Over the past hundred years, many conjectures, myths, and fables have arisen about the role of Czechs and Slovaks in the Russian Civil War. What were they actually fighting for on Russian soil? Is the uprising of the Czechoslovak Legion in 1918 connected with the enmity between Stalin and Trotsky? How true are the stories about the atrocities of the Czechoslovakians among the civilian population? Was the bank created by the Czechoslovak legionaries after the First World War-related to the gold reserves of the Russian Empire? Vasily Tsvetkov, Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor of Moscow Pedagogical University (MPGU), answered all these questions to Lenteru.
Brothers In Arms
Lenders Many people know what the Russians were doing in Prague in May 1945 or in August 1968. However, not everyone understands how and why in the summer of 1918, during our Civil War, almost 50 thousand armed Czechs and Slovaks occupied the vast territory of Russia – from Penza to Vladivostok. Where did they come from then in our country?
Vasily Tsvetkov When, in August 1914, Austria-Hungary, where Czechs and Slovaks were national minorities, declared war on Russia, the Czech Committee for Aid to War Victims” immediately emerged in Kyiv, consisting of Czechs of the Southwestern Territory” – subjects of the Russian Empire, On his initiative and with the active support of the Czechs of Moscow and Petrograd in the first days of the war, the Council of Ministers decided to form a Czech squad, which became the basis of the future Czechoslovak corps. On the same days, in Moscow, Nicholas II received a Czech delegation with a memorandum stating that the free and independent crown of St. Wenceslas will soon shine in the rays of the Romanov crown.
Did this phrase mean that after the victory over Austria-Hungary, the new Czech Republic should become part of Russia? There was hardly any talk of the inclusion of the Czech and Slovak lands into the Russian Empire. They meant a kind of confederal union of our country with all the West Slavic peoples freed from the German dominance perhaps, reminiscent of the current Union State of Russia and Belarus. Let’s not forget that the First World War sharply intensified the Pan-Slavist sentiments that had appeared in the 19th century. In the same August days of 1914 the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich promised the Poles, after victory in the war, to restore their statehood and unite all the Polish lands under the scepter of the Russian Tsar.
It is also no coincidence that on the banner of the Czech squad, solemnly consecrated in Kyiv in October 1914 before being sent to the front, on one side, there was a Russian tricolor, and on the other a Czech flag, on which a white two-tailed lion was located on a red shield historical coat of arms of the Czech Republic and around it – the coats of arms of the Czech Republic, Moravia, Silesia, and Slovatchyna. This banner was crowned with a Russian two-headed eagle.
How Did The Czechs Show Themselves At The Front?
Great, because the squad was formed from volunteers. About the Czechs, there are often statements that they are almost the most non-warlike nation in Europe, a kind of collective soldier Schweik, who just needs to drink beer. In fact, the Czechs were excellent warriors. For example, in the First World War, it was they who actually held the Italian front of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The same was true of the Russian army. Suffice it to say that the entire personnel of the first company of the Czech squad was awarded St. George’s crosses. Since the Czechs showed themselves well in battles, in 1915 they were allowed to replenish the ranks of the squad with compatriots taken prisoner. The squad grew numerically and was reorganized into the 1st Hussite Czechoslovak Rifle Regiment, and in 1916-1917 – first into a brigade, and then into a corps.
Czechs and Slovaks from the Austro-Hungarian army surrendered to Russian captivity voluntarily? Many surrendered, knowing that their compatriots were fighting in the ranks of the Russian army. Czechs and Slovaks on both sides did not want to shoot at each other. It is necessary to take into account the fact that in many Slavic lands of Austria-Hungary (for example, in Galicia) Russophile sentiments prevailed.
But the explosive growth in the number of Czechoslovak armed units in the Russian army (up to 20 thousand people by the summer of 1917 and more than 40 thousand by the end of the same year) at the expense of prisoners of war did not have the best effect on the quality of personnel. There are noticeably fewer people with the sincere motivation to fight on the side of the Russian brothers that the first warriors had. By the way, after the end of the First World War in independent Czechoslovakia, the volunteers of the first draft of 1914 formed their own organization the Union of Old Friends.
