After his release from prison at the beginning of the February 1917 Revolution in Russia, Nestor Makhno made his way back to his home town in Ukraine, Gulyai-Pole. There he met up with surviving anarchists to take stock of the situation and determine a course of action. Initially, Makhno had considered making the overthrow of the local organ of the Provisional Government, the Public Committee, their first priority. However, he decided it would be better to first focus on creating a Peasants’ Union, which would spearhead the expropriation of the land without having to wait for the Provisional Government to take action. He proposed placing an anarchist at the head of the Peasants’ Union to prevent it from being co-opted by any of the political parties. His comrade, Kalinichenko, opposed this approach, arguing that the anarchists should not take any leadership positions but should instead spread anarchist propaganda to encourage the peasants themselves to take an anarchist path. The following excerpts from Makhno’s memoirs are taken from Chapter 2 of his book, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine.
Returning to Ukraine to Make the Revolution
Upon arrival in Gulyai-Pole, I immediately got together with my comrades from the anarchist group…
I saw before me my own peasant friends – unknown revolutionary anarchist fighters who in their own lives didn’t know what it means to cheat one another. They were pure peasant types, tough to convince, but once convinced, once they had grasped an idea and tested it against their own reasoning, why then they pushed that idea at every conceivable opportunity. Truly, seeing these people before me I trembled with joy and was overcome with emotion.
I immediately decided to start the very next day to carry out active propaganda among the peasants and workers of Gulyai-Pole. I wanted to dissolve the Public Committee (the local organ of the Provisional Government) and the militia, and prevent the formation of any more committees. I decided to take up anarchist action as the first order of business…
The members of our group hastily set up a meeting to discuss practical affairs. By this time my enthusiasm for rushing into action had cooled off considerably. In my report I down played for the time being the carrying on of propaganda work among the peasants and workers and the overthrow of the Public Committee.
Indeed I surprised my comrades by insisting that we as a group reach a clear understanding of the state of the anarchist movement generally in Russia. The fragmentation of anarchist groups, a phenomenon well-known to me before the Revolution, was a source of dissatisfaction for me personally. I could never be happy with such a situation.
“It is necessary,” I said, “to organize the forces of the workers on a scale which can adequately express the revolutionary enthusiasm of the labouring masses when the Revolution is going through its destructive phase. And if the anarchists continue to act in an uncoordinated way, one of two things will happen: either they will lose touch with events and restrict themselves to sectarian propaganda; or they will trail along in the tail-end of these events, carrying out tasks for the benefit of their political enemies.
Here in Gulyai-Pole and the surrounding region we should act decisively to dissolve government institutions and absolutely put an end to private property in land, factories, plants, and other types of enterprises. To accomplish this we must keep in close contact with the peasant masses, assuring ourselves of the steadfastness of their revolutionary enthusiasm.
We must convince the peasants we are fighting for them and are unswervingly devoted to those concepts which we will present to them at the village assemblies and other meetings. And while this is going on we must keep an eye of what is happening with our movement in the cities.
This, comrades, is one of those tactical questions which we shall decide tomorrow. It seems to me it deserves to be thoroughly discussed because the type of action to be engaged in by our group depends on the correct resolution of this question.
For us, natives of Gulyai-Pole, this plan of action is all the more important as we are the only group of anarcho-communists which has kept in touch with the peasants continuously over the last 11 years. We know of no other groups in the vicinity.
In the closest cities, Aleksandrovsk and Ekaterinoslav, the former anarchist groups were virtually wiped out. The few survivors are far away. Some of the Ekaterinoslav anarchists stayed in Moscow. We don’t know when they will return. And we still haven’t heard anything about those who emigrated to Sweden, France, or America.
At the present time we can depend only on ourselves. No matter how weak we are in our knowledge of the theory of anarchism, we are compelled to work out an immediate plan of action to be undertaken among the peasants of this region. Without any hesitation we must begin work on organizing the Peasants’ Union. And we must see to it that one of the peasants from our group is at the head of this Union.
This is important for two reasons: first, we can prevent any political group hostile to our ideals from infiltrating the Union; and secondly, by being able to address meetings of the Union at any time on current issues, we shall be creating a close bond between our group and the Peasants’ Union. This will give the peasants a chance to deal with the land question themselves. They can go ahead and declare the land public property without waiting for the ‘revolutionary’ government to decide this question which is so crucial for the peasants.”
The comrades were pleased with my report but were far from agreeing with my approach to the whole matter. Comrade Kalinichenko sharply criticized this approach, advocating that our role as anarchists in the current revolution should be restricted to publicizing our ideas. He noted that since we could now act openly, we should make use of this situation to explain our ideas to the workers, without involving ourselves in unions or other organizations.
“This will show the peasants,” he said, “that we are not interested in dominating them but only in giving them advice. Then they will look seriously at our ideas and, embracing our methods, they will independently begin to build a new life.”
At this juncture we concluded our meeting… For the time being we decided simply to review my report and submit it to further analysis and discussion.