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The Makhno anarchists, Kronstadt and the position of the Russian peasants

by Trotskyist Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2006 at 9:24 PM

In September of 1920, Ivanov V. (representative of the Southern Front Revolutionary Soviet) visited Makhno. He later wrote this description of Makhno’s camp: “The regime is brutal, the discipline is hard as steel, rebels are beaten on the face for any small breach, no elections to the general command staff, all commanders up to company commander are appointed by Makhno and the Anarchist Revolutionary War Council, Revolutionary Military Soviet (Revvoensovet) became an irreplaceable, uncontrollable and non-elected institution. Under the revolutionary military council there is a ‘special section’ that deals with disobediences secretly and without mercy.”

The Makhno anarchists, Kronstadt and the position of the Russian peasants in post-revolutionary Russia

By A. Kramer

When the October Revolution took place in 1917, Russia was an undeveloped and agrarian country, with peasants comprising 86% of the population. During the February Revolution of 1917 this peasantry, for the first time in Russian history, became actively involved in the political arena, particularly as soldiers’ deputies in the soviets.

Of course one must not ignore the great peasant uprisings of the 17th and 18th centuries, nor the rebellions of 1905. However, it was only during the revolutions of 1917 that the Russian peasantry finally succeeded in securing stable, independent representative stations.

Nevertheless, the February Revolution, having been commandeered by the bourgeoisie through the right-wing socialists, did not solve the problems of the peasantry. The most glaring failure of the Provisional Government in this sphere was its complete inability to solve that question most important to the Russian peasantry: the land question. The peasants responded to the delays and betrayals of the government with spontaneous expropriations of the land. Only the October Revolution, led by the Bolsheviks, recognized the right of the peasants to be masters of the land that they had worked for hundreds of years.

Lenin and his comrades understood that both organizing the working-class and defending its interests were to be matters of the highest priority for the Bolshevik Party. But by no means were the Bolsheviks blind towards the needs of the peasants. Unlike the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks fully understood the significance of the peasantry’s militancy during the Revolution of 1905, and recognized that this energy would be a great force in the next revolution. Lenin and Trotsky both had as their aim the union of the workers of the cities and the most revolutionary elements in the villages, which were the agrarian proletariat and the poorest peasants. In the first days of the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks made great strides towards this end with “The Decree on Land”, which took the vast territories owned by the landlords and gave them over to the peasantry. The Left Social Revolutionary Party (having split from the collaborationist Social Revolutionary Party) represented the peasant masses, and was invited by the Bolshevik Party to join in the first soviet government.

Then, beginning in the middle of 1918, the cruel blows of the Civil War drove a wedge between city and country. The peasantry moved in the direction of conservatism. They had gained everything that they wanted out of the revolution and were ready to defend their new property from both the Left and the Right. The undeveloped Russian villages, each operating in the manner of subsistence economy, could survive without cities. The prevailing mood among peasantry was that the cities were good for nothing more than select industrial goods, so long as the prices were low; and that, apart from that, the cities were only a source of trouble – from the bureaucracy, army conscription, taxation and grain levies. This grossly unbalanced outlook was similar to those of later peasant movements in the “Third World”, for example that of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

However, whereas the peasant movements of the last several decades have expressed themselves through Maoist or Guevaraist ideas, the Russian peasantry in the period of the Russian Civil War instead adopted anarchist slogans. But this process was gradual. It started with the peasantry’s support of the Social Revolutionary party, which was the party of the Russian populists known as the “Narodniks”. This party was petty-bourgeois, and it initially appealed to the peasant communities by advocating a uniquely “Russian Socialism” that emphasized the role of the peasantry – not the working class – as being central to the revolutionary process.

In 1918, the Social Revolutionary Party split into right and left wings, and in the process suffered massive losses of support. The SR Party’s role as a leader of the peasantry was slowly replaced by anarchist groupings. Some of these groups were extremely sectarian and anti-Bolshevik, one example being that of the notorious “Nabat” group. This particular group was responsible for organizing bloody terrorist actions against the Bolshevik Party Centre in Moscow in 1919. Later, their ideology would be expressed through the Makhno movement.

