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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements


It’s Sunday, the 22nd of October, we’re on the night train out of Kyiv, and we have the whole coupe to ourselves. We never would have guessed we’d be here when we met two months earlier at an old squat smelling of dog piss, where we cooked together for Gratis Eten.  L has come out from Nederland to visit me for a week.  A strange adventure, considering we’ve only known each other for two weeks and then two months of letter-writing. It’s all the better for its strangeness. In such a lonely world it’s delightful to discover someone who is moved and angered, who dreams of the same things you do.

Presently, it’s nice that she’s as much of a history nerd as I am. Our first destination on this trip is Gulyaipolye, the town in southern Ukraina that was the birthplace of anarchist Nestor Makhno and the center of a stateless society of seven million people who fought for freedom from the Germans, the nationalists, the White Russians, and the Bolsheviks in the years after World War I. The train doesn’t go any farther than Zaporizhye, which used to be called Alexandrovsk and was one of the largest cities in the anarchist zone. The morning of the 23rd, the train crosses the Dnepr, and we peer at her map, trying to piece together our route through the night and our present position.  We spend the next hours before our arrival deep in conversation, passing from the Ukrainian anarchists of the last century to the modern-day rebels in Oaxaca, Mexico, who were fighting at that very moment to recreate their society. The revolution is alive! We promise each other that as soon as we can, we’ll travel to Mexico.

Zaporizhye, renamed to reflect its Cossack pedigree, is grimy and post-Soviet, and trekking from the train station to the center is like walking from West Asia to Europe; from street-side vendors located in little shacks or simply standing on the curb selling fish, soda, and shoarma, to clothing shops and restaurants with neon signs.  Between the train station and bus station one wall is painted with a huge swastika.  The Makhnovists liberated the nearby city of Ekaterinoslav, now Dnepropetrovsk, simply by dressing in their peasant clothes, riding in on the train past the enemy fortifications, congregating around the strategic points of the city, and throwing down.  The cities on the edge of the territory changed hands often with the fortunes of war, but much of southern Ukraina was stateless and self-organizing for two years.  They organized workers’ and peasants’ soviets—councils—and held periodic assemblies for the entire region.  When the anarchists took a new town or city, they did not set up a new government but advised the people to form a council and organize themselves.  Some historians fault them for this, as a few cities stopped functioning.  Rather than self-organize, they simply waited to be occupied and dictated to by the next army.


Money printed by the Makhnovists, stamped with a humorous rhyming couplet in Ukrainian: Whosoever does not accept this note/ We will soundly beat his butt

In the areas where the anarchists had a more consistent presence, people redistributed wealth and land, set up schools, and put themselves in control of their own lives.  Ultimately the anarchists died a slow death as the Bolsheviks, under cover of alliance with Makhno’s army, gradually co-opted the free soviets and eventually arrested and shot the anarchists.  Trotsky, cynically questioning the loyalty of the anarchists, pressured them to go to the most dangerous fronts in the war against the White Army—the motley force of tsarists, aristocrats, and republicans with backing from France, Britain, and the US.  After defeating Wrangel’s army in Crimea, one of the strongest anarchist fighting units was ambushed by their erstwhile Red Army allies and mowed down.

Gulyaipolye is a different world from grungy Zaporizhye.  Tree-lined streets, soft and rainy air, whitewashed houses with gardens and blue-painted shutters, the sound of chickens and the smell of pigs, rolling fields in the distance.  Gone is the aggressiveness of the urban Ukrainians and their overt disgust with foreigners—for the first time someone even compliments me on my Russian.  That night L and I huddle in her sleeping bag, splitting a bottle of wine and telling stories.  The next day, we’re the only ones in the Gulyaipolye Regional History museum: the curator turns the lights on just for us, and prattles my ear off as though I were fluent.  Every now and then I stop her to translate something for L, but mostly I just smile, say “Da, da, konyeshna,” and pretend I understand.  I learn that the director is an ardent fan of Richard Gear and Julia Roberts, her son is studying medicine, we have beautiful smiling faces, and after guessing that it was an interest in Makhno that brought us to the museum, she also tells us there was a Makhno Festival in August that brought many artists, writers, and intellectuals—she says with eyes raised skyward—and yes, also some anarchists and drug-users.

Finally we’re left in peace to explore the museum, one exhibit of which focuses largely on Makhno, featuring photographs, newspapers, posters, banners, even one of the machine gun-mounted horse carts they used to wreak havoc on the more cumbersome armies of the Reds and Whites.  One black banner that used to fly in the town carries an especially forceful phrase: “Osvobozhdyeniye rabochikh—dyelo ruk samikh rabochikh!”  “The liberation of the workers is a task for the workers themselves!”  The Makhno exhibit, and the entire reintegration of Makhno into Ukrainian history after the Leninist purges, minimizes or altogether omits his anarchism, presenting him instead as a national hero.  Thus, L and I feel it is our responsibility to leave anarchist messages in four different languages in the museum guest book.

Later we go to Sevastopol, on the Black Sea.  Russian sailors walk the city, on leave from the naval base Moscow still maintains here.  The architecture seems to bear a Greek influence, and the Greeks certainly left their mark on the name of the city. It’s a good thing that people travel so much, I think. The world would be a more boring place if borders were respected.

On the night train back to Kyiv we each have top bunks.  The bottom bunks are occupied by two women who are more fluent in the pan-Slavic night train ritual.  They are chatting dutifully beside their bags of food and special slippers.  L and I are sharing one of the bunks, so we can talk about our uncertain future, draft fanciful travel plans, and play hangman with phrases in Russian and Nederlands.  When the lights go out and we retire to our separate bunks, I lie back and think about life.