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Peter Arshinov* first met and befriended Nestor Makhno in prison in 1911, a friendship that that was to continue after their release following the February Revolution in 1917. In 1919 Arshinov became Makhno’s secretary, and remained with the Makhnovischina until 1921. The following year, 1922, he escaped into exile in Berlin where he published the Russian edition of the Makhno story. Arshinov’s history of the Makhnovists is one of the most important primary sources on the life of the Ukrainian anarchist guerrilla leader.
Makhnovism refers to various related political and economic theories elaborated by Ukrainian anarchist revolutionary leader Nestor Makhno, and by other theorists (Peter Arshinov etc.) who claim to be continuing Makhno’s work. During Makhno’s lifetime Makhnovism was anarchistic, and opposed the state and political parties, as well as bureaucracy, favouring highly decentralized communes run by peasants and workers. Makhnovism builds upon and elaborates the ideas of Peter Kropotkin, and serves as the philosophical basis for anarchist communism.
In early 1918, the new Bolshevik government in Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk making peace with the Central Powers, but ceding large amounts of territory to them, including Ukraine. Partisan units were formed that waged guerrilla war against the Germans and Austrians. Nestor Makhno was one of the main organizers of these partisan groups, who united into the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine (RPAU), also called the Black Army (because they fought under the anarchist black flag) and “Makhnovists” or “Makhnovshchina”. The RPAU also battled against the Whites, the Reds and anti-semiticpogromists. In areas where the RPAU drove out opposing armies, there were villagers (and workers) who sought to abolish capitalism and the state through organizing themselves into village assemblies, communes and councils. Land and factories were expropriated and workers’ self-management implemented. The economy the Makhnovists in Ukraine implemented was based on free exchange between rural and urban communities.
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Boris Yelensky’s memoir charts the history of the Russian anarchist movement in the early years of the 20th Century. Told in prosaic yet detailed fashion, unadorned by romanticism, it is his personal account of the turbulent period leading up to — and after — the successful take-over of the Russian monarchy by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. He provides an alternative historical viewpoint as to the Russian anarchist experience of that momentous period.
In the Social Storm: Memoirs of the Russian Revolution is not only a critique of the Bolshevik modus operandi and why they willingly sacrificed the one great opportunity to implement the socialist ideals fleshed out over the previous half century or more. It is more than an analysis of the Bolshevik mindset. Yelensky illustrates how the anarchist movement and men such as Nestor Makhno played a vital role in the social forces and the massive political and social upheaval of the period.
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Yelensky (Russia, 1889 — USA, 1974) describes how the anarchists living and struggling within this maelstrom of change did their utmost to implement their ideas through the example of their everyday lives. The experiments in actual anarchist projects of which Yelensky was a part, and which he describes in detail, were attempts to redefine social organizations to make them fair and liberating to everyone involved. They had a short window of opportunity to show the positive aspects of their philosophy, one that promised a viable alternative social and industrial organization to the repressive, totalitarian, brutal state dictatorship of the Bolsheviks — and to that of the capitalists who, likewise, used a centralized authoritarian government system disguised as “democracy” to fulfill similar ends.
For anarchists and political researchers Yelensky’s book is a revealing account of anarchism in action. A first-hand description of the lives and the efforts of those who went to Russia in good faith, believing positive changes were at hand. Instead, they faced the grim reality there was no new utopia awaiting them; Russia had fallen into the hands of a cabal of ruthless Marxist ideologues who, with their dreaded cheka terror squads, were hell-bent on acquiring total power over one of the largest empires on earth — and, in the process, murdering anyone who stood in the way of their ambitions.