What Would They Play: Nestor Makhno

What Would They Play? • July 21, 2023

Welcome to What Would They Play?

I'm Charlie, I'm a storyteller, creative writer and author; I handle the historical sections of the articles.

And I'm Dan, a Commander player who is obsessed with building thematic decks. I connect the stories to Magic cards to create decks that reflect the vibrant tales of the past.

We take famous or not-so-famous figures from history and make Commander decks based on their lives, philosophies, and histories.

Our articles are meant to be part history lesson, part deckbuilding guide. We believe that decks can be expressions of personal philosophies, so a fun way to learn about historical figures -- and flavorful brews -- would be to speculate about what sort of Commander deck a given person would play, given their times, opinions, and philosophies.

It's like a history class, only using the medium of Magic: the Gathering.

This is meant to be an accessible glimpse at the people in question, not a rigorous or definitive biography; we have sources at the end of the article for that!

Let us begin!

Who Was Nestor Ivanovich Makhno?

Nestor Makhno (1888-1934) was a Ukrainian anarchist-communist, military leader, guerrilla, and anarchist theorist.

Due to space constraints, I'll be providing a rather condensed view of Nestor Makhno; I go into much more detail about his life in my new biography of him.

2022! Book Updates! Vampires! Oh my!

For this article, I'll be examining four moments unrooted from Nestor Makhno's early life through 1919 that show different facets of his personality and progress as an anarchist: as a young militant, a prisoner, a builder of a new world, and finally as a military leader.

Nestor Makhno's primary base of support during these above periods was Ukrainian peasants1 concerned chiefly with the socialization of land. Prior to the revolution, land had been possessed in large part by landlords and the upper classes in southeastern Ukraine, leaving the Ukrainian peasants land-poor and forced to sell their labor for a pittance working said estates. Makhno, both before his imprisonment as a young militant, and after his amnesty, put a lot of focus on expropriating these vast estates and dividing up the land equally among the peasants. In the process, he and the anarchists worked on building an anarchist polity based along principles of equality. When the time came, they had to take up arms to defend themselves against the Germans, the Ukrainian Nationalists, and the White and Red armies.

Buckle up!

Makhno's commanders, the partner pair of Haldan, Avid Anarchist and Pako, Arcane Retriever, demonstrate the principle of socialization in a game of Commander. Pako charges into battle and expropriates resources from the opponents, then Haldan puts them to use to advance the anarchist cause.

One little bit of trivia before we dive in: Nestor Makhno was the first article/brew we ever collaborated on a few years ago, which eventually led to this entire series; you can see that first version here. The deck in this article has some similarities, though the deckbuilding approach has evolved, and some new cards that didn't exist at the time are included here.

Early Life: Revolution of 1905

Nestor Ivanovich Makhno grew up very poor outside of Huliaipole, Ukraine. He was one of five brothers and the only one to survive the Russian Revolution and Civil War in the early 20th century. He worked from a young age as a farm-hand at local Mennonite colonies.2 He was an energetic child: when picked on, he retaliated against his bullies by hiding in a tree they liked to gather around and dropping rocks on them.

Makhno held a wide variety of jobs to help his family survive: farmhand, wheelwright, assistant to a wine-merchant, dyer. All those helped pay the bills, but most were seasonal jobs under difficult conditions.

We've talked a little in this series about the 1905 Russian revolution in our Marusya Nikiforova, Grigori Rasputin, and Alexander Kerensky articles, but suffice to say it was a mass uprising against the Russian Empire by its own citizens, with the formal catalyst being Russia's defeat in the Russo-Japanese war. Strikes paralyzed the country; peasants urgently demanded the socialization (or depending on where you stood, the nationalization) of the land, especially in Ukraine where they remained serfs in all but name.

The tsarist government responded to the demands of its citizens by gunning down protestors (even ones led by the conservative-leaning orthodox clergy in the capital in a notable early instance), public beatings, hangings, and imprisonment without trial. Minister P. Stolypin's strategy to murder the first Russian revolution was simple (ahem, let me quote from my book):

"Instead, Stolypin sought to put the kibosh on any and all questions of land reform that would benefit the peasants or workers of the empire,and instead focused on an economic alliance with the relatively narrow, middle class of the empire--pomeshchiks (large-scale landowners) and kulaks (rich peasant farmers). This would be accomplished by breaking up the peasant communes that held land collectively, rather than as individual private property. In exchange for access to land, this favored class would be unfailingly loyal to the czar and help put down any future revolts. This was also meant to atomize and contain peasant resistance."

