Isaac Babel (BA-byihl), for all the sparseness of his literary output, is generally regarded as the greatest Soviet-Russian writer of short stories. He was born on July 13, 1894, to an ambitious middle-class Jewish family living in a colorful, lower-class section of Odessa known as the Moldavanka. Young Babel spent his first decade in the nearby city of Nikolayev, where he was pushed by his family into fanatical diligence as a student, this being the only hope for escape from political oppression. The terrible pogrom of October, 1905, forced the Babels back to Odessa, where Isaac continued his studies and began to write stories. His first published story, “Old Shloime,” about an old man who commits suicide, appeared in 1913 in Kiev, where Babel was a student at the Institute of Finance and Business, no better college being open to him as a Jew.
Obtaining his degree in 1916, he resolved upon a career as a writer and moved (illegally) to St. Petersburg. There, Maxim Gorky, the famed “Stormy Petrel” of the Russian Revolution, published two of Babel’s stories and thereby earned the young writer’s lifetime loyalty. By that time Babel had decided that, as Jews could hope for nothing from the czarist regime, it was best for them to support the Social Democrats.
In 1918 Babel served in the Red Army, requisitioning grain on the Volga River. He also worked briefly for the Cheka, the first Soviet political police agency. In 1919 he worked for the People’s Commissariat for Education, at one point returning to Odessa to wed Evgeniia Gronfein, who would emigrate to France in 1925. In 1920 Babel was assigned as war correspondent and propagandist to General Semyon Budenny’s First Cavalry, which fought in Ukraine and Poland; the Cossack cavalry troops reached the very outskirts of Warsaw before being turned back in September of 1920.
Throughout his years in the Red Army, Babel kept detailed diaries upon which his journalistic pieces and many of his best stories would be based. Three dozen or more sketches and diary excerpts appeared in minor periodicals between 1917 and 1920. In 1921 the story “The King” was published in an Odessa magazine. It was the first of Babel’s major works and one of the four stories that would appear in Tales of Odessa in 1931. Although Babel also published the thirty-five stories that appear in Red Cavalry approximately during this same period (1923-1925), the earlier stories lack the truly brilliant touch of the later ones. From the time that Babel began publishing his stories in major Soviet periodicals in the early 1920’s, he was recognized both nationally and internationally as a unique, powerful, and shocking new writer. Nevertheless, he had his enemies in political ideologues, anti-Semites, and puritans.
The Odessa tales share with the Red Cavalry cycle a rich, rhythmic, colorful style characteristic of the immediate postrevolution period in Soviet literature, labeled “ornamentalism” by critics. Very short works were the rule, and style often dominated content. In Red Cavalry, however, Babel achieved a deeply intriguing and, above all, laconic symbolism that one does not find in “The King” and other stories of the Odessa group. The Odessa stories were limited in time and place to the prewar Moldavanka quarter with an all-Jewish cast of characters, typified by giant stevedores, voluptuous prostitutes, and merry gangsters dressed in raspberry slacks and chocolate-hued shoes. The gangster Benya Krik, protagonist of “The King,” also appears in other works, including “Sunset,” an unpublished story that served as the basis for a play of the same title published in 1928. It deals with the means used by Benya to seize the throne from his gang-leader father.
Babel wrote only one other play, Maria–the first part of a projected trilogy about a Russian general’s family from the revolution to the 1930’s. It is clear that Babel would have written other dramatic works had his life not been cut short. As it was, he worked on some fifteen or twenty films from 1925 onward. He wrote scenarios, often in collaboration with other writers, because he needed the money, at first to visit his wife and daughter Nathalie (born in 1929 in France) and later to support his mistress and his travels. Later still, Babel needed the money to support his second wife, Antonina Nikolaevna Pirozhkova, to whom he was married in 1935; their daughter Lidiia was born in 1937.
The playfulness of the Odessa tales is largely absent from the Red Cavalry cycle of stories, which, as a unified collection published in 1926, constitute Babel’s greatest work. The primary motifs of the collection include the vast irony of a diffident intellectual Jew riding to war with a gang of primitive, murderous Cossacks. The nominally Communist Cossacks, although admirable in many respects, retain a crude Christianity and are anti-Semites. They commit horrors against the Hasidic Jews of Galicia. However, it is not only Jews who suffer in these stories but also Polish Catholics, who were despised by the Orthodox Cossacks as well. The many victims in these pages are often depicted in imagery suggesting ritual sacrifice–with the further implication that all are reenacting the agony of Christ. Still, the dramatized contrasts between Marxism and religion, death and sexual love, suffering and the life force, are never fully resolved–which accounts for the artistic power of these stories. Through paradox, irony, and epiphanic revelation, Babel achieves an almost biblical or mythic depth in his remarkable Red Cavalry cycle.
Nearly as powerful is the cycle of six “childhood stories,” never collected as a book. Published between 1915 and 1937, these marvelously sensitive autobiographical tales are stylistically more conventional than those described above, presenting a classical subtlety and precision worthy of Anton Chekhov. Probably the best known of these is “The Story of My Dovecot,” which is set in Nikolayev on the day of the 1905 pogrom.
So prolific in the 1920’s, Babel published no more than a dozen stories in the 1930’s, using silence as a form of political protest. Babel’s last story, “The Trial,” was published in 1938. He was arrested in 1939, tried by a closed military court in 1940, and executed. He was officially “rehabilitated” thirteen years later, at which time a diligent search for all of his diaries, manuscripts, and fugitive published works began. Writing in Russian as a Jew, a Communist, an atheist, and even, in some sense, a Christian, Babel gave to the world some of the most memorable stories of the twentieth century.