Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Reflections On Solzhenitsyn's Centennial

Solzhenitsyn with Heinrich Böll in Langenbroich, West Germany, 1974 

One phrase struck me when reading Michael Scammel's column commemorating Alexander Solzhenitsyn's centennial, "A Writer Who Destroyed an Empire": Yeltsin’s “foolish desire to introduce Western democracy in Russia.” Foolish, Alexander Isayevich, really? I caught myself arguing with the departed sage. Scammel is right, though: Solzhenitsyn’s aversion to Western democracy and modernity - individualism, secularism, tolerance, the rule of law - was fundamental to his view of the world. His anti-Western, in effect anti-liberal, stance earned him his the nickname "Ayatola Solzhenitsyn." But his even deeper aversion to the Soviet system, for awhile, overshadowed his innate conservatism. Solzhenitsyn's anti-Soviet invective, at first only implied, began early and reached its peak — the publication of Gulag Archipelago in 1973 — when it began to resonate with the jitters shaking up the empire from within. It also dealt a death blow to the flimsier construct of Euro-Communism in Italy and France. With time, his impact waned, as his writings progressively fell out of step with the mood in Russia as in the West. To resort to Solzhenitsyn's own favorite habit of quoting Russian proverbs, each berry has its own day for picking — Каждой ягоде - свой срок.

The edition I assigned to my class
I learned this lesson while teaching "One Day of Ivan Denisovich" to Stanford students for over thirty years (1978-2016). My Soviet period syllabus always listed it as required, because I felt that no one should graduate from Stanford's Russian program without reading and understanding this little masterpiece. In the sense of its impact and condensation of key ideas, "One Day" is rather similar to Pushkin's "Bronze Horseman": it's an archetype. Not only did it spawn a whole era of the so-called "village prose" and its antipodes, but it helped to crystalized the ideology of resistance to communism based on what we now refer to as "conservative values," more specifically, values that are considered native to the Russian soil, the Russian version of Blut und Boden.

The first Russian edition of "One Day." 1963.
There was another, more personal reason: my own first encounter with "One Day" in 1962 when it had just come out. I read it in the cheapest mass edition printed on newsprint as if to match Solzhenitsyn's plain-speaking voice, and I was transformed. As I turned pages, my head was exploding with a burst of indignation and grief for the millions victims of Stalinist repression, hitherto unacknowledged and unmourned. I was sixteen then but I had already come to know two women Gulag veterans who never spoke about their past, and heard plenty of whispered stories about the poet Osip Mandelstam, family members of my friends and, of course, my own. Although only obliquely, I myself was touched by the Dr. Zhivago affair — through my older sister Marianna. She was friends with Irina Emelyanova, daughter of Boris Pasternak's last Muse, Olga Ivinskaya (the prototype for the Zhivago's Lara). Irina (herself a prototype for Katenka, the daughter of Zhivago and Lara) was imprisoned in 1960, along with her mother, both accused of serving as intermediaries between the Nobel laureate Pasternak and  his publishers in the West. Irina was released in 1962. Of course, I had my feelings about all of these abominations but to have them publicly articulated in a widely available publication was a revelation. 

Irina Emelyanova, Irina Odokhovskaya, Marianna Freidina,
Sergey Nekliudov, Alla Tarasova. Moscow, July 1962. 

Solzhenitsyn's "One Day" was published, indeed broadcast (in hundreds of thousand copies), on Nikita Khrushchev's orders. Khrushchev's aim was to mobilize public opinion against his Stalinist Party rivals. Unintentionally, no doubt, this publication brought about a universal catharsis. The whole vast country let loose a collective moan for all the Gulag victims who had remained unmourned since the 1930s. For this alone, we owe Solzhenitsyn the debt of undying gratitude. But "One Day" was much more than that.

Each time, rereading "One Day" before my lecture, I felt like a photographer developing a print in a chemical solution. Little by little, political and ideological changes in Russia – and later on in the West – made what seemed like a simple tale of the Gulag horror morph into an anti-modernist, nativist, nationalist allegory. Like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the other great Russian writers who donned the mantle of prophet, Solzhenitsyn, it seems, could see far beyond the horizon that was visible to his contemporaries. And he departed from this world in 2008 before the changes he wished for his beloved country matured and began to bear fruit — under Vladimir Putin's cultivation.

Vladimir Putin and Solzhenitsyn in the writer's home. 2007

Solzhenitsyn's love and respect for custom and tradition grew into rabid nationalism, xenophobia, and aggression against Ukraine; his hope for order, into a brutal suppression of criticism and opposition; instinctive reliance on the folk's common sense for fairness, into a crooked criminal justice system; critique of Western consumerism and hedonism, into obscurantism and intolerance of the state-sponsored Orthodox Church; his opposition to censorship, into a virtual criminalization of free speech on social networks; his disdain for the popular culture of a modern metropolis, into the harsh policing of Russia's own bards and rappers.

But even in death, perhaps, especially in death, Solzhenitsyn's personal charisma has remained in force, and associating with him can enhance the authority of a politician. Vladimir Putin did not miss the opportunity and spoke at the unveiling of the monument to Solzhenitsyn in the Taganka district in Moscow. The head of the Russian state, he praised Solzhenitsyn for his support of the Russian statism (derzhavnost), a type of polity that favors state over society, and he singled out for special tribute Solzhenitsyn struggle with Russophobia.  "Even in exile," Putin noted, "Solzhenitsyn did not allow anyone to speak with disdain or ill about his motherland, he opposed all forms of Russophobia."

A term of relatively recent coinage, Russophobia was popularized in the 1980s by Igor Shafarevich, who attributed it largely to Jews. Replicating  Judeophobia, or anti-Semitism, Russophobia refers to some innate prejudice against Russia as a nation and Russians as an ethnic group — a prejudice that spawns critical opinion of the country and its government. The term is now habitually flung by Russian officials at anyone disparaging Russian policies or actions as a prejudice against Russia held by critics overseas or by Russia's own "internal enemies" (e.g., Sergei Lavrov in January 2018).  Those who know Solzhenitsyn writings from "One Day" to his much later history of Jews in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union (Two Hundred Years Together2002)will recognize that the seeds of this wholesale inversion of rational critical opinion into an ethnic prejudice were planted by the great author himself.

Putin at the unveiling of the monument to Solzhenistyn. 12.11.18

This moment of reflection on Solzhenitsyn's centennial unexpectedly illuminated the aphoristic lines Boris Pasternak dedicated to Lenin in his 1928 poem "Lofty Malady." Pasternak offered a formula for the paradox of the Russian revolution: its promise of freedom and justice in 1917 contrasting sharply with the incipient despotism of 1928. He found it in the archetype of divine vengeance for human hubris.

                               A genius arrives, heralding [new] privileges,
                               And he avenges his passing with oppression.

                               Предвестьем льгот приходит гений
                               И гнётом мстит за свой уход.

Almost a century later and a decade after Solzhenitsyn's passing, these words resonate with the  paradox of the now post-communist Russia.

* * *

Berkeley. 12.12.2018

Friday, December 7, 2018

Remembering My Friend Valery Chalidze (1939-2018)

Valery Chalidze, Vera Slonim Chalidze, Ilya Slonim,
Vicki Bonnell, Tanya Litvinov, with the Slonims'
dog Mr. Triqué. Moscow 1970-71.

Valery Nikolaevich Chalidze, physicist, legal scholar, and founder of the Human Rights Committee in the Soviet Union, died on January 3, 2018. For unrelated reasons, I could not attend the memorial for him in New York but I recalled a few episodes from our long association, wrote them down and had our mutual friend Jerry Schecter read them at the event. With the first anniversary of his death fast approaching, I decided to publish my recollections here.

* * *

Some seven years apart in age, Valery and I – were brothers-in-law, of sorts. We were married, serially, to the most attractive and smartest young women in Moscow, the Slonim sisters: he, to the younger Vera, I, to Masha. Neither marriage lasted long but enough to produce offspring: his daughter Masha Chalidze and my son Anton Freidin. Both are domiciled in England, both are happy and both have lovely, talented children of their own, second and third cousins all. Our lives were intertwined in other ways... Here, then, are the four luminous moments in the many years of our association.

