Everything Is Just Dandy!

Sean Patterson – “Death to All Those who Stand in the Way of Freedom for the Working People”

The Anarchist Library

Author: Sean Patterson
Title: “Death to All Those who Stand in the Way of Freedom for the Working People”
Subtitle: Anarchy’s False Flag
Date: June 30, 2022
Notes: Sean Patterson is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Alberta. He is currently researching the relationship between ideology and violence in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhia region during the Ukrainian Civil War (1918–1921). Sean is the author of Makhno and Memory: Anarchist and Mennonite Narratives of Ukraine’s Civil War, 1917–1921 (University of Manitoba Press, 2020). He can be reached at sdpatter@ualberta.ca (Patterson’s note): I want to acknowledge Malcolm Archibald and Yuriy Kravetz for their generous assistance in the research of this article.
Source: Retrieved on July 1st, 2022 from anarchiststudies.noblogs.org


In pursuing the recovery of the past, the near inevitability of error is a perpetual thorn in the side of historians. Ranging from small typos to translation errors to source manipulation, historical inaccuracies can be introduced into authoritative academic texts in a multiplicity of ways. Sometimes error is a matter of carelessness or the unintentional mis-reading of a text; in other cases, the introduction of error is linked to authorial biases, or even the intentional falsification by state authorities for political purposes. Many textual errors are mere nuisances that have little to no broader implications for their subject, while other errors can over time spawn historiographical consequences that outweigh their initial appearance. The subject of the Ukrainian Civil War’s peasant-anarchist Makhnovist movement provides numerous examples of historiographical myth production. In this article I investigate the case of one flag, which turns out to be a false flag, in order to illustrate how a seemingly minor historical error can create enduring ripples that far outweigh its initial transgression.

The Makhnovists were a popular peasant movement based in the southern Ukrainian province of Katerynoslav [modern-day Zaporizhia oblast] during the years of Revolution and Civil War (1917–1921). Their leader, Nestor Makhno, was an anarcho-communist from a poor peasant background, who as a youth was convicted for terrorist crimes and sentenced to life in prison. However, after the 1917 Revolution Makhno was released and he returned to his hometown, Huliaipole, where he organized a successful insurgent movement. His forces fought against virtually every competing power including the Imperial German Army, the White Army, the Ukrainian People’s Army, the Red Army, and various other local forces.

The movement’s ideological leadership sought to create a society of federated peasant communes and worker-controlled industries administered through freely elected councils outside of party-control. However, due to the contingencies of the Civil War their social experiments were consistently disrupted. Moreover, the leadership often struggled to control elements of its army which engaged in looting and atrocities.[1] Against this background, Makhno’s forces were frequently accused of anti-Semitism and carrying out ethnic pogroms – an accusation that Makhno and his supporters defended themselves from both during the Civil War and later in exile. It is in the context of the debate around these accusations that the flag in question first emerges.


Nestor Makhno, 1921

A key example of the myth-producing power of error and manipulation within Makhnovist historiography is the black flag that has become the movement’s central symbol, displaying the skull-and-crossbones and a slogan in white Ukrainian lettering that reads, “Death to all who stand in the way of freedom for the working people” [“Smertʹ vsim, khto na pereshkodi dobut’ia vilʹnosti trudovomu liudu”].[2] The flag is widely recognized both within Ukraine and internationally. It is especially ubiquitous in online anarchist communities, inspiring innumerable memes and entire lines of merchandise including T-shirts, stickers, cell phone cases and even pandemic masks. However, despite its near-universal reputation as the primary symbol of Ukrainian anarchism, the flag is not Makhnovist.

In academic and popular literature of various languages, the skull-and-bones flag has been consistently identified as Makhnovist since at least the 1970s.[3] In the digital era, Wikipedia has been especially important in tying the flag to Makhno in the broader public mind. Until very recently most related Wikipedia articles uncritically labelled the flag as Makhnovist. This has been corrected to some extent of late. For example, the entry “Flags of the Makhnovshchina” – created in June 2022 – correctly notes that the flag is not Makhnovist but incorrectly ascribes it to Symon Petliura’s Ukrainian People’s Army.[4] In other entries and in the Wikimedia Commons the flag is still described as Makhnovist or “allegedly” Makhnovist.[5] Given Wikipedia’s broad cultural reach, it is likely that the site acted as a significant vector in reinforcing the flag’s association with Makhno, particularly with online anarchist communities. As an open-source collaborative platform, Wikipedia is especially prone to such errors and the spreading of mythologies about under researched and highly politicized topics like the Makhnovist movement.


Ukranian street graffiti

Within Ukraine itself, the flag and its slogan is widely seen in street graffiti, artworks, historical films, and even official museum exhibits like the one in Nestor Makhno’s hometown of Huliaipole. The slogan, and variations thereof, are also seen on frontline Ukrainian soldiers’ patches and flags in the current war with Russia. Ukrainian and Russian anarchist organizations frequently evoke the flag and slogan in their propaganda. In the context of today’s war, the slogan is understood as a Ukrainian rallying cry for resistance against the Russian state’s invasion.