The Russian Revolution in Ukraine (March 1917-April 1918) and Under the Blows of the Counter-revolution (April-June 1918) by Nestor Makhno [Review]

Nestor Makhno is the best known face of the Ukrainian peasant anarchist movement which fought for free soviets against both the Whites (aiming to restore the old regime) and the Bolsheviks’ new state. These two volumes of memoirs (there’s a third one on the way) give Makhno’s account of his life between being released from prison by the February revolution and his return to the Ukraine to fight the German/Austrian occupiers, and of the roots of the Makhnovist movement.

Unlike some primary sources, they’re not disappointingly familiar (from being quoted so often you know most of it already). Nor are they full of anecdotal descriptions. Makhno probably wasn’t spending time writing a diary. While more descriptions of the places he went and the people he saw would be fascinating, that’s not the aim of the book.

These are writings, from exile, boiled down and intensely political. They contain their fair share of bitterness and hindsight: hardly surprising, looking back on four years of fighting, dead friends and comrades, and ultimately defeat: freedom snuffed out and new ruling class in the saddle.

Unsurprisingly, he’s no fan of the Bolsheviks:

“Since this revolutionary [Bolshevik-Left Socialist Revolutionary] government shows no egalitarian tendencies, since on the contrary it is consolidating police-like institutions, then in the future we can expect, instead of advice, only the peremptory orders of the bosses. Anyone thinking independently and acting contrary to the orders received will be faced with death or deprived of their freedom, which we value above all else.” The toilers offered this analysis which, although vague in details, expressed the truth that by means of their sacrifices events had taken place in which one evil system was overthrown and another installed in its place under various pretexts.’ (v.1, p105.)

Yet his main criticism is of the failure of the anarchist movement to defend the spontaneous libertarian achievements of the revolution:

The direct actions of the toilers during the Great Russian Revolution clearly reflected their anarchist tendencies. And it was these tendencies which alarmed the state socialists of the Left the most […] If the toilers of the cities and villagers had received effective organizational assistance from revolutionary anarchists, they would have been able to achieve their aspirations and would have drawn all the active forces of the revolution to their side.’ (v.1, p188-9.)

Makhno has few good words for the bulk of the movement’s activities:

“Sixty to seventy percent of those comrades who call themselves anarchists are diverting themselves by seizing the gentry’s fancy homes in the cities and nothing gets done among the peasantry. Their way is the wrong way. They can’t influence the course of events sitting in those mansions.”’ (v.1, p117.)

I nevertheless realized it wasn’t fair to blame individual anarchists for creating this situation. It wasn’t their fault that, like startled crows, they flew aimlessly from one place to another, often with the flimsiest of excuses, simply on that basis that, “in such-and-such a city our people are doing something, so I’m going there”… Such individuals would travela round for weeks and months and it would never occur to them to stay in one place and try to strike a blow on behalf of our movement. […] The moment demands the ideological and, especially, the tactical unity of the Anarchist forces, for only tactical unity helps us to make an impression on those who have an interest in the success of the revolutionary toiling masses.’ (v.2, p77-8.)

Volin, in his notes to volume 2 takes the exact opposite view, that repression was solely to blame for the defeat of the anarchist movement. Makhno can’t accept that idea. As a poor peasant, it is lack of education he thinks will hold him back: ‘One thing oppressed me – my lack of the necessary education and practical preparation in the area of the social and political problems of anarchism.’ (v.1, p2.) Thinking that you did you best is obviously no cure for the bitterness of defeat when you feel let down by better-educated members of the movement (which I think is one of the factors in the split between Makhno and Volin in exile).

The original Russian text has been translated into North American English which leads to the odd jarring note (not getting a passport on time was ‘a sort of a downer’, v.2, p151) but you also get lively touches like ‘crowbar hotel’ for prison (v.1, p124).

These volumes make vital reading for those who want to study the Russian Revolution. In terms of anarchist tactics, the underlying questions about what anarchists want, how to get it and where to look for allies feel very current.


The Russian Revolution in Ukraine (March 1917-April 1918) Translated from the Russian edition of 1929 (in consultation with French edition of 1928). Black Cat Press, 2007. ISBN 9780973782714

Under the Blows of the Counter-revolution (April-June 1918) First published in Russian in 1936. Black Cat Press, 2009. ISBN 9780973782752. Both volumes have a glossary. Volume 2 has an index and chronology.

Forthcoming from Black Cat Press:
The Ukranian Revolution (Third volume of Makhno’s memoirs, covering the period to December 1918, first published in Russian in 1937). Due in 2011.
A Rebellious Youth (First published in Russian in 1925 as My Autobiography) a memoir of Makhno’s life up to the February Revolution.
The Makhnovshchina and Its Erstwhile Allies (1928) by Nestor Makhno