Nestor Makhno Rides Again [Book review]

Nestor Makhno - Anarchy’s Cossack: The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine 1917-1921 by Alexandre Skirda, published by AK Press and the Kate Sharpley Library.

Nestor Makhno is probably the most frequently and unjustly maligned figure in anarchist history because he symbolises libertarian revolt in the Ukraine against both White and Red autocracy.

This book is overdue: no biography of Makhno has appeared in English since Michael Malet’s in 1982. Nestor Makhno - Anarchy’s Cossack was first published in French that year, after 18 years of research, and updated in 1999 and 2001. In 400+ pages Skirda covers a remarkable range of sources, from Makhnovist memoirs to very early and very late Soviet material. Skirda is obviously sympathetic to Makhno, but everything is firmly grounded in the evidence of his research, and no myth about Makhno is left unexamined. As usual, Skirda’s not afraid to share either his opinions or his dry humour. The result is a substantial and illuminating study of Makhno’s life. It also gives much new information on the Makhnovist movement - and its enemies. The chronological account is followed by several important analytical chapters. These cover Makhno’s character, the relationship between Anarchism and the Makhnovschina, the allegations of ‘banditry’ and anti-Semitism against Makhno, sources, and the fate of Makhno’s partner Galina Kuzmenko and their daughter Elena (Lucie). Finally, thirty pages of documents from the Makhnovists are reprinted.

Early life

Makhno came from a poor peasant family in the town of Gulyai-Polye, at the very bottom of the tsarist social pyramid. If that didn’t incline him to revolt, in his memoirs (quoted on p.19) he repeats the advice given him by a workmate who’d violently interrupted some gentry beating another stable lad: ‘Little Nestor, if one of your masters should ever strike you, pick up the first pitchfork you lay hands on and let him have it…’

The revolution of 1905 politicised him, and by 1906, in his late teens, he was involved in the Gulyai-Polye anarchist group. After 1905 an epidemic of combat groups undermined tsarism. The Gulyai-Polye group was no exception: propaganda was combined with expropriations and gun battles with the police. Arrested in 1909 and tried in 1910, Makhno was first sentenced to death, then reprieved and given hard labour for life. His time in prison was significant in several ways. He met Arshinov, the anarchist worker who was to become an almost lifelong comrade, and devoured the prisoners’ collective library. Less good, though prophetic in a way, was meeting (in his own words) ‘intellectuals who seek from the socialist idea and from their militancy only the means of ensconcing themselves as masters and governors.’ (p.31) Also, Makhno’s uncompromising attitude earned him several visits to solitary where he picked up the tuberculosis that later killed him.


The February revolution of 1917 overthrew tsarism and unleashed the creative energies of workers and peasants. It also freed Makhno from Moscow’s Butyrki prison. He returned home to throw himself into social reconstruction alongside survivors of the Gulyai-Polye anarchist group, pushing for social revolution and expropriation of the landowners. Makhno always remained consistent in his revolutionary programme: destruction of the forces of repression and encouraging peasants to the take the land, workers the factories, and calling free soviets (ie meetings) to coordinate their activities.

… and Civil War

Though the tsarist system had collapsed, there were plenty of candidates itching to restore power and put the workers and peasants back in their place. Makhno and his comrades encouraged and initiated the resistance to their plans. The first Makhnovist insurgents harried the Austro-German occupation, and the old landowners who returned with it. At this early stage the Makhnovist was of dealing with prisoners was set, which was much more discriminating than other groups in the civil war:

The Varta members [Police] and members of the band of landowners were shot out of hand for, despite warnings, they had persisted in their repressive activities. As for the Austrian soldiers, they were fed then released on promising to fight no more against the revolutionary peasants; they were issued with provisions and a bottle of vodka but stripped of their kepis - this symbolic act indicated their “demilitarization.”’ (p.62)

After this, the Makhnovist Revolutionary Insurgent Army fought the Whites who wanted to restore either tsarism complete or the Constituent Assembly. The Bolsheviks were happy to see Makhno fight the Whites. But once the Makhnovists had broken Denikin’s White forces at the battle of Peregonovka (September 1919) they were forced to defend themselves against the Bolsheviks, who could not tolerate anything outside the power of the party. The Makhnovists had to be crushed as soon as possible: the libertarian idea threatened their hold on power, and their hold on their soldiers. A whole regiment came over to the Makhnovists, declaring:

During our two years’ service with the Red Army, we reached the conclusion that the whole social regime of our lives relied wholly upon the rule of commissars and that in the last analysis it would lead us to slavery without precedent in history

Because they conduct an implacable fight against the wealthy and the lords; because they stand for free union and soviets among the workers and peasants, without the dictatorship of any party; because they fight so that the workshops, factories and land may pass into the hands of the workers and peasants; because the Makhnovists fight for all these goals, we also find ourselves at their side because of these very same aspirations, we, yesterday’s Red soldiers and today’s free revolutionaries’ (p.183) [1]

The Makhnovists made a second alliance with the Bolsheviks to defeat the White General Wrangel (1920). The moment he had fled the Crimea, the Red Army were ordered to turn their machine guns on their recent allies. As the Bolshevik Yefimov confessed: ‘A good explanation needed to be devised to explain why, after an agreement had been concluded, the Red Army nonetheless had to wipe out the Makhnovists.’ (p.240) [2] Nothing held the Bolsheviks back this time. Many Makhnovists died fighting or were executed by the Cheka. Makhno had to fight is way to exile in Rumania. With a handful of survivors, he crossed the border in August 1921.

