The Ukrainian Revolution (July-December 1918) by Nestor I. Makhno [Book Review]

This is a vital primary source on the Makhnovist movement. Makhno, both a peasant and anarchist, articulates the rage against the landowners which drove the revolution:

We are fighting for the freedom of all those dominated and degraded by the power of your sort of people, the people who support thrones occupied by dunces […] who build prisons in which are left to rot those whom your mendacity transforms into criminals and thieves. You build scaffolds to hang the very best and bravest of those who fight for the freedom of the oppressed. In fact, it is scarcely possible to enumerate the actions of your class, which are criminal toward those by whose labour, by whose sweat and blood, you and your fellow social parasites are able to maintain your life style.” (p.109-110)

Makhno’s skill as a guerrilla commander is clear in the historical record, and reflected in his account here. However, Makhno wanted victory – a new social order – rather than being satisfied with vengeance. And while the physical battles inevitably occupy the bulk of the text, there are also signs of the difficulty of creating a new society in a war zone: see the discussion of mills and dairies on p116-17. Not strong enough to defend them if they were collectivised, the owners were left with a new, lower, price scale, and the threat of return visit to enforce it.

Memoirs inevitably carry echoes of later disputes about what happened. There’s some hindsight in his disappointment with the failure of “urban anarchists” to engage with the Makhnovist movement. Also, there’s the critique of the performance of anarchists which led Makhno to the Platform: “According to these dictums, one should preach to the masses and incite them to take the path of revolution, but at the same time one should refrain from leading these masses in an organized manner” (p182).

Readers will be glad to hear Black Cat Press are planning two more books by Makhno: A Rebellious Youth (1888-1917), and The Makhnovshchina and its erstwhile allies – the Bolsheviks (covering 1919-21).

This is the usual high quality production from Black Cat Press. As well as maps, footnotes and a glossary and appendices, there’s an excellent introduction: “The Makhnovists were not backward looking rustics who romanticized the past but people whose experience of the modern world in southeastern Ukraine with its mix of rural and industrial life had give them a glimpse of what the future could be like with a different social system.” (p.xiii)

The Ukrainian Revolution (July-December 1918) by Nestor I. Makhno, introduction by Vsevolod Volin. Published by Black Cat Press. ISBN 9781926878058