The Legacy of Czechoslovakia's 'Russian Aid Action' 100 Years On

As Kremlin pressure forces pro-democracy activists abroad, Czechs and the Russian diaspora community mull the legacy of Czechoslovakia’s aid to 1920s Russian Civil War refugees at Senate conference.

2021 was a year of stark choices for many Russian pro-democracy activists, independent journalists and other dissident voices who fled under threat of arrest or other forms of intimidation from authorities in what some observers are calling the biggest wave of political emigration in the country’s post-Soviet history.

In the Czech Republic, it was also a year to commemorate the good will shown to the refugees of Russia’s Civil War on the centennial of Czechoslovakia’s Russian Aid Action, and reflect on how Czechs and Europeans can show solidarity and support for this new generation of Russians forced to leave for political reasons.  

Precipitated by the bloody 1917 revolution, the Russian Civil War lead upwards of 1.5 million Russian refugees to flee to Europe and East Asia. With the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the League of Nations, refugees were evacuated by boat from Russia and Constantinople and brought to Europe, where, beginning 1921, a massive effort on the part of several European governments was underway to resettle them.  

Czechoslovakia, a country that had only gained independence a few years earlier, lead the way with a hefty financial commitment from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to help refugees. The Russian Aid Action (1921-1936) was spearheaded by Czechoslovakia’s first president and founding father of independent Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. The inclination to help those fleeing Russia’s civil war was driven by both a humanitarian idealism characteristic of the First Republic, as well as a more pragmatic political aims—namely, to play a key role in bringing about a new era in a Russia free of Bolshevism, and to nurture the society in exile they hoped would replace it.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, President of Czechoslovakia 1918-1935, lead the Russian Aid Action. 1919, Photo courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.

Some 25,000 refugees, among them Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians and other nationalities fleeing persecution were settled in Czechoslovakia under the programme, which by its third year had an annual budget of 100 million crowns, an enormous sum for the time that outpaced the most generous contributions of larger European countries.

“Other European countries like Germany, France, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia did offer help, but I have to say, the amount was incomparable to what Czechoslovakia offered to refugees”, said Eugenie Číhalová, whose father was among those Russians who resettled in Czechoslovakia. Speaking at a conference on the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Aid Action convened by the Czech Senate in December, Eugenie explained how her father, like most Russian emigres, prospered in his new home.

Czech Senate Conference "The Russian Democratic Diaspora in Dialogue with Europe". December 7, 2021. From right to left: Senator Marek Hilšer, Prague Civil Society Centre Executive Director Rostislav Valvoda, and  Daniela Kolenovská, Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University.

Many of those who settled in Czechoslovakia were part of the educated elite of the Russian empire, including writers, artists, scientists and historians. Others had fought for or were sympathetic to anti-Bolshevik forces. But there were also farmers, craftsmen, wives and children among those seeking refuge. Education was a priority under the programme, which saw the establishment of several Russian language schools, including a university, a law faculty and high schools. So rich was the intellectual life that flourished in the emigre circles that Prague was dubbed the “Russian Oxford”.

Russian refugee children in Turkey bound for Europe. Constantinople, 1920. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.

The Russian emigres made important contributions to Czechoslovak society. Tragically, some were forcefully “repatriated” by the Soviet intelligence services when the Red Army entered Prague and not heard from again. But those who escaped that fate left an indelible mark on Czech history, and their descendants form an active Russian minority community today.

“Our task now is to support those groups and voices in society that are calling for a more democratic and transparent Russia” said Prague Civil Society Centre Executive Director Rostislav Valvoda, speaking at the Senate conference. “And there are more and more of these voices”.

Valvoda argued that now, just as in 1921, the obligation of Czech and European society to help Russians escaping autocratic rule is not only a humanitarian responsibility, but an existential necessity. In the face of Kremlin military threats, foreign election meddling, dangerous disinformation campaigns, and corruption infecting Western institutions, by supporting pro-democratic forces in Russia and among the diaspora, we can learn from them how to defend against Kremlin threats while helping to sustain those voices that represent the country’s future.

--Emily Thompson

*Cover photo: A meetup of the Russian émigré community in Zbraslav, Czech Republic. First half of the 1920s. Courtesy of the Slavonic Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

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