New exhibition highlights fascinating story of Czechoslovak legions in Russia during and after WWI

14-10-2008

The activities of Czechoslovak armed units on the side of the Allied powers during World War I helped Czechs and Slovaks win consent to form their own state when the conflict ended in 1918. The legions that had been fighting in Russia, however, became embroiled in that country’s civil war, and didn’t get home until two years later. Their fascinating story is the subject of a new exhibition in Prague.

The Czechoslovak Legions in Russia 1914 to 1920 is the title of the new exhibition at Prague Castle. There were, of course, other legions in various parts of Europe during World War I; Colonel Alexander Beer, who himself fought in the legions in the second world war, explains how they came about and outlines their importance:

“Our citizens, in those days citizens of Austria-Hungary, enlisted in its army. Then, at the first opportunity, they went over to the countries fighting against the Austro-Hungarian and German armies, and formed Czechoslovak legions. That meant that during the subsequent peace negotiations we were regarded as one of the victorious powers, we had fought with the allies…and we succeeded in establishing the Czechoslovak democratic republic.”

While those peace talks were taking place, the Czechoslovak legions that had been formed in Russia were still there. Made up of around 60,000 men, they became involved in a conflict with the Bolsheviks, and fought with the White Army against the Reds in the early days of the Russian Civil War. By 1920, however, their main concern was getting home, and that journey took them the long way around, via Siberia and the US.

The new exhibition at Prague Castle looks at their fascinating history by means of several hundred rare photographs and documents (some loaned from Russia), uniforms, weapons and other items. Kateřina Horníčková is from the Castle’s culture department:

“It’s divided into three parts, dealing with their fighting on the side of Russia, then against the Bolsheviks, and then finally their famous anabasis on a trans-Siberian train through Siberia, and then finally home.”

Colonel Alexander Beer, who is 91, is a leading figure in the Czech legionnaires’ organisation. He says the new exhibition, the biggest of its kind ever held in Prague, will help acquaint the public with an episode in the country’s history that should be better known:

“Under communism people spoke about the liberation and the fight in World War II, but less was said about the legions in World War I. And if it was discussed, it was distorted…It’s up to us now to present the truth to the world, and to bring up our young people to know what their predecessors fought for.”

14-10-2008

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