Staging Staged On-Stage Heroes

As the early Bolshevik regime came to power after the Russian Civil War, the party and public underwent severe political, cultural, governmental, and economic reforms. As the rapid changes occurred the Communist Party noticed increasing resistance and rising new problems. Demand for grain, mineral, ore, and material production, political assassinations and censorship, and lack of international credibility were some of the issues that led workers and politicians to strike, withhold resources, and otherwise sabotage government efforts. These issues include incidences such as the trial of 58 mining workers in the Shakhty district for sabotage and was representative of countless other incidences like this around the country (Freeze, 355.)

One way the government sought to preserve its union was through a public-relations campaign (Geldern). This included idealizing and romanticizing socialism and production as worthy causes by projecting common workers as folk heroes in films. One film, Chapaev, remains an extremely famous example of a film produced by the soviets staring a communist hero.

Lenfilm. Chapaev. 1935. Poster Libary.

The story follows a real-life hero of the Great War and the Russian Civil War, Visilii Ivanovich Chapaev. The film begins with Chapaev’s Division on a series of victories before his death during an ambush at Lbishchensk on Sep 5, 1919. (Chapaev). Throughout the film Visilii Ivanovich, despite being politically untrained, faces adversity and difficulty with charisma and the wisdom of life-experience over education. He becomes unlikely friends with a commissar Bolshevik named Dmitrii Furmanov sent from Moscow who teaches Chapaev the true values of communism—which he proudly fights for. The two bond after Furmanov gives Chapaev advice when he learns his men are stealing grain from the peasants housing his division (Chapaev).

The film was a massive success of the film industries redirection; first in airing in 1934 it was viewed by over 30 million people across the Soviet Union. Boris Shumiatskii was the new chairman of the industry and wanted to create simple and accessible to the public while maintain political fealty to the regime (Geldern). This served Stalin as an alternate solution to the purges of the 1930’s because it was impossible to purge everyone. This served as a softer method to ensure control and loyalty from citizens in addition to methods of terror like the Show Trials of 1936-1938. Chapaev displays the benefits of being a loyalist as well as glorifying the Bolshevik’s political revolution in 1917. The figure, already larger than life, became a model for citizens to become which not only pacified the government but also the people.


Chapaev. Film. Directed by Georgi and Sergei Vasilyev. St. Petersburg: Lenfilm, 1934.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Geldern, James Von. “Popular Film Industry.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. August 30, 2015.

5 thoughts on “Staging Staged On-Stage Heroes

  1. Hi Jordan, great job exploring the link between art and the government’s political goals in the Soviet Union! Chapaev is such a fun and fascinating movie, and I think you’ve examined some of its really important themes. And thank you for providing a hyperlink to the film!


    1. Hi, Carolyn, great question and I would say “no.” People watch movies to enjoy a good story, and the movie has plenty of strong characters, sarcastic remarks, romance, and epic battles that covers the government’s intent to glorify its revolution. Comparatively in America, look at “The Patriot” with Mel Gibson. It is a fun movie and story to watch, but it also glorifies the current government’s origins.


  2. So, true confession – I actually really like Chapaev – the film and the character. And so did millions of people who watched it in the thirties. And not because they were brainwashed or “under Stalin’s control” but because it’s good entertainment — there’s drama (will they win?), character development (Chapaev’s innate genius as a commander needs some refining so he can be more effective )– the Furmanov (commissar) guy annoys me, but that’s not relevant here, romance, and then the tragedy of the hero’s death but the victory that insures the cause will live on.
    You can’t make 30 million people sit through (and pay for) a movie they don’t like.


  3. I liked how you explored the relationship between politics and the arts. Film is a fantastic way of expressing cultural values, and often shapes how people view themselves within the context of their societies. For every film like Chapaev, there are blockbuster American films attempt to capture what it means to be “American”, and its intriguing to see how people interpret different forms of art.


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