4. Makhno in Paris

by Ida Mett

Shortly before the war I wrote down my memories of Makhno who I had got to know during my time in Paris. These notes were then lost during the war. But seeing what some people have written about Makhno, I've decided to write down those memories again so as to set the story straight.

In order to present a full picture of Makhno it would probably be necessary to portray him at the time of his "greatness" in the Ukraine. But how do we decide who was the "real" Makhno - the vibrant figure renown throughout the Ukraine, or the impoverished émigré languishing abroad? I think historical accuracy is important above all else, so I will try and relate everything I remember from when I knew him.

All manner of legends arose about "Batko Makhno" and his movement in the Ukraine during the Civil War. One day the telegraph agency Rosta would report that Makhno had been taken prisoner by the Russians, and the next day the news would be entirely different. Being a young student who dreamed of heroic deeds and absolute freedom I imagined Makhno to be a real hero - brave, strong, fearless, unselfish - a fighter for the popular cause. I remember that they said in the Ukraine that Makhno had once been a primary-school teacher. And so here I come to Paris in 1925 and find out that Makhno is also there. I waited impatiently for an opportunity to meet him, and soon I had the chance. I met him in the small hotel room where he lived with his wife and daughter. He was completely different to what I expected: short and frail looking, not at all one who stood out. Later I was able to meet him regularly, and when I got to know him I better understood his character and his role in the Civil War. 

The most significant thing about Makhno, I think, was that he always remained essentially a Ukrainian peasant. In no way could you say he was carefree, because deep down he was a real, thrifty peasant, with a perfect understanding of small-town life and the concerns of ordinary people. 

Makhno became a revolutionary, a terrorist, in his early youth. His whole way of life was a perfect reflection of his times. He grew up in the large family of a poor agricultural worker. When he was still a juvenile he and some friends constructed bombs, and once the boy put one of his "products" in the basin which his mother normally used for mixing dough. You can imagine his poor mother's amazement and mortal fear when she heard the explosion and saw the basin fly out of the oven. Soon after that tragicomic episode Makhno made an attempt on the life of a local policeman, for which he was condemned to death. He was just seventeen at the time, and only his mother's pleading and intervention saved his life: his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Makhno remained behind bars until the revolution of 1917.

The February Revolution of 1917 opened the prison doors and Makhno was again free. By now he was twenty-five[1] and was armed with an intellect acquired at the revolutionary "university" of Butirky prison. Makhno did not stay in Moscow for long. He hurried back to his home town of Gulyai-Polye and threw himself into the maelstrom of the revolution.

Makhno enjoyed great authority among the people of his region, and the first anarchist groups he founded were made up of local peasants. When he later tried to write a history of the movement he gave these groups the credit for having been the motor force behind the partisan movement. He denied the role of anarchists from outside and saw them just as "special guests" who gave nothing of substance to the movement. Makhno was firmly convinced that it was his service alone that the movement became anarchist.

Was Makhno an upright man who wished the best for his people, or was it just by chance that he ended up in the midst of that general mêlée? I think he was sincere in his social passions. He was a political leader with natural talent, though at times he let himself be drawn into hazardous military adventures where even his political knowledge and personal capabilities were no guarantee of success or survival. Nonetheless, I think he was definitely the right person for the role of popular avenger. Incidentally, the weakness of the Makhno movement was also the weakness of the insurrectionary peasantry in all of Russia: it had no clear goals and concrete tasks. The peasants wanted land and freedom above all else, but they didn't know how to make use of either. This weakness partially explains why even today the Russian peasantry is unable to successfully oppose the new feudalism imposed by Stalin.

