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Dmitry Furmanov: Чапаев (Chapaev)

Vasily Chapaev (also spelt Chapayev) was a Russian Civil War commander and hero who fought against Alexander Kolchak, a former polar explorer and Russian naval commander, who became an anti-Soviet leader till his capture and execution by the Red Army. This book is a novelisation of the story of Chapaev’s campaign against Kolchak, written by a man who was the commissar in his army. (Furmanov appears in the book under the name of Fyodor Klichkov.)

We first meet Klichkov when he was with a group of weavers as commissar. They have been formed into a group which is to go and fight against the Cossacks and Kolchak. Right from the beginning, Furmanov gives a lively portrait of the men and women who fight. They are shown as rough and ready but enthusiastic, not afraid to speak their minds and eager to fight the forces of repression. Indeed, the whole book is something of pro-Soviet propaganda but this is during a period when the idealistic spirit still burned bright and the people really did think that they were going to overthrow the forces of reaction and create a workers’ paradise. It is clear early on that Chapaev is adored by the men as he is one of them. He is not educated (he had attended military academy but dropped out on the basis that actually learning to fight and knowing your territory is far more important than theoretical studies and learning about remote areas.) Klichkov himself is eager to meet the man about whom he has heard so much.

Not all the peasants support them. When there is particularly bad weather, some of them say it is God’s judgement on the Soviets. As Klichkov is political commissar, we get a lot of description of his involvement in political education. (Later on, Chapaev will prove to be one of his most intractable students.) We even get detailed discussion on the finer points of the distinction between Communism and Bolshevikism. I would have imagined that commissars would be resented in the army, particularly by the officers and we have seen this in other Russian books. While Klichkov certainly has his difficulties, not least with Chapaev, he always seem to to win the men around to the correct views. Indeed, he sometimes has to fight against those who are more Bolshevik than him, a struggle he also generally wins. (But then he is writing the book.)

Frunze appoints Klichkov as political commissar in Alexandrov-Gay and it is there that he first meets Chapaev, who casually walks into his room and says I’m Chapaev. They become good friends, even though they do disagree and Klichkov finds Chapaev somewhat impetuous. Chapaev clearly has a good military brain as he carefully plans his campaigns and critiques in great detail those of others, including but not limited to his subordinates. He has no time for bureaucracy or the central command and there is continual conflict between Chapaev and his superiors, with Klichkov often caught in the middle. He is also irresponsible, dashing about the battle field with little protection.

Much of the book describes the glorious victories of the Red Army over the Whites, with detailed accounts of many battles and skirmishes. In most cases, the Red Army, even if it finds some resistance – and it does – pushes on. Indeed, Chapaev’s unit not only pushes back the Whites but outruns the rest of the Red Army. Chapaev himself always wants to move on, not giving the men time to rest (he says that they do not need to) and Klichkov and the others are sorely pressed to hold him back. Furmanov writes well and we get interesting descriptions of the confrontations, with stories such as a heated battle between the two sides, with the villagers carrying on their everyday tasks as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening. But we also get accounts of atrocities. While the worst ones are, of course, committed by the Whites, Furmanov has to admit that the Reds have certainly executed prisoners, not having the resources to look after them.

We know what happens from the historical record. Klichkov gets moved on, leaving Chapaev behind. Chapaev is killed but the Reds eventually defeat the Whites, capture Kolchak and execute him. Furmanov/Klichkov tells an excellent story, so much so that this book and the resultant film became classics in the Soviet Union. If we ignore the blatant partisanship , this book is a highly enjoyable tale of the Russian Civil War.

Publishing history

First published in 1923 by Государственное издательство (State Publishing House)
First English publication by Cooperative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the U. S. S. R. in 1934
Translated by George Kittell and Jeanette Kittell]