I. Legal Counsel

Valery Chalidze and Vicki Bonnell. Moscow 1971.
Spring 1971 was when Valery and I first met. He was or was about to marry Vera Slonim, the sister of my, by then, ex-wife, while I was about to wed Vicki Bonnell, my wife of 47 years, and counting. I remember all of us gathered at the sisters' apartment hosted by their parents, Ilya Lvovich Slonim, a well-known sculptor, and Tatyana Maksimovna Litvinov, a translator of, among others, John Cheever. The friendships among all of us, including our in-laws, were much stronger than marriage. I have old photos that document one such moment.  

After Vicki and I were officially wed, we ran into a problem: Vicki’s visa – she was a US exchange student – was running out, and the authorities refused to extend it. Both of us were aware of the few mixed marriages that ended in forced separation and heartbreak. Chalidze, by then, had already formed the Human Rights Committee and had been dispensing legal advice, gratis, to people who had grievances against and were exasperated by the Soviet system. Though we were friends and practically relatives, on this occasion he received us in his famous room as our legal counsel, in a formal manner – black coat, white shirt and black tie. "An undertaker," Vicki quipped under her breath when we walked in. We knew the place was thoroughly bugged but, according to Chalidze's strategy, openness and transparency was our strength and worked in our favor. Besides, we had nothing to hide. We laid out and then discussed our situation, periodically rolling our eyes at the ceiling where, we assumed, the listening bugs were located. Chalidze’s sage prescription was simple: Vicki was to throw herself at the mercy of the Soviet State, that is to say, she was to cable a petition for extending her Soviet visa to Nikolay Podgorny, the titular head of Brezhnev’s USSR. She was to do so repeatedly. Preferably, once a day. We followed the counsel’s advice. 

To send the cables we used the Main Telegraph Office on Gorky Street. I still remember the face of the postal clerk in the window. She was trying to stay impassive, as she read and counted the words scribbled on the cable form, wondering whether to laugh or scream at the hutzpah of the American girl who was directly petitioning the head of the all-mighty USSR. But rules were rules, and the cables were accepted and sent. What happened next is still shrouded in mystery. Vicki never received a response. Alas, Chalidze’s prescription did not work as well as we hoped. Still, we got more time to spend together: she overstayed her visa for a couple of weeks, ostensibly waiting for a merciful response from Nikolay Podgorny. The advice may have helped also in another  way – by elevating our case to the "Kremlin level" so that a few months later I was granted permission, unprecedented at the time, to leave the workers’ paradise for permanent residence with my American wife in the United States. 

II. Fortune Cookie

Less than a year later, a law professor from Georgetown University Law School, Samuel Dash, visited Chalidze in Moscow. He was impressed. Before saying goodbye, Sam Dash pulled out a piece of his Law School stationary and hand-wrote an invitation to Chalidze to present a series of lectures at Georgetown on the human rights in the USSR. Those were tough times for Soviet dissidents. Emigration had not yet become a real option. What defined the horizon for people like Valery was jail or Siberian exile. Chalidze knew the calculus, and he was ready to face the music (if one is ever ready for an ordeal). As I write this, I recall Vera telling me that they decided to formalize their relationship, in part, for her to have the right, as a spouse, to visit Chalidze in prison. But instead of a prison sentence, Valery received a call from the authorities to pick up his passport for the visit to the US. He must have been stunned. He later told me that while getting his papers, he caught a glimpse of Sam Dash’s invitation sitting on the official’s desk: the Russian word – fake (липа) – was scrawled over it in a thick red pencil. 

On Thanksgiving Day 1972, I was at JFK with my friend Joseph Brodsky (like me, а recent arrival in the US, a "refuJew," as he joked over our status) to greet Valery and Vera. In the evening, like seasoned New Yorkers (neither of us was a US citizen then), we broke bread, so to speak, over their first truly American meal: Mushu Pork and Kung Pao chicken at a Chinese restaurant in the Village. There was a lot of excitement over this most American of all the emigre holy communions. We had all known each other back in Russia, and we were delirious to have been able to reconnect in NY. Fate saved best for last. As Valery cracked his first ever fortune cookie, a thin strip of paper fell on the brown oilcloth. It had just four words: “Change for the better.” 

With an almost childish smile, Chalidze kept repeating these four words. It seemed he was mentally toying with the idea that he had just received a validation from Lady Fortune herself. Over the years, there were many occasions to recall this omen: when he was taken to visit the Justices of the US Supreme Court, when he started his publishing venture, when he received one of the early MacArthur genius awards (1985), or when he met Lisa, who would soon become his wife, while on a speaking tour in the American West.  

III. Press Conference

Fast-forward to December 1972. I was in Washington, staying with Jerry and Leona Schecter, my old friends from Moscow where Jerry used to head the Time Magazine bureau. Chalidze was giving his famous first press conference at Georgetown University on the state of human rights in the USSR. By then Time Magazine’s Diplomatic Correspondent, Jerry Schecter was going to attend and he took me to the press conference with him. I still remember one of the topics Chalidze spoke about before the Q&A: the mistreatment of political prisoners in Soviet labor camps. Citing UN nutritional standards, he accused Soviet authorities of subjecting political prisoners to a starvation diet, in effect, torture by hunger. The relevant nutritional data had been circulating in dissident publications for some time, but to hear this well-documented evidence summed up by the word “torture” spoken from a high podium by a well-known Russian dissident, with all of the Washington press corps in attendance, was a whole other matter. The words were like an exploding bomb shell. To this day, I remember the numbers — 800 calories, 1200 calories – as Chalidze delivered them in a calm and thoughtful voice… In case you are wondering what these numbers actually meant, the UN sets the minimum energy requirement for an adult at 1800 kcal.

The press conference was over. Reporters were rushing out to file their stories. I held back to avoid the stampede. The room emptied quickly and suddenly I found myself in the company of a three grim-looking middle-aged portly men in long coats and fedoras. They were unmistakable. Nashi!(out guys), flashed in my mind, as I realized I was surrounded by a clutch of Soviet reporters. I shuddered. At the time, I was beginning the project of translating into English the second batch of Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs (Khrushchev Remembers, vol. 2), and I was anxious to avoid the attention of the Soviet security “organs” (my family was still back in the USSR and could face reprisals). I guess, I, too, was unmistakable. Before I could slink out of the room unnoticed, one of the fedoras nodded in my direction. Instantly, I was cut off at the path by a tall athletic–looking fellow with a square jaw and a flattened nose. I had not noticed him in the room before. With a carnivorous grin, he he cut me off before I could reach the door, pulled out a camera — it looked tiny in his huge paws — and snapped two pictures of me. Operation completed, he winked at me with a grin, as if saying "it didn't hurt, did it?" and stepped aside. I rushed out, my heart was thumping as if I had just escaped death. The next moment, I felt ashamed: just look at Valery’s fearless, dignified cool, and he was taking on the whole of the USSR! I came to value his temperament even more during the many hours we spent over the years discussing philosophy, law, our ex-wives, and, yes, of course, politics both in Russia and the US. In the end, politics poisoned our conversations, although the friendship never broke up. Now, I regret that our political biases, so small in retrospect, made our contact less and frequent as the new century dawned.

A few days after the Georgetown press conference, Soviet officials had Chalidze's passport confiscated, informing him that he had been stripped of Soviet citizenship. He never went back, even after Mikhail Gorbachev restored it to him in one of his early perestroika gestures in 1987.

IV. The Federalist

In 1990, a week before Thanksgiving, I was in Washington to give a paper at the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (I was already a tenured professor at Stanford then). All of a sudden there was a call from Valery. He had a new crazy scheme: Will I consider undertaking a translation of The Federalist Papers into Russian? A selection. 55000 words. And the deadline, I asked? It was Christmas. No way, I responded! And  agreed. Only later did I find out that the project, which may have been initiated by Valery, was supported by Brent Scowcroft, National Security Adviser to Bush 41st. The idea was that apart from its distribution in the USSR, George Bush would present a copy of it as a special gift to Mikhail Gorbachev, who was then busy with a radical revision of the Soviet Constitution. The summit was scheduled for the end of July 1991.