I remember Makhno once telling me his dream. It was autumn 1927. We were walking in the Bois de Vincennes. Perhaps the beauty of nature put him in a poetic mood and made him inclined to tell me his dream. The young Mikhniyenko (Makhno's actual surname) would return to his home town of Gulyai-Polye, start work, lead a quiet, clean life, and marry a young peasant girl. He had a good horse and good gear. He and his wife would return home in the evening after a successful day at the market selling the fruits of the harvest. They also bought presents there. Makhno got so carried away with the story that he completely forgot he was now in Paris and had neither land, nor a house, nor a young wife. At that time he and his wife were living apart - they separated many times only to reunite and try to live together again. Heaven only knows why it turned out that way. Makhno's wife probably didn't love him any more, and who knows if she ever did. She was a Ukrainian teacher and her views were closer to those of the Petlyura camp - she never really had anything in common with the revolutionary movement.

I once read somewhere that Makhno had become an anarchist under the influence of a teacher he later married. That is complete and utter nonsense. He didn't get to know Galina Kuzmenko until he was already famous as Batko Makhno.[2] Evidently the simple teacher was attracted to the prospect of being the wife of the powerful hetman of the Ukraine. However, she was not the only woman in Batko Makhno's good graces. Makhno told me in Paris that at the time of his greatest power people came and toadied to him, and he could have had any woman he wished, but in reality he had no time for a private life. Makhno told me this to debunk the myth about the drunken orgies he is supposed to have taken part in. Makhno was in fact a clean man, one could almost say chaste. It seemed to me that his attitude to women combined a kind of peasant simplicity with a respect for the weaker sex characteristic of Russian revolutionary circles around the turn of the century. Sometimes with sincere regret he recalled his first wife, a peasant girl from his home town who he married shortly after his release from prison in 1917. A child was born of their marriage, but when Makhno had to go into hiding during the German occupation someone told his wife that he had been killed, and she married again. The child died. Makhno never saw his first wife again.

Makhno had a prominent scar on his right cheek running all the way down to his lower lip as the result of a blow dealt to him by his wife Galina who once tried to kill him while he was asleep. That happened while they were in Poland, and it seems she was in love with an officer from the Petlyura movement at that time. I don't know for sure what the particular motive for such a savage act was. Often, in society, Makhno's wife would try to compromise and degrade him however possible. Once, in my presence, she said about someone: "Now that's a real general, not like Nestor was." By saying that she obviously wanted to show that she didn't consider her husband a real military leader. However, Galina knew full well that when Makhno was in Romania the government there had rendered him homage befitting a high-ranking commander.

In Paris Galina Kuzmenko worked as a domestic servant and cook. She felt she was predestined for a better lot and thought fate was very unkind to her. In 1926-27 she applied to the Soviet authorities for permission to return to Russia. Moscow rejected her application, to my knowledge, but I don't think Makhno ever forgave her for submitting it. The fact that they remained together was probably due to their weakness and inability to end the relationship. After Makhno died Galina Kuzmenko took up with Voline. Together they also committed a most ignoble act - they stole Makhno's personal diary from under his pillow. So it was that this unique manuscript was never brought to light. This was Makhno's journal for the duration of his time in exile. In it he noted his impressions of comrades, their activities, and much more besides. I know it existed because in 1932 Makhno told me he'd like to get my impression of events which I too had witnessed; he wanted to assure himself that his diary entry was a precise account of what happened.

If I'm not mistaken Galina Kuzmenko started a relationship with a German officer after the Nazi occupation of France, and she and her daughter went to Berlin where she was later killed in the bombing of the city. But maybe that's wrong and she's still alive somewhere. It cannot be excluded that she is living somewhere in Russia.[3]

Makhno loved his daughter very much. I don't know what their relationship was like at the end of his life, but when she was a small girl Makhno would play with her without end, he really pampered her. There were times when he got angry and gave her a smack, but afterwards he was utterly miserable at the thought that he had raised his hand against her. Nestor dreamed of his daughter getting an education. I only saw her once after his death, she was seventeen. She looked a lot like Makhno, but she seemed to know little about him, and I don't think she was interested in his fate.

