The Ukrainian roots of the 1936 Spanish revolution

This article from the CNT-AIT of France looks at the connections between the Makhnovshchina and more broadly the Russian anarchist movement and the anarchist revolution in Spain.

Translation : Albatross (

On July 19, 1936, the Spanish Revolution broke out, a popular counter-insurgency against the military and fascist coup led by Franco. In Barcelona, in Aragon and in many provinces and cities of Spain, the workers seized arms and crushed the rebels. The State disappeared and the anarchists started dreaming of setting up a new social order, just and harmonious.

This spontaneous act of July 19, 1936 did not arise out of nowhere. It was the culmination of a long process, which matured in the Spanish working class over several generations and decades, and which was marked by numerous debates, and even by vigorous polemics. But never lost sight of was the cardinal point of view of the need for a social revolution, that is to say a sudden and acute rupture of social normality to induce a radical change in the deep structures of society, state and economy together.

Among the multiple references on which the Spanish anarchosyndicalists fed in their theoretical and practical work, the experience of the libertarian revolution in southern Ukraine, known as Makhnovshchina played a leading role.

Makhnovshchina, the free territory of Ukraine

The Makhnovshchina takes its name from Nestor Makhno, the one that south Ukraine’s insurgents had chosen as « ataman » according to the old Cossack tradition. It was a vast area of southern Ukraine in which, between November 1918 and June 1921, a peasant uprising tried to set up another society, a desirable future, free from aristocrats, the rich and the exploiters, and where men and women could live free, equal and fraternal, regardless of their origin or nationality. Their flag was the black flag of anarchy, claimed by Makhno and his companions.

For 3 years, insurgents in southern Ukraine fought tirelessly against the armies of White Russian aristocrats who wanted to reestablish the Empire, against the German armies who supported Ukrainian nationalists who sought to establish an independent Ukrainian Republic, and against the Communists who sought to establish their dictatorship. The insurgents sometimes made an alliance with the Communists to defeat the Whites and the Ukrainian nationalists. It was the anarchist insurgents who saved the Russian Revolution by defeating the Whites at the Battle of Peregonovka1 . As thanks for ridding them of the threat of the White armies, Trotsky – then supreme leader of the Red Army – quickly betrayed the Makhnovists and demanded that Makhno be captured and shot. He only survived by escaping, with the Red Army hot on his heels. Wounded, sick, he wandered in Romania and Poland before finding refuge in France where he ended his life in 1934, a factory worker but still a fervent anarchist.

The influence of the Makhnovshchina on Spanish anarchosyndicalism

The epic of Makhno and the Ukrainian insurgents had a very strong impression on anarchists all over the world, from China to Argentina, but particularly in Spain. Durruti and Ascaso, during their exile in France in 1927, met Makhno and sent him this message on behalf of the Spanish libertarian movement « We come to greet in your person all the revolutionaries who have fought in Russia for the realization of our libertarian ideas, but we also want to pay tribute to the rich experience that your struggle in Ukraine has represented for all of us. » Makhno answered them by expressing his confidence in the Spanish anarchists: « Not only do I admire the Iberian anarchist movement, » because of its organization, but « I think that, for the moment, it is the only one that can carry out a revolution deeper than that of the Bolsheviks and without the bureaucratic danger which threatened it from the first moments »; « Bolshevism triumphed militarily in the Ukraine and in Kronstadt, but revolutionary history will one day prove us right and condemn as counter-revolutionaries the gravediggers of the Russian revolution ».

And he concludes by expressing his wish to see the Revolution happen in Spain and even participate in it: « I hope that, when the time comes, you will do better than us. Makhno has never turned down a fight; if I am still alive when yours begins, then I will be a fighter like the others ».

Makhnovists in the Spanish Revolution

Makhno passed away on July 25, 1934, two years before the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution. But some of the exiled Makhnovists2 took part, directly or indirectly, in the revolutionary movement.

Sasha Schapiro

One of the most famous of them is Sasha Schapiro. Also known under the false identity of Alexandre Tanaroff or under the pen name of Sacha Peter, he was born in 1889 or 1890 in Novozybkov in the Russian Empire. He joined the anarchist movement at the age of 14, participating in the Russian Revolution of 1905, and ended up being arrested and sentenced to death. Seriously injured during multiple escape attempts, his left arm was amputated. Liberated by the Revolution of 1917, he was celebrated as a hero when he left. He left for Ukraine to join the Makhnovist insurgents. There he fought simultaneously against the Whites, the Ukrainian nationalists and the Reds. In 1921, he fled Soviet Russia, lived successively in Paris and Berlin where he frequented the international anarchist movement and met Nestor Makhno, Buenaventura Durruti and Sébastien Faure. As soon as the revolution in Spain was announced, he rushed to join the International Column of the CNT-AIT. During an Extraordinary Assembly of anarchist militiamen, on March 9, 1937, he spoke: « I am not a militiaman, but I was in Russia where I lived through the revolution, and I was able to notice the way they got rid of the anarchists there.” After summarizing the Makhnovist movement, he stresses “I have been in Spain for eight months. As long as we have arms everything is possible, the Revolution is still here. Here is always the revolution, the real life. What matters is the spirit that animates something.« 

