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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Black Banner and Yellow-Blue Flag

Nestor Makhno and Ukrainian national revolution forces
31 August, 2010 - 00:00

During the Ukrainian civil war of 1917-21 there were two great military and political forces: militarized formations of Ukrainian People’s Republic and the insurgent army of Nestor Ivanovych Makhno. Each had tens of thousands of armed soldiers (in their best times), and was able to fight with several strong enemies simultaneously. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the fate of the national revolution depended on the future relationships between the Petliura and Makhno forces. Either they would destroy each other to the joy of the enemies of Ukrainian independence, or unite to the sorrow of those who never wanted to see Ukraine independent…


Having arrived to the native village of Huliaipole one day in March of 1917, Makhno started building a free anarchic society with all his energy. It is worth mentioning that the new variant of the social life created by him and his companions-in-arms did not leave any chance for the existence of a Provisional Government or Central Rada — the Ukrainian government that later in November – December of 1917 assumed power in major part of the country. The village “father” believed that only Bolsheviks and the Left Social-Revolutionary Party were his allies. Although they wanted “their” statehood he sincerely respected them for the consistent left-radical position.

Why didn’t the “Huliaipole dictator” recognize the Central Rada from the very beginning? Two circumstances were essential in his negative attitude towards it. On the one hand, Makhno saw the Rada as an authority establishment, representing class interests of Ukrainian bourgeoisie and landowners. On the other hand, he had no doubt that the authoritative desires of Hrushevsky, Vynnychenko and Petliura will always run counter to the urgent interests of the southern Ukrainian people that wanted to build their life without any central authority.

If the second thought about the eternal rival, the Kyiv government, was generally correct, the first (about a “bourgeois” Central Rada) was quite disputable. There was no landowner, capitalist or representative of any party (i.e. “farmers-owners” or “farmers-democrats”) in the Rada who could be described as “bourgeois.” Despite that, the liquidation of the landlord ownership of land and land nationalization, proclaimed in the III Universal of the Central Rada in November 1917, clearly indicated that “Ukrainian bourgeois governors” turned “to the left” considerably. However, just for the sake of historical justice it should be recognized that such an act of the Ukrainian People’s Republic rulers was less radical than Makhno and his comrades’ policy in their native Huliaipole. They were the first in the then Russia to liquidate landlord’s ownership of land in summer 1917. They provided allotment for the peasantry according to the equal labor principle and even organized voluntary collective farms.

At the end of October 1917 the Huliaipole people excitedly hailed the politically close Bolshevik coup in Petrograd. The Huliaipole regional congress adopted a resolution distinctively named “Death to the Central Rada!”

In January 1918 Bolshevik Russia was already on the offensive against the Ukrainian People’s Republic. It aimed to destroy the young Ukrainian statehood. Makhno contributed in this shady “event” by concluding a military alliance with the Bolsheviks against the Central Rada. In those January days a unit of the anarchists headed by the brothers Nestor and Sava Makhno together with the “red” defeated the soldiers out of Oleksandrivsk, who were fighting under yellow-blue flag. Then Nestor basically recognized new Bolshevik authority although he did not conceal some divergences with it, which had already transpired by then.

It would be a great exaggeration to claim that in late 1917 – early 1918 all the citizens of Huliaipole were for “anarchy — the mother of order” — and against the UPR. Many Ukrainians preferred the UPR to the doubtful, in their opinion, “free anarchic regime” of Makhno and his comrades. But being in minority they did not dare to frankly express their political opinion, knowing the decisiveness of Makhno and his heavily armed Black Guards (they were a support basis of the new Makhno order in Huliaipole). But in April 1918 Austrian-German invaders and the Central Rada units were approaching motherland of Makhno. Their union undoubtedly strengthened all the secret supporters of the yellow-blue flag. Four warrant officers headed the local “dissidents,” among whom warrant officer Semeniuta-Riabko excelled by his energy and intransigence.

At one of the Huliaipole meetings he tried to turn the Huliaipole citizens to the side of the Central Rada, but when he failed, he threatened that soon the “auxiliaries” will arrive to Huliaipole and the local anarchists will be sorry that they destroyed their own Ukrainian authority together with the Bolsheviks…

Having accepted an impudent challenge, Makhno and his closest companions-in-arms announced the revolutionary terror to the “agents of the Ukrainian bourgeois.” The Makhno repressions cost Semeniuta-Riabko his life (he was summarily executed), other “revolutionists” temporarily calmed down. But the prophecy of the killed “warrant officer-nationalist” came true. The unit, headed by Apollon Volokh, created by Makhno for the Huliaipole defense from the counter-revolutionary forces, went over to the “haidamaky” side. The enemies started cruel repressions against the Huliaipole anarchists.

