A photograph of Isaac Babel taken by the NKVD after his arrest, circa 1939

On January 17, 1940, Stalin approved the sentences of 346 prominent people, including the dramaturge Vsevolod Meyerhold, the former NKVD (secret police) chief Nikolai Yezhov, and the writer Isaac Babel. All were shot. Babel had been arrested on May 15, 1939, in the middle of the night, and, the story goes, he remarked to an NKVD officer: “So, I guess you don’t get much sleep, do you?”

Grim wit was Babel’s trademark. He is best known for a cycle of short stories entitled Red Cavalry, a fictionalized account of his experiences as a Bolshevik war correspondent with a Cossack regiment during the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1920. Lionel Trilling, who introduced Babel to the English-speaking world, recognized these stories as the masterpiece of Soviet literature.1 Some of Babel’s other stories, especially his Odessa tales, also impressed Trilling and have remained favorites. They offer a tragicomic portrait of Odessa’s large Jewish community, with its rabbis, sensitive schoolboys, and, improbably, a Jewish gangster whose adventures combine epic heroism with a trickster’s ingenuity.

How did a young man “with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart,” as he describes himself in one story, wind up in a regiment of Cossacks, known for their extreme brutality, violent masculinity, and hatred of Jews? Born into a middle-class Jewish family in 1894, Babel, who received a traditional Jewish education, was steeped in the polyglot, multicultural communities of Odessa, where he acquired fluency in Hebrew, Yiddish, and French, as well as Russian. In one story, he describes how Odessa Jews were obsessed with turning their sons into great violinists, like Mischa Elman or Jascha Heifetz; but Babel, who concealed copies of Turgenev on his music stand, preferred the traditional Russian view of literature as the most important thing in the world.

Influenced by Maupassant, he wrote his first stories in French, but as he recalls in his autobiographical tale “My First Honorarium,” he was inhibited by his belief that “it was pointless to write worse than Lev Tolstoy.” With Tolstoy, he told an interviewer, “the electric charge went from the earth, through the hands, straight to the paper, with no insulation, quite mercilessly stripping off any and all outer layers with a sense of truth…both transparent and beautiful.” But it was not Tolstoy’s incomparable realism and transparent style that Babel would cultivate. It was his ability to strip away all life’s accidents and reveal its “essence.”

In his tale “Childhood. At Grandmother’s,” the young Babel learns to see everything around him—streets, shop windows, stones—“in a special way…and I was quite certain that I could see in them what was most important, mysterious, what we grown-ups call the essence of things.” He discovered in his grandfather a man who “was ruled by an inextinguishable search for knowledge and for life.” His grandmother told him not to trust anyone, but to acquire all human knowledge: “You must know everything,” she demanded, and with these words she shaped “my destiny, and her solemn covenant presses firmly—and forevermore—upon my weak little shoulders.” That destiny, as he conceived it, was to become “the [Russian] literary Messiah, awaited in vain for so long.”

To see into the essence of things requires experience. In one autobiographical tale, a proofreader rebukes Babel for not knowing the natural world: “And you dare to write! A person who doesn’t live in nature, as a stone or an animal lives in nature, will never write two worthwhile lines in his entire life.” But it was human beings, in all their beauty and loathsomeness, he most wanted to know. In 1915, he moved to St. Petersburg and wrote some stories that impressed Maxim Gorky, who published Babel’s work in his newspaper New Life, until the Bolsheviks shut it down. As Babel recalled, Gorky advised him to go into the world and acquire real experience. Over the next few years, Babel served as a soldier on the Romanian front and may even have worked for the nascent Cheka (secret police) before becoming a war correspondent.

There could hardly have been a more grotesque pairing than a sensitive Jewish intellectual with a brutal Cossack regiment. For Trilling, this contrast constitutes the central theme of Red Cavalry, and it is certainly important. But something else is going on. The author approaches the world as an anthropologist, a disinterested spectator recording the odd customs of Cossacks, Jews, Poles, priests, Hasidic rebbes, camp whores, and every sort of perpetrator or victim of extreme violence. Observing his own reactions as if they were someone else’s, or placing himself in dangerous situations in order to monitor his own emotions, he treats himself as just another specimen of the human condition. In his story “My First Goose,” he wonders at his own taste for violence and its intimate link with sexuality. He has to know everything.


