Nestor Ivanovich Makhno was the leader of revolutionary anarchism, a fierce relentless fighter known for both his cruelty and his acute sense of justice.
His name is the fourth on the list of the people awarded by the Order of The Red Flag, one of the highest Soviet honors, but it is also covered with a thick layer of black ink. In Soviet history books Makhno was an indisputable evil. To this day he is still a figure who stirs hot social debate.
Nestor Makhno (or Mikhno, or Mikhnevich) was born in the village of Gulyay Pole in the Ekaterinoslav Region in 1888 into the family of a very poor coachman. He was the youngest of five siblings. There’s a legend that the clothes of the priest baptizing young Nestor caught fire, which popular superstition said was a clear sign that a great troublemaker had been born. In the paperwork his father wrote that the boy was born in 1889 – a little trick that was often used to postpone early conscription, which later saved Nestor’s life.
Makhno’s father died early. “Five of us, orphaned brothers, one smaller than the other, were left in the hands of our poor mother, who had nothing in the world. I dimly remember my early childhood, deprived of the usual child’s games and fun, marred by the horrible need and poverty our family had to endure, until the boys grew up enough to earn their living,” Makhno later wrote in his memoirs.
At the age of eight the boy entered a parochial school where he spent four years. One year he fell in love with skating – so much so that he took his books in the morning but never made it to school, spending all day at the skating rink. For weeks he didn’t show up for classes. Once in early spring while skating he broke through the thin ice and almost drowned. His mother was furious when she learned about his “studies” and beat the boy with a knotted piece of string so hard he could not sit for several days; as a result, he became a very diligent student. In the winter Nestor went to school, in the summer he found a job with local landowners herding sheep and cattle. After parochial school he became an apprentice to a carpenter.
At the age of 16 Nestor joined a local amateur drama and theater studio, which served as a cover for a revolutionary organization called “The Union of Poor Bread Growers.” To “ensure social justice” this group of young people robbed – they said “expropriated” – local rich men and distributed the loot among the local poor in the best Robin Hood tradition. In 1906 the group of young anarchists was arrested, but since no proof was found, young Nestor was let go. The following year people were killed during an attack, some of them deliberately. Nestor Makhno, presumably, did not kill anyone, but as a part of the gang he was convicted to death by hanging, and only his forged papers stating that he was underage made the court commute the sentence to ten years in prison.
Makhno spent six years in Butyrskaya prison in Moscow, most of the time cuffed for bad behavior. He used the time for self-education, reading many books, both Russian classics and contemporary authors. He also started writing poems. In prison he met the mastermind of the Russian anarchist movement of the time – Pert Arshinov (Marin), and received a totally different type of education – an ideological one. During his imprisonment Makhno spent many days in a damp cell that caused the onset of tuberculosis. His lungs were so bad that one of them was amputated by a jail doctor. On 2 March 1917 both Makhno and Arshinov were freed by the February Revolution.
Nestor returned home and married a peasant girl, Nastya Vasetskaya, whom he had corresponded with while in jail. They had a son who died in infancy, which ruined the marriage and they separated. Later he married again, and had a daughter – the women survived Nestor and both were sent to a concentration camp in Nazi Germany during World War II, then to a Soviet labor camp, and only freed after Stalin’s death.
Makhno was well remembered in his native village as a man of revolutionary ideas and exceptional leadership skills and was instantly elected to five (!) different posts upon his return, including the Head of Peasants’ Union. Then he became the First Head of the Soviet of Workers and Peasants’ Deputies, and after the Kornilov mutiny was defeated, he was named the Chief Officer of the Committee For Saving the Revolution. In October 1917 Makhno signed the decree of the Soviet on the nationalization of all the land in the region, which was to be redistributed among the peasants.
After the “shameful” (as Makhno called it) Brest Treaty, Ukraine was granted to Germany and Nestor went to Moscow, which he later described as the “capital of revolution on paper.” There he met Vladimir Lenin, Yakov Sverdlov and Feliks Dzerzhinsky. What Makhno saw on his way to Moscow and then back to his native land with a clear order to start a civil war there, made him doubt the October Revolution ideals. He saw the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as an attempt to split the people rather than unite them. “There are no parties… there are only bunches of charlatans who for the sake of personal profit and extreme sensations… destroy the working people,” he later wrote in his diaries.
Makhno was able to travel back to Gulyay Pole under the forged ID of a village school teacher and there he started a partisan war under the black flag of anarchy. Upon his return he learned that the Austrian army had shot one of his brothers, tortured another to death and burnt his mother’s house to ashes.
