Vasili Ivanovich Chapayev was an illiterate hero of the Red Army and of the Russian Revolution, with stories of his bravery and determination becoming embedded in Russian folklore. This film was enormously popular in 1930s Russia – more so than the technically superior Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Man with a Movie Camera (1929). The film’s score is by the highly regarded Gavriil Popov. (Cert PG)
Dirs: Georgi Vasilyev/Sergei Vasilyev 90 mins USSR 1934
John Riley makes his fourth visit to ABCD to introduce a Russian film of the Soviet era. He is the author of Dmitri Shostakovich: A Life in Film. Please note this event will start at 7.30 p.m.

Read John Riley’s blog via the hyperlink from our Links page.

Programme Notes

Thursday December 4th 2008 SPECIAL EVENT


USSR 1934 90 minutes Introduced by John Riley

Chapayev was one of the most popular propaganda films of the Socialist Realist era in the USSR and is said to have been Josef Stalin’s favourite. It is based on the eponymous novel, published in 1923, by Dimitry Furmanov and Anna Furmanova about an army commissar (Furmanov) who fought under Vasili Ivanovich Chapayev, the heroic, real-life commander Of the 25th division of the Red Army during the 1919 Civil War campaign against Tsarist forces on the Eastern Front in Turkistan. The story revolves around the relationship that develops between the two men when Furmanov is sent from the Red Army centre to take charge of Chapayev’s troops, who want to preserve their long-held guerrilla tactics and unswerving partisan allegiance to their erstwhile commander. From illiterate peasant stock (only learning to read and write two years earlier), Chapayev was their natural leader and a fearless strategist – a man of action, fighting on the side of poor people like himself.

Despite its function as a propaganda tool, the film is a work of artistic merit. Told with simpticity, its story of a rugged but flawed national hero is honest in its representation of human failings (even on the Bolshevik side), in the performances of the actors and in the dream-like beauty of the images. The linear narrative style is in marked contrast to the old Formalism Of Soviet cinema, which fused images through montage and fast-paced editing, and captures the spirit of the time as the populace of the USSR struggled towards an ideal they needed to believe was worth the destruction of war.

Chapayev is notable in being awarded Best Foreign Film in 1935 by the US National Board of Review and, in 1937, winning the World Affairs Grand Prix of Paris. It was voted one of the Best Hundred films in the World by a poll of cinema critics in 1978. MJ

Acknowledgements: Kelly Otter,

‘Chapayev is an easy to to love’ – Jay Leyda (from Kino, A History of the Russian and Soviet Film)

Chapayev – Boris Babochkin
Furmanov – Boris Blinov
Anna – Varvava Myasnikova
Petka – Leonid Kmit
Colonel Borozdin – Illarian Pevtsov
Yelan – Vyacheslav Volkov
Directors – Sergei Vasiliev, Georgei Vasiliev
Producer – Lenfilm Studio, USSR
Screenplay – Sergei Vasiliev, Georgei Vasiliev
Cinematography – Alexander Sigayev, A. Ksenofontov
Original Music – Gavril Popov
Art Direction – Isaak Makhlis

For the fourth time, we welcome John Riley to ABCD to introduce and discuss tonight’s film. John is an author, lecturer and broadcaster, concentrating on film and music. His publications include Dmitri Shostakovich – A Life in Film, with works on film music and Russian music currently in press. He regularly fronts Resonance Radio’s film programme I’m Ready for My Close-Up and wrote, directed and produced Shostakovich – My Life at the Movies, which was premiered at the South Bank Centre by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, with Simon Russell Beale.


“Absolutely fascinating!”

“Fascinating. Much to think about.”


“A lot of good things here. Much Communist political correctness. I liked the dialogue between Chapayev and Furmanov. The singing scenes seemed too slow.”

“Completely digestible – a pleasant surprise”

“Madness to think we will ever understand the Russians”

“Realistically romantic popularism. I watched it to the end with a strange feeling of the perversion of war being turned into folk tales.”

“Amazing – not easy to follow the battle sequences but certainly very stunning. Easy to see why it was so popular.”

“Interesting but confusing at times, especially in the battle scenes. And what a sudden ending – with a bang to say the least!”

“What nice people the military commissars were – or so the film would have us believe. The balance of intro. + discussion time to the actual film run time was too far tilted to(wards) the talk at the expense of the film.”

“A rousing film – I suppose we had to expect all the characters to be wooden.”

“The exciting bits reminded me of the Cowboys & Indians films of my youth. Lots of expensive special effects and extras – some seemed to be ‘recycled’ in different scenes.”

“Why did it remind me of some cowboy films and Lawrence of Arabia? The battle scenes were extremely well done. Was (our hero) really killed or did (the Vasilievs) intend to make Chapayev, the Return?

“How do you rate a film that’s 70 tears old? Too stylised for modern tastes.”

“A silent film with words!”

“Did the Red Army not have any cheerful songs?”


A:11, B:25, C:6, D:1, E:0 to give 77%