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The forgotten story of the Free Territory

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When the February 1917 revolution overthrew the Tsar in Russia, political prisoners were freed from the jails in Moscow and looked up to as heroes who had fought the old regime. Later that year, in October, the Bolsheviks led a second revolution and installed the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. In the civil war that followed, one of the prisoners released in February, an anarchist named Nestor Makhno, would take control of eastern Ukraine with an army 100,000 strong and lead the charge for the “third revolution”.

It’s surprising how little is written about Makhno and the Free Territory, considering it was one of the longest and largest historical examples of a stateless society organized under anarchist principles, although the fluid situation, which at once created a dynamic that gave rise to the Free Territory, also makes it difficult to fully grasp what was happening.

It is curious to note another facet of the Free Territory almost universally ignored today; it existed in the same exact area where separatists are currently waging war against Ukraine’s government. The Free Territory, at its peak, connected the current de facto rebel capital of Donetsk to the currently occupied Crimean peninsula.

When Makhno returned to his hometown of Hulyai Pole in eastern Ukraine in 1917, Russia was still at war with the Axis powers. In December, after the Bolshevik coup, the new government signed a peace treaty that allowed the Germany and Austria-Hungry Axis alliance to occupy Ukraine. Makhno and a small band of followers organized guerrilla attacks against the occupying troops and after some minor victories the militia grew and forced the Germans and Austrians to concentrate in urban areas.

In late 1918, the Allied powers won the First World War and the Axis powers withdrew from all occupied territories. In the power vacuum that followed the Makhnovists took control of a wide area around Hulyai Pole. Meanwhile, in Russia, a “White” counter-revolution was fighting the “Red” Bolsheviks. The Reds had the Russian capital, but the Whites held sway in much of Russia’s territory. After the Axis withdrawal, aside from the Makhnovists, Ukraine quickly became dominated by Ukrainian nationalist militias and the White armies.

The Makhnovists, sometimes also referred as the “Black Army”, grew rapidly from late 1918 to mid 1919. The Reds had entered Ukraine, but after faring poorly against the Whites much of their army withdrew. Many Red soldiers remaining in the region took their commanding officers as hostages and joined the Black Army. An anarchist-led mutiny in the Crimean peninsula added nearly 40,000 troops to Makhno’s command. At the time, many defectors believed the Bolsheviks had strayed from the cause and that the Makhnovists were the vanguard of the third and final revolution.

The Black Army was unusual because of its anarchist leanings and it has been debated just how true they were to that ideal. The military did have a very loose hierarchy but, aside from unusually large battles, most units operated with quasi independence. Each militia had democratic committees, general assemblies and elected their “officers”. In the territories under the control of the Black Army, the stated objective was to defend the land for the creation of “free soviets” and “libertarian communes”. Their stated goal was the creation of communes and workers’ cooperatives completely independent of all central authorities, with no influence from political organizations. The Makhnovists organized meetings and distributed leaflets but relied heavily on the peasant communities to self-organize.

The territory under the control of the Black Army was in constant flux, which hindered the progress of self-organizing social programmes and collectives. When the Reds or Whites took military control of an area, they installed political structures controlled by their political party. The stateless society that the Black Army fought for was mostly contained to the area surrounding Hulyai Pole until the spring of 1919 during a period of relative peace. This was near the peak of the Black Army’s influence. At the time, the Black Army counted on 100,000 soldiers and controlled a wide area where up to seven million people were living.

In 1920, a major outbreak of typhus weakened the Makhnovists. The Red Army, which had held off a White offensive toward the capital – in part because of a temporary alliance with Makhno – was once more in the Ukraine in large numbers. The temporary alliance was over and the Reds attacked the already-weakened Makhnovists. Another alliance with the Reds was struck late in 1920 but lasted less than two months before fighting resumed. By this time the Reds had consolidated their gains and with the Whites a smaller threat than previously, they were able to concentrate more of their forces against Makhno. In 1921 the Black Army gave up the last of its territory and melted into a guerrilla force before ultimate defeat. An injured Makhno escaped into Romania in late August.

In Trotsky’s memoirs, he wrote that he and Lenin, “had at one time seriously envisaged allocating certain territories to the anarchists, with consent of the local population of course and allowing them to conduct their experiment with a stateless society there.” As it was, the experiment is a remarkable, if little known, chapter in modern history about the potential for horizontal power on a mass scale. Documents from that era are rife with wartime propaganda for or against, but through the blur of that chaos it does seem apparent that the movement had wide local support and some encouraging early signs of success.

The bigger question, which history leaves unanswered, is if the movement could have survived the test of peace and time.

 

first published in Contributoria

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