His first army consisted of only 40 men who committed a number of reckless yet successful attacks on German army posts in 1918. Official German military records say in April-June alone 118 attacks were carried out. Makhno’s army constantly grew: local workers, peasants, sailors from sunken ships and ex-servicemen joined him, and later a group of anarchists from Kiev added their forces – and “ideological base.” The ideology consisted of five main postulates: suspicion of all political parties, rejection of all dictatorships, negation of any State concept, rejection of any “transition periods” or “proletarian dictatorships” and self-management of all workers through free workers’ councils.
It was rumored that Nestor Makhno was an anti-Semite, but this was never proven. Quite on the contrary, as a true anarchist he believed in equal rights for all nations. Some parts of his army attempted pogroms, but these paled in comparison to the attacks organized by the Bolsheviks or the White Army. Once in the village of Verkhny Tokmak Nestor was met by a banner saying: “Kill the Jews, Save the Revolution, Long Live Bat’ka Mahkno.” Makhno found the author and ordered him shot.
Multiple forces were fighting on the territory of Ukraine at the time, tens of thousands of people were shot, tortured, beheaded and raped by the German army, the Whites (counter-revolutionary Russian forces), the Reds (the new revolutionaries), self-organized private armies, partisan gangs… Makhno fought them all. There were many claims of extreme atrocities committed by his army, with particular hatred reserved for the aristocracy, monarchists, White Army officers and the clergy. All of them were executed without mercy. Once Makhno ordered a priest be killed by burning him alive in a steam-train engine. Later, after the split with the Bolsheviks, Red Army commanders and commissars also faced the same fate of summary executions, and only conscript men from the Red Army were let go as “proletarian brothers” with the choice of either joining the Makhno army or returning home.
In December 1918 the Makhno army, with the support of the Bolshevik forces, took Ekaterinoslav, the largest city of the Russian south at the time. The armies’ marauders looted the city. Makhno addressed the residents with the words, “I, on behalf of all partisans of all units, declare that all robberies, looting and violence will not be allowed in any case while I’m responsible in front of the Revolution, and will be stopped by me at the very root.” Later, in immigration, he wrote, “Actually, I’m all for robberies and for violence in general, I shot everyone.”
The Makhno army was instrumental in freeing the Crimea from Wrangel. Makhno himself showed exceptional courage and recklessness in many battles – in the years of the war he was wounded, according to different sources, 12 or 14 times and lost a leg. United with the Red Army, he fought Denikin, but the Bolsheviks intentionally kept the anarchist army without any supplies, denying them food, equipment and essential medical supplies. Moreover, on the order of Trotsky, a propaganda campaign against Makhno’s army was started. Leon Trotsky wrote, “Makhno’s army is the worst kind of bad partisan formation, although there are many single good fighters. There isn’t even a hint of discipline or order in this “army”… The “army” also fights on sheer inspiration; they follow no orders. Separate groups attack when they can, that is, when they see no serious resistance, and at the first strong shot they run helter-skelter, abandoning enemy stations, towns and military property. Useless and rowdy anarchist commanders are to be blamed for it totally.”
On 25 May 1919 the Soviet of Workers and Peasants of Ukraine decided to eradicate Makhno. In the battle for Perekop, one of the bloodiest in Ukraine, Makhno’s soldiers were thrown by the Red Army commanders into the hottest spot of that hell. Most of the men were killed in the fight. The five thousand survivors were killed by the Reds on the order of Trotsky. The news reached Nestor Makhno in a hospital where he was recovering from yet another wound. Having learned of such “gratitude” from the Bolsheviks Bat’ka started his revenge. The cruelty of his non-stop killing spree knew no limits and left a long bloody trail in Russia and Ukraine. Communist Party members, Soviet commissars, chekists and any other Soviet officials were tortured, publicly executed and killed in the most horrible ways, and it is this very image of the merciless monster that appeared in the history schoolbooks in the time of the USSR.
After the Whites were defeated, the entire force of the Red Army was commanded to fight Makhno and his troops. Surprisingly, soldiers sent to liquidate Makhno’s troops massively changed sides. Having gained some forces, Nestor Makhno launched bloody attacks and for a while even joined forces with the nationalist army of Semyon Petlyura, but the power now lay on the side of the Bolsheviks, and Makhno and his army were destroyed. With a small group of his supporters he first fled to Bessarabia in Romania, then moved to Poland. Here Nestor Makhno was imprisoned for a short term for anti-Polish activities. Later he moved to Paris, where he worked on anarchist leaflets and brochures, gave passionate speeches and lived mostly on money donated by European anarchist groups. When possible, he earned a living as a carpenter, and even worked as a stagehand at the Paris opera and at film studios. But soon his health began to deteriorate.
Nestor Ivanovich Makhno died of acute tuberculosis in a hospital in Paris in 1934. Three days after his death he was cremated and buried at the famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Over five hundred people attended his funeral.