Nestor Makhno became quite famous during his lifetime, and his popularity was determined by several factors. He led the peasant army being a peasant by birth. Makhno was a politician whose maximum program took into account the vital interests of the peasantry, therefore, most of people in Ukraine. He was a military leader who commanded not from behind his men, but went down to them in the trenches. More than a dozen of people received injuries in battles, showed their courage and ability to sacrifice themselves for their comrades and principles. Makhno's charisma made him a true father to the tens of thousands of rebels and farmers, including much older people than him. The peasants of the Southern Ukraine sincerely believe in his ability to resolve the agricultural issue.
Makhno remained anarchist until his death. Most of the senior commanders of his forces were part of the anarchist organizations of the Southern Ukraine. But it is hard to say that the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine (RIAU) was an anarchic one. It was primarily a peasant army because the majority of its fighters were peasants.
Peasants’ interests are the main ideology of the RIAU. The desire to freely manage their land and determination in defending their interests was the driving force that led Makhno's army to abandon his native house and take up arms. So the Ukrainian peasants including Makhno's army taken up arms in order not to burn, destroy and kill, but for the protection from those who came to establish control over the Ukrainian village and its strategic resources.
Most commanders of the RIAU including Makhno attributed themselves to the poor and middle strata of the village. Considering themselves anarchists, they did not reject the idea of private ownership of land, and therefore opportunities to get riched, but they fundamentally opposed the exploitation of some people by others.
Only since the end of 1920, after the cessation of the White Army’s regular struggle in Ukraine prosperous peasants and Makhno's army found a common interest and a common enemy – Bolsheviks.
Makhno concluded three military political alliances with Bolsheviks what allegedly shows that they were allies of Red army. But it is not true. Makhnovshchina perfectly illustrates all the ambiguity and contradictory relationship between the Ukrainian peasantry and Bolsheviks. By carrying out a coup in October 1917, the latter immediately sanctioned "black redistribution" of land, and peasants of Ukraine reacted positively without waiting for a land reform neither from the Provisional Government nor from the Central Council. That support of peasants made the invading Bolsheviks’ Red Army victorious in Ukraine at the end of 1918.
Peasants supported Bolsheviks, of course, not because of the doctrinal objections by the private ownership of land, but for the official permission to divide the land among the peasants. Rebels also joined to the force that promised land to the peasants and because of this was considered revolutionary. However, the Soviet government agricultural policy (food requisition, braking further transfer of land to peasants, Bolshevisation village councils, etc.) in the spring of 1919 sparked massive anti-movement resistance from the Ukrainian peasants. The military agreement between Bolsheviks and Makhno concluded in autumn 1920 because the general Wrangel of the White Army and Makhno in particular were seen as enemy worse than the Red Army. It is well known that the agreement ended regular repressions against Makhno.
However, the ultimate military and political victory belonged to Bolsheviks, although the new government managed to lure the small number of naive peasants. The key to their success were the rigid centralization and militarization of power, institutionalized mass terror against all population groups, total propaganda, and the announcement of the new economic policy in 1921 that allowed farmers to use land but not own it.
The final of Makhnovshchina was logical and tragic. The regularity was predetermined by the regional character and social restrictions to Makhno movement, vulnerability of political doctrine of Makhno’s command, and political naivety Ukrainian peasantry in general. The tragedy was that the movement has not reached its goal (neither political nor socio-economic) and suffered heavy losses in manpower. Being a rather large-scale phenomenon Makhnovshchina could not disappear in a moment. Nestor Makhno’s departure abroad meant political and military defeat of the peasant movement in the late August, 1921, although some territorial units acted at least until 1924. However, Makhno's troops attempted to organize themselves and to restore the rebel anti-communist struggle in the late 1920s, during the so-called principles of collectivization and dispossession of peasants. These efforts were suppressed by the repressive state authorities, so the recovery of Makhnovshchina did not take place.
Russian researchers of Makhnovshchina usually do not consider this movement Ukrainian. Ukrainian historiography, brought up in sympathy to the ideals of the UPR (Ukrainian People's Republic), critically evaluates and treats it as a nationally unconscious, therefore, generally non-Ukrainian. It is historically unfair and scientifically unobjective. This movement on the complex of traits (geographical, cultural, and linguistic) is undoubtedly the Ukrainian fact. Did Nestor Makhno personally considered himself a Ukrainian? Of course, not only in emigration. His countrymen, his mother, and relatives spoke Ukrainian. His wife Galina Kuzmenko openly sympathized to the Ukrainian cause. Makhno personally explained to Lenin that Ukraine is not the southern part of Russia in June 1918. Although he forgot his mother tongue a little through the long-term imprisonment in a Russian prison where courses of Ukrainian, of course, were not envisaged.
Speaking of Makhnovists who survived and did not emigrate, their fate developed tragically at all. Repressions of the 1930s hit almost all survivors by the time. Only a small number of Makhno's army survived until the second half of the twentieth century.
Nestor Makhno was one of the seven enemies of the Soviet authority that never were subjected to amnesty. It indicates how seriously he was perceived by the Communist leaders from the political point of view. Nestor Makhno was developed and replicated as the image of a degenerate and a murderer what in principle is not true. This image is the result of the communist government propaganda, not a historical myth, not a product of people's memory.
Translated by Olga Vitrova