I am poor student of American history and because I had never taken  it seriously (did such a young country have history?), I nearly flunked my citizenship exam in 1974 (I though the Boston Tea Party was about liberty only to be told it was about taxation without representation). I had absolutely no idea what The Federalist was about. But I soon made up for my ignorance. Suffice it to say that working sixteen-hour days seven days a week, translating into Russian gem after gem of the Founding Fathers’ practical wisdom was a most effective intensive course in American constitutional history. I am forever grateful to Valery and our two other educated  collaborators, the late Leon Lipson of Yale Law School and Lisa Chalidze, both erudite lawyers, who held my hand, so to speak, as I was digging deeper and deeper into the thinking of those remarkable sages, Hamilton and Madison, and struggling with rendering their thought into my native Russian, in which political discourse had been poisoned by decades of Marxist cant. Lisa's and Leon's help with conceptual understanding and American context was invaluable.

It did not take long to realize why The Federalist had never been translated into Russian. The hardest was the rendering of the concepts that had received short shrift in Russian political thought, dominated as it was, first, by the French and, later, German traditions (Rousseau, Hegel, Marx), with very little space left for the Anglo-Saxon political tradition. It is little exaggeration to say that American political discourse had no equivalent in Russian and had to be invented. It emerged in the course of back–and–forth I had with Chalidze, as we both poured over the translation, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, article by article, culminating in the rendering of the US Constitution into what I hope was plain Russian (our edition ended with the U.S. Constitution).

That December 1990 and well into January 1991, our phone lines for voice and fax machines (the Internet had not yet been popularized) hummed non-stop between my home Berkeley, California, and his in Benson, Vermont. I don’t know if Valery ever became a US citizen, but I have no doubt that in a deep sense, both of us became American in the process of preparing this volume: there is no immersion more profound than the rendering of another’s complex thought into your native tongue. At the end, I felt confident enough to write an introduction for the Russian reader.

Our American Federalist in Russian was finished sometime in February or March 1991. A year later, when the Soviet Union was no more, and Mikhail Gorbachev was its president emeritus visiting U.S., I was at a reception for him at the house of George Schultz at Stanford. Nikolay Vorontsov, who was also there, introduced me to Gorbachev, and I tried to press my signed and leather-bound copy of the Russian Federalist into his hands. Gorbachev took the book, looked at it, then at me, and shot: “I already have one.” Then, seeing my long face, he graciously accepted it, thanked me, and gave me his famous Gorbie smile.
The Russian edition of The Federalist
Papers: Selected Articles

I still do not know if Gorbie or his associates found the volume helpful as they were revamping the USSR Constitution. Regardless, their efforts soon became irrelevant. The USSR ceased to exist. Still, there was a great demand for the Russian Federalist in Moscow of the new post-Soviet Russia. Every time I visited there (and I often did in the 1990s), I took a batch of copies. The press run of 10000 copies was soon depleted. I gave away my own last copy to Sergey Yushenkov, a liberal Duma Deputy. I know the Russian Federalist was used by the legal scholars who shaped the Russian Constitution of 1993, Viktor Leonidovich Sheinis among them. 

Oh what a waste, you might say, given the authoritarian regime that now rules Russia! Yes, you have a point. The stratospheric rise in oil prices in the early 2000s turned out to be more a greater driver of change in Russia than the ideas of The Federalist. But ideas —unlike oil, a renewable resource—take a long time to sink in and take effect. But they do, with time, as they have over the last three centuries of Russian history. I am confident that my Russian countrymen will have opportunities to benefit from The Federalist in the not so distant future, as they have benefited from the commitment to the rule of law – the common denominator for the opposition in Russia today — that Valery Chalidze, in one of his “crazy schemes,” planted in Soviet soil in the 1960s. Or in 1970 when he founded, along with Andrei Sakharov and others, the Soviet Union’s Committee for the Defense of Human Rights. He made a difference, as Gorbachev recognized as the was launching perestroika, and his legacy will continue to influence Russian legal and political thought and practice. R.I.P.

I will miss Chalidze.

May 27, Berkeley

Friday, April 27, 2018

Easter or Passover: My Exchange with Gary Saul Morson


The Right Supper

Gregory Freidin and Boris Dralyuk, reply by Gary Saul Morson

In response to:
The Horror, the Horror from the February 8, 2018 issue

To the Editors:

An old-time reader of The New York Review and a Russianist, I am heartened by your continued interest in Russian history, politics, and culture, as in the review of the most recent translations of Isaac Babel [Gary Saul Morson, “The Horror, the Horror,” NYR, February 8].

The reviewer’s general thesis is spot on. Babel’s prose (for that matter, any modernist prose) loses its éclat when translators substitute their interpretive elaborations for the master’s condensed staccato phrasing. But one begins to question the reviewer’s judgment when he refers to Babel’s protagonist-narrator in Red Cavalry as Vasily (he is Kiril) Lyutov and then proceeds to quote from a new translation of “Crossing the Zbruch,” ignoring a real howler: “shards of the hidden dishware Jews use once a year—at Easter.” Babel’s Russian: “Черепки сокровенной посуды, употребляемой у евреев раз в году—на Пасху [cherepki sokrovennoi posudy, upotrebliaemoi u evreev raz v godu—na Paskhu].” Babel’s narrator, the crypto-Jew Lyutov, does many awkward things in Red Cavalry but he would never confuse Easter and Passover. Nor would any Russian, Jewish or otherwise.

The howler goes back to Walter Morison’s translation: “fragments of the occult crockery Jews use once a year at Eastertime.” Sanctified by Lionel Trilling’s introduction and usable, if full of errors, it served for decades as the standard rendering of Babel into English. I do wonder what an earnest reader has been making out of this “occult crockery” or “hidden dishware” that “Jews use at Easter.” An allusion to blood libel?

Yes, in Russian, the word Paskha may refer to either the Christian Easter or the Jewish Passover. But the context in the story—a Jewish hovel in a shtetl that had just suffered a pogrom at the hands of the retreating Polish army—points only to Passover. It is at Passover that traditional Jews bring out their best tableware (sokrovennaia posuda—literally, set-aside dishes) for the Seder meal (my grandmother did). The award-winning translator Peter Constantine could not help inventing the Seder plate, but he got the Jewish holiday right: “fragments of a holy Seder plate that the Jews use once a year for Passover.”

Translating Babel is a herculean task despite or, perhaps, because his deceptively simple stories “pierce the heart” with such chilling immediacy. Translation mistakes are unavoidable. But why err unnecessarily when the answer to the riddle, at least in this case, lies in plain view?

And one last thing. In the review, the photo of Isaac Babel with a child in his arms is of Babel holding his son—not grandson—Mikhail, taken in January 1927.

Gregory Freidin
Emeritus Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature
Stanford University
Stanford, California

