On ‘Makhno and Memory’: 5 Questions with Historian Sean Patterson

Sean Patterson is a doctoral student at the University of Alberta; he is currently researching historical memory in Ukraine’s Zaporizhia region. His new book Makhno and Memory “brings a vast array of Makhnovist and Mennonite sources into dialogue” and “presents new ways of thinking about Makhno and his movement.” Makhno and Memory is available now.

1) I suppose some readers might wonder about your surname, Patterson. What is your connection to the Mennonites?

My surname often leads to such questions. My father, of a Protestant Irish-Canadian background, converted as a young adult to the Mennonite Brethren Church. When I was a child he was a pastor at an MB church in Winnipeg’s West End but left the Church when I was eight years old. However, I was raised in an Anabaptist spiritual community surrounded by friends largely from Mennonite backgrounds. On the other side, my mother is from a German Baptist family that immigrated to Canada from Ukraine in 1929. Interestingly, in 1915 they were deported to Siberia as part of the Tsarist anti-German land liquidation laws, where they were taken in by a sympathetic Mennonite family. While I don’t identify as a “Mennonite” per se I do have a deep personal history with and respect for Mennonite culture, faith, and history.

2) When did you first become aware of Nestor Makhno?

I first learned of Nestor Makhno as an undergraduate history student at Saint Francis Xavier University. I was very interested in leftist opposition to Bolshevism and my honours advisor suggested I read The Unknown Revolution by Volin. This book was my first exposure to the Makhnovist movement. Volin, an intellectual anarchist and Makhnovist participant, paints a largely positive picture of the movement as a liberatory force of peasant Ukraine. However, when I returned home for Christmas and told my friends and family about my studies, I was confronted by a radically different image of Makhno as a mass murderer of Mennonites. I also discovered a close friend’s relative had directly fought the Makhnovists as a leader in the Mennonite Selbstschutz (self-defence). These holiday conversations initiated my research into the Mennonite perspective on Makhno.

3) What do you hope Mennonite readers will learn about Nestor Makhno from your book?

In my book I describe how Makhno has been employed by authors as a metonym, alternately for Mennonite suffering and Makhnovist heroism. It is my hope that readers, both Mennonite and otherwise, will be challenged to think about Makhno outside a mythologized bandit/hero binary. I want readers to reflect on Makhno’s psychological and ideological complexity as well as his deep contradictions and relationship to justice and terror. Moreover, it is my hope readers can move beyond Makhno in certain regards by situating him and his movement within the historical socio-economic environment. In this shift away from Makhno as metonym, I hope readers will more broadly meditate on how Imperial Russia’s unresolved issues of land hunger and wealth inequality contributed to the tragedy of Makhnovist-Mennonite violence.

4) Your book analyzes both Mennonite and Makhnovist sources about Nestor Makhno, who often have very different takes on the man. How do you, as a historian, come to something resembling “the truth” when the narratives seem to contradict?

The history of Makhno and his movement is rife with myths, legends, and contradictory narratives. In the search for solid historical facts, I was more often than not left with spectral traces and many false leads. However, when collectively placed alongside each other a coherent picture emerges. To determine the reality of this or that event and its sequence, I cross-referenced as many sources from as many perspectives as possible. This was one reason why I felt it was critical to bring Makhnovist and Mennonite sources into dialogue with each other. Previous histories on the Makhnovist movement largely ignored, or were unaware, of Mennonite sources. I am also fortunate that since the fall of the Soviet Union a great amount of Makhnovist archival material has become accessible, which can now be compared against the memoir literature. This process of triangulating a wide variety of sources was especially important in reconstructing the events leading up to the Eichenfeld massacre. Nevertheless this type of historical “truth” is, and should always be, subject to revision as new material is discovered and integrated into the source base.

However, even if certain historical facts can be ascertained they are unavoidably embedded within narratives that take on storied plot-structures. How these narratives take shape and the truth claims they make are contingent on the narrator’s personal and collective beliefs and identities, access to information, and the genre they are writing. Therefore, the answer to a question such as was Makhno a bandit-terrorist or a revolutionary hero is very much dependent on any one author’s subjective experience of revolutionary Ukraine.

I was particularly interested in how Makhnovists and Mennonites narrativized their relationship with violence in the Civil War. In this regard, I draw attention to narrative patterns present in and across Makhnovist and Mennonite sources. For example, I found evidence of each side’s dominant narrative about Makhno reflected within the other’s literature. In this way, there is an unexpected overlap between Makhnovist and Mennonite sources at the narrative level despite approaching Makhno from very different perspectives. What emerges is a portrait of Makhno as a person committed to a specific type of revolutionary justice but simultaneously always at risk of slipping into wanton terror. He is psychologically complicated and paradoxical as is the Makhnovist movement at large. Intensively working with such apparent narrative contradictions assisted me in reaching what I describe as a multi-perspectival interpretation of the Makhnovist-Mennonite conflict.

5) What is your favourite memory or moment from visiting the Zaporizhia region of Ukraine?

It is very hard to pick out one memory, but visiting the Eichenfeld massacre memorial in modern-day Novopetrivka was emotionally impactful. More than the memorial itself was the fact that the Ukrainian locals maintained its grounds and regularly laid flowers and wreaths. I thought this was a perfect example of present-day historical reconciliation. Another memory that has stuck with me was when I visited Nestor Makhno’s hometown, Huliaipole. I noticed my driver was taking pictures of a large bronze statue and I asked him his opinion of Makhno. He simply replied, “He is a hero of the working class.” These two memories very much stand together in my mind.