Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine

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Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine
LeadersNestor Makhno
Simon Karetnik
Fedir Shchus
Viktor Belash
Dates of operation1918–1921
Allegiance Free Territory
Active regionsSouthern regions of modern Ukraine and some Russia
Collectivist anarchism
Political positionFar-left
Size103,000 in December 1919
AlliesTemporary agreements with:

Bolsheviks (1918-1920)

Tambov Green Armies

Temporary ceasefire:

Directorate of Ukraine
OpponentsCentral Powers

White Movement

Bolsheviks (1918), (1920-1921)

Directorate of Ukraine
Terplyo's Green Army
Battles and warsBattle for the Donbas (1919)
Battle of Peregonovka (1919)
Northern Taurida Operation
Siege of Perekop (1920)
Bolshevik-Makhnovist conflict
Preceded by
Black Guards

The Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine (Ukrainian: Революційна Повстанська Армія України), also known as the Black Army or as Makhnovtsi (Ukrainian: Махновці), named after their leader Nestor Makhno, was an anarchist army formed largely of Ukrainian peasants and workers during the Russian Civil War of 1917–1922. They protected the operation of "free soviets" and libertarian communes in the Free Territory, an attempt to form a stateless libertarian communist society from 1918 to 1921 during the Ukrainian War of Independence. They were founded and inspired based on the Black Guards.


Tachanka used by Black Army soldiers at the Huliaipole museum.

Nestor Makhno and the Insurrectionary Anarchist Army[edit]

Ukrainian anarchist guerrilla bands were active during the Russian Civil War, with organizations such as the Black Guards being created across the Russian Empire. Some claimed to be loyal to the Ukrainian state, but others acknowledged no allegiance; all fought both the Red and White Armies with equal ferocity in the opening stages of the Civil War. Of all the anarchist groups, the most famous and successful was that of the peasant anarchist leader Nestor Makhno, aka Batko ("Father"), who began operations in the southeastern Ukraine against the Hetmanate regime in July 1918. In September, he formed the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine, or Anarchist Black Army, with arms and equipment largely obtained from retreating Austro-Hungarian and German forces. During the Civil War, the Black Army numbered between 16,000 and 110,000 men[1] and was organized on conventional lines, with infantry, cavalry, and artillery units; artillery batteries were attached to each infantry brigade. Makhno's cavalry incorporated both regular and irregular (guerrilla) horse-mounted forces, and was considered among the best-trained and most capable of any of the cavalry units deployed by any side in the Russian Civil War.[2]

The Bolshevik government and Red Army commanders often referred to the Black Army as "Makhnovist forces", because they pointedly declined to accord the Ukrainian anarchists the status of having an army or a legitimate political movement. Volin described the Insurrectionary Black Army of the time (less its cavalry, which normally ranged far afield) as follows: The infantry, when it was not fighting, led the march of the army ... [The Black Army also used horse-drawn carts or] tachankas. Each of these vehicles, which were drawn by two horses, carried the driver on the front seat and two soldiers behind them. In some sections a machine-gun was installed on the seat between them. The artillery brought up the rear. A huge black flag floated over the first carriage. The slogans Liberty or Death and The Land to the Peasants, the Factories to the Workers were embroidered in silver on its two sides.[3]

A main obstacle to the anarchist army, and one which it never overcame throughout its existence, was a lack of access to primary industrial manufacturing resources, specifically factories capable of producing large amounts of arms and ammunition. Denied large-scale arms shipments from the Bolshevik government in Moscow, and without arsenal manufacturing centers of its own, the Black Army was forced to rely on captures of munition depots and supplies from enemy forces, and to procure food and horses from the local civilian population.

Red Army mutinies in Ukraine[edit]

By May 1919, the Bolshevik government had withdrawn most Red Army forces from Ukraine after White successes in the south. The remaining Red Army troops who had stayed in various parts of Ukraine were suspicious of their commanders, and angry at the withdrawals from Ukraine, which they considered a defection from the revolutionary cause. At the end of July, 1919, Red Army detachments numbering some 40,000 troops in Crimea mutinied and deposed their commanders; many set out to join Makhno's anarchist Black Army. The mutiny was organized by some of Makhno's anarchist comrades who had remained commanders in the ranks of the Red Army, including Kalashnikov, Dermendzhi, and Budanov; these men also planned the transfer of forces. Large numbers of Red Army soldiers advanced from Novi Bug to Pomoshchnaya in search of Makhno's Black Army, bringing with them, as captives, their former commanders: Kochergin, Dybets and others. The mutineers joined Black Army forces at Dobrovelychkivka in the municipality of Kherson at the beginning of August 1919. For the Bolshevik government in Moscow, this defection was a major blow; since almost nothing remained of the Red Army in southern Ukraine and the Crimea, Bolshevik influence in the area vanished.[4]

