If Saint Peter should ever locate the keys to the Lubyanka and release all the writers slaughtered there, the only shade in the procession likely to be wearing a smile would be Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel. As his second wife, Antonina Pirozhkova, tells us, “Babel ascribed great importance to merriment.”
“What has the Jew studied?” asks the rabbi in one of Babel’s Red Cavalry stories.
“What is the Jew seeking?”
Wit and irony are often a requirement for passage into the Russian canon (even Dostoevsky is, not least, a hilarious writer), but it has long been a cultural style to withhold any outward signs of pleasure. Remember the paintings and the photographs of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, and, in the Soviet period, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, even the riotous Daniil Kharms: the style was to radiate seriousness, spirit, weariness, suffering, but not delight. Even Gogol withheld all traces of pleasure from the portrait painters. Nabokov, too, seemed to shift to his signature expression of bemusement only after crossing the border of emigration to Berlin, Paris, and Ithaca.
Pirozhkova wrote her memoir in secret decades ago, but it was published, in uncensored form, for the first time in 1989, the crest of the glasnost wave in Moscow. The book does not pretend to do the heavy lifting of a biography, and yet it is especially rich with the evidence of Babel’s good humor in a dark time. The handsome English edition includes pictures of Babel smiling with his young wife and his various children. Especially striking is a photograph of Babel in 1938, at the height of the purges, sitting cross-legged on a couch, his head resting in the palm of his right hand: he is smiling blissfully, a Jewish Buddha in wire-rimmed glasses.
One can only begin to imagine the levels of irony, the fatalism, in that smile. The next year, in May 1939, Babel would be arrested at the order of the head of the secret police, Lavrenty Beria. Babel was keenly aware of the possibility, even the inevitability, of this end. Some commentators have remarked on his political naiveté, his innocence of politics. This is preposterous. As early as 1920, when he was working as a war correspondent on the Bolshevik side during the civil war, Babel made clear in his diary that the ideals of the revolution had been trampled by the cruelties committed in their name: “They all say they’re fighting for justice and they all loot,” Babel wrote as he traveled with Semyon Budyonny’s cavalry through the doomed cities and shtetls of eastern Poland and western Ukraine—Dubno, Chelm, Belz, Zamosc—the scene of Jewish pogroms and, twenty-odd years later, the scene of Jewish obliteration. Few writers of the early Soviet period witnessed more cruelty at such close range. Babel’s smiles concealed bottomless pain as well as his uncanny ability to see—and to foresee. (“Can it be that ours is the century in which [the Jews] perish?” he asked himself in the diary he kept in 1920.) And so the idea of naiveté in Babel is absurd. He knew what he knew. In 1936, when his friend and protector Maxim Gorky died, Babel told Pirozhkova, “Now they won’t let me live.”
Babel was a master of short prose who worked with such a feverish obsession that by the time he finished his stories, he had rewritten them dozens, even hundreds, of times and committed them to memory. “Writing is very hard for me,” he once told his friend Konstantin Paustovsky. “Somewhere I once wrote that I’m rapidly aging from asthma, that strange illness which lodged itself in my puny body when I was a child. But I was lying. When I’m writing the shortest story, I still have to work at it as if I were required to dig up Mount Everest all by myself with a pick and shovel…. I have heart spasms when I can’t manage a sentence.” When he was composing the Odessa Stories and his masterpiece, Red Cavalry, in the early Twenties, Babel would labor over a story of five hundred or a thousand words for weeks, for months. He paced his room, back and forth, worrying a piece of twine in his fingers, like a rosary. A story, Babel felt, should have the precision of a military communiqué or a bank check and “a simile must be as precise as a slide rule and as natural as the smell of dill.” The reaction in Russian literary circles to Red Cavalry—its vivid images of battle and the precision of its language—was no less clamorous than the American reaction to Hemingway’s first stories. In fact, after reading the first English translations of Babel in the late Twenties, Hemingway told Ilya Ehrenburg, “I find that Babel’s style is even more concise than mine. It shows what can be done. Even when you’ve got all the water out of them, you can still clot the curds a little more.”
To relieve the tension of writing, Pirozhkova tells us, Babel indulged, always, in merriment and the company of friends. Nothing made him happier than, say, visiting his friend and collaborator, the great filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein; using a magnifying glass, they would examine Eisenstein’s superior collection of Mexican fleas: the flea-bride dressed in a wedding gown with fleurs d’orange, the flea-groom dressed in a black suit with a white shirt front and a bow tie. Pirozhkova describes Babel as a man in love with simple experience: his talks with fishermen and the baker at his local bagel shop, his delight in the ironic idiom of Odessa, his constant storytelling. It was his habit, as it was in his art, to take incidents from his childhood and improve them: “I had been around Babel long enough to know that, for the sake of a piquant or funny story, he would never spare friends and relatives—or me, either.”