As far as Makhno's relations with Voline are concerned, I'm sure Makhno neither liked nor respected the man who was to become his wife's partner. Makhno considered him unworthy and lacking in character. Makhno often told me that in the Ukraine Voline toadied to him and never had the courage to say his own opinion when Batko Makhno was around. Once a Bolshevik parliamentarian by the name of Polonsky was executed at Makhnovist headquarters.[4] Many members of the general staff were unhappy with this. Voline arrived at the headquarters, and when he heard what had happened he asked: "What does Batko think? If he says it was the right thing to do I won't go into the issue." Makhno was sitting in the next room and had got tipsy. When he heard his comrades talking he came in and went up to Voline: "So you don't give a damn that a man has just been shot? You don't even ask why he was executed! As long as Batko approves it's alright, huh? But a man can make mistakes, can't he, especially when he's drunk. What do you say to that, eh?" Voline decided it was prudent not to answer.

When Makhno was living in Paris, alone and in poverty, the situation was different. Many now found the courage to sharply criticise his role in the Ukraine. Makhno was sufficiently astute to realise what was going on. He hated critics of this kind with a vengeance. But when someone spoke the truth to him, and he saw that his opponent was sincere, he may have been offended, but there can be no doubt that deep inside he respected people capable of such objectivity.

I can give an example from my own experience of Makhno's sensitivity to criticism. Once I happened to be typing a copy of his memoirs. At one point I noticed that facts of historical interest were interspersed with excerpts of speeches made at public meetings in the first few months of the revolution. These bits were not particularly original and did not deserve to be cited so many years afterwards. Speeches like that were made on every street corner in 1917, and committing them to paper was no great feat. I told Makhno that his memoirs were very interesting but it was no way to write a book. Facts and documents need to be selected and arranged so as to form an integral whole. Makhno had written two books at that stage but hadn't yet got to the Makhnovshchina - all he had written was a kind of prelude. Nestor listened attentively to all I said but didn't think of following my advice. Not renown for being particularly tactful, I said to him: "You're a great soldier, but not a writer. Why don't you ask one of your friends to help you write your memoirs? Maria Goldsmid for example."

Makhno never forgave me those words. Perhaps towards the end of his life he did remember my advice after all, since things turned out just as I had feared: the book on the Makhnovshchina was not completed. One of Makhno's friends, a Frenchman, offered him material assistance so he could complete his memoirs, but when he saw no sign of the work ever ending he stopped giving money. Makhno was forced to earn his living again, and so it was that he never finished his memoirs. In the last years of his life Makhno lived in abject poverty which was in no way conducive to writing.

Was Makhno an anti-Semite? I'm convinced he wasn't. He considered the Jews a capable and intelligent people, perhaps he slightly envied them, but there was never the slightest trace of hostility in his relations with Jews. The accusations of anti-Semitism grieved Makhno, no doubt, and as a strong internationalist he felt the grave danger of this kind of accusation. Makhno was proud of having executed Hetman Grigoryev and he affirmed that the rumours of Makhnovists carrying out pogroms were a despicable lie.

When I ask myself how it was possible for a person such as Makhno to attain such incredible power over people in his time, I guess I see Makhno as a true Ukrainian peasant in the depths of his heart. He never became anything else. Moreover, he was like a great actor who underwent a transformation beyond recognition when in front of a crowd. In a small circle of people he communicated with difficulty. His habit of using grand words seemed absurd and out of place in an intimate environment. But you just needed to put him in front of a large audience and there emerged a brilliant, eloquent, self-confident orator. Once I attended a public meeting in Paris on the question of anti-Semitism and the Makhno movement. I was struck by the incredible powers of transformation which this Ukrainian peasant possessed.

Another trait of Makhno's character no doubt contributed to his success with the masses - his unbelievable bravery and daring. Arshinov, despite having a patently hostile relationship to Makhno, related that Makhno walked around under enemy fire as if it were nothing but rain. Arshinov considered bravery of that kind a psychological anomaly.

