A rare picture of Agafa (Galina), Yelena, and Nestor Makhno.
The pictures interspersed in this post will focus on the iconography of Makhno.
My peering into the life and character of Nestor Ivanovich Makhno has grown arms and legs, and the more it goes on the less I am able to grasp hold of truth, the more he becomes a wisp of smoke, a man whose legend seems more important than his reality. That reality retreats into iconography – can it be recaptured?
In the wake of my two recent blog posts (here and here) about Makhno a dialogue opened between myself and Ukraine-born Canadian writer/musician Dmitry Berger. Dmitry is originally from Nova Kakhovka, not a long drive from Huliaipole. His grandmother actually met Makhno, as did many other people Dmitry knew.
These are some of his initial observations, made via a third party:
Marie Marshall tries in earnest to understand the phenomenon of Makhno and anarchism. There is no point in disputing or agreeing with her points. She had to do with what is available on the net and most of it falls into the narrow narratives of preconceived notions or misconceptions on all sides. I myself fell for the Hollywood swashbuckling angle of Makhno’s story before realizing how much more prosaic and tedious and real it was. But I have an unfair advantage. I was born in Tavria, met people who knew Makhno, lived in those villages, worked in the wide open steppe without which it is hard to understand what those Makhnovists felt inside. I had a chance to feel Makhno. My Jewish grandmother actually saw and respected him.
Makhno iconography 1: statue in Huliaipole
Yet Marie comes up with some quite splendid observations. Unfortunately the slogan “Freedom or Death” and the banner on the photograph are not really Makhnovist but close to Makhno’s sensibilities, which underlines how complex and interwoven the situation was then. German colonists, despite their professed Mennonite persuasion, did not hesitate to raise arms when felt like it. Religion was not very big in those times. We tend to see things through the prism of our time.
“Nine lives of Nestor Makhno” is a very bad film. Historically, ideologically, artistically and simply logically. A very lazy thinking on the part of its creators.
This is my open reply:
Dimitry is right, of course, inasmuch as I had to make do with what material there was. Even though I was writing something short-and-sweet, or so I hoped, for the benefit of an American friend who has lived in Germany and missed the ease with which Europeans could discuss leftist politics – no such ease exists in (her) America – I found myself ploughing through a large amount of material, most of it speculative and almost all of it highly partisan, and doing so in a short time in order to make a thumbnail portrait with as much accuracy as I could. The bulk and diversity of the available information is actually an interesting phenomenon in its own right, because it shows how the legend of someone like Nestor Makhno can be made, and legend-making is as interesting a phenomenon as the search for historical truth. Each site or blog I looked at had its own view of Makhno. For example some anarchist blogs (and I speak as an anarchist at heart myself) had an impossibly misty-eyed view of him. The communist blogs were dismissive, relying very much on the attitude of Lenin’s famous Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder to debunk anarchists and anarchism and Makhno in particular. I even found what I took to be a Soviet film from 1942[*] which portrayed Makhno as a wizened, gnome-like character, with a twisted grin, staring eyes, and a face that looked a good fifteen or twenty years older than he was during the Civil War. Equally the Mennonite sites had a legendary picture of Makhno, but this time as an evil monster; interestingly theirs were the only sites I could find which referred to primary sources – to the statements of Ukrainian-German Mennonites who witnessed the events – certainly sources which were partisan in their views but primary nonetheless. They left out any mention, however, of there having been any possibility of armed resistance by Mennonite colonists; their own self-image is as one of the traditional “peace churches”, and that’s that. One has to look elsewhere for mention of their lapses of pacifism. In the end I had to leave out a lot in order to concentrate on selected aspects of my subject. If I wanted to do more then maybe I should write a book. Or maybe Dmitry should.
[*] This was possibly the film Aleksandr Parkhomenko, and the actor playing Makhno was possibly Boris Chirkov, but I haven’t been able to confirm this yet.
I am used to this kind of thing of course. I live in a country which has made a legend out of an equally intangible figure – William Wallace. Like many people in Scotland who have a trace of an English accent, I was subject to abuse at the time that Braveheart was released, as the film raised Anglophobic sentiment. The film created its own legend; in Stirling a statue was raised to Wallace, in Mel Gibson’s likeness, with the word “Freedom” written large upon the pedestal (now there’s a word which has been appropriated, misused, and abused by every political and national movement!); on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile tourists can be photographed next to someone dressed as “Braveheart”; I have seen Scottish soccer fans tramping through a railway station, kilted, adorned with blue face-paint, chanting “We f*cking hate England, we f*cking hate England, we f*cking hate England”. Interesting though William Wallace is, I realise that when I consider him to be an ethnic cleanser who did not care whether he slaughtered men, women, or children, I am looking at him through the filter of my modern sensibilities. However, the fact of his civilian massacres is one thing I do fling in the teeth of many of my compatriots who would make some kind of saint or proto-Che out of him. Makhno is far from being the only historical figure to be mythologised, canonized, made into a kind of deity.
Makhno iconography 2: Makhno’s grave in Pére-Lachaise cemetery –
as much a place of pilgrimage as any other famous grave.
One thing we owe to people of the past, and in particular to people’s heroes and villains, is to be as honest as we possibly can be. We have to recognize and understand the cultural context of anything which is written about them, whether that context is contemporaneous or more contemporary. In a way we have to respect the bias of the writer, but in another way we have to try to penetrate it. The same goes – sorry Dmitry – for you. I think your view of Makhno is principally that – yours. You too make do with what you have. In your case, I admit, you have much more than I do, having connections with the place and time which I lack(ed); indeed your view expands greatly what I can see and I thank you for that. However it would have been good to see actual quotations from the speeches and writings rather than simply reading of their qualities; you knew people who met Makhno – it would have also been good to read what you recall of their words about him; you are intimately acquainted with “Tavria” where both you and Makhno were born and raised – it would have been good to read of what your direct experience of the landscape, people, and culture tells you about what made the man – you are a writer and a poet, you could make us feel it.