Babel enjoyed the reputation he had won for the Red Cavalry stories and he enjoyed nearly as much the material benefits it brought from the state: the car and driver, the special food packets, the villa in Peredelkino. But if interviewers from the newspapers and magazines came knocking on his door, he went looking for an exit. When Pirozhkova somehow freed him from a group of journalists one day, Babel was so grateful he said, “Go wash your feet, I’ll drink the bathwater.” When he was finally cornered by another reporter and asked his literary plans for the coming year, Babel thought a while and remarked, “I am seriously thinking of buying a goat.”
But for all his evident humor, Babel’s smile has long been as enigmatic as La Gioconda’s. For many years, we knew very little of what he was (or was not) writing in the Thirties; his politics seemed a muddle of outward compromise and private dissent. Every day brings another shelf-busting literary biography (six hundred pages on A.N. Wilson!) but there is still no book on Babel. For a change, a biography is desperately needed.
Babel was born in 1894 in the port city of Odessa on the Black Sea, a great center of Jewish learning and music and talent. Unlike the Hasidic and Orthodox shtetls and cities of western Ukraine and eastern Poland, Babel’s Odessa was a cosmopolitan place in which most Jews were steeped in secular, as well as Jewish, learning. It was a city not only of Jewish scholars but of Jewish merchants and, to Babel’s delight, Jewish gangsters. This did not mean that Babel’s people escaped anti-Semitism. Like the religious Jews to the north and west, Odessites had also been victim to pogroms in the late nineteenth century and, most vividly in Babel’s memory, in 1905.
As a boy, Babel studied Talmud and secular subjects, as well as Yiddish, Hebrew, and French. His singular failure was as a violinist; he left music to more talented contemporaries like Jascha Heifetz. Because of the tsar’s quota systems limiting Jewish enrollment in state universities, Babel failed to win a place at the University of Odessa and studied instead at the Kiev Institute of Financial and Business Studies from 1911 to 1915. He then moved to St. Petersburg, where he lived a semi-underground life. Jews were not permitted to live outside the Pale of Settlement without residency documents and so Babel had to sleep in basements and friends’ apartments to avoid the police. In 1916, when he was twenty, he published his first stories in Gorky’s literary journal, Letopis, and wrote for Gorky’s anti-Bolshevik paper, Novaya Zhizn’ (The New Life), which was eventually shut down by Lenin. Like most Jews, Babel initially welcomed the revolution he was witnessing; he assumed that the Bolsheviks would improve the lot of the Jews, who had been so severely brutalized by the tsars. And yet in his articles for The New Life, Babel was frequently critical of the Bolsheviks and wrote sharply about the casualties of the revolt.
After The New Life was shut down in July 1918, Gorky advised his protégé to dirty his hands with life, to go out into the provinces and accumulate a well of experience and impressions that would later serve his writing. Babel responded immediately. He served briefly in the army on the Romanian front, joined a grain-requisitioning expedition intended to stave off starvation in the cities along the Volga, and then, in 1920, he joined Budyonny’s pro-Bolshevik Cossack contingent as a journalist in the political—or, better, propaganda—section. His job was to write news dispatches for both ROSTA, the state news agency, and for Krasnii Kavalerist (The Red Cavalryman), the army’s daily newspaper.
The Polish-Soviet conflict was an extension of both the civil war, which was in its third year, and the hostilities between Russia and Poland, which had their roots in 1772, when Poland was divided among Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary. After World War I and the rise of an independent Poland, the nationalist government in Warsaw, led by Jozef Pilsudski, sought to extend its borders to the east into Ukraine and, not incidentally, to save mankind from communism; Lenin, who believed in widening the proletarian revolution into Europe, made western Ukraine and eastern Poland his first battleground with the hope of causing a general uprising in Poland and, eventually, Germany. Most Cossacks were well-to-do opponents of the Bolsheviks and rode with divisions of the White Army, but Budyonny, under the command of the political commissar on the southern front, Josef Stalin, was a committed Bolshevik.
The idea of a plump and bespectacled Jewish reporter riding with a Cossack unit was, in itself, a variety of Babelian merriment. The first time Babel had ever ridden a horse was the day he saddled up with the First Cavalry. It has not always been easy to know how to interpret this essential year in Babel’s life. He was clearly thrilled by the immediacy, the authenticity of the experience, and by the Cossacks themselves; in his diary, he calls his Cossack contingent “wild beasts with principles.” But with time he was generally overwhelmed by the mindlessness of their violence, with the battlefields “sown with mangled men, inhuman cruelty, unbelievable wounds, fractured skulls, naked young bodies gleaming white in the sun.” It did not take Babel long to recognize that while Budyonny himself was a committed Bolshevik, his men were not. Budyonny’s cavalrymen were, in the main, illiterate and cared nothing for Communist ideology and revolution. They raped, they pillaged, they murdered prisoners, and, above all, they stole. Even while Babel, in both his stories and his diary, thrilled to the savage spectacle of the Cossacks riding through Galicia, he began to judge them as amoral, brutal, and profoundly anti-Semitic. “Our army is out to line its pockets, this isn’t a revolution, it’s a rebellion of Cossack wild men.”
