Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 37
14 June 1999

K I N O E Y E:
Better to Die a Russian than to Live a Soviet
Sergei and Georgi Vasiliev's Chapayev

Andrew James Horton

"The whole country will watch Chapayev" thundered the Soviet daily Pravda on 21 November 1934 in its first editorial devoted to a single film. And indeed, a staggering proportion of the country did go and see it. The film's run-away success might seem a touch curious in retrospect. After all, the film was a paragon of Stalin's repressive credo for the arts, Socialist Realism. However, overwhelmingly in its favour, Chapayev was the first film to be made in the USSR to have a hero who was truly Russian and not Soviet. Now the film is on show again.

The October revolution was far from sufficient to deliver Russia into Bolshevik hands and the civil war which followed gave ample stories for the Party to rewrite the national book of myths and heroes with a new slant. One such hero was Vasiliy Ivanovich Chapayev and the legends which surrounded him were written up as a novel by Dmitri Furmanov, Chapayev's Political Commissar (the Party's man keeping an eye on what their commanders were up to).

The film Chapayev (1934) by the Vasiliev "brothers" (actually they weren't brothers at all) was based on the novel. Like the book, the film tells the tale of the changing relationship between Chapayev, or just plain Chapai to those who know him well - and the resented commissar sent to keep him "on-message". Whereas the book renames the commissar Klychkov, the film restores the name Furmanov to the character. Chapayev is almost everything a Party man could wish for in a hero: an illiterate carpenter with a fearsome willpower to see the Red Army to win and a raging thirst to educate himself. His men adore, respect and fear him - his enemies just respect and fear him. Although Chapayev's attitude toward Furmanov remains frosty, the legendary commander takes his message on board and when Furmanov gets transferred to another division, the farewell is a tearful and emotional one, such is the bond that has grown between the two men.

Finally, Chapayev's men are surprised at night by the monarchist "Whites" and Chapayev has to be dragged away wounded from his machine gun cursing in his particular way of referring to himself in the third person "Chapeyev never retreats". The hero meets his end swimming across a river and his faithful adjutant, Petka, dies giving him covering fire, both seconds before the cavalry arrives over the hill to drive the Whites back.

Difficult masterpieces

Some of the film's success stems from the unpopularity of the films which preceded it. Whilst masterpieces of form, style and technique such as Bronenosets Potemkim (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) and Chelovek s kinoaparatom (Man with a Movie Camera, 1929) were recognised as such by international audiences with sophisticated comsopolitan tastes, semi-literate peasants and factory workers in the Soviet Union were less than impressed with these experiments in cinematic discourse. Not only did these films dispense with traditional plot structure in story-telling, they also disposed of the single named hero. Individual experiences were ignored and the plot was played out by groups of people rather than individuals. Although good Communist politics, this did not sit well with the populist side of Communist aesthetics and in the 1930s, heroes returned. Chapayev was so firmly rooted in the idea of a hero that he even gave the film its name.

Not that these new films with heroes were lacking in Communist politics, far from it. In Chapayev, the Reds are depicted in only the most glowing terms whilst the Whites are shown to be full-blown baddies. The Whites raid and loot the villages they liberate, whereas the Reds take severe action against officers who encourage stealing. Whilst Chapayev lounges around at ease with his men, the White commander deigns to see only one subordinate throughout the film, his bat man whom he treats with coolness. Indeed, when Petrovich's brother is sentenced to death, the unfeeling colonel commutes the sentence to 100 strokes with the ramrod, supposedly as a favour to his servant. In fact, the blows kill him all the same.

The compassion of the Reds is shown by Petka who is sent on a mission to capture a White soldier to interrogate him about the enemies plans. Petka runs across the forlorn Petrovich who is out angling so he can make fish soup for his dying brother. Moved by the man's tear-jerking story of White cruelty, Petka lets the hapless Petrovich go so he might save his brother from death. This is no small sacrifice; aside from the court martial he faces as a result of his actions, he gives up an opportunity to show Anna, the girl he has fallen for, that he is a hero in real life and not "just with the girls." Dedicated fans of Russian cinema will instantly recognise this story device. Such demonstrations of the importance of social duty above such petty personal agendas as true love were de rigueur in Soviet films from the 1930s onwards.

