Since I began researching my granddad’s diary five years back, I have become familiar with history of South Russia – on a very basic level I hasten to say – but on a deeper level, my understanding of the world shifted and I realised that histories, big and small, are not a series of events but they are connected, no, even interlinked, in space as well as time. I remember getting a sense of this back in late 1993, when Irish news was full of peace negotiations and I was simultaneously reading a book about the negotiations for the 1921 Treaty that gave southern Ireland her independence. News and book merged in my mind to the point that I seemed to be caught in a dream-like state, expecting to see our Michael Collins march out of this or that meeting, grimly smiling as he ignored the television cameras, saying no comment into the extended, beseeching microphones.
Pictures coming out of eastern Ukraine this week show refugees crossing the border to Taganrog, the town which was once HQ of the White Army and The British Military Mission and from which granddad was one of the last to be evacuated 102 years ago. As far as I know, even the railway station building is the same one. On this blog I wrote of refugees dying in their thousands as they fled southwards ahead of the Bolshevik advance. Bodies were piled at railway stations, falling frozen from the roofs of trains on the bitter nights. The railway of course is one reason the routes of evacution remain the same in every era, especially in winter. The 21st century refugees are dressed in puffa jackets and Nepalese hats instead of blankets, and maybe, hopefully, less are dying, though some of the Ukrainian men are being press ganged by the Ukrainian Army to stay and fight. Further east, Rostov-on-Don, where granddad saw, from the packed train he was escaping on, two prisoners hanged and shot, has been quieter this week but still braced for an influx. Further east still about 20km or so is Novocherkassk. Rather futher off in the same direction, but still in the region, is Volgograd, previously Stalingrad, which itself rose from the ashes of Tsaritsyn which was crushed in 1919 during the battle between the Red and White Army.
Its no accident that the same geographical areas ignite. Russia is huge but it lacks coastline, or more accurately warm water ports that do not freeze in winter. This is why Ukraine, bordering The Black Sea, is so attractive. Not to mention being close to the Caucausus and so to Georgia and the oil of The Caspian Sea. There is talk about Putin having lost his mind but there’s still method here. None of these dictators ever gets mad enough to lose sight of the money and the power. The British were there in 1919 because they were worred about their trade route to India and their military supplies. And the Bolsheviks stretched their lines to breaking point because they wanted the warm water ports too. And they also hated peasants and cossacks and anyone else who had an independent thought.
It was to Novocherkassk in Rostov-Oblast that Denikin and other Tsarist Generals fled and there formed the The Volunteer Army in 1917. Novocherassk was also where Major HNH Williamson, author of Farewell to the Don, was based. As mentioned, it was in the Taganrog and also Rostov that the British and The Whites had their headquarters and they shifted to Ekaterinodar (now Krasnodar) and Novorossiysk as they retreated.
I also wrote here about the people of these parts – these parts being what is now Ukraine and the area to the east – who have a fierce desire for independence. But Ukraine has never really been a nation. Or not for long. After the February revolution any number of groups and councils seeking independence came to power and, in simple terms, Ukraine gained a status as a republic in 1917, a move that was initially supported by the Bolsheviks looking to destabilize an empire. But the subsequent republic was not recognised by the Soviets and Ukraine was absorbed into the Soviet experiment. It regained its independence in 1991, but it does not have a deep history. Perhaps the myth of the independent blood flowing in the region’s inhabitants serves to strengthen their nationalism.
In granddad’s time anarchist Nestor Makhno and his peasant Black Army fought just about everyone – for Ukraine’s independence, goes the story, but can an anarchist can fight for any such thing? Makhno had purportedly inscribed his machine gun with the phrase ’Beat the Reds until they’re white! Beat the Whites until they’re red!’ but he allied with the Bolsheviks in early 1919 to fight Denikin and the White Army. The Bolsheviks predictably turned on him. They – like Denikin – were never going to tolerate the idea of an independent Ukraine. This lack of focus that is perhaps innate to any anarchist’s fight, led to Makhno’s army being crushed. Makhno survived but after 1921 his army was scattered. He died in Paris of TB in 1935.
The current situation – or war as it is now – is said to have begun in 2014 with the election of president Petro Poroshenko who favoured westernization, something which worried Putin to the point that he annexed The Crimea. But Poroshenko, who began the process of integrating with the EU, lost to actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019. Unlike the militaristic Poroshenko, Zelensky sought to avoid war with Russia. But that didn’t work out so well. Maybe Putin was more afraid of Poroshenko than Zelensky?But perhaps it’s all just been a long time coming. Zelensky and Poroschenko are both out on the streets of Kyiv with guns now, with Zelensky, as I write anyway, garnering huge respect for his determination to stand and fight.
Perhaps the anarchist Makhno will posthumously find himself a part of a new Ukrainian nationalist history. This week the hacker group Anonymous hacked a Russian monuments website to post various pictures including a pop image of Putin in front of a rainbow and plastered in make-up. Then they posted a black and white image of Makhno, framed to hide his diminutive size – (is that why he fought everyone?because he was small?) – macho and moustachioed and pitched against Putin as a champion for a nationalist state he apparently didn’t believe in.
But these words are from someone who has done relatively little research. Though I try and source my information, I don’t have the expertise or knowledge to make sense of all this (corrections and additions welcome in the comments but keep them polite please). Additionally, much of the literature around this era in Russia – or perhaps the most available literature – is muddied by propaganda and personal opinion. But, despite all that, I know who I am rooting for.