“An anarchist of a different breed,” is how Nester Makno has oft been described, and it is fitting. He considered himself a nationalist, but paradoxically took up arms against the Ukrainian National Army. This, however, is not as contradictory as it appears for he believed in a world without central government where every city governed itself, and he supported those he felt most likely to deliver his dream.
As the various forces were tearing the region apart in the flames of revolution, Nestor Makhno was the one man who united the simple folk promising them freedom from all political influence.
The Making of the Man
Nestor Makhno (real name Nestor Mikhnenko) was born on 26 October, 1888 in the village of Gulyaipole in Zaporizhya. One of five children in a simple peasant family, he started working in the fields when only seven years old. He only ever had a primary school education, but he was to learn all he needed to know while in prison in Moscow many years later.
Nestor was first introduced to the anarchist movement after working for three years in a factory, and in 1906 he joined the Peasant Communist Anarchist Group. And it didn’t take him long to get into trouble: shortly after joining he was imprisoned for carrying a weapon, and not long after he was in jail again, this time for attempt on the life of two policemen.
By all accounts they should have kept him there, for in 1910 he was sentenced to the death penalty after having been convicted of numerous robberies and attacks on yet more police. His death penalty was commuted to life with hard labour, and he was shipped off to the notorious Butyrka prison in Moscow.
It was in Butyrka that he met Petro Arshynov, the man who would become his mentor and educator. As well as receiving an ideological education in prison, he also studied mathematics, literature and history.
He was still in prison during the February Revolution, but was released shortly after as part of an amnesty for many political prisoners. Upon release he returned to the place of his birth where he started his political career as an assistant on the regional council.
Success and Betrayal
It turned out that Nestor Makhno was a great organiser and even better orator, and slowly more and more people amassed under his flag, all supporting the desire for an independent region. Over the next couple of years, as the civil war between Ukrainian National forces, a young but furious Soviet UNI0N, and remnants of the Russian Empire became more and more bloody, his archenemy, Symon Petlyura who would soon become the the head of the Ukrainian National Republic, tried many times to silence him, but all attempts on his life failed.
In 1918, to many people’s surprise and indignation, Makho offered his support to the Bolsheviks. Makhno’s anarchists united with the Red Army to fight against the German invasion of the First World War, and the support offered to it by the Ukrainian Nationalists.
His victorious advance across the country is legendary, but his glory was somewhat ambiguous. Makhno was using the Soviets and their war against capitalism as a means towards his own ends. He rejected the idea of a single God-like leader of a nation (which, sadly, was exactly what would come out of all this), and instead encouraged cities to be independent and autonomous.
In 1919, he withdrew his support from the Soviets and formed his own Separate Rebellious Army. Immediately the Soviets stopped supplying him with weapons, and on 6 June Lev Trotskiy signed a decree declaring Makhno outlaw.
However, when the White Army attacked Moscow a month later, the Bolsheviks asked for his help, and he agreed. His victories at Moscow were glorious, and his raids on White Army forces in Ukraine a huge success, and he was instrumental in the final defeat of the White Army forces. But at the very end the Red Army, no longer in need of his services, turned on Makhno and his troops, surrounding them and attempting a slaughter. However, Makhno managed to escape along with a small number of troops.
In 1921 Nestor Makhno fled to Romania, and after four years wandering in Europe he finally settled in France where he died in poverty in 1934 aged 46. His legacy remains to this day, and what that legacy is depends on who you ask, and that’s a fitting epitaph for one of the world’s great anarchists.