Monday, 6 September 2010

Свобода або Смерть (1)

або Смерть

One of the readers of this blog asked that I include more political topics here, and I thought I would respond today. However, as a reader of political blogs myself, I know how difficult it is to do justice to any subject in the available space, and with the available time. No blog can possibly be detailed enough to cover every aspect of a topic, all blogs (even this one) are highly arguable and nearly always unashamedly partisan. Also, as of this moment, I have no idea in what direction this topic is going to go…

I thought I would like to pick one of my political heroes or heroines from the past and write about him or her. However I recall the time when I posted on line a poem in which I imagined Oliver Cromwell standing before God to be judged. What I knew of the man led me to believe that he would stand there bravely and not shrink from his fate at the hands of the God he trusted, whether the judgment went well or ill for him. No sooner was that poem posted than I was challenged openly by an Irish reader – how dare I say anything positive about Oliver Cromwell, and did I not know that by doing so I was insulting anyone and everyone of Irish ancestry? Well I stuck to my guns and said that Cromwell could not be defined simply by the atrocities at Wexford and Drogheda any more than, say, Harry S Truman by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that someone’s taking objection to a work of mine by such a myopic analysis could expect neither an apology nor a withdrawal. The debate ended, I am glad to say, in polite disagreement, but it leaves us here with something to consider and deal with. A world where all one’s heroes are totally admirable and all one’s villains venal in every aspect of their characters may work (sort of) for a John Buchan novel, but nowhere else. Beware when choosing someone to eulogise that they probably have feet of clay (or most certainly warts – Cromwell knew that!) and that someone for whom you may have utter contempt probably has positive qualities. For example, if you look at Hermann Goering, the overblown head of the Luftwaffe in World War II, do not be surprised to find a certain level of personal courage, for you are considering a man who flew fighter planes in the Great War and who took over Manfred von Richthofen’s “flying circus” when the latter was killed. You might not enjoy finding out something like this this, but you’ll be stuck with it.

Analysis, to be good, has to encompass the whole and to do so with a high degree of objectivity. Inevitably – you will have to acknowledge this – your own bias will have a bearing on how you view and express things to some extent. Also inevitably you will have to draw some moral conclusions, no matter how they are tempered. Objective is not the same as amoral.

This bind of brevity and objectivity is where I found myself when I decided to look at a little-known corner of revolutionary history and in particular at one man by the name of Nestor Makhno who, during the period of the Russian Civil War, was that most oxymoronic of things – an Anarchist Leader.

Nestor Makhno looks out at us from a score of faded, black-and-white photographs and a few brief seconds of shaky, silent film. He can be picked out from a crowd instantly, even if they all wore the same tall, Cossack hat, by that striking, charismatic face which morphs in an instant from louche, to childishly innocent, to joli laid. But who was he? What did he do? What was he like?

In order to find out I first sketched a historical skeleton from information in Wikipedia. I know that as a source Wikipedia is problematical, so I fleshed out the skeleton by visiting anarchist blogs and information sites. Beyond that I looked at sites critical to Makhno, mainly from a socialist/communist point of view; particularly interesting was a lengthy article from the International Socialist Review. Also I investigated Mennonite Christian sites where, even to this day, books are published concerning the “Eichenfeld Massacre”, painting Makhno as a devil incarnate who terrorized innocent Christian pacifists. As much as possible of whole picture has to be seen, no matter what was revealed, no matter what the bias of each commentator.

Nestor Makhno was born in 1888 in Huliaipole in what is now Zaporozhia Oblast, Ukraine, but was then part of the Russian Empire, to peasant parents who lived in the direst poverty. His father died when he was ten months old, and by the age of seven he was working as a shepherd in summer and going to school in winter. He left school at the age of twelve and worked as a labourer on the farms of local landowners and kulaks. At seventeen he was an apprentice painter, and then worked in the iron foundry in Huliaipole. In 1906, having seen injustice in the workplace, the terrorism of the 1905 revolution and in particular the brutality of the Tsarist forces during that conflict, he became involved in revolutionary politics, joining the anarchist group in Huliaipole. Between then and the February Revolution of 1917 his political activities led to several arrests and even one death sentence. His outlawry – attacking the estates of landowners and distributing their wealth and land to peasants – gave him the image of a Ukrainian Robin Hood.

