Ep. 20 Nestor Makhno: freedom fighter, or terrorist? It depends who you ask.

In the last episode we saw how the Mennonite army developed while protected by the German military. Today we see the Mennonite nemesis Nestor Makhno evolving right under their noses.

For the villagers, life returned to normal. Harvest was plentiful in 1918, the mills and factories went back to work and the German army had their back. Gerhard entered the first grade in elementary school and his sister would follow in the coming year. But then, more than a thousand miles away, the inevitable happened – the war in the west was lost. The war was over and German soldiers were going home.

World War lossesAs part of the peace treaty Germany gave up her gains and withdrew from Ukraine. Before the Red or the White army could fill the vacuum, Nestor Makhno, the historical nemesis of the Mennonites, and his anarchist Insurrectionary Army moved in.

Nestor Makhno 1918

Batko Nestor Makhno – means beloved little father. Congrats on the hair.

In the thousand year history of Russia, Nestor Makhno was never even a blip on the radar, but in the history of the Mennonites he was the dark avenging angel who, while he may not have been the direct cause of their fall from grace, was a rich source for the victim/martyr narrative they have mined ever since. The  atrocities committed by Makhno’s army have marred the Mennonite psyche for a hundred years and continue to this day.

Makhno was born in 1888 in the Russian village of Hulyaipole [47°38’54.16″N, 36°16’4.26″E], 200 kilometres west of Gerhard’s home. He was a man with a vision, unfortunately for him and many others, it was a vision not shared by Mennonites or Bolsheviks, or the White army or any of the other dangerous forces at play in the region: gangs of bandits, mobs of World War One deserters, isolated peasant insurgents, paramilitary bands of Cossacks, pro-White militias, and armies of independent war lords.[1] Makhno was implementing his own unique vision. As a child, he had worked on the estates of the Molochna colony Mennonites and the huge disparity in the well-being of the workers versus the employers had left a deep mark.


A is for Anarchy

At the age of 11 Makhno began working as an ox driver on the Janzen estate in Silberfeld [47°36’45.61″N, 36° 3’48.51″E]. Here he began to develop a hatred for the ruling classes. In his memoirs he writes: “At this time I began to experience anger, envy and even hatred towards the landowner [Janzen] and especially towards his children – those young slackers who often strolled past me sleek and healthy, well-dressed, well-groomed and scented; while I was filthy, dressed in rags, barefoot, and reeked of manure from cleaning the calves’ barn.”[2]

His anti-tsarist activities landed him in jail, where his cellmate was anarchist Piotr Arshinov who sharpened young Nestor’s resolve to create a just society.

Nestor Makhno2

A stylish Makhno.

Makhno’s vision was a stateless anarchist society under  protection of his army. Land would be fairly distributed to people who worked it. These workers had the right to organize themselves into autonomous business units or collectives without influence from outside forces such as a government.[3]

The idea was not to exact revenge upon the wealthy, but to equitably distribute wealth. Landlords and wealthier farmers “were left with two pairs of horses, one or two cows (depending on the size of the family), one plough, one seeding machine, one mower, one winnowing machine, etc.[4]

Needless to say, this process was often involuntary.

In fact, even when Makhno began guerrilla actions against the Austro-German occupation, his forces did not necessarily have hostile relations with the landowners whose properties they temporarily commandeered. While writing his scathing biography of Nestor Makhno, Mennonite historian Victor Peters appealed for eyewitnesses among Ukrainian emigrants in North America; a letter to him from Mrs. H. Goerz (nee Neufeld) described the redistribution of wealth in the Ukraine at this time. Peters writes:

One of the first landowners to “host” Makhno was a Mennonite farmer, Jacob Neufeld, who had a khutor (estate) at Ebenfeld, near Gulyai-Polye (…) [Makhno] made every attempt to establish a friendly basis and when Neufeld offered him a key for his room for greater safety, Makhno refused to take it, saying that he felt safe enough among friends. When Makhno moved to the next khutor, belonging to another Mennonite by the name of Klassen, Makhno invited Klassen to take his turn, that is, claim some of his possessions for himself.

In fact, the evidence Peters cites against this stage of the anarchist revolution is concerned more with alleged vulgarities of taste than any revolutionary terror; according to a newspaper article published in the 1930s, one eye witness recalled that Guylai-Polye was ‘like a painting by Repin: exotic, gaudy, unusual. The Makhnovists wore colourful shirts, wide pants, and wide red belts, which reached down to the ground. All of them were armed to the teeth…’[5]

Nestor Makhno's flag

Makhno’s black flag reads “Death to all who stand in the way of freedom for working people” but you don’t have to read Russian to understand the skull and crossbones.

In the spring of 1918, besides his political work, he worked on a collective farm, using a plough called a bukker[6]. His co-workers included German colonists and former landowners who had accepted the redistribution of land.[7]

Within Makhno’s sphere of influence it was truly ‘my way or the highway.’ Peasants who had owned no land of their own now formed communes (kolkhoz) and worked large estates together. Factory workers formed collectives and continued to run the factories. Makhno decreed that each worker was entitled to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to associate and form unions; anyone who impinged on these rights was guilty of a counter-revolutionary act. [8]

Of course, counter-revolutionary actions meant an automatic death sentence.

In the next episode we see what happens when pacifists go to war.



[1] Foster, Wayne, The Makhnovists and the Mennonites: war and peace in the Ukrainian Revolution, blog entry, https://libcom.org/history/makhnovists-mennonites-war-peace-ukrainian-civil-war, accessed February 19, 2018.

[2] Nestor Makhno, The Ukrainian Revolution, trans. Malcolm Archibald and Will Firth, Edmonton: Black Cat Press, 2011, pp. xvi, quoted in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Nestor_Makhno#/Organizing_the_peasants.27_movement. Accessed September 29, 2016

[3] Foster, Wayne, op. cit.

[4] Makhno, N. (2007) [1929] The Russian Revolution in the Ukraine, Trans. M. Archibald, Edmonton, Alberta: Black Cat Press, pg. 183, quoted in Foster, Wayne, op. cit.

[5] Peters, V. (1970) Nestor Makhno: The Life of an Anarchist, Winnipeg: Echo Books, pp 32-33, quoted in Foster, Wayne, op. cit.

[6] Makhno, N. (2007) [1929] The Russian Revolution in the Ukraine, Trans. M. Archibald, Edmonton, Alberta: Black Cat Press, pg. 185, quoted in Foster, Wayne, op. cit.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Avrich, P. (ed) (1973) The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution, London: Thames & Hudson, quoted in Foster, Wayne, op. cit.

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