In September 1920, the last Czechoslovak legionnaires, who fought alongside the Allies in Russia during the First World War, and then found themselves caught up in the Russian Revolution, left Russian soil for France after months of travelling through harsh Siberian tundra. As the European front had been blocked by the Civil War that followed the revolution, the White Czechs, as they were called, were forced to travel via the Pacific port of Vladivostok and the United States. But the slow evacuation via the Trans-Siberian railway took its toll, and thousands of the returning soldiers died on the journey, to be buried in mass graves along the railway. Now, more than 85 years later, one such cemetery has recently been renovated in honour of the soldiers' plight.
The graves of the scores of Czechoslovak soldiers were neglected for many years by the Communist government, due to their involvement, however unwilling, in the Russian Revolution. Memorials have existed along the railway since 1920 but only now has the largest of them in Vladivostok been renovated and opened to the public. Jiri Hofman is from the Czech Ministry of Defence, responsible for carrying out the work in Vladivostok. He describes how the original memorials came into being.
"The soldiers took a group of architects and builders with them who built memorials on these monumental burial grounds. Of course, where the larger battles took place, people were simply buried and have remained there without being exhumed. The Ministry of Defence's first aim was to map out the situation, to find out which monuments on the Trans-Siberian railway are worth preserving and where the burial grounds were ruined, in places where towns destroyed even their own graveyards."
It is estimated that around 50,000 Czech and Slovak soldiers passed through Russia between 1918 and 1920, as they headed via bleak Siberia for Vladivostok where they were picked up by 40 transport ships. But despite this operation some 4,000 never returned home, falling victim to wounds and diseases, not helped by the extreme climate.
"Some say that around a thousand people are buried there, while others quote a lesser figure, but I get the impression that they don't understand that the mass grave has two parts. So there are in fact around a thousand. The costs for the repairs to the Vladivostok burial site have reached a few million crowns and the work is being completed in stages. Currently we are around half way through. Then I daresay the work will continue to include a few more memorials on the railway itself."
The renovation of the Vladivostok cemetery is a big step in commemorating the plight of the White Czechs, as few legionnaires' memorials currently exist in Russia. In Irkutsk, for example a culture park has now been established on the site of a former cemetery, whereas in Omsk another such burial ground was razed to make way for a new factory. Libor Kukal is a Russian journalist in Prague:
"I think it is a major event as until now Russians viewed the White Czechs, as they were then called, as an enemy army. This view still remains from Soviet times that the White Czechs fought against the Russians. So it has been really unexpected that a Czech memorial has finally been built in Russia. Of course, the monuments have been funded by the Czech Republic, as the Russian government did not want to invest a large amount of money in this, although there is now an agreement between the Czech and Russian governments regarding monuments."
The renovation of the site in Vladivostok has also sparked discussion regarding the repairs of further Czech military memorials in Russia. Ministry officials have also held talks in Buzuluk, in the Orenburg region of Southern Russia, where around 60 soldiers from the group of General Ludvik Svoboda are buried, and where the first Czechoslovak military corps was formed in 1942. The project, which will cost around 2 million Czech crowns (over 90 thousand US dollars), is expected to get underway next year.
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