In response to:
A Jew on Horseback from the June 22, 1995 issue
To the Editors:
Alfred Kazin had written a sensitive and inspired review of the 1920 diaries and short stories by Isaac Babel. My pleasure in reading Kazin’s “A Jew on Horseback” [NYR, June 22] was seriously marred however, by a discovery of a painful historical error he had made while describing the context in which Babel wrote his prose. Kazin says:
When newly independent Poland invaded Russia in April 1920…
This is not only totally incorrect, but also grossly unfair. One might as well write “When Poland invaded Germany in September 1939.” Let us get the record straight. Russia invaded Poland in 1920 in order to spread the revolution to Germany. The Russians were defeated due to the Polish resistance, French military aid and the bitter struggle between two bolshevik commanders, Tuchatchevskij, who wanted to conquer Warsaw from the north, and Budionnyj, who wanted to arrive there first—marching from the south (incidentally, Kazin is wrong not only in calling Budionnyj “the front line defense against the Poles” but also in placing him “in the north”).
These are simply established historical facts, and the only party to dispute them was a propaganda machine of Joseph Stalin. It is not very amusing to discover Alfred Kazin selling their confabulations to the readers of the NYRB as if they were self-evident truths.
Dr. Slawomir Magala
Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Alfred Kazin replies:
In her historical introduction to Isaac Babel’s 1920 Diary, the editor Carol J. Avins writes:
Newly constituted as an independent nation after World War I, Poland sought to take advantage of the nascent Soviet state’s upheaval to expand eastward, restoring its 1772 borders and its former stature…Jozef Pilsudski, leading the Poles, articulated the Polish mission both as a fulfillment of his country’s historical destiny and as a crusade to save European civilization from the alien disease of Bolshevism….
Hostilities had begun in February 1919, in the wake of German withdrawal (after the November 1918 armistice) from the Russian-Polish borderlands…The Poles quickly acquired the upper hand. In April they took Vilna; in August, Minsk…. Polish troops kept moving, taking the Latvian city of Dvinsk in January 1920. But many accounts date the beginning of the war to April of that year, when Poland moved deep into the Ukraine. On 6 May the Polish Army (aided by Ukrainian nationalist troops) took Kiev from the Reds.
Occupation by a foreign power led the Soviets to appeal on nationalist grounds for the support of all Russians, including those who had previously opposed them.
The Bolsheviks, believing that socialism could not succeed in only one country and that their revolution was the first of a series ready to erupt across Europe, sought to begin revolution’s westward spread with the country that separated them from Marxism’s place of origin.