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How an idol was made of Chapaev
How an idol was made of Chapaev

The popular idol and the most famous commander of the Red Army from Vasily Chapaev was made by Stalin and Soviet propaganda.

Until now, most Russians and even residents of the post-Soviet space know the name of Chapaev. He lives as a character in linguistic idioms and anecdotes. Some people remember from the famous film that he was the legendary commander of the Red Army, while they hardly know the literary details of his biography, did not read the famous novel, and even more so they do not know who this Chapaev really was.

Vasily Ivanovich Chapaev was not a major Soviet commander and, despite his personal courage, did not perform any exceptional feats that were amazing to the imagination. How did it happen that a simple division commander during the Civil War became not only the idol of his generation, but even now, after 100 years, his name is still not forgotten in modern Russia?

Painting "Chapaev in battle", 1937

Painting "Chapaev in battle", 1937. TASS

Hero of two wars

The military path of Vasily Chapaev (real name - Chepaev) began on the fields of the First World War, during which he rose to the rank of sergeant major and was awarded three St. George's crosses. In September 1917, right on the eve of the October Revolution, Chapaev joined the Bolsheviks.

Of "correct" peasant origin, possessing rich combat experience and outstanding leadership qualities, Vasily Ivanovich quickly climbed the career ladder in the Red Army. During the Civil War raging in the country, he went from regiment commander to division commander.

Later, Soviet propaganda would portray Vasily Ivanovich as a dashing cavalryman. In fact, due to a wound received during the First World War, Chapaev could not sit on a horse for a long time and preferred a car or a motorcycle with a sidecar. And he commanded not the cavalry, but the infantry.

Parts of the 25th rifle division of Vasily Chapaev during the crossing over the Belaya river

Parts of the 25th rifle division of Vasily Chapaev during the crossing over the Belaya river. TASS

In the spring and summer of 1919, Chapaev took part in hostilities against the white armies of the "Supreme Ruler of Russia" Alexander Kolchak in the Volga region and the Southern Urals. The Bolsheviks managed to stop the enemy offensive, and also took the large industrial center of Ufa. At the same time, units of the 25th rifle division, commanded by Vasily Ivanovich, were the first to break into the city.

Chapaev also took part in the suppression of peasant uprisings directed against the so-called surplus appropriation schemes - the confiscation of surplus grain and other foodstuffs from the population for the needs of the state. The USSR preferred not to recall these details.


Vasily Chapaev (center), 1918

Vasily Chapaev (center), 1918 Sputnik

The most mysterious episode in Chapaev's biography remains the circumstances of his death. It is still unknown how the legendary divisional commander actually died.

On September 5, 1919, a thousand White Cossacks made a daring raid on the rear of the Red Army and suddenly attacked the headquarters of Chapaev's division in the city of Lbischensk (the modern village of Chapaev in Kazakhstan). “Before dawn, the enemy approached Lbischensk from three sides. From the fourth, eastern, the Ural flows.

Telephone and telegraph lines of communication with the troops and with Uralsk were cut. Some of the local Cossacks made their way back to Lbischensk in order to shoot from the rear, sow panic and death,”the book“Chapaev. An Outline of Life, Revolutionary and Military Activities ", written by the children of the division commander: Alexander and Claudia.

A still from the film "Chapaev"

A still from the film "Chapaev". Georgy and Sergei Vasiliev / Lenfilm, 1934

The Red forces suffered a terrible defeat: 1,500 people died in the city itself, another 1,000 were hacked to death in the steppe or drowned in the Ural River while trying to escape.According to the official version, this is how the famous commander died - in the middle of the river he was overtaken by an enemy bullet. According to another version, the wounded Chapaev was transported by boat to the other side, where he died. There is also an opinion that he was taken prisoner and shot. In any case, the remains of Vasily Ivanovich were never found.

The birth of a legend

The death of Chapaev was not some kind of extraordinary event - no less famous and higher-ranking military leaders died in the war. However, in 1923, an event occurred that glorified Vasily Ivanovich for generations to come.

It was in this year that Dmitry Furmanov's novel "Chapaev" about the exploits of the brave division commander was published. The author knew his hero well - he was a commissar in the 25th rifle division.

Vasily Chapaev (with a bandage on his head) and divisional commissar Dmitry Furmanov (to the left of Chapaev), 1919

Vasily Chapaev (with a bandage on his head) and divisional commissar Dmitry Furmanov (to the left of Chapaev), 1919 Sputnik

Interestingly, Furmanov and Chapaev were not best friends. On the contrary, they had a serious conflict caused by Vasily Ivanovich's courtship of the commissar's wife.

“I began to despise you just a few days ago, when I was convinced that you are a careerist, and when I saw that the harassment is being made especially arrogant and insulting the honor of my wife …” Furmanov wrote to Chapaev: “Your touching her left me with a feeling of some kind of disgust … The impression was as if a toad touched a white dove: it was getting cold and disgusting …"

Shortly before the massacre in Lbischensk, Furmanov left the division's location (which saved his life). There is evidence that the enemies were reconciled before leaving, and the heroic image of Chapaev, which the writer created in his novel, confirms this.

For euphony, Furmanov changed one letter in the real surname of Vasily Ivanovich, making Chepaev - Chapaev. The new surname took root so well among the people that it was fixed at the official level. Even the children of the division commander had to change their documents and get used to the fact that now they will be called differently.

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A still from the film "Chapaev"

A still from the film "Chapaev". Georgy and Sergei Vasiliev / Lenfilm, 1934

The film of the same name, released in 1934, lifted Chapaev to a new, much higher level of popularity. It was based on the novel by Furmanov, who, having died in 1926, did not live to see the premiere.

Even at the stage of creating the script, Stalin joined the work. So, he personally made an order to add a romantic line between Vasily Ivanovich's messenger Petka and the division's machine gunner Anka.

The "Father of Nations" deliberately contributed to the creation of a cult from the fallen heroes of the Civil War. It was unreasonable to glorify those who survived - they could become significant competitors in the struggle for power (many of them would soon perish during the period of repression). There was no danger from the dead.

The film was an overwhelming success. For several years it was shown in cinemas by more than 40 million viewers. Stalin himself saw Chapaev 38 times.


Hood. Kukryniksy / Gosplanizdat

During World War II, the image of Vasily Ivanovich became one of the main images in Soviet propaganda. On one of the posters one could see his image with the caption "We are fighting great, we are stabbing desperately, Suvorov's grandchildren, Chapaev's children!"

In 1941, the short film "Chapaev with Us" was shot, in which the divisional commander managed to swim across the Ural River. Coming ashore, he meets the soldiers of the Red Army during the Second World War and addresses them with a fiery appeal to ruthlessly beat the enemy.

Hero of anecdotes

Over the years, the image of Chapaev has lost its greatness. The audience no longer cried when they watched the scene with his death.

Game "Petka and Vasily Ivanovich 2: Judgment Day"

Game "Petka and Vasily Ivanovich 2: Judgment Day". SKIF, 1999

Nevertheless, he was firmly entrenched in folklore: Vasily Ivanovich became the hero of numerous anecdotes in which he constantly found himself in comic situations with his loyal assistant Petka and Anka the machine-gunner. In this funny role, he migrated to a dozen computer games.

The image of the folk hero was also used in a much more serious way.The division commander is one of the main characters in the cult philosophical novel by Viktor Pelevin in modern Russia, Chapaev and the Emptiness.

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