Strange legions it true that after the February Revolution of 1917, Czechoslovak military units were among the few combat-ready formations of the rapidly crumbling Russian army? Yes, in June 1917, during the unsuccessful offensive of the Russian army, it was the Czechoslovak brigade that held the front, repelling enemy attacks during the Battle of Zborovsk. But under the influence of revolutionary events in Russia, fermentation also began inside the Czechoslovak Corps (it was reorganized from the brigade in September 1917). Instead of old-timers volunteers like Stanislav Chechek Josef Shvets, and Jan Syrov (at the time of the signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938, he was the prime minister of Czechoslovakia), those who were ready to fight for anyone if only they would be allowed to go home soon,
Why, in December 1917, the Czechoslovak corps has renamed the legion and reassigned it to the French command? Because after the events of December 3, 1917, in Mogilev, when the Supreme Commander-in-Chief General Nikolai Dukhonin died, the old Russian army practically ceased to exist. In those conditions, such a decision seemed logical. After all, France was considered the main ally of Russia in the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. The idea of declaring the Czechoslovak Corps in Russia part of the French army belonged to the future first president of independent Czechoslovakia, Tomas Masaryk. He personally made this request to the French authorities. And after that, the Czechoslovakians stopped fighting on the side of the Russians?
In March 1918, there was a little-known episode when Czechoslovak legionnaires fought together with units of the Red Army. And after the conclusion of the Brest Peace, they successfully repelled the onslaught of five German regiments near Bakhmach for a whole week – now it is the regional center of the Chernihiv region of present-day Ukraine. How did the Germans manage to get to the east of Ukraine so quickly? After the conclusion of a separate peace, they were called there by the Ukrainian Central Rada in Kyiv, and the Czechoslovakians again had to keep a section of the Eastern Front. A few days later, the supreme commander of the Soviet troops of the South of Russia, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko (the same one who stormed the Winter Palace in Petrograd in October 1917 ) officially thanked the personnel of the legion for helping the Red Army.
Why then did the Bolsheviks fail to form a Special Czechoslovak Revolutionary Army? There were some chances for the success of this project, but in the spring of 1918, the Bolsheviks, with their erroneous decisions, alienated most of the Czechoslovakians. As a result, there were very few of those who, like the author of The Adventures of the Gallant Soldier Schweik, Yaroslav Hasek, went to serve with the Reds. In Soviet times, it was with the uprising of the Czechoslovak Legion in May 1918 that it was customary to count the beginning of the Civil War in Russia. Do you agree with this assessment?
Of course not. Any civil war is always an internal conflict, and no external force is capable of causing it, perhaps aggravating it. By May 1918, the Civil War in Russia had been going on for almost six months. The uprising of the Czechoslovak Legion, of course, added fuel to this fire but did not become the true cause of the bloody internal Russian civil strife. Some of us still consider Czechs and Slovaks to be the instigators of the Russian Civil War.
The uprising of the Czechoslovak Legion was only a catalyst for an all-Russian conflagration, but not its fuse. However, within a few months, the legionnaires controlled the vast territory of Russia along the railway from Chelyabinsk to Vladivostok, and then the fronts of the Civil War were finally formed. The performance of the Czechoslovakians undoubtedly significantly changed the scale of hostilities.
What Caused The Uprising Of The Czechoslovak Legion?
A whole series of events led to it when the Czechoslovak Legion found itself on the line of confrontation between the red and white. But the uprising was not inevitable, much could have turned out differently. As early as March 26, 1918, the People’s Commissar for Nationalities, Joseph Stalin, on behalf of the Soviet government, signed an agreement with the Czechoslovak command, which guaranteed the legionnaires unhindered travel by rail to Vladivostok. They were allowed to keep with them the minimum stock of weapons necessary for self-defense. The Czechoslovakians almost fully complied with the terms of the agreement. But on the way to Vladivostok, all sorts of problems and obstacles periodically arose, which the legionnaires interpreted as the desire of the Bolsheviks to deceive them and surrender them to their enemies – the Germans and Austro-Hungarians.
