Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel was born in Odessa in 1894. His middle-class family gave him a solid Jewish education (at sixteen he was studying Hebrew and the Talmud so hard at home that he had to “rest” at high school), and in 1911 he enrolled at the Kiev Institute of Financial and Business Studies, where he remained until 1915. Babel was exempted from military service in the World War, probably because of poor eyesight. By 1916 he was in St. Petersburg, where Maxim Gorky became his patron. Aside from writing for Gorky’s social reformist paper Novaia zhizn‘ (New Life), he spent much of his time dodging the police: as a Jew he did not have residence papers for the capital and thus was living there illegally.
He volunteered for the Romanian front. In 1917 and after the Bolshevik Revolution (and, on Lenin’s orders, the closing down of Gorky’s newspaper), in 1919, he took part in the defense of Petrograd against General Yudenich’s White forces. He returned to Odessa later that year, married, and began work at a publishing house. When newly independent Poland invaded Russia in April 1920, Babel signed up as a war correspondent and soon became an officer in General Semyon Budyonny’s First Cavalry Army, the front-line Soviet defense against the Poles in the north. It was seventy years before Russians could read the diary Babel kept in 1920, including the notes that supplied him with episodes and characters for the stories in Red Cavalry, the book that made him famous in 1926.
In the commentary to his new translation of the Collected Stories, David McDuff shows that Soviet censors suppressed many details in the stories Babel published during his lifetime. Poor Babel! All he wanted was the freedom to be an artist in Russian prose, an ambition that Zionists deplored, many Russians thought impossible for a Jew, and revolutionary pundits misunderstood entirely. The style had to be spare, “French,” like that of Maupassant, and indeed the only story in Babel’s entire work in which he put forward his own aesthetic views is called “Guy de Maupassant.” The unnamed narrator finds himself “in St. Petersburg with a forged passport and without a copeck,” but by a stroke of luck he lands a job helping a rich lawyer’s wife translate Maupassant’s collected works. The woman does such a horrible job of it that the narrator takes the manuscript home and spends the night cutting “clearings in someone else’s translation.”
This is not such unpleasant work as it might seem. A phrase is born into the world good and bad at the same time. The secret rests in a barely perceptible turn. The lever must lie in one’s hand and get warm. It must be turned once, and no more.
When the narrator brings the story to Raisa the next day, she asks him how he did it.
Then I began to speak of style, of the army of words, an army in which all kinds of weapons are on the move. No iron can enter the human heart as chillingly as a full stop placed at the right time.
To Babel, literature was the true life, and the curiosity needed to pursue it involved a deliberate risk, like volunteering to be a war reporter and riding with Cossacks who despised him for his reluctance to kill even an animal. In seeking out war for literary purposes, Babel reminds me of Stephen Crane without Crane’s perfect detachment, or of Hemingway without the romantic pathos. (Unlike Babel, neither was ever a soldier, though both saw a lot of war.)
Entirely different in temperament from such bloody-minded Bolsheviks as Trotsky, Koganovich, Sverdlov, Yagoda, Radek, Mekhlis, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and other Jewish commissars, propagandists, and policemen too numerous to mention, Babel was himself politically mild, suffused with good faith toward his country and the remains of the socialist ideal in Leninist Russia. He stuck it out when his mother, wife, and daughter emigrated to Brussels in the 1920s. He visited them there, but soon returned to Russia.
In the end (1939) he vanished into Lubyanka like so many others who never could have imagined themselves as enemies of Soviet power. According to an article in the Soviet periodical Ogonyok1 it now seems certain that Babel was arrested on May 15, 1939, and shot on January 27, 1940. To this day there are conflicting stories about just what the secret police thought they had on him and why he was condemned to death. Stalin’s hatred for Jews was becoming more and more obsessive at this point. The documents published in Ogonyok on the interrogation of Babel in prison show that he admitted (later recanting this as slander) “accepting Trotskyite influence on his work.” This meant that in Red Cavalry he described the cruel and absurd aspects of the Russo-Polish War frankly, and failed to say how inspiring the Red Army was to the Cossacks. When Red Cavalry was published during the 1920s, Budyonny exploded in outrage at Babel’s factual account.
