Isaac Babel Explained

Isaac Babel
Birthplace:Odessa, Russian Empire
Died: (aged 45)
Deathplace:Butyrka prison, Moscow, USSR
Occupation:journalist, playwright, and short story writer
Citizenship:Russian, Soviet

Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel, Russian: Исаак Эммануилович Бабель (– January 27, 1940) was a Soviet journalist, playwright, and short story writer who was acclaimed by some as "the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry."[1]

Early years

Born to a Jewish family in Odessa during a period of social unrest and mass exodus of Jews from the Russian Empire, Isaac Babel survived the 1905 pogrom with the help of Christian neighbors who hid his family, but his great uncle Shoyl was one of about 300 Jews murdered.[2]

To get to the preparatory class of the Nicolas I Odessa Commercial School, Babel had to overcome the quota for Jewish students (10% within the Pale of Settlement, 5% outside and 3% for both capitals), but despite the fact that he received the passing grades, the place was given to another boy, whose parents bribed the school officials. Schooled at home for a year, Babel went through the curriculum of two school years. In addition to regular school subjects, he studied the Talmud and music at home. Inspired by his teachers of French language and literature, young Babel revered Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant and his own first stories were written in French.

After an unsuccessful attempt to enroll at Odessa University (again due to the quota), Babel entered Kiev Institute of Finance and Business. There he met Yevgenia Gronfein, his future wife.

Early career

In 1915, Babel graduated and moved to Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg), in defiance of laws restricting Jews to residence within the Pale. In the capital he met the Russian writer Maxim Gorky who published some of his stories in his literary magazine Letopis ("Летопись", "Chronicle"). Gorky advised the aspiring writer to gain more life experience and later Babel wrote in his autobiography: "... I owe everything to that meeting and still pronounce Alexey Maksimovich (Gorky's) name with love and admiration." One of his most famous autobiographical short stories, "The Story of My Dovecot" ("История моей голубятни"), is dedicated to Gorky.

The story "The Bathroom Window" was considered obscene by censors and Babel was charged with violating criminal code article 1001.

In the next seven years, Babel fought on the Communist side in the Russian Civil War, worked in the Cheka as a translator for the counter-intelligence service, in the Odessa Gubkom (regional Bolshevik party committee), in the food requisitioning unit, in the Narkompros (Commissariat of Education), in a typographic printing office, and served as a newspaper reporter in Petersburg and Tiflis. He married Yevgenia Gronfein on August 9, 1919 in Odessa.

In 1920, during the bloody Russian Civil War, Babel was assigned to Field Marshal Semyon Budyonny's 1st Cavalry Army, witnessing a military campaign of the Polish-Soviet War of 1920. Poland was not alone in its newfound opportunities and troubles. Virtually all of the newly independent neighbours began fighting over borders: Romania fought with Hungary over Transylvania, Yugoslavia with Italy over Rijeka, Poland with Czechoslovakia over Cieszyn Silesia, with Germany over Poznań and with Ukrainians over Eastern Galicia (Galician War). He documented the horrors on the war he witnessed in the 1920 Diary (Konarmeyskiy Dnevnik 1920 Goda) which he later used to write the Red Cavalry (Конармия), a collection of short stories such as "Crossing the River Zbrucz" and "My First Goose". The legendary violence of the Red Cavalry seemed to harshly contrast the gentle nature of Babel himself.

Babel wrote: "Only by 1923 I have learned how to express my thoughts in a clear and not very lengthy way. Then I returned to writing." Several stories that were later included into Red Cavalry, were published in Vladimir Mayakovsky's LEF ("ЛЕФ") magazine in 1924. Babel's honest description of the brutal realities of war, far from revolutionary romanticism, brought him some powerful enemies, among them Budyonny, but Gorky's intervention helped to save the book, and soon it was translated into many languages.

