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A nation must think before it acts.
Even by the usual dismal standards, Siberia was a wretched place when Kevin J. McNamara visited there in 1993. An American journalist and historian, McNamara was leading a group of Americans on a trip through once-forbidden territory. Their Aeroflot flight was filled with flies and terror-stricken Russians (there were many crashes that year), the Trans-Siberian Railway lacked proper hygiene facilities, and when they visited towns the locals would stop and stare at them, stunned by their modern clothing and hairstyles. “One Russian even told me our skin and teeth looked better,” McNamara recalls.
But thatʼs not what stayed with McNamara. It was an item in the briefing papers for the trip, which mentioned that an army of 50,000 soldiers had occupied Siberia during the closing years of World War I. “I was amazed that these men had survived multiple Siberian winters and really fierce fighting across a vast moonscape,” he says. “I thought, when I get back to the States, Iʼm going to read the book. Because there has to be a book about this.”
There was not, at least not in English. Thus began a 23-year odyssey that ended last year when McNamara published “Dreams of a Great Small Nation,” an exhaustive account of the Czecho-Slovak Legionnaires and their critical role in the founding of Czecho-Slovakia. It was, in McNamaraʼs telling, “both an historic achievement and an epic misadventure.”