We are talking about this largest humanitarian event in the history of Czechoslovakia with the historian Daniela Kolenovská from Charles University.
D. Kolenovská: “The Russian relief operation was a strong social reaction to what was happening in Soviet Russia, to the civil war, the Bolshevik terror, which began in 1919-1920. At first it was a social effort to gather clothes and clothes and send them to Russia. So help on the spot. In this, we can quite compare the situation with today’s trends in humanitarian cooperation, the effort to help on the ground is still evident today. What we already know as a Russian relief operation followed. It began in the summer of 1921. This is a reaction to the influx of refugees from the area, who understood that there was no good future and if they wanted to save their lives, they had to run away. Masaryk and Beneš, and also Karel Kramář, as a great Russophile, as a man who encouraged Czechoslovak society to help, have a large share in the Russian relief action. They agreed by consensus on the need to set aside some time from the state budget for the establishment of Russian and Ukrainian cultural, scientific and educational institutions in our country. And that it is necessary to start paying scholarships to young people who, due to the First World War, the Civil War and the conditions that prevailed in Russia, in order to be able to finish their studies. In general, not all politicians in Czechoslovakia expected the Bolsheviks to survive. It was a clear assumption that the tens of thousands of students that Czechoslovakia would be able to help return quickly after continuing their education and continue the successful development of Russia, as European politics would like to be a peaceful, accommodating and friendly state. We talk about about 30,000 people who have walked in various ways as students disappear into the system. Known figures from 1931, at that time there were 22,000 students or people who drew some funds from the Russian relief operation. “
Returning to the first stage of on-site assistance. Now it is a little-known event. How did it go? Delivering material or humanitarian aid to Russia’s civil war was probably not easy.
D. Kolenovská: “The Better Czechoslovak Society assumed that it would organize public collections and deliver them in the form of packages to specific addresses. On the Soviet side, there was sometimes a problem that they were overwhelmed by large tariffs. Sometimes the parcel delivered by mail did not even pay off, because the duty paid often exceeded the value of the goods in the parcel. It is a reality that packages of worn-out clothing were sent to Bolshevik Russia and to the later Soviet Union. This is also recorded in the memories of Russian or Ukrainian students who later studied in Prague, Bratislava or Brno. What they couldn’t wear here, they simply packed up and sent home because it was needed there.
We will move on to the so-called second stage of assistance. It is said that Prague and the whole of Czechoslovakia were successful centers of Russian emigration. Does this really apply in an international comparison? Was the Czech approach different?
D. Kolenovská: “Paris and Berlin are the main centers of Russian emigration. Prague is very specific. The big European cities gave a chance to lobby the governments of those specific countries so that the situation on the front with Soviet Russia or the form of recognition of the Bolshevik state would benefit the emigrants, those who had to flee from the Bolsheviks. Prague was not so strong, its advantage was that it was a Slavic state, so those Russian-, Ukrainian- and Belarusian-language emigrants found a relatively acceptable environment for their parties in society. If I went back to the students, she often devoted herself to the natural sciences or medicine, where their mother tongue was not such a handicap. The Russian Relief Action program had no period. It was not aimed at the wealthy refugees who could lobby in Paris or London, but at the poor, young people to complete their studies. It has no period, the offer was generous. For this reason, crowds of students gathered in Prague in 1921. In the records from that time we see several later known names. During the years 1921-1925, Prague is unique in this. There is a Russian university here, which is basically transferred from the Russian environment to Prague. This recruits elite experts from the Russian environment. “
Why the Russians did not stay in Czechoslovakia
At one point, there were as many as 30,000 of these emigrants, mostly students. How many of them stayed here? We know that a tragic event later occurred when many people were abducted after the end of World War II. But it was no longer about tens of thousands of people. When did these people leave and where?
D. Kolenovská: “Gradually, it turned out that the Bolsheviks’ expectations would remain in Russia. As he recognized the first powers, France and Britain, and entered into a trade agreement with them, the emigrants announced that it was not just a few years before they would complete their studies. They preferred personal careers over the interests of nations. Of course, the individuals persisted in organized resistance. We, as a country, were not very advantageous in this, because the Russian relief action focused on cultural and educational activities, and political associations were not possible in principle. So the relief event didn’t sponsor them. So when people completed their education, they were expected to find employment elsewhere. The labor market was not ready for them, the graduates could not find a job there and moved further west. Or they were returning to the Soviet Union because of a new economic policy in 1926-27 and beyond in the 1930s, when the Soviet Union seemed to cope very well with the global economic crisis. For many of the graduates, it seemed better to return home and work with the Bolsheviks. The Soviet Union seemed to overcome the revolutionary spasm and get rid of the violence. The Czechoslovak budget was shortened and the turning point is the global economic crisis, when there were no funds left for its own inhabitants. There are then such limits that, for example, medics with Nanov passports, if they have graduated, have received diplomas only on condition that they do not practice in our territory. In this way, the state took care of work for its citizens.
In terms of citizenship and opportunities to obtain, there was a limit of 10 years of residence in the country, which met only a fraction of emigrants. Someone pragmatically accepted citizenship, even though he felt Russian or Ukrainian and wanted a non-Bolshevik state. It often helped him to work in the civil service, for example, at that time it involved a much wider range of professions and jobs. The economic crisis has completely reduced the resources available to Russian action. They then went only to those who needed to graduate and were previously included in the program. New students, academics, scientists, teachers were not accepted. Another turning point came with Hitler’s arrival in Germany, when refugees rolling from Germany seemed more urgent to us. So we paid more attention to these refugees and what was from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus should have found their way. They came with this sign until 1945, our society did not have a very intense relationship with them and the situation was aggravated. When the special units of the Red Army began arresting those who remained here according to the name lists on May 11, 1945, a minimum of people were found to defend. There were kidnappings. In the morning, someone who spoke Russian appeared on the doorstep, saying that he needed to show the way… Dad, who was going to show it to him, had never been seen before. This was a sudden turnaround in the relationship between society and emigrants. Despite the fact that some already had Czechoslovak citizenship, they were indifferent to the state and it deprived them of that citizenship and issued them. “
If we go back to 20-30 years and look at it from the perspective of Czech society, what was the majority opinion? Were there not critical opinions in society at that time, how did public opinion react to this?
D. Kolenovská: “There were no clashes. Prague included a Catholic Protestant and Orthodox environment. There were no religious conflicts along the lines. As I mentioned, it was not a rich part of the Russian refugee wave, which numbered 6 million people and spread around the world. Those people didn’t have the money and they were getting poor support, they couldn’t jump too much. In the period newspapers, I found perhaps only two reports that there would be a problem somewhere, for example because of alcohol. It is necessary to mention the person who had great credit in the society of that time, and that was the daughter of President Masaryk Alice. She led the Czechoslovak Red Cross and did a lot for poor students. She founded a student home in Albertov. There it was possible to eat, educate, train. The students were learning from each other, looking for each other’s job, there was a translation service. There was high activity of the whole group and it prevented conflicts. “