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Chapaev is an agriculturally minded district capital some 125km south of Uralsk, close to the Ural River. It is of historical interest as the place of death of Vasily Chapaev, the Red Army general of the Civil War around whom a considerable cult developed in the Soviet period,

Chapaev, already a much-decorated NCO in World War I, joined the Bolshevik Party in autumn 1917, becoming the commander of the 2nd Nikolaev Division and later heading the 25th Rifle Division, which would be known as the Chapaev Division after his death. His fame was fuelled by the novel Chapaev by Dimitry Furmanov, who served with the general as political commissar. The novel contrasts the dedicated party loyalist Klichkov, modelled on Furmanov himself and serving, like him, as political commissar, with the brave, inspirational, but politically immature General Chapaev. A 1934 film further stoked the legend surrounding Chapaev, who also features in a huge number of Soviet jokes. These typically rely on the contrasting characters of Chapaev and Commissar Furmanov, and often include Chapaev s aide-de-camp Petka, and a female machine gunner, Anka.

Furmanov s novel describes the surprise attack on 5 September 1919 by Cossacks supporting the White forces on the headquarters of the 25th Rifle Division, which were then at the stamtsa of Lbishchensk. Chapaevs political commissar, Baturin (Klichkov/Furmanov having earlier being recalled to the centre, against his will), was killed, and Chapaev himself was wounded. He was helped by Petka down the steep riverbank and into the Ural. Petka stayed behind to fight off the Cossacks, eventually succumbing to them, while Chapaev attempted to swim across the river, which was being strafed by fire from the Cossack machine guns. Nearing the far bank, Chapaev was struck in the head by a bullet, and disappeared below the waters. His body was never found. Lbishchensk was renamed Chapaev in 1939, in honour of the general.

What to See

Chapaev lies a kilometre or so to the east of the main road running between Uralsk and Atyrau, and makes a good place to break the journey between these two regional capitals. All the places of interest lie along Kunaev Street. In the centre of the settlement stands a large and striking statue of Chapaev, an angular composition which depicts the general somewhere between defiance and anguish, his legs buckling beneath him while he stretches his spindly fingers outwards towards an invisible source of support, or perhaps he is gesturing towards the enemy or the future. Just across from here, on the corner of Abai and Kunaev streets, is a single storey Tsarist-era mosque, a simple bricк building, with no minaret.

A short distance to the north, along Kunaev Street, stands the two-storey Tsarist building which served during that late summer of 1919 as Chapaev's divisional headquarters. An ugly concrete extension has been tacked onto it, the whole building serving during the Soviet period as the Chapaev Memorial Museum. At the time of research it was closed for refurbishment, a process which is likely to involve a watering down of the museums focus on Chapaev and on the history of the 25th Ritle Division, with more coverage on the history and ethnography of the local district, which has now been renamed Ak Zhaik, though its capital continues to bear the name of Chapaev. Museum staff promise, however, that the remodelling will not touch the rooms in the old divisional headquarters building itself, which had been reconstructed to give a sense of what the building must have looked like in 1919, including Chapaev's and Baturin's offices and, on the ground floor, a room for orderlies and duty officers, with patriotic Red Army slogans written across the large heater in the corner. Also slated to be retained is the Soviet-era diorama of Chapaevs last battle, depicting a predictably valiant general urging his troops to stay firm against the onslaught of Cossack cavalry. The red-capped Petka stands admiringly by his side. There is a bust of Chapaev outside the museum.

Kunaev Street ends at a tree-covered park, where a path fringed by plaques honouring the heroes of war ends at a tali metal obelisk built to resemble a bayonet. An extinguished eternal flame stands in front of it. Behind it is a wall which once recorded that here was the place of death of General Chapaev, but the Soviet-era inscription has now gone, replaced by a patriotic quotation from Kazakh writer Zhuban Moldagaliev, a further indication of a desire to downplay the cult of General Chapaev in post-independence Kazakhstan. Behind the wall, through a gate, is the steep bank down which Chapaev is said to have clambered towards his death. But instead of the mighty Ural below it, a change in the course of the river means that the visitor today is greeted only by a rather uninspiring side channel.