Chapayev, Vasily Ivanovich

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(18871919), soldier and Russian civil war hero.

Were it not for the eponymous novel and movie, historians would not likely have remembered the name of Chapayev, the unlettered commander of the Red Army's Twenty-Fifth Infantry Division during the Russian Civil War. He was instrumental in defeating Alexander Kolchak's "White" forces in the summer of 1919, but was killed in the action.

Dmitry Furmanov, the Chapayev brigade's political commissar, published a thinly-fictionalized memoir about Chapayev in 1923. A proto-Socialist Realist novel, Chapayev was an immediate bestseller and turned Chapayev into an overnight hero. Furmanov's book spawned a veritable "Chapayev industry" of songs, games, and jokes. Although Chapayev was still in print a decade after its publication and selling well, there can be little doubt that the immense popularity of the 1934 movie Chapayev extended the legend's life.

Made by two unknown directors, Georgy Vasiliev and Sergei Vasiliev, Chapayev debuted on November 7, 1934, on the seventeenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Reputed to be Stalin's favorite movie, Chapayev was also the biggest box-office hit of the 1930s, selling over 50 million tickets in a five-year period. Even foreign critics and émigré audiences loved the movie, which starred Boris Babochkin as the brash commander.

Regardless of what the historic Chapayev was "really" like as man and hero, on the printed page and on the screen, he was an antidote to the dreariness and conformity of Soviet life. Furmanov was not a particularly gifted writer. His novella is plainly written and disjointed. The "Vasilyev Brothers" were competent directors but no more than that. Their movie is a rather primitive example of the early sound film. As many critics have noted, Chapayev is an archetypal "cowboy," a free spirit who supports revolution, but in his own way. The paradox is that Chapayev is an unruly model for "homo Sovieticus," especially with the emphasis on manas-machine in the 1930s. It is important to remember, however, that for Stalin, Chapayev was the perfect heroa dead one.

See also: civil war of 19171922; motion pictures; socialist realism


Kenez, Peter. (2001). Cinema and Soviet Society from the Revolution to the Death of Stalin. London: I. B. Tauris.

Luker, Nicholas, ed. (1988). From Furmanov to Sholokhov: An Anthology of the Classics of Socialist Realism. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis.

Denise J. Youngblood