H.6.3 Why was Makhno called "Batko"?

Nestor Makhno was often called in the movement "Bat'ko", which is Ukrainian for "father." Peter Arshinov explains how and in what circumstances Makhno was given this name:

"It was . . . in September 1918, that Makhno received the nickname Batko -- general leader of the revolutionary insurrection in the Ukraine. This took place in the following circumstances. Local pomeshchiks [landed gentry] in the major centres, the kulaks [rich peasants], and the German authorities [the Ukraine being occupied by them at the time], decided to eliminate Makhno and his detachment [of partisans] at any cost. The pomeshchiks created a special volunteer detachment consisting of their own sons and those of kulaks for the decisive struggle against Makhno. On the 30th of September this detachment, with the help of the Austro-Germans, corned Makhno in the region of Bol'shaya Mihhailovka, setting up strong military posts on all roads. At this time Makhno found himself with only 30 partisans and one machine gun. He was forced to make a fighting retreat, manoeuvring in the midst of numerous enemy forces. Arriving in the forest of Dibrivki, Makhno found himself in an extremely difficult situation. The paths of retreat were occupied by the enemy. It was impossible for the detachment to break through, and escaping individually was beneath their revolutionary dignity. No-one in the detachment would agree to abandon their leader so as to save himself. After some reflection, two days later, Makhno decided to return to the village of Bol'shaya Mikhailovka (Dibrivki). Leaving the forest the partisans met peasants who came to warn them that there were large enemy forces in Dibrivki and that they should make haste to go elsewhere. This information did not stop Makhno and his partisans . . . [and] they set out for Bol'shaya Mikhailovka. They approached the village guardedly. Makhno himself and a few of his comrades went on reconnaissance and saw a large enemy camp on the church square, dozens of machine guns, hundreds of saddle horses, and groups of cavalry. Peasants informed them that a battalion of Austrians and a special pomeshchik detachment were in the village. Retreat was impossible. Then Makhno, with his usual stubbornness and determination, said to his companions: 'Well, my friends! We should all be ready to die on this spot . . .' The movement was ominous, the men were firm and full of enthusiasm. All 30 saw only one path before them -- the path toward the enemy, who had about a thousand well-armed men, and they all realised that this meant certain death for them. All were moved, but none lost courage.

It was at this movement that one of the partisans, Shchus', turned to Makhno and said:

'From now on you will be Batko to all of us, and we vow to die with you in the ranks of the insurgents.'

Then the whole detachment swore never to abandon the insurgent ranks, and to consider Makhno the general Batko of the entire revolutionary insurrection. Then they prepared to attack. Shchus' with five to seven men was assigned to attack the flank of the enemy. Makhno with the others attacked from the front. With a ferocious 'Hurrah!' the partisans threw themselves headlong against the enemy, smiting the very centre with sabres, rifles and revolvers. The attack had a shattering effect. The enemy, who were expecting nothing of the kind, were bowled over and began to flee in panic, saving themselves in groups and individually, abandoning arms, machine guns and horses. Without leaving them time to come to themselves, to become aware of the number of attacking forces, and to pass to a counter-attack, the insurgents chased them in separate groups, cutting them down in full gallop. A part of the pomeshchik detachment fled to the Volchya River, where they were drowned by peasants who had joined the battle. The enemy's defeat was complete.

Local peasants and detachments of revolutionary insurgents came from all directions to triumphantly acclaim the heroes. They unanimously agreed to consider Makhno as Batko of the entire revolutionary insurrection in the Urkaine." [Arshinov, Op. Cit., pp. 59-60]

This was how Makhno acquired the nickname "Batko," which stuck to him thereafter.

It should be stressed that "Batko" was a nickname and did not signify any form of autocratic or hierarchical position within the movement:

"During the civil war, it signified the leadership and control of a specific area and its population in both civil and military fields. The central point of the use of the word, rather than 'leader' or 'dictator' is that the leadership is usually based on respect, as in Makhno's case, and always on intimate knowledge of the home territory." [Michael Malet, Op. Cit., p. 17]

That this was a nickname can be seen from the fact that "[a]fter 1920 he was usually called 'Malyi' ('Shorty'), a nickname referring to his short stature, which was introduced by chance by one of the insurgents." [Peter Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 226] To attach significance to the fact that the peasants called Makhno "Batko" (as the Bolsheviks did) simply signifies an ignorance of the Makhnovist movement and its social environment.


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