The story of the Czechoslovak Legions in Russia is one of the most remarkable episodes of the first world war. Independently formed units of Czechoslovak soldiers, they had fought with the Russian Army and at first sided with the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution. However, they later joined forces with the White Army against the Reds, before eventually making their way home – via the Trans-Siberian railroad – in 1920.
Their story has now been captured in a new documentary entitled Accidental Army by the Czech Legion Project, whose Chicago-based founder Bruce Bendinger was in Prague screening it last week. In a conversation taking in several aspects of the Legions’ story, I asked Bruce if it was true the Bolsheviks had executed the Russian royal family in July 1918 precisely because the Czechoslovaks were nearby and might have freed them.
“You can build a pretty good case that that’s exactly what happened, that the Czechs were a day away from Ekaterinburg when the Tsar’s family was killed. At that point in time the Red Army was in great disarray, the Czechs were the most organised fighting force in this very complicated chess game of fighting forces and power structures.”
“It made sense for them, because the Bolsheviks were losing every battle to the Czechs at that point in time, and the Czechs could probably out-maneuver, out-think and out-execute them at that point in time. Shooting [the Romanovs] and getting out of town was, sad to say, probably the best strategy on their part.”
When, I believe it was in 1920, the Czechoslovaks decided to leave Russia and went east to get back here, was that a decision taken independently by the Legions or was it an order that came from Prague?
“In 1920 you could find about seven different agendas kicking around in Vladivostok. And many countries had more than one agenda.”
“The US had a major agenda of protecting the Legion and cutting off Japanese expansion. Churchill had an agenda of stopping the Bolsheviks. At the time there were not one but two Bolshevik governments in Europe. Both Russia and Hungary were operating Bolshevik governments and there was great concern on the part of Churchill and the French that this was a trend that was going to keep on rolling.”
“Within the Czechs, a few prominent Czechs – Štefánik [who was Slovak] and Gajda – were also of that persuasion. Most of the Czechs wanted to go home, and why wouldn’t they?”
“When other people in Vladivostok, Syrový particularly…he made a very direct and simple request to the government, saying, what’s going on? Could you please tell me what your objective is?
“They took quite a number of weeks – when he was under great pressure – they took quite a number of weeks to give him a wishy-washy answer. So the Czechs, I believe, came to the conclusion that if anybody was going to cut a deal, they’d have to do it…
“They had their country, they had Czechoslovakia, and why the heck were they in the middle of Russia fighting for seven different countries, when all they really wanted to do was to go home to the country they’d fought for in the middle of Europe.”
Do you know how it took the legionnaires to get from Vladivostok back to Czechoslovakia?
“I don’t know how long it took. And also they took about seven different routes. There was a route going to the east around Ceylon and Singapore and through the Suez Canal.
“A few boats went around Africa, because you see pictures of legionnaires in Cape Town. Other groups went to San Francisco or Vancouver, and then came across the Atlantic on boats.
“There was one boat that was wrecked off the coast of Japan…it took them all around a year to get home.”
Do you have any idea how they were received when they got home to Prague, I suppose three years or so after other soldiers had come home from the war?
“It was a heroes’ welcome. It was quite clear that for all the bravery of the legions in Italy, France and Serbia, the chess piece that made a difference for Masaryk and Beneš was the legion in Russia.
“Clearly that large organised fighting force, which was playing a fairly interesting strategic role in a couple of ways, was the key to give Masaryk and Beneš the credibility they needed at Versailles [during the 1919 peace talks].
“So when the Legion came home [from Russia] they were welcomed as heroes…If you were a legionnaire you could open a bank, you could open an insurance agency, you could open a hotel, you were a pretty important part of the society and the culture.
“During the First Republic they had movies…they weren’t great cinema, they were kind of like our American cowboy movies of the time. There were a dozen or so movies made about the Legion.
“There were pocket books and novels with four-colour covers, and pageants and marches saluting them. And there were holidays like the Battle of Zborov, which took place in early July , was a major Czech holiday at the time.”
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