His prison file shows that he had been beaten and his glasses taken away from him, possibly smashed. His writings were confiscated when he was arrested at his dacha in Peredel-kino—fifteen folders of manuscripts, eleven notebooks, seven note pads—and have never been seen again.
Babel had the mischievous habit of writing fiction as if it was autobiography. He invented details for his much praised autobiography, such as claiming to have served in the Cheka when in fact he only did some translating for it. In her poignant introduction to his collection of unpublished stories and private correspondence, his daughter, Nathalie, says that the violence described in “The Story of My Dovecot”—in which a ten-year-old boy is finally allowed to buy the doves he has been longing to have, only to lose them (as well as his grand-uncle) in the terrible Odessa pogrom of 1905—never touched his family.2 The elder Babel’s store was not looted, since he did not own a store.
Yet there was a pogrom in Odessa when Babel was ten, whether or not he wanted to have a dovecot (although, tantalizingly, in the diary entry for July 12, 1920, we read: “Splendid yard, dovecot—that moves me…”). Near the end of the story, the one-legged cigarette vendor Makarenko, once a kindly man, strikes the boy with the dove he has crushed in his hand, while his wife howls about the Jews, “Their seed ought to be destroyed. I cannot abide their seed and their stinking men.”
She said something else about our seed, but I heard nothing more. I lay on the earth, and the entrails of the crushed bird trickled from my temple. They flowed down my cheeks, coiling, splashing and blinding me. Soft dove guts crept over my forehead, and I closed a last unstuck eye so as not to see the world that was spreading about before me. That world was small and horrible.
This is where Babel’s experience as a Jew affected the writer. Being a Jew did not bore him, as it did Pasternak, who could never understand why Jews stuck to their ancient heritage. Unlike Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, he never “felt” Christian. He saw the Russia in which Jews were always under siege as his natural subject; he turned being a Jew into a vehicle for exploring discords between languages, cultures, religions. In the diary as in his most personal stories Babel always wanted to know what the other people were thinking. There was a legend in his native Odessa that he would treat people to something—a meal or a book—in return for the story of their first love. As with all Babel’s characters, even the anti-Semite had to be given his reasons. Everyone has many sides, even the dreaded Cossack, as the diary entry for July 21 hints:
My interview with Konstantin Karlovich. What sort of person is our Cossack? Many-layered: looting, reckless daring, professionalism, revolutionary spirit, bestial cruelty.
When he joined the Cossack First Cavalry Army, which was led by Stalin’s intimates Budyonny and Voroshilov, the twenty-six-year-old Babel, round and bespectacled, had never been on horseback. He learned to ride only in July. Under the safe Russian name of “Lyutov,” he became a correspondent for the Army’s daily newspaper, Red Cavalryman, and was attached to the political section of the Army’s Sixth Division.
Serving with the Cossacks, who were notorious for their hatred of Jews, Babel was in the heart of orthodoxy in the old Jewish Pale, Polish Galicia, full of Hasidic towns where rabbinical dynasties quarreled over lines of succession. Even as a majority of the local population, the Jews here had never been safe from attack. They now found themselves pinned between the Russians, whom they distrusted, and the Poles, who despised them even more than usual for possibly sympathizing with the invaders.
What torment—but also what fascination—for the supposedly secret Jew Lyutov (whom almost everybody recognized as a Jew) as he rode with the Cossacks into a land of manor houses abandoned by Polish aristocrats and churches by their priests, of synagogues destroyed, worshipers murdered, with mutilated Jews left on the ground for everyone to see. In Novoselki, on July 18, 1920, he notes:
An order comes from the South-west Army Group: when we enter Galicia—the first time Soviet troops cross the frontier—we are to treat the population well. We are not entering a conquered country, the country belongs to the workers and peasants of Galicia, and to them alone, we are going there to help them establish Soviet rule. An important and sensible order, but will the scavengers obey it? No.