While the Russian villages had no need to depend upon the cities, the Russian industrial centres depended upon the villages’ agricultural products for sustenance and survival. The collapse of the infrastructure which began in 1915 reached a peak in 1918. Numerous crises including bosses’ lock-outs, industrial sabotage, the Civil War, the collapse of transportation and mass hunger in the cities forced the Bolsheviks to implement the policy of “War Communism”. An important feature of this policy was the expropriation of the food surpluses of the villages in order to feed the workers in the cities. This practice was called “Prodrazverstka”.

The peasantry did not welcome this step. When the representatives of the Soviet government came to the countryside to collect food, they were seen as bandits who were stealing the peasantry’s property. Quite often there were cases of these representatives (called “prodotriadi”) being brutally murdered. Also, there were many cases of prodzrazverstka provoking the peasantry to rebellion against the Bolsheviks.

During the civil war, the petty-bourgeoisie (the peasantry) was pressed from both sides, between the working class and the forces of reaction. Consequently, in some areas the petty-bourgeois peasantry attempted to play an independent role by manoeuvring between the Bolsheviks and their counter-revolutionary enemies. Tendencies towards these sorts of actions were especially strong in Siberia and the Ukraine – both areas being less developed economically and industrially, and consequently having a strong and rich peasant class. For a time, these forces allied with the Bolsheviks, as the White Army stood for the restoration of the old landowner system, which was absolutely unacceptable for the mass of the peasantry.

Of all the peasant movements which sought to play the middle-ground, the most famous was that led by Makhno in the Ukraine from 1918 to 1921. This military force was a typical peasant army, unchanged from the old Medieval-era structure – possessing both the strengths and weaknesses of that form. Makhno’s militia began as a guerrilla force formed when Germany occupied the Ukraine in 1918. These guerrillas excelled in their own sphere of action, but couldn’t stand firm against an extended clash with a regular army. While these guerrillas operated in their home areas, they could expect help from locals. But, when fighting away from their home villages, they lived by banditry and as a result lost support from most people.

Makhno led a peasant movement, and so never had a strong base of support in any of the cities. Most of the workers who lived in areas of the Ukraine under Makhno’s control sided either with the Bolsheviks or the Mensheviks. The following examples illustrate the attitude that Makhno had towards the working class. When railway and telegraph workers from the Ekaterinoslav-Sinelnikovo line were still suffering after a long period of starvation under Denikin’s occupation, they asked Makhno to pay them for their work. He responded with, “We are not like the Bolsheviks to feed you, we don’t need the railways; if you need money, take the bread from those who need your railways and telegraphs.” In a separate incident, he told the workers of Briansk, “Because the workers do not want to support Makhno’s movement and demand pay for the repairs of the armoured car, I will take this armoured car for free and pay nothing.” (1) Jakovlev J. Machnovshina I Anarchizm (

With clashes between peasants and landlords on the one hand, and clashes between peasants and workers on the other, Makhno was pressed to institute policies that were far from “libertarian”. The real conditions of life for the peasants of the Ukraine from 1919-1921 were cruel and repressive. The cities in Makhno’s territories were not ruled by Soviets. Instead, they were ruled by mayors drawn from Makhno’s military forces. Makhno’s movement was severely centralized, with the leadership in the RevCom deciding everything. Makhno even established a police-security organization (!) led by Leo Zadov (Zinkovsky), a former worker-anarchist who was to become notorious for his brutality. Incidentally, in the early 1920s Zadov returned to the USSR – to join the GPU! He was rewarded for his services with his own execution in 1937. In the Ukraine, we see clearly that the anarchists were committing the same crimes that they accused the Bolsheviks of.

