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Remember Isaac Babel, the Writer Stalin Wanted Us to Forget

R. William Attwood By R. William Attwood Published on July 10, 2017

July 13th, 2017 will be Isaac Babel’s 123rd birthday. It seems important to remember it not just because Babel is one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, but also because the Stalinist regime, which executed him at the age of 45, tried to utterly obliterate his memory.

His name was removed from literary who’s whos and encyclopaedias. He disappeared from school and university syllabuses. The films whose screenplays he’d worked on no longer showed his name in the credits. Even to mention him in public was a risk.

None of it worked. Babel is perhaps more famous now than at any time since his death, partly thanks to Peter Constantine’s wonderful translation of his Complete Works, and partly thanks to the many contemporary authors who have acknowledged a debt to Babel’s writing. George Saunders, the celebrated author of Tenth of December and Lincoln in the Bardo, is a fierce advocate: 

In my reading of him, there's this sense of two types of beauty crossing in Babel's prose: the beauty of the world, and the beauty of the sentence. The reader feels dazzled by the intelligence compressed into so few words.

Babel’s most famous work, a collection of linked short stories called Red Cavalry, describes in horrific detail the events of the Polish-Soviet War. Few books before or since have so explicitly confronted the reality of mechanised violence, and Red Cavalry is especially poignant—and unique—for the attention it pays to the helpless, unarmed victims of the war: peasants, women, and the Jews of the Polish ghettos.

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Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel was born in 1894 in Odessa, Ukraine, which at the time was a cosmopolitan resort city and one of the main hubs of Europe’s Jewish culture. The Babel family was part of a large, vibrant, entrepreneurial community whose energies had to be channelled along underground avenues. Jews were forbidden to hold public office or play any visible role in official life. 

Some of the most important figures in the Jewish area of Odessa, called the Moldavanka, were out-and-out gangsters, and from these characters Babel would later sculpt the fictional mobster Benya Krik (‘Benny the Howl’), the protagonist of his collection Odessa Stories and his play Sunset.

Official discrimination against Jews not infrequently spilled over into outright persecution. Babel’s ‘Story of My Dovecote’ describes the outbreak of a pogrom he survived as a young boy: ‘Grandpa Shoyl was lying there in the sawdust, his chest crushed, his beard pointing up, rugged shoes on his bare feet. His legs, spread apart, were dirty, purple, dead.’

After he graduated from university in Kiev in 1915, Babel went to live in St. Petersburg. He was there illegally, because as a Jew he was not eligible for a residency permit, but the risk paid off. It was in Petersburg that he met Maxim Gorky, the preeminent Russian man of letters, who published Babel’s first stories. Gorky also advised Babel that if he wanted to be a real writer, he would need more life experience. It was 1917. He was about to get it. 

When the Revolution broke out Babel hurled himself into the Bolshevik cause, fighting Tsarist counter-revolutionaries and organising supplies for the Red Army. In 1920 he was assigned to Semyon Budyonny’s First Cavalry Army and sent to the front of the Polish-Soviet War. There Babel had his first taste of disillusionment. In theory, the Red Army was in Poland to liberate peasants and workers from their aristocratic overlords. In practice, Babel wrote in his diary, the Soviet soldiers were ‘murderers, it’s unbearable, baseness and crime… The military commander and I ride along the tracks, begging the men not to butcher the prisoners.’

Babel’s experiences in Poland became the basis of Red Cavalry, published in 1926. The first time you encounter it, Red Cavalry reads like a series of postcards dispatched from a very bad acid trip. Its gently-spoken narrator paints scenes of improbable horror and violence in language as strange, illuminating and awesome as a lightning strike:

Right there, not two paces away from me, lay the front line. I could see the chimneys of Zamosc, the thievish lights in the ravines of its ghetto, and the watchtower with its shattered lantern. The damp sunrise poured down on us like waves of chloroform. Green rockets soared over the Polish camp. They flashed in the air, came showering down like roses behind the moon, and expired.