Chapayev himself shares several interesting features in common with Stalin. He sports a dashing moustache in a style not dissimilar to the one the great dictator would wear in later years. He also stays up all night planning and thinking, a supposed habit of Stalin's which led to the officially encouraged belief that the country need not worry, because there would always be a light on in the Kremlin, since Comrade Stalin was up working late for the good of the country.

The Russian soul

So far, so Communist. However, for all that Chapayev extols the virtues of Lenin and fights for Communism, his soul is Russian and terminally so. He sings folk songs with his men about black ravens, stormy forests and lost loves. He is a wild untameable man with no liking for rules and an even lower opinion of those who try to oppose him. In one of the film's most memorable sequences, Chapayev berates an officer for being wounded in battle and, using some potatoes, a pipe and an up-turned bowl, proceeds to give an impromptu lesson on where a commander should stand when his troops go into battle. After a bravura regurgitation of the military tactics the Party have taught him, the wounded officer laughs and dismisses Chapayev's lecture, pointing out that no matter what the situation, Chapayev leads his men from the front.

When Furmanov has left, the Russian side of his character starts to return in full force. The lessons the Commissar has taught him start to be forgotten and the Soviet training vanishes from memory. Chapayev rejects the refined appearance that Furmanov convinced him was necessary for a commander, and his dress reverts to that of a peasant. Moreover, the watchfulness of the division fades away, leading to the fatal surprise attack by night. When Chapayev stays behind at the machine gun to ward off the enemy rather than make an easy escape, it is the Russian who remains. The Soviet commander, as Chapayev himself points out in the film, must save his own life at all costs. Thus, although Chapayev fights for the Soviets, he lives a Russian life and dies a Russian death and for this reason he won the hearts of audiences.

Even today, the Chapayev legend is still strong and the name Vasiliy Ivanovich is inextricably linked with the surname of the commander. There is a Chapayev page of jokes on the Internet, and a couple of recent films have paid homage to both the legend and the film adaptation of it. Peter Lutsik'sOkraina (Outskirts, 1998) transplants archetypal characters from classic Soviet 1930s films into contemporary capitalist Russia to see how they fare against the "new Russians" (Click here for Kinoeye's review). The film perfectly recreates the atmosphere of Chapayev, no doubt helped by the fact that it uses its original musical score, written by Gavriil Popov.

Oscar-winning homage

In a less direct reference, Nikita Mikhalkov draws comparisons between Colonel Sergei Petrovich Kotov and Chapayev in his cinematic indictment of Stalinism Utomlionne solntsem (Burnt by the Sun, 1994). Mikhalkov shows the brutality of the Terror of the 1930s by depicting how it was even used against Stalin's closest and most loyal followers, in this case the real-life figure of Colonel Kotov. In order to convince Russian audiences that his Stalinist hero is actually loveably human, Mikhalkov gives him many of the character traits of Chapayev, the dash and swagger and the uncontrollable rage at being contradicted. Moreover, the director recreates one Chapayev scene almost word for word. In Chapayev, Vasili Ivanovich tells Petka and Anna how lucky they are to be young because they will get married and be able to live without having to fight, thanks to the peace Communism will bring. In Utomlionne solntsem, the conversation occurs between Colonel Kotov and his daughter, Nadia. Massaging her feet, the ageing colonel says she is lucky because her soles will always be soft, as she will be able to live without having to run from the enemy thanks to the protecting mantle of Stalinism around the country.

The film's enduring popularity is all the more notable in comparison to other films of the period. Whilst classics of Soviet cinema such as Bronenosets Potemkim and Chelovek s kinoaparatom have lasted in arthouse cinemas, textbooks and discussions of avant garde film, Chapayev has lived on in the memory of popular culture, without the need for theoreticians to keep its name alive at sparsely attended screenings and in infrequently read tomes.

Andrew James Horton, 14 June 1999

Chapayev was one of 16 classic Russian films on show at the Barbican Centre in London as part of the St Petersburg: Romance and Revolution season.

Reviews of other events in the Romance and Revolution season:
Three Ways to Tell the Truth
Film depictions of the Russian Revolution ten years after the fact
The Forgotten Avant Garde
 Soviet composers crushed by Stalin

The St Petersburg Legacy
 A portrait of a city through its poetry and music

Zaum and Sun
 The first Futurist opera revisited


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