Young Rebels against the Empire: the youth memoirs of Nestor Makhno & Voldemar Antoni [Book Review]

Nestor Makhno is not an ‘unknown’ of anarchist history, but this is a valuable new source of information on the anarchist movement in his home village of Gulyai-Polye before 1917. Makhno’s memoir has been translated from the ‘relatively obscure’ Russian-American newspaper Rassvet (Dawn). Antoni’s manuscript sat in a local museum until it was transcribed and published by V.M. Chop in 2006.

Antoni was Makhno’s mentor in the Union of Poor Peasants, an anarcho-communist organisation founded in 1906 which, alongside its educational work, ‘engaged in an unequal struggle with the forces of law and order’ [rear cover]. ‘An unequal struggle’ seems something of an understatement. Makhno recalls how ‘Martial law had been applied to the whole country, which meant drumhead courts, punitive detachments and shootings.’ [p13] Antoni returned with Aleksander Semenyuta from Paris to assassinate the policeman, Karachantsev. Antoni’s account records their hunted existence: ‘I asked Aleksandr: “Are we going to die today?” He replied: “We’re going to die.”’ [p129-30] As it turned out, Semenyuta assassinated Karachantsev and Antoni would spend years in South America before returning to the USSR. Makhno tells how Semenyuta ‘committed suicide after putting up nine hours of heroic resistance when his apartment was surrounded by soldiers and he realized that he had no chance of escaping alive.’ [p49] He pays him this tribute: ‘He was always ready for the worst that could happen and he helped others to be ready as well.’ But, writing in 1926, adds ‘Mind you, there are many contemporary anarchists, especially those who have never experienced the tribulations of underground existence, who disdain militants like Aleksandr Semenyuta and would probably disown him. But their opinions do not interest me.’ [p27] 

Elsewhere, Makhno recounts episodes in prison of mutual antagonism with intellectuals ‘for whom the ideas and resources of socialism were only a means to install themselves as bosses and rulers.’ [p63][1]

The thing I found most striking was how Makhno’s account of the February revolution of 1917 preserves the sense of uncertainty: Makhno and his comrades are liberated by revolutionary soldiers, but then sent back to wait for it to be approved ‘in an orderly fashion’. Yet ‘the guards had disappeared, and the broken doors of the cells were lying about.’ [p84]

To have uncovered and translated these memoirs is good work in itself, but Archibald is ever ready to aid the reader with maps, a glossary and footnotes. He is also able to point out the stories from his youth that Makhno does not tell – ‘It’s quite possible that in adulthood he was embarrassed by his youthful behaviour and found some episodes too painful to recount. […] Small for his age he once took revenge against the kids who bullied him by hiding in a tree under which they gathered and dropping rocks on their heads.’ [p.vii, quoting Chop’s 1998 biography of Makhno] Makhno does not even record that he lost a lung to tuberculosis while in prison! [p.xiv-xv]

Antoni’s account, written after his return to the USSR in 1962 (and so ‘concerned to downplay his own involvement in the anarchist movement’) is supplemented by his letter to a relative of Makhno, which ‘gives a somewhat different’ and warmer picture [p93] of his relationship with Makhno.

Young Rebels against the Empire is full of historical insights on prison struggles, transnational activism, and even amateur dramatics. But let me end with Archibald’s assessment of the Union of Poor Peasants: ‘Like other anarchist groups in Ukraine at that time, the UPP had a very young membership, mostly 17 to 20 years in age. Although the organization was destroyed within three years, with its leading figures either killed or dispersed, the UPP can be credited with significant achievements. Its multi-ethnic, multi-cultural membership opposed the rampant chauvinism of the ruling circles, and protected their village’s significant Jewish population from the pogroms that ravaged other population centres in Ukraine at the time. The reactionary elements confronted by these young people enjoyed the full backing of the State with its punitive organs. And a decade later, the movement sprang to life again under more favourable conditions.’ [p91]


1, I suspect this conflict is the cause of his ‘indigestibility’: he’s too well known to ignore but some anarchists would like to distance themselves from him. Levandovsky in 1926 was keen to paint a picture of Makhno as a dictator (‘The Struggle Between Marxism and Anarchism in the Russian Revolution’ Skirda suggests the roots of his resentment lie in not having being funded by the Makhnovist movement in 1920.(see Skirda, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack p331-2) Makhno’s attitude to Levandovsky’s request for ten million roubles to set up a university in Kharkov was ‘Yes, let your university be set up, but here among the peasants in dire need of education.’ (See Skirda, p332, quoting Ugo Fedeli ‘Conversing with Nestor Makhno’ Volonta, v.2, n2 [August 1947])

Young Rebels against the Empire: the youth memoirs of Nestor Makhno and Voldemar Antoni translated and edited by Malcolm Archibald. Black Cat Press, 2021. ISBN 9781926878249.
[Black Cat Press have recently published The Makhnovshchina and Its Aftermath: Documents from the Movement and its Survivors, including a translation of the diary of Galina Kuzmenko, Makhno’s wife.]