In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, they are remembered as brave, resourceful heroes prepared to sacrifice their lives for the independence of their homeland. But in Soviet-era history textbooks, the Czechoslovak legionaries, or “White Czechs” as they were known in Russia, were unequivocally condemned as pillagers and murderers responsible for triggering the Russian Civil War following the Great October Revolution in 1917, when the Communists led by Lenin seized power.
Those sentiments remain deeply ingrained for many Russians. A memorial to the Czechoslovak Legionaries killed in battles with Bolsheviks in Chelyabinsk in 1918 and 1919, unveiled on Thursday during a ceremony attended by Czech deputy defense minister Michael Hrbata (Civic Democrats, ODS) and Chelyabinsk mayor Sergei Davydov, among others, was not without controversy.
The memorial, bearing the names engraved into granite block of 126 Czechs and Slovaks killed in battles in the Chelyabinsk region is not the first: In 1919 local residents financed a memorial to the legionaries, but it was destroyed by the communist authorities when they took full control of the city in the southern Urals near Russia’s border with Kazakhstan.
The legionaries and the Russian Civil War
When World War I broke out in 1914, Czechs and Slovaks were enlisted mostly against their will to fight in the Austro-Hungarian Some 70,000 Czech and Slovak soldiers ended up in Russia and in 1916 and 1917, and four Czechoslovak regiments were formedarmy. Many fled their homelands to join the Allied forces on the Western Front, or to Russia, while others surrendered to Russian forces at the first opportunity. Over 70,000 Czech and Slovak soldiers ended up in Russia, and in 1916 and 1917, prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, four Czechoslovak regiments were formed to fight alongside Imperial Russian forces.
Following the Bolsheviks seizure of power in St. Petersburg in November 1917 and the consequent Brest-Litovsk Treaty signed with Germany, Czechoslovak legionaries were withdrawn from the Eastern Front, and originally plans were drawn up for them to travel by ship from the White sea port of Archangel to France to fight on the Western Front.
Nevertheless, the imprisonment of Serb legionaries in Archangelsk by the Bolsheviks prompted another plan backed by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk — then leader of the Czech and Slovak pro-independence forces who became the first president of Czechoslovakia — to send them back to Europe the long way, i.e. via the Trans Siberian railway across all of Russia to Vladivostok, then by ship to Europe.
According to some accounts, Red Army commander Leon Trotsky ordered the shooting of all the Czechoslovak legionaries, though no documentary evidence to support this has emerged.
In 1918, the so-called Chelyabinsk Incident occurred when a train carrying Czechoslovaks eastwards, drew up beside a trainload of Hungarian prisoners of war travelling home westwards as a result of the Russo-German treaty.
A fight erupted between the two that led to the death of a Hungarian and some Czechs and Slovaks being arrested by the local authorities loyal to the new Bolshevik government. The armed legionaries then decided to free their comrades which led to them taking control of the whole town.
The legionaries went on to take control of the entire Trans-Siberian railway from Chelyabinsk to Vladivostok for about a year, during which time they supported the anti-Bolshevik White Russians in the nascent Civil War and apprehended a large amount of Tsarist gold bullion from Kazan.
The Red Army gradually gained in numbers and strength and following the defeat of Germany in 1918 and the creation of the Czechoslovak state at the Treaty of Versailles, over 60,000 Czechoslovak legionaries eventually left Russia in 36 sailings from Vladivostok in late 1919 and early 1920.
Divided opinions - political capital
There were no loud protests against the monument at the unveiling ceremony on Thursday, though it provoked lively debates on Governor of the Chelyabinsk region, Mikhail Yurovich appeared to choose his words carefully so as not to be dragged into the emotional and divisive debateRussian internet forums. For the most part, division was divided between those adhering to the Soviet textbook line, i.e. that they were marauding bunch of thieves and murderers, and enemies of the Russian people, while those in support of the memorial point out that many of the legionaries fought on Russia’s side prior to the Bolshevik Revolution and that they were largely welcomed by the people of Chelyabinsk.
“Next to Tyrgoyak [Lake] there’s a memorial to 96 workers from Karabash. If my memory doesn’t fail me, the White Czechs chopped them up and threw them down a shaft. … There are no heroes in a civil war because it is senseless in itself,” one reader wrote on a Komsomolskaya Pravda forum.
The local branch of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), founded by Vladimir Zhirinovsky released a statement addressed to the Czech and Slovak ambassadors to Russia, Petr Kolař and Josef Mig?š:
“Our party insists that the rebuilding of the monument to the White Czechs who came to Chelyabinsk as occupiers and who left an infamous legacy is a contradiction of common sense and is a taint on the memory of Russian soldiers whose bones lie in the ground all across Europe in unmarked graves to this day.”
The governor of the Chelyabinsk region, Mikhail Yurovich, appeared to choose his words carefully so as not to be dragged into the emotional and divisive debate: “If the municipal authorities [of Chalyabinsk] decided to raise a memorial to the legionaries – let them raise it. … My knowledge of history of those Czechs’ passage through this region is not strong,” the 42-year-old governor said.
The memorial was financed by the Czech Ministry of Defense as part of its Project Legion 100 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Czechoslovak Legions. It is the third monument to the Czechoslovak Legion on Russian soil erected since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the other two being in Yekaterinburg and Nizhny Tagil – both in the Urals region.
Tomáš Jakl from the Czech Institute of Military History, who played a role in the project told Czech Television that cooperation with the Russian authorities on the memorial project was very constructive: “The approach of the Russian side, among others within the framework of the inter-governmental commission for war graves, was very accommodating ... and very understanding,” he said.