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Nestor Ivanovich Makhno (October 26, 1888–July 6, 1934) was an anarcho-communist revolutionary, a commander of the peasant Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine. Makhno was born into a poor peasant family in Hulyaipole (can be rendered as, “Field with no bounds where you can move freely wherever your whim takes you”), Yekaterinoslav Huberniya (Governorate) (now Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Ukraine). His father died when he was ten months old. Due to extreme poverty, he had to work as a shepherd at the age of seven.
His involvement in revolutionary politics was based on his experiences of injustice and supression. In 1906, Makhno joined an anarchist organization in Hulyaipole. He was arrested several times and in 1910 Makhno was sentenced to death by hanging, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was released from prison after the February Revolution in 1917.
Makhno organized a peasants’ union. It gave him a “Robin Hood” image and he expropriated large estates from landowners and distributed the land among the peasants.
In March 1918, the new Bolshevik government in Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk concluding peace with Germany, but ceded large amounts of territory, including Ukraine, to it. Makhno’s army fought against the Germans, against Hetman Skoropadsky, against Denikin’s White Guard forces, against the Directory’s forces (Directory — government of the short lived Ukrainian republic), and against the Bolsheviks. He changed allegiances as it suited him and in accordance with the situation. He even joined the Bolshevik forces for some time.
Makhno tried to create an anarchist society administered by the peasants’ and workers’ councils.
Makhno is credited as the inventor of the Tachanka, a horse-drawn carriage with a machine-gun installed on it; it proved to be a very effective, mobile weapon.
He was described by some as “colorful personality”, but he was also accused of “military ravages” of being “inhuman monster” whose path is “literally drenched with blood.” Makhno’s forces are also accused of conducting pogroms against Jews in Ukraine during the Civil War. But this claim is disputed.
In August 1921, an exhausted Makhno was finally driven by the Bolsheviks into exile. He fled to Romania, then Poland, then Berlin and finally to Paris. In 1926, he joined the Group of Russian Anarchists Abroad in Paris, and co-wrote and co-published the Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists.
At the end of his life, Makhno lived in Paris and worked as a carpenter and stage-hand at the Paris Opera, at film-studios, and at the Renault factory. He died in Paris in 1934 from tuberculosis. He was cremated, with many people attending his funeral at the famous Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise in Paris.
In the Land of Nestor Makhno, the Ukrainian anarchist
Volodymyr Suprunenko, writer and indefatigable traveler, and his friend Vitaliy Pylypenko, bicycled across Ukraine to Hulyaipole (pronounced: po-lay), the birthplace of Nestor Makhno. They visited places connected with or associated with Bat'ko (Father) Makhno, notorious or famous, depending on the point of view you take, Ukrainian anarchist of the time of the Civil War in Ukraine.
Makhno is indeed a controversial figure. Neither historians nor the general public have been able to come to a consensual assessment of his role in the history of Ukraine. Some call him “the defender of the peasants’ cause”; others refer to him as “a blood-thirsty anarchist and bandit.” We wanted to see the places where he spent much of his time both in his childhood and later, during the Civil War.
We chose the month of August to go there because of the Makhno Festival which is held in Hulyaipole, the native place of Nestor Makhno. Our first stop was at the house of Volodymyr, Sabadash, a great Makhno enthusiast. He lives in the vicinity of the village of Yasna Polyana. In his front yard, we saw the famous tachanka which Volodymyr had made himself, as well as a number of other artifacts related to the events and life style of the time of the Civil War.
Volodymyr is also an enthusiast of the Cossacks of old, and of their deeds. He is a proud owner of Cossack sharovary (loose, usually red, Cossack-style pants), sorochka (embroidered shirt), zhupan (a sort of a coat), and a Cossack saber which Volodymyr made himself (he is a skilled blacksmith). His general appearance is in full agreement with old Cossack tradition, including long mustache and oseledets (a long tress of hair on the otherwise shaved head). And it is not only at home that Volodymyr is dressed this way — when he has to go to town to do shopping or on other occasions, he wears his Cossack outfit, minus the saber. As you can imagine, people often stop him to ask questions or to talk — most with admiration, a few shrug shoulders.
