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The Free Territory (Ukrainian: Вільна територія vilna terytoriya; Russian: Вольная территория volnaya territoriya) or Makhnovia (Махновщина Makhnovshchyna) resulted from an attempt to form a stateless anarchist[1] society during the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917 to 1921. It existed from 1918 to 1921, during which time "free soviets" and libertarian communes[2] operated under the protection of Nestor Makhno's Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army. The area had a population of around seven million.[3]

Free Territory

Вільна територія
Flag of Free Territory
Flag described by Viktor Belash
Emblem used on currency stamps of Free Territory
Emblem used on currency stamps
Motto: "Power begets parasites. Long live Anarchy!"
Location of the core Free Territory (red) and other areas controlled by the Black Army (pink) in present-day Ukraine (tan)
Location of the core Free Territory (red) and other areas controlled by the Black Army (pink) in present-day Ukraine (tan)
StatusStateless territory
Common languagesUkrainian
GovernmentAutonomous anarchist confederation[1]
Military leader 
• 1918–1921
Nestor Makhno
Historical eraRussian Civil War
• Established
27 November 1918
• Disestablished
28 August 1921
• Estimate
7 million
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Ukrainian State
South Russian Government
Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic
Today part of

The Territory was established with the capture of Huliaipole by Makhno's forces on 27 November 1918. An Insurrectionary Staff was set up in the city, becoming the Territory's de facto capital.[4] Russian forces of the White movement under Anton Denikin occupied part of the Territory and formed a temporary government of Southern Russia in March 1920, resulting in the de facto capital being momentarily moved to Katerynoslav (modern-day Dnipro). In late March 1920, Denikin's forces retreated from the area, being driven out by the Red Army in cooperation with Makhno's forces, whose units conducted guerrilla warfare behind Denikin's lines. The Territory was disestablished on 28 August 1921 when a badly-wounded Makhno and 77 of his men escaped through Romania after several high-ranking officials were executed by Bolshevik forces. Remnants of the Black Army would continue to fight until late 1922.

As the Free Territory self-organized along anarchist principles, references to "control" and "government" are highly contentious. For example, the Makhnovists, often cited as a form of government (with Nestor Makhno as their "leader"), played a purely military role, with Makhno himself functioning as little more than a military strategist and advisor.[5]


Development and characteristicsEdit

From November 1918 to June 1919, the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine attempted to establish an anarchist society run by peasants and workers in Ukraine. The territory under their control stretched approximately between Berdyansk, Donetsk, Alexandrovsk (later known as Zaporizhia), and Yekaterinoslav, (Sicheslav, later Dnipropetrovsk, now Dnipro). According to Makhno, "The agricultural majority of these villages was composed of peasants, one would understand at the same time both peasants and workers. They were founded first of all on equality and solidarity of its members. Everyone, men and women, worked together with a perfect conscience that they should work on fields or that they should be used in housework... The work program was established in meetings in which everyone participated. Then they knew exactly what they had to do". (Makhno, Russian Revolution in Ukraine, 1936).

According to the leaders of the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine (RIAU), society was reorganized according to anarchist values, which led Makhnovists to formalize the policy of free communities as the highest form of social justice. Education followed the principles of Francesc Ferrer, and the economy was based on free exchange between rural and urban communities, from crops and cattle to manufactured products, according to the theories of Peter Kropotkin.

The Makhnovists said they supported "free worker-peasant soviets"[6] and opposed the central government. Makhno called the Bolsheviks "dictators" and opposed the "Cheka (secret police)... and similar compulsory authoritative and disciplinary institutions". He called for "freedom of speech, press, assembly, unions and the like".[6] The Makhnovists called various congresses of soviets, in which all political parties and groups – including Bolsheviks – were permitted to participate, to the extent that members of these parties were elected delegates from worker, peasant or militia councils. By contrast, in Bolshevik territory after June 1918, no non-Bolsheviks were permitted to participate in any national soviets and most local ones,[7] the decisions of which were also all subject to Bolshevik party veto.

A declaration stated that Makhnovist revolutionaries were forbidden to participate in the Cheka, and all party-run militias and party police forces (including Cheka-like secret police organizations) were to be outlawed in Makhnovist territory.[8][9] Historian Heather-Noël Schwartz comments that "Makhno would not countenance organizations that sought to impose political authority, and he accordingly dissolved the Bolshevik revolutionary committees".[10][11] The Bolsheviks, however, accused him of having two secret police forces operating under him.[12]

The Bolsheviks began their formal efforts to disempower Makhno on 4 June 1919 with Trotsky's Order No. 1824, which forbade electing a congress and attempted to discredit Makhno by stating: "The Makhno brigade has constantly retreated before the White Guards, owing to the incapacity, criminal tendencies, and the treachery of its leaders."[13]


