He experienced the horrors of two wars and during this time he also covered an immense geographical area. The trip described in this blog is an attempt to retrace his steps from Prague across the Eurasian continent to beyond Lake Baikal in Siberia. The first part of the trip will follow the precisely described route of Josef Švejk, Hašek's inspired literary creation. I left home on April 30 2010 and was back on October 29.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Český patriot

This letter is about Jaroslav Hašek's release from Totskoye prisoner camp and his activities in the Czechoslovak revolutionary movement in Russia until the collapse of the Romanov dynasty in March 1917. The content is based on publications by Jaroslav Křížek, Radko Pytlík, Cecill Parrott, Rudolf Medek, František Langer, Georg Wurzer, Elsa Brändström, Pavel Gan a.o. The dates quoted should be read with a sceptical eye: few of the sources indicate whether the reference is to the Gregorian or the Julian (Orthodox)  calendar (the Gregorian calendar was 13 days ahead).


Hašek enlisted in the Czechoslovak Army,
1st regiment, 7th company, June 29 1916.
In the spring of 1916 emissaries from the newly formed  Czecholovak Rifle Brigade (former Česká družina) provided Hašek with a way out of the prisoner camp in Totskoye. He escaped from hell. During the winter 17,000 out of the 25,000 inmates died from typhus (according to Elsa Brändström, - Brusilov estimates 6,000 out of 16,000). Hašek had himself contracted the disease but otherwise he seemed to have had a relatively comfortable existence, even working as a secretary for the camp commander. The official Russian policy was to give Slavs preferential treatment, and Hašek may have benefited from this. On 21 April 1916 a decree was issued by the tsar that in principle would allow the release of all Czech prisoners but this was never fully implemented, partly due to inertia or downright sabotage in the Russian chain of command. It should also be added that the preferential treatment given to the Slavs (and principally the Czechs) was never consistently carried out, often for the very reasons quoted above. Many Russians were distrustful of the Czechs ("once a traitor, always a traitor") and many a camp commander had little sympathy for the their cause. Some of them were even of German origin, for instance colonel Fleichner at Totskoye.

Czech recruiters were active in the camps and their paper Čechoslovák was widely distributed. Still there was no great rush to get out. Very few Czechs let themselves be persuaded to join the volunteers at the front, but many more took the opportunity to work in factories. As soon as the typhus was out of the way they obviously (and understandably)  envisaged life in the camp as preferable to life at the front, and a shell factory was also a better deal. The recruitment approach was often heavy-handed and Czechs who refused to join were subjected to harsh treatment (Wurzer, Brändström).

Hašek was one of the few exceptions to the general reluctance to go back to the front: he volunteered for service and seemingly had to pay a “price” by converting to the Russian-Orthodox church (Gan). He was released from Totskoye (date not known), travelled via Kiněl, Samara, Penza and Tambov to Kiev.  On 29 June 1916 he was assigned to the 1st Czechoslovak Rifle Regiment, 7th company  (1. československý střelecký pluk, 7. rota) but was declared unfit for regular service (this also happened to him in the k.u.k army). In effect he was “superarbitrated”, just like his literary hero although he formally remained on the regiments books until April 1918. The 1st regiment was the direct descendant of  Česká Družina,  the original Czech unit of volunteers. Thus he was part of a select group, at the time the number of volunteers hardly exceeded 1,500.

Recruiter and writer

According to Jaroslav Křížek he was sent to the regiment HQ at Bereżna (now in Belarus) in the Pripyat marshes to work as a clerk for his regiment. He can not have stayed here long because already on 12 July (25) he was assigned to the Union of Czechoslovak associations in Russia as a recruitment agent, and had started to write again.

He was based in Kiev and from there he visited nearby camps, trying to persuade prisoners to join the armed struggle against Austria-Hungary and Germany. The transit camp at Darnica which Hašek knew from his ordeal the year before, was an important recruitment post. Here Slav prisoners were separated from Germans and Hungarians and subjected to targeted propaganda. His friend and later biographer František Langer testifies to  Hašek's effectiveness as a recruiter. He remarks that Hašek now for the first time seemed to fight FOR something, whereas he before the war he was always fighting AGAINST something. He had in Langer's words turned into a solid Czech patriot.

A most disagreeable  tom-cat

On 10 (23) July  the short story “Osudy pana Hurta” (The fate of Mr. Hurt) appeared in “Čechoslovan”, a Kiev-based weekly to which he was to become a key contributor in the next 18 months. In this first short story he ridicules a Czech who refused to join his countrymen in the fight Austria-Hungary. At the time only a trickle of Czech and Slovak prisoners wished to return to the front, so Mr Hurt was in the majority. Unlike Hašek most of the prisoners were more interested in seeing out the war than destroy Austria-Hungary, but the writer had little sympathy for them.

