The Horror, the Horror - Isaac Babel

On January 17, 1940, Stalin approved the sentences of 346 prominent people, including the dramaturge Vsevolod Meyerhold, the former NKVD (secret police) chief Nikolai Yezhov, and the writer Isaac Babel. All were shot. Babel had been arrested on May 15, 1939, in the middle of the night, and, the story goes, he remarked to an NKVD officer: “So, I guess you don’t get much sleep, do you?”

Grim wit was Babel’s trademark. He is best known for a cycle of short stories entitled Red Cavalry, a fictionalized account of his experiences as a Bolshevik war correspondent with a Cossack regiment during the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1920. Lionel Trilling, who introduced Babel to the English-speaking world, recognized these stories as the masterpiece of Soviet literature.1 Some of Babel’s other stories, especially his Odessa tales, also impressed Trilling and have remained favorites. They offer a tragicomic portrait of Odessa’s large Jewish community, with its rabbis, sensitive schoolboys, and, improbably, a Jewish gangster whose adventures combine epic heroism with a trickster’s ingenuity.

How did a young man “with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart,” as he describes himself in one story, wind up in a regiment of Cossacks, known for their extreme brutality, violent masculinity, and hatred of Jews? Born into a middle-class Jewish family in 1894, Babel, who received a traditional Jewish education, was steeped in the polyglot, multicultural communities of Odessa, where he acquired fluency in Hebrew, Yiddish, and French, as well as Russian. In one story