However, Makhno himself avoided the fate of his comrades by retreating together with the Bolshevik and anarchist units to the territory of Soviet Russia. Later, in July of 1918, he came back to his native region and started a guerrilla struggle against the authority of hetman Skoropadsky in the south of Ukraine, where he quickly became a popular rural commander. In four months, in November of 1918, the Directory, which included famous Ukrainian politicians opposed to the Hetmanate, announced the beginning of the all-Ukrainian rebellion against “bourgeois-landowners’ dictatorship” of the Skoropadsky people.

In quite a short time the Directory managed to unite a great quantity of the hetmanship’s enemies from a wide political spectrum. Apropos, its authority was recognized by the village leaders like Nykyphor Hryhoriev, Danylo Zeleny and others. But one of the significant rebellious leaders was never to be one of them — it was Nestor Makhno.

From the very first day of the Ukrainian Directory’s appearance Makhno and major part of his rebels were against it. This could be explained by the fact that they saw him as a successor of the Central Rada with its “bourgeois” and authoritarian desires. Moreover, many Skoropadsky detachments went over to it. It is striking that Makhno’s thoughts on the Ukrainian national governments of 1917-19 were almost in a complete accord with the Bolshevik views. Actually, it would be wrong to explain it as communist influence on the village “father,” as Makhno always had his own opinion about everything. In the second half of November 1918, Makhno’s people issued a leaflet, containing ungrounded thoughts on the “bourgeois” Directory and its heads (apparently, the authors of this politically directed material were not concerned that there were people supporting the creation of a Soviet Ukraine). Later on December 9, 1918, Makhno concluded a new alliance with the Bolsheviks, aimed against the hetman, Petliura’s forces and the White Russians. In a few years the former head of Directory Volodymyr Vynnychenko remembered that at the end of 1918 the members of the new Ukrainian government scarcely knew who Nestor Makhno and his rebels were. According to some sources, he was a romantic Ukrainian politician, according to others — a simple highway robber. There were contradictory records of the military force of the Makhno forces. The “Makhno” question was clearer for local Directory’s authority, which became firmly established in December 1918 in Katerynoslav [today’s Dnipropetrovsk – Ed.]. The leader Horobets, who headed “free Cossack” detachments which dislodged the Denikin units from the city, adequately estimated the significant military force of the Makhno people and on December 13 he offered the “father” to conclude a military alliance against the White Russians. This proposition, in which Makhno was called a “brother-in-arms of the free Cossacks,” was published by the local Ukrainian press.

On December 15, 1918 the delegation from the “father” arrived and the Makhno-Petliura agreement was signed. According to the agreement, the Makhno rebels and the UPR units had to put up a united front against the White Russians. The commanders of the “free Cossacks” undertook to provide the Makhno forces with weapons, ammunition and uniforms. As compensation, Makhno promised not to prevent mobilization to the Ukrainian People’s Republic army in the Makhno regions. Closer relations between the “father’s” rebels and “counter-revolutionary Petliura people” considerably bothered the local communists, as they clearly realized that this union could gradually become not only anti-White Russian but also anti-Bolshevik. But Makhno quickly calmed down his “red” allies, claiming that they were not going to truly be Petliura’s allies, and the agreement was aimed only at receiving the necessary “military” equipment from the “free Cossacks.” Makhno was not lying. The Directory soldiers shipped two wagons with weapons, explosives and uniforms to the Makhno units. But the common struggle of the Petliura and Makhno forces against “white” army never took place. Makhno found another enemy after turning his units against the Petliura soldiers. Having treacherously broken the agreement, the “father” led his rebels to Katerynoslav on December 27, 1918, and after fierce fighting (in which the Bolsheviks and Socialist Revolutionary units took part) conquered this strategically important city.

