The Makhnovshchina and Its Aftermath: Documents from the movement and its survivors [Book review]

Nestor Makhno, the Ukrainian anarchist gave his name to the Makhnovist movement or Makhnovshchina.[1] He describes their aims: ‘They are fighting against State power in any way, shape, or form and for the freedom and independence of workers in pursuing the cause of the Revolution, especially in its Anarchistic tendencies – the expropriation for community use of all the tools of production and means of consumption and the safeguarding of these direct conquests of the toilers from encroachment by the State.’ [p15] Even a quick glance at histories of the Russian Revolution and Civil War will show you that Makhno and the Makhnovshchina were well-known enough to attack. Archibald points out that in the early Soviet period books on the Makhnovist movement ‘generally depicted the movement as kulak-based [ie wealthier peasants, KSL] and ultimately reactionary, characterized by banditry and antisemitism. […] An unusually serious Soviet treatment of the Makhnovist movement was the book The Makhnovshchina by the Soviet agronomist Mikhail I. Kubanin […] he was able to prove that their movement was neither antisemitic nor kulak-based. But […] while it draws on archival documents difficult to access even today, [it] has more than its share of distortions of facts and rigid application of Leninist doctrine.’ [p3] Makhno’s response to Kubanin is the longest piece collected here, and it is complemented by pieces by Galina Kuzmenko (Makhno’s wife) and fellow Makhnovist Peter Rybin. Also included is the ‘pamphlet war’ that arose between Makhno and Voline in exile: Voline is accused of having behaved ‘like a conservative accountant’ [p169] while Makhno is accused of ‘acts that are abnormal, indeed criminal.’ [p174]

Archibald’s selections, introductions and notes help the reader to understand these sources in context, not only showing what happened and suggesting why, examining the distortions made of Kuzmenko’s diary but also disentangling errors about dates. Some serious digging has been done: see the unedited version of Trotsky’s article on the Makhnovshchina discovered by Ukrainian historian V.F. Verstiuk ‘The present moment is most propitious for us to liquidate the Makhnovshchina … Based on political considerations, the surrender of Gulyai-Polye [to the Whites] is desirable for us.’ [p70] It’s also clear that, 100 years on, there are still sources waiting to appear: Voline’s interrogation by the Red Army still in the archives and Kuzmenko’s diary as printed here is the best available transcription, but a definitive edition is being prepared by Yuriy Kravets [p104].

That we get to hear from Kuzmenko is one of the best things about this collection. Archibald can correct Makhno’s assertion that she was apolitical: ‘She was known for her anarchist sympathies in Gulyai-Polye even before her marriage’ [p38]. The final appendix is her 1973 account of first meeting Makhno. Also included, but more tragic, is her account of meeting her traumatised mother after the killing of her father [p73 onwards].

Black Cat Press have (again) added to what we know about the Makhnovist movement. Let the final word go to Makhno, from his response to Kubanin: ‘We stuck to the course of the revolution, loyal to our purposes – the purposes of the oppressed and the exploited. We can be taken to task for stumbling. For having been too ruthless or too soft on our enemies. But at no point were we traitors, oppressing the toilers.’ [p29]


1, The Makhnovshchina can be translated as either the ‘Makhno phenomenon’ or ‘time of Makhno’. See The meaning of Makhnovshchina by Malcolm Archibald

The Makhnovshchina and Its Aftermath: Documents from the movement and its survivors
Nestor Makhno, Galina Kuzmenko, Peter Rybin, Vsevolod Voline; translated by Malcolm Archibald and Paul Sharkey; edited by Malcolm Archibald. Black Cat Press, 2021. ISBN 9781926878249.