Back in Odessa, Babel started to write the Odessa Tales, a series of short stories set in the Odessan ghetto of Moldavanka where he was born, describing the life of Jewish gangsters before and after the 1917 October Revolution (many of them featuring the anti-hero Benya Krik). During this same period, Babel met and maintained an early friendship with Ilya Ehrenburg, while continuing to publish stories, to wide acclaim, throughout the 1920s. In 1925 Babel’s wife emigrated to Paris.

Clashes with the authorities

In 1930, Babel travelled in Ukraine and witnessed the brutality of the collectivization in the USSR, especially the forced Famine-Genocide - Holodomor of 1932-1933. As Stalin tightened his grip on Soviet culture in the 1930s, and especially with the rise of socialist realism, Babel increasingly withdrew from public life. During the Stalinist campaign against "Formalism" in the art, Babel was criticized for alleged "aestheticism" and low productivity. At the first congress of the Union of Soviet Writers (1934), Babel noted ironically, that he was becoming "the master of a new literary genre, the genre of silence."

After numerous requests he was permitted to visit his family in France, and in 1935, he delivered a speech to anti-fascist International Congress of Writers in Paris. Upon his return, Babel collaborated with Sergei Eisenstein on the film Bezhin Meadow and worked on the screenplays for other Soviet movies.

Arrest and death

After the suspicious death of Gorky in 1936, Babel noted: "Now they will come for me." (See Great Purge). He also reportedly "began an affair with the beautiful adventuress wife of Stalin's murderous NKVD boss, Yezhov" and when Yezhov was thrown from power, "so did she and all her lovers - including Babel."[3]

In May 1939 he was arrested at his dacha in Peredelkino, and eventually interrogated under torture at the Lubyanka. On his arrest, Babel told his wife "Please see our girl grows up happy."[4] After a forced confession, Babel was tried before an NKVD troika and convicted of simultaneously spying for the French, Austrians, and Leon Trotsky, as well as "membership in a terrorist organization." Reportedly, while Babel confessed under torture, "once he realised he was doomed, he recanted" but "it made no difference."[3] His last recorded words were,

"I am innocent. I have never been a spy. I never allowed any action against the Soviet Union. I accused myself falsely. I was forced to make false accusations against myself and others... I am asking for only one thing -- let me finish my work."[5]
On January 27, 1940, he was shot in Butyrka prison. His widow, Antonina Pirozhkova (Russian: Антонина Пирожкова), did not know about his fate for 15 years.

According to the early official Soviet version, Isaac Babel died in a prison camp in Siberia on March 17, 1941. His archives and manuscripts were confiscated by the NKVD and destroyed.

Rehabilitation and legacy

On December 23, 1954, during the Khrushchev thaw, it was announced that Isaac Babel had been exonerated of all charges "for lack of any basis". However, his works were never published in uncensored form until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

His daughter, Nathalie Babel Brown, went on to become one of the world's foremost scholars of her father's life and work. When his complete writings were published in 2002, she edited the volume and provided a foreword.

Babel's play Maria, a portrait of the sordid underbelly of Soviet society, caused Babel to be chided by Maxim Gorky for having a "Baudelairian predilection for rotting meat." Gorky further warned his friend that "political inferences" would be made "that will be personally harmful to you." Although intended to be performed by Moscow's Vakhtangov Theatre, the play's performance was cancelled by the NKVD during rehearsals in 1935. Although it was very popular at Western European colleges during the 1960s, it was not performed in Babel's homeland until 1994. The first English translation appeared in 2002, edited by Nathalie Babel Brown. Marias American premiere, directed by Carl Weber, took place at Stanford University two years later.[6]


This was a revolutionary who put hope in the hearts of others.


External links

Notes and References

  1. Neither and Both; anthology. Joshua Cohen. The Forward Arts & Culture; Pg. B2. July 6, 2007
  2. Odessa Pogroms
  3. THE COMPLETE WORKS OF ISAAC BABEL ISAAC BABEL; BOOK OF A LIFETIME, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Arts & Book Review, June 1, 2007
  4. Montefiore: Stalin, p.287
  5. "Complete Works," page 28.