To the Editors:
As Isaac Babel’s Benya Krik says to a grieving mother after his gang has accidentally bumped off her son, “Everyone makes mistakes, even God.” Translators certainly make their share, as do reviewers. I want to point out a couple of mistakes made by Gary Saul Morson in his survey of several recent Babel translations, including my own. In the first place, the word Babel uses to describe the ruins of Novograd-Volynsk is skryuchennykh, not skruchennykh. The two are similar in sound and meaning, and can easily be confused. I translate the word that occurs, skryuchennykh, as “gnarled,” which is one of the meanings it carries when associated with old fingers or claws, and sometimes trees. In the very next story, “The Italian Sun,” Babel describes another scene of ruin: “the hooks of wicked old women’s fingers sticking from the earth.” The gnarled ruins and the hooked old fingers might resonate for a careful, imaginative anglophone reader. (Another minor mistake: the English nursery rhyme to which Morson refers was translated by Kornei Chukovsky, not Samuil Marshak.) But the important point is that individual words do not occur in a vacuum or in a decontextualized pattern of repetitions. Morson takes issue with my contextual translation of the word istlevshikh and quotes the relevant explanation from my introduction, but not in full. I write:
Other translators have rendered the word used to describe the state of the letters—“istlevshikh”—more or less literally, as “mouldering” or “that had rotted,” but this is a shade too ghoulish, and isn’t true to the lyrical tone. If one takes a moment to imagine what Babel’s narrator imagines—the romance of this decadent “way of life”—one can conjure the fragile letters before one’s eyes, feel their texture; they have been “worn thin” by friction and sweat. Here, Babel has waxed romantic. Throughout the cycle, Babel uses the same adjective to describe things ranging from “decayed wadding” and “rotten hay” to an old rebbe’s “withered fingers.” Context is everything. There’s plenty of brutality in these stories; it derives its effect from the beguiling lyricism that surrounds it.
Boris Dralyuk
Executive Editor
Los Angeles Review of Books
Los Angeles, California
Gary Saul Morson replies:
I thank Gregory Freidin and Boris Dralyuk for their comments. I did make two careless mistakes. First, a typo: the word is indeed (in one common transcription from the Cyrillic) skryuchennykh, not skruchennykh. Although my subsequent discussion, which suggested “crooked,” makes clear which word I meant—that is, the word that also appears in the nursery rhyme—I am glad to be corrected. Both Marshak and Chukovsky translated the nursery rhyme. Second, as I check Babel’s text, I see that the name is Kirill Vasilievich (Kirill, son of Vasily), not Vasily.
Freidin, who is in my opinion a fine critic, thinks it is a “howler” to translate Paskha as “Easter” rather than “Passover.” But as he acknowledges, the word Paskha does mean Easter as well as Passover, so it is hard to see how either choice could be a howler. Vinokur, as well as Morison, chooses “Eastertime”: “I find turned-out wardrobes…human excrement, and shards of the dishware Jews keep hidden and use once a year, at Eastertime.”
The reason I prefer “Easter” is that the narrator makes sure not to tell the Jews that he too is Jewish—he is, as Freidin acknowledges, a “crypto-Jew”—and they treat him accordingly. The story depends on the fact that the Jew acts and speaks as if he is not a Jew, and this is what Babel wants the (“earnest”) reader to understand. Lyutov (the name is chosen because it does not sound Jewish) does not “confuse Easter and Passover”; he pretends to be a non-Jew encountering the strange customs of Jews. He describes Jewishness from outside the culture, anthropologically, as if speaking to readers who are also outsiders, as the very need to explain that Jews use special dishes at that time of year suggests. Indeed, perhaps the best rendition would be: “at their Easter.” Babel’s narrator tries to hide his Jewishness even from himself, to overcome it, to act and speak like the non-Jews he envies.
The real problem here goes to the heart of why translation is so difficult. The original can remain ambiguous, meaning either Passover or Easter, but in English one must make a choice. My central point about Dralyuk is that he (like many other good translators) interprets the original when he does not need to. Indeed, he makes a principle of doing so. Depending on what one is translating, that can be the best way to proceed. But to catch Babel’s prose—prose that can refer to “invisible voices”—one often has to refrain from interpreting. You don’t want to take away the feeling of oddity and surprise. We have good translations of Babel, including Morison’s, Dralyuk’s, and especially Vinokur’s, but we still await one that really captures his prose in all its glorious strangeness.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Russia: A Very Brief History, Updated

The view from Millionnaia Street onto the Palace Square before the Hermitage, with St. Isaac's in the distance; in the foreground, a detail of the caryatid in entryway to the Maly Hermitage. St. Petersburg. 2006. Photo by the author.

Situated on the great Eurasian plane, Russia has been vulnerable to invasions from both East and West (Mongols, 1247-1480; Poles, 1605-1610; French, 1812; Germans, 1941). By the same token, once a centralized autocratic state was established under the grand princes of Muscovy, beginning with Ivan III (1462-1505), Russia could easily expand laterally and hold contiguous territories. Either way, holding the perimeter required a military force, consequently, taxes, and a powerful state to collect them.  Even today, after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the secession of Ukraine, Belorus, the Baltic republics and those of Central Asia, Russia spans the entire northern part of the Eurasian continent, from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea, and south to the Black Sea, including the latest claim to the Crimean Peninsula.

Adoption of Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium (988) brought Russia early into the fold of Christian Europe, but it also set it apart from the Roman Catholic West. Therein lies the beginning of Russia’s ambivalence toward the West and the recurrent belief in Russia’s special destiny as the bearer of true faith, whether Orthodox Christianity (“Moscow the Third Rome”), or the Slavic commonwealth imagined by the nineteenth-century Slavophiles, or revolutionary socialism preached by radical Westernizers, or world Communism inaugurated by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, or, of late, the conservative nativist nationalism of Putin’s Russia.

Isolated and fractured under the Mongol dominion and later threatened by the increasingly aggressive West, Russia was barely touched by the major European movements, the Renaissance, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, until the Enlightenment. Its own Russian Orthodox Church was never free from the tutelage of the state and to this day remains unreformed. Westernization came with Russia’s emergence on the world stage under Peter the Great (1682-1725). A modernizing autocrat, Peter established a lasting pattern for meeting the challenge of the modernized West – maintaining an uneasy and shifting balance between selective adoption of modern Western institutions, knowledge, dress and manners while protecting the centralized state and its power to impose corvée, heavy taxes, and to repress dissent.

Where the modernizing reforms were successful, achievements have been spectacular: in literature (Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov), music (Chaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev), art (Repin, Kandinsky, Malevich), theater and ballet (Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, the Ballets Russes), film (Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin), science (Mendeleev, Pavlov, Sakharov, Kapitsa), hi-tech weaponry and space technology (the Bomb, the Sputnik). Russia was first recognized as a military superpower when it defeated Napoleon in 1812 and under the Soviets when it vanquished Nazi Germany in 1945. It still enjoys a quasi-superpower status, largely thanks to its nuclear stockpiles and Europe's largest military. But the price of modernization has exacted a heavy toll: Peter’s reforms strengthen serfdom, abolished only in 1861, private ownership of land and property rights, abolished under communism and restored after 1991, are still subject to the whim of the state authorities; civil society is thwarted by the officialdom and state control of the electronic media; corruption is ubiquitous and practically unchecked.

Deep antagonism between modernizing trends, especially the rule of law and the concentration of unchecked power at the top — be it under a tsar, a communist dictatorship (1917-1991), or Vladimir Putin’s vertical “sovereign democracy” — has produced an unstable and skittish polity. Periods of repression (extreme under Stalin) are punctuated by decade-long episodes of exuberant liberation (viz. Gorbachev and Yeltsin), but consolidating reforms are, in turn, undermined by renewed centralization and turn toward authoritarianism at the top.

Emancipated from communism in 1991, Russia has been struggling to institute democracy and a market economy in the face of countervailing trends, among them, Muslim irredentism in the Caucasus, endemic corruption and state control of the economy, rise of nativism and nationalism, and, on the part of the power elite, a backsliding into a populist authoritarianism stoking resentment against the West. Significant progress has been achieved nevertheless, in part, because the profits from the rich deposits of oil and natural gas have been shared broadly, albeit unevenly. A new generation of Russian citizens, modern and free from the instinctive Soviet fear of state authority, is now entering their twenties and is bound to affect the country's future by expecting more democracy and more freedom. But the overall picture remains mixed, especially since Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and subsequent fomenting of civil war in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine led to the imposition of sanctions by the US and EU, as well as relative international  isolation.  Russia's aggressive meddling in the US Presidential Elections in 2016 has led to further estrangement between the two nuclear superpowers. The benign international climate Russia enjoyed for over two decades since the end of the cold war and collapse of communism has been replaced with a renewed antagonism with the West.

Copyright © 2010, 2018 by Gregory Freidin

PS. This is the most recent update for the essay on Russian history in 300 words that I was commissioned to write for an on-line reference in 2000. I've updated it twice now, trying to keep it short enough - 700 words - to fit into a newspaper column. For the 2010 version, click here.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Арсений Рогинский (1946-2017), по памяти

Знаком я был с Сеней Рогинским с юношеских лет (познакомил Гарик Суперфин). Мы - ровесники, и в 1960-е годы было много забавных историй, похождений - жили не тужили... В 1971 г. я уехал в Америку. Кое-какие вести о его судьбе до меня доходили, как и то, что его арестовали фактически за его исследовательскую работу о репрессиях в СССР.  Освободили Сеню в 1985 г. Он отсидел четыре года, полный срок, от звонка до звонка. 

