The strange tale of the Czechs in Siberia, as told by a British novelist

The award-winning recent novel, "The People's Act of Love", by the British writer James Meek, has an amazing cast of characters. It is set in the vast isolation of Siberia in 1919. At the height of the Russian Civil War, it brings together an escapee from a prison somewhere in the far north, a small fundamentalist Christian sect, who believe in castration as a liberation from the temptations of this world, and a company of Czech and Slovak soldiers, marooned thousands of miles from home by the dramatic events of the time; and the backdrop is one of revolution and civil war. For James Meek, this strange constellation of events and characters was irresistible.

"The unique thing about the Russian Revolution was, more than anything else, the scale of the spaces that were involved, the way in which human action was stretched out over such a vast canvas. There are such huge spaces where small communities exist, linked by roads or railways over thousands of miles all over the world, but this was the only place in Russia at that time where that kind of community saw not just a war, and not just a civil war, but a real clash of ideologies, where - to mention just one example - capitalism and communism for the very first time in the modern world came into conflict."

The true story of the Czechoslovak Legions in Siberia is an intriguing part of this mosaic. Here is a short extract from near the beginning of the book:

He asked Samarin if he had heard the gunshot. 'I think the bullet broke a branch over there,' he said, nodding at the trees. 'You were lucky. As I said, you can't understand who's on which side now. The old war didn't end cleanly. There were remnants everywhere in Russia, leftovers, like the Czechs. Russia took them prisoner in the old war, when they didn't have country of their own. Now they do, and they're trying to get back to it, but they've got caught up in this new war. They're White, officially. But half of them are Red. There are thousands of them all over Siberia. They've taken over the whole of the Trans-Siberian railway, can you imagine? None of it makes any sense.'

Those are the words of the castrate, Balashov, one of the central characters in 'The People's Act of Love'. He, and his fundamentalist Christian community are living in the small, windswept town of Yazyk which is under the control of the Czechs and their sinister commander Captain Matula. It is in this community that the mysterious Samarin arrives, and a complex series of events gradually unfolds, as characters that are sometimes violently different are thrown together. All the while, the Red Army is drawing closer.

Before we look more closely at the book itself, perhaps we should get some more insight into the real events in which the unexpected Czech background to the story is rooted. The Czech writer and journalist Vaclav Bartuska has spent ten years researching the involvement of what were known as the Czechoslovak Legions in the Russian Revolution and Civil War, going back to when the First World War broke out and many Czech patriots chose to fight with the Russians against Austria.

Vaclav Bartuska
"There was a huge body of Czech and Slovak volunteers fighting against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians in the allied countries, in France, Italy and Russia, and by far the biggest body of Czech volunteers was in Russia - in Tsarist Russia. Close to forty thousand of them were fighting. In February 1918, when Lenin, the new master of Russia, signed a peace deal with Germany in Brest, it also included a condition that there would be no enemy troops against the central powers, that is Germany and Austia-Hungary. So the Czechoslovak troops, which were at that time stationed in Ukraine, basically very close to home, started to move alongside the railway, and it was decided by the allies that they would go to Vladivostok and from there by sea to France, to the western front, to fight against the Germans."

In the meantime they got entangled in the Civil War in Russia.

"The Civil War started as far back as summer 1917, and by the time the Czechs started to move from Ukraine, in spring 1918, there was already chaos in Russia. The Czechs, being a huge army with high discipline, usually got their way, and by May 1918 they were spread along the railway from Ukraine to Vladivostok. By July of that year they controlled the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway. What happened was that in May 1918 the Soviet leadership tried to disarm the Czechoslovak troops, but the Czechs did not like the idea of being at the mercy of Trotsky. So they started what the Russians call the Czechoslovak Uprising and they took the whole Trans-Siberian Railway from Volga to Vladivostok in less than two months of fighting. They kept the railway for almost two years."

It was not by chance that James Meek picked up the story of the Czechoslovak Legions in his novel:

"It was the idea of a group of people from a world that I felt myself to be half familiar with, stranded in this great wild violent space of Siberia. I say familiar partly because the Czech Republic is at the heart of Europe, but also because I love Czech writers. Of all the Eastern European countries the Czech writers are the ones who have appealed to me most: Kundera, Kafka, Hrabal in particular, and Jaroslav Hasek who not only wrote 'The Good Soldier Svejk' but also wrote a series of short stories which portrayed his own experiences in Russia - or the future Soviet Union - on the other side, on the side of the Reds rather than the Whites. So it was familiar to me both as something to do with the Czech world that I'd learned about through literature and also because here was the Europe that I knew, transplanted into Siberia. That was appealing to me."