Having achieved an impressive but morally doubtful victory, Makhno did not take care of fortifying the front. He said that the Petliura forces were so afraid of the “Makhno spirit” that they would never come back to Katerynoslav. Such an underestimation of the enemy cost Makhno and his people a lot. On January 1, 1919, the Petliura military command sent large forces to Katerynoslav resulting in debacle for the Makhno forces. In a battle with the UPR units, which absolutely exceeded the rebels in military terms, the “father” lost at least 600 fighters and had to yield Katerynoslav to the enemy. So, instead of the Makhno-Petliura union there was new Makhno-Petliura front that lasted until the end of January 1919. Later there were battles between Makhno and Directory troops for Synelnykove, Pavlohrad, Chaplyno, Lozova and other settlements. The struggle was fierce and swayed from side to side (the listed cities changed hands many times). In the course of struggle the UPR army was a worthy rival for the rebellious Makhno forces. No one knows, who would have won if the main Directory’s forces were not involved in their struggle against the Red army, which was attacking Ukraine for a second time…

FALL 1919

On February 3, 1919 Makhno and his rebels joined the Soviet troops and started an attack against the White Russians in the south-west direction. That is how the Petliura-Makhno front came to an end, although, as the future events showed, it was not the end of the Petliura-Makhno relations. In summer 1919, because of strong attacks of Denikin forces and the Red Army (in the mid June 1919 the “father” also opened an anti-Bolshevik front) the Makhno army was retreating to the west. It was approaching the region occupied by Petliura troops. As an experienced commander, Makhno quickly realized that very soon he could be surrounded by two enemies, Denikin and Petliura. In a difficult situation the “father” decided to conclude new alliance agreement with the Petliura army. For his part, Petliura was interested in such an alliance. He planned to start a serious attack and clearly understood that without support of the numerous rural rebels it would not be successful. When the distance between the Petliura and Makhno units came close to zero, the Petliura truce envoy showed up at the “father’s” headquarters and offered to conclude a new military alliance against the White Russians.

In September 1919 the Petliura and Makhno representatives signed military and political agreements. According to them, the Makhno people had to take an area that was 60 km long and 40 km inland on the Petliura-Denikin front. In turn the leaders of the UPR army undertook to pass 700,000 cartridges to the Rebellious Army (actually, only 175,000 cartridges were passed), to take care of 3,000 injured and sick rebels (this part of agreement was completely fulfilled by the Petliura people and provided the “father’s” units with better maneuverability). Makhno undertook not to carry out anarchist propaganda among the Petliura soldiers and Petliura promised that after a common victory over the White Russians the Makhno “free regions” will be autonomous, which the anarchist regime desired.

However, Makhno still harbored hostile intentions towards the main leader. It was absolutely clear that the “bourgeois republican” Petliura, as well as Lenin and Denikin, were still his enemies. Famous Makhno army leader Viktor Bilash brings interesting data on this issue in his memoirs. It appeared that having fulfilled several successful campaigns on raising the number of Makhno soldiers at the cost of other armies (Bolshevik, Hryhoriev), the “father” and his closest commanders really liked such “activity.” They decided to incorporate part of the Petliura army, and to kill Petliura. Makhno purposely sent the best propagandists to the UPR Army and also prepared a cavalry unit and a group of skilled terrorists-gunmen that were to “deal” with Petliura. Actually, the Makhno mission unit failed. The “father” never succeeded in getting the Petliura soldiers under the black anarchist banner. Under the ideological influence of the Makhno agitators a small part of the Petliura people decided to turn to the Makhno side but at the same time a lot of the former Hryhoriev soldiers left the Makhno army, as Petliura was politically closer to them than Makhno.

At the end of September 1919 the white army of the general Anton Denikin pushed the UPR army to the west with several strong attacks and closed a circle around the Makhno units. The Makhno forces barely managed to break Denikin’s front and rushed to their native south. Although Makhno announced that his army together with the Petliura army would break the white front, in reality everything turned the other way. The soldiers of the main leader were not as quick as the Makhno forces, which had wonderful horses and carts. Very fast the Makhno army won back practically the entire south of Ukraine. So, what happened with the second Petliura-Makhno union? If Petliura was for its continuation, Makhno made it clear that he did not want it anymore. Soon the Makhno field printing house issued a leaflet with an expressive title “Who is Petliura?” that criticized the UPR leader as a “bourgeois figure” and “imperialist’ vassal.” Later in November 1919, when the famous Petliura commander Yurii Tiutiunnyk arrived at the Makhno headquarters and asked for weapons, the “ally” burst into an emotional speech about how the Ukrainian People’s Republic is a class enemy of the Makhno people, and as an “imperialist vassal” would not receive a single rifle. Makhno completely forgot that in the past this “imperialist vassal” repeatedly gave the rebels valuable military assistance…