Volodymyr told us many stories about Makhno and his time. “His roots and the roots of the movement he headed are here, in the steppe land. There was a lot of the true Cossack spirit in him and his adherents and fighters. His chief of staff, for example, looked as though he had stepped out of a portrait of Cossack leader of the seventeenth century. And Makhno’s army units often used, and very successfully, old Cossack tactics.”
On the way to our next destination in the land of Makhno, we passed by a roadside restaurant in the suburb of the village of Kirove. We were not particularly hungry, but a tachanka standing in front of the restaurant caught our eye. Besides, the restaurant was called Bat’kova khata (Father’s House), and in his native land, Makhno was — and is — often referred to as Bat’ko, Father. At the entrance of the restaurant stood an effigy of a Cossack holding a spear. We could not help stopping and going in.
Answering our question about the tachanka — “it looks very genuine, not a replica” — the chef, Anatoliy Yaremchuk, said that “it can be a real thing. We bought it several years ago from one of the local museums. The museum did not have money for maintenance and had to sell some of the exhibits to save the rest. It seemed a good idea to have a museum piece tachanka at our front door. Incidentally, one of the halls of our restaurant is named for Makhno. The owner of the restaurant made it a point to decorate the walls of the Makhno Hall with photographs of the places connected in some way with Makhno. He brought some even from Paris.”
“But the tachanka does not have a machine gum mounted on it,” we said.
The chef chuckled. “We do have a machine gun that dates from those times, but it’s not in a working condition. When we purchased it, it was good enough to shoot from, we even had ammunition for it, but the police made us disable the machine gun and surrender the ammunition.”
We talked the chef into mounting the machine gun on the tachanka for us to take pictures. The tachanka with that gun on it looked chillingly authentic, ready for action. I could not help remembering the lyrics from an anarchist song, “I’m not a White, I am not a Red, I am not a Green, I am all by myself; Harness the horses, get into the tachanka and let’s go shoot’em all!” (White –— reference to White Guards, Russian forces that fought against the Bolsheviks in the Civil War; Red — supporter of the Red Army; Green — supporter of anarchist forces).
Makhno in Temyriv
Our next stop was at the village of Temyriv. We got there when the evening twilight had begun to settle in. The sunrays of the western sun played on the ripening fruit in fruit gardens. We asked around for a place to stay the night and an old woman gave us shelter in her house. When we told her of our interest in Makhno, she began to recount stories she had heard from her mother. She did it in such a way as though she herself had witnessed the events she was relating to us. She did mention, in her own not very educated but very colorful way, that Makhno was a very controversial figure, loved by some, hated by others and feared by many. Our hostess told us to talk to the head of the village council, “He knows a lot about Makhno, too.”
The next day we met Anatoliy Zhovnirenko, head of the Temyriv Village Council who took us to see a house, where, according to Mr Zhovnirenko, Makhno was said to have stayed for some time.
“It’s not accidental that he was addressed and referred to as bat’ko (to address someone who is not your father as bat’ko, was to show great respect). He controlled a wide area. People even called him “tsar”, and some even said “he’s like a god.”… My grandfather was a well-to-do peasant and one of his horses was ‘requisitioned’ by Makhno guerilla fighters. He went to Makhno to complain — and the horse was returned to him!”, said the village head, a burly but very agile man.
He believes in “tough methods of running a rural community. “If you see that things that must be done are not done or done slowly or in a slipshod manner, you do have to make people do it the way it should be done.”
A monument to Makhno?
Hulyaipole is a nice place, with white peasant houses and flowers in front and in back gardens. Unfortunately for us, there are only a few houses in this small town that can be traced to the times of Makhno. In Trudova Street we saw an old house that is believed to have belonged to Nestor Makhno’s brother, Karpo, and another Makhno’s relative, Viktor Yalansky, used to live there. Yalansky’s widow showed us photos, pictures and newspaper cuttings, which dealt with Makhno. One of the pictures, painted by a local Hulyapole artist, showed Nestor Makhno and his wife in a very peaceful, almost patriarchal setting.