In his years as an émigré Makhno, like many other famous people, suffered from the inability to adapt to normal, everyday life. It seemed he was vexed if people were not talking about him. And therefore he was constantly giving interviews to journalists, though he knew full well how hostile many of the parties and people around him were. Once a Ukrainian journalist asked me to arrange an interview with Makhno. I advised Nestor not to give an interview - I could just see the journalist was going to twist his words and there would be no way of refuting what was printed. But Makhno didn't listen. The journalist distorted his words and published what he wanted. Makhno was furious, but I don't think this bad experience taught him a lesson.

Was Makhno ever able to revert to being a "little" person? He probably dreamed of living as a simple peasant, but of course this was now impossible.

I remember one day we were talking about the fate of the Soviet generals Budyonny and Voroshilov. Makhno's attitude to them was marked by professional respect, and I even had the impression that the idea came to his mind - perhaps involuntarily - that he too could have become a Red Army general. But he never spoke of this. On the contrary, he told me that if he were ever to return to Russia he would have to undertake a serious study of the arts of war. This admission can perhaps be considered a dream spoken aloud. But I'm convinced that if Makhno returned to Russia it would only have taken a day or two for him to fall out with his superiors. He was always an honest man and could not tolerate social injustice.

Did Makhno really believe in the anarchism he advocated? I don't think so. It's more likely that he just remained faithful to his youthful passions, and at that time anarchism was a kind of belief, a faith which seemed capable of changing the face of the earth and making the poor happy. Makhno had a low opinion of the anarchists he knew in Russia around the time of the Revolution. He considered them incompetent. When they joined the Makhnovshchina as "theoreticians" he felt they were weak and cowardly in practice compared with the ordinary Ukrainian peasant who taught them what courage was all about. Makhno scathingly criticised Kropotkin for the patriotic stance he took in 1914. In conclusion it can be said that Makhno clearly felt the disparity between anarchist ideas and their embodiment in real life, in society.

Was Makhno the drunkard Voline portrayed him as? I saw Makhno on many, many occasions in Paris in the space of three years and didn't ever see him drunk. Several times there were dinners organised in his honour by Western anarchists where I accompanied him as an interpreter. He got tipsy from just one glass of wine, his eyes would start to shine, and he would become more eloquent. But let me repeat: never once did I see him really drunk. I was told that in the last years of his life he was often hungry, that he let himself go, and perhaps then he turned to drink. A few drops of alcohol were all his sick, weakened body could take. When he was a hetman, however, I presume he drank like any peasant did. 

In my view Makhno's pathological mistrustfulness and suspicion of others was a negative side of his personality, but in context this too was quite understandable - the experiences of the Civil War were still very much alive in his mind. That having been said, Makhno was able to treat even his closest friends with suspicion.

Was Makhno able to distinguish friends from enemies? Sometimes he was, I think, and he was assisted by healthy instinct. But given his pugnacious character he often fell out with people who sincerely wished him well. After his death his personal diary fell into the hands of two of his enemies, his wife and Voline, which all his mistrustfulness was unable to prevent.


1. An editor corrects this, indicating that Makhno was almost 28 in the spring of 1917.
2. By this stage Agafya Andreyevna Kuzmenko had evidently switched to using Galina as her first name.
3. A.V. & V.F. Belash (op. cit.) mention that Agafya A. Kuzmenko was deported to Germany to work as a forced labourer following the Nazi occupation of France. After liberation by Soviet troops she returned to her homeland. She received a 10-year prison sentence and her daughter was put in a boarding school in Dzhezkazgan (central Kazakhstan). After completing her sentence Kuzmenko lived with her daughter in Dzhezkazgan, subjected to constant humiliation by the Soviet authorities. Kuzmenko died on 23 March 1976 aged 86. A.V. & V.F. Belash's book contains two black-and-white photographs of Kuzmenko - one from the 1920s which matches N. Sukhogorskaya's description of her in piece two, the other from the 1970s which shows her as a vivacious-looking old woman.
4. An editor adds: "M.L. Polonsky, Bolshevik, commander of a regiment of the Makhnovist army, was arrested by the Makhnovist counter-intelligence under suspicion of planning to kill Makhno and shot on 5 December 1919."

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