As a working reporter, Babel did not write much for either ROSTA or Red Cavalryman, and what he did write was little more than rote propaganda in praise of the revolution and fallen comrades. As Gorky had hoped, the job provided Babel with a view of the world in its rawest form. Babel clearly experienced the guilty pleasure of the reporter: a secret satisfaction in having witnessed the extremes in human behavior. Then he made use of it. As Carol Avins, the editor of Yale’s spectacular and learned edition of the diary,1 points out, Babel was obviously preparing himself to write the stories even as he rode across Galicia; he is constantly reminding himself to describe, convey, remember: “The main thing is to describe the Red Army men and the air.”
Just as Orwell returned from his experiments in war (Homage to Catalonia) and poverty (Down and Out in Paris and London) having learned lessons beyond the politics of the moment, Babel was using his work as a reporter and observer to prepare himself to write about cruelty and the problem of his own vexed identity. From well before the revolution, the region of western Ukraine and eastern Poland was the scene of some of the worst anti-Semitic violence in Europe. When Babel informed his parents that he was joining Budyonny’s Cossack cavalry, they told him the plan was suicidal.
Babel was not the only Jew in Budyonny’s contingent, but he was anxious enough to adopt a nom de guerre, Kirill Vasilievich Lyutov (the last name derives from the Russian word lyutii, or ferocious). The narrator in the Red Cavalry stories is also a bespectacled intellectual called Lyutov. As a soldier-reporter and, later, as a fictionalized narrator, Lyutov maintained a distance—“I am an outsider,” Babel told his diary—but he could also see and hear everything. He could mix, if uneasily, with the Cossacks; he could also listen to the Yiddish conversations of the Jews of Brody, Dubno, Zhitomir (the world of Sholem Aleichem’s stories).
Although Babel’s writing owes more to his great French model, De Maupassant, than to the Jewish texts he read as a child, the diary and the stories are more obsessed with the question of Jewish identity than any other work of literature of the Soviet period. Many of the Jews of the region initially welcomed Budyonny’s men because they had been so brutalized by the Poles. But they soon discovered that Budyonny’s men were no less willing to plunder synagogues, topple gravestones, and rape young Jewish women. “The synagogue caretaker accompanies me,” Babel wrote in his diary while in the town of Belyov. “I eat at Mudrik’s, same old story, the Jews have been plundered, their bewilderment, they expected the Soviet regime to liberate them, and suddenly there were shrieks, whips cracking, shouts of ‘dirty Yid.”‘ A month later: “The Jewish cemetery outside Malin, hundreds of years old…it has seen Khmelnitsky, now Budyonny…that whole story—Poles, Cossacks, Jews—is repeating itself with stunning exactitude, the only new element is communism.”
In his position as Bolshevik propagandist, Babel tells a Jewish family all about the “miraculous things” happening in Russia. But as the family listened, Babel informs his diary, he pitied them and all the while was thinking, “You’ll have your diamond-studded sky, everything and everyone will be turned upside down and inside out for the umpteenth time.” After a while, the strains of disenchantment with the revolution are unrestrained: “We are the vanguard, but of what? The population awaits their saviors, the Jews look for liberation—and in ride the Kuban Cossacks.”
Babel’s experience as a war reporter ended as the First Cavalry was forced to retreat from Poland. The Soviets and the Poles worked out a territorial treaty that would hold until the rise of Hitler. By the end of 1920, Babel had returned to Odessa, where he worked briefly in publishing, and then began living in the Caucasus with his wife, Yevgenia Gronfein, the daughter of a wealthy Odessa manufacturer who lost his fortune in the revolution. Between 1921 and 1925, Babel wrote and began publishing his four stories set in Odessa during the years of his childhood and the thirty-five stories that would comprise the series Red Cavalry.
When one compares the 1920 diary and the stories, it is obvious that Babel lifted names, incidents, and impressions out of reality and then began working them, transforming them, as a sculptor works his clay. “I have no imagination,” Babel told Paustovsky.
I’m very serious about this. I can’t invent. I have to know everything down to the last vein, otherwise I can’t write a thing. My motto is authenticity…. What I do is to get hold of some trifle, some little anecdote, a piece of market gossip, and turn it into something I cannot tear myself away from. It’s alive, it plays. It’s round like a pebble on the seashore. It’s held together by the fusion of separate parts, and this fusion is so strong that even lightning can’t split it.