The first twenty-five years of the 20c were a brutal time in central and Eastern Europe. Old imperial regimes were tottering and falling – Germany, Austria, Russia, Turkey – old orders were crumbling, new orders were quickly shaken as they were erected, and revolutionary movements of left and right were coming into being in the chaos. The Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, but if they thought that was the end of the problem of power they were sorely mistaken; besides which, there were competing domestic forces in the old Tsarist empire as well as foreign interventionist troops, and a bloody civil war was waged between them all.

In 1918 the new Bolshevik government in Russia signed a treaty with Imperial Germany and its allies, ceding Ukraine to them. A military coup there by German forces set up a former Tsarist general as head of a Ukrainian “Hetmanate”. Ordinary Ukrainians were not prepared to endure a conservative government backed by occupying German and Austrian troops. Numerous armed bands of peasants roamed the country attacking the privileged, settling old scores, switching allegiances; eventually most of these irregulars sided with the socialist or anarchist causes. Nestor Makhno joined one such band and became its de facto commander. Due to his personal charisma the anarchist forces in his area became known unofficially as Makhnovitsi. All such bands were eventually united in the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine (RIAU, or the Black Army, after the colour of the anarchist flag), and fought against the White Army, nationalists, and anti-semitic paramilitaries. It is said that Makhno started with a band of twelve Ukrainians and seven Jews, and ended with an army of more than a hundred thousand. 

There is, however, no greater rivalry than that between revolutionary groups, groups which hope to overthrow an existing oligarchy, and that rivalry existed between the Bolshevik Red Army and the Ukrainian anarchists. They fought each other, but occasionally banded together against the White Army. When the White Army had finally been defeated, not least of all because of the determination and bravery of the Black Army under Makhno’s leadership, the Bolsheviks instantly and without warning resumed attacking the Black Army and invaded the Ukraine.

But before that land was finally over-run by Bolshevik forces, Makhno’s army had helped protect an independent Ukraine, run without central authority, where local, autonomous councils and free communities co-operated with each other. Makhno, having been a military commander at the age of thirty, was forced to flee into exile. He died in Paris in 1934 and is buried at the Père-Lachaise cemetery.

That, if you wish, is the eulogy. But what do others say of him, and of the anarchist cause in the Russian Civil War? If you pay regard to my caveat about heroes, you must expect a war commander to be ruthless, and to be as unafraid of killing as of dying; you may well even expect a Drogheda or a Hiroshima. Well, in the case of Makhno you will find a ruthless man indeed, but one who appealed to captured ordinary soldiers of opposing armies to join the Black Army; if they refused he allowed them to return to their homes unarmed. He was not so merciful to the officers. His appeal to ordinary soldiers infuriated the Bolsheviks, particularly on one occasion when a force of forty thousand deserted from the Red Army to the Black…

That is where I will leave it for today. When I return to the topic I will deal with accusations against and criticisms of Makhno, and with a whole host of uncomfortable questions…


Incidentally, the slogan at the top of this post shown with the skull and crossbones says “Свобода або Смерть”, which is a translation into Ukrainian of a slogan in Russian on a flag seen carried by an actor portraying Makhno, in the Russian mini-series “The Nine Lives of Nestor Makhno”. It means “Freedom or Death”. It interests me to note that recently a UK soccer fan was ordered by airport security to cover up a t-shirt bearing those words on the grounds that “it might encourage terrorism”. As it is also, near enough, a translation of the famous words of Patrick Henry to the Virginia Congress which persuaded that body to commit troops to the American revolution, the security officer could well be right!

The actual flag flown and carried into battle by the Black Army bore a different, longer slogan: "СМЕРТЬ ВСЇМ, ХТО НА ПИРИШКОДЇ ДОБУТЬЯ ВЇЛЬНОСТЇ ТРУДОВОМУ ЛЮДУ"...

A rough translation is "Death to whomever stands in the way of working people's freedom".


  1. Interesting description so far.
    I smiled at the end. It is Labor Day here in the U.S. and I am in a city known for its labor unions. The unions around here are not connected to the military and "death" isn't a supported method of socio-economic advancement, but the similarities nonetheless cannot be ignored.


  2. Perhaps you would point them out to me, Eilidh? :)

    Part two tomorrow.