Considering that the Bolsheviks were then considered allies of the Germans, this was a well-founded suspicion. There was a reason for this, and the German ambassador Mirbach influenced the Council of People’s Commissars, but the situation turned out to be much more complicated. In the first half of 1918, it turned out that the port of Vladivostok was sorely lacking ships to send from Russia numerous units of the legion, continuously arriving in the city via the Trans-Siberian Railway. Then in Moscow, they decided to detain the Czechoslovak echelons stretching from Penza to Vladivostok, and those that had not yet reached the Urals decided to send them to Europe in a different way – through the recently built Murmansk railway.
But this route passed near the border with Finland, where the German expeditionary force under the command of Rüdiger von der Goltz was then operating. The Czechs suspected that in fact, the Bolsheviks did not want to transport them to France, to the Western Front, but simply surrender them to the hated Germans. The infamous Chelyabinsk incident of May 14, 1918, only exacerbated these fears.
Between Stalin and Trotsky
This is when two echelons with former prisoners of war of the Austro-Hungarian army met at the railway station in Chelyabinsk, and a metal blank was thrown from the Hungarian train into the Czechoslovak one, which crippled one of the legionnaires?
Yes exactly. This event became a kind of trigger for the uprising of the legion. The local authorities did not understand the true background of the incident and demanded that the angry and tired legionnaires, stuck on their way home, unconditionally disarm. In response, the Czechoslovakians not only fought off the arrested comrades but also created a threat to seize power in Chelyabinsk.
Trotsky’s famous telegram of May 25, 1918, demanding the disarming of the Czechoslovakians under the threat of being shot on the spot was Moscow’s reaction to the events in Chelyabinsk?In many ways, yes. Here I would not rule out the intrigues of Count Mirbach, who in a month and a half will be shot by the Chekist Yakov Blumkin. True, at the same time, Trotsky’s telegram emphasized that honest Czechoslovakians who will surrender their weapons and submit to Soviet power will be treated as brothers. However, on the same day, May 25, 1918, the Red Army attacked the legionnaires at the Maryanovka station, on May 26 – in Irkutsk, and on May 27 they fired at a Czechoslovak train near Zlatoust from machine guns. After the Chelyabinsk incident, the Czechoslovak delegation that arrived in Moscow to negotiate with the Bolsheviks was arrested, and then the conflict between the Soviet government and the legionnaires had already become irreversible.
It turns out that Trotsky’s May telegram actually canceled the March agreement between Stalin and the Czechoslovakians in Penza? Yes exactly. Can it be said that the conflict with the Czechoslovakians in the spring of 1918 was one of the first episodes of the confrontation between Stalin and Trotsky that lasted for two decades? Of course, tensions already existed between Stalin and Trotsky in the first half of 1918. Obviously, Joseph Vissarionovich was not happy with the fact that Lev Davidovich, two months later, unceremoniously disavowed the agreement he signed in Penza with the command of the Czechoslovak Legion, especially considering the further consequences of this decision. Hungarian motive why, during the Civil War, almost all Hungarian prisoners of war on the territory of the former Russian Empire fought for the Reds (for example, the infamous Imre Nagy or Bela Kun here ), while the Czechs and Slovaks mostly sided with the opponents of the Bolsheviks?
Here it was not only about the historical enmity between the Czechs and the Hungarians, which was clearly shown by the Chelyabinsk incident but in the specific circumstances of that time. Before the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, there were no attempts to form military units from captured Germans, Austrians, or Hungarians. But the Czechoslovak Corps by the fall of 1917 was already an established military unit within the Entente. And after the Brest Peace Treaty, the Czechoslovaks, loyal to their obligations to the Entente, found themselves in the camp of enemies, while the Germans, Austria
Therefore, many former German and Hungarian prisoners of war became part of the international units of the Red Army, which played an important role in the battles of 1918. Many former Hungarian prisoners of war considered the Czechoslovak legionnaires to be traitors, betraying the interests of their country. Let’s not forget that in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as can be seen even from its name, the Hungarians were considered one of the two titular nations, and the Czechs and Slovaks were national minorities. It is no coincidence that during the Civil War in Russia, the Hungarians and Czechoslovakians did not take each other prisoner – they immediately killed on the spot, and often with particular cruelty.
Did the Hungarian prisoners of war look at the Czechoslovak legionnaires in about the same way as the Red Army men treated the Vlasovites from the ROA during the Second World War? To some extent, yes. Although, of course, the Czechoslovak Legion and the Vlasov Russian Liberation Army are different armed formations from completely different historical eras.