We attended a conference that was held at the local lore and history museum, in the hall devoted to Makhno, at which the issue of erecting a monument to Makhno was discussed (incidentally, we learnt that Hulyaipole, which has actually been elevated to the status of town, is often referred to by the locals as Makhnohrad — Makhno Town). Petro Horpynych, deputy head of the local council, showed one of the designs of a monument to Makhno — there was a tachanka in it, and Makhno standing by its side with an outstretched arm, evidently urging his troops on. The artist gave Makhno something on his head that looked like either a fur hat or a shock of disheveled hair.
I remarked that horses would add vitality to the monument but Horpynych admitted it would be too costly a project to carry out, but also expressed hope that sponsors would be found to “get the monument built. Bat’ko Makhno has become a tourist attraction in the Land of Zaporizhzhya. We have a memorial plaque but now we need a monument.”
Mykola Fesun, a local land-surveyor and a Makhno enthusiast into the bargain, showed us a four-hundred year old oak which is believed to have been a place where many of the locals were executed by roaming bands during the chaotic years of the Civil War. Actually, Makhno had supposedly nothing to do with these atrocities but the local hearsay does make this connection and the tree of ill fame is locally known as Makhno’s Oak.
Our guide took us through the dense forest to the oak, giving explanations as we went, “Not far from here lived Makhno’s lover, Tina Ovcharenko…And here Makhno’s unit joined the unit of his supporter Shchus… And this little brook is called Shchuseva Krynytsya (Water Well of Shchus’)… And yonder there, among those rocks Makhno’s boys stayed in hiding between their raids…”
The forest, called Dibrivski, is a highly scenic place that covers a large area, through which meanders the River Vovcha. It is from this forest that Makhno and his troops conducted a daring raid against Austrian troops routing them completely. After this raid, Makhno began to be addressed as ‘Bat’ko”
The oak must have been a really huge tree. The memorial plaque nailed to it had this inscription carved into it: “Oak of the Insurrectionists of Makhno’s Army which is referred to by people as ‘Oak of Death’”. Several years ago someone tried to set the oak on fire but the oak, or rather the one surviving branch, even produced new twigs.
Our guide was of the opinion that stories about summery exceptions of innocent people by Makhno and his troops near the oak were not true though someone could have been killed there. My companion on this fact-finding trip Vitaliy Pylypenko performed a sort of ritual before we left the oak to go back to Hulyaipole — he walked around what is left of the oak performing libation with water from his flask, and murmuring lyrics from an anarchist song, “The Moon is shining into my window, the moonshine plays on the river’s water, Bat’ko Makhno is coming, bringing freedom…”
Now, a few words about the festival itself which is held annually in “Makhnohrad” at the end of August (it coincides with the official yearly celebrations of the Day of Ukraine’s Independence — 24 August). The literary and music festival, called Den’ Nezalezhnosti z Makhnom (Independence Day with Makhno) is a boisterous and cheerful affair with lots of fun provided by prose and poetry recitals, singing, professional and amateur, of all kinds of folk, semi-folk, anarchist and more modern-style songs, and with little or no politics or historical arguments involved (food and drink galore). In September, there is another festival held in Hulyaipole — Vol’nytsya (Willful Liberties) which is devoted to folk art and folk music. This year a historians’ conference is to be held in October or in November at which the role of Makhno in Ukraine’s history and his personality will be discussed.
Memorial plaque at the Makhno oak; the inscription
reads: “Oak of the Insurrectionists of Makhno’s
Army which is referred to by people as
‘Oak of Death’”
Paper mock money issued by in the territories
controlled by Nestor Makhno. The inscriptions on the
bill says: A Hundred Karbovantsi are Accepted
around the World on a Par with Soft Paper
(evidently, reference to toilet paper). Free Currency
Exchange of These Karbovantsi Is Guaranteed by Al
l of the State Property of Skoro-Padiya (Soon Will
Fall State; the then hetman of Ukraine was named
Skoropadsky), by the Lies of Mr Hetman, by the
German Bayonets and by the Haydamaky (Bandits)
Lashes. Emblem of the State Treasure (inscription
under the pig).
Photographs on the wall in the house of Makhno’s
relatives. In the centre — Makhno with his
Makhno’s grave at Cimetiere (Cemetery)