Babel’s stories are miniatures, anecdotes, portraits, which invariably end with a terrifying or ironic turn in the narrative. Each story is a distinct piece in the phantasmagorical mosaic of war. A peasant writes home to his mother and describes, without emotion, how his brothers murdered their father. An officer of the secret police dreams of being reassigned to the warmth of Italy. The narrator, an intellectual Jew among Cossacks, has to win the respect of his comrades by stealing a goose from the locals and killing it; in the end, the narrator, the Jew, sleeps in a hayloft with six Cossack soldiers, “our legs tangled together, under the roof in which there were holes that let in the stars. I had dreams and saw women in my dreams, and only my heart, stained crimson with murder, squeaked and overflowed.” In another story he spends Shabat with a Hasidic family and then returns to the agit-train to write Communist propaganda.
Babel, and his stand-in narrator, is in constant conflict about his identity, never sure if he is brother to the Jews or to his comrades on horseback. In the first story in the series, “Crossing Into Poland,” the narrator is billeted with a Jewish family, and he berates them for their slovenliness.
“Clear this up,” I said to the woman. “What a filthy way to live!” The two Jews rose from their places and, hopping on their felt soles, cleared the mess from the floor. They skipped about noiselessly, monkey-fashion, like Japs in a circus act, their necks swelling and twisting.
By the end of the series, the narrator has come to regard these modest and mainly religious Jews—so different from the cosmopolitan Jews of Odessa, “like Japs in a circus act”—not only with sympathy, but with an unguarded love. In one of the last stories, “The Rebbe’s Son,” the narrator encounters Elijah, the son of the Rabbi of Zhitomir, an important center of the Hasidic movement. Elijah has become a Bolshevik soldier: wasted, near death.
His things were strewn about pell-mell—mandates of the propagandist and notebooks of the Jewish poet, the portraits of Lenin and Maimonides lay side by side, the knotted iron of Lenin’s skull beside the dull silk of the portraits of Maimonides. A lock of woman’s hair lay in a book, the Resolutions of the Party’s Sixth Congress, and the margins of Communist leaflets were crowded with crooked lines of ancient Hebrew verse. They fell upon me in a mean and depressing rain—pages of the Song of Songs and revolver cartridges…. He died before we reached Rovno. He—the last of the Princes—died among his poetry, phylacteries, and coarse foot-wrappings. We buried him at some forgotten station. And I, who can scarce contain the tempests of my imagination within this age-old body of mine, I was there beside my brother when he breathed his last.
Just as he was finishing Red Cavalry, in 1925, Babel’s first wife, Yevgenia Gronfein, left him and left Russia. Much of the reason for emigrating to Belgium, she said, was that she was suffocating as an artist under the new regime; but she was also deeply distressed that her husband had taken up with another woman, a beautiful actress. And while there were other mistresses, too, Babel was, at least from a distance, devoted to Gronfein. He visited her in Brussels at least three times; the product of one of those visits was a daughter, Nathalie, who has for many years lived near Washington. Nathalie Babel has written as wisely as any critic about her father. In the introduction to the letters she has collected in The Lonely Years, 2 she betrays the curiosity not only of a daughter but of a biographer.
“I grew up wishing that someday, somewhere, a door would open and my father would come in,” she writes. “We would recognize each other immediately and without seeming surprised, without letting him catch his breath, I would say: ‘Well, here you are at last. We’ve been puzzled about you for so long. You left behind much love and devotion, but very few facts. It’s so good to have you here. Do sit down and tell us everything.”‘
Babel, she continues, was a man
of bewildering contradictions who enjoyed mystifying others and sometimes deluded himself. Whether as a conscious strategy or not, Babel wrapped himself in enigmatic ambiguities, which has led to confusion, errors, and gross discrepancies even in the records and studies that attempt to be factual. Babel has been successful at eluding definition or categorization and becoming a sort of mythical figure, world famous yet still unknown. Was he a good Jew or a bad Jew? Was he a Communist at heart or simply a radical democrat? Did he have some personal sympathy for Stalin as a kind of fascinating monster, or was he overcome by an ultimately fatal artistic curiosity? Are his writings autobiographical or not? Was he a good husband, father, lover?
Nathalie Babel’s questions are the right ones, and they have puzzled Babel’s admirers and critics for years. In a justly celebrated appreciation of Babel published in 1955, Lionel Trilling wrote wisely about the stories but made a series of errant speculations based heavily on a two-page autobiographical sketch which Babel wrote in 1924 for an almanac of Soviet authors. The sketch, alas, turned out to be, in large measure, fiction. Trilling, for example, made much of the “fact” that Babel’s father was a struggling shopkeeper, when actually he had been a middle-class merchant. It is also highly unlikely that Babel’s father had to kneel in supplication before a Cossack marauder like the father in “The Story of My Dovecot,” as Trilling suggested; the pogroms of 1905 probably did not hit the family directly. Babel also wrote that he served briefly in the Cheka—the forerunner to the NKVD and the KGB—and that, too, was evidently a ruse. Part of the problem was Babel’s sheer delight in mixing fact and fiction; he also clearly wanted to ascribe to himself certain biographical details—modesty, faithful service to the regime—that would be more convenient in the age of Stalin.