The Bolshevik government in Petrograd initially allied with Makhno and considered allowing an independent area for Makhno's libertarian experiment.[10] But the Bolsheviks increasingly saw the Makhnovists as a threat to their power, both as an example and as a site of anarchist influence.[14] It restarted a propaganda campaign declaring the Free Territory to be a region of warlords, and eventually broke with it by launching surprise attacks on Makhnovist militias[15] despite the pre-existing alliance between the factions.[16]

The Bolshevik press alleged that leaders in the Free Territory, rather than being democratically-elected, were appointed by Makhno's military clique. They also alleged that Makhno himself had refused to provide food for Soviet railwaymen and telegraph operators, that the "special section" of the Makhnovist constitution provided for secret executions and torture, that Makhno's forces had raided Red Army convoys for supplies, stolen an armored car from Bryansk when asked to repair it, and that the Nabat group was responsible for deadly acts of terrorism in Russian cities.[17]


The Free Territory was a stateless and egalitarian society. Workers and peasants were organised into anarchist communities governed via a process of participatory democracy and were linked via an anarchist federation.[18]

When the Insurrectionary Army liberated a town from state control, it would post a notice clarifying they would not impose any authority on the town:

"Workers, your city is for the present occupied by the Revolutionary Insurrectionary (Makhnovist) Army. This army does not serve any political party, any power, any dictatorship. On the contrary, it seeks to free the region of all political power, of all dictatorship. It strives to protect the freedom of action, the free life of the workers, against all exploitation and domination. The Makhnovist Army does not, therefore, represent any authority. It will not subject anyone to any obligation whatsoever. Its role is confined to defending the freedom of the workers. The freedom of the peasants and the workers belong to themselves, and should not suffer any restriction."[18]


Currency substitute stamps distributed by the Makhnovists

The Free Territory was an effort to create an anarcho-communist economy.


Peasants who lived in the Free Territory began to self-organise into farming communes. The first one, called "Rosa Luxemburg" was highly successful. In these communes, land was held in common, and kitchen and dining rooms were also communal, though members who wished to cook separately or to take food from the kitchen and eat it in their own quarters were allowed to do so. Though only a few members actually considered themselves anarchists, the peasants operated the communes on the basis of full equality ("from each according to his ability, to each according to his need") and accepted Kropotkin's principle of mutual aid as their fundamental tenet.[19]


Railroad workers in Aleksandrovsk took the first steps in organising a self-managed economy in 1919. They formed a committee charged with organizing the railway network of the region, establishing a detailed plan for the movement of trains, the transport of passengers, etc. Soviets were soon formed to coordinate factories and other enterprises across Ukraine.[20]

Art and EntertainmentEdit

The Makhnovists paid a great amount of attention to theatre, soldiers from the Black Army often practiced theatre to entertain themselves and keep up morale. In Gulyai-Polye, many workers and students began to write and perform in plays.[21]


The majority of territories continued to use money but planned to become anarcho-communist territories following the Russian Civil War.[18] In 1920, the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army declared that all types of money must be accepted within the territories, threatening "revolutionary punishment" to those who failed to follow this.[22]


As a result of the war, schools were abandoned and teachers received no wages, meaning education was nonexistent in the region for months. Upon the creation of soviets and assemblies in the region, the reconstruction of schools began. Inspired by the free schools of Francisco Ferrer, the soviets set up some of the first secular and democratic schools in Ukraine. Courses were set up for illiterate and semi-literate adults to help them read and courses for history, sociology and political theory were all offered free of charge to the general public.[21] All of these efforts increased literacy in the region.[23]


A photo showing a flag attributed to the Makhnovists.

In the Free Territory, multiple variations of black flags were used by the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army and the free soviets, often with mottos written on them. Ukrainian anarchist Viktor Belash said in his memoirs that flags with slogans such as "Power generates parasites, Long live Anarchy!" and "All power to the soviets right now!" were used at the Gulyai-Polye district soviet and Insurgent Army headquarters.[24] A photo showing a flag with a death's head and the motto "Death to all those who stand in the way of the working people." is often attributed to Makhnovists, first in the Soviet Russian book Jewish Pogroms 1917-1921,[25] but this was denied by Nestor Makhno, who said the photo "does not show Makhnovists at all. The backside of this flag has words translating roughly to "Kish of Dnieper", the name Kish being used by military units of the Free Cossacks and the Ukrainian People's Republic.[26][27]

