Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel
Born: 12 July 1894
Died: 15 January 1940
Little known fact:
Babel’s short stories characterize his father as an impoverished shopkeeper and his family as destitute, but in fact, his father dealt in farm implements and owned a large warehouse.
On May 15, 1939, four People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) agents took Isaac Babel from his Moscow apartment. The NKVD—later the KGB—then eliminated his identity as one of the most celebrated writers of his time, making him a nonperson in the Soviet Union; purged his name from literary dictionaries and encyclopedias; expunged his name from university syllabi; and rendered his name unspeakable in public.
Babel’s body of work is small because of Stalin’s control of cultural activity and the destruction of his manuscripts. However, the range of Babel’s writing is still impressive: vivid depictions of ghetto life in Odessa through realistic sketches of army life and war.
Isaac Babel was born in the poor Moldavanka section of Odessa, the one Russian city where a large Jewish population was permitted and the setting for The Odessa Tales and his play Sunset.
Babel entered the Kiev Institute of Finance and Business after the Jewish quota system frustrated his attempt to enroll at Odessa University. He published his first story in 1913 while still at the Institute and it was there he met Yevgenia Borisovna Gronfein, daughter of a wealthy industrialist, whom he married in 1919.
Babel moved to St. Petersburg after graduation in 1916 and met Maxim Gorky who published some of his stories in his literary magazine Letopis—the first inflection point of his writing life. In March of 1918, Babel began contributing to Gorky’s anti-Leninist newspaper until the Bolsheviks shut it down.
The Odessa Party Committee issued Babel credentials as a war correspondent from June through September of 1920, assigning him to General Budyonny’s Cavalry Army during the Soviet-Polish War (February 1919 – March 1921.)
Right after the end of the nearly coincident Russian Civil War (November 1917 – October 1922,) Babel wrote and published most of the Odessa stories.
Babel moved to Moscow in 1923 and began to write the Red Cavalry stories and the publication of those stories was the beginning of Babel’s real fame—the second and most dramatic inflection point. However, General Budyonny, a Stalinist insider and the commander Babel had served under in Poland, made his first of many attacks on Babel’s Red Cavalry stories in 1924 just after Lenin’s passing and the beginning of Stalin’s rise to power.
In 1925 Babel’s wife emigrated to Paris, determined not to live under Stalinist domination. Babel unsuccessfully attempted to reconcile with Yevgenia in Paris in 1928, but their efforts did produce a daughter, Nathalie Babel, who became a scholar and then an editor of her father’s work.
At the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, Babel obliquely criticized the cult of Stalin, and in responding to a comment about his modest output, Babel said he was becoming “a great master of the genre of literary silence.”
Even so in 1936 Babel received a dacha in Peredelkino as one of the leading figures in the Writers’ Union. But then Gorky died in June and suddenly Babel’s protector within the Stalinist machine was gone.
The NKVD arrested Babel in 1939 for espionage on behalf of France and Austria based on “evidence” provided by NKVD officials and several fellow writers who had been interrogated earlier.
In 1953 Stalin died and the following year the government officially exonerated Babel and disclosed a death certificate that stated that he died under unknown circumstances on March 17, 1941.
In 1990 real details of Babel’s interrogation and death reached the Soviet press: Babel had been executed in the Lubyanka prison on January 15, 1940—after three days of torture, a confession he recanted, a twenty-minute trial, and a pre-ordained sentence for an immediate firing squad. Babel lived out the famous Kafka search for boundaries between the real and the unreal: a trial with no basis, the irresistible momentum of an irrational force, and a devaluation of truth.
The abrupt social upheaval and the abolition of imperial censorship drove Babel’s generation in Revolutionary Russia to write in new ways about topics reflecting the brutality of the times, in which differences in perception had very real edges that could be used to take one’s life. We see these consequences in the stacking up of corpses in the hospital in Babel’s “Report from St. Petersburg” and we try to determine the margins of the narrator’s sensitivities as he notices the aristocrats’ disdain for their murderers even in death.
In Babel’s “The Sin of Jesus” he defines the plight of a vulnerable chambermaid in a hotel and we witness an intervention involving a man with a set of wings—forty years before the “Enormous Wings” described by Gabrielle Garcia Marquez.
Isaac Babel, now acknowledged by some as the most sophisticated Russian prose writer to emerge by mid-20th century, was one of the greatest story tellers in European literature and one of its greatest stylists as well—because all his stories and plays sound and feel different. They are all varied. There is no single Babelian style.
A FEW OF BABEL’S NOTABLE QUOTES
“No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.”
“The orange sky is rolling across the sky like a severed head, gentle light glimmers in the ravines among the clouds, the banners of the sunset are fluttering above our heads. The stench of yesterday’s blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill.”
BABEL’S NOTABLE WORK
Two collections of short stories: Red Cavalry (1926) and Odessa Tales (1927); two plays: The Sunset (1928) and Maria (1935); several tales and a few film scripts.
Babel, Nathalie (ed.) The Complete Works of Isaac Babel. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.
Richard Perkins is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. He is working on an historical novel and is revising a collection of connected stories.