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Isaak Babel (1894-1941) - born on July 1; New Style: July 13, 1894


Short story writer and playwright who was a correspondent of the Red Army forces of Semyon Budyonny during the Russian civil war. Babel's fame is based on his stories of the Jews in Odessa and his novel Red Cavalry (1926). He was the first major Russian Jewish writer to write in Russian.

"The Collected Works of Isaac Babel fills only two small volumes. Comparing Tolstoy's Works to Babel's is like comparing a long road to a pocket watch. Babel's best-loved works all fit in the first volume: the Odessa, Childhood, and Petersburg cycles; Red Cavalry; and the 1920s diary, on which Red Cavalry is based." (in The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman, 2010)

Isaak Babel was born in the Jewish ghetto of Odessa, Ukraine. Most of his early years he spent in the Black Sea port Nikolaev, 90 miles away. At a time when most Jews were forbidden to live in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, and other localities, Odessa had many times more Jews than any other city in the Russian part of the empire. However, between 1881 and 1917 two million Jews left Russia, mostly for America. Babel's childhood was relatively comfortable, though he witnessed pogroms in Southern Russia in 1905. However, his family was untouched. His father was a successful businessman who installed his family in one of the best streets in Odessa. Babel studied violin, German, French, and Talmud at the Nicholas I Commercial Institute (1905-11) and wrote stories at the age of fifteen in imitation of Guy de Maupassant. In 1915 Babel graduated from Kiev University, which had been evacuated to Saratov on the Volga because of the war.

After graduating Babel moved to St. Petersburg, where he studied literature. In that capital city "traitors, malcontents, whiners, and Jews" were banned and Babel had to use an apocryphal passport. Two of Babel's stories were published in 1916 in Letopis, a monthly edited by Maksim Gorky. One described an abortion, in the other an Odessa Jew spends the night with a prostitute to evade the police. These pieces were indicated as obscene, but the courthouse was burned down by revolutionaries, and the records were destroyed.

Although Babel himself had been untouched during the pogroms that spread throughout Russia in 1905, he saw in rising revolutionary movements a promise of freedom, and end of all persecution. Babel's satires attracted the attention of the government. The short story 'V shchelochu' (The Bathroom Window) got him charged with pornography in 1917 but due to the political turmoil there never was a trial. The reworked version, published in 1923 with the subtitle "From the Book Oforty," contained a scene of voyerism.

On Gorky's advice Babel decided to see the world and learn about life. He participated briefly in the war on the Romanian front. He was injured and after discharge Babel joined the staff of Gorky's newspaper Novaya Zhizn. During the Revolution he worked probably as a clerk for the Commissariat of Education and for the CheKa, the Soviet Secret Police.

In 1919, Babel married Eugenia Gronfein and joined the Ukrainian State Publishing House (1919-20). He was assigned then as a journalist to Field Marshall Budyonny's First Cavalry army, witnessing its unsuccessful Polish campaign to carry Communist revolution outside Russia. The Reds penetrated almost to Warsaw but were driven back. "I'm tired," Babel confessed in Konarmeyskiy Dnevnik 1920 Goda, his diary from which he drew material for Red Cavalry. "... life flows past me, and what does it mean." (from 1920 Diary, 1995) A full edited version of the diary was published in 1990 in Babel's collected works. When Merian Caldwell Cooper, the future producer of the motion picture King Kong, was captured by Cossacks behind the lines in Galicia, he was interrogated by Babel in July 1920. "A shot-down American pilot, barefoot but elegant, neck like a column, dazzlingly white teeth, his uniform covered with oil and dirt," Babel recorded. "He asks me worriedly: Did I maybe commit a crime by fighting against Soviet Russia?" Eventually Cooper escaped to Riga, without his boots, with which he bribed the guards at the border.

While in Odessa Babel began to write a series of stories set in the Odessan ghetto of Moldavanka, where he was born. "It was not before 1923," Babel recalled later, "that I learned to express my thoughts clearly and not too wordily. Then I went back to writing." Tales of Odessa appeared in book form in 1931. It depicted with broad strokes and humor the Jewish underworld, the middlemen, small merchants, brokers, whores, tough Jewish gangsters, saloon keepers, rabbis, and entrepreneurs, on the eve of Revolution. In the center of the colourful caricature of the ghetto is Benia Krik, the king of gangsters. The stories are entitled 'The King', 'How It Was Done in Odessa', 'The Father', and 'Liuba the Cossack', where Benia Krik is absent. In the play Sunset (1928) Babel returned to the Odessa gangster world, but this time the protagonist was Benya's father, Mendel Krik. It did not gain success and also Marya (1935) attracted little attention.