Campaign against Denikin and the White Army[edit]

Makhno and the Ukrainian anarchist Black Army, at first declared 'bandits' and 'outlaws' by the Moscow's Bolshevik government, were welcomed after General Anton Denikin threatened to overrun Moscow in a drive towards the city in 1919. After concluding an agreement with the Ukrainian Directory, Makhno and his subordinate commanders made plans to turn the Black Army east and attack Denikin's Volunteer Army and its lines of supply, hoping to break through his lines.[4]

The Black Army had been retreating to the west across Ukraine. But on the evening of September 25, 1919, it suddenly turned east, attacking the main forces of General Denikin's army. The first encounter took place late in the evening near the village of Kruten'koe, where the Black Army's First Infantry Brigade advanced towards White Army positions. Denikin's troops retreated to take up better positions. At first, Denikin believed the move was a feint or reconnaissance-in-force, and did not follow up, concluding that most of the anarchist army was still retiring to the west. However, in the middle of the night, all of Makhno's troops began an offensive to the east. The White Army's principal forces in the area were concentrated near the village of Peregonovka; the village itself was occupied by anarchist units. An intense battle broke out, and the occupying anarchist forces began to lose ground, pressured by White Army reinforcements, including infantry regiments composed largely of young and fanatically anti-communist officers. Makhno's headquarters staff, as well as everyone in the village who could handle a rifle, armed themselves and joined in the fighting. On the approach of Makhno's cavalry forces, White Army troops retreated from Peregonovka. A fierce battle took place outside the town, including instances of hand-to-hand combat. A White regiment was forced to retreat, at first slowly and in an orderly way, but as the fighting moved near the Sinyukha river, it became a rout. The other regiments, seized by panic, followed them. Finally all of Denikin's troops in the area were routed; most escaped by swimming across the Sinyukha River, but hundreds died in the river and on its banks.[4]

After this victory, Makhno's troops set out to attack Denikin's lines of supply. The fall of Aleksandrovsk to the Black Army was followed by Pologi, Gulyai-Polye, Berdyansk, Melitopol', and Mariupol'. In less than two weeks, all of southern Ukraine had been conquered by Black Army troops. Makhno's occupation of southern Ukraine, especially the regions bordering on the Sea of Azov, soon posed a threat to Denikin's entire offensive, as the supply base of Denikin's army was located in the region between Mariupol' and Volnovakha. When Berdyansk and Mariupol' were taken, immense stores of munitions were captured by anarchist forces. Because all the railroads of the region were controlled by the Black Army, no war material could reach Denikin's forces on the northern front. White Army reserve regiments stationed throughout the region were ordered to break the blockade, but were instead routed.[4]

Black Army combat group, headed by Fedir Shchus (center)
Panteleimon Belochub a soldier best known as one of the commanders of the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine

After a failed attempt to dislodge Black Army forces, Denikin shifted his campaign from the north to the south. The White Army's best cavalry troops, commanded by General Konstantin Mamontov and General Shkuro, were transferred from the northern front to the Gulyai-Polye region of Novorossiya. Denikin's new strategy succeeded in driving out Makhno's forces from part of Ukraine, but at the cost of denuding forces opposing the Red Army. During October and November 1919, Denikin's troops were defeated in a series of battles by Red Army forces. His Caucasus regiments suffered the greatest losses, especially the Chechen cavalry and others, who died by the thousands. Towards the end of November, some of these troops mutinied, returning to their homes in the Caucasus. This in turn began a slow disintegration of Denikin's Volunteer Army. Some historians note that if the anarchist forces had not won a decisive victory at Peregonovka, blockading Denikin's lines of supply and denying the White Army supplies of food, ammunition, and artillery reinforcements, the White Army would probably have entered Moscow in December 1919.[4] All through February, 1920 the Free TerritoryMakhnovist region—was inundated with Red troops, including the 42nd Rifle Division and the Latvian & Estonian Red Division – in total at least 20,000 soldiers.[5] After the souring and dissolution of Nestor Makhno's Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine with Bolsheviks the captured Red commanders and commissars were similarly summarily executed. However, Makhno usually preferred to release the disarmed enlisted men that were captured, as "proletarian brothers", with a choice of joining his army or returning home, after all commanding officers were executed. This happened to an Estonian Red Army unit that surrendered to Makhno in 1920.[6] Viktor Belash noted that even in the worst time for the revolutionary army, namely at the beginning of 1920, "In the majority of cases rank-and-file Red Army soldiers were set free". Of course Belash, as a colleague of Makhno's, was likely to idealize the punishment policies of the Batko. However, the facts bear witness that Makhno really did release "in all four directions" captured Red Army soldiers. This is what happened at the beginning of February 1920, when the insurgents disarmed the 10,000-strong Estonian Division in Huliaipole.[7] To this it must be added that the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine included a choir of Estonian musicians.[8] The problem was further compounded by the alienation of the Estonians by Anton Denikin's Russian nationalist view of Malorossiya and their refusal to fight with Nikolai Yudenich.[9]

