By Adam Rodger

Makhno, Nestor Ivanovich, and M. I. Kubanin. Makhnovshchina i ee vcherashnie soiuzniki-bol’sheviki; otvet na knigu M. Kubanina “Makhnovshchina.” n.p.: Parizh: “Biblioteka Makhnovitsev,” 1928.


The history of the Russian Civil War is one painted almost exclusively in Red and White. It is seen as a conflict between the Red Army of Trotsky and the Communists struggling against the White imperialists, the supporters of the tsar and the old ways. Of course, reality is never so kind as to line up that neatly. The White armies were hardly united, for example, but were more a loose grouping of generals and warlords who agreed on nearly nothing but their hatred for the Communists. The Red armies were perhaps better unified, but they still had their share of ideological and practical inconsistencies among them.

A clear picture of this war cannot be painted with only two colors, however. Often ignored are the Green peasant armies, the Yellow Ukrainian nationalists, and the disorganized, “Off-White” armies like those of Grigorii Semenov and Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. Of the armies so frequently left out of the narrative, perhaps the most influential was the Ukrainian Black Anarchist army, or the Makhnovshchina (which translates to “the Makhno phenomenon”), led by Nestor Makhno. In The Maknovshchina and Their Former Allies – the Bolsheviks, a memoir that covers much more than its name suggests, Makhno describes a tense and complex relationship that ended in betrayal.[1] To get at what this relationship means, however, it is instructive to understand who Nestor Makno was, as well as the nature of his interactions with the Whites, his fellow Ukrainians, and yes, with the Bolsheviks and the Red Army.



Makhno and the Whites

At the beginning of the war, Makhno and the Makhnovshchina were hardly noticed by the White armies. He drew their attention when he joined forces with the Reds, but he was still outnumbered. He scored some impressive victories early on, but they were not enough, and before long he had retreated to the Ukrainian city of Uman, with General Denikin’s forces closing in. What happened on the night that Denikin’s forces surrounded the city, according to a lurid early account by Max Nomad, was “perhaps the turning point of the Russian Civil War,” and that Makhno “decided the fate of Russia.”[2] His tiny army attacked Denikin’s ammunition depot, destroyed an artillery embankment, and in one night broke the backbone of Denikin’s advance toward Moscow. They were forced to slow their progress, giving Trotsky time to build up the Red Army’s defenses.

It was not only in military matters that Makhno surpassed the Whites. The White officers, who were as close to government officials as the monarchists and imperialists had, were unfamiliar with the plight of peasants and nationalists. Denikin, writes Victor Peters in a 1970 biography, was “a Russian patriot,” and was confused at how quickly the political climate around him had shifted. He “could not understand how non-Russian nationalists would want to break away from [the Russian Empire].” The social and political issues which gave rise to worker and peasant movements like the Makhnovshchina were all but ignored; rather than issues that shaped and influenced the Whites’ ideologies, these were problems to be solved after victory.[3]

Makhno and the Nationalists

Makhno was not a nationalist by any means, but he was conscious of the important role nationality plays in identity. When he began his career as an anarchist military leader, he lamented that he had almost completely forgotten his native language during a long stint in a Moscow prison, and committed himself to re-learning it. His relationship with the Ukrainian Nationalist armies was complex; his armies were “constantly replenished with dissidents who left Petliura [one of the more powerful nationalist leaders] either because they thought Petliura’s social policies… went too far or did not go far enough.”[4] Petliura, who favored working with the Allied powers against the Bolsheviks, was plagued by problems stemming from Makhno throughout the war, which likely led to Petilura’s eventual failure. Maria Nikiforova, another Ukrainian anarchist nurtured by the chaos of the revolution, actually had significant influence on Makhno. The two formed battalions of troops at nearly the same time, and fought together on numerous occasions with frequent success.

Makhno and His Former Allies – the Bolsheviks

Makhno governed his territory quite differently from the Bolsheviks, or even the Whites. When they entered a city, “they immediately announced to the population that the army did not intend to exercise political authority.”[5] Their opinion was that it was up to the peasants to decide that sort of thing; the Makhnovshchina’s job was simply to liberate them so that they could do so. Peasants and workers were directed to establish soviets to carry out the will of the people, as well as police and defense forces against counterrevolutionaries and bandits. Unlike the Bolsheviks, Makhno encouraged freedom of speech, assembly, association, and press, and newspapers of various political orientations including Bolshevik, right SRs, and left SRs were created within Makhno territory.

Makhno’s relationship with the Bolshevik leaders was, as always, quite complicated and, at times, intensely heated. Upon his first meeting with Lenin, Makhno was “received… with paternal simplicity.” Lenin told his secretary that they were not to be disturbed for a full hour, and then listened to Makhno, who told him about the Ukrainian peasants’ attitude toward the Soviets, the Austro-German armies, “and the differences between Bolshevik and anarchist conceptions of revolution.” Lenin suggested that the Ukrainian peasants were “infected with anarchism.” Makhno objected to Lenin’s tone, but the latter clarified, saying that this could be a good thing, as it could “speed up the victory of communism over capital and its authority.”[6]

