As commander of the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine, commonly referred to as the Makhnovshchina, Makhno led a guerrilla campaign. Makhnovshchina can be loosely translated as "Makhno movement". The term encompasses not only the army but the whole of the movement's activities and overall spirit. The suffix -shchina can be employed in a slightly derogatory manner, but this is not the intention in this case, given that the movement's adherents – including Makhno himself – frequently used the term to describe themselves. Makhno fought all factions which sought to impose any external authority over southern Ukraine, battling in succession the Ukrainian Nationalists, the Imperial German and Austro-German occupation, the Hetmanate Republic, the Russian White Army, the Russian Red Army, and other smaller forces led by Ukrainian otamans. Makhno and his movement repeatedly attempted to reorganize life in the Huliaipole region along anarchist lines; however, the disruptions of the civil war precluded any long-term social experiments.
Although Makhno considered the Bolsheviks a threat to the development of an anarchist Free Territory within Ukraine, he twice entered into military alliances with them to defeat the White Army. In the aftermath of the defeat of the White Army in the region in November 1920, the Bolsheviks initiated a military campaign against Makhno, which concluded with his escape across the Romanian border in August 1921. After a series of imprisonments and escapes, Makhno finally settled in Paris with his wife Halyna and daughter Yelena. In exile Makhno wrote three volumes of memoirs. Makhno died in exile at the age of 45 from tuberculosis-related causes. He is also credited as the inventor of the tachanka, a horse-drawn platform mounting a heavy machine gun.
Nestor Makhno was born into a poor peasant family in Huliaipole, Yekaterinoslav Governorate of the Russian Empire (now Zaporizhia Oblast, Ukraine). He was the youngest of five children. Church files show a baptism date of October 27 (November 7), 1888; but Nestor Makhno's parents registered his date of birth as 1889 (in an attempt to postpone conscription).
His father died when he was ten months old. Due to extreme poverty, he had to work as a shepherd at the age of seven. He studied at the Second Huliaipole primary school in winter at the age of eight and worked for local landlords during the summer. He left school at the age of twelve and was employed as a farmhand on the estates of nobles and on the farms of wealthy peasants.
At the age of seventeen, he was employed in Huliaipole itself as an apprentice painter, then as a worker in a local iron foundry and ultimately as a foundryman in the same organization. During this time he became involved in revolutionary politics. His involvement was based on his experiences of injustice at work and the terrorism of the Tsarist regime during the 1905 revolution. In 1906, Makhno joined the anarchist organization in Huliaipole. He was arrested in 1906, tried, and acquitted. He was again arrested in 1907, but could not be incriminated, and the charges were dropped. The third arrest came in 1908 when an infiltrator was able to testify against Makhno. In 1910 Makhno was sentenced to death by hanging, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he was sent to Butyrskaya prison in Moscow. In prison he came under the influence of his intellectual cellmate Piotr Arshinov. He was released from prison after the February Revolution in 1917.