In September of 1920, Ivanov V. (representative of the Southern Front Revolutionary Soviet) visited Makhno. He later wrote this description of Makhno’s camp: “The regime is brutal, the discipline is hard as steel, rebels are beaten on the face for any small breach, no elections to the general command staff, all commanders up to company commander are appointed by Makhno and the Anarchist Revolutionary War Council, Revolutionary Military Soviet (Revvoensovet) became an irreplaceable, uncontrollable and non-elected institution. Under the revolutionary military council there is a ‘special section’ that deals with disobediences secretly and without mercy.” (2) Jakovlev J. op. cit.

In order to acquire supplies and equipment, Makhno would sometimes ally himself with the Red Army. However, he always refused to accept the Red Army’s discipline and order. In order to get food, Makhno’s forces robbed not only villages under their control but also Red Army convoys. This caused many conflicts. Finally, in 1921, actions like these played a part in the decisive split between Makhno and the Soviet State. It was at this time that Makhno and his anarchist advisors lost support from the peasants as a result of the New Economic Policy of the Bolsheviks, which replaced prodrazverstka with a bread tax. After a short period of battles, Makhno’s militia was crushed. Nestor Makhno himself escaped to Romania, while the majority of his fighters capitulated and received an amnesty.

The Kronstadt “rebellion” of March 1921 was also an expression of the conflict between the Soviet state and the peasantry. This rebellion was one of many similar rebellions in this period against the Soviet authorities. But Kronstadt stands out amongst them due to its important strategic location and the mythology that was created around it after the event had taken place.

At the end of the 1930s, a group of ex-Trotskyists (Victor Serge, Max Eastman, Suverin, et. al.) criticized Trotsky for his actions as leader of the Red Army during the Kronstadt rebellion. These former Trotskyists championed the events at Kronstadt as a workers’ and sailors’ rebellion against the “Bolshevik dictatorship”, and charged that the crushing of the rebellion constituted the “first step towards Stalinism”. Later, anti-Communist ideologues and propagandists would adapt this criticism to serve their own ends.

Trotsky replied in 1938 with a remarkable article entitled Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt, in which he analysed the petty-bourgeois nature of this putsch manqué. It is not necessary to repeat Trotsky’s arguments in defence of his actions regarding the Kronstadt mutiny, as anyone who wants to know the truth can find this article easily. Instead, for the purposes of this article it would be more fitting to present some new information from a collection of documents published only in the last few years. This new evidence from the Soviet archives provides us with the definitive proof that the position of Trotsky’s critics was based upon false assumptions and incorrect information.

The first myth about Kronstadt is that it was a rebellion of the very same soldiers who were heroes of the October revolution. While it is true that many of the Kronstadt sailors were anarchists in 1917, they nevertheless loyally served Soviet power. During the Civil War, Kronstadt training camps provided elite and thoroughly revolutionary troops to the fight to maintain Soviet power. However, as more and more of the revolutionary sailors had to be sent to the front lines, green conscripts began to flood in, replacing the revolutionaries. By 1920, the Kronstadt garrison had been swamped with more than 10,000 fresh recruits. That brought the total number of soldiers and sailors at Kronstadt to 18,707. Most of these came from Southern Russia and the Ukraine, areas strongly influenced by Makhno. (3) Shetinov U. A., Krondshtadsky miatez i melkoburzuaznie partii. Kandidatskaia disertazia MGU, Moskva, 1974, p. 91-98. Only 5000 out of this number took part in the uprising.

These figures prove that the old revolutionary sailors were in a clear minority by 1921. Remarkably, however, the revolutionary sailors still made a bold stand. On March 8, a number of them published a pamphlet titled “Stop Immediately the Counter-Revolutionary Putsch in the City.” (4) Krondshtadskaia tragedia 1921 goda. Dokumenti v dvuch knigach., Moskva, ROSPEN, 1999, p. 320-321. On March 15, the RevCom of Kronstadt ordered the arrest of all of the old sailors as they refused to “obey orders”. (5) Ibid, doc. 423, p. 445. This order, however, wasn’t carried out fully. On March 24, a group of old sailors prevented the explosion of the battleship “Petropavlovsk”, arrested officers, and surrendered to the approaching Soviet forces. (6) Ibid, doc 480, p. 494-496.