Stolypin's campaign and brutal tactics ultimately succeeded to crush the revolution, though not the resistance. Young Nestor Makhno was involved in the anarchist organization Union of Poor Peasants (UPP) both in salons and in their activist wing. Young Nestor was involved in resistance against the imperial repression, including expropriations and burning the unharvested fields of the wealthy when they resisted the peasants' demand for socialization of the land.

Makhno's deck demonstrates his revolutionary attitude by distributing resources equally among all players. Collective Voyage and Minds Aglow ask everyone to contribute what they can for the good of all. Gor Muldrak, Amphinologist ensures that no player falls too far behind on creatures. The Backgrounds Sword Coast Sailor and Hardy Outlander keep life-gain decks in check, while even allowing Haldan to attack effectively.

Makhno was eventually arrested in 1908 for a plot to blow up a secret police station. Initially given the death penalty, he was later shown mercy after his mother prevailed upon the local governor for clemency; his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment, under katorga: forced labor with heavy iron manacles on wrists and ankles at all times. He eventually ended up in Butyrka prison in Moscow in 1911.

Prison (1908-1917)

Nestor Makhno had a difficult time in prison, including suffering various maladies, like overwork and malnutrition. And of course, the beatings and isolation as punishment for his perpetually smart mouth.3

Makhno faced many difficulties in prison, but he also learned and deepened his understanding of a variety of subjects. History, mathematics, and literature, of course, but most of all anarchist theory. One book in particular had an outsized effect on him:

"But all these books [that Makhno read in prison], while valuable, paled in influence compared to one volume Makhno happened across in prison: Kropotkin's Mutual Aid may have been the most important book that Makhno ever read. Kropotkin's work was comprehensive and focused on the central premise that cooperation was the critical force for a species to thrive.

"One of Kropotkin's influences and peers, Élie Metchnikoff, summed it up in a pithy phrase: 'Nature places before her inhabitants: death or solidarity. There are no other paths for humanity.' Words perhaps more pertinent now than even in the trying times they were written. Mutual aid inside of a species, a communal instinct to help one's fellows through solidarity and to living in a world of peers instead of masters and servants--that was the essence of Kropotkin's great work.4"

So you could say that Makhno learned a few Lessons in prison, and his deck contains several cards with the learn mechanic.5 Field Trip is a handy one for casting Pako a turn ahead of schedule. Igneous Inspiration and Divide by Zero can help clear the way for some hits with the big pup, and Enthusiastic Study lets him trample over chump blockers for big commander damage hits. As for the Lessons themselves, Fractal Summoning, Elemental Summoning, and Mascot Exhibition make up for a low creature count in the main deck, and Teachings of the Archaics gives an advantage when fighting as the underdog, as Makhno so often found himself doing.

Kropotkin's practical focus on mutual aid and solidarity as revolutionary practice had a great influence on Makhno, but he was serving a life sentence in a brutal prison, with no sign of relief in sight; Kropotkin's words were ray of hope. He carried a copy of Mutual Aid with him wherever he could, hoping to discuss some point or another with whoever would listen.

Amnesty and Return to Ukraine (1917)

Makhno and thousands of other political prisoners were released in March 1917 as part of Alexander Kerensky's amnesty.

The February Revolution, which led to the abdication of the royal family and Kerenski's release of political prisoners, led to confusion throughout the empire, which meant that Huliaipole, with its long history of anarchist organizing, was functionally in anarchist hands for large parts of 1917. Police fled their positions, for one thing, followed by some of the wealthy land-owners.

It is not an overstatement to say that Nestor Makhno was like a man returned from the dead. Makhno was very busy: he became involved with a woman that he'd corresponded with from prison, went through old police files on informers inside the anarchist movements, and helped form the People's Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, to name but a few things.

Makhno and the surviving anarchists recalled all too well the techniques that Stolypin's tsarist ministry had used to crush the first revolution of 1905 by making an alliance with the middle and upper classes that guaranteed the sanctity of private property. Knowing this, Makhno and the anarchists explicitly offered the land-owning classes an on-ramp to join the revolution. When expropriations were done to disarm the most well-off in the region (those most likely to side with landlords or police if they dared to return) and to divide up their land, the owners were given an equal amount of land and equipment as the landless peasants who had once worked their estates. Enough to survive on and even thrive on.