But what is the morality of looking at human suffering from outside, as a scientist examines specimens? That, too, is a theme of these stories and of Babel’s work in general. In her memoir Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam describes Babel as a risk-taker, willing to do anything, however dangerous or morally questionable, to learn about unexpected situations and strange people. Babel listened with more intensity than anyone she had ever met, while everything about him “gave an impression of all-consuming curiosity—the way he held his head, his mouth, his chin, and particularly his eyes…. Babel’s main driving force was the unbridled curiosity with which he scrutinized life and people.”

Babel even seemed to enjoy risk itself. During the great purges, he had an affair with the NKVD chief Yezhov’s wife. Instead of living in apartment buildings for writers, he chose a house where foreigners stayed. “Who in his right mind would have lived in the same house as foreigners?” Mandelstam asked, since any contact with foreigners was a likely death sentence. She also reports that Babel spent a lot of time with “militiamen,” a euphemism for NKVD agents. Mandelstam’s husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, asked Babel why he was so drawn to such company: “Was it a desire to see what it was like in the exclusive store where the merchandise was death?” Babel replied: “I just like to have a whiff and see what it smells like.”

One might suppose that Yezhov had Babel arrested for sleeping with his wife, but in fact he was arrested after Yezhov fell, apparently because it was routine to incarcerate anyone associated with an enemy of the people. Under interrogation, which almost always involved torture, Babel implicated other cultural figures—not as spies, but for the views they actually held, which no one but a totalitarian would find objectionable. Sergei Eisenstein, according to Babel, had remarked that under current conditions gifted individuals could not fully realize their talents, while the writer Ilya Ehrenburg complained that “the continuing wave of arrests forced all Soviet citizens to break off any relations with foreigners.” As was not uncommon, Babel’s confession was bloodstained.

The narrator of Red Cavalry—the war correspondent Vasily Lyutov, the pseudonym Babel himself had used among the Cossacks—observes everyone anthropologically, even his fellow Jews, as if they were a strange tribe. In the opening story, “Crossing the Zbruch,” he is quartered with a poor Jewish family, consisting of a pregnant woman, a man with a covered head asleep against the wall, and two “scraggy necked Jews” who hop about “monkey-fashion.” As if he were disgusted by contact with Jews, Lyutov describes finding in the room assigned to him “turned-out wardrobes…scraps of women’s fur coats on the floor, human excrement, and shards of the hidden dishware Jews use once a year—at Easter.”

These Jews take their revenge on him for his imperious treatment of them. He discovers to his horror that the man with the covered head, next to whom he has been sleeping, is a corpse with a cut throat. The woman explains that her father begged the Poles to kill him outside, so his daughter wouldn’t see him die, “‘but they did as they saw fit. He met his end in this room and was thinking of me. And now I should wish to know,’ said the woman with sudden and terrible violence, ‘I wish to know where in the whole world you could find another father like my father?’”

Red Cavalry draws on a diary Babel kept in which he expresses horror at the violence committed by Reds, Poles, and partisans alike.2 Everyone kills Jews, and he asks himself, “Can it be that ours is the century in which they perish?” Like Lyutov, the war correspondent in the stories, Babel clings to a belief in revolution as more than senseless killing, but encounters everywhere “the ineradicable cruelty of human beings.” Several stories are narrations by Bolshevik soldiers who nonchalantly describe their hideous, needless brutality as a fight against “treason” and “counter-revolution.” Babel entertains the thought that “this isn’t a Marxist revolution, it’s a Cossack rebellion,” which at least leaves open the possibility that a true Marxist revolution is taking place elsewhere, but he soon surrenders even this consolation. “Our way of bringing freedom—horrible.” The Bolshevik soldiers resemble their enemies. “The hatred is the same, the Cossacks just the same, the cruelty the same, it’s nonsense to think one army is different from another…. There’s no salvation.”

In one story, Lyutov encounters an old Jew, Gedali, who questions whether paradise can be achieved by random killing and a war on religion. “The Revolution—we will say yes to it, but are we to say no to the Sabbath?” asks Gedali. Poles beat Jews and the Revolution beats Poles, which makes sense, but then why does the Revolution practice violence on Jews as well? The narrator, pretending to be an unshakable Bolshevik, replies that the revolution “cannot do without shooting,…because she is the Revolution.” If so, Gedali asks, how is one to tell revolution from counterrevolution? “I want an International of kind people,” Gedali declares, “I would like every soul to be registered and given first-category rations. There, soul, please eat and enjoy life’s pleasures.” As the story closes, “Gedali, founder of an impossible International, has gone to the synagogue to pray.”