The other legend about Kronstadt is that the leaders of the putsch had a revolutionary motive. Some authors have even written that the mutineers died with the slogan of “Long live communism!” on their lips! But this is a lie. The honest facts demolish this myth. General Elvengern, a member of a counter-revolutionary organization led by Boris Savinikov, revealed his role in the leadership of the rebellion with a report on the events in Petersburg-Kronstadt written in February and March of 1921.

This report was written while he was in Paris: “...from a tactical point of view they [RevCom] declared themselves fanatical supporters of the Soviet power, and said that they only oppose the Communist party dictatorship, with the hope that with such a platform, it would become difficult for the Communists to mobilize Soviet defenders, Soviet units to crush them.” (7) Ibid. Vol. 2, doc. 535, p. 61. The same was written by the cadet G. Zeidler, in a private letter. (8) Ibid, p. 322-323. Pavel Milukov, possibly the best Russian liberal mind of his day and the leader of the Constitutional Democrats Party (the notorious “Cadets”), summarized these reports in a Paris newspaper with, “Soviet power without Bolsheviks will be temporary.”

But what of the ordinary participants of the Kronstadt rebellion? Were these sailors really ready to die for “communism without Bolsheviks”? Sailor Dmitry Urin wrote on March 5, in a letter to his father in the Herson province of Ukraine, “We dismissed the commune, we have Commune no more, now we have only Soviet power. We in Kronstadt made a resolution to send all the Jews to Palestine, in order not to have in Russia such filth, all sailors shouted: ‘Jews Out’...” (9) Ibid, vol. 1, doc. 58, p. 119. If anyone had any doubts about the “real revolutionary” content of this letter this phrase is sufficient to dispel that. It is so stark that it needs no further comment.

From the very beginning of the rebellion, the Communists suffered repression. On the third of March, 170 Communists in Kronstadt were arrested. (10) Ibid, vol. 1, p. 15. Then, on the 15th of March, many old revolutionary sailors were arrested. (11) Ibid, vol 2, doc. 423, p. 445. But it was not only Communists who were repressed. A 17-year-old boy was sent to prison for asking why members of the RevCom received better food and bigger portions than ordinary workers. (12) Ibid., Vol 2, p. 632.

As Trotsky said, the so-called “Kronstadt Rebellion” was not the first petty-bourgeois anti-Bolshevik movement during the civil war. It was similar to other movements with slogans such as, “Soviets Without Bolsheviks”. There were movements of this kind in some factories in the Urals, as well as in the Cossack Armies. From this entire experience, we can see that under the conditions of class warfare – with revolution on one side and counter-revolution on the other – these slogans lead inevitably and invariably to the camp of Medieval reaction. No revolution can succeed without a revolutionary party. Ordinary Russian workers and soldiers understood this far better over 80 years ago than many people on the “Left” do now.

Many ordinary, rank-and-file members of anarchist, Menshevik, Social-Revolutionary and other such parties participated in the Soviets alongside the Bolsheviks – not “without” them. There was a huge difference between the ordinary members of those parties and their leaders. Their leadership refused to make any compromise and remained totally anti-Bolshevik. Early in 1920, authorities in some Jewish areas of the Ukraine were recruited from among the Bund’s (a Jewish wing of the old Social-Democratic Party) membership. Many anarchists took part in the revolution as well as the Civil War, struggling alongside the Bolsheviks, cooperating with the Soviet power until the rise of Stalinism. Those far-sighted revolutionaries are called traitors by some of today’s anarchists. But in the next few years, more information from the Soviet archives and new documents detailing the struggle of the Russian proletariat will continue to dispel more and more of the old slanders. The true legacy of the October Revolution will be clear to everyone.

November 2004

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