As his daughter makes clear, Babel’s life does not make a story of easy heroism. The documents we do have—the letters, the various memoirs, his speeches at writers’ conferences—show him to be a man of extraordinary dedication to craft and a personality of immense appeal, but at times he also trims, he fools himself, or seems to. He not only paid ritual obeisance to Stalin, he also became friends with the head of the secret police, Genrikh Yagoda, and his wife, Yevgenia. (It was rumored that Babel even had an affair with Yevgenia Yagoda, whom he had known in Odessa.) Not long before Yagoda was replaced by Beria and done away with, Babel asked him, “So, how should a person behave if he finds himself in your hands?” Yagoda replied, “Deny everything. No matter what accusations we might make, he should keep saying, ‘No’ to everything.” To strike up such a friendship—and Babel seems to have gone out of his way to do so—seems an act of extraordinary self-destructiveness, a moth dive-bombing toward the flame. According to Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs, Osip Mandelstam once asked Babel why he was drawn to a man like Yagoda; did he want to put his fingers on “the distributor where death was issued?”
“No,” Babel said, “I won’t touch it with my fingers, but just take a sniff to find out what it smells like.”
Babel was not at all ignorant of the extreme interest the regime took in its writers. In 1928, Budyonny published an open letter in a military newspaper denouncing Babel: “He invents things that never happened, slings dirt at our best Communist commanders, lets his imagination run wild, simply lies,” he wrote.
The subject matter of Babel’s stories is distorted by the impressions of an erotomanic author. His topics range from the ravings of a mad Jew to the lootings of a Catholic church, to the thrashing the cavalrymen give to their own foot soldiers, to the portrayal of a syphilitic Red Army man and end with a display of the author’s scientific curiosity, when he wishes to see what a Jewish woman raped by about ten Makhno men looks like.
Babel, Budyonny said, stayed far from the fighting in the “deep rear” and his stories are “permeated by a petty-bourgeois outlook.” Budyonny, who had enjoyed close relations with Stalin since their days together during the civil war, could not have done Babel much good with this letter. A file was building.
Gorky, whose own career was marked by incidents of accommodation and willed blindness, at least showed courage defending Babel against Budyonny. “Our writers live in a moment of transition,” Gorky wrote to Budyonny, “… in which there are at least 20,000,000 individual owners and only 2,000,000 Marxists, of whom almost half mouth Marxist precepts about as intelligently as parrots repeat human words.”
Just as his stories are filled with ambiguities and uncertain actions, Babel’s own behavior as a public actor was neither completely toadying nor purely heroic. In August 1934 Babel delivered a speech at the first Soviet Writers’ Congress, which was reprinted in Pravda. Ostensibly, the speech is of a piece with so many speeches published in Pravda at the time; in fact, it is an immensely complicated performance, part ritual tribute to Stalin and the regime, part Aesopian critique of “triteness” and “vulgarity.” Babel attacked
that individual with his government-issued eyes [who] becomes even more frightening when he feels he has to tell people about his love. Love is spoken of in unbearably loud tones in our land nowadays and if I were a woman, I’d be terror-stricken….
I am joking, but the serious aspect of it is that, in our profession, it is our duty to help the triumph of the new Bolshevik taste in this country. That will be a political achievement of the first magnitude, because it is our luck that it is impossible for us to have an unpolitical achievement.
Babel switches back and forth between euphemism and truth, and always he undermines himself, protects himself, with humor. Babel could only guess at the consequences of his slightly subversive jokes about “government-issued eyes” and “our luck.” Then he goes on to say:
Now, speaking of silence, I cannot avoid talking about myself, the past master of that art. I must admit that if I lived in a capitalist country, I would have long since croaked from starvation and no one would have cared whether, as Ehrenburg puts it, I was a rabbit or a she-elephant. My capitalist publisher would have forced me to be a rabbit and as such he would have forced me to leap around, and if I hadn’t leapt, he would have forced me to become a grocer’s assistant.
But in our country people take into consideration whether you are a rabbit or a she-elephant. They don’t push you in the belly if you have something inside there and they don’t insist too much on whether the baby will be a redhead, just light brown, or very dark, on what sort of things he’ll have to say.
I am not happy about my silence. Indeed, it saddens me. But perhaps this is one more proof of the attitude toward the writer in this country.
I think that, as Gorky said yesterday, Sobolev’s words, “We have everything” should be written on our flag. The Party and the government have given us everything, depriving us only of one privilege—that of writing badly.
This was self-protective cant. By 1935, the year after the speech, Babel was experiencing hints of his fate. His play about the impoverished family of a White Guard officer in St. Petersburg just after the revolution, Mariya, was denounced and withdrawn from two theaters; his collaboration with Eisenstein on a film version of Turgenev’s story “Bezhin Meadow” was denounced so fervently that Eisenstein was forced to renounce his own project. At around the same time, Babel wrote to his mother that while his life was not hard “compared with millions of people’s”—he did, after all, enjoy the material privileges of a seemingly celebrated writer—it was a life filled with “uncertainty,” both artistically and personally. He hints to her that he is not sure what to do, where to live, how to act, and is reluctant “to drag anyone along behind me.”