First repudiation of the alliance[edit]

After the victories over the White Army, the Bolshevik government repudiated its alliance with Makhno and the Ukrainian anarchist movement, repeatedly attacking concentrations of Black Army troops, as well as ordering Chekist and Red Army reprisals against those believed sympathetic to the anarchists. In June 1920 the Cheka sent two agents to assassinate Makhno—one recruited from Ukrainian naletchiki,[10] another a double agent who had previously worked for Makhno. However, the latter disclosed his mission before it could be carried out, and both were executed. Meanwhile, Red Army forces, vastly superior in numbers and equipment, steadily reduced areas of Russia under anarchist control.[11]

By 1920, Leon Trotsky, as War Commissar of the Red Army, had resorted to terror tactics, ordering the death of thousands of Ukrainian villagers and peasants loyal to Makhno's Black Army. Trotsky also intentionally withdrew Red Army troops from their positions on the southern front, allowing Tsarist Cossack forces to overrun the southern Ukraine. At first, Makhno and the Black Army retreated, followed by a caravan of Ukrainian refugees. Attacking again, Makhno's forces surprised General Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel's counterrevolutionary regiments in southern Ukraine, capturing 4,000 prisoners and stores of weapons and munitions, and preventing Wrangel from seizing that year's grain harvest in Ukraine.[12]

Bolshevik-Makhnovist Treaty of Political and Military Alliance[edit]

The black army making plans to attack the white army

Trotsky once again offered an alliance, sending a plenipotentiary delegation from the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Communist Party, headed by Comrade Ivanov to propose a military and political treaty of alliance; Makhno agreed, subject to a pardon of all Anarchist prisoners throughout Russia.[11] The treaty was drawn up and signed on October 15, 1920 at Starobel'sk by anarchist military and political representatives and the Bolshevik Communist delegation.[13] The treaty, along with a Makhnovist delegation then traveled to the Bolshevik-held city of Kharkiv for official ratification and to plan a common military strategy. Using the arms and munitions previously captured from General Wrangel's infantry brigades in southern Ukraine, Makhno and the Black Army went on to clear much of Crimea of Cossack cavalry, and helped force a retreat of Wrangel's remaining infantry brigades. After an unsuccessful northern offensive against the Red Army, Wrangel and the last of his forces were evacuated from Sevastopol by the White and French Navy on November 14, 1920.

However, the Bolshevik Communist government in Moscow initially refused to publish the Bolshevik-Makhnovist Treaty or acknowledge the existence of a formal alliance outside Ukraine. It also continued to denounce anarchism as an illegitimate political movement elsewhere in Russia, accelerating mass arrests and detentions of anarchists in all areas of the country under Bolshevik and Red Army control. After pressure by Makhno, the Central Committee in Moscow eventually published the military section of the Bolshevik-Makhnovist treaty, followed a week later by the political section. A fourth clause concerning the establishment of autonomous committees composed of workers and peasants for self-government of areas held by the Black Army was omitted.[13]

Second repudiation[edit]

It soon became clear why Moscow had resisted the publicizing of the Bolshevik-Makhnovist treaty. On November 26, 1920, less than two weeks after completing their successful offensive against General Wrangel's White Army in the Crimea, Makhno's headquarters staff and several Black Army subordinate commanders arrived at Red Army Southern Front headquarters to participate in a joint planning conference with Red Army commanders. Upon arrival, they were arrested and executed on the spot by a Red Army firing squad; the Makhnovist treaty delegation, still in Kharkiv, was also arrested and liquidated.[11][13] The Bolsheviks then sent five regular armies numbering more than 350,000 with armoured cars, artillery, aircraft, and armoured trains, with the purpose of destroying the Makhnovist movement. The Black Army, barely numbering 10,000 men, continued to fight on, making raids all across Ukraine and Southern Russia and fighting constant battles with much larger and better equipped Red Army units. In August 1921, the Black Army ceased to be an organised force, numbering only 1,200-2,000 men scattered across Ukraine. A badly wounded Makhno with 77 of his men crossed the Dniester River into Romania on August 28, 1921. The last Makhnovist forces were destroyed in late 1922, but an underground Makhnovist presence would persist into the 1940s.