Makhno’s significance

Makhno had the essentials of a partisan: caution to avoid defeats and bravery; cunning to make and take chances of victory. However, he couldn’t have held out for so long against so many enemies without popular support. This support was fundamentally political. The peasants and revolutionaries who joined and supported Makhno were not all anarchists, but they knew he was on their side. He was fighting for what they wanted: not rights on paper, but land and freedom. The Makhnovist movement embodied their slogan ‘For the oppressed, against the oppressor, always!’

Myths and Legends

Skirda reports some of the popular legends which attached themselves to Makhno. Most of these (entering the enemy’s camp in disguise, the helpful stranger) are the sort that have been told about local heroes from Robin Hood to Pretty Boy Floyd. Other myths, however, were deliberately created to demonise him and the movement generally.

Bolshevik propaganda created a stereotyped ogre of Makhno. As could only be expected of someone capable of the ‘sin’ of opposing the Bolshevik Party, (Dzherzinsky, head of the Cheka, p.185) he must be a bloodthirsty bandit. Evidence was irrelevant ‘it was primarily a political argument, essential in order to dismiss one’s adversary and deny him right of reply.’ (p.337)

Equally the Bolshevik Party (when it suited their interests) portrayed Makhno as an anti-Semite for the same reason: ‘to cheaply dismiss the professed aims of the movement, only to acknowledge later on, once their defeat had been finalized - as indeed the Bolsheviks did - that such charges had had no substance to them.’ (p.341) Skirda provides ample quotations from the Bolsheviks themselves (as well as independent writers) to back this up. As Cherikover says ‘of all these armies, the Red Army included, it was Makhno’s army which behaved best toward the civilian population generally and the Jewish population in particular.’ (p.339) [3]

Among some anarchists, the image persists that even if Makhno did fight for freedom, he was violent, uncivilised and generally bedevilled with ‘personal failings’. The culmination of this is the idea that Makhno was busy drinking himself to death during his exile in Paris. Skirda questions this view, arguing that Voline (the ultimate source for many of these claims) is not the neutral or friendly witness some assume. While Makhno and Voline had worked together during the years of the Makhnovist revolt, they were hardly best mates. Their relationship worsened in exile, taking opposite sides in the debates about organisation of the 1920’s. Thus Voline, while he did know Makhno, had fallen out with him. Much of Voline’s testimony was also given when Makhno was dead and could not respond. While he was alive, Makhno probably gave as good as he got in the slanging match, including accusing Voline of arranging to be ‘captured’ by the Cheka!

Some may accuse Skirda of trying to romanticise Makhno in challenging this view, but the evidence for it is weak or lacking, what good does it do maintain it? Skirda paints a different view of these years of exile where, despite poverty, tuberculosis and unhealed wounds, Makhno wrote extensively, both on his experiences and about coming struggles. He notably warned the Spanish comrades that communists there ‘will follow in the footsteps of the Jesuit Lenin or even of Stalin, not hesitating to assert their monopoly over all the gains of the revolution.’ (p.282) [4]


Nestor Makhno - Anarchy’s Cossack restores a great deal of forgotten history, both in Makhno’s life and in the Makhnovist struggle for the third revolution against ‘socialist’ absolutism. It’s an excellent introduction to this piece of anarchist history, and the Russian Revolution in general. If the Russian experience bears out the anarchist contention that a revolution controlled by the party will only benefit the party, then the history of the Makhnovist movement refutes the Bolshevik idea that the masses cannot defend or direct themselves without the leadership of their vanguard. History will be better placed to judge the likes of Lenin and Trotsky thanks to this reminder of the revolutionary alternative to Bolshevism.

Makhno himself knew that the best form of defence was attack. Hopefully Skirda (or do we have another volunteer?) will now turn his hand to a history of the Bolshevik Party and its role in strangling the revolution.

T. Chanka

[1] ‘Appeal’ by 522nd Red Regiment, published in Volna [Detroit], December 1921, no. 24, p. 15-16.
[2] ‘The operations against Makhno from January 1920 to January 1921’ in Collection of Works from the Military and Scientific Association in the Military Academy [in Russian], Moscow: 1921. Book one, p.192-212.
[3] quoting Voline, The Unknown Revolution, p.675 (p.699 in the English edition.)
[4] ‘Letter to the Spanish Anarchists’ published in Probuzdeniye [Detroit] June-October 1932. (Also reprinted in The Struggle Against the State and Other Essays)