March 15, 2016

Socialist Realism and Potatoes: The Dmitry Furmanov Story

Socialist Realism and Potatoes: The Dmitry Furmanov Story

You know you’ve made it as an author when people remember your hero’s name, but not yours. Especially when they remember it from the movie made out of your book, more than your actual writing. Still, if that story features a hero based on a real person, valiant proletarians, and battle strategies involving starchy tubers, success is in the bag.

That’s the gist with Dmitry Furmanov (1891-1926), who passed away 90 years ago on March 15. He was a Bolshevik commissar paired up with Red Army Commander Chapayev during the Civil War, and the resulting book (and film) lives on in Russians’ memories. Not just because of the book: Chapayev also inspired a checkers-style board game, computer-game variations, a host of jokes, and, back to literature, a postmodernist retelling of the war story by contemporary writer Viktor Pelevin, whose version is replete with modern psychiatry, hallucinogenic drugs, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The original Chapayev, published 1923, may not be quite as much of an acid trip, but it’s still worth a look-see:

Furmanov wrote the book based on his own battlefield notebooks, so it’s sort of a blend of journalism and literature. As commissar, Furmanov’s job was to make sure the military leader he was assigned to stayed in line politically and ideologically, whether in waging battle or chatting with the troops. These were the early years of Soviet power, after all, and if the Bolsheviks wanted to win the Civil War and keep that power, they needed their commanders to keep kosher. Communist kosher, that is.

And the character Chapayev is as loyal a communist as can be – even if he doesn’t 100 percent understand what that means. When asked, “Are you for the Bolsheviks or the communists?” he proudly replies that he’s “for the International!” That, without quite believing in international labor solidarity, and thinking that a stellar economic strategy is to seize 100 cows from the rich and give one cow to each of 100 peasants. But that’s where the political commissar comes in. 

Furmanov (left) mentoring Chapaev (right)

During the Civil War, military commanders who came from the working or peasant classes were, well, a touch fuzzy on the nuances of political theory. Most of them hadn’t had much education under the monarchy, let alone a background in dialectical materialism. Many such folk were dedicated communists ready to die for the cause – even if they couldn’t explain it.

Chapayev’s lack of education has to be overcome for him to pass muster as a socialist hero, but it can be good for some laughs, too. Like in the scene in the film when he uses potatoes on a roughly drawn map to demonstrate military strategies. Tactical tubers were good for a giggle, but raised some ideological alarm bells, too. Or would have, if not for Furmanov steering Chapayev back to the Party Line, taters and all.  

A spud – er, stud – in military strategy

Therein lies the political bent of the book – and even more so, its recreation as a film in 1934, during the height of Stalinism. Together, Chapayev and his loyal commissar repel the Whites. Separately, the viewer may suspect, maybe they wouldn’t have. If that’s not a win for ideological messaging, hard to say what is. No wonder Stalin reportedly watched the film over 30 times.

The book may not have been on Stalin’s bedside table, but it did sell thousands, even hundreds of thousands of copies. With people still reeling from the advent of Bolshevik power and the repercussions of the Civil War, books like Furmanov’s reminded readers of the better future they were building. By pairing the tater-touting Chapayev with his more disciplined counterpart, Furmanov showed the importance of blending energetic enthusiasm with political know-how, with the occasional charming potato anecdote for good measure.

Furmanov’s growing talent and urge for resistance made his death of meningitis in 1926 the more tragic. However, given the increasingly dangerous world of writing as the years marched on toward Stalinist terror, Furmanov’s early death may have saved him from a more violent fate in the years to come. 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons (portrait of Furmanov by Sergei Maliutin);

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