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December 26 , 2007

Dreams of a Great Small Nation

The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe


"In this strange way," observed historian A. J. P. Taylor, "the deathblow to an empire centuries old was struck far away on the railway platform at Chelyabinsk." On May 23, 1918, the Czecho Slovak Legion was waiting to board a train in Chelyabinsk, then the Western-most terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The hope was that these 50,000 men would then board Allied ships that would circumnavigate the globe and deposit them in the trenches on behalf of the Allies-for whom they would fight in exchange for a country of their own. But, on that day, at the height of the German offensive in the West and on the 300th anniversary of the Defenestration of Prague, a Czech soldier killed an Austrian during a mass brawl. It was a seemingly minor incident, but it would set in motion a series of events that would forever alter the course of 20th century history.
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News of the murder in Chelyabinsk sparked a bloodthirsty reaction in Moscow. Leon Trotsky, then at the head of the Bolshevik army, ordered all Czechoslovaks on Russian territory to be either shot or interned at POW camps. The Czech and Slovak legionnaires revolted, fighting the Red Army in a desperate struggle to return to their homeland. Over the next several years, they would wage war against the Bolsheviks and the Germans, as the two forces attempted to pin them down. They would cross the span of Siberia three times, for a brief time, wresting control of the continent away from the Red Army. At the head of the Legion’s great crusade was an aging, fugitive philosophy professor from Prague, Tomas Masaryk, a man who hatched the conspiracy to win back a homeland for his people, and would ultimately be welcomed as a national hero and the first president of his newly formed nation, Czechoslovakia.

“The pages of history recall scarcely any parallel episode at once so romantic in character and so extensive in scale” wrote Winston Churchill when recalling the exploits of the Czecho Slovak Legion. An Incident at Chelyabinsk is a riveting narrative telling of a history long suppressed by Soviet authorities.
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