The U.S. embassies in Prague (Czech Republic) and Bratislava (Slovak Republic) have invited me to speak in both countries in May 2018 about the epic achievements and wild misadventures of the Czecho-Slovak Legion, which -- together with the tireless (and perilous) efforts of exiles and emigres Tomas Masaryk, Edvard Benes, Milan Stefanik, and the support of the American immigrant communities in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, and other locales -- destroyed the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, liberating the Czech and Slovak peoples. To help both countries celebrate the 100th anniversary of these events, I will speak at events in the Czech Republic May 20-23 (Prague and perhaps Brno and Pilsen) and again in the Slovak Republic May 23-27 (Bratislava and environs). If you plan to be in the same places, perhaps you can attend one of the events.
I only recently learned that one of America’s most prolific historians, Thomas Fleming, passed away July 23, 2017, at his home in Manhattan, at 90, which struck me especially because Tom – whom I never met – had picked up my book the previous spring and liked it so much that he took to my website and used the “contact” page to write me a note:
“Kevin – I just got my copy. I’ve read the first two chapters. It’s a fascinating book. I’ve heard so much about the Czech legion – but knew virtually nothing. It’s a saga!”
I saw a C-SPAN interview with Tom years ago, where I detected an infectious enthusiasm for ideas, history, and people – but he didn’t have to write that note.
The New York Times said Tom authored more than 40 works of non-fiction and fiction, but his own website lists 76 books. While most of them were histories of the period of the American Revolution, I really enjoyed his terrific history of U.S. involvement in World War One, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (New York: Basic Books), one of the roughly 10,000 books I consulted while writing my own, Dreams of a Great Small Nation (New York: Public Affairs).
The New York Times obituary:
Tom’s website: http://www.thomasflemingwriter.com/bio.html
Rest in peace.
Click on the link below for a great excerpt from "Dreams of a Great Small Nation" to which the journal added their own great maps and photos that do not appear in the book.
Even by the usual dismal standards, Siberia was a wretched place when Kevin 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 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 McNamara's telling, "both an historic achievement and an epic misadventure."
McNamara is in Prague this week, hoping to take the Legionnairesʼ story to the next level by turning it into a movie. Heʼs been talking to producers, directors and screenwriters in the United States, and has come here in search of contacts, endorsements and financial support. “Iʼm going to reach out to anyone I can think of, and if I can meet enough people and talk to the right people, something might happen,” he says.
Even for readers already familiar with the Legionnairesʼ story, McNamaraʼs book offers a unique account of their courageous exploits. Set against the backdrop of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Edvard Beneš traveling the world, lobbying for the creation of a Czech state while the war raged, “Dreams” tells the soldiersʼ story from their point of view, relying heavily on eyewitness accounts. These came mostly from Cestami odboje: Jak žily a kudy táhly čs. legie, a five-volume work published in Prague in the 1920s. McNamara didnʼt discover it until 2002, and then needed somebody to translate it for him.
He was lucky to find Ivo Reznicek, a professional translator and Czech expat now living in Colorado, who offered him a discount rate. When McNamara asked why, Reznicek explained that his uncle had been a Legionnaire. As a youngster, Reznicek started to give a presentation at school one day about his uncleʼs experiences fighting the Red Army in Siberia when the teacher grabbed him by the arm, took him out in the hallway, and told him never to talk about that subject again.
“I managed to raise $46,000 from foundations to get the translation done, and I gave it all to Ivo,” McNamara says. “When he was finished, I could start writing.”
Particularly riveting is McNamaraʼs re-creation of the incident at Chelyabinsk that sparked the revolt of Czech and Slovak POWs and led to them defeating the Red Army and seizing control of Siberia. After a Czech soldier is killed by a chunk of iron thrown by an angry Hungarian on a train, the Hungarians continue to taunt the Czechs. According to Czech soldier Cyril Toman, “They were shouting, ʻFuck you! Goddamned Czechs!ʼ Our brothers lost patience, ran into the cars, and threw them all out.” After the culprit was identified, “The brothers, irritated to the extreme, threw themselves at him and beat him to death.”
Infuriated when he learned the Legionnaires then took over Chelyabinsk, Leon Trotsky ordered them all killed. But the Red Army was in tatters at that point, and four months later, the Legionnaires had won nearly every battle and effectively taken control of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the only passageway through Siberia. They showed exceptional discipline and bravery in achieving the impossible – “a great and heroic feat literally unparalleled in ancient or modern warfare,” Theodore Roosevelt marveled. McNamara also notes a common bond that inspired many of the soldiers.
“The Czechs were beginning to get a strong sense of their own national identity,” he says. “After many hundreds of years of subjugation, they were a people finally coming into their own.”
This was Masarykʼs appeal when he urged Czech and Slovak POWs in Russia to band together and form their own army – the promise of an independent homeland. There were also more tangible inducements, which McNamara details in a clear-eyed, balanced assessment of both national pride and cold reality.
“Masarykʼs plan was ludicrously unrealistic,” he says. “All we have to do is assemble an army, cross Siberia, get on ships, circle the globe, go to the Western front, fight alongside the French, and if we somehow manage to survive that, the Allies will be so grateful theyʼll give us a country. But for men without food, clothing or weapons, it was the only way out.”
The Legionnaires never made it to France, but thanks to Masarykʼs tireless and skillful diplomacy, their heroism was indeed a crucial factor in the post-war creation of Czecho-Slovakia. Whether their story ever reaches a global audience on the silver screen seems a long shot – not unlike the Legionnaires’ chances in the summer of 1918. Either way, McNamara already feels a sense of accomplishment.
“This is a story that was largely forgotten in the West, and even in Czecho-Slovakia was suppressed for decades by the Nazis and the communists,” he says. “I appreciate the fact that my book has made a contribution to history.”
"Radio Prague" broadcast two English-language interviews of me, both of which can be accessed with the two links below, which lead to both audio and text files of the interviews.
"Russian Life" magazine publishes an excerpt from the book in its May/June 2016 issue on the inadvertent role of the Czecho-Slovak Legion in Moscow's decision to murder Tsar Nicholas II and his family.
The photo above shows me on a hydrofoil on the Amur River at Khabarovsk, on the Russian-Chinese border, in the summer of 1993, during a trip across the Russian Far East on the Trans-Siberian Railway, during which I first learned about the Czecho-Slovak Legion. Significant fighting between the legionnaires and Red Army forces occurred in 1918 along the Trans-Siberian at Khabarovsk. The Chinese call the Amur River the "Black Dragon River," the title of a new book by Dominic Ziegler (Penguin Press, 2015). The new Russian flag flutters behind me, a novelty in that Russia wasn't eager to rid itself of Soviet statues and insignia. I purchased an old Soviet flag as a souvenir but it was ripped from my grip by the fierce winds atop another hydrofoil speeding across Lake Baikal; my beloved Soviet souvenir lies at the bottom of the lake.
At Urusha station, I posed with the engine that pulled our 23 cars roughly 2,000 miles eastward from Irkutsk, near Lake Baikal, to Khabarovsk, along Russia’s borders with Mongolia and China. One hundred years ago, “Red” and “White” forces battled for thousands of miles along the Trans-Siberian in the Russian Civil War, which followed the Bolshevik seizure of power and was immortalized in Boris Pasternak’s novel, Doctor Zhivago. The Czecho-Slovak Legion was the strongest armed unit of many Russian and foreign forces deployed across Siberia in a confusing welter. One of my strongest memories is of station stops in the dead of night, when Stalin-era loudspeakers barked and crackled boarding instructions, which echoed eerily through the rail yards, prompting baggage-laden Russians to run for their trains, footsteps crunching wildly on the gravel rail beds.
Soviet insignia remained affixed to our olive-green cars, though I noticed newer Russian emblems on some trains. Ironically, most if not all of the engines and cars of the Trans-Siberian Railway came to be made, during Soviet times, in Czecho-Slovakia, the nation founded by the legionnaires who seized the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1918. From the windows of the train, one spotted some arresting images, such as the lone soldier, an AK-47 resting on his shoulder, standing guard at a very primitive wood-and-barbed-wire gate standing between two mud-rutted roads that appeared to lead nowhere. Primitive homes of peasant families dotted the lonely landscape, surrounded by endless green or golden fields hosting mounds of hay, men slicing its golden shoots with long wooden scythes, and smoke from crumpled chimneys curling upwards to meet the soft, white clouds descending from low mountains.
A view of Lake Baikal, near the mouth of the Angara River (toward the right). Baikal’s four-hundred-mile-long, crescent-shaped gash in Siberia’s tectonic plates holds a lake whose surface is larger than Belgium. Its depths hold one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. Baikal drains the Russian heartland, swallowing all of the 336 rivers and streams that feed it, and only the Angara River drains it, sending Baikal’s waters roaring past the city of Irkutsk into the western interior. The original Trans-Siberian Railway burrowed along the southwestern shores of Lake Baikal – seen in the distance in this photo – through 39 tunnels, which Soviet forces began to dynamite as they fled the advancing legionnaires.
Along the shore of Lake Baikal, an elderly man carries water past St. Nicholas, the small Russian Orthodox Church in the village of Listvyanka. Here and in nearby Port Baikal, fierce fighting took place between Soviet forces fleeing eastward, and the legionnaires, who were in hot pursuit.
In 1993, this was the only kind of “fast food” available at stops along the Trans-Siberian Railway. While wealthier people, tourists included, enjoyed a dining car, these babushkas, who were photographed outside the small town of Arkhara, just north of the Chinese border, sell basic produce to the Russians who tend to occupy the majority of Trans-Siberian cars, which have no eating accommodations. Walking through these cars, I spotted a young Mongolian man, shirtless, devouring a complete, raw fish, its head and tail in his hands, his mouth covered in shiny silver scales. Most of the babushkas used old baby carriages to move their produce to and from the stations. The longest stops were 15 minutes; many were 5 minutes. Veteran riders never wandered far from the trains.
A woman who was likely a government employee reads a newspaper inside a museum in Khabarovsk, a city of about 600,000 that dominates the northern banks of the enormous Amur River, south of which lies China. This museum was devoted in part to the glories of the Bolshevik coup and subsequent Russian Civil War, which led to the triumph of Soviet power across the old Russian empire and beyond. Helped along by decades of Soviet-sponsored "history," many people still confuse the genuine Russian Revolution of March 1917 (February under the old Russian calendar) with the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks the following November (October in Russia).
Another woman illustrates a different way to spend one’s time, with a different set of idols. This church is located inside the Znamensky Monastery, outside of Irkutsk, near the juncture of the Angara and Ushakovka Rivers. At a nearby stone prison, the White “counter-revolutionary” commander, Admiral Aleksandr V. Kolchak, was imprisoned, interrogated, and executed at dawn on February 7, 1920, to the wails of his mistress. His body was shoved into a hole in the ice of the Ushakokva. Today, a statue of Kolchak stands outside the monastery. The monastery has long hosted a stone memorial to Grigory Shelikov, the Irkutsk native and “Russian Columbus” who established a fur-trading post on Kodiak Island in 1784 and later served as the first Russian governor-general of Alaska.
A typically picturesque carved window on a home along one of the older streets in Irkutsk, known for its charming wooden homes. Russian playwright Anton Chekhov is said to have called Irkutsk "the Paris of Siberia," but perhaps his sarcasm did not translate from the Russian. Josef Stalin was only the most famous of the many persons to have been banished here before the revolution, Soviet forces fled this city ahead of advancing Czecho-Slovak legionnaires in 1918, but as they subsequently retreated eastward toward Vladivostok, Admiral Kolchak was taken into custody by Soviet forces here in 1920.
A more modern street in Irkutsk, whose only charm at this time emanated from the pre-revolutionary buildings lining the road. Note the lack of stores or signs of any kind. Not yet two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the streetscapes retained a basic and dreary look. Outside of the downtown, Soviet-style apartment blocks created an even bleaker landscape. Yet Irkutsk lies on the Angara River, the one tributary which drains beautiful Lake Baikal, about a 45-mile drive east.
Perhaps drawn by the cars and trolleys bouncing along nearby streets, a bourgeois-looking Vladimir Lenin persistently tries to hail a cab near the intersection of Marx and Lenin streets in Irkutsk, seemingly never discouraged by the lack of interest. Every town and city had at least one Lenin statute, and this pose was a favorite, despite the fact that the figure looks like he just emerged from the smoking room of the finest club of imperialist exploiters.