March 01, 2012

The Long Retreat

The Long Retreat
The Dormition Cathedral in Omsk. A memorial to the victims of Stalin's repressions (the stone) is in the foreground. Nina Bogdan

In May 1918, as Civil War raged in Russia a train arrived at Siberia’s Chelyabinsk station full of prisoners from the Great War (WWI). The prisoners on the train were being repatriated under the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (signed two months before), in order that they could fight for the Central Powers. One of the ex-prisoners on that train, a Hungarian, exchanged insults with some Czech soldiers standing on the platform. [They had been fighting on opposite sides in the War, which continued until November 11, 1918. The Czech Legion was comprised of soldiers who defected from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and fought on the side of the Russian Empire before Brest-Litovsk; Hungarians were part of the Central Powers, fighting against the Russian Empire.] The Hungarian soldier then threw a piece of iron at the Czechs, killing one of them. The enraged Czechs pulled the offending soldier off the train and lynched him.

Bolshevik authorities, who had since March been allowing the Czech Legion’s trains to travel east to Vladivostok in their around-the-world itinerary home, imprisoned ten Czech soldiers. The prisoners were promptly freed by their comrades, who then seized Chelyabinsk station.

In response, Lev Trotsky, People’s Commissar of War, sent a command from Moscow that profoundly changed the course of history: the army was to disarm the Czech Legion echelons and shoot any and all Czechs who resisted. This order, intercepted by White forces, threw down the gauntlet. From that point forward, the Czech Legion, [The official name was The Czech and Slovak Legion, though only about 7 percent were Slovaks.] was openly at war with the Red Army. Well-disciplined and determined, the Legion seized city after city from the Bolsheviks — starting with Chelyabinsk and Novonikolayevsk, and then, after the decision was made to coordinate their actions against the Bolsheviks, other Legion trains that had been heading east were stopped and turned back, to assist their brothers-in-arms. By June 8, 1918, all cities on the Trans-Siberian railroad from the Volga in the West to Omsk in the East were in Czech, and therefore White, hands.

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