No one likes to linger on violence — statues rise and fall depending on our collective need to rationalize or reveal the various violences of our past.

Sean Patterson, a PhD student at the University of Alberta and former Winnipegger, has written a work of social history attempting to tell and ultimately bring into conversation two narratives of violence that emerged from a particular place and time, Ukraine between 1917 and 1921, narratives centring a single individual — Nestor Makhno. For many anarchists, Makhno is a revolutionary folk hero fighting to overturn violent social conditions. For many Mennonites, Makhno is akin to the devil himself. For nearly a century, these accounts have been largely oblivious to each other.

Supplied photo</p><p>Author Sean Patterson</p>

Supplied photo

Author Sean Patterson

Patterson frames the narratives within the larger history of the time, including: the earlier colonization of "New Russia" by Catherine the Great, who cleared local peasants bringing in foreigners including Mennonites; the impacts of the First World War, which saw the presence of the Austro-German army within Ukraine; and the rapid changes brought by the Russian Revolution, with various groups vying for power. It is within these massive sea changes that Mennonites and Makhnovists collide.

From the Makhnovist perspective, Mennonites were simply one of a number of "German colonists" (they are never identified as Mennonites) whose privileges allowed for exploitation of surrounding peasants. Makhno himself was employed on what appeared to be a Mennonite estate, where he recalls an instance of being whipped for forgetting one of his chores.

Over time he not only saw more specific forms of violence, but also came to understand that entire social and economic structure as producing violence and injustice. Key to his revolutionary program was the seizure and redistribution of land and wealth; Patterson goes to great length to show that the violence enacted by Makhnovists was not based on any ethnic or religious prejudice, but rather on economic class. Indeed, Mennonites were invited to join the Makhnovist movement, and there are many stories of Makhnovists leaving poor or landless Mennonites in peace, as they considered them of the same class despite ethnic differences.

Supplied photo</p><p>Nestor Makhno poses for a photo in Huliaipole, his birthplace, in what is now Ukraine. </p>

Supplied photo

Nestor Makhno poses for a photo in Huliaipole, his birthplace, in what is now Ukraine.

From the Mennonite perspective, Makhnovists were violence personified and often figured as a test of faith; these Mennonites figured themselves as a faithful remnant — Makhno tested their pacifist convictions, their adherence to worldly wealth, their ability to root out the "weed" of violence among them or simply their ability to suffer and remain faithful.

In practice, most Mennonites sought the ongoing privilege and protection of the Tsar, and responded to Makhnovist raids and expropriation of their land both by forming self-defense militias as well as supporting the presence of the Austro-German army which fought against Makhnovists. These responses only tended to escalate cycles of violence between the groups.

Patterson’s strength is in demonstrating that both narratives had their internal critics at the time. There were Makhnovists who grew concerned about the movement’s increasing violence and lack of clear leadership. There were Mennonites who came to see the boiling of peasant resentment connected to their accumulation of wealth through privilege and exploitation. The presence of these differences, though, were largely lost as Makhno gained either divine or demonic status as narratives and communities parted ways.

Makhno and Memory is a tremendous case study in how groups tend to rationalize their place in violent times, legitimating their identity — in this case Makhnovists as freedom fighters and Mennonites as faithful in persecution. Individuals and events then become concentrated as symbols that can no longer communicate the breadth and complexity of the reality they represent.

Patterson does not tell us how to discern and evaluate these complexities — only that they must be considered if we hope to address past, and ongoing, realities of violence.

David CL Driedger is associate minister at First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg.