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.”