Thirty year old anarchist terrorist and Tsarist inmate Nestor Makhno returned to his Ukrainian village and formed one of the most amazing armies in history.
Born in the small Ukrainian village of Gulyai Pole (also translated Hulyai Pole or Huliaipole) in October 27 1888 (or 1889!) was peasant Nestor Ivanovich Makhno. The fifth of five brothers his father died while he was still an infant and Makhno worked every day after his seventh birthday as a Sheppard, farmhand, and general laborer to help support his impoverished family. He attended local schools for four years off and on as his only education. The 1905 Revolution found Makhno a nihilistic teenager with nothing to lose and he fell in with an anarchist peasant terrorist cell. By 1908, captured by the efficient Tsarist Okhrana secret police, he was sentenced to hang. His death penalty commuted to life imprisonment, Makhno spent the last decade of the Tsar’s rule in the notorious Butyrki prison in Moscow. There he learned political theory and literature while spending extended periods under enhanced discipline and contracting tuberculosis. Years of poor diet as well as the ailment contributed to his small frame and poor health.
Revolution of 1917 and the Peasant Uprisings
When the Tsar abdicated March 15, 1917, one of the first things that the Provisional Government did was grant an amnesty to all political prisoners. Makhno, who had spent his entire adult life in prison, was now free. Soon after the Russian Revolutions in 1917 in which the Tsar and then within eight months the democratic Provisional Government were overthrown, the countryside caught fire. Generations of peasants, without the gendarme or military to worry about any longer, took to the farms of more wealthy pomeshchiks’ (landowners’) homesteads and promptly burned them out. Small groups of peasants throughout the Ukraine would assemble, arm themselves and pursue guerilla warfare on the most basic scale. These detachments, typically from 20-50 strong would attack landowners, members of the State government, wayward officers, and almost every other outsider that would pass through their village. When Bolshevik agitators or commissars came through the village, they would also find themselves murdered in deeply pornographic ways and hung from trees next to White agitators and German agents. These peasant anarchists were nothing if not equal opportunity.
Makhno’s homecoming and the birth of the Black Flag Army
Nestor Makhno returned to Gulyai Pole from imprisonment in Moscow during the spring of 1917 and immediately began to direct this peasant movement. Makhno formed a peasants union, helped reapportion the estates of landowners and became a public leader. He inflamed the masses of disaffected and under his Black Flag banner and Black Cross symbol began building an army. His first task was to disarm local former Tsarist army units and leaderless Cossacks. He then distributed some 250,000 rubles found in local banks to the peasant committees. Thus armed and paid, his army became known as the Makhnovshchina after their leader. The Reds and Whites often simply called them ‘The Greens”.