Actually, not all of Makhno’s army saw Petliura’s companions-in-arms like Makhno did. Abovementioned Viktor Bilash repeatedly argued for a Petliura-Makhno union. Even Makhno’s wife Halyna Kuzmenko sympathized with the UPR. It was apparent that these and other “liberal” Makhno supporters were a minority…


In fall and winter of 1919 the south of Ukraine, where the Makhno people operated, became the arena of a cruel confrontation between the Denikin forces and various anti-Denikin forces — Makhno and Petliura supporters, Borotbists and Bolsheviks. It is worth mentioning that in November and December 1919, Makhno with his people became very close with the Borotbists, Ukrainian left socialist revolutionaries, who were the supporters of an independent Soviet Ukraine “without Petliura.” Before, the unions between Petliura and Makhno were fake or situational, short-term and fraught with the pitfalls for the “yellow-blue,” at least from Makhno’s side. The “father” planned an honest, serious and long-term union with the Borotbists from the very beginning. According to the conditions of the Borotbists-Makhno agreement, signed at the beginning of December 1919, the Ukrainian left socialist revolutionaries joined the units of the Makhno army and unconditionally recognized the Makhno military authority. The Matiash, Ohii and Lisovyk units were especially distinguished in the battles against the whites — they managed to drive the Denikin army away to Poltava. It is interesting that Bolshevik propagandists unsuccessfully attempted to split Makhno and Matiash.

Makhno was extremely hostile and suspicious towards the Petliura orientated rebels. Apparently, the “father” did not want to have them as the allies, and did not want to help them with weapons or food. He did not even consider them as fit for joining his army. The Petliura supporters, who fought in the white rears, knew this and had to devise some cunning scheme to gain Makhno’s support. Once several leaders (Blakytny, Skyrta and others) announced that they were the anarchists and soon received 1,000 rifles and 1,000 rebels from the “father.” Later the “anarchists” drove the Denikin troops from Znamianka away, making Makhno happy. But his happiness disappeared when he heard that the leader Blakytny declared his units to be “republican troops.” Makhno, Bolsheviks or Borotbists did not call their military forces that way. Only Petliura’s people did…


In 1920 Makhno’s attitude towards the Petliura rebels started changing for good. Between August and December 1920 new Petliura units led by Levchenko, Kikot, Skyrta, Bilokiz, Meleshko, Svyshch, Chorny Voron and others joined the rebel army of the “father.” Later, in January 1921, Makhno and his people tried to unite with the unit of the young UPR army colonel Fedir Orlyk while passing Kyiv province (he acted in the Fastiv area). Actually, the union between the two leaders did not take place because of red troops’ presence in the south of the Kyiv region. Around that time a group of the Petliura guerilla leaders headed by Struk came to the “father.” Makhno did not mind accepting them but very quickly he realized that they did not have a strong desire to join, but wanted weapons from Makhno, as the rebellious Petliura people urgently needed them. But Makhno could not help them, as he was suffering from an acute shortage as well.

Why did “father” Makhno, who avoided serious military alliances with the “bourgeois Petliura people” as much as he could, offer earnest help in 1920-21? It would be wrong to believe that he saw this “bourgeois movement” positively. The times, when Makhno had a huge rural army (some historians suppose that in the fall of 1919 it was around 100,000 fighters) and could choose friends, had passed. In 1920 the quantity of his rebel army fighters considerably decreased. It barely numbered 30,000 people, and in 1921 his guerrilla army did not exceed several thousand. At the same time the Bolshevik military leaders sent new large military contingents against him. Additionally, the communists managed to split Ukrainian peasantry politically and create new armed units of the committees of the poor, who also started an energetic struggle against the rebels. In this case the “father” was not picky.

Let us add that the Petliura rebels were not ideal allies for Makhno. For example, if old regular Makhno rebels were raiding the Bolshevik rear on a great territory that stretched from Kyiv region to the Don and even the Volga, the Petliura guerillas were ready to fight only in their area. The Petliura guerrillas also had frank anti-Semitic inclinations, which was intolerable for Makhno. Among the condemned by a special commission of the anti-Makhno affairs was leader Levchenko, who called his fighters to the Jewish pogroms. Anyway, according to the facts, “father” Makhno remained faithful to this union. In August 1921, when the Makhno period came to its end, Makhno concluded agreements with two military leaders Zabolotny and Lykho, who were fighting under “yellow-blue flag.”

By Volodymyr HORAK, Ph.D. in History