In tumultuous times, great stories are often lost to the larger sweep of history.
The events unleashed by the Russian Revolution are the most tumultuous of the twentieth century. And one story often “lost” within the revolution is the epic misadventure of an ad hoc army of Czechs and Slovaks cast adrift inside revolutionary Russia. Against their will, they found themselves fighting the new Soviet regime and winning – seizing all of Siberia in 1918. Yet they also inadvertently precipitated the murder of the tsar and his family.
Ninety percent of enemy troops captured by tsarist Russia during World War I were subjects of Austria-Hungary, a multinational empire held together by Vienna’s Habsburg dynasty. The Hungarians were the strongest minority, having forced the Habsburgs to grant them equal status with the Austrians in 1867, but the Czechs were the most unruly nationality, often rioting in Prague and in the Viennese parliament for autonomy and equal rights.
Without political motives, in August 1914, 750 Czech and Slovak émigrés then living in Russia (just 16 were Slovak) created a special unit in the Russian Imperial Army. As the war dragged on, large numbers of Czechs and Slovaks in the Austro-Hungarian Army (opposing Russia, France and England) defected to this unit, or were recruited into it from Russia’s 300 POW camps.
In fact, by the time of Russia’s February 1917 revolution, there were 2.1 million Austro-Hungarian POWs, 210,000-250,000 of them Czech or Slovak (predominantly Czech). Seeing these men as potential recruits, a fugitive philosophy professor from Prague, Tomas G. Masaryk, traveled to Russia to ask Russia’s new Provisional Government and its French Allies to free the Czech and Slovak POWs, create a volunteer Czecho-Slovak Legion, and ship them via Vladivostok to bolster French forces on the Western Front. What did Masaryk want in return from the Allies? An independent Czecho-Slovakia.
Agreement was reached, and the legionnaires began their perilous journey across Siberia in over 70 trains. But then the new Bolshevik regime began issuing orders to stop their trains, and local soviets demanded the soldiers’ weapons in return for safe passage. Often they also demanded their locomotives. And all the while, Bolshevik activists were attempting to convince the 50,000 legionnaires to join the new Red Army as “Internationalists.”