Czechoslovak Front Beyond The Volga
Why, after the uprising, the Czechoslovakians did not begin to break through to Vladivostok, but turned their weapons against the Bolsheviks, occupying the front along the Volga? After the uprising of the legion, the French command had a direct plan to use it against the Bolsheviks. The idea of a triple strike on Soviet Moscow arose: the White Volunteer Army was supposed to attack it from the south, the Anglo-French-American landing force, which landed in Arkhangelsk in the summer of 1918, was planned from the north, and the Czechoslovak offensive along with the People’s Army was planned from the Volga. Kombucha.
In July, Czechoslovak units from Penza tried to break through to the east – to Syzran, Samara, and Simbirsk. The Siberian units of the legion were advancing towards them in the direction of the Urals, and the Czechoslovak contingent in Vladivostok, already ready to be sent to France, moved back – from Primorye to Transbaikalia.
The unsuccessful anti-Bolshevik uprisings in July 1918 in Yaroslavl, Rybinsk, and Murom were part of this plan? Yes, Savinkov, the organizer of all three uprisings, was waiting for the French to approach, but they were late with the landing and did not have time to help him. Do you think the plan of the French command was feasible? In the circumstances of that time, the opponents of the Bolsheviks could hardly count on success, especially given the vast distances in Russia and the deplorable state of the railways. I’m not even talking about the lack of human and material resources. But Lenin in the summer of 1918 assessed the position of the Soviet regime as critical.
When this venture failed, what happened to the Czechoslovakians? Did they try to break through to the east again? While the First World War was going on, the Czechoslovak Legion held the front between the Volga and the Urals, along with units of the famous General Vladimir Kappel. But in October 1918, a completely shameful episode happened near Ufa, when the Czechoslovakians left their combat positions and fled to the east. Looking at this, Josef Schwetz, one of the most authoritative “old friends”, shot himself in despair. In November 1918, after the First World War, when Admiral Kolchak came to power in Omsk, the French command attracted Czechoslovak legionnaires to guard the Trans-Siberian Railway, approximately from Kansk to Irkutsk. There they left, to put it mildly, not a very good memory of themselves.
Heroes and Villains, This is exactly what the next question is about. At every next exacerbation of Russian-Czech relations, we remember the atrocities committed by the Czechoslovak legionaries during the Civil War. What is true and what is speculation or fiction? This is a tricky question. Of course, there were brutal measures to suppress the uprisings in Siberia. It is pointless to deny this. But modern Czech historians refute all this. According to them, in today’s Russia, they simply slander the Czechoslovakians. I don’t think one can deny the obvious. It is impossible to deny the punitive operations of the Czechoslovakians against the Red partisans and those who were suspected of supporting them.
Documents and photographs are showing how legionnaires shell and burn the rebellious villages. Historians from the Czech Republic claim that the photo of the soldiers of the Czechoslovak Legion over the bodies of the killed Russian Red Army soldiers is a fake, and in fact, everything was exactly the opposite. It is difficult for me to say which particular photograph is in question. But there are photographs from Czech albums. On them, people with legion badges (two-color ribbons through the band, shields on their tunics) pose over the corpses of enemies. There are photographs of Czech artillery crews, armored cars, cavalry patrols, which are sent to suppress the uprisings. In the Taishet area, didn’t the Czechoslovakians really understand that with such methods they only harden the residents? It was a common practice of the Civil War: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. There is such a characteristic episode. Czechoslovak newspapers of that time wrote a lot about the fate of the non-commissioned officer of the 10th Czech regiment Vondracek. He ferried a steam locomotive along the Transsib between Balai and Klyukvennaya stations in the Yenisei province. Partisans attacked him, took him prisoner, and brutally mutilated him. There are other examples as well. In December 1919, a partisan detachment Gregory Rogov perpetrate a three-day massacre in the town of Kuznetsk, which killed hundreds of citizens, including the Czech military. But there is also evidence of the transfer of Czechs from the 2nd division to the partisans in the Baikal region.