Мой первый день в Москве после семнадцати лет в Америке. Начало сентября 1988 года. Лечу по Тверской . Напротив памятника Пушкину (Пушкин лукаво клонит голову) кучка молодежи, а рядом - еще одна кучка молодежи - в форме ОМОН. Я остановил такси и выскочил на тротуар. Билось сердце по старой провозащитной традиции от вида молодежи и самодельных плакатов. Они собирали подписи и деньги в поддержку Мемориала, который тогда еще не имел определенного статуса. Стычки с ОМОНом не произошло, я что-то подписал и дал денег. В возбуждении от непривычки видеть такое в Москве - в 1971 нас бы всех давно замели - поговорил с демонстрантами, поделился моим нехитрым опытом, услыхал от них имя Рогинского, других старых друзей, и защемило сердце. Я уезжал в глубокий застой, а тут всё бурлило - о, как помчалась кляча история!

Увиделись мы с Сеней вскоре после этого на квартире историка Никиты Охотина и лингвиста Анютой Поливановой, старой моей подруги. Я им описал мое приключение на Пушкинской. Они знали этих ребят по именам, и мы хорошо посмеялись. Сеня с Никитой тогда во всю разворачивали Мемориал. С тех пор виделись почти каждый раз, когда оба были в Москве, а я тогда бывал часто.

Сейчас мне все время вспоминается вечер в 1992 году. Мы с Сеней и Никитой на квартире Никиты Охотина на Плющихе. Сеня с Никитой тогда готовили материалы для судебного процесса над КПССМы что-то попивали, чем-то закусывали на кухне. Дело, вроде, обычное, но тут дух захватывало от сознания неповторимости момента. Казалось, шел суд истории, и мы в первом ряду. 

Я рассказывал о том, как провел несколько дней в Кремле, журналистом, на последнем съезде КПСС, а через год, в августе после переворота - там же, среди союзного начальства, когда они обсуждали, что делать с коммунистами и партийной собственностью... Ни до того. ни после я уже не видал такого скопления членов КПСС. Но у Сени с Никитой дела были поинтересней! 

Сеня был прирожденный рассказчик. Окутанный облаком табачного дыма -- голосом из неопалимой купины -- он вещал взахлеб, на какие хитрые ходы ему приходилось пускаться, чтобы получить доступ к документам. Показывал копии бумаг, которые тогда еще казались немыслимыми.

У меня осталась где-то парочка шедевров, один из них о воронах-шпионах в Псковской (?) области, другой - с просьбой добрать еще тыщёнок по "первой категории"сверх разнарядки, т.е., расстрелять, и с резолюцией от усатого - "согласен".  До сих пор холодеет кровь.

Суд над КПСС, как известно, не состоялся, начиналась эпоха разочарования (и выживания), но в отличие от "разочаровавшихся", Сеня не остановился, не ушел "в подполье", а все свои силы бросил на Мемориал, его детище, к которому, хочется верить, не зарастет народная тропа (опять Пушкин)... 

Благодаря Сене Рогинскому, гражданам России живется лучше, их  историческое сознание, просветленное Мемориалом, теперь на их собственной совести, а совесть эта, если не чище, то, по крайней мере, здоровее, отзывчивей. 

Я горжусь, что мне выпало знать Сеню. Я был и остаюсь современником Арсения Рогинского.

Беркли. 20 дек., 2017

Friday, August 18, 2017

Babel, Isaac Emmanuilovich (1894-1940)

My biographical essay on Isaac Babel for the on-line Encyclopedia Britannica, revised and expanded for TNT, including the photos. Most of the hyperlinks are those of Britannica on–line. See also my article on Red Cavalry in Enzyklopädie jüdischer Geschichte und Kultur: "Reitarmee" (2016).

Isaac Babel @1924
Isaac BabelIsaac also spelled Isaak, original name in full Isaak Emmanuilovich Babel (born June 30 [July 12, New Style], 1894, Odessa, Ukraine, Russian Empire—died January 27, 1940, Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R.), Russian Jewish short-story writer known for his cycles of stories: Konarmiya (1926, rev. ed. 1931, enlarged 1933; Red Cavalry), set in the Russo-Polish War (1919–20); Odesskiye rasskazy (1931; Tales of Odessa), set in the Jewish underworld of Odessa; and Istoriya moey golubyatni (1926; “Story of My Dovecote”), named after the opening story of autobiographical fiction about a middle-class Jewish boy growing up in Nikolayev and Odessa under the old regime. Babel’s innovative prose is distinguished by aphoristic precision, combined with the metaphoric extravagance of Modernist poetry. It had a considerable impact on the genres of short story and autobiographical fiction both in Russia and abroad, especially in the United States. Translated into many languages, his works have for decades exemplified both the achievement of Russia’s literature of the revolutionary Soviet period and the dilemmas faced by a modern intellectual, a Russian, a European, and a Jew, caught in the swell of a violent social upheaval.

Odessa, where Babel was born to a struggling middle-class Jewish family, was a chief inspiration, even though his early childhood passed in the nearby city of Nikolayev (1894–1905). Babel was the third of five children (two died in infancy, and one, Hanna Ghitel, died at age seven, when Babel was four; his only surviving sister, Maria, was born in 1897). In Nikolayev, Babel’s father came to enjoy business success, and in 1904 Babel began his formal education at Nikolayev’s Count Witte Commercial Academy. 

Isaac Babel and his father
In December 1905 Babel moved to Odessa and transferred to the Nicholas I Commercial Academy, from which he graduated in 1911.  The rest of the family moved back to Odessa in 1906 and eventually settled in the city centre, in well-to-do Richelieu Street (Rishelievskaya). 

Cafe Rabin. Odessa.

Known for their secularism and cultural vibrancy, the Jews of this most cosmopolitan city in the Pale of Settlement made up a third of the population and were well represented among the poor, the middle class, and the very rich. Although Babel’s parents were observant Jews (albeit not strictly) and subject to the anti-Jewish restrictions of the old regime, their values were largely shaped by the opportunities offered by Russia’s modernization. The family language was Russian (Babel was taught to read Russian by his mother), with enough Yiddish for Babel to be comfortable translating a favorite author, Sholem Aleichem, in his later years. Babel’s father, a moderately successful businessman, did his best to give his two children a full-fledged modern Russian education, replete with foreign languages and, typical for Odessa, classical music (Babel studied violin with the famous Pyotr Stolyarsky). 
Isaac Babel with father and sister Mary (1911-12)
A rabbi’s son, the elder Babel also took care to have his children instructed in Judaism and Hebrew. Babel’s knowledge of the Talmud and the Jewish religious tradition was sufficient to allow him in 1920 to discuss the finer points of traditional Judaism with Hasidic scholars in Galicia. His upbringing, however, was for the most part secular and rooted in the Russian Enlightenment culture of the country’s educated society. His first attempts at prose fiction (none has survived) were in French, a circumstance he attributed to his charismatic teacher, a French expatriate and member of Odessa’s substantial French community.

Babel (third from the left) and school mates 1910-1911
In the fall of 1911, Babel went on to study economics and business at the Kiev Institute of Finance and Business Studies, receiving the degree of Kandidat of economic sciences in 1916 (in 1915, the Institute was temporarily evacuated to Saratov). While finishing his studies at the Kiev Institute, he enrolled in the faculty of law at the liberal Psycho-Neurological Institute in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) and, once there, proceeded to launch his career as a reporter and short-story writer. Although his first known story, “Old Shloyme,” appeared in a small Kiev weekly called Ogni (“Lights”) in 1913 (the year of the infamous blood-libel Beilis trial), Babel never mentioned it and preferred to place his literary debut at the end of 1916 when he met Maxim Gorky, who welcomed him into literary authorship by publishing a selection of Babel’s stories in the November 1916 issue of his journal Letopis (“Chronicle”), alongside his own autobiography. 

This was a major coup for a fledgling author and assured his wider recognition. As Babel recalled in his later recollections of this encounter, he then represented a "mixture – pink-cheeked, plump, unfermented – of a Tolstoyan and a Social–Democrat, who did not wear a overcoat but was forearmed  with a pair of spectacles, their earpieces reinforced with waxed thread" ("Commencement," 1937).  Babel's early rejection of violence ("Tolstoyan")  and his leftist sympathies were to last him a lifetime. His friendship and congeniality with Gorky, the most famous Russian writer at the time, continued, along with Gorky’s patronage, until the esteemed author’s death in 1936.

