Friday, August 18, 2017

Babel, Isaac Emmanuilovich (1894-1940)

Note: Below is my biographical essay on Isaac Babel for the on-line Encyclopedia Britannica, substantially revised and expanded for this blog (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 immersed in Jewish American life, such as Philip Roth and Grace Paley, who explore, in 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 are
represented as a red-shirted Cossack being lanced by a Polish soldier. 
"He who believes in God, defend the Holy Virgin of Ostrobramskmarch
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 a Christ-figure central to their writings, among them, Osip Mandelstam in his poetic ouevre, Ilya Ehrenburg in his parodic Julio Jurenito, Mikhail Bulgakov in Master and Margarita, or Boris Pasternak in 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 unleashed, as they animate people and become 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, as he realized, 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 construct "socialism in one country" on the basis of forced collectivized agriculture and break-kneck-speed 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, and equally ambiguous or ironic, 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, questioned Babel's loyalty to the Soviet cause, referring to him as “our slippery Babel.” He preferred Virgin Land Upturned by Alexander Sholokhov, the author who developed under the influence of Isaac Babel. 

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, had to turn to the Ukrainian Film Studios to sell his script. The resulting film, Benya Krik (1927), was, in Babel’s opinion, a failure. It was also banned soon after its release, although it was restored to circulation a year later. 

Isaac Babel and Sergei Eisensteing. 1936
In 1935, after returning from the Peace Congress in 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. It reworks and ironically reverses the famous Odessa Steps scene from Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" (1925). Participants ion Babel's crowd scene maake love, not war. 

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 subversive 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 dialogues 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 "I. Babel" with his belles lettres only (he used pen names in his early journalism), he insisted on not being listed in film credits; we are made aware of his roles only thanks to the memoirs of the filmmakers and Babel’s own private correspondence. Babel was the principal 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 until his arrest in May 1939.  The arrest turned him into a non-person, and his name, regardless of his wishes or role in the film, would not appear in the credits.

From his youth Babel benefited from the rich theatre life of Odessa (viz. 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 1927 play Zakat (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 capitalist proprieties.

The play's focus on the transition from the exuberant vitality to brutal economic reality may have resonated with the Russian Revolution’s turn toward routinization and the disenchantment that was felt by those who pined for its earlier creative frisson. A similar sentiment informs a contemporary popular novel, Envy (1927) by Yury Olesha, Babel’s friend and fellow Odessan, 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 theaters, 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 favorite, who, like Babel in his day, joined Budenny’s Cavalry Army at the Polish Front. Despite the play's title and contrary to everyone's expectations, Maria never returns and never appears on stage (in an anticipation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot?). Full of ambiguities, questioning the alleged proletarian, rather than peasant, character of the Soviet state, Maria – for Babel, the name signified the unattainable Aphrodite Urania of the Revolution – was deemed ideologically suspect and did not reach the stage 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, 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, months after Babel's departure. 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." Both may be seen as anticipating  his eventual fate in Soviet repressive system.

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 1934 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 a tongue-in-cheek indictment of Soviet censorship as an intimidating force.  

In a similar manner, he acknowledged great strides in socialist construction and bid his fellow Soviet writers to seek inspiration in the brevity of  Stalin's oratory style. At the same time he offered a critique of Stalin's growing cult of personality, as he warned 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, and he shared with his close friends his desire to withdraw from belles lettres (Ervin Sinko). 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 head of political police 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 Yezhov's 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 to his fate in the Soviet Union. 

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 then renounced it, then renounced it again, and again, the last time during his final trial hearing. To no avail. He was pronounced  guilty and sentenced to death on January 26, 1940. 

He was executed a few hours later, at 1:30 am on the 27 January. The execution was kept secret, with the regime spreading rumors during the war that Babel was alive in one of the GULAG camps. Apparently the regime thought this lie helpful when raising war funds in the American Jewish community.

After Stalin's death, Babel was among the first victims of the Great Terror to be cleared of all charges (1954), although the exact date and circumstances of his death did not become known untill the 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately, 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 ⓒ 2017-2022 Gregory (Grisha) Freidin

Monument to Isaac Babel in Odessa


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