That is, the Czechoslovakians were not much different from other participants in the Civil War in Russia – both red and white, and their cruelty should not be exaggerated or hushed up. I will answer you with the words from Songs of Altai Partisans (My Father was a natural plowman Evil Czechs attacked us, They set fire on our native village. The father was killed in the first battle, And the mother was burned alive in the fire. What can I say – it was like that, yes.
The secret of Russian gold it true that relations between the Czechoslovakians and Kolchak did not work out after the Omsk coup in November 1918? That they, convinced democrats, were sickened by the dictatorial methods of the Russian admiral? Of course, this factor played a role. The leaders of the Czechoslovak National Committee quickly established good relations with Komuch, and then with the Ufa Directory, where the majority were Social Revolutionaries and Social Democrats, and they met Kolchak’s coup without enthusiasm. The admiral tried to establish contact with them. In his government, for example, a project was being developed to create Czech agricultural settlements in Siberia. But little came of it – there were not many who wanted to.
One of the leaders of the Czechoslovak legionnaires, Radiol Gaid, in January 1919 entered the service of Kolchak, who instructed him to command the Siberian army. After the failures of his army at the front in the summer, the admiral removed Gaida from his post. Kolchak’s final break with him and with the Czechoslovak legionaries took place in November 1919. Then Gaida tried to raise a mutiny in Vladivostok, in which all the anti-Kolchak forces, including the local Bolsheviks, participated.
And a few days before the “Hyde putsch” members of the Czechoslovak National Council, with their memorandum, accused the Kolchak authorities of violence against the civilian population. When the admiral was already in Nizhneudinsk, he sent an order to the customs office in Vladivostok to conduct an audit of Czech luggage sent abroad. This was one of the last orders of Kolchak. That is why the Czechoslovakians arrested him after leaving Nizhneudinsk?In fact, the legionnaires arrested Kolchak and handed him over to the Irkutsk Political Center by order of the commander-in-chief of the Entente forces in Siberia and the Far East, French General Maurice Janin. They were guaranteed unhindered passage along the Trans-Siberian Railway around Lake Baikal. The legionnaires were handed over to the political center and echelons with part of the gold reserve.
Did they have anything to do with the loss of a significant part of the gold reserve? There is still talk that the legionnaires took out a significant part of the gold reserve from Russia, and allegedly due to this, the economy of interwar Czechoslovakia developed so rapidly.No, it’s not like that. The Czechoslovak Legiobank was replenished from other sources. Since the legionnaires received their salaries in foreign currency, and one franc was valued at 1:10 against the Siberian ruble, they could afford to buy anything on the Siberian markets. Many of them have accumulated surplus money and valuables. The Legion’s cash desk was created, which then constituted the initial capital of Legiobank. The Czechs had nothing to do with our gold reserves.
But not all the gold returned to Moscow. In the summer and fall of 1919, Kolchak paid in gold to the Entente allies for the supply of weapons and materials. This was done officially through the Ministry of Finance. One echelon en route to Vladivostok via Chita was captured by Ataman Semyonov. Another 13 boxes were stolen in January 1920 at Tyret station between Nizhneudinsk and Irkutsk. Kidnapped by whom? the train was guarded by a mixed Czechoslovak-partisan guard. On one of the cars, for which the partisan guards were in charge, the seals were torn off at night, and 13 boxes of gold disappeared.
It was not possible to find out the further fate of the stolen cargo
These boxes likely ended up with the local population. Echelons go east
When the recent scandal with the monument to Marshal Konev in Prague happened, another article about the “evil Czechs” with a quote from the book “Czech Legions in Siberia (Czech Betrayal)”, written in exile by the white general Konstantin Sakharov, was published on one specific site. It states that during Kolchak’s retreat to Lake Baikal, “the Czechs threw out of them the wounded, women and children from among the refugees, to seize the wagons, condemning them to death in the cold.”
I recommend that you better read the review of this book, written by another white general -Mikhail Inostrantsev, a former general on assignments under Kolchak. In it, he breaks all Sakharov’s maxims literally by sentence, by paragraph. In Sakharov’s memoirs, to put it mildly, there are a lot of exaggerations. He strongly disliked Czechs, which can be judged at least by the title of his book. Sakharov was a staunch Germanophile. It is no coincidence that “The Czech Betrayal” was published in Germany in 1930, and at the end of the book it is not difficult to notice the curtsies in the direction of fascism. Therefore, Sakharov’s testimony must be treated with caution.s it true that the Russian Whites had to retreat from Omsk to the east on foot in the cold, also due to the fault of the Czechs, who occupied almost the entire Trans-Siberian Railway?