Consonant with Babel’s background, convictions, and milieu, his early stories shied away from the raging Great War, exploring instead the gritty middle-class world of a modern Russian city whose inhabitants often operated at, or over, the margins of propriety and law—such as a small-time Jewish merchant moving in with a prostitute to avoid deportation (“Elya Isaakovich and Margarita Prokofyevna”), a desperate gymnasium girl seduced by a boarder and trying to induce an abortion (“Mama, Rimma, and Alla”), or a young writer watching through a peephole the goings-on in a house of ill repute (“Through a Peephole”). In the manner of Gorky’s fiction and, even more so, Guy de Maupassant, Babel took a keen interest in Russian Jews as urbanites living by their wits, small-time operators, bohemians, and members of the “world’s oldest profession,” whose business he ironically juxtaposed with that of a modern litterateur (“My First Fee”). Unlike his predecessors, such as Sholom Aleichem or Anton Chekhov, he tended to see in his Jewish subjects not so much the victims of rapid change but resourceful characters making use of capitalism and urbanization to their own advantage. 

That sanguine outlook found expression in his youthful but important manifesto, “My Notes: Odessa,” a paean to his native city, in which he saw a model for Russia’s own modernization in matters of economics, popular culture, and, especially, belles lettres. In conclusion, he predicted the imminent arrival—from Odessa—of a new “literary Messiah,” a “Russian Maupassant,” who would deliver classical Russian literature from its moody northern predicament and replace it with the cosmopolitan zest of the empire’s sun-drenched multiethnic southwest. Babel’s subsequent career may be seen as an attempt to fulfill this promise, couched, albeit ironically, in the language of a religious prophecy (a practice common in Russian modernism).

Workers demonstration. Petrograd, July 1917.
Little is known about Babel’s whereabouts in the summer and fall of 1917. Babel claimed that he spent those months volunteering at the Romanian front (not far from his native Odessa). He may have later journeyed back to Petrograd, as recounted in his story “Doroga” (“The Road”). All we know for certain is that he resurfaced in Petrograd in March 1918, when he joined the staff of Gorky’s anti-Bolshevik newspaper Novaya Zhizn (“New Life”), to which he contributed a series of sketches about everyday life in the revolutionary city, sketches that were both skeptical of the Bolshevik coup d'état and took a strong position against violence. At the same time, by his own account in his 1924 autobiography and the quasi-autobiographical "The Road," he moonlighted as a translator for the Petrograd Cheka (secret police, forerunner of the KGB and FSB). After the Bolsheviks shut down Novaya Zhizn in July 1918, Babel continued to publish and do occasional work for the new Soviet Commissariat of Enlightenment. He was also drafted into service with a food procurement detachment traveling to the German colonies of the Saratov region to exchange manufactured good for victuals sorely needed in the depleted city. In the spring and summer of 1919, he was back in Odessa, where in August he married Yevgeniya Gronfayn (1897–1957), daughter of his father’s rich business associate. She was an aspiring artist, well-educated and erudite, their romance going back to his student days in Kiev. 

Evgeniia Babel (nee Gronfain), @1924
Babel, who was anxious to burnish his revolutionary credentials his 1924 Autobiography, claimed to have "fought against Yudenich" during the siege of Petrograd (September-November 1919) while Odessa was occupied by Denikin's White Army. Traveling to Petrograd from the Whites-occupied Odessa was nearly impossible, and Babel, in fact, may not have strayed too far. In February 1920, after the Reds pushed Denikin out of Odessa, Babel went to work as editor for the Odessa Gubernia State Publishing.

In the spring of 1920, unexpectedly, given his pacifist convictions, Babel joined Semyon Budenny’s First Cavalry Army as a reporter for YugROSTA (the southern branch of the Russian Telegraph Agency) and was soon thereafter assigned to the 6th Division of the army for the duration of the Soviet-Polish war. 

Commanders of the 1st Cavalry Army in the summer 1920.
Voroshilov, Budenny, and Shchadenko
While there he also performed staff duties at the division headquarters, contributed to the army broadsheet Red Cavalryman under a Russian-sounding pen name, Kiril Lyutov (Ferocious), and on occasion accompanied his detachment into action.

Konstantin Timoshenko, Commander of
6th Division and character in Red Cavalry.
After complaints, Babel 
his name to Savitsky
Much of the fighting done by Budenny’s Cavalry Army took place in the ethnically diverse borderlands between eastern Poland and western Ukraine, a largely Polish-Ukrainian region long settled by traditional, largely Hasidic, Jewish communities. Babel had displayed a special interest in Hasidic folklore (e.g., in his story “Shabos Nakhamu,” 1918, from his projected “Hershele” cycle) and was eager to explore the life of these insular communities, many of them little touched by modernization. Decimated in the crossfire of World War I, they were now further victimized by the warring armies in the Soviet-Polish conflict. Babel’s experience during this campaign, recorded in his 1920 Diary, formed the basis for the stories of Red Cavalry (1926). 

Popular print Seder. Volynia. Late 19th century.
Some of them, including the opening “Crossing the Zbruch,” are set amid devastated Jewish life, and, while they do not dominate the book as a whole, they provide a counterpoint to the key motif of violence that runs throughout the entire narrative. Babel’s direct exposure to violence, marked by the visceral brutality of a low-tech war, the intensity of the battlefield comradeship, and bonding with people far outside his ken, made a dent in his pacifism and transformed him as a writer. An author who had eschewed violence before, he now placed it at the centre of his fiction. 

Red Cavalry (1926). First edition.
The first stories of the Red Cavalry cycle began to appear in Odessa’s press as early as 1923. Babel began to work on this war material in 1921–23, proceeding on parallel tracks: one was devoted to chronicling the Russo-Polish War and the other to his Tales of Odessa cycle, a set of Rabelaisian stories about the colourful Jewish gangster Benya Krik—a mock Jewish messiah—and a subtle allegory of Babel’s own incipient career as a Russian Jewish writer irreverently “muscling in” on the domain of Russian literature (“How It Was Done in Odessa”). The first story of the cycle, “The King,” appeared in the Odessa paper Moryak  (“Mariner”) on June 23, 1921. 

Babel. 1922
Literary fame came to Babel after his story began to appear in the Moscow journals, first in 1923, in fellow-travellers' Krasnaia nov, edited by Aleksandr Voronsky, then in Vladimir Mayakovsky's LEF (in the last 1923 issue which went into circulation early in 1924). The LEF publication was a big coup for Mayakovsky and his avant-garde colleagues. They were then promoting a new literary trend, the "literature of fact," and saw in the Red Cavalry stories, with their authentic air of a reporter's diary, a brilliant realization of their ideas. Even Babel's fantastic and humorous Odessa Stories were credited with representing the exploits of a real Odessa gangster Mishka Yaponchik. Babel, too, was pleased. For him, the LEF publication was a "debut" – as an author of books rather than a short-story writer. The most representative of his oeuvre, as he then conceived of it, it included two of his Tales of Odessa and six stories from the Red Cavalry cycle. Their subtitles indicated that they were elements ("chapters") of a larger form, not a random selection of short stories.

The Cover and Table of Content of LEF #4, 1923 (printed in
January 1924). Babel's selection is followed by Gas Masks, 
Sergei Tretyakov's play set in a factory

The Tales of Odessa are narrated by a bookish young man “with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart,” an ironic alter ego of the author. This narrator is fascinated by the brash energy and unabashed sexuality of Benya Krik, a cosmopolitan Jew who resorts to violence, not just for self-enrichment, but for the sake of redistributing wealth; who can take another's life in the cause of justice; and, equally important, who can “spend the night with a Russian woman and a Russian woman would be satisfied.” It is in these stories that Babel found his unique narrative persona and voice – in a comic, or tragicomic, mode. Pitched to a different key, they inform Red Cavalry and indeed his oeuvre in its entirety, including “Story of My Dovecote” and other works. Thus, if the Tales of Odessa represents a “mock epic,” then Red Cavalry is its true epic counterpart, its fragmented, staccato, character notwithstanding. Variations on Babel’s narrative persona and its distinct voice can often be recognized in the works of the post-World War II American writers exploring Jewish American life, such as Philip Roth and Grace Paley, who explore, with the aid of a similar narrative voice, the themes of sex and violence in the course of Jewish assimilation into American post-WWII modernity.

