Makhnovshchina, Huliaipolshchina, Free Territories—all these are names of the anarchist non-state that existed in the South of Ukraine between 1918 and 1921. A time that has originated a lot of speculation and myths. A historical period that has long been subject to attempts to erase it from popular memory. I first learned about it as a child in the 1980s from Soviet movies where anarchists, “Makhnovists”, were depicted as comic characters who were robbing people while the Reds (the good guys) were fighting the Whites (the bad guys).

To add a bit of context: after the 1917 revolution (known as the October Socialist Revolution), a civil war broke out in the lands of the Russian Empire. This civil war is often simplistically described as a conflict between the Reds and the Whites: the Bolsheviks and the white movement that was defending the pre-revolutionary order. Reality was more complicated: there were several more sides in the civil war. One of them was the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine: an anarchist peasant movement in the Southeast of Ukraine that became known as the Makhnovshchina.

The name refers to Nestor Makhno, a Ukrainian anarchist revolutionary. He was born in the Zaporizhzhia Region. Although he never completed secondary education, his contemporaries described him as a very well-read man. As a youth, Makhno worked at a foundry. He was arrested for possession of weapons before he even reached legal adulthood. At the age of 18, he joined the Union of Free Peasants, a peasant anarcho-communist group. For his activity as part of this group (which included expropriation, attempted murders of guardsmen and the murder of an official), he was first sentenced to death and then to penal servitude for life. Interestingly, it was in prison that Nestor Makhno started his tireless self-education, studying political economy, mathematics, and natural sciences. This was also when he discovered anarchist theory.

Makhno was freed after the February Revolution and came back to his home village of Huliaipole in the Zaporizhzhia Region, where he was elected head of the Huliaipole Peasant Union (later Soviet of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies). In this capacity, he proclaimed himself district commissar, disarmed the landowners and the bourgeoisie, and prepared a mass church and landed estate expropriation that took place in the autumn of the same year. The solution of the land question immediately ensured him the loyalty and support of the local peasants.

This was how the Free Territories began. Controlled by an insurgent peasant army, they were populated by 7.5 million people and existed between 1918 and 1921. Of all the attempts to create an anarchist non-state in history, this was definitely the biggest one. For several years, this political entity united the Kherson, Mykolaiv, Donetsk, and Dnipropetrovsk regions.

At that time, during the civil war, almost all combatants replenished their food supplies according to military tradition—that is, by forcibly taking from peasants. So it’s not surprising that the peasants wanted to band together and arm themselves. What was unique about this army was the fact that it consisted solely of volunteers. It disappeared without trace as soon as the peasants went back to their courtyards, only to come together again in a powerful force in case of a new danger. At different moments, the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine counted from a couple dozens to one hundred thousand people. The volunteer troops consisted mostly of cavalry that had around 15 brigades. The army had 15-20 airplanes captured from the Whites.

The Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine was famous for unconventional military tactics. For instance, they would approach occupied villages disguised as a wedding procession with Makhno dressed up as the bride. They would thus enter the village unimpeded and then attack.

There was an unprecedented number of women in the anarchist army, both fighting and leading free military units and detachments. One of them was Halyna Kuzmenko, Nestor Makhno’s wife. “Mother Halyna,” as she was called in memoirs, participated in most campaigns and initiated an educational reform in the Free Territories. Some of the other famous women leaders, or otamans, of anarchist units were Maria Kalyvaiko, Marusia Kryvushchenko, Marusia Sokolovskaia, and Marusia Kosova.

One who deserves a more elaborate account is Maria Nikiforova. Before the revolution, this person was sentenced to death, pardoned, escaped prison, and fled to Europe. They lived there for several years under the name of Vladimir, became a French cavalry officer and a student of the famous sculptor Auguste Rodin. They accused Bolsheviks of betraying the revolution and led the Black Guard units. During their life, this person was surrounded by rumours of “hermaphroditism”, and female cellmates made vague claims that Nikiforova was allegedly “not a woman”). It is possible that the famous otaman leader of the Black Guard that supplied the peasant insurgent army with weapons was, in fact, a queer person.

How was life in the Free Territories organized? The First Congress of the Nabat Confederation of Anarchist Organizations declared these 5 principles:

  • Termination of activity of all political parties
  • Rejection of all dictatorships
  • Negation of the state
  • Rejection of any transitional forms
  • Self-governance of all workers through workers’ soviets.

These principles represented a fundamental difference from the Bolshevik position.

In the Free Territories, there was no taxation. The peasants supported the army with supplies on a voluntary basis. Additionally, landowners were expropriated.

In his memoirs, Makhno wrote: “There were agricultural communes, formed mostly by peasants. A small part of the communes had a mixed composition of peasants and workers. The communes were organized based on members’ equality and solidarity. All members, men and women alike, approached work both in the fields and in the courtyards consciously. […] The whole commune was managed at all-member meetings. After these meetings, every member who had their job knew what was to change.”

The Makhnovists were reorganizing society according to anarchist principles, having proclaimed a free society as the highest form of social justice. Education was reorganized based on Francisco Ferrer’s principles of libertarian pedagogy. Economy was based on free exchange between rural and urban communities according to Peter Kropotkin’s theory.

Kropotkin was one of the first to raise the question of breaking with the logic of industrial civilization which is based on the imperative of growth at all costs, on maximum expansion of production for production’s sake and consumption for consumption’s sake, whatever the environmental and humanitarian restrictions. He imagined society as a federation of territorial, industrial, and other communities united by a free contract, whereas every community should represent a free federation of persons.

Historians still debate the role of money in the Free Territories. There is evidence that military units put their own stamps on others’ banknotes, sometimes with a new nominal value, to “appropriate” them. There are also descriptions of money issued in the Free Territories. Different units could print their own money. Some of the banknotes had no nominal value at all: instead there was a blank field that could be filled in at will. These banknotes were sometimes in circulation. Some of them were probably meant as a joke. Free exchange was encouraged.

The army of the Free Territories was defeated by its ex-allies, the Bolsheviks, after having successfully fought off multiple other enemies, including common ones (such as Petliura’s nationalists or Denikin’s white army). Makhno and some other anarchists went into exile. Yet the memory of the Free Territories lives on. This fact in history still has a major influence on the development of anarchist and leftist ideas in Ukraine.