80 years ago, the Battle of Kiev took place, which was part of a major Soviet offensive during World War II. Czechoslovak soldiers also took part in the fighting near the Ukrainian capital. They fled to the Soviet Union from the Nazis, but ended up in the gulag. When the Soviets released them after the amnesty, they formed the first Czechoslovak unit, commanded by the later president Ludvík Svoboda.
Kiev is the only European metropolis that the Czechoslovaks conquered. It happened 80 years ago, the battle for the current Ukrainian capital took place from November 3 to 6, 1943. The operation was part of the Soviet offensive that followed the Red Army’s victories in Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk.
The first Czechoslovak independent brigade consisted primarily of people who were first imprisoned by the Soviets in labor camps. Part of the Czechoslovaks fled to Soviet territory during the Second World War to find refuge from racial and political persecution by the Germans.
But the Soviets accused them of illegal border crossing, espionage and other fabricated offenses and sent them to the gulag. At the beginning of 1942, however, amnesty was negotiated for them. It was decided that a Czechoslovak brigade would be established on the territory of the former Soviet Union.
Most of the prisoners who survived the release from the Soviet labor camps went straight to Buzuluk a few months later, where the first independent Czechoslovak field battalion was formed. At first it had less than a hundred members, by the end of the war there were tens of thousands of them. They were commanded by Colonel Ludvík Svoboda, later Czechoslovak president.
It was at his request that the Czechoslovaks played a greater role in the battle for Kiev than originally intended. At first, they were only supposed to be a backup, the Soviet command included them in the first sequence only after Svoboda’s intervention.
Over thirty compatriots, mostly from Subcarpathian Rus, died in the battle for Kiev. Some soldiers died of non-combat causes, such as when they poisoned themselves with a liquid they mistook for alcohol in the town of Vasilkov in the Kyiv region. As a result of the ingestion of this substance and subsequent poisoning, six Czechoslovak soldiers died that day, and another eight in the following days.
For the first time, the Czechoslovak battalion under Svobod’s leadership got into combat with the Germans half a year earlier, in March 1943, in the Battle of Sokolovo. By the end of March 1943, 103 Czechoslovak soldiers had died during the fighting near this village and related actions. Some of them were murdered. Another 21 were captured, eight of whom died in captivity, and one defected. Eight members of the battalions remained missing after the fighting. Their stories were published by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, and the daily Aktuálně.cz offers some of them in the gallery.