Nestor Makhno, Anarchy's Cossack: The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine 1917-1921 by Alexandre Skirda [Review]

First up, let us thank AK Press for the production job they have done and Paul Sharkey for the translation, which is generally very good. The text is based on Skirda’s original research which first saw the light in French in 1982 and which has subsequently gone through three more editions, and for good, as it is, to my knowledge, the best work on the Makhnovist movement and Makhno himself available written by a non-participant. Not that I expect this to be the final word, as with the downfall of “Communism” in Russia, albeit to be replaced by a combination of authoritarian regimes and free market capitalism, there has, at least, been an opening which allows for freer access to much archive material in the Ukraine, which may well provide additional information.

However, none of that information will change the outcome of the valiant struggle initiated by the anarchist-communists in Ukraine and which was taken up by many peasants in the countryside in the years 1917 - 1921, which saw an attempt not only to rid themselves of the local bourgeoisie and state, but also occupying Austro-German forces, “White” armies, Ukrainian nationalists and finally the Bolshevik Red Army and Cheka, but also to institute a form of social revolution in areas nominally under the command (probably better stated as “influence”.) That they eventually were overcome by the Bolsheviks cannot be changed, but this does at least set out to give an accurate account of that struggle, an account that is not besmirched by the lies of various “opponents”.

Now, I don’t intend writing a potted history of events in the Ukraine in these years. It is fearsomely complicated and so you’re just going to have to read the book to find out the details (or go online to sites such as: The Nestor Makhno Archive (a splendid resource) at ). Instead I’ll concentrate on a few points of interest arising from the text itself.

Skirda does a good job of balancing the military and social / political events of the time. The Insurgent Army was undoubtedly one of the most innovative of its time, with its use of the tatchanka, as four wheeled (or two sled) horse drawn buggy, with a machine gun mounted on it - believed to have been invented by Makhno himself). This fearsome weapon was an ideal complement to the cavalry sections of the Makhnovist army and was used to devastating effect in numerous battles. However, due to a lack of petrol they were unable to use armoured cars and an aircraft that they captured - which would have proved very handy - they themselves were hard pressed to deal with such weapons when used against them lacking, as they did effective counter-weapons.

However much of whatever success, the Insurgent army, achieved, was as much due to their support amongst the peasantry in the Ukraine. Both because their political program was unequivocal in its support of peasants taking over the land, but also they were far more disciplined and respectful of the peasants. They did not enforce conscription, they paid for supplies they requisitioned and they avoided looting and pillaging. And for the simple reason that the bulk of the combatants were peasants themselves.

Skirda emphasises the point that the Insurgent Army was not under the sole command of Makhno himself. The army was under the command of the Military revolutionary Soviet, and its very existence was dependent on the wishes of the Regional Congress. Much of the army also operated in smaller detachments each with their own elected leaderships. However, it is true that Makhno had an operational command position but even there he could be out-voted amongst the HQ staff. What he, and several others did possess though was a combination of bravery and tactical skill, which made them the obvious choice in military engagements. It also cost most of them their lives.

Any long-term redistribution of land in the Ukraine on the back of the Makhnovist army’s success usually proved short-lived. The “front” was exceptionally fluid - hardly surprising when attacks came from the north (the Bolsheviks); the west (Petliura’s nationalists, Grigoriev and Wrangel) and the south-east (Denikin and the Cossack armies) and the key to the survival of the insurgent army was as much in its ability to move faster than its opponents as it was in holding onto strategic positions.

Two of the topics that Skirda does discuss at some length, are the accusations, made mainly by his political opponents, of anti-semitism and drunkenness. These smears are very effectively crushed by both testimony and logic. Makhno severely dealt with any outbreak of anti-semitism amongst his own forces and had the Atman Grigoriev killed for his pograms against the Jews. It hardly needs mentioning but many jewish peasants and intellectuals fought and (and many cases) died fighting alongside Makhno. The anti-semitism smear simply doesn’t stick. The evidence regarding Makhno’s tendency to drink to excess is scant, but comes often from those who would have been best placed to observe it. Skirda does point out that in a military situation such as that faced by the Insurgent Army; any commander who abused drink would have been voted out, if he indeed survived contact with the enemy. A clear head was essential in these circumstances. Equally he points out that the years in tsarist prisons had so weaken Makhno’s constitution that drinking would have been extremely unadvisable. On the other hand we do have people who knew him saying he wasn’t exactly abstemious and that alcohol was part of peasant culture.

Another excellent aspect of this book is that it covers in some detail the events after Makhno escaped into Romania in 1921. Even after escaping the Bolsheviks, he was hardly free. First interned in Romania, then jailed in Poland on the pre-text of assisting in an uprising, then having made his way through Danzig (Gdansk) and Berlin he finally arrived in Paris in 1925 where, with the assistance of some of the French anarchist movement and fellow exiles he remained for the rest of his life, tolerated as long as he kept out of internal French politics. Here he spent his time working, and working on various projects, the most notable was the Organizational Platform. This was out together by Makhno with other Makhnovist exiles and attempted to draw out the lessons of their experiences in the Ukraine, their dealings with the Bolsheviks and the rest of the anarchist movement in Russia. Other writings Makhno published in this time included the first volume of his Memoirs (the second and third were released after he died) and numerous articles for anarchist publications, some of which have been collected in the volume “The Struggle Against The State and other essays”.

His time in Paris was not an especially happy one, despite the presence of his partner and their daughter Elena (aka Lucie). His health was never good, and the life of an exile did not suit him at all. Further he suffered from grinding poverty, only partially ameliorated by subscriptions organised by sections of the French anarchist movement, money that sadly never made its way to its intended recipient in full. Eventually he died in 1934. The book, in an afterword, describes what happened subsequently to Galina and Lucie. They somehow survived the Second World War, having been arrested and deported to Germany to undertake forced labour. Then they were arrested by the Soviet authorities after the war, and Galina was then sentenced to eight years imprisonment. Eventually she was deported to Kazakhstan where she was finally reunited with Lucie and there they remained until their deaths in1978 and 1993 respectively.

To return to the description of the book itself. It comes with 5 maps, which are useful if basic, but if you can find a large-scale map of the Ukraine with pre-Soviet place names on it, you’ll find of it assistance in following events described in the book. There is an excellent set of illustrations which includes many of the main players in the book, together with a couple taken more recently including two in Gulyai-Polye, quite recently and a there’s even a set of commemorative stamps issues in Gulyai-Polye in 1993 featuring Makhno and the Makhnovists. On the down side, despite the footnotes at the end of each chapter, there is no consolidated bibliography, which would have been quite helpful, and from a reviewer’s point-of-view, an index (if only of proper names) would have made life a tad easier! The translation is generally excellent which makes the very rare mistake stand out all the more. Price-wise it’s about what one would expect to pay these days for a good quality paperback.

Overall, it’s the best book currently available on Makhno and the Makhnovist movement, that one can read in English, although I’d suggest one still should read both Voline and Arshinov’s accounts as well. If you can afford it do buy it, and if not make the effort and get your local library to buy a copy. Well worth reading.

Highly recommended 9/10

Richard Alexander

Skirda, Alexandre “Nestor Makhno. Anarchy’s Cossack. The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine 1917 - 1921.” Translated by Paul Sharkey. AK Press, Edinburgh, London, Oakland, CA. 2005. Pbk xi, 415pp. Illus, notes, maps. ISBN 1-902593-68-5. $21.95 / £13.00.