In 1939, when the Republicans were defeated by Francoism, he returned to France during the Retirada and settled in the region of Nîmes with his family (including his son, the future mathematician Alexandre Grothendieck). On October 29, 1939, the central police station of the French Republican Police drew up a list of fourteen Spaniards and an « anarchist Russian refugee », designated to be interned in the Vernet Ariège concentration camp, where he was interned 2 days later, with the Spanish refugees. He continued the fight in the camp, which was worth it to him to be locked up in the section of the punished. After Pétain came to power, he was kept in the camp. He was transferred on June 16, 1941 to that of Noé (Haute Garonne) before being transferred to Drancy. There, on August 14, 1942, under the name of Alexander Tanaroff, he was one of the 991 deportees from convoy number 19, the first to transport children under the age of 10, heading for the Auschwitz extermination camp. , where he disappears.

Another Makhnovist figure, Voline, also played an important role in solidarity with the Spanish Revolution. When the Spanish Revolution broke out, Voline was one of the leaders of the Committee for the Defense of the Spanish Proletariat, made up of militants from the Anarchist Union, the French section of the AIT (CGTSR) and the French Anarchist Federation (FAF). Subsequently, he participated in the Anarchosyndicalist Committee created by the CGTSR-AIT and the FAF, which supported the Spanish Revolution while criticizing the participation of the CNT-FAI in the Spanish government. Voline managed the French version of the newspaper « l’Espagne antifasciste », which was later published under the name « l’Espagne nouvelle ». During the war and the occupation, Voline took part in an internationalist anarchist resistance network of former members of the CGTSR-AIT, Senegalese, Czech and Spanish anarchists who published tracts and brochures criticizing all the belligerents – both the Nazis and the Allies – and calling for social and libertarian revolution3 .

Russian and Ukrainian Anarchists in Solidarity with the Spanish Revolution

Other Russian or Ukrainian anarchists also participated in the constructive work of the Spanish Revolution, warning the Spanish anarchosyndicalists of the danger represented by collusion with the Communist Party whose dictatorial methods they had experienced during the Russian Revolution.

Emma Goldman at Hyde Park,
1st of May of 1937

Emma Goldman, the “grandmother” of anarchism, traveled to Spain where she took part in the activities of the Spanish CNT-AIT and SIA (International Antifascist Solidarity). She created the section of SIA in Great Britain with the writer Georges Orwell, who had participated in the fight against fascism in Spain with the POUM and whose experience of the Spanish Revolution inspired his famous book denouncing totalitarianism « 1984 ».

Alexander Sanya Schapiro

Alexander Schapiro “Sanya”, born in Rostov-on-Don in 1882, had spent his youth in Paris and London, where he was the secretary of the great Russian anarchist Kropotkin then in exile. Returning to Russia during the Revolution, he was appointed to a position of responsibility at the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the Bolshevik government. Increasingly critical of the communist regime, whose dictatorship he denounced, he was arrested in 1919, then released in 1920, after a hunger strike. After the crushing of the Kronstadt uprising, he joined Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman to obtain from Lenin the release of imprisoned anarchists. He was arrested in turn, banned for life and expelled from the country to Berlin, where he immediately organized aid for political prisoners of all stripes detained in Russia. He participated very actively in the founding congress of the AIT (IWA, International Association of Workers) in Berlin in 1922. He drew up the first draft of the statutes. Shapiro therefore had an essential role in the constitution of the libertarian principles of the AIT, of which he says « Anarchosyndicalism is the International Workers’ Association which does not limit its activities to the daily struggle for improvements in detail , but puts in the very first place, as Kropotkin so aptly put it, the question of the reconstruction of society. » In 1933, he left Germany to flee Nazism and settled in Paris. He knew Spain well, where he had been sent by the AIT in 1932 to help strengthen the Spanish CNT-AIT. A member of the CGTSR-AIT, he wrote articles for anarchosyndicalist newspapers characterized by their clarity of ideas and concise style. The works published by Shapiro contributed to the clarification of anarchosyndicalist ideas and tactics, including in Spain. During the Spanish Revolution, he put himself at the service of solidarity but without losing his critical spirit, writing articles to denounce the governmental participation of the CNT as well as the rapprochement of republican Spain with the USSR.

