“Kingdom on Wheels” oil on canvas, September 25, 2019

25 Sep

“Kingdom on Wheels” oil on canvas, Sept 25, 2019

Jake Carman



Kingdom on Wheels-Jake Carman.jpg

Throughout the summer of 1919, the revolutionary peasants of south-eastern Ukraine streamed westward across the country. Ukrainian peasant-anarchist Nestor Makhno had recently stepped down from his position as commander of the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine, which was at that time a division of the Russian Red Army. The Bolsheviks, however, were currently ridding themselves of anarchist leadership in their army. They pursued Makhno and arrested and executed many other anarchist commanders. The Red Army in Ukraine did not regard the impending invasion from the monarchists and traditionalist military officers mobilizing in the Rostov and Don regions.

The Russian White Army, pushing north through Ukraine on their way to restore their flavor of Russian government, destroyed villages, and tortured, raped, and murdered Ukrainian peasants. The White offensive surprised the Bolsheviks, who abandoned Ukraine. The Ukrainian peasants in the Red Army mutinied, bringing whole divisions, ammunition, weapons and other supplies, to reform the independent Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine. These anarchist fighters joined the peasants in seeking out Makhno. Together, they all marched west.

The viscousness of the White Army’s repression of the peasants sent whole villages onto the road. Arhnov writes that “Makhno’s retreating army was followed by thousands of peasant families who abandoned their villages, bringing with them their livestock and their belongings. A veritable migration stretched over hundreds of miles. A vast ‘empire on wheels’ followed the army on its march west ward…this enormous mass of refugees spread throughout the whole of Ukraine. Most of them lost their homes and belongings forever; many lost their lives.” For four months, throughout the entire summer of 1919, this migration retreated 600 kilometers beneath the dust clouds. Each day, the insurgents held off assaults from the White Army forces in pursuit.

Finally, on the evening of September 25, 1919, Makhno turned his horse around. There was no where left to retreat. It was time to attack. Makhnovist cavalry charged the White Army at Kruten’koe. The shocked invaders turned and fled. The following day, peasant revolutionaries holding the village of Peregonovka, defeated the entire White Army group. The counterrevolutionaries routed in panic. Hundreds were cut down attempting to cross a river, hundreds more, later discovered hiding in the woods, faced the vengeance of the peasants who discovered them. This was a disaster for the White Army’s push on Moscow: The entire White leadership was captured, and all of Ukraine, including the supply lines from the south into Russia, was lost. In just 10 days the Insurrectionary Army had raced back across the 600 kilometers and liberated Gulyai-Polye. By the following month, anarchist society in Ukraine had reached its peak: the Free Territory now a region of Ukraine home to 3 million people.

This painting depicts the “Great Retreat”, or the “Empire of Wheels” of the summer of 1919, and in particular the moment when the anarchists turned around to fight the White Army on September 25, 1919. Today in 2019, one hundred years later, it feels as if we revolutionaries, and humanity in general, have been on a long retreat of our own. It is time now to turn and face the enemy.

(A subsequent painting will feature the battle of Peregonovka. I may share some sketches soon.)

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