This language is intoxicating. It’s a good idea to take breaks while you’re reading it. But you won’t find it easy to step away from Red Cavalry, because as soon as you open its pages you’re collared by huge, guffawing, sabre-rattling characters—generals and Cossack riders and fanatical revolutionaries. There’s Savitsky, commander of the Sixth Division, whose ‘long legs looked like two girls wedged to their shoulders in riding boots,’ and Matvey Rodionovich Pavlichenko, who proudly tells us what the Revolution has meant to him:

I started kicking Nikitinsky, my master. I kicked him for an hour, maybe even more than an hour, and I really understood what life actually is. With one shot, let me tell you, you can only get rid of a person. A shot would have been a pardon for him and too horribly easy for me, with a shot you cannot get to a man’s soul, to where the soul hides and what it looks like. But there are times when I don’t spare myself and spend a good hour, maybe even more than an hour, kicking the enemy. I want to understand life, to see what it actually is.

Babel does not permit us to condemn these characters. Rather he shows them in the context of the poverty and violence from which they emerge—we learn that Nikitinsky, for instance, earned his death-by-kicking when he asserted his droit de seigneur over Matvey’s fiancée. Even as he shrinks from their deeds, Babel admires the energy, simplicity, and strength of these men.

They don’t get everything their own way, though, even when they’re telling their own stories. Babel always shares a secret, compassionate glance with the victims of the Red Army, trying to hide in the corners of each story:

“Mistress,” I said, “I need some grub!”

The old woman raised the dripping whites of her half-blind eyes to me and lowered them again.

“Comrade,” she said, after a short silence. “All of this makes me want to hang myself!”

Meanwhile Babel himself is always teetering on the edge of becoming a victim. As a war reporter his writing must be politically correct, and avoid exposing the incompetence and greed of his commanders, and there are everyday threats from ordinary soldiers too, not least the threat of anti-semitic violence:

The muzhik passed me his cigarette for me to light mine, “It’s all the fault of those Yids,” he said. “They try to please everybody. After the war there’ll hardly be any of them left. How many Yids do you reckon there’s in the world?”

“Around ten million,” I answered, and began to bridle my horse.

“There’ll be two hundred thousand of them left!” the muzhik yelled, grabbing me by the arm.

Many of the stories in Red Cavalry are only two or three pages long, and yet they are dense with fear, anger, horror and suffering, as well as beauty, desire and the ecstatic joy of survival. The effect is of several images imposed one on top of another to create a picture both accurate and surreal. These stories unapologetically depict the full horror of warfare, whilst acknowledging that soldiers experience the world at a heightened pitch not possible in civilian life.

Odessa Tales and Red Cavalry were published in quick succession. But Stalin was already in power, and censorship beginning to tighten. Babel’s politics were publicly called into question by his former commander in the First Cavalry, Budyon Semyonny, who despite probable self-censorship on Babel’s part still doesn’t come across very well in the stories of Red Cavalry.

In the face of official prescriptions, Babel’s output slowed to a trickle, although some of the stories from this time, like ‘Story of My Dovecote,’ and ‘My First Love’ (about the aftermath of the pogrom) are miniature masterpieces. Eventually Babel turned to cinema. Many of his films were produced and some were very popular, but in time these too came in for political criticism and were banned. Babel ceased publishing altogether, although he continued to write in secret. He was charged with ‘silence,’ that is, unproductivity, a serious charge in Soviet society. As a result he was forbidden from travelling abroad, an especially heavy punishment because Babel had started a family in Paris. He would never see his wife and daughter again.

On May 15th 1939, Babel was arrested and taken to Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka gaol. Under torture he confessed to espionage. On January 16th the following year, in the early hours of the morning, he was tried in the private chambers of Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s security chief. Babel retracted his confession, but he was sentenced to death anyway. At 1:40 the next morning he was shot, and his body thrown into a mass grave. His last recorded words are a plea: “Let me finish my work.”

His private papers were destroyed, amongst them stories, plays and film scripts that would surely have been amongst the treasures of twentieth century literature. 

We can be grateful, however, for what we have. 

I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.

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