It was in his dancing around Makhno, especially in the volatile hostility between Makhno and Trotsky, that Lenin’s true political genius was allowed to shine. In May 1919, Lenin described the state of Bolshevik forces in Ukraine as “critical, well-nigh catastrophic.”[7] To shore up their numbers, Lenin arranged an alliance with Makhno wherein the Makhnovshchina were integrated among the Red Army, with Makhno remaining in command. Trotsky was furious, particularly at the influence the anarchistic Makhnovshchina were having on the troops.[8] In a letter to the Communist Central Committee, he wrote that “the purging of openly criminal elements from [the Red Army] units, the establishment of firm discipline, the abolition of the practice of electing commanders, the combating of demagogy among the commanders, who were insolent in their behavior towards higher military and Soviet authorities,” would be necessary to solve what he called “the Makhno Problem.” He recommended the “most savage measures,” such as “cutting down its strength by perhaps a half or two thirds… shooting… and imprisonment in the concentration camps; simultaneously [conducting] a decisive struggle against ‘meetingprone’ commanders.”[9]

While the Bolsheviks appreciated and utilized Makhno’s contributions to the Civil War, especially in his heretofore successful campaign against Denikin, they understood very well that his ideology was just as incompatible with their own as it was with that of the Whites. Eventually they felt secure enough that they could turn on him, and when given permission from Lenin, Trotsky did so with zeal. Supply trains to Makhno’s armies were cut off, weakening the Makhnovshchina against what remained of Denikin’s forces. In response to this deterioration, which he himself had caused, Trotsky published a series of articles in his paper V Puti (“On the Road”) “in which he charged that all the Makhnovites’ talk of ‘down with the party, down with the Communists, long live the nonparty Soviets!’ was only a cunning device to conceal the anarchists’ ambitions to establish a government of the ‘kulaks.’”[10] Trotsky said that Makhno and his anarchists were “more of a menace [to the Bolsheviks] than the Denikin army,” and actually argued that it would be better for Ukraine to leave the Whites in charge than for Makhno to have any power there.[11]

The End of Makhno

About two weeks after helping the Bolsheviks defeat the army of Pyotr Wrangel, Makhno was betrayed. Lenin ordered him to disband his forces, but he refused. Then, at a Red Army planning conference in Moscow to which he had been invited, Makhno’s headquarters staff and subordinate commanders were arrested by Lenin’s men and executed. Along with a small contingent of his loyal supporters, Makhno was barely able to escape. He fled into Europe by way of Ukraine, Romania, Poland, and Germany, finally settling in Paris. Working as a carpenter and stage hand at the Paris Opera, Makhno finished his life there, dying in 1934 from tuberculosis. His widow and Yelena, his daughter, were eventually imprisoned in German forced labor camps in World War II, arrested by the NKVD at the end of the war, tried in Kiev as common criminals, and sent to the Gulag where they worked until 1953.

During his trial by Soviet authorities, one of the Makhnovshchina named Voline accused the Bolsheviks of breaking their agreements with Makhno and committing treason themselves. The prosecutor, Samsonov, summarized succinctly the attitude of Lenin and the Bolsheviks toward Makhno, their vcherashnii soiuznik: he said, “you call that treason? Our view is that we pursued a policy of realism: as long as we needed Makhno we exploited him; after we no longer needed him, we successfully liquidated him.”[12]




Arshinov, Peter. Istoriia Makhnovskogo Dvizheniia. Berlin, 1923.

Makhno, Nestor Ivanovich, and M. I. Kubanin. Makhnovshchina I ee vcherashnie soiuzniki-bol’sheviki; otvet na knigu M. Kubanina “Makhnovshchina.” n.p.: Parizh: “Biblioteka Makhnovitsev,” 1928.

Nomad, Max. Apostles of Revolution. Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, 1939.

Palij, Michael. The Anarchism of Nestor Makhno, 1918-1921: An Aspect of the Ukrainian Revolution. University of Washington Press, 1976.

Peters, Victor. Nestor Makhno: The Life of an Anarchist. Winnipeg: Echo Books, 1970.

[1] Nestor Makhno and M. I. Kubanin, Makhnovshchina i ee vcherashnie soiuzniki – bolsheviki (Paris: Biblioteki Makhnovtsev, 1928).

[2] Max Nomad, Apostles of Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, 1939), 322.

[3] Victor Peters, Nestor Makhno: The Life of an Anarchist (Winnipeg: Echo Books, 1970), 75-6.

[4] Peters, Nestor Makhno, 70-1.

[5] Michael Palij, The Anarchism of Nestor Makhno, 1918-1921: An Aspect of the Ukrainian Revolution (University of Washington Press, 1976) 151.

[6] Palij, 93.

[7] The Trotsky Papers, 407.

[8] Desertion from the Red Army into the Makhnovshchina was such a widespread problem that the military agreement between Makhno and the Bolsheviks of 15 October 1920 had to include the stipulation that “while moving through Soviet territory… the [Makhnovshchina] would accept into its ranks neither detachments nor deserters from the Red Army.” Red Army troops were directed to return to their commanders as soon as possible. Peter Arshinov, Istoriia Makhnovskogo Dvizheniia (Berlin, 1923), 172.

[9] The Trotsky Papers, 391-2.

[10] “Makhnovshchina,” V Puti, no. 51, June 2, 1919. Quoted in Palij, 175.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Wollin (Voline), in his introduction to Arshinov, Geschichte der Machno-Bewegung, 36. Quoted in Peters, 77.


Adam Rodger is a second-year MA student in History.

About Stephen Norris