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Launchpad: Makhno and Memory, by Sean Patterson

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This spring we've made it our mission (even more than usual) to celebrate new releases in the wake of cancelled launch parties, book festivals, and reading series. With 49th Shelf Launchpad, we're holding virtual launch parties here on our platform complete with witty banter and great insight to give you a taste of the books on offer. You can request these books from your local library, get them as e-books or audio books, order them from your local indie bookseller if they're delivering, buy them direct from the publisher or from online retailers.

Today we're launching Makhno and Memory: Anarchist and Mennonite Narratives of Ukraine's Civil War, 1917–1921, by Sean Patterson, the story of "the Ukrainian Robin Hood."


Book Cover Makhno and Memory

The Elevator Pitch. Tell us about your book in a sentence.

Makhno and Memory examines the conflict between the insurgent peasant-anarchist forces of Nestor Makhno and the Mennonite communities of southern Ukraine during the Russian Civil War period (1918-1921). 

Describe your ideal reader.
My book was written with a wide range of readers in mind from academics to the general populace. My work will especially appeal to readers from Ukrainian and Mennonite backgrounds, as well as those interested in anarchism as a social movement. Ultimately, my research is intended for readers fascinated by the  process of civil war in which neighbours are turned into enemies.

What authors/books is your work in conversation with?

Foremost my book is in conversation with the literature produced by Mennonite and anarchist participants in the conflict. Especially important are Nestor Makhno’s memoirs. Three volumes of his memoirs were published in French during the 1930s, and recently translated into English by the small Edmonton publisher Black Cat Press. I also extensively engage with Peter Arshinov’s History of the Makhnovist Movement and Voline’s The Unknown Revolution. From the Mennonite perspective the most accessible published memoirs are Dietrich Neufeld’s A Russian Dance of Death, David G. Rempel’s A Mennonite Family in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, and Gerhard Schroeder’s Miracles of Grace and Judgement. The Mennonite historian John B. Toews has also published a brilliant compilation of Mennonite memoirs and primary sources entitled Mennonites in Ukraine Amid Civil War and Anarchy.

Less directly my book engages the historiography of Russian Mennonites and the Makhnovist movement in secondary literature. Very few English language studies of Nestor Makhno have been produced since the 1980s. However, amongst the older  and still relevant works are Michael Malet’s Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War, Michael Palij’s The Anarchism of Nestor Makhno, Victor Peters’s Nestor Makhno: The Life of an Anarchist, and Alexandre Skirda’s Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack. More recently, from a Mennonite perspective there is Nestor Makhno and the Eichenfeld Massacre. Published as a companion book to a memorial established in Ukraine, the book contains a number of important and unique sources. Two studies of Russian Mennonite history I found particularly illuminating are John B. Toews’s Czars, Soviets, and Mennonites and James Urry’s Mennonites, Politics, and Peoplehood. Fortunately, there appears to be a resurgence of interest in Makhno in the English language. Alongside my book, Colin Darch’s Nestor Makhno and Rural Anarchism in Ukraine will be published this year. Additionally, Johnathan Smele has a Makhnovist study slated for release in 2022.                  
What is something interesting you learned about your book/yourself/your subject during the process of creating and publishing your book?
Early on in researching Nestor Makhno, I discovered that many of my Mennonite friends’ families had been directly affected by the Makhnovist movement. These friendships were deepened as they shared with me their families’, often traumatic, experiences. In many cases new friendships were forged as I was introduced to relatives and others in the community who had extensive knowledge on the topic. In turn these relationships and experiences helped me develop a more multi-faceted perspective on the subject. On the other side, my travels to southern Ukraine exposed me to the contemporary heroization of Nestor Makhno. My discussions in this context helped me understand why some Ukrainians and leftists interpret Makhno in a positive light.

What is something your ideal interviewer would ask you about your book? Anything goes…

Despite the events I discuss in my book having taken place 100 years ago, the topic is still very emotionally charged given the divisiveness of Nestor Makhno. Throughout the writing process I tried to approach all sides of the conflict with respect and sensitivity, while being guided by the conviction that understanding the reasons and motives for violence does not equate to its advocacy or legitimation.

The thank you's. Go ahead and acknowledge someone whose support has been integral to this project.
I will leave the acknowledgements to the book. Although someone who deserves credit who didn’t make the cut is my Saint Bernard-Golden Retriever. Dora accompanied me on many walks when I was most in need of clearing my mind. She is definitely a good girl.
What book are you reading right now or next?
I am currently reading Kropotkin and Canada, by Alexey Ivanov. Originally written in Russian, it was translated and published this year by Edmonton’s Black Cat Press. Drawing upon an unpublished diary, Ivanov details the famous anarchist-prince Peter Kropotkin’s tour of Canada in 1897. During this trip Kropotkin visited the Mennonite communities of southern Manitoba and extensively commented on Canada’s indigenous peoples. Ivanov also explores how Kropotkin’s interest in Canada influenced the evolution of his anarchist philosophy and advocacy of federalism. I am also greatly looking forward to Christopher Coquard’s The Curious One: Peter Kropotkin’s Siberian Diaries, to be published through Montreal’s Black Rose Books this fall.     


About Makhno and Memory:

Nestor Makhno has been called a revolutionary anarchist, a peasant rebel, the Ukrainian Robin Hood, a mass-murderer, a pogromist, and a devil. These epithets had their origins in the Russian Civil War (1917–1921), where the military forces of the peasant-anarchist Nestor Makhno and Mennonite colonists in southern Ukraine came into conflict. In autumn 1919, Makhnovist troops and local peasant sympathizers murdered more than 800 Mennonites in a series of large-scale massacres. The history of that conflict has been fraught with folklore, ideological battles and radically divergent cultural memories, in which fact and fiction often seamlessly blend, conjuring a multitude of Makhnos, each one shouting its message over the other.

Drawing on theories of collective memory and narrative analysis, Makhno and Memory brings a vast array of Makhnovist and Mennonite sources into dialogue, including memoirs, histories, diaries, newspapers, and archival material. A diversity of perspectives are brought into relief through the personal reminiscences of Makhno and his anarchist sympathizers alongside Mennonite pacifists and advocates for armed self-defense. Through a meticulous analysis of the Makhnovist-Mennonite conflict and a micro-study of the Eichenfeld massacre of November 1919, Sean Patterson attempts to make sense of the competing cultural memories and presents new ways of thinking about Makhno and his movement. Makhno and Memory offers a convincing reframing of the Mennonite / Makhno relationship that will force a scholarly reassessment of this period.

May 20, 2020

Books mentioned in this post


Makhno and Memory

Anarchist and Mennonite Narratives of Ukraine's Civil War, 1917–1921

by Sean Patterson
edition: Paperback
also available: eBook Hardcover
tagged: russia & the former soviet union, anarchism, mennonite

Nestor Makhno has been called a revolutionary anarchist, a peasant rebel, the Ukrainian Robin Hood, a mass-murderer, a pogromist, and a devil. These epithets had their origins in the Russian Civil War (1917–1921), where the military forces of the peasant-anarchist Nestor Makhno and Mennonite colonists in southern Ukraine came into conflict. In au …

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