The Russian Revolution in Ukraine

Nestor Makhno

Chapter 2: Meeting with comrades and first attempts to organize revolutionary activities


Upon arrival in Gulyai-Pole, I immediately got together with my comrades from the anarchist group. Many of my former comrades had perished. Those who survived from the old days were: Andrei Semenyuta (the brother of Sasha and Prokofii Semenyuta), Moisei Kalinichenko, Filipp Krat, Savva Makhno, the brothers Prokofii and Grigorii Sharovsky, Pavel Korostelev, Lev Schneider, Pavel Sokruta, Isidor Liutii, Aleksei Marchenko, and Pavel Khundei (Korostilev). Together with these comrades came a younger bunch who had not yet joined the group in my time. But now they had been members for two or three years and were busy reading anarchist literature which they distributed to the peasants. Throughout the whole period of underground activity the group had continued to publish leaflets, printed by hectograph.

And how about the peasants and workers, sympathizing with anarchist ideals, who came to visit me? It would be impossible to list them. At that time they really didn't figure in the plans I was devising for the future work of our group.

I saw before me my own peasant friends unknown revolutionary anarchist fighters who in their own lives didn't know what it means to cheat one another. They were pure peasant types, tough to convince, but once convinced, once they had grasped an idea and tested it against their own reasoning, why then they pushed that idea at every conceivable opportunity. Truly, seeing these people before me I trembled with joy and was overcome with emotion. I immediately decided to start the very next day to carry out active propaganda among the peasants and workers of Gulyai-Pole. I wanted to dissolve the Public Committee (the local organ of the Provisional Government) and the militia, and prevent the formation of any more committees. I decided to take up anarchist action as the first order of business.

The visits from the peasants, both men and women, went on continually for a day and a half. Finally, on March 25, these visitors, who had come to meet "the one who rose from the dead" as they expressed it, began to disperse. The members of our group hastily set up a meeting to discuss practical affairs. By this time my enthusiasm for rushing into action had cooled off considerably. In my report I down played for the time being the carrying on of propaganda work among the peasants and workers and the overthrow of the Public Committee. Indeed I surprised my comrades by insisting that we as a group reach a clear understanding of the state of the anarchist movement generally in Russia. The fragmentation of anarchist groups, a phenomenon well-known to me before the Revolution, was a source of dissatisfaction for me personally. I could never be happy with such a situation.

"It is necessary," I said, "to organize the forces of the workers on a scale which can adequately express the revolutionary enthusiasm of the labouring masses when the Revolution is going through its destructive phase. And if the anarchists continue to act in an uncoordinated way, one of two things will happen: either they will lose touch with events and restrict themselves to sectarian propaganda; or they will trail along in the tail-end of these events, carrying out tasks for the benefit of their political enemies.

Here in Gulyai-Pole and the surrounding region we should act decisively to dissolve government institutions and absolutely put an end to private property in land, factories, plants, and other types of enterprises. To accomplish this we must keep in close contact with the peasant masses, assuring ourselves of the steadfastness of their revolutionary enthusiasm. We must convince the peasants we are fighting for them and are unswervingly devoted to those concepts which we will present to them at the village assemblies and other meetings. And while this is going on we must keep an eye of what is happening with our movement in the cities.

This, comrades, is one of those tactical questions which we shall decide tomorrow. It seems to me it deserves to be thoroughly discussed because the type of action to be engaged in by our group depends on the correct resolution of this question.

For us, natives of Gulyai-Pole, this plan of action is all the more important as we are the only group of anarcho-communists which has kept in touch with the peasants continuously over the last 11 years. We know of no other groups in the vicinity. In the closest cities, Aleksandrovsk and Ekaterinoslav, the former anarchist groups were virtually wiped out. The few survivors are far away. Some of the Ekaterinoslav anarchists stayed in Moscow. We don't know when they will return. And we still haven't heard anything about those who emigrated to Sweden, France, or America.

At the present time we can depend only on ourselves. No matter how weak we are in our knowledge of the theory of anarchism, we are compelled to work out an immediate plan of action to be undertaken among the peasants of this region. Without any hesitation we must begin work on organizing the Peasants' Union. And we must see to it that one of the peasants from our group is at the head of this Union. This is important for two reasons: first, we can prevent any political group hostile to our ideals from infiltrating the Union; and secondly, by being able to address meetings of the Union at any time on current issues, we shall be creating a close bond between our group and the Peasants' Union. This will give the peasants a chance to deal with the land question themselves. They can go ahead and declare the land public property without waiting for the "revolutionary" government to decide this question which is so crucial for the peasants."

The comrades were pleased with my report but were far from agreeing with my approach to the whole matter. Comrade Kalinichenko sharply criticized this approach, advocating that our role as anarchists in the current revolution should be restricted to publicizing our ideas. He noted that since we could now act openly, we should make use of this situation to explain our ideas to the workers, without involving ourselves in unions or other organizations.

"This will show the peasants," he said, "that we are not interested in dominating them but only in giving them advice. Then they will look seriously at our ideas and, embracing our methods, they will independently begin to build a new life."

