I have always been attracted to the theory that government, in all of its manifestations, is a form of social oppression. It is for this reason that I find the Makhnovshchina, that is, the largest, best organised and almost successful Ukrainian anarchist movement led by Nestor Makhno during the Russian revolution, to be enthralling. During the breakup of the Russian Empire, while Reds fought Whites and numerous other warlords, a new movement emerged, that of the ‘Greens’, or anarchists, in the southern Ukraine. Unlike the Bolsheviks who believed in strong central control, Nestor Makhno and his movement sought to abolish capitalism and the state by organising themselves into village assemblies, communes and free councils. The land and factories were expropriated and put under nominal peasant and worker control by means of self-governing committees, while town mayors and many officials were drawn directly from the ranks of Makhno’s military and political leadership. Ultimately, Makhno’s experiment would founder under the pressures of fighting the remnants of the Tsarist army, and then that of the Bolsheviks who, while previously allies, were determined to be the sole repository of power in the lands of the former Russian Empire.
Nestor Makhno’s government and the five principles underpinning it are well known, these being: rejection of all political parties, rejection of all forms of dictatorships (including the dictatorship of the proletariat, viewed by Makhnovists and many anarchists of the day as a term synonymous with the dictatorship of the Bolshevik communist party), negation of any concept of a central state, rejection of a so-called ‘transitional period’ necessitating a temporary dictatorship of the proletariat, and self-management of all workers through free local workers’ councils. What is not as widely known is that Makhno’s anarchist movement captured the imagination of the large Greek community of the Ukraine and that in fact, as early as the 1920s it was claimed within the USSR that the Ukrainian anarchist movement was actually a Greek one.
Such a claim may not be as far fetched as first appears. Greeks had been living along the north coast of the Black Sea from at least the 5th century BC. At the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, there were around 180,000 of these Greeks, mostly speaking a Pontic dialiect, in the region. The Greek community’s involvement in armed conflict in the region is said to stem from the withdrawal of the Austrian and German armies from the Ukraine in 1918. At that time, the anti-communist White forces of General Denikin attempted to enforce conscription upon the politically neutral local Greek population of the Marioupolis area and met with armed resistance from them. These Greeks also resisted Denikin’s attempts to requisition food and were appalled by the rape of local Greek women and the brutality of the White forces. Consequently, they felt compelled to organise self defence units in the spring of 1919. It was natural that these locally organised groups should be attracted to Nestor Makhno’s ideas of self-run, autonomous communities.
Much of what we know of the Greek involvement in the Ukrainian anarchist movement comes from Isaac Teper, a Makhnovist militant and editor of the Voice of the Makhnovists publication in Kharkhov. Captured by the Bolsheviks and recruited to the Cheka, or secret police, he thereafter began spying on the Makhnovists. In 1924 at Kharkhov he wrote a booklet on the Makhnovist movement, in which he claimed that the Makhnovist movement originated among the Black Sea Greeks. In support of this claim, he provided evidence suggesting that twenty per cent of the Makhnovist forces were Greek. He further commented that the Greek anarchist units were noted for their strong self-discipline, organisation and durability. One Greek anarchist commander mentioned, a certain Papadopoulos, was celebrated in a Makhnovist song and was renowned among the Pontic Greeks for decades. Other prominent Greek anarchists include the Mavroudis brothers from the Greek village of Kermenchik, who are mentioned by an ex-Makhnovist known as Belash in his testimony to the Cheka. According to Belash, after the collapse of the Makhnovist movement, one brother joined the Communist Party and worked in the Volnovaskyi area. His younger brother remained an anarchist and was disgusted by Lenin’s New Economic Policy which he felt made the rich peasants richer and the poor peasants poorer. Prior to disappearing, he was also involved in the Makhnovist, anarchist cultural-educational section, popularising the setting up of anarchist communes.