The philosophical arguments you introduce, in particular the question of the nobility of a bullet in the brain above the degradation of prison, are very interesting, requiring the reader to think outside the box of his or her own sensibilities, and that challenge is the kind of approach to the philosophy of historical study that makes me sit up and notice. It is startling and eye-opening to see Makhno the revolutionary likened to Jesus (in the eyes of the followers of each), his uncompromising ideals likened to Islam, his character described speculatively as “Mahatma Gandhi with a machine gun, the Dalai Lama with a sabre”. Nevertheless it was an analysis to which I directed readers of my blog without any comment (except “controversial”) or judgment on my part, for the plain reason that it is an analysis I greatly respect, and an argument in which I see a lot of power.
A word or two on some smaller issues raised. I wanted a short, snappy title for the piece. I seized upon the slogan Свобода або Смерть because of its brevity. I did not claim it to be Makhno’s slogan, as you can see from the footnote to the first half of my piece. In fact there is no documentary evidence for any such slogan. Where I got it was, as I said, from the Russian words Свобода или Смерть on a banner seen in the TV film The Nine Lives of Nestor Makhno. As for the larger banner, it existed in a photograph which looks contemporaneous with the Black Army; again in my piece I didn’t connect it directly to Makhno. However a facsimile (surely not the original, or is it?) of that banner hangs in the town museum at Huliaipole, and is displayed near a bust of Makhno and a Black Army tachanka.
Some of Dmitry’s reply direct to me is below, with a scattering of my answers as footnotes:
Of course if I were to write my comments regarding your article on Makhno directly to you, I would choose a slightly different approach and would measure my words more wisely. You are such a wonderful poet, you know how important words can be, you feel then the way others cannot. So, when I said I felt Makhno it was exactly in the same sense you feel language. It just happened and through no fault of my own.
I have always loved history, even worked a few seasons as an archaeologist, but am more interested in sieving through historical research and personal memoirs looking for gems to be used in my writings, than in merely compiling another list of verified and unverified quotations. You know they would be biased, I know would be biased, and therefore would posses little value as historical evidence unless scrutinized in a thick and dull scientific volume none of us would be willing to read in the first place. 
What would this story tell you: an old man in the village of Prishib, told me, “Right here, in this place the Red Latvians shot my father in 1920.”
“What for?” I asked expecting anything but the following answer.
“For being an elected chairmen of the local Soviet.”
To me it spoke volumes. To others, I suspect it would require a much wider context. 
That is why I have been writing a movie script for the last six years, in order to let others share my feel for the man and the events around him. A discovery of another Makhno, who now appears to be not some Braveheart reincarnate but rather Tomas Jefferson, a statesman without a state if you will. 
The problem with Makhno is that he became a legend almost instantly, his (in)fame boosted by the friends and foes alike, the way it stays now. As in the 60-s and 70-s the Beatles became synonymous with rock music (at least for us, the Soviet kids deprived of its richness), Makhno in his time became synonymous with various unrelated groups resisting the intrusion by the big government of any stripe. 
You cite the museum in Huliaipole as a source . But as they say in Russia (and Ukraine) history is the most unpredictable, so those in power invest much in ideological interpretation of history.
I do not see Makhno as a religious figure, I just point out that those who followed him sometimes did. And he is no less worthy such following than other religious figures. But personally I could not care less. I could be a religious figure. Anything to avoid working. 
But I do have my personal artistic vision, not view, of Makhno. It is reflected in the songs “Ballad of Liberty” and “Paris, 1934” from the CD “Red House Blues” on my website, or almost any anarchist site.
 I think even the best historical works cannot avoid quoting from biased sources. Certainly the books on Stalin, Trotsky, Mao, and Mussolini that I have read do so. That didn't make them unreadable - no way!
 That spoke volumes to me too, believe me!
 Again a startling comparison, and I am not sure I can “buy” it right off. Famously Thomas Jefferson said “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty”. Whilst this instantly reminds me of the Zapatista slogan "Esta usted en territorio Zapatista en rebeldia. Aqui manda el pueblo y el gobierno obedece", that is, I believe, where obvious similarities between Jefferson and any anarchist figure seem to end; Jefferson was a landowner (unlike Makhno), a slaveowner (obviously unlike Makhno) who had twinges of conscious but did not free his own slaves, an educated man (unlike Makhno), a theorist (unlike Makhno), a believer in statehood (unlike anarchists), a relative conservative (inasmuch as he was an American constitutionalist, the founding principles and great documents of the United States seem to embody, more than anything else, a kind of reformed-yet-conserved… England! Was Trotsky right, then, and did the anarchist of the Civil War actually want to preserve the state in some way, by "not touching it"?). Perhaps you can expand on your comparison of the Makhno and Jefferson – there’s a comment box below!
 You almost make them sound like the Tea Party!
 Actually I don’t cite it as an authoritative source – I just say that’s where you can see a banner like the one in the old photo. The actual significance of the banner, the bust, and the tachanka there is another matter.
 I see no evidence of either of us avoiding working, Dima – we both seem addicted to it!
Makhno iconography 3: a bust in the Huliaipole Museum.
This bust reminds me greatly of the old Soviet “socialist realism”.
Makhno’s long hair seem to blow in the breeze…
… like the tails of Lenin’s coat in countless Soviet statues.
His eyes are on the horizon, like the workers and peasants
in Maoist posters, or…
… like the idealized, retrospective portrait of the young Stalin.
Perhaps artists are still a little trapped in that era’s artistic mindset?