In 1923 Babel started to publish a cycle of novels called Red Cavalry. Like Maupassant, Babel often surprises the reader with twists in the plot. In Red Cavalry basically a pacifist narrator, Liutov, who is a Jewish officer, is assigned to a regiment of traditionally anti-Semitic Cossacs. The joke was, as Jorge Luis Borges has stated, that "the mere idea of a Jew on horseback struck them as laughable, and the fact that Babel was a good horseman only added to their disdain and spite." In one tale, 'Zamosc,' the narrator falls asleep and his horse drags him to the front line of the battle. He wakes looking up at a Russian peasant, armed with a rifle, who tells him, "It's all the fault of those Yids." Out of the horror of battles, torture and murder Babel creates a rapidly cutting polyphonic tale of revolutionary change. Some stories are narrated in a stylized form of the Cossacks' own language. Two stories appeared in Mayakovsky's magazine LEF. The work was translated into more than 20 languages, gaining Babel national fame, but it was also attacked by Commander Semyon Budyonny of the First Cavalry, who claimed that its emphasis on brutal acts insulted his troops. Babel was defended by Gorky. Budyonny rose in the Party system, becoming Hero of the Soviet Union and a powerful enemy.

From 1923 Babel lived mostly in Moscow. Among his friends was Ilya Ehrenburg who called him "a wise rabbi". Babel often told him that the most important thing is the happiness of people. According to Ehrenburg, he understood the goals of the Revolution and saw it as a guarantee of future happiness. He had an affair with Evgeniya Gladun-Khayutina, the future wife of Nikolai Yezhov, a people's commissar. It was said, that he visited their home even in the 1930s. Before he was allocated an apartment in Moscow in a house occupied by foreigners, he served for a period as the secretary of the village soviet in Molodyonovo.

Babel's first wife, Yevgenia Gronfein, went to Paris in 1925, for a "temporary" separation; his daughter Natalie was raised in France. Babel's mother and sister lived in Brussels from 1926 on, but the author himself did not leave the Soviet Union despite numerous opportunities. Babel visited his wife in Paris and travelled on journalistic assignments in Ukraine and the Caucasus. He also served as a secretary of a village soviet in Molodenovo. Between the years 1925 and 1930 he wrote a series of fictionalized accounts of his childhood and young manhood. In the loosely autobiographical 'Story of My Dovecote' he described the fate of a murdered grandfather.

Babel's literary reputation was high in the Soviet Union and abroad in the beginning of the 1930s. He revised his stories for his collected works that appeared in 1932 and 1936. From the mid-1930s, Babel avoided publicity under increasing Stalinist persecution, although he worked on film scripts, including Eisenstein's banned Bezhin Meadow and on a new book.

In 1934 Babel joked, "If one talks about silence, one cannot fail to say that I am a great master of that genre." However, Antonina Pirozhkova, an young engineer with whom Babel spent his last years in Moscow, states that he was prolific during that period. His speech in 1935 at the International Congress of Writers in Paris about Soviet people and culture made a great impression. Mariya, his play, was withdrawn from a Moscow theatre. The autobiographical short story 'Di Grasso' (1937) was the last work to be published in Babel's lifetime. It depicted his enthusiasm about theatre in his youth – he has pawned his father's watch with Kolya Schwartz to visit Theatre Street but Kolya does not return it before his wife gets angry about it. When Osip Mandelstam had returned from exile to Moscow, Babel said to him: "Silence won't save me. Mark my words – they will come for me soon."

"Clutching the watch, I was left alone, and suddenly, with a lucidity I had never known before, I saw soaring columns of the Duma, the illuminated foliage on the boulevard, the bronze head of Pushkin glimmering faintly in the moonlight, and I saw for the first time everything around me as it was in reality – silent, and indescribably beautiful." (in 'Di Grasso')

Babel was arrested by the N.K.V.D., a precursor of the K.G.B, in May 1939 at his cottage in Peredelkino, the writers' colony. The secret police confiscated nine folders from the dacha, and fifteen from his Moscow apatment. Under interrogation and probable torture at Lubyanka, Babel confessed a long association with Trotskyites and engaging in anti-soviet activity, including being recruited into a spy network by Ilya Ehrenburg and supplying André Malraux with the secrets of Soviet aviation. His trial was held in Buturka Prison and on January 27, 1940, he was shot on Stalin's orders for espionage. His body was dumped in a communal grave. The Soviet officials informed Babel's widow that her husband died on March 17, 1941 in a prison camp in Siberia. Babel's charges were posthumously cleared in 1954. His seized manuscripts have not been recovered. Babel's collected works, based on the 1936 edition but including new materials, were republished in 1957 and 1966. Antonina Pirozhkova, who devoted her life to his literary legacy, wrote a memoir of the last years of his life; she died in September 2010, at the age of 101.