Further reinforcing Teper’s claims, Bolshevik and anarchist renegade Dybets also stated that the Greek anarchist units were the most stable and reliable units of the Makhnovists and that Nestor Makhno had great respect for their courage and fighting ability, placing them in combat on the most dangerous fronts. Lev Yarkutsky, in his 1993 book on Marioupolis corroborates this, claiming that the Greeks in this region were the first to respond to the appeals of Makhno and that he could not find proof of their participation in the outrages and lootings characteristic of the Makhnovist poor peasants.
A key factor in the Greeks rallying to the anarchist movement was Nestor Makhno’s proclamations on the rights of different national minorities to their own language, costume, dress and culture whilst strongly denouncing nationalism and explicitly taking an internationalist position. This was in stark contrast to the repressive policies of the White Army and the Bolsheviks. In his memoirs, Makhno himself recalls that he planned a raid in the south-eastern region of Berntiansk-Marioupolus-Iouzovka in order to incite revolt. After a battle fought at Bolshoi Mikhailovka when the insurgents decided to make Makhno their leader, the Greek village of Komar was invaded and a unit of the Ukrainian National Guard driven out. Following this, Makhno addressed the local population with revolutionary speeches. Many local Greeks immediately joined the Makhnovist forces with their own horses. Makhno then proceeded to Bogatyr, the village occupied by Urum Greeks who spoke a dialect of Turkish, and on to the villages of Veliky Yanisol and Maly Yanisol which were also Greek. According to Nestor Makhno’s own testimony, the Marioupolis Greeks were thus the first to respond to his call to arms.
Unsurprisingly, the capture of Marioupolis from French and Denikinist forces on 29 March 1919 was largely due to the activities of the Greek ninth division led by Tachtamisev. A Greek Makhnovist regiment also fought alongside a Jewish one in a battle against the Whites in June 1919 and owing to the local Greeks’ commitment to the anarchist cause, the Marioupolis area was soon considered a safe haven for the Makhnovists. It was to the Greek village of Veliky Yanisol that the Makhnovist commander Lashkevich fled when he managed to escape from the Bolshevik encirclement of Gulyai Polye with the Makhnovist treasury of thousands of roubles. Here he was sheltered by a Greek grandfather. When he embezzled these funds, the local Greeks shot him in the main square of their village.
Predictably, the Greek anarchists suffered greatly at the hands of the Whites and the Bolsheviks for their attachment to the anarchist cause. A complicating factor was the arrival of Greek forces from Greece, sent by Venizelos to assist the Whites against the Bolsheviks. This allowed the Whites to portray the anarchists as not only traitors to Russia, but also to their Greek compatriots. In the aftermath of the White defeat, the Greeks also faced Bolshevik repression. In March 1920, a Bolshevik punitive detachment arrived in the area shooting seven people in Komar, 10 in Bogatyr and 12 in Konstantinovka.
Further reprisals followed over the next few years. Stalin in particular saw the entire Greek population of the Ukraine as politically suspect because of its attachment to the anarchist movement. The Greek community was accused of creating an insurgent counterrevolutionary organisation that aimed at uniting part of the territory of the USSR to Greece. The number of arrests was so great that Yarutsky has compared the scale of the repression in the Greek villages with genocide.
It is fascinating to speculate how different the future of the world would have been, and indeed how social economic theory would have developed, had Makhno prevailed against the enemies of the anarchist movement. Makhnovism, which builds upon and elaborates the ideas of Peter Kropotkin, and serves as the philosophical basis for anarchist communism, theoretically without the need for repression (though Makhno’s movement, given its emergence within the Russian Civil War was anything but peaceful) was embraced by the Greeks of the Ukraine as a movement that would permit all peoples to retain their own particular identity and emancipate them, allowing them to be responsible for taking the decisions key to their welfare and future. While a comparison of Greek Makhnovist activism with Greek participation in the current conflict in the Ukraine may be of interest, it is high time that the sacrifices of these idealistic and progressive Greeks of the diaspora are appreciated in their own right.
*Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.