Antonio Casanova (with the béret)
and Simón Radowitzky (with the hat)
on the Aragon Front in 1937

Simón Radowitzky, was a true hero of anarchist legend. He was born in Stepanovka, a small village in Ukraine, into a working-class family of Jewish origin. At the age of 10, he dropped out of school to work in a mechanical workshop. At 14, he took part in a first strike and was wounded by a saber cut to the chest. He was then sentenced to 4 months in prison for distributing leaflets. During the Russian Revolution of 1905, he was 15 years old and was appointed secretary of the Soviet of his factory. He was forced into exile to escape deportation to Siberia. He arrived in Argentina in March 1908, where he found a job as a mechanic. He joined the Federación Obrera Regional Argentina (FORA) which developed intense anarchosyndicalist activity. On May 1, 1909, at the call of the FORA, he participated in the demonstration in Lorea Square, in Buenos Aires. Police chief Colonel Ramón Falcón provoked a massacre by fiercely charging at protesters and pursuing terror during Red Week. He then decided to avenge the dead workers and prepared a bomb, which he threw on November 14, 1909 at Colonel Falcón killing him and his secretary. He then attempted to commit suicide. Hospitalized, he was recovering from a bullet perforation of a lung. Sentenced to death, his sentence was then commuted to life imprisonment because of his young age and sent to prison in Ushuaia. The anarchist movement and in the first place the FORA and AIT organized numerous campaigns to have him released. The anarchist Miguel Arcangel Roscigna even went so far as to be hired as prison guard to try to help him escape. In November 1918, a group of anarchists managed to help him to escape and cross to Chile. Arrested by the Chilean navy, they were handed over to the Argentine authorities. After 21 years spent in prison in Ushuaia and numerous solidarity campaigns, he was finally granted amnesty in 1930 with the obligation to leave the territory. He settled in Montevideo, Uruguay. After the coup of March 31, 1933, he fought against the dictatorship of Gabriel Terra. Arrested, he was deported to the island of Flores from where he escaped in 1933, then went to Spain where he was active in the CNT-AIT. During the Spanish social revolution of 1936, he fought on the Aragon front and then worked for the Foreign Propaganda Office of the CNT-AIT in Barcelona. In particular, he contributed to the Russian edition of the CNT-AIT Information Bulletin.

In 1939, he was interned in France in the concentration camp of Saint-Cyprien in the Eastern Pyrenees, sharing the distress of hundreds of thousands of Spaniards who had fled fascism. Released, he then left for Mexico where he served with the Mexican Section of International Antifascist Solidarity (SIA), until his death from a heart attack in 1956.

Mikhail Vorobiev [1901-1996] was a Russian anarchist, member of the Borovoi group of the FAI. Expelled from the Soviet Union in 1921 for anarchist activities, he returned to France where he was active in the anarchist movement. In 1936, when the Revolution broke out in Spain, he left for Barcelona to participate in social transformation. With Nikita Romash, he was editor-in-chief of the CNT-AIT Bulletin in Russian, he also worked as a translator at the CNT-FAI Foreign Propaganda Office in Barcelona. After the Spanish Civil War, he fled to France. He was an anarcist activist until his last breath, in 1996.

Collectivizations in Aragon, the “Spanish Makhnovshchina”

Makhno was convinced that his collectivist proposals could materialize in Spain. « Our agrarian commune in Ukraine was an active unit, both economically and politically, in the federal and united system that we had created », he added, before expressing his confidence that « perhaps your revolution could arrive in time for me to take away the satisfaction of seeing the living anarchism taught by the Russian revolution ».

The Council of Aragon, created in the revolutionary momentum of July 1936 and recognized on October 6 of that year, was directly inspired by the anarchist experience of the Makhnovshchina. The majority of Aragon was then effectively won by « libertarian communism ». At the end of September, more than 450 rural communities had already been formed, most of them (except twenty) at the initiative of the CNT-AIT. For 10 months, the communities and the Council tried to bring Libertarian Communism to life, despite the increasingly strong opposition of the Republicans who did not see this large-scale anarchist experiment in a good light. On August 4, 1937, the Spanish Republican government ordered the troops of the 11th Division of the Republican Army, commanded by the communist fanatic Enrique Líster, to occupy Aragon, under the pretext of military maneuvers. On August 10, the Regional Defense Council of Aragon was dissolved, the anarchist leaders of the Council – including Joacquin Ascaso and 700 other anarchists – are imprisoned. Some are tortured and disappear into the hands of the Soviet political police… 15 years after the crushing of anarchist Ukraine, once again the communists brutally put an end to the libertarian utopia.

The spirit is not dead…

Despite the blows dealt by repression, whether communist, fascist or capitalist, the anarchist spirit is not dead… In Spain, the CNT-AIT, having taken up the torch from past generations, and continues the fight without compromise with the state and with its institutions. In many countries too the various AIT-IWA sections try to keep alive the spirit of resistance without compromise, even if it means sometimes feeling a little alone in the desert. And in Ukraine or in Russia, where the war started by Putin is now raging, there are still small groups that hold the flag of Anarchy high, refusing to sink into nationalism and trying to boost networks of mutual-aid and grass-root resistance wherever possible.

As Makhnovist veteran Sasha Schapiro said at the 1937 meeting of anarchosyndicalist militiamen: « Here is always the revolution, the real life. What matters is the spirit that animates something. »

Companions of the CNT-AIT

For more information on the Makhnovshchina: the blog of the Friends of Nestor Makhno:
To contact your closest IWA section :

In French : Les racines ukrainiennes de la révolution sociale espagnole de 1936

In Spanish : Las raíces ucranianas de la Revolución Social Española de 1936

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