Like so many men who made their mark on the twentieth century, Isaac Babel began as a Jewish revolutionary; like so many of them, too, he died disillusioned and by violence. But in the process he had become one of the century’s most remarkable writers. He became famous in Russia as a writer before his death in 1940 at the hands of an OGPU firing squad; then he became a nonperson, until he was partially rehabilitated in 1954. By that time too his name as a writer of brilliant short stories had become known in the West. The collection Konarmiya, “Horse Army” literally, and translated as Red Cavalry, which described in graphic detail the abortive Soviet campaign against Poland in 1920, showed that he had been an eyewitness and a sensational reporter of war experiences, but his true stature and importance, for a long while accepted and widely acclaimed in Russia, only now becomes apparent in the English-speaking world with the translation and publication of his complete works.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the years of his first success, Babel had been one of the privileged children of the new revolutionary intelligentsia. Unlike his fellow citizens, he was allowed to travel; his wife settled in Paris in 1925, where his daughter was born in 1929 and where he visited them, for the last time, in 1935. He felt a compulsion to return to Moscow. In her preface to his Complete Works, his daughter, Nathalie Babel, writes that the demands and instructions of the state had completely disillusioned him. To write within the frame of the barracks mentality of Soviet ideology was intolerable for him, yet he didn’t see how he could manage to live otherwise. Babel was fully aware of his predicament:
I have a family: a wife and daughter. I love them and have to provide for them. Under no circumstances do I want them to return to Sovietland…. But what about myself? Should I stay here and become a taxi driver…?…Should I return to our proletarian revolution? Revolution indeed! It’s disappeared!
To his friend the critic Yuri Annenkov he uttered these dangerous sentiments in a confidential chat while they were in Paris together in 1932, and he concluded by saying: “Here a taxi driver has more freedom than the rector of a Soviet university.”
Until the mid-Thirties Babel had a powerful political protector in the celebrated older author Maxim Gorky, who had encouraged him, and who published his early efforts in his own magazine, Letopis. With Gorky’s death in 1936 Babel became particularly vulnerable, and the date coincided with the beginning of the great purges. As a Jew and an intellectual who had traveled abroad Babel would in any case have been at risk; but what seems to have sealed his fate were his sometimes unflattering references in the Red Cavalry stories to three men—Semyon Konstantinovich Timoshenko, Semyon Budyonny, and Kliment Yefremovich Voroshilov—all of whom had become top men in the Red Army, while the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.