the movement with all their forces and until their last breath.

  • 1After 1920, the Bolsheviks wrote a great deal about the personal defects of Makhno, basing their information on the diary of his so-called wife, a certain Fedora Gaenko, who had been captured during a battle. But Makhno's wife is Galina Andreevna Kuz'menko. She has lived with him since 1918. She never kept, and therefore never lost, a diary. Thus the documentation of the Soviet authorities is based on a fabrication, and the picture these authorities draw from such a diary is an ordinary lie.
  • 2 During the three years of the insurrectionary movement, various individuals obviously filled the same posts in the Makhnovist army.
  • 3 During the three years of the insurrectionary movement, various individuals obviously filled the same posts in the Makhnovist army.