Author: Adithya Vikram Sakthivel
When the common man discusses the Russian civil war or the Russian Revolution, it is often oversimplified into a standard conflict with two belligerents; namely the Reds (the Bolshevik or communists lead by Lenin) and the whites (the Tsarist remnants). However, like most footnotes in history books, there is more to such events than what meets the eye. The truth was more complicated with various factions with distinct rival ideologies fighting one other, in a way, this brutal conflict could be compared to the modern era Syrian Civil war for a rough comparison. One of these lesser known factions, which fought both of the major players and operated in the southern regions of modern day Ukraine, was a brutal irregular army which operated under the name, Revolutionary Insurrection Army of Ukraine or simply known as the Black Army. The “Black” in their name was to symbolize that they adhered to anarchism.
This ragtag assortment of Ukrainian peasants and workers strived to create a stateless anarcho-communist society from 1918 to 19921. Under the command of the charismatic and famous anarchist named Nestor Makho, they protected the operations of “free soviets” and libertarian communes in the fledging Free Territory, to achieve their object of an anarchic society.
The Free Territory was a stateless anarchist society with the motto “Power breed parasites. Long live anarchy!” It had modest growth under the protection of Makno’s Black Army, which served as this territory’s de facto military wing. The Free Territory self-organized under anarchist ideals and principles, with a lot of autonomy, representative democracy, and their “leader” (head of state), Nestor Makhno serving a purely role, as a strategist and an advisor.
The economy of this state was a mixture of anarcho-communism and mutualism, with factories, farms and railways being reclassified as cooperatives and several moneyless communities were raised due to this effronteries economic model. This state had a lack of compulsory education, with the people establishing several centers of education for both children and adults, with the base model being inspired by democratic education.
Originating as the Black Guard, these guerrilla fighters that formed the Black Army, initially clashed with the invading German and Austria-Hungarian force during their occupation of Russia during the First World War. Armed with the weapons abandoned by the retreating Austria-Hungarian Army, and reinforced by Red Army defectors, the Black Army clashed with both the Red and White Armies, securing several decisive victories in Ukraine and running what was essentially an independent nation of its own with seven million inhabitants. The last Makhnovist forces were destroyed in late 1922, but an underground Makhnovist remnant presence persisted into the 1940s.
The question which could be raised regarding this arcane militant organization is, how did such a group survive while other cabals with similar archetype ideologies fail? Their secret to success could be attributed to their unconventional battle tactics, and their willingness to form temporary alliances with their enemies for their mutual benefit.
The idea of an anarchist state was also quite desirable for most of the population, especially those involved in agrarian industries, who saw it as a better alternative to the autocratic regime of the White’s or the capricious nature of the Red’s ideology, giving them freedom to make major decisions themselves, giving the image of representation. In a way, it could be observed that the Black Army is the ideological predecessor to many of the militant groups or organizations which adhere to a form of modern anarchism, that exist in the current-day Ukrainian civil war as belligerents.
Alexander Skirda, “Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack- The struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine 1917-1921”
Michael Palji, “The Anarchism of Nestor Makhno, 1918-1921”
Michael Malet, “Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War”
Peter Arshinov, “History of the Makhnovist Movement”