Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Makhno: Ukrainian Freedom Fighter’

“We can’t just wait for the old guard to die before we can make a new start”

Americans are reminded every once in a while that a lot of people in this world are not exactly who we, in our ignorance, thought they were, as for decades, thanks to Soviet rule, we thought of everyone in the U.S.S.R. as “Russians.” Of course, many never were Russian, and Ukraine is one of the largest parts of the former Soviet Union that is inhabited by “not-Russians,” and they don’t much like Russians. Currently, of course, Russia is fighting a war of aggression in Ukraine, so ‘Muricans know a bit more about it, but this isn’t the first time Russians have fought Ukrainians, and sadly, it probably won’t be the last. Makhno: Ukrainian Freedom Fighter, which comes to us from Humanoids, is the story of a dude who fought against Russia a century ago. How nice that all his efforts were rewarded! This book is written by Philippe Thirault, drawn by Roberto Zaghi, colored by Annelise Sauvêtre (although Sébastien Gérard gets credit for coloring one page, the first), and translated by Nanette McGuinness. Let’s have a look!

Makhno (Nestor Ivanovych Miknienko) was a Ukrainian peasant born at precisely the right time to become a rebel. He was born in 1888, which means he was coming of age just when the first Russian revolution was happening in 1905, an event that made him think that maybe revolution is his kind of thing. In the book, Thirault begins at the end of his life, when he’s dying of tuberculosis in Paris in 1934. We see his early childhood, as his mother gives him up to be raised by a rich woman on her estate, where he meets Katrin, another adoptee and the great love of his life. Makhno has a fierce spirit and doesn’t stay long on the estate, fleeing into the fields, but he helps the Communists attack it. Unfortunately for him, the attack is thwarted and he’s arrested. Instead of being hanged (he’s a minor), he’s imprisoned and sent to Moscow. While there, he meets an intellectual prisoner who gives him books to read, and he eventually becomes more of a democrat and a socialist. After the second revolution in 1917, he’s released, and he heads back to Ukraine. He wants to establish a democracy, but the Communists aren’t really on board, and after Russia leaves the Great War, it allows the Austrians to come into Ukraine and take over, so Makhno fights against them. After the war, he fights against both Whites and Reds – really any Russians who try to take over in Ukraine – and tries to organize the other socialist groups in the country. In 1921, the Red Army was finally able to destroy most of his forces, and he was forced into exile, where he spent the rest of his life.

Thirault does a good job untangling the dense skeins of Ukrainian/Russian politics in World War I and in the years right after. Basically, “Ukrainians = good; Russians/Austrians = bad,” but that’s just for general purposes. Makhno himself isn’t the most admirable character, which is a nice touch by the writer. He cheats on his wife routinely and with impunity, he executes civilians, he roughs up some nuns at one point, and he doesn’t always live up to his lofty political principles (he tries to, though, which is more than can be said for some other characters). He’s at once too trusting and not trusting enough in some situations, which gets him into trouble. But Thirault makes it clear that he loves Ukraine and its people and wants to better their lives, and although he fails, it’s not because he gave up, it’s just that he was fighting an implacable enemy. Makhno in the book doesn’t care if women are better at some things traditionally done by men, as his cavalry leader, for instance, is a woman (this doesn’t stop him from having sex with those women, he just doesn’t block their career advancement). This is, in many ways, a rousing adventure story, as Makhno and his army are fighting against heavy odds and for the freedom of their people, but Thirault doesn’t forget to show the ugly side of war – no matter how justified the war – and the price people pay in war – not only the soldier, but civilians as well. He does a good job showing why Makhno might not have been able to galvanize the Ukrainians for too long – they respected him, certainly, but fighting for so long is difficult, and Thirault gets into that a bit, which is nice. It’s a tragedy, certainly, because the Russians did take over and occupy the country for decades and they still think it’s “theirs,” but both the person of Makhno and this book show that it’s not always about the result, it’s often about the process.

Zaghi’s work is in the grand style of European artists – a thin, clean line, impressive details, not a lot of hatching, and sparse use of black chunks. Even when Makhno is in prison, Zaghi eschews rough lines, simply hatching more ever so slightly to make the prisoners look a bit worse for wear. He gives us impressive architecture, showing us the decadence of the old regime as Makhno tears it down, setting up a tense scene later in the book when our hero finds out one of his lieutenants is enjoying himself a bit too much. In 1934, he uses a little extra hatching to show Makhno’s decline into poverty, contrasting nicely with the more “idyllic” days of the revolution (idyllic, of course, in that he was making a difference, not that they were so great). He does a good job showing the differences in class in the book – yes, one of the evil dudes is plump, but more than that, he does well with the clothing, the grooming, and the way the aristocrats carry themselves as opposed to the salt-of-the-earth peasants. The book is a bit of propaganda (despite his foibles, Makhno is a hero), which is fine, and Zaghi does a decent job contributing to that with the way he draws the people in the book to reflect certain values and vices. It’s a nice-looking book, certainly, it’s just something to be aware of.

Makhno tells a story most Americans, I would venture, don’t know. It does it well and, while it’s a bit kind on the hero, it doesn’t canonize him too much, which is nice. It’s always good to get a bit of context for things that are happening in the world, and this book provides it. Everyone digs a good David-vs.-Goliath story!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


  1. Edo Bosnar

    I’m pretty interested in reading this; Makhno, warts and all, was an absolutely fascinating figure who should be better known outside of Ukraine and Eastern Europe in general.
    Again, though, one of my pet peeves appears on the cover, i.e., the stylized use of Cyrillic letters. In this case, if read in Cyrillic, the name would be ‘Maknio’ (for the record, the proper way to spell Makhno in Cyrillic is Махно́).

    1. Greg Burgas

      I agree with you about the “faux” Cyrillic. I didn’t know how to spell it in Cyrillic, but I figured what’s on the cover was probably wrong. I think it’s a bit silly to do unless you’re going to do it correctly, but then people who don’t read Cyrillic won’t understand it (what’s the “x” doing there?!?!?!?), so what’s the point?

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