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Maria Grigorevna Nikiforova
Nickname Marusya
Place of birth Alexandrovsk, Russian Empire (present day Zaporizhia, Ukraine)
Place of death Sevastopol
Allegiance France (?-1917), Ukrainian anarchist revolution (1917-1919)
Years of service 1916-1919
Rank Commander (Атаманша)
Commands held Black Guard detachments (1917-1918), "Free Combat Druzhina" (1918-1919)
Battles/wars World War I

Ukrainian War of Independence

Relations Witold Bzhostek (husband)
Other work Deputy leader of Alexandrovsk Revolutionary committee (Революционный комитет) (1918)

Maria Nikiforova, or Marussia Nikiphorova (1885 – 1919), was an anarchist partisan leader whose activities influenced the Ukrainian revolutionary Nestor Makhno. A terrorist from the age of 16, she was known widely by her nickname, Marusya, and became a renowned figure within the Ukrainian War of Independence.




Early life

Born in Alexandrovsk, Ukraine, in 1885, Maria's father was an officer and hero in the previous Russo-Turkish War. At the age of 16, she left home and became a baby sitter, sales clerk, and ultimately a factory worker, with a position of bottle washer in a vodka distillery. Once a factory worker, she joined a local group of anarcho-communists.

Aleksandrvsk at the end of the 19th century. Nikiforova was a teenager during this period.

She adopted a strategy of motiveless terrorism (bezmotivny terror), staging a number of bombings and expropriation missions, including bank robberies. Captured, her involvement in these activities led to a death sentence, later commuted to life imprisonment. She served part of her sentence in the Petropavlovsk prison in Petrograd, before being exiled to Siberia in 1910. From there she escaped to China, Japan, United States, Spain, and finally arrived in Paris, France. By 1913 she became well known by a nickname, Marusya, a slavic diminutive form of "Maria", though when or how she acquired the name is not known. She was very familiar with it, using it as a signature and was addressed by strangers with it. In Paris, she married Witold Bzhostek, a polish anarchist and friend, as a matter of convenience. With the outbreak of World War I, she sided with Peter Kropotkin's anti-German position, in favor of the allied powers. She applied and graduated from a French officer college, serving in the Macedonian front.

Return to Ukraine

With the outbreak of the Russian revolution, she abandoned the French and returned to Petrograd. In the city, she organized and spoke at pro-anarchist rallies in Kronstadt. In the summer of 1917, with anti-anarchist activity within the Russian Provisional Government on the rise, Maria escaped back to her home town in Alexandrovsk, Ukraine. Once there, she organized a Black Guard detachment to terrorize the city's authorities, in particular army officers and landlords. Nikiforova's goal was the destruction of all state institutions. However, she was influence by Apollon Karelin, an anarchist who proposed a strategy of "Soviet anarchism", or alliance with Bolshevik's in furtherance of anarchist goals. She agreed to ally with the Bolsheviks within military, if not political, contexts, and her Black Guard militia acted to spread Bolshevik power in key cities across the country.

Nestor Makhno (1918), future leader of the Free Territory, was still a minor militia leader when he first encountered Nikiforova.

With the capture of Alexandendrovsk by the Red Army, she and a new ally, Nestor Makhno, negotiated with the Bolsheviks. Backed by their Black Guards, the duo negotiated to become anarchist representatives in the city's new Revolutionary committee. Nikiforova was appointed to the position of assistant deputy, but within weeks Makhno stepped down in dissatisfaction with the group's lack of radicalism. In August 1917, she seized and robbed a military storehouse at Orikhiv, subsequently attacking, disarming and dispersing the town's regiment and executing all officers captured. However, rather than pass these spoils to the Red Army, they were delivered to Makhno and his own Black Guards. This signaled the end of Nikiforova's loyalty to the committee and Bolsheviks, though she would continue to ally with the Red Army occasionally in battle.

The Free Combat Druzhina

In December 1917, her Black Guards helped to establish soviet power in eastern Ukraine cities of Kharkiv and Yekaterinoslav, as well as Oleksandrivsk. In thanks, the Bolshevik commander in the region, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, gave her funds to upgrade her detachment, which became known as the "Free Combat Druzhina". This unit was active in fighting the Whites Guards, the Ukrainian Nationalists, and the Germans-Austro-Hungarians over a large area of southern Ukraine. She was instrumental in establishing Soviet power in the city of Yelizavetgrad (today Kirovohrad) and later was involved in bloody battles in quelling a right-wing revolt in the city. In April 1918, she received a commendation from the Bolshevik general Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko for her revolutionary activities

Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko was a longtime ally of Nikiforova's, having met her in Paris years earlier. He provided her with needed political and material support from within the Bolshevik party.

