Ukrainian anarchist, public speaker and revolutionary fighter, she led the Black Guard detachments in the Ukraine during the Russian revolution.
Born in Alexandrovsk (Ukraine) in 1885, from the age on 16 on she had a number of odd jobs, working as a bottle-washer in a distillery and then found work in a factory. She then became active with an anarcho-communist group engaged in revolutionary activity. Maria was also involved in some attacks and “expropriations” to fund the group’s activities. Arrested by the police, she tried to take her own life by detonating a bomb but it failed to detonate. At her trial in 1908 for the murder of a policeman and participation in a number of hold-ups, she was sentenced to death, but that sentence was then commuted to 20 years’ hard labour. Imprisoned in St Petersburg, she was later banished to Siberia in 1910.
In Siberia (one version has it) Maria orchestrated a riot in the prison in Narymsk before escaping across the taiga to Vladivostok and on to Japan. There, some Chinese anarchist students paid her fare onwards to the USA where she found temporary respite among émigré Russian anarchists. She is supposed to have had articles published in the Russian-language anarchist press under a variety of pseudonyms.
Sometime around 1912, she settled in Paris. In 1913 she was in Spain and in Barcelona she took part in a bank raid with some anarchists; in the course of it, she was wounded. And was secretly treated in a clinic in France. In the autumn of 1913, back in Paris, she mixed with artists and revolutionaries and displayed an interest in painting and sculpture. At this point she married the Polish anarchist Witold Bzhostek. At the end of 1913, she was in London attending a Russian anarcho-communist conference. And was one of 26 delegates, signing in as “Marusya” (a diminutive of Maria).
Come the outbreak of the world war, she sided with Kropotkin and “Manifesto of the Sixteen”, supportive of the war against Prussia. She is supposed to have enlisted in the French army and been posted to the Macedonian front. News of the outbreak of revolution in Russia reached her from Salonika and she made her way to Petrograd. She took part in meetings in Kronstadt, urging the sailors to rebel against the provisional government. By July 1917, she was back in Ukraine, in Alexandrovsk, where, with members of the local anarchist federation, she carried out requisitioning on behalf of the local soviet. She then went to Gulyai-Polye where she joined Nestor Makhno in taking part in a rally on 29 August 1917. In the town of Orikhiv [Orekhov] on 10 September 1917, she led 200 activists who encircled the army headquarters. The commanding officer managed to escape but a number of officers were executed by Maria herself. Ordinary soldiers were disarmed and allowed to go on their way. The weapons captured were sent to Gulyai-Polye. Nestor Makhno and B. Antonov, another delegate from the Gulyai-Polye soviet, met up with Maria in Alexandrovsk when they went there to meet the workers. But once they left, the town authorities arrested Maria. The following day, a demonstration by workers for the authorities to release her and she capitalised upon this to urge the workers to fight for a society freed of all authority.
After the October 1917 revolution, Maria raised a Black Guard detachment in Alexandrovsk and Elisavetgrad. In December 1917, she entered an alliance with the Bolsheviks who recaptured power in Alexandrovsk with support from the Black Sea sailors. At that point Maria served on the city’s revolutionary committee. Her Black Guards also helped establish soviet power in the cities of Kharkov and Ekaterinoslav. Rejoined by the Makhnovist army, she then took on the Cossack units threatening Alexandrovsk and forced them into surrender. Having helped the Bolsheviks into power, she then found them mounting two trials against her (for insubordination and looting) in Taganrog in April 1918 and in Moscow in January 1919. At her first trial, she was acquitted after witnesses spoke up for her (they included the Bolshevik Antonov-Ovseenko, whom she knew from their Paris days and who claimed credit for her revolutionary activities). At her second trial, she was banned from holding any political position or command for a year. She then made her way back to Gulyai-Polye where she was kept under the wing of Nestor Makhno, but as Makhno had no desire to infringe his alliance with the Red Army, he refused to award her any command position.
She worked alongside Makhno, taking part in meetings. On 28 April 1919, they had a visit from Antonov-Ovseenko who reviewed Makhno’s forces and gave an enthusiastic description of how impressed he was. On 7 May, it was the turn to visit of a delegation headed by Lev Kamenev who suggested easing the sanctions imposed on Maria. But a month later, in June 1919, Makhno’s anarchist army was banned and then attacked by the Bolshevik command. Faced with a war on two fronts, against the White and Red armies, Maria and her husband Witold Bzhostek marshalled a band of fighters mounting sabotage operations against the (tsarist) Whites in Sebastopol. It was in Sebastopol that she was spotted and arrested on 11 August 1919, which spelled her end and that of her partner.
Little known and all but entirely ignored by historians, certain elements in Maria Nikiforova’s life cannot be verified for want of documentation enabling certainty regarding events that occurred in clandestine circumstances or during the troubled times of the revolution.
See: Malcolm Archibald: Atamansha: The Story of Maria Nikiforova, the Anarchist Joan of Arc (Black Cat Editions, Canada 2007)
From: the Calendrier 2013 (CIRA Marseille) Entry for September 2013. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.