Tales of Odessa, cover of
the first edition (1931)

The short stories and vignettes of Red Cavalry form a unit, similar to a novel, thanks to the character of the narrator Kiril Lyutov. Ostensibly autobiographical, Lyutov evolves as a character in a novel between the opening story of Red Cavalry, “Crossing the Zbruch,” and its closure, “Rebbe’s Son.” He shares many qualities with the chronicler of the Tales of Odessa, just as the Odessa gangsters may be easily transposed onto Budenny’s horsemen of Red Cavalry. Babel used his narrator as a device to probe the uneasy confluence of bookish intellectuals, a violent socialist revolution, redemptive nationalism (the resurgence of Poland, Ukraine), and the messianic beliefs of the region’s Hasidic communities.

Polish 1920 War poster. Soviets as
represented as a red-shirted Cossack. 
"Who believes in God, defend the Holy 
Virgin of Ostrobramskmarch under 
the Eagle Banner."
While sympathetic to the cause of world revolution, Red Cavalry’s Lyutov finds it hard to reconcile its lofty ends with the immense brutality of its means: Budenny’s motley Cossack army possesses as much instinct for raw social justice as for marauding, pogroms, and rape. This paradox remains unresolved, except ironically through the aesthetization of violence. Lyutov professes his admiration for the strong will, directness, and vitality of the Cossacks—these cousins to Nietzsche’s blonde Bestie, who are doing the bidding of the Bolshevik regime, even as they oppress and victimize other sufferers, who they had been meant to liberate. The same contradictions rend to pieces the visions that possess the minds of other players in the unfolding drama of war.

Soviet poster. 1920. Poland  (left) is represented
as a 17th-century Polish land owner. "Hurry up and
the Polish master good and don't forget 
the Baron [Wrangel] either!"
In this way, albeit only implicitly, the setting of Babel’s Red Cavalry becomes a latter-day Jerusalem—a focal point of clashing chiliastic and apocalyptic collective dreams. Babel mentions this “Jerusalem motif” explicitly in his war diary, in the July 24 entry, which was made on the eve of Tisha be-Av, when Jews commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temple and recite the Lamentations of Jeremiah. “Everything is the same,” Babel concluded in his description of his surroundings, “as in the days of the destruction of the Temple.” This motif is never spelled out in Red Cavalry, but it is threaded through its whole structure, complete with the figure of Ilya (Elijah)—a defeated precursor manqué—whose last breath animates Babel’s alter ego Lyutov in the concluding story, “Rebbe’s Son.” 

Thus Babel, as the author of Red Cavalry, made good on his earlier promise of becoming the messiah, if only a literary one, who redeems his fallen world in his fiction. In this regard, Babel was not very different from other Russian authors of his generations who made the Christ motif central to their writings (e.g., Osip Mandelstam in his poetic ouevre, Mikhail Bulgakov in his Master and Margarita, Boris Pasternak in his Doctor Zhivago).

Babel. Cartoon by K. Rotov (1934-35)

For many leftist intellectuals in Russia and in the West, Red Cavalry embodied the moral ambiguity of the Revolution: its abhorrent brutality on the one hand and, on the other, the irresistible desire to see ideas of truth and justice unleash and animate the people, becoming a force akin to life itself. Babel’s writings enjoyed an enthusiastic critical response in Soviet Russia, even though he himself was classified as a “fellow traveler,” an author who tagged along with the Bolsheviks but only so far. Controversies and condemnation, notably Budenny’s attacks on him in 1924 and 1928, were countered by authoritative figures, Gorky among them, and, while they stung Babel to the quick, they also served to burnish his fame.

Story of My Dovecote (1925)
In 1925 Babel began publishing a series of semi-autobiographical stories in which his familiar narrator was implicitly summoned to “recall” his early years. Presented as part of a book about his boyhood and dedicated to Gorky, the seminal “Story of My Dovecote” and “First Love” (1925) suggest that Babel conceived of his oeuvre as a set of consecutive autobiographical cycles, not unlike Gorky’s autobiographical trilogy, and he continued to add to it, as he did to his two other major cycles, throughout the 1930s. In those childhood stories, Babel successfully established a new genre of a quasi-autobiographical novella about a middle-class Jewish boy who is tested in and shaped by a complex of opposing cultural forces: opportunities opening up for Jews in the modernizing Gentile world and its anti-Jewish prejudice; the parental pressure to succeed and its opposite, the recoil against secularization and assimilation; and, finally, the confusion of sexual codes articulating the clash between the more traditional Jewish family and the modern cosmopolitan world outside.

The Bolsheviks’ sharp turn toward socialist construction and conformity beginning in 1929 threatened to marginalize Babel. A total mobilization was declared, and Soviet writers all had to pull their weight in the national effort to build socialism in one country on the basis of collectivized agriculture and rapid industrialization. Of the several stories he wrote about the collectivization of agriculture (1929–30), two have survived, and only one was published in his lifetime (“Gapa Guzhva,” 1931). Raw and violent, powerful in the manner of Red Cavalry, they stood out from contemporary Soviet prose and did not bode well for Babel’s future in the emerging Stalinist canon (after reading "Gapa Guzhva" Stalin, who sought in Soviet literature  an unambiguous endorsement of his policies, referred to the author as “our slippery Babel,” unsure of his loyalty to the Soviet cause). 

Stalin in the Caucasus (man with a hatchet is L. Beria). 1932
Babel's only published “industrialization” story, the highly condensed miniature novella “Petrol,” appeared in 1934. Intense, laconic and brilliant, it manages to give voice to the human drama – its costs and its hopes – involved in the country's transformation but it is far from the First Five-Year Plan epics that were the order of the day. From the early 1930s on, Babel’s published literary output steadily diminished: a few short stories and one play, Maria. There are indications, however, that Babel continued to write "for the drawer."

Like some of the other writers of his generation, Babel began writing for the screen in the 1920s, using this opportunity as both a secondary creative outlet and a major source of livelihood to supplement his meagre literary income. A friend and frequent collaborator of Sergey Eisenstein, Babel enjoyed the reputation of a brilliant screenwriter, an innovative master of silent-film inter-titles (e.g., the still extant Jewish Luck, 1925), and, later, film dialogue. He also encountered adversities in dealing with the Soviet film establishment. Babel and Eisenstein planned to work together on a film version of the Tales of Odessa, but the collaboration was derailed by scandals at the Moscow Film Studios, and Babel, always short of money, was forced to sell his script to the Ukrainian Film Studios. The resulting film, Benya Krik (1927), was, in Babel’s opinion, a failure. It was also banned soon after its release, returning to circulation a year later. 

Isaac Babel and Sergei Eisensteing. 1936
In 1935, after returning from Paris, Babel collaborated with the French film maker Jean Lods, then working for the Odessa film studio, on a documentary about his native city ("Odessa"). The film reflects the spirit of the Popular Front, with its strong anti-war sentiment, and ironically reworks the famous Odessa Steps scene from Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin (1925)." Babel’s 1936–37 collaboration with Eisenstein on the film Bezhin Meadow (about a young communist boy, Pavlik Morozov, murdered by his retrograde peasant father) was officially vilified for its “formalism,” an aesthetic deemed too complex for the mass Soviet viewer. The film was banned in postproduction, its stock recycled. Yet many of the films of the late 1920s and ’30s were based on Babel’s scripts, most notably Lyotchiki (1935), also known as Men with Wings; he was also the author of the dialogue for the blockbuster comedy Tsirk (The Circus,1936). 

Screenshot from the 1935 Lyotchiki (Men with
Wings) for which Babel revised the script
and wrote the dialogue.
Preferring to associate his name with his belles lettres only (he used pen names in his early journalism), Babel insisted on not having his name listed in film credits, and we are made aware of his roles only thanks to the memoirs of the filmmakers and Babel’s own private correspondence. Babel must have been the author (co-author?) of the script for the screen version (1938–40) of Maxim Gorky’s trilogy, directed by Mark Donskoy, and he was deeply involved in the film’s production. However, his arrest in 1939 meant that his name, regardless of his wishes or role, would not appear in the film’s credits.