Nevertheless, Babel made Antonina Pirozhkova, a talented transport engineer who had helped build the Moscow subway system, his second wife. He also resisted the temptation to emigrate. As a privileged writer who traveled abroad many times, Babel had had every opportunity to leave. He was determined to see life through to the end in Russia despite his keen understanding of the literary situation in his own country. He “was convinced that a writer mutilates himself and his work by leaving his native country,” Nathalie Babel writes. “He always refused to emigrate; on top of which, his sense of honor and love of the limelight demanded that he stay among his own people…. What in so many people would have produced only fear and terror awakened in him a sense of duty and a kind of heroic fatalism.”
While Babel may not have absorbed the fact that arrest would lead, almost inevitably, to torture and execution, he was well aware of the effect arrest would have on what mattered to him most—his work. In Paris, Boris Souvarine had once asked him, “So you think there are valuable literary works in your country that cannot be published because of political conditions?”
“Yes,” said Babel. “They’re in the GPU.”
“How do you mean?”
“Whenever an educated person is arrested and finds himself in a prison cell, he is given a pencil and a piece of paper. ‘Write!’ they tell him.”
Although we are without a credible biography of Babel, two documents—available for a few years in Russia and now published in fine English-language editions—have shed a powerful light on his activity in the late Thirties and his interrogations and death in Lubyanka. Pirozhkova’s memoir provides a spare picture of Babel in his last years—the years of “silence” in which he worked feverishly at stories and at a range of other projects, especially film scripts. Vitaly Shentalinsky’s Arrested Voices is a narrative constructed out of hundreds of KGB documents made available under glasnost.3 His book, which first began to appear as articles in the weekly magazine Ogonyok during the Gorbachev era, provides especially rich material on the cases of Mikhail Bulgakov, Osip Mandelstam, Andrei Platonov, Pavel Florensky, and, most vividly, Babel. Shentalinsky’s style is sometimes overheated, and he has the unfortunate need to work up novelistic scenes from the documents when mere quotation would have been more than enough. Still, his achievement as an archivist is considerable, and in Arrested Voices we can hear the agony of Babel in his last months inside the Lubyanka.
The denunciations of Babel’s rather dull play, Mariya, and the film with Eisenstein, as well as the arrival of socialist realism as a doctrine of Soviet art, appear to have been more than enough evidence to convince him not to publish. But it is clear that Babel never stopped traveling and seeking out new experience, all to feed his fiction. Just as he joined with Budyonny in order to gather the material necessary for Red Cavalry, he traveled beyond Odessa and Moscow to look into the lives of various people following the great ruptures of the revolution and the civil war. Pirozhkova recounts Babel’s adventures in meeting with provincial party leaders and his prolonged stay on a stud farm. The horses fared rather better than the party leaders, who were almost invariably caught up in the purges.
Babel was arrested on May 15, 1939. The secret police officers came first to his apartment in Moscow, and when they discovered he was not in the city, they found him in his villa in Peredelkino, a half hour’s drive away. Babel and Antonina sat together on a bed holding hands and watched as the officers ransacked the house looking for manuscripts, notes, and other papers.
“Ne dali konchit,” Babel whispered to his wife. “They didn’t let me finish.” Then he said, “Let André know,” meaning their close friend Malraux. (One of the crimes Stalin’s men would charge Babel with was accepting an offer from Malraux to spy against the Soviet Union for the French.)
By the end of the search, the officers had confiscated an enormous cache for a writer known for his silence: 15 folders of manuscripts, 18 notebooks and pads, 517 letters, various postcards and telegrams, and 245 other loose sheets of papers. (They also took his keys, his toothpaste, shaving cream, garters, bath sponge, and “the thong from an old pair of sandals.”) We learn from Shentalinsky’s book that Babel’s manuscripts included a nearly completed collection to be called New Stories; a novella called Kolya Topuz about an Odessa gangster who tries to adapt to Soviet-era collectivization; essays about collective farm life in Ukraine; translations Babel had done of Sholem Aleichem’s stories from Yiddish into Russian; a completed screenplay; and a half-finished play. Babel felt the loss of these manuscripts acutely and made several attempts to get them back, to “put them in order,” as he told the NKVD. In jail, he would try to cut a kind of literary bargain, promising to begin an exculpatory novel:
I also beg you for authorization to sketch out the plan of a novel describing the path—which in many ways is typical—that led me to my downfall and to crimes against the Socialist state. This book shines in my head with a painful and merciless light. I feel the ache of inspiration and of my returning strength. I am burning with a desire to work, to atone, to denounce this life which I have spent in such incorrect and criminal fashion.