Class, in Makhno's analysis early in the revolution, was not an immutable thing. If you took away the wealthy classes' land and treated them the same as anyone else, they naturally would adjust to their circumstances and become supporters of your cause, the thinking went.

More than a few middle-class and upper-class people had bailed Makhno out of jail when he was a younger militant, and he never forgot it. He was much more inclined to mercy and inclusion at this stage before the wars of fronts swept back and forth across the countryside and ruined the tentative communes and anarchist structures.

Likewise, Makhno has no qualms with recruiting his opponents' creatures. Mass Mutiny and Insurrection are here for quick finishes, and Tempted by the Oriq and the appropriately named Expropriate for long-term advantage. Free-for-All6 ensures an equitable distribution of creatures among all players. Haldan and Pako's abilities push the deck toward a lower number of creatures, so these kinds of spells are helpful to establishing a board presence.

Here, Makhno was in the forefront of anarchist organization and land-commoning. Unlike what the Bolsheviks would do later, the anarchists of Huliaipole had no interest in a top-down revolution, in authoritarian methods. The peasants and workers should liberate themselves, and if they wanted the help of the anarchists, they would be all to happy to provide it. Part of this was the acknowledgment that the particular circumstances of revolution and investing a lot of time and effort towards education. To quote from my book:

"The methods of the city didn't translate into the countryside so they [the anarchists] couldn't do as the city anarchists had done and were doing. Nobody was coming to help them build the new world--they would have to build it themselves, together. To do this, Makhno and the anarchists ceaselessly labored to educate the peasants of Ukraine--who desperately wanted simply to control their own lands. To help with this, in this phase of history, the anarchist councils recruited heavily from the local teachers. Teachers were especially respected by the anarchists as they turned schools meant to produce factory workers and farmers into schools based on the models of Francisco Ferrer--a Spanish anarchist and educator who had the wacky idea that a child's interests should determine what they learned about or pursued. This actually leads to a brief encounter between Makhno and his future girlfriend, Halyna Kuzmenko--who was a teacher in Huliaipole at the time."

Battle of Perehonivka (1919)

Fast forward two years. A lot happened.

Nestor Makhno and the anarchist Black Army7 had been driven back on their heels by the White Army.

 To put it lightly, it was unpleasant. The Black Army was chronically low on arms and ammunition, sickness, and death were everywhere, and even the notoriously mobile and flexible horsemen and tachankas8 of the Makhnovists were going to run out of room to run eventually.

Makhno's use and popularization (or invention, according to some sources) of the tachanka is reflected in his deck's Vehicle theme. The Omenkeel, Nautiloid Ship, and Deluxe Dragster help Pako with the expropriation of opponents' resources, and the Dragster's evasion ability plays into the mobility advantage of the tachanka. Cultivator's Caravan is reminiscent of the tachanka's origin as a peasant cart. The crew 1 on Smuggler's Copter, Knight Paladin, and Untethered Express reflect the minimal training required for the use of the tachanka, as well as giving a use to Haldan's otherwise unimpressive stats.

And, of course, the Black Army to crew those Vehicles: despite this being a Temur deck, Makhno deploys a black Army token using the amass mechanic. The deck is heavy on instants and sorceries, lending extra power to Invade the City and Summons of Saruman. Lazotep Plating protects Pako from targeted removal, and Treason of Isengard offers another use of any of those and more. Grishnákh, Brash Instigator can recruit an enemy creature, as discussed in the previous section.

The Bolsheviks were of no help to the Makhnovists, and it was only with great difficulty that Makhno managed to work out a temporary truce with another hated enemy, the Ukrainian nationalists under S. Petliura--to care for the Makhnovist wounded while the main army carried on its flight.

It looked like it was the end of the Ukrainian anarchists' largest militarized force in Ukraine.

The White army pressed them and pressed them further and further until the Makhnovists, exhausted, came to the town of Perehonivka. Vicious fighting followed, which was finally decided when a shocking surprise cavalry charge against the over-extended White Army by Makhno and his personal bodyguard drove the Whites from the field into a panicked retreat. This surprise victory was the beginning of unraveling of months of lost territory in the span of less than three weeks.

To quote from my own work on the subject of the fallout of this fateful battle:

"Despite this, the Black Army gained another hoard of technology and ammunition, becoming more formidable rather than less. By October 12, the city [of Berdiansk] was theirs and [White Army General] Denikin was forced to halt his planned advance on Moscow, reeling from this sudden reversal. This turnabout began at Perehonivka, and while Denikin was swift to dismiss Makhno as a threat, that overconfidence came back to bite him in a big way.