Sovphoto/UIG/Getty Images

Isaac Babel with his son Mikhail, 1927

The cycle’s core story, “The Life and Adventures of Matthew Pavlichenko,” questions the anthropological impulse itself. What is the morality of treating living people experimentally, whether to understand human nature, as the narrator wishes, or to test sociological theories, as suggested by the phrase “the Soviet experiment”? Babel based the tale not only on a real officer, Apanasenko, described in his diary as especially brutal, but also on his own impulse to take brutality as a key to human nature. “Must penetrate the soul of the fighting man, I’m penetrating, it’s all horrible, wild beasts with principles,” he notes in the diary.

The fictional Pavlichenko, who narrates the story, practices cruelty not only out of revenge or revolutionary principle but, like Babel himself, out of a desire to “penetrate the soul.” Before the Revolution, Pavlichenko’s master, Nikitinsky, exploited him and slept with his wife, but now the tables are turned. As a Red general, Pavlichenko returns to the estate, terrifies Nikitinsky, and claims to be delivering a letter written by Lenin to Nikitinsky personally. I took out a blank page, Pavlichenko explains, and pretended to read, “though I can’t read to save my life. ‘In the name of the people and the establishment of a bright future, I order Pavlichenko, Matvei Rodionych, to deprive certain people of life according to his discretion…. That’s Lenin’s letter for you.’”

Since this is apparently a revenge story, we expect Pavlichenko to shoot his former master, but learn that the general has more on his mind than settling scores. Like Babel, he regards himself as a sort of social scientist who, with disinterested curiosity, seeks to learn the essential truth about life. In the most chilling passage of Red Cavalry, Pavlichenko, groping for words, experiments on his victim. Instead of shooting him,

I trampled my master Nikitinsky. I trampled on him for an hour or more than an hour, and in that time I got to know life in full. Shooting—I’ll put it this way—only gets rid of a person,…shooting won’t get at the soul, to where it is in a person and how it shows itself. But, some of the times, I don’t spare myself, some of the times, I trample an enemy for more than an hour, seeing as I wish to get to know life, this life we live.

Time and again, Pavlichenko does not spare himself. The quest for knowledge demands no less.

Untold horror results when knowledge is more important than people, and still more when one imagines that life’s essence is to be found in extreme situations. Babel here enters a debate running through Russian literature about whether true life resides in extreme situations, as Dostoevsky’s characters tend to assume, or in the most ordinary ones, as Tolstoy and Chekhov believed. Babel and Lyutov are drawn to extremes, but repeatedly discover the value of the ordinary.

In “The Death of Dolgushov,” Lyutov’s coachman Grishchuk, seeing people torn apart, asks: “Why do women bother?… What’s the point of matchmaking and marriages and kin dancing at weddings” and all that effort to raise children? “Makes me laugh…why women bother.” What women do every day, that’s what matters, and what violent men—those “wild beasts with principles”—do destroys the results of all their prosaic work. Lyutov and Grishchuk encounter an injured soldier with his insides hanging out and his heartbeats visible, who begs Lyutov to shoot him so the Poles won’t be able “to play their nasty tricks” on him. Lyutov can’t do it, and his refusal horrifies his friend Afonka Bida, who rightly detects cruelty in such “compassion.” “Your kind with your glasses feel sorry for our brother like a cat’s sorry for a mouse,” Bida fumes. As Lyutov despairs at losing Bida as a friend, Grishchuk, who understands prosaic goodness, comforts him. As the story ends, he “took a shriveled apple from under his driver’s seat. ‘Eat,’ he said to me. ‘Please, eat…’”

In both the diary and the stories, the author treats the wanton destruction of beehives as symbolic of war on everyday life and its prosaic values. “Total destruction…. The orchard, apiary, destruction of the hives, terrible, bees buzzing despairingly, the men blow up the hives with gunpowder…a wild orgy…I feel sick about it all,” he writes in the diary, and one Red Cavalry story begins: “I mourn for the bees…. We defiled untold hives…. There are no more bees in Volhynia.” Bees matter to the artist Pan Apolek, who scandalizes churchmen by painting Jesus and Mary with the faces of local sinners, as if to show that the sacred resides not in mythic distance but right before one’s eyes. He tells a story about how gnats plaguing Jesus on the cross asked a bee to sting him, but the bee refused since Jesus is a fellow carpenter. Soldiers kill bees, but Jesus is their brother.

