Peter Arshinov first met and befriended Nestor Makhno in prison in 1911, a friendship that continued after their release following the February Revolution in 1917. In 1919 Arshinov became Makhno’s secretary, and remained with the Makhnovists 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.

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Arshinov’s book mainly consists of a blow-by-blow account of the movement along with some consideration of nationalism and anti-semitism, and short biographies of some of the main Makhnovists. It’s an easy non-academic read. However the book is an almost exclusively military account of the movement. Arshinov makes no apologies for this. Of necessity the Makhnovists spent most of their time in military engagements. Over the three years 1918-1921 they had to fight the forces of the Hetman, White Generals Denikin and Wrangel, nationalists like Petliura and Grigor’ev and, of course, the Bolsheviks.

Makhno and his commanders won against odds of 30:1 and more on occasion. One example was on September 25th 1919 at the village of Peregonovka when the Makhnovists after retreating 400 miles found themselves surrounded by Denikin’s army. They succeeded in turning Denikin flank with a tiny force of cavalry and in the ensuing panic Denikin’s army were routed. This action probably saved Petrograd from the Whites and was one of the most massive defeats inflicted on them.

Of course Makhno’s military skill, his use of cavalry and mounted infantry to cover huge distances, isn’t directly of relevance to us. What is of interest is how the Makhnovists could fight and win as a revolutionary army with deep roots among the Ukrainian peasants and workers. The insurgent army was an entirely democratic military formation. It’s recruits were volunteers drawn from peasants and workers. It elected it’s officers and codes of discipline were worked out democratically. Officers could be, and were, recalled by their troops if they acted undemocratically.

Wherever they appeared they were welcomed by the local population who supplied food and lodging as well as information about about enemy forces. The Bolsheviks and Whites were forced to rely on massive campaigns of terror against the peasantry, with thousands being killed and imprisoned.

The speed at which areas changed hands in the Ukraine made it virtually impossible for them to do engage in widescale constructive activity to further the social revolution. “It seemed as though a giant grate composed of bayonets shuttled back and forth across the region , from North to South and back again, wiping out all traces of creative social construction”. This excellent metaphor of Arshinov’s sums up the difficulty. However, unlike the Bolsheviks, the Makhnovists did not use the war as an excuse for generalised repression and counter-revolution. On the contrary they used every opportunity to drive the revolution forward.