"At any rate, prior to Makhno's victories over the White Army, Denikin's main forces had been within striking range of Moscow and were making the final preparations for the end of the Bolshevik regime. To hear historian Alexandre Skirda tell it, Lenin and Trotsky and the senior Bolshevik commanders were packing comically large suitcases and about to flee to Finland ahead of the White Army. Makhno, in Skirda's estimation, despite loathing the Bolsheviks he was allied with, may have saved them from annihilation."

Max Nomad called Makhno "The Bandit who Saved Moscow." Makhno's daring and the commitment of the anarchists had stopped the reinstatement of the monarchy dead cold. There is more to it than that, of course, but the come-from-behind victory, the sheer improbability of a decisive win after months of deprivation, of exhaustion, and only furthered Makhno's already formidable reputation as a revolutionary figure.

And Deeper Into the Civil War...

The battle of Perehonivka marked a high-point of Makhno and the anarchists' prestige, influence, and power. The White Army was ultimately defeated and, true to form, the Bolsheviks immediately betrayed the anarchists in the aftermath of that turning of the tide of that particular theater of the war. Things would get bad again for the anarchists: for a long time they would have to fight both the Red and the White armies before allying with the Bolsheviks again out of necessity to stop another White Army offensive led by General Wrangel.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The full story of Nestor Makhno and his role in the Russian Civil War is obviously far too long for this article. So I wrote a book about it! (One thing they don't tell you in writing classes is how relentlessly and enthusiastically you have to pimp your work on any possible platform. So there is that). Makhno ultimately survived the Civil War and made it to Paris, where he lived in exile with his family until his death in 1934.

Nestor Makhno's full decklist is below!

Expropriating the Countryside: Nestor Makhno's EDH Deck

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  1. While characterized as a chiefly rural movement, Makhno would later state that urban workers, intellectuals, and other non-peasants made up significant parts of the anarchist polity, including multiple units that deserted from the Red Army when it became clear that the Bolsheviks were intent on re-establishing the power of the tsars, only with a slight change in vocabulary and color-scheme. For more on that, see these excellent articles by Nick Heath on, to name but one example, the Maslakov Mutiny and in general peasant revolts against Bolshevik tyranny in the Third Revolution.
  2. Since before the abolition of serfdom in 1861, Mennonites had been an established presence in southeastern Ukraine, provided with various privileges by the tsarist government and depending on the largely land-poor Ukrainian peasants to provide the majority of labor on their estates. Makhno made friends with some of his master's children through the course of his childhood, friendships that would save lives during the revolution of 1917.
  3. Makhno's nickname in prison was "the Modest One", bestowed with a sense of irony: his mouth got him into a lot of trouble.
  4. Makhno would later briefly meet Kropotkin in Moscow in 1918 to his absolute delight.
  5. Before you comment that learn/Lesson doesn't fully work in Commander, please keep in mind that, as an anarchist, Makhno would not have recognized the legitimacy of the Commander Rules Committee's centralized authority.
  6. See footnote 5
  7. A simplification for the sake of space. The term Black Army is a short hand for the sake of convenience since the major armies of the Russian Civil war had a color theme: Red Army, Bolsheviks; White Army, old military caste, royalist, reactionaries; Black Army, anarchists; Green armies, peasant armies that wanted self determination, etc. The official term for the military with anarchists featured prominently in its command structure, democratic principles and general ethos with a strong base of recruitment among peasants and workers was Insurgent Army of Ukraine (Makhnovist).
  8. While tachankas weren't used as the deciding arm in the Battle of Perehonivka, their prominent use by the Makhnovist Black Army deserves a word of mention. Makhno took anyone he could arm into the Black Army, and the tachankas took the common resource of peasant carts and horses and added a heavy machine gun to the back, creating a fast, versatile, and powerful weapons platform that could hit and run with ease.

What Would They Play? is a collaboration between author Charlie Allison and game designer Dan Sibley. The series is part history lesson, part deck-building journal and aims to bring historical figures back to life through the lens of Magic: The Gathering. You can find Dan on Twitter at @VedalkenSamurai and Charlie on the web at www.charlie-allison.com and https://blog.pmpress.org/authors-artists-comrades/charlie-allison/.