Touching the Past: The Loss of a Peasant

By Nick Campbell

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has brought much attention to that frequently misunderstood country. The current war has also brought up memories of previous conflicts in the region, including  the long-forgotten anarchist uprising of Nestor Makhno.

Nestor Makhno was a prominent Ukrainian anarchist who led a rebellion in 1918 against the Bolsheviks, the White forces, nationalist forces, and Polish troops. His movement was centered around the small town of Huliaipole, nicknamed “Makhnograd [literally “Makhno’s city”]”. Makhno’s movement was never as popular as the Bolsheviks nor did it have the armaments of the Whites, but it was renowned for its ferocity as fighters. Makhno’s Black anarchist movement, or “Black Army,” was eventually crushed by the Bolsheviks and all hints of anarchism in the Bolshevik state were rooted out. Makhno fled Ukraine in 1921 through Romania, went first through Poland, and then ended up in Paris, where he succumbed to tuberculosis and died in 1934 at the age of 45. 

Makhno’s attempt to create an anarchist state would essentially be overshadowed by the Bolshevik victory and the subsequent White army collapse. Makhno’s legacy was scant in comparison. Perhaps the most famous remnant of his movement remains the Black army flag that stated “Death to all who stand in the way of getting freedom for working people ”. 

Other traces of the Makhno movement can be found in unusual places, including Miami University’s King Library, in the Walter Havighurst Special Collections. Tucked away in a small box, is a simple black and white banner that reads “ДоБрому Товарищу: Павшему ВЪ БорьБѣ за идею анархизма” on one side and “Отъ Товарищей 1 го Нжинскаго Отряда” or in English “Good Comrade: He fought for the idea of anarchism” and “From the Comrades of the 1st Nezhinsky Detachment”. 

The popular cliche has it that only the winners write history but this small funeral banner was not for some great general, great politician, or winning cause. Instead it commemorates a common soldier, someone not even worthy of having their name on the banner, just the company with whom he fought. In a way it testifies to what Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace when explaining how Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was not his act alone but the action of every French, German, and Polish peasant. History is made by ordinary men and women just as much as so-called great men and women. This peasant who fought for Makhno, and who was forgotten, took part in making history. 

These sources truly excite the historian: holding this banner is as close as it gets to  being at the event itself, to feeling closer to the past that the historian dedicates their life to studying. Sources like this banner bring up tantalizing questions such as “Who was the soldier?”, “What was the Nezhinsky detachment?”, “How did he die?”, “was he Russian or Ukrainian?”, “Did he have a family?” and “when did he die?”. A single peasant from the Nezhinsky detachment who died in the Makhno rebellion can in fact leave a trace in the historical record.

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