This pattern of hope raised only to be disappointed echoes the lament of the old Jew in the Red Cavalry story “Gedali.” It is the Sabbath eve in Zhitomir, and the narrator, “tormented by a dense sadness of memories,” wanders in search of “the shy star,” a synagogue. In a cluttered store that reminds him of Dickens’s old curiosity shop, he finds the diminutive owner in smoked glasses and a green frock coat that touches the floor. Everyone has left the market; only Gedali has remained. Coiling and uncoiling his beard, his top hat swaying “above us like a small black tower,” Gedali envelops the narrator “in a gentle odour of decay.” Totally insignificant as he is, Gedali pleads for a new “International of good men.”
I want each soul to be taken and registered and given first-grade rations. Here, soul, eat, please, and have from life your pleasure. The International, panie comrade, one does not know what to eat it with.
Though the two are obviously talking Yiddish, mamaloshen, their mother tongue, the narrator plays the tough revolutionary outsider and tells Gedali that one eats the revolution “with gunpowder. And seasons it with the finest blood.” A second later the tone changes completely:
“Gedali,” I say, “today is Friday, and it is already evening. Where may one obtain a Jewish short-cake, a Jewish glass of tea and a little of that superannuated God in one’s glass of tea?”
It is a mistake to think of this as nostalgic softness. The two sides of Babel’s world view, violence and art, go together. In Dubno, July 23, 1920, when he sees the Hasidic synagogue destroyed but still holding services for “the most repulsive looking” Jews in town, Babel has a vision of how terrible the future may be. “You have to have the soul of a Jew to sense what it means. But what does the soul consist of? Can it be that ours is the century in which they perish?”
In 1920 Diary Babel is talking to himself. He will weave its details into Red Cavalry, above all the staccato rhythm of the day-to-day that is so striking about it. But in the more muted, more subtle Red Cavalry he is altogether the artist, drawing the reader completely into a new view of the world. The diary, with its day-by-day record of impressions, moods, and details, was given that “barely perceptible turn” that transformed violence into art, the hordes of brightly uniformed Cossack horsemen into prose as clean and sharp as a cavalry saber.
In Red Cavalry everything is real because everything is piled up together and juxtaposed. The last word is not given to the Jew who believes in too many faiths and is killed with texts of both Maimonides and Lenin at his side. That would be too familiar, merely symbolic. It is given to the Cossack commander who tells Babel off: “I understand you completely … Your aim is to live without making enemies … Everything you do is aimed that way—so you won’t have any enemies.”
This is the essential similarity between the Babel in the 1920 Diary and the Babel who created Red Cavalry and the rest of the stories in the collection: the knowledge that everything is layered, that men, like phrases, “are born good and bad at the same time,” along with the mad, sad hope that art can somehow reconcile such opposites as Jew and Cossack, intellectual and brute, and transmute the “small and horrible” world into something larger, softer, more humane.
Babel was by all evidence not killed for anything he wrote, even if the censors did object to much that they found in his writings. If we can believe one of the stories circulated at the time, his apparent mistake was to have befriended, perhaps intimately, Yezhov’s wife, who also came from Odessa, while Yezhov himself fell victim to the wave of purges he had conducted so avidly from 1936 to 1938. Babel stayed apart from political intrigue but he could not resist taking chances that might be useful for his art. This led to his undoing. What was a Jew doing riding with the Cossacks anyway? He was a Jew in the wrong place and he paid for it.
Number 39, 1989, which was translated in Dissent (Winter 1991).↩
Isaac Babel: The Lonely Years 1925–1939, Unpublished Stories and Private Correspondence, edited by Nathalie Babel (Farrar, Straus, 1964).↩
The Polish Invasion? August 10, 1995