For further reading: The Art of Isaac Babel by P. Carden (1972); Isaac Babel by J.E. Falen (1974); Isaac Babel, Russian Master of Short Story by James E. Falen (1974); 'Fat Tuesday in Odessa: Isaac Babel's 'Di Grasso' as Testament and Manifesto' by Gregory Freidin, in The Russian Review 40, no. 2 (April 1981, Reprinted in Isaac Babel, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom, 1987); Isaac Babel by M. Ehre (1984); Isaac Babel by R.W. Hallett (1982); Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry by Carol Luplow (1982); Isaac Babel by Milton Ehre (1986); The Field of Honour by Christopher Luck (1987); Procedures of Montage in Isaak Babel's Red Cavalry by Marc Schreurs (1989); 'Isaak Babel' by Gregory Freidin, in European Writers: The Twentieth Century (1990); 'Between the Stalin Revolution and the West: Isaac Babel's Career in the late 1920s and Early 1930s' (in Russian) by Gregory Freidin, in Stanford Slavic Studies 4-2, (1991); '"La 'grande svolta'. L'Occidente e l'Italia nella biografia di I.E. Babel all'inizio degli anni '30' by Gregory Freidin, in Special issue of Storia contemporanea 6 (1991); 'Babel': Revoliutsiia kak esteticheskii fenomen' by Gregory Freidin, in Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie 4 (1993); 'Justifying the Revolution As an Aesthetic Phenomenon: Nietzschean Motifs in the Reception of Isaac Babel (1923-1932)' by Gregory Freidin, in Nietzsche In Soviet Culture (1994, Russian version: 'Babel': Revoliutsiia kak esteticheskii fenomen' ); Red Cavalry: A Critical Companion, ed. Charles Rougle (1996) - See also: Gregory Freidin's Isaac Babel Page (the best source for further studies)  

Selected works:

  • Elya Isaakovich and Margarita Prokofievna, 1916
  • Doudou, 1917 (in Svobodnye mysli)
    - Doudou (translated by Peter Constantine, in The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, 2001)
    - Doudou (suom. Mikko Viljanenen, Nuori Voima 4/2005)
  • Na pole chesti, 1920 [On the Field of Honour]
  • Moi pervyi gonorar, 1922-28 (short story, published 1963)
    - My First Fee (translated by Peter Constantine, in The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, 2001)
    - Ensimmäinen kirjoituspalkkioni (suom. Mikko Viljanen, Nuori Voima, 4/2005)
  • V shchelochu, 1923 (in Siluety)
    - The Bathroom Window (translated by Peter Constantine, in The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, 2001)
    - Kylpyhuoneen ikkuna (suom. Mikko Viljanen, Nuori Voima, 4/2005)
  • Rasskazy, 1924
  • Konarmiya, 1926
    - Red Cavalry (translators: John Harland, 1929, Walter Morrison, 1955; Andrew R. MacAndrew, 1963; David McDuff, 1994)
    - Punainen ratsuväki (suom. Juhani Konkka, 1958)
  • Bluzhdaiushchie zvezdy: Kino-stsenarii, 1926 [Wandering Stars: A Cine-Story]
  • Istoriia moei golubiatni, 1926 
    - The Story of My Dovecote (translated by Peter Constantine, in The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, 2001)
  • Benia Krik: kinopovest', 1926 [Benia krik: A Film-Novel]
    - Benia Krik: A Film-Novel (translated by Ivor Montagu & S. S. Nolbandov, 1935) / Benya Krik, The Gangster, and Other Stories (translated by Avraham Yarmolinsky, 1948)
  • Korol', 1926
    - The King (translated by Peter Constantine, in The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, 2001)
  • Evreiskie rasskazy, 1927 [Jewish Tales]
  • Zakat, 1928 (play)
    - Sunset (translated by Raymond Rosenthal and Mirra Ginsburg, in Noonday, 3, 1960)
  • Odesskie rasskazy, 1931
    - Tales of Odessa (translators: Walter Morrison, 1955; David McDuff, 1994)
    - Odessalaisia ja muita novelleja (suom. Esa Adrian, 1970)
  • Mariia, 1935 (play)
    - Marya (translated by Michael Glenny and Harold Shukman, in Three Soviet Plays, 1966, reprinted as The Golden Age of Soviet Theatre, 1981)
    - Maria: näytelmä (suom. Annikki Laaksi, 1978)
  • Rasskazy, 1936
  • Collected Stories, 1955 (edited and translated by Walter Morrison)
  • Izbrannoe, 1957 [Selected Works]
  • Liubka the Cossack and Other Stories, 1963 (translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew)
  • The Lonely Years 1925-29, 1964 (translated by Max Hayward and Andrew R. MacAndrew)
  • Zabytye rasskazy. Iz pisem k druz'iam, 1965
  • Izbrannoe, 1966
  • You Must Know Everything, 1969 (translated by Max Hayward)
  • Benya Kirk, The Gangster, and Other Stories, 1971 (edited by Avrahm Yarmolinsky)
  • The Forgotten Prose, 1978 (edited and translated by Nicholas Stroud; as Zabytyi Babel, 1979)
  • Detstvo i drugie rasskazy, 1979 [Childhood and Other Stories]
  • Chetyre rasskaza, 1981
  • Sochineniia, 1991 (2 vols.)
  • Collected Stories, 1994 (translated by David McDuff)
  • 1920 Diary, 1995 (edited by Carol J. Avins, translated by H.T. Willetts; Konarmeyskiy Dnevnik 1920 Goda, in Sochineniia I, 1990)
  • Sochineniia, 1996 (2 vols.)
  • The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, 2001 (edited by Nathalie Babel, translated by Peter Constantine, with an introduction by Cynthia Ozick)

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