True, but in part. The Czechoslovak trains did create a gigantic traffic jam on the Transsib, but this was not deliberate sabotage. The evacuation of the Czechoslovak Legion to Vladivostok, which was authorized by General Janin, coincided with the retreat of the Kolchak army and the refugees following it. When the Czechoslovak trains got stuck on the Transsib, the Kolchakites had to leave the freezing trains and move east on foot. This is how the Great Siberian Ice Campaign began. By the way, this was the right decision: the Russian whites under the command of General Kappel on foot through the taiga reached Nizhneudinsk faster than many Czechoslovak echelons by rail.
Russian action how true is the story that the legionnaires in Siberia saved from hunger, trained, and then took with them to Europe hundreds of Russian children who became orphans during the Civil War? Here we can talk about individual episodes when street children were nailed to the legionnaires at railway stations. This happened quite often during the Civil War. The compassionate soldiers fed and warmed them, sometimes put them in their echelons, and took them away with them. But to assert that the Czechoslovak legionaries carried out a purposeful humanitarian mission in Russia would be a great exaggeration.
Here it is more appropriate to recall another humanitarian project – the Russian Action, announced by the government of independent Czechoslovakia in 1921. This charitable program of support and assistance greatly helped many Russian emigrants who found themselves in the country after our Civil War. Did the fact that many former legionnaires took leading positions in independent Czechoslovakia played a role in the success of this project?Yes of course. Legionnaires at home were greeted as heroes, so their representatives made up the military-political elite of interwar Czechoslovakia. And not only at that time: the future president of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Hero of the Soviet Union Ludvik Svoboda fought in his youth as part of the Czechoslovak Legion.
The Russian action, in addition to the humanitarian aspect, was of great practical importance for Czechoslovakia itself. In the country, which before independence for centuries experienced strong German and Hungarian pressure, the national intelligentsia was small in number, there was a lack of scientists, doctors, engineers. In 1920-1930, it was Russian emigrants who had a very great influence on the formation of the Czech intellectual elite.
We Also Fought For A Free Russia
Whom did the Czechoslovak legionaries fight against in our Civil War – against the Bolsheviks or the Russians in general? don’t think you can talk about any special hostility towards Russians. Some legionnaires in Russia got families and then took them with them. The future president of independent Czechoslovakia, Edvard Beneš argued that “then in Siberia, we defended not only our freedom, we also fought for a free Russia.”The Russian democratic intelligentsia of the Ural and Siberian cities was sympathetic to the Czechoslovakians. Many of its leaders warmly welcomed the arrival of the legionnaires, perceiving them not as foreign invaders, but as “liberators from Bolshevism.”I will return to the recent scandal when a monument to Soviet Marshal Konev was dismantled in Prague. After that, we offered to take down all the memorials to the Czechoslovak legionnaires in revenge in Russia.
Mirror response is good in diplomatic relations between countries or when someone is caught spying. But to fight with monuments, using the past for momentary and propaganda purposes, is stupid. It is even more stupid to be like those who do this in other countries. For Russia, a great power with a long history, this would be unworthy. Once I asked you if Admiral Kolchak deserves a monument. And what about the Czechoslovakians?The same as about Kolchak. In the end, the Czechoslovak legionaries found themselves drawn into the Russian turmoil, rather than initiating it.
These people are as many victims of our Civil War as the Reds and Whites.
We must also remember how the Czech warriors fought valiantly for us during the First World War. Moreover, there is an intergovernmental agreement between our countries in 1999, according to which both sides are obliged to take care of the safety of military graves and memorials. That’s it. There were both dark and light episodes in the relationship between Russians and Czechs. It would be nice for us to remember not only the punitive expeditions of legionnaires in Siberia, but also the Russian action in interwar Czechoslovakia, and today’s Czechs should keep in their memory not only August 1968 but also May 1945. And the monuments should be left alone.