The jailers, of course, did not believe Babel any more than Babel believed himself: they refused all his entreaties. The confiscated manuscripts have never been found in any archive, and Shentalinsky assumes they were destroyed. It is not hard to imagine that the furnace at Lubyanka consumed, at the very least, a collection of stories as great as Red Cavalry. One of the few manuscripts that did survive the arrest was the 1920 diary. (According to Avins, friends of Babel’s in Kiev passed along the manuscript to Pirozhkova, who eventually got it published in Russia. Pirozhkova believes that Babel left the papers with his friends in Kiev in the mid-Twenties when he closed down his in-laws’ house there.)
When the officers finished their search, they packed Babel into their car. Pirozhkova was allowed to ride along as far as the Lubyanka. After Babel had given his instructions (“I ask you to see that the child will not be humiliated”), the couple exchanged their vows of love. Then they parted at the gates to oblivion.
According to Shentalinsky’s account, Babel was taken to a cell in the jail located in the Lubyanka courtyard, a six-story building with small barred windows that is hidden from the traffic outside. (Sometime later Babel was transferred to the no less notorious Butyrki prison in Moscow.)
Babel’s first interrogation was conducted over three days, from May 29 to May 31, by two officers of the secret police, Schwartzmann and Kuleshov. The questioning began deliberately, but in true Kafkaesque style. All guilt is assumed, all knowledge withheld:
Q: You have been arrested for treacherous anti-Soviet activities. Do you acknowledge your guilt?
A: No, I do not.
Q: How can you reconcile that declaration of innocence with the fact of your arrest?
A: I consider my arrest the result of a fateful coincidence and of my own inability to write. During the last few years I have not published a single major work and this might be considered sabotage and an unwillingness to write under Soviet conditions.
Q: You wish to say that you have been arrested as a writer? Does that not strike you as an excessively naïve explanation for your arrest?
A: You are right, of course. Authors are not arrested because they can no longer write.
Q: So what is the real reason for your arrest?
A: I often went abroad and have been friendly with leading Trotskyists…
Q: Please explain why you, a Soviet writer, found yourself attracted to enemies of the country you were representing abroad. You will have to confess your criminal, treacherous activities…. Do not wait until we force you! Begin your confession.
Stalin’s purges required the formalities of arrest, charges, confessions, trials—the apparatus of seeming legality. Just as Babel is clearly trying to guess at the appropriate answers, the interrogators are trying to make clear the futility of his cleverness. What is not stated in the archival record, of course, is the most obvious factor: the NKVD was prepared to use any means necessary to extract confessions. Babel’s friend, the theater producer Vsevolod Meyerhold, was also interrogated by Schwartzman (and subsequently tortured and shot). Meyerhold provided a glimpse at the procedures at the Lubyanka when he wrote a personal letter to Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov:
…The investigators began to use force on me, a sick, 65-year-old man. I was made to lie face down and then beaten on the soles of my feet and my spine with a rubber strap. They sat me on a chair and beat my feet from above, with considerable force…. For the next few days, when those parts of my legs were covered with extensive internal haemorrhaging, they again beat the red-blue-and-yellow bruises with the strap and the pain was so intense that it felt as if boiling hot water was being poured on these sensitive areas. I howled and wept from the pain. They beat my back with the same rubber strap and punched my face, swinging their fists from a great height…. My nerve endings, it turned out, were very close to the surface of my body and the skin proved as sensitive and soft as a child’s. The intolerable physical and emotional pain caused my eyes to weep unending streams of tears. Lying face down on the floor, I discovered that I would wriggle, twist and squeal like a dog when its master whips it. One time my body was shaking so uncontrollably that the guard escorting me back from such an interrogation asked: “Have you got malaria?” …Fright arouses terror, and terror forces us to find some means of self-defence. “Death, oh most certainly, death is easier than this!” the interrogated person says to himself. I began to incriminate myself in the hope that this, at least, would lead quickly to the scaffold.
When one reads Babel’s later interrogations, as he begins to admit to absurd crimes and denounce himself and beg for a chance to redeem himself, one does not have to stretch the imagination to assume that Babel had been tortured no less than Meyerhold had been. One of the pictures Shentalinsky found in the files is of Babel without his glasses, his face puffy and bruised. Babel was a proud writer, well aware of his virtues, but here he is, broken by the agents of the secret police, “confessing,” of all things, to the failure of his great stories:
Red Cavalry was only an excuse for me to express my appalling mood and had nothing to do with what was happening in the Soviet Union. Hence the emphasis on all the cruelty and absurdities of the Civil War, the artificial introduction of an erotic element and the depiction of only the most outrageous and sensational episodes. Hence the complete failure to describe the role of the Party in pulling together the then still insufficiently proletarian-minded Cossacks to form regular forces and constitute the impressive unit of the Red Army that the First Cavalry army became.
As far as my Odessa Stories are concerned, they indubitably reflect the same desire to retreat from Soviet reality and set against the daily tasks of construction the colourful, semi-mythical world of Odessa’s gangsters. Their romantic depiction was an unconscious appeal to Soviet people to imitate them….