At this juncture we concluded our meeting. It was 7 a.m. I wanted to attend the general meeting of peasants and workers at which the chairman of the Public Committee, Prusinsky, would read the proclamation of the district commissar, giving the official version of the revolutionary upheaval in the country.

For the time being we decided simply to review my report and submit it to further analysis and discussion. Some of the comrades dispersed, others remained with me in order to attend the general meeting together.

* * *

At 10:00 a.m. my comrades and I were at the central marketplace; I viewed the square, the residential buildings and schools. I went into one of the schools, met the principal, and spoke with him at length about the program of instruction, something, incidentally, I knew nothing about. According to the principal, the catechism was part of this program and was zealously defended by the priests and, to some extent, by the parents of the students. I was quite upset. Nevertheless, this did not prevent me, some time later, from becoming a member of the Education Society which subsidized this particular school. I firmly believed that by direct participation in this society, I could undermine the religious bases of education...

Towards noon I arrived at the general meeting which had just started with the report of the chairman of the Public Committee, Ensign Prusinsky. (At that time in Gulyai-Pole was stationed the 8th Regiment of the Serbian Army, to which was attached a Russian machine gun unit with 12 machine guns and a complement of 144 men, led by four officers. During the organization of the Public Committee in Gulyai-Pole some of these officers were invited to take part. One of them, namely Prusinsky, was elected chairman of the Public Committee. Another, Lieutenant Kudinov, was elected Chief of the Militia. These two officers, these "public figures", determined the ordering of social life in Gulyai-Pole.)

At the conclusion of his report, the chairman of the Public Committee asked me to address the Council in support of his views. This I refused to do and instead asked to speak on another matter.

In my speech I pointed out to the peasants the absurdity of allowing in revolutionary Gulyai-Pole such a Public Committee, headed by people who were strangers to the community and who were not accountable to the community for their actions. And I proposed that the assembly immediately delegate four people from each sotnia (Gulyai-Pole was divided into seven wards, called sotnias) to hold a special conference about this and other questions.

The elementary school teachers at the meeting immediately rallied to my position. The principal of one small school, Korpusenko, offered his building for our meeting.

It was decided that delegates should be elected at separate meetings of the sotnias and a day was fixed for the meetings. Thus ended my first public appearance after getting out of prison.

Now the teachers invited me to their own meeting. First I got to know them a little better. One of them turned out to be a Socialist-Revolutionary; the remaining 12 or 14 people were mostly non-Party.

Then we discussed a series of questions related to the inactivity of the teachers. They wanted to take part in public life and were searching for ways of doing this. We decided to act in concert on behalf of the peasants and workers to displace the officer-kulak Committee. This Committee had not been elected by the whole of society but only by its wealthiest elements.

After this I went to a meeting of our whole group.

Here we analyzed my report and Kalenichenko's criticism of it. As a result, we decided to begin methodical propaganda work in the sotnias: among the peasants, and in the mills and workshops. This agitation work was to be based on two premises:

  1. So long as the peasants and workers found themselves in a disorganized state, they would not be able to constitute themselves as a regional social force of anti-authoritarian character, capable of struggling against the "Public Committee". Up to this point the peasants and workers, whether they liked it or not, had been obliged to adhere to the "Public Committee", organized under the auspices of the Provisional Coalition Government. That is why it was important to re-elect this Committee in Gulyai-Pole.
  2. Sustained agitation must be carried out for the organization of a Peasants' Union, which we would take part in and in which we would exercise the dominant influence. We would express our lack of confidence in the "Public Committee", an organ of the central government, and urge the Peasants' Union to take over this organ.

"This tactic," I told the comrades, "I see leading to the repudiation of government rule with its concept of this type of Public Committee. Moreover, if we are successful in our efforts, we shall help the peasants and workers to realize a fundamental truth. Namely that once they take a conscious and serious approach to the question of revolution, then they themselves will become the true bearers of the concept of self-management. And they won't need the guidance of political parties with their servant the State.

The time is very favourable for us, anarchists, to strive for a practical solution to a whole range of problems of the present and the future, even if there are great difficulties and the possibility of frequent mistakes. These problems are connected in one way or another with our ideal and by struggling for our demands we shall become the true bearers of the free society. We can't let this opportunity pass by. That would be an unforgivable error for our group, for we would become separated from the labouring masses.

At all costs we must beware of losing touch with the workers. This is equivalent to political death for revolutionaries. Or even worse, we could force the workers to reject our ideas, ideas which attract them now and will continue to attract them so long as we are among them, marching, fighting, and dying, or winning and rejoicing."

The comrades, smiling ironically, replied: "Old buddy, you are deviating from the normal Anarchist tactic. We should be listening to the voice of our movement, as you yourself called upon us to do at our first meeting."

"You are quite right, we must and we shall listen to the voice of our movement, if there is a movement. At present I don't see it. But I know we must work now, without delay. I proposed a plan of work and we have already adopted it. What else remains to do, except work?"

Well, a whole week was spent in discussions. Nevertheless, all of us had already started work in our chosen fields, in accordance with the decision we had agreed to.

 


On to Chapter 3 Organization of the Peasants' Union

Back to Chapter 1 My Liberation

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