Between the ages of 8 and 11, I compulsively read retellings and translations of Xenophon’s Anabasis. Something about the plight of desperate young men stranded in hostile territory by the incompetence of their allies and leaders spoke to the conditions of my childhood, and it was half a decade before I began to become properly aware of the compromising context of the events and the dubious values of the author. It was fortunate I did not run across the even more impressive and complex story of the Czech Legion’s fighting withdrawal of over 4,000 miles [6,500 km] between 1918 CE and 1920 CE, through the entire length of Siberia during the Russian Civil War, until I was older.
At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, roughly 100,000 Czechs fled the Austro-Hungarian Empire to settle in Imperial Russia, mostly around Kiev in the Ukraine. They provided elite reconnaissance units to the Russian Army fighting the Austrians in World War I. During that conflict, Czech and Slovak soldiers conscripted by the Austrians surrendered en masse to the Russians, who parked these troops in prisoner of war camps in central Russia. The approximately 60,000 soldiers of the Czech Legion came primarily from these two sources.
After the abdication of the Czar in 1917, the Russian Provisional Government approved the previously submitted plans of a former Prague University Professor of Philosophy, Thomas Masaryk, for the formation of a Czech Army in Russia. This was to have many unintended consequences, including the loss of Imperial Russia’s gold reserves and the execution of the Czar and his family.
It soon became evident that the Russians were losing the war to the Germans and Austrians. Masaryk proposed withdrawing the Czech soldiers for redeployment on the Western Front via the arctic port of Archangel, but German troop presence soon blocked that plan.
In addition the Germans sent Lenin in a hermetically sealed train to the Finland Station, his first step in fomenting the Bolshevik Revolution.
As German forces were setting up a detached German province in the Ukraine, an adventure related to me by a childhood neighbor who fought in the campaign, and the Bolsheviks by and large ignored the World War to build their power base in the country, the Czechs were on their own, many stranded near Kiev. They wanted to go home to Bohemia.
Fortunately in 1918 they had the only competent military organization in Russia, the invading Germans excepted. Blocked north and west by hostile armies, and south by a welter of dubious nations and roadless wildernesses, they headed east on the Trans-Siberian Railroad after a viciously fought and ultimately successful two-day delaying action against the Germans, who were entering Kiev as the Legion’s first trains departed. The Trans-Siberian Railroad had connected Moscow with the Pacific port of Vladivostok in 1916.
The Czech Legion soon took control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad east of the Volga, creating a command and communications network along its entire length. They operated a telegraph service and a regularly published newspaper in addition to facilities for maintaining and armoring the trains.
Originally observing strict neutrality with regards to the Russian Civil War, they protected their own interests against attacks by local Red forces. Generally successful in avoiding alliances and armed disputes with the egregiously incompetent, corrupt, and brutal Whites, the Czech Legion largely focused on getting home. As part of this effort they had to create a small naval force on Lake Baikal to clear away Russians trying to block their way.
The mere existence and presence of Czech Legion forces changed history. A detached unit of the Legion appeared within two days’ march of Yekaterinburg, a city on the eastern edge of the Ural Mountains, where the Czar was secretly being held prisoner by the Bolsheviks. A local soviet, fearful that the proximity of Legion troops presaged a rescue attempt, killed the Czar and his family. There were no such plans. The Czechs did not know the Czar was there, and the Legion unit never entered the city.
A rear guard of the Legion in Kazan captured 8 negligently guarded train cars loaded with bullion from the Imperial Reserve. They sensibly used much of the gold to buy smooth passage east from potentially obstructive Red units, throwing in the White warlord Admiral Kolchak as a deal sweetener. Over 1,080 pounds [490 kg] of gold went missing, roughly worth $4.5 billion in current U.S. dollars. A small fraction of it was used by the Czechs to charter ships and set up the Legion Bank in Prague, an architectural gem in the center of the city. There has been a great deal of speculation as to the fate of the rest. Much of it reached the Bolsheviks, who at least made better use of it than Kolchak did of the substantial amount of American paper currency in his possession: finding it too difficult and expensive to protect, he ordered it burned. Several American arms and investment companies wound up with significant amounts of the missing gold.
The Americans, in concert with the British, French, and Japanese, invaded the Soviet Union too late to reverse the Revolution, though United States troops did engage in small conflicts with the Reds in Siberia. The Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War had surprizingly little effect on the Czech Legion’s activities.
The Czech Legion evacuated from Vladivostok in 1919 – 1920 using ships from a variety of sources, some chartered with gold bullion. Most of the soldiers returned to Europe via the United States, though some traveled by way of the Suez Canal.
Masaryk led the new nation of Czechoslovakia for most of the years between the First and Second World Wars. A Pan-Slavic enthusiast, it is perhaps kinder he did not live to see the Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia after 1945, much less the Russian and Warsaw Pact crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.
• There’s no more enjoyable way to gain an introduction to the history of the times in Russia than by reading Trotsky’s The Russian Revolution, a rare case in which a principal participant in world changing events could create an intelligent and remarkably frank, if only because it was written in exile, account of what happened.
• Evan Mawdsley’s The Russian Civil War and Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891 – 1924 provide a broader scope.
• Joan Mohr’s The Czech and Slovak Legion in Siberia, 1917 – 1922 is a useful English language introduction to the voluminous publications on the topic.
• Willard Sunderland’s The Baron’s Cloak is a helpful reminder of just how crazy the White leaders could be.