Human rightsEdit

The Free Territory lifted all restrictions on the press, speech, assembly and political organisations. Six new newspapers formed, among them the right Socialist-Revolutionary Narodovlastie (The People’s Power), the left Socialist-Revolutionary Znamya Vosstanya (The Standard of Revolt), the Bolshevik Zvezda (Star).[28] The Free Territory has been criticised for alleged anti-semitic pogroms, banditry and sexual abuse of women within the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army. Supporters of the Free Territory argue that some of these criticisms (such as anti-semitism) are outright fabrications, or have been significantly exaggerated by Leninists to discredit anti-authoritarian forms of socialism.[29]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Noel-Schwartz, Heather.The Makhnovists & The Russian Revolution - Organization, Peasantry and Anarchism. Archived on Internet Archive. Accessed October 2010.
  2. ^ Skirda, Alexandre, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy's Cossack. AK Press, 2004, p. 86
  3. ^ Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible, PM Press (2010), p. 473.
  4. ^ Malet, Michael, Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War. The Macmillan Press, 1982, p. 19
  5. ^ Skirda, Alexandre, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy's Cossack. AK Press, 2004, p. 34
  6. ^ a b Declaration Of The Revolutionary Insurgent Army Of The Ukraine (Makhnovist). Peter Arshinov, History of the Makhnovist Movement (1918-1921), 1923. Black & Red, 1974
  7. ^ Simon Pirani, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920–24: Soviet Workers and the New Communist Elite, Routledge, 2008, p. 96.
  8. ^ Nestor Makhno--anarchy's Cossack
  9. ^ Declaration Of The Revolutionary Insurgent Army Of The Ukraine (Makhnovist). Peter Arshinov, History of the Makhnovist Movement (1918-1921), 1923. Black & Red, 1974
  10. ^ a b Avrich, Paul. Anarchist Portraits, 1988, Princeton University Press, pp. 114, 121.
  11. ^ Schwartz, Heather-Noël (January 7, 1920), The Makhnovists & The Russian Revolution: Organization, Peasantry, and Anarchism, archived from the original on January 18, 2008, retrieved January 18, 2008
  12. ^ Footman, David. Civil War In Russia Frederick A.Praeger 1961, page 287
  13. ^ Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, The Makhno Movement and Opposition Within the Party
  14. ^ Skirda, Alexandre, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy's Cossack. AK Press, 2004, p. 236
  15. ^ Skirda, Alexandre, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy's Cossack. AK Press, 2004, p. 238
  16. ^ Skirda, Alexandre, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy's Cossack. AK Press, 2004, p. 237
  17. ^ 'The Makhno Myth', International Socialist Review #53, May–June 2007.
  18. ^ a b c Eikhenbaum, Vsevolod (1947). The Unknown Revolution, 1917 - 1921. Book Three. The Struggle For Real Social Revolution.
  19. ^ Voline (1947). The Unknown Revolution: 1917 - 1921, Book III, the struggle for real social revolution, Part II: Ukraine (1918-1921).
  20. ^ Arshinov, Peter (1923). History of the Makhnovist Movement. p. 84.
  21. ^ a b Arshinov, Peter (1923). History of the Makhnovist Movement. pp. 102–103.
  22. ^ MILITARY REVOLUTIONARY COUNCIL AND COMMAND STAFF OF THE REVOLUTIONARY INSURGENT ARMY OF THE UKRAINE (MAKHNOVISTS) (7 January 1920). "To All Peasants and Workers of the Ukraine". Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  23. ^ Gelderloos, Peter (2010). Anarchy Works.
  24. ^ Skirda, Alexandre (2003). Nestor Makhno, Anarchy's Cossack (4th ed.). AK Press. p. 86. ISBN 1 902593 68 5.
  25. ^ Ostrovsky, Z.S. (1926). Jewish Pogroms 1917-1921. Акц. p. 100. Retrieved 7 November 2018.
  26. ^ Makhno, Nestor (April–May 1927). "To the Jews of all Countries". Delo Truda. pgs. 8–10. Retrieved 9 October 2018. By contrast, the same document does mention a number of pogroms and alongside prints the photographs of Makhnovist insurgents, though it is not clear what they are doing there, on the one hand, and which, in point of fact are no even Makhnovists, as witness the photograph purporting to show 'Makhnovists on the move' behind a black flag displaying a death's head: this is a photo that has no connection with pogroms and indeed and especially does not show Makhnovists at all.
  27. ^ Los de Abajo a la Izquierda (9 December 2017). "Makhnovist flag or banner? Well, NO". Los de Abajo a la Izquierda. Blogspot. Retrieved 12 October 2018.
  28. ^ Arshinov, Peter (1923). History of the Makhnovist Movement. p. 87.
  29. ^ An Anarchist FAQ. Appendix: The Russian Revolution.


Coordinates: 47°46′8″N 36°44′28″E / 47.76889°N 36.74111°E / 47.76889; 36.74111