From his youth Babel benefited from the rich theatre life of Odessa (his story "Di Grasso," 1937). He loved theatre and enjoyed writing for the stage. In his lifetime, his sole successful attempt on the theatre stage was his play Zakat (1927; Sunset).

Babel's Play Sunset at MKhAT II. Moscow, 1928. Left to
right:  Benya (I. Bersenev), Lyovka Krik (A. Zhilinsky), 
Mendel Krik (A. Cheban), Nikifor (B.M. Afonin),
Nekhama (V. Solovyeva), Boyarsky (A. Geirot),
Arye-Leyb (A. Azarin)
Featuring the jolly gangster Benya Krik from Tales of Odessa, the play ends with a somber, if not grim, vision of Odessa’s carnivalesque underworld, as it is being transformed into a routinized capitalist enterprise, replete with bookkeeping and other bourgeois proprieties.

The play's focus on the transition from the exuberant vitality to brutal economic routinization may have resonated with the Russian Revolution’s turn toward routinizaton and disenchantment felt by those who missed its earlier creative frisson. A similar sentiment informs a contemporary popular novel, Envy (1927), by Babel’s friend and fellow Odessan Yury Olesha, as well as the late plays by another friend, Vladimir Mayakovsky. Although the 1928 Moscow production of the play received mixed reviews, its 1927–28 run on the provincial stage—in Kiev, Minsk (in Yiddish), and Odessa, where it played simultaneously in two theatres, in Russian and Ukrainian—was an unqualified success.

His second play, Maria (Maria, 1935), was published in a theater journal and went through rehearsals  in Moscow and Leningrad. Dark and brooding, with many autobiographical resonances, the play examines the vicissitudes of an upper-class intelligentsia family, the Mukovnins, as they try to adjust to the harsh realities of the revolutionary Petrograd.
Program for the U.S. Premiere
of Babel's play Maria. Stanford University. 2004
The action revolves around the family’s hope for the return of Maria Mukovnin, the clan’s favourite, who, like Babel in his day, joined Budenny’s Cavalry Army at the Polish Front. Maria never returns and, in a brilliant anticipation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1948), never appears on stage. Full of ambiguities, not so subtly questioning the alleged proletarian, rather than peasant, character of the Bolshevik revolution, Maria – for Babel, the unattainable Aphrodite Urania of the Revolution – was deemed ideologically suspect and did not reach the stage in in the author's lifetime. It has since enjoyed successful productions in London, in western and eastern Europe, and, since perestroika, in Russia. Maria premiered in the U.S. in 2004 at Stanford University's Pigott Theater under the direction of Carl Weber.

Tom Freeland, left, as General Mukovnin,
Audrey Hannah as Lyudmila, and Zack as Dymshits.
Stanford Pigott Theater. 2004

A prominent member of the Soviet cultural elite and an international celebrity, Babel lived abroad for prolonged periods of time in 1927–28 and 1932–33 and for two months in 1935, when, along with Boris Pasternak, he traveled to Paris to speak at the International Congress for the Defense of Culture (after André Malraux and André Gide threatened to scuttle the event if Babel and Pasternak were not allowed to travel there). 

Babel (second from left) at the 1935 Paris Congress
Babel’s mother and sister had emigrated to Belgium early in 1925, followed shortly thereafter by Babel’s wife, who settled in Paris and bore their daughter, Natalie in 1929. Abroad Babel maintained a wide circle of friends and acquaintances among the émigrés as well as Soviet expatriates, most notably Ilya Ehrenburg.  He even planned a cycle of "Tales of Paris." Two were published in his lifetime:  the brilliant "Dante Street" and "The Trial."  

Malraux, Koltsov. Gorky, and Babel. Tesseli, 1936
He was on friendly terms with Andre Malraux, a famous author and leader of the French antifascist left, who took a keen interest in the Soviet Union in the heady days of the Popular Front. Babel hosted Malraux in Moscow during the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, a defining moment for Soviet culture in the 1930s as well as for the country’s international standing as a bulwark against fascism and Nazism. In his speech at the Congress, Babel referred to himself as a practitioner of “the genre of literary silence” but also as one whose creative “gestation was more akin to that of an elephant than a rabbit.” Notably, with daring precision, he identified another cause for his diminished output: the fear of angering the all-powerful authorities with a wrong kind of writing. “The Party and the state have given us everything,” he averred with irony, “taking away from us  but one right—the right to write badly.” This was of course an indictment of Soviet censorship as an intimidating force.  Likewise, while acknowledging great strides in "socialist construction" ("the first scaffoldings are being removed from the socialism's construction site") and lauding Stalin's oratory style for its brevity, he offered a critique of Stalin's growing cult of personality, warning in jest that "soon, comrades, we'll be issuing declarations of love through a bullhorn, like referees on a playing field"). We can only wonder how clearly contemporaries heard these caveats. Ultimately, Babel’s attempts at bringing forth a work about the country's transformation that would be comparable to Red Cavalry proved unrealistic, frustrating the regime's expectations of a new masterpiece. The pressure on Babel mounted throughout the 1930s. He was aware, as he would told his interrogators  in 1939, that his failure to deliver was seen as a refusal to celebrate Soviet achievement under Stalin.
Babel caricatured as speaker at the Congress
of Soviet Writers (1934). The epigram (top
right) asks
 why, once voluble, the author of Red Cavalry has fallen silent.
The Great Terror swept away many of Babel’s friends in the military, security, the party, and the cultural elite, finally reaching Babel himself on May 15, 1939. By then Babel had started another family in Russia, with Antonina Pirozhkova (1909–2010), a civil engineer, who gave birth to Babel’s second daughter, Lydia, in 1937.
Babel and Antonina Pirozhkova. 1938
A friend, mentor, and former lover of Evgeniia Yezhov, the wife of Stalin’s butcher Nikolay Yezhov, Babel may have enjoyed some immunity at the height of the Great Terror. But with the fall of Yezhov in 1938, the suicide of his wife, and Yezhov’s arrest in 1939, this fortuitous connection became a liability. Babel's reputation as an  antifascist celebrity spokesman for the U.S.S.R. in France may still have afforded him some protection. But Stalin’s turn toward an alliance with Nazi Germany in the spring 1939 made Babel’s credentials among the French antifascists irrelevant. 

The Hitler-Stalin Alliance of August 1939. David Low
He was arrested in his country house in the writers’ village, Peredelkino, where he was then preparing for publication a collection of stories, some of them apparently new. He was accused of espionage for Austria (he once shared a house with an Austrian engineer) and France (for his meetings with Malraux) as well as a terrorist conspiracy (his association with Yezhov’s wife) and various anti-Soviet activities. After several days of nonstop interrogation and torture, Babel signed a “confession.” He later renounced it, then renounced it again and again, the last time during the final hearing. To no avail. He was tried, pronounced  guilty, and sentenced to death on January 26, 1940. 

He was executed a few hours later, at 1:30 am on the 27th. After Stalin's death, Babel was among the first victims of the Great Terror to be cleared of all charges (1954), but his entire personal archive—all of his unpublished works, drafts, notebooks, correspondence—which had been confiscated during his arrest, disappeared without a trace.

Babel’s literary rehabilitation began in 1957, when a collection of his stories and plays, with a foreword by Ehrenburg, appeared in the Soviet Union. Two years earlier a notable American edition, with an introduction by Lionel Trilling, had become the foundation of the Babel revival in the United States that continues to this day. In 2010 Babel became the first Russian writer of the 20th century to be published in W.W. Norton’s Critical Editions series, the most comprehensive  edition to date of Babel’s writings, correspondence, and reception materials in English translation. 

Norton Critical Edition of Babel's Selected Writings

In Russian, the most authoritative edition of Babel’s stories is: Rasskazy, edited and annotated by Elena Pogorelskaya, published by St. Petersburg's Vita Nova in 2014.

Gregory Freidin

Copyright ⓒ 2017 Gregory (Grisha) Freidin

Monument to Isaac Babel in Odessa