Isaak Emmanuilovich Babel (1894-1941)
Short story writer and playwright who was a correspondent with the Red Army forces of Semyon Budyonny during the Russian civil war. Babel's fame is based on his stories of the Jews in Odessa and his novel Red Cavalry (1926). He was the first major Russian Jewish writer to write in Russian.
Isaak Babel was born in the Jewish ghetto of Odessa, Ukraine. Most of his early years he spent in the Black Sea port Nikolaev, 90 miles away. The atmosphere of the persecution of Jews is reflected in the pessimism of his stories, although his childhood was relatively comfortable. At a time when most Jews were forbidden to live in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, and other localities, Odessa had many times more Jews than any other city in the Russian part of the empire. However, between 1881 and 1917 two million Jews left Russia, mostly for America. Babel's father was a successful businessman who installed his family in one of the best streets in Odessa. Babel studied violin, German, French, and Talmud at the Nicholas I Commercial Institute (1905-11) and wrote stories at the age of fifteen in imitation of Guy de Maupassant. In 1915 Babel graduated from Kiev University which had been evacuated to Saratov on the Volga because of the war.
After graduating Babel moved to St. Petersburg, where he studied literature. In that capital city "traitors, malcontents, whiners, and Jews" were banned and Babel had to use an apocryphal passport. His first works were published in 1916 in Letopis, a monthly edited by Maksim Gorky. Although Babel himself had been untouched during the pogroms that spread throughout Russia in 1905, he saw in rising revolutionary movements a promise of freedom, and end of all persecution. Babel's early satires of the Czarist bureaucracy attracted the attention of the government and Babel was accused of pornography and incitement of class hatred. This is seen in the loosely autobiographical 'Story of My Dovecote' he described the fate of a murdered grandfather. On Gorky's advise Babel decided to see the world and learn about life. He participated briefly in the war on the Romanian front. He was injured and after his discharge Babel joined the staff of Gorky's newspaper Novaya Zhizn. During the Revolution he worked probably as a clerk for the Commissariat of Education and for the CheKa, the Soviet Secret Police.
In 1919 Babel married Eugenia Gronfein and joined the Ukranian State Publishing House (1919-20). He was assigned then as a journalist to Field Marshall Budenny's First Cavalry army, witnessing its unsuccessful Polish campaign to carry Communist revolution outside Russia. The Reds penetrated almost to Warsaw but were driven back. In Odessa Babel started to write a series of stories set in the Odessan ghetto of Moldavanka, where he was born. "It was not before 1923," Babel recalled later, "that I learned to express my thoughts clearly and not too wordily. Then I went back to writing." Tales of Odessa appeared in book form in 1931. It depicted with broad strokes and humor the Jewish underworld, the middlemen, small merchants, brokers, whores, tough Jewish gangsters, saloon keepers, rabbis, and entrepreneurs, on the eve of Revolution. In the center of the colorful caricature of the ghetto is Benia Krik, the king of gangsters. The stories are entitled 'The King', 'How It Wad Done in Odessa', 'The Father', and Liuba the Cossack', where Benia Krik is absent. In the play Sunset (1928) Babel returned to the Odessa gangster world, but this time the protagonist was Benya's father, Mendel Krik. It did not gain success and also Marya (1935) attacted little attention.
In 1923 Babel started to publish a cycle of novels called Red Cavalry. Like Maupassant, Babel often surprises the reader with twists in the plot. In Red Cavalry basically a pacifist narrator, Liutov, who is a Jewish officer, is assigned to a regiment of traditionally anti-Semitic Cossacs. The joke was, as Jorge Luis Borges has stated, that "the mere idea of a Jew on horseback struck them as laughable, and the fact that Babel was a good horseman only added to their disdain and spite." In one tale, 'Zamosc,' the narrator falls asleep and his horse drags him to the front line of the battle. He wakes looking up at a Russian peasant, armed with a rifle, who tells him, "It's all the fault of those Yids." Out of the horror of battles, torture and murder Babel creates a rapidly cutting polyphonic tale of revolutionary change. Some stories are narrated in a stylized form of the Cossacks' own language. Two stories appeared in Mayakovsky's magazine LEF. The work was traslated into more than 20 languages, gaining Babel national fame, but it was also attacked by Budenny, who claimed that its emphasis on brutal acts insulted his troops. Babel was defended by Gorky.
From 1923 Babel lived in Moscow. His wife went in 1925 to Paris for a 'temporary' separation; his daughter Natalie was raised in France. Babel's mother and sister lived in Brussels from 1926 on, but the author himself did not leave the Soviet Union despite numerous opportunities. Babel visited his wife in Paris and travelled on journalistic assignments in Ukraine and the Caucasus. He served also as a secretary of a village soviet in Molodenovo. Between the yars 1925 and 1930 he wrote a series of fictionalized accounts of his childhood, and young manhood. In the loosely autobiographical 'Story of My Dovecote' he described the fate of a murdered grandfather.
In the beginning of the 1930s Babel's literary reputation was high in the Soviet Union and abroad. He revised his stories for his collected works that appeared in 1932 and 1936. From the mid-1930s Babel avoided publicity under increasing Stalinist persecution, although he worked on film scripts, including Eisenstein's banned Bezhin Meadow and on a new book.
Babel was arrested by the N.K.V.D., a precursor of the K.G.B, in May 1939 at his cottage in Peredelkino, the writers' colony. Under interrogation and probable torture at Lubyanka, Babel confessed a long association with Trotskyites and engaging in anti-soviet activity. His trial was held in Buturka Prison and on January 27, 1940, he was shot on Stalin's orders for espionage. The Soviet officials informed Babel's widow that her husband died on March 17, 1941 in a prison camp in Siberia. Babel's charges were posthumously cleared in 1954. His seized manuscripts have not been recovered. Babel's collected works, based on the 1936 edition but including new materials, were republished in 1957 and 1966.