On 17 (30) July the famous "Povídka o obráze císaře Františka Josefa" (The story of the picture of emperor Franz Joseph) published. The story alerted Vienna and led to him being charged with high treason in absentia. In this story a tom-cat soils unsellable pictures of the emperor, a theme that reoccurs (somewhat transformed) in the opening chapter of Švejk, and even in Bruck an der Leitha where colonel Schröder puts his finger in the mess that a cat has left on the map of the battlefield.

Supporting the Romanovs

Jindříšek - his factory produced
musical instruments
Hašek became popular both as a writer, speaker and recruiter and his standing in Kiev grew steadily. At this time he advocated the official policies of the group who now dominated the "Union of Czechoslovak associations in Russia": loyalty to the tsar and the installation of a Romanov prince as a future Czech king! (Again a theme touched upon in Švejk).  The leaders of the Kiev group were the rich industrialist Václav Vondrák and Jindřich Jindříšek, both arch-conservative. This speaks volume about Hašek's political “flexibility”. The former anarchist (and future Bolshevik) lent his support to an archaic conservative regime, in a Central European context it could even be classed as reactionary. The logic behind it may be at first be hard to grasp, but is understandable seen in perspective of Hašek’s dislike of the Habsburg monarchy (probably the only consistent political stance he held during his lifetime). He would seemingly support anyone who fought the despised Dual Empire. Other considerations were of secondary importance. Hašek viewed the Kiev leadership of the "Union" as the group most capable to achieving this goals, a stance he clearly spelled out and explained in the article "What we owe the Russian Czechs". Another explanatory factor was that the Hašek already held pan-slavist and a russophile views.

At the front

Units from the 1st Czechoslovak Rifle Regiment served
in these places in 1916. Hašek surely visited.
Until September Hašek split his time between recruitment trips to camps around Kiev and writing for “Čechoslovan”. He published  his own stories in the paper but also wrote serious articles, signed  Dr.  V. Stanko. His contribution was first and foremost anti-Austrian agitation, and his numerous short-stories served the same purpose.

From September 1916 to February 1917 he  split his time between the front and Kiev. From the section of the front that was held by his own regiment, he wrote several Letters from the front (Dopisy z fronty), describing life at the front interspersed with propaganda. He also claimed to be writing the history of the 1. rifle regiment, but this document can not be traced. However, after the war, a history of the regiment of the regiment WAS published, edited by František Langer. Apart from that he wrote a number of other items, some of them criticising the Petrograd opposition to the Kiev-based leadership of the "Union of Czechoslovak associations in Russia".

In these stories he reveals  a detailed knowledge of history and he also appears a Czech nationalist and patriot to the bone. In one of the letters he mentioned Xenophon and his anabasis, another theme that would occur in Švejk some five years later. This is one of many examples of reuse of motives from his earlier writing, transformed and exposed to the world through the novel  Švejk. Most companies of the 1st rifle regiment held positions by the river Stochod, their HQ was from 15 (28) August moved from Bereżna to Okonsk. The Czechs were mostly on reconnaissance duties, but took some losses in skirmishes with the Germans. When the Brusilov offensive petered out in October 1916, the front stabilised and there was little activity until the summer next year. Hašek's unit remained at the front until the end of the year when they were relocated to Remczyca north of Sarny.

Troubles brewing

Васи́лий Гу́рко, head of Stavka from
 November 1916.  Incompetent despite
 NOT having his hand up his backside?
The editorial offices of Čechoslovan  were located in Hotel Praha where Hašek also spent most of his time when he was in Kiev. His alcohol intake was now reduced to a manageable level (compared to before the war) and he was very diligent and productive. He did visit cafes though, amongst his favourites was "Česká koruna" opposite the opera.

But Hašek wouldn't have been Hašek if he had kept totally sober and out of trouble. On at least two instances  he insulted Russian officers and it was also reported that he was very  indiscreet in his talk and was quoted: "even with one hand up my arse I could conduct this war better than the entire Russian staff". In February 1917 he was punished and imprisoned in Borispol (east of Kyiv by the airport). Here he spent a couple of weeks and put the finishing touches on his short novel "The good soldier Švejk in captivity". By his own admission he didn't suffer any great hardships, but still insisted he was there "in the name of truth".

Hašek had at this time put his eggs in one basket, that of the arch-conservative resident Czechs in Russia. Little did they know what was in store, that the Romanov dynasty that had been in power for more than 300 years was about to be toppled. The revolution of March 1917 turned the situation upside down. It still appears that most Czech soldiers welcomed the changes, although most of their political leaders in Kiev now lost their footing. A chapter was closed, and an a new and equally dramatic was to open ...

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