Nikiforova was put on the trial twice by the Bolsheviks on charges of insubordination and pillaging: in Taganrog in April 1918 and in Moscow in January 1919. She was acquitted at the first trial, where witnesses were present to speak in her defense. Antonov-Ovseyenko also telegraphed a letter in support of her, commending her revolutionary activities in aid to the Bolsheviks. At the second, she was unable to launch a legal defense, and was sentenced to "six months deprivation of the right to hold responsible posts." Returning to Ukraine, she traveled to Huliaipole, now an autonomous area under Nestor Makhno's anarchist control, dubbed the Free Territory. Unwilling to damage his alliance with the Red Army, Makhno refused to disobey the sentence and would not appoint her to a position in his Black Army, the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine. Unable to command a fighting force for six months, she worked alongside Makhno by making public speeches, and organizing propaganda events.

Capture and death

In June 1919, Makhno's anarchist armies were outlawed by the Soviet command, and came under attack. Facing a two-front war against the white and red armies, Maria gathered a group of fighters, and reunited with her husband Witold Bzhostek. Her intention was to field terrorist cells, as a formal fighting force was no longer available. Dispatching three cells on various missions, she took part in a sabotage mission against the White movement in the city of Sevastopol. There she and Bzhostek were recognized and arrested. Held on trial on September 16, 1919, she and her husband were found guilty and sentenced to death. Both were shot.

Public perception

Physical descriptions

Following Nikiforova's death, several publications recalled her as an "intersex" person, describing her in terms which placed emphasis on her supposed unattractiveness. Chudnov, a former Makhnovist, wrote of her when recalling a 1918 meeting: "This was a woman of 32 – 35, medium height, with an emaciated, prematurely aged face in which there was something of a eunuch or hermaphrodite. Her hair was cropped short in a circle."[1] Years after meeting her in 1919, Aleksey Kiselev described her in his memoirs: "Around 30 years old. Thin with an emaciated face, she produced the impression of an old maid type. Narrow nose. Sunken cheeks. She wore a blouse and skirt and a small revolver hung from her belt." Kiselev also alleged that she was a cocaine addict. Nikiforova biographer, Malcolm Archibald, noted that most Bolshevik writers described her in ways similar to this, and hypothesized that this was part of an effort to discredit her ideas with ad hominem attacks. "One suspects the Bolshevik memoirists, finding her ideology unattractive, tried to make her external appearance ugly as well."[2]

Descriptions of Nikiforova fall into two general categories, either highlighting an alleged repulsiveness, or beauty. An exception to the majority of Bolshevik descriptions, Raksha recalled his 1918 meeting with her in very positive terms: "I had heard that she was a beautiful woman... Marusya was sitting at a table and had a cigarette in her teeth. This she-devil really was a beauty: about 30, gypsy-type with black hair and a magnificent bosom which filled out her military tunic."[3]


Throughout her life, Nikiforova had been wounded multiple times, or had been mistaken for dead, only to reappear in good health later. Due to her reputation within folklore, rumors spread in the months following her death that she was actually still alive.

Secret agent rumor

Nikiforova was rumored to have helped assassinate Symon Petlura, seven years after her own death.

In the years following her death, Nikiforova was rumored to have become a spy for the Soviet government in Paris. There she performed undercover work, and was involved in the assassination of Symon Petliura, an exiled Ukrainian nationalist and former leader of the Ukrainian People's Republic. In actuality, Peliura was assassinated by Sholom Schwartzbard. A fellow exile and Ukrainian-Jewish anarchist, and former member of Grigori Kotovsky's anarchist detachment, Schwartzbard had worked alone in the assassination. Malcolm Archibald commented, "The only truth in this story might be the fact of anarchists doing the Bolshevik's work for them."[4]

Marusya copycats

The mythology of Nikiforova's activities after her death created an opportunity for copycats—faux Marusyas—to appear in the months and years to follow. The only female atamansha while alive, Nikiforova was followed by three women fighters in the Ukrainian War of Independence who adopted her name for propaganda purposes.[5]

In the 1919, Marusya Sokolovskaia became the commander of her brother's cavalry detachment after his death in battle. A 25 year old Ukrainian nationalist school teacher, she was captured by the Reds and shot. In 1920-1921, Black Maria (Marusya Chernaya) became a commander of a cavalry regiment in the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine. She died in battle against the Red Army. A final copycat, Marusya Kosova, appeared in the Tambov peasant revolt in 1921-1922. After the revolt was suppressed, she disappeared.[6]

See also

Further reading

  • Palij, Michael (1976). The Anarchism of Nestor Makhno, 1918-1921. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0295955112. OCLC 2372742. 


  1. ^ Archibald 2007, p. 8
  2. ^ Archibald 2007, p. 9
  3. ^ Archibald 2007, p. 9
  4. ^ Archibald 2007, p. 44
  5. ^ Archibald 2007, p. 43
  6. ^ Archibald 2007, pp. 43–44


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