Commanders of the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine

In mid-1919, the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine had a strength of some 15,000 men, organised into one cavalry and four infantry Brigades, a machine gun regiment with 5000 guns, and an artillery detachment. At its peak in December 1919, it had about 83,000 infantry, 20,135 cavalry, 1,435 machine guns, and 118 guns, as well as seven armored trains and some armored cars.[14] It was organized into four Corps and the strategic reserve. Each Corps had one infantry and one cavalry Brigade; each Brigade had 3-4 Regiments of the appropriate type.[15]

The structure of the RIAU was not that of a traditional army. Instead, the RIAU was a democratic militia based on soldier committees and general assemblies. Officers in the ordinary sense were abolished; instead, all commanders were elected and recallable. Regular mass assemblies were held to discuss policy. The army was based on self-discipline, and all of the army's disciplinary rules were approved by soldier assemblies.[16][17]

This organizational structure was later used in organizing militias created by anarchists in the Spanish revolution and Spanish Civil War.

There is historical debate about whether the RIAU was an entirely voluntary militia or whether it relied on conscription. Paul Avrich argues that voluntary mobilisation was in reality conscription.[18] Other historians have disagreed. Michael Malet points to surviving RIAU leaflets from 1920 which are appeals to join, not orders.[19] After long debate, a regional congress in the Ukraine Free Territory decided to reject conscription and instead use moral persuasion. In other words, "compulsory mobilization" was rejected in favor of "obligatory mobilization", which meant that each able bodied man should recognize his obligation to join the RIAU.[20] Leon Trotsky also declared that the RIAU was a voluntary militia, and seeing as Trotsky commanded the Red Army that eventually defeated the RIAU, he had no reason to lie in their favor. In Trotsky's words, "Makhno does not have general mobilisations, and indeed these would be impossible, as he lacks the necessary apparatus."[21]


Black Army commanders, 1919: Simon Karetnik (3rd from the left side), Nestor 'Batko' Makhno (center), and Fedir Shchus (1st from the right side).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Le Banquet des Généraux, Anarchy's Cossacks Article: Armed forces of all types in the Black Army varied over the course of the war. Frequently, large numbers of potential anarchist soldiers were ready for duty, but Moscow refused to supply rifles and equipment for them.
  2. ^ Le Banquet des Généraux, Anarchy's Cossacks
  3. ^ Eikhenbaum, Vsevolod M. (Volin), The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921: Book III: Struggle for the Real Social Revolution, Part II: Ukraine (1918-1921), Free Life Editions (1974), ISBN 0-914156-07-1, ISBN 978-0-914156-07-9
  4. ^ a b c d e Arshinov, Peter, History of the Makhnovist Movement (1918-1921), Chapter 7, (1923)
  5. ^ V. N. Litvinov, An Unsolved Mystery - The "Diary of Makhno's Wife".
  6. ^ Nestor Makhno Biography.
  7. ^ A. Buysky, "The Red Army on the Internal Front", Gosizdat (1927), p. 52.
  8. ^ How Is Makhno’s Troop Organised?
  9. ^ Peter Anderson (2 September 2001). "Why did the Bolsheviks win the Russian Civil War? Peter Anderson compares the tactics and resources of the two sides". Goliath. Archived from the original on 10 October 2009. Retrieved 11 May 2009.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  10. ^ Naletchiki was a common term for apolitical armed bandits that roamed lawless areas of Russia before and during the Civil War.
  11. ^ a b c Avrich, Paul, Russian Anarchists and the Civil War, Russian Review, Vol. 27, No. 3 (July 1968), pp. 296-306
  12. ^ Berland, Pierre, Mhakno, Le Temps, 28 August 1934: In addition to supplying White Army forces and their sympathizers with food, a successful seizure of the 1920 Ukrainian grain harvest would have had a devastating effect on food supplies to Bolshevik-held cities, while depriving both Red Army and Ukrainian Black Army troops of their usual bread rations.
  13. ^ a b c Arshinov, Peter, History of the Makhnovist Movement (1918-1921), Chapter 9, (1923)
  14. ^ Belash, Victor & Belash, Aleksandr, Dorogi Nestora Makhno, p. 340
  15. ^ Belash, Victor & Belash, Aleksandr, Dorogi Nestora Makhno, pp. 333 & 340
  16. ^ Piotr Arshinov. "The Makhnovist Movement." Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchismno, edited by Daniel Gurin
  17. ^ An Anarchist FAQ "5 How were the Makhnovists organised?"
  18. ^ Avrich, Paul. Anarchist Portraits, Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 121.
  19. ^ Michael Malet. Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War, page 105
  20. ^ Michael Palij. The Anarchism of Nestor Makhno, 1918–1921; page 155
  21. ^ quoted in: Michael Malet. Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War, page 106

External links[edit]


  • D. Wierzchoś, List Nestora Machny do Ministerstwa Spraw Zagranicznych Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej, Przegląd Wschodni, T. X, Zeszyt 3(39).
  • D. Wierzchoś, Nestor Machno i jego kontakty z Polakami i Polską, [w:] Studia z dziejów polskiego anarchizmu, Szczecin 2011.
  • M. Przyborowski, D. Wierzchoś, Machno w Polsce, Poznań 2012.