There is very little, after a while, that a man will not say to preserve himself from the knout. Babel began to admit to all sorts of nonsense. He told his interrogators that in his role as a French spy he turned over to Malraux secret information about Soviet collective farms and the police. He told of “subversive” conversations with other artists. They had, he said, “interpreted Mayakovsky’s suicide as the poet’s conclusion that it was impossible to work under Soviet conditions.” He and his friends also defended Shostakovich and Eisenstein as geniuses faced with a cruel and philistine regime. Most humiliating of all, Babel testified to the perfidy of his friends Eisenstein, Mikhoels, Yuri Olesha, and others. He named names. Finally, Babel signed testimony saying that a mistress of his had told him of a plot to assassinate Stalin and Klim Voroshilov, the People’s Commissar for Defense. In the letter to Molotov, Meyerhold described the phenomenon of being told, “If you won’t write (invent, in other words?!) then we shall beat you again, leaving your head and your right arm untouched but reducing the rest to a hacked, bleeding, and shapeless body.”
In the coming weeks, Babel tried to extricate himself from his position both morally (by declaring his testimony about his friends to be forced and untrue) and physically (by asking for the time to redeem himself as a writer). On September 11, 1939, Babel sent Beria a letter that even now is excruciating to read:
The Revolution opened the path of creation for me, the path of useful and happy labor. My individualism, false literary opinions, and the Trotskyist influences I fell under from the earliest days of my work turned me away from this path. With every passing year my writings became a bit more useless and hostile to Soviet readers. But I thought I was right, and they were wrong. This lethal separation dried up the very source of my creativity. My attempts to free myself from the hold of that blind and egotistical narrowmindedness proved pitiful and vain. My liberation came while I was in prison. During these months of incarceration, I have perhaps understood more things than in my entire previous life. I’ve seen with horrible clarity the mistakes and crimes I’ve committed….
In November, Babel at least twice insisted on correcting his previous statements, not to save himself but rather to protect his friends. He said that any and all statements implicating Mikhoels, Eisenstein, Olesha, and the rest were “incorrect and invented.”
Babel’s trial took place on January 26, 1940, in one of Beria’s offices. It lasted twenty minutes. Babel was convicted of “active participation in an anti-Soviet Trotskyite organization” and of “being a member of a terrorist conspiracy, as well as spying for the French and the Austrian governments.” His last words were: “I am innocent. I have never been a spy. I never allowed any action against the Soviet Union. I accused myself falsely. I was forced to make false accusations against myself and others…. I am asking for only one thing—let me finish my work….” Babel was shot at one-thirty the next morning.
Antonina Pirozhkova did not learn her husband was dead until 1954, fourteen years after the fact. For years, she would go begging for information and receive elliptical, but promising, replies. Always, there was hope held out to her that Babel was in the gulag system somewhere—in Siberia, in Kolyma, somewhere—and that he would return. In 1947, for instance, she received a telegram from the state saying that Babel was “alive and well” in the camps and would come home in 1948. She made preparations for his homecoming. The years went by. In the meantime, the Kremlin made Pirozhkova’s daily life even more excruciating by installing an officer of the secret police in one of the rooms of her communal apartment.
Babel’s books were withdrawn from libraries. Many of his friends—those who were themselves not in prison or in the camps or dead—drifted away from Antonina. Almost alone, Ilya Ehrenburg, that enigmatic figure, remained a close and visible friend to her. Finally, in 1954, the year after Stalin’s death, Pirozhkova got the news: the date of death, though not the means. She was also provided that signature gesture of the Soviet regime: her husband was pronounced rehabilitated. Pirozhkova carried out her survivor’s duties to the end. After having supervised the publication of the 1920 diary, her own memoir, and a definitive two-volume set of Babel’s collected works, she and her daughter by Babel, Lida, emigrated in 1996 to the United States. They now live in Maryland with Babel’s grandson, Andrei Malaev-Babel.
The KGB files reveal that after Babel was executed, the corpse was cremated at the Donskoi monastery in Moscow. Shentalinsky tells us the ashes are probably in Common Grave Number One, which has been marked, since August 1991, with a small plaque reading, “Here lie buried the remains of the innocent tortured and executed victims of the political repressions. May they never be forgotten!”
I began by saying that merriment was dear to Babel, that he had the gift of masking the cruelty he had witnessed and the cruelties he knew were coming with a sense of comedy and fatalism—a classic pose of Jewish humor. That was true even in his last moment with Pirozhkova. As they were being driven to the Lubyanka, Babel turned to one of the officers of the secret police and said, “You don’t get much sleep, do you?”
April 10, 1997
Isaac Babel, The Lonely Years: 1925- 1939: Unpublished Stories and Private Correspondence, edited with a new introduction by Nathalie Babel (first published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964; reissued by Verba Mundi/David Godine, 1995.) ↩