Babel strove for concision. It is said that he rewrote one story twenty-two times to make it as brief and powerful as possible. For Babel, the right word, le mot juste, was often the word omitted. Unsurprisingly, his output was small, and he produced less and less as Stalinist rule tightened. This silence, and the reasons for it, became the target of his own mordant irony in his speech at the Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934. The Party and the government, he explained, “have given us everything, depriving us of only one privilege—that of writing badly.” Of course, without that right, it is impossible to write anything worthwhile at all. So fearful am I of disappointing readers, he concludes, I have become the master of a new genre: the genre of silence. This comment resonated over the years since so much Russian literature was written for the drawer, appearing only decades later, or, like Babel’s last work, was seized by the NKVD and never reappeared.

Babel’s prose depends on his silences, on what he does not say. Like his contemporaries the Russian Formalists, he wanted to shock readers out of cliché and routine perceptions, and so he cultivated a style demanding interpretations he did not provide. When convention or common sense suggests one word, he provides another, slightly but significantly different. The test of a good translator is whether she preserves the strangeness. When Babel writes “invisible voices,” does the translator supply (as Walter Morison does) “mysterious voices”? Without realizing it, most translators betray Babel’s style by interpreting his words.

The new translations by Boris Dralyuk and Val Vinokur, like Morison’s classic one, provide a readable text that captures much of what makes Babel’s stories great, but they often explain—that is, explain away—Babel’s oddities. In the story “Pan Apolek,” Babel begins a sentence: “V Novograd-Volynske, v naspekh smyatom gorode, sredi skruchennykh razvalin,” which, as literally as possible, means: “In Novograd-Volynsk, in the hastily crumpled city, amid the crooked ruins….” Vinokur gives us “In Novograd-Volynsk, among the twisted ruins of that swiftly crushed town,” while Dralyuk offers “In Novograd-Volynsk, among the gnarled ruins of that hastily crushed city.” And Morison: “In Novograd-Volynsk, among the ruins of a town swiftly brought to confusion….”

These are all interpretations, almost paraphrases. Babel describes the city as “crumpled” (smyatyi), the way one crumples a piece of paper before throwing it away. The ruins are not twisted or gnarled or brought to confusion, but crooked: the word skruchennyi, as my colleague Nina Gourianova reminds me, is the one used in Samuil Marshak’s famous translation of the English nursery rhyme about a crooked man in a crooked house. Babel’s strange lexicon, and the peculiar image of a town resembling a crumpled letter, disappear. And the translators omit the double use of the word “in” (“In Novograd-Volynsk, in the hastily crumpled city”), so the sentence’s rhythm changes.

Dralyuk makes a principle of explaining. His introduction offers as an example of his method a passage where Babel describes old letters as istlevshikh (rotten, decaying). Dralyuk alters this to “letters worn thin”: “If one takes a moment to imagine what Babel’s narrator imagines…one can conjure the fragile letters before one’s eyes, feel their texture; they have been ‘worn thin’ by friction and sweat.” But Babel does not describe them as worn thin, and the Red Cavalry stories constantly offer images of rot, decay, and moldering.

Translation is the theme of Babel’s story “Guy de Maupassant.” A woman loves Maupassant passionately, but her renditions remain “tediously correct, lifeless and loud, the way Jews used to write Russian.” The narrator helps: “I spent all night hacking a path through someone else’s translation,” he explains (Vinokur). “A phrase is born into the world both good and bad at the same time. The secret lies in a barely discernible twist. The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm. You must turn it once, but not twice.” Too often, Morison turns it twice, and Dralyuk not at all. Vinokur gets the right effect most often.

“Guy de Maupassant” contains Babel’s most quoted line about style: “No iron can enter the heart as icily as a period placed in time.” (“Nikakoe zhelezo ne mozhet voiti v chelovecheskoe serdtse tak ledenyashche, kak tochka, postavlennaya vovremya.”) It is especially sad when translators get the timing of this very sentence wrong. They drag it out, which is like giving a joke a wordy punch line. In Morison’s version, “No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place,” while Vinokur renders: “Nothing of iron can breach the human heart with the chill of a period placed just in time.” “Stab” and “breach” are interpretations; “with force” does not mean “icily”; the right place is not the right time; and the word “just” is only implied. For both translators, Babel’s fourteen words needlessly expand to eighteen. The period arrives, like a bungled witticism, a bit late.

Translators, like the rest of us, cling to words, thoughts, and images that are all too hopelessly familiar. That is why Babel crafted a style to shock readers into seeing the strangeness before their eyes. He gave his words a terrifying twist that lodges them in the heart and mind. Those given, as he was, to romanticize violence and seek truth in extreme situations would do well to attend to his invisible voices and resonant silences.