Several of the central characters in the novel are Czech, including Lieutenant Mutz, who is Jewish and a liberal, in love with - but not quite loved by - Anna Petrovna. She is a young woman who has settled in the town with her small son for reasons that are not immediately clear. Mutz is probably the most sympathetic character in the novel, and he contrasts drastically with his compatriot, Captain Matula, who heads the Czech and Slovak company and in many ways embodies everything that Czechs like to think that they are not. He is obsessed with power and is virulently anti-Semitic.

Matula's dark eyes were set deep in his face. The skin around his eyes was lined and the flesh coarsely flayed by heat and cold and fevers and jaundices and scurvies gone by. He had a crooked, cross-marked scar from a badly stitched wound slanting across his chin. Only his mouth had been immune to all the frosts and bloodshed of five years' campaigning. His lips were soft and full, red like a boy's, as if he'd put them away for safekeeping when he went into battle or in winter, as if they'd never been stretched in a yell in a charge, as if they never been pressed or bitten when his tongue had told men to kill captives, as if he kept them for feasts, games and kisses. His eyes had seen it all. He was 24 years old.

"You take people out into this blank sheet of paper, which Siberia was, and anything can happen," says Meek. "It's a kind of - not so much agrophobia as agrophilia, where your mind is just allowed to roam over this blank space, and you can start imagining ideas of empires and dominions. It's a very dangerous thing to give a young man a gun and power, when he has so few moral roots to found his ideas on."

While most of the Czech company dream of nothing but going home to their newly indepedent homeland, Matula has a mad vision of carving out an empire for himself in Siberia. Perhaps even more frightening is the violent revolutionary Samarin, who believes that everything, even cannibalism, can be justified in creating the brave new post-revolutionary world. Here he defends his philosophy to Anna Petrovna.

"To hold such a man to the same standards as ordinary men would be strange, like putting wolves on trial for killing elk, or trying to shoot the wind. You can pity the innocent man he butchers if he is innocent. But the fact the food comes in the form of a man is accidental damage. It's without malice. What looks like an act of evil to a single person is the people's act of love to its future self."

James Meek insists that he is not just showing how morality collapses at moments of great social upheaval. At some points in the book, he says, the situation is quite the contrary:

"I think it's not nearly as clear-cut as a dichotomy between a world where order or morality has not broken down and one where morality has broken down. I think that here and now in London, where I'm talking from in 2006, there are plenty of families, groups, individuals, for whom - in this very structured, ordered society of Britain in the 21st century - morality has completely broken down. There are people who don't have the moral framework in which to operate. Similarly, in these wild places, you often find yourself in a situation in which you think, 'Well, here's a guy - he could just kill me - or this group of people could just kill me and my friends and steal everything we have, and they would never be punished and never be caught.' And yet they don't do that. In a way it's much more striking and noticeable and extraordinary, the way in which, in these situations of absolute chaos, people do cling to and seek out the idea of morality, than it is in the apparently normal places, where these pockets of aberration persist."

'The People's Act of Love' has been published or is shortly to be published in no less than 22 languages, and a Czech translation is currently being prepared. This is apt, not just because of the Czech subject matter, but also because James Meek spent time in the Czech Republic while he was writing the book, staying in an isolated cottage belonging to friends, in the north-eastern corner of the Czech Republic.

"I lived there in this little cottage, and to begin with it didn't even have running water. I stoked up the stove and I cycled to the shops to get my food and went into the local pubs for my beer. It was a very good environment for me."

He hopes that one of the consequences of the publication of his book will be that a few more people will remember an episode that has undeservedly been relegated to the peripheries of history.

"The real story of the legion should be better known. One of the best outcomes that I would wish for from my book, if it does make an impact, is that it will perhaps give those non-fiction writers, who are interested in the various aspects I mention - both the Czech Legion and the castrates - more emphasis and more support when they actually come to write non-fiction books about it. I think the story of the Czech Legion should be better known."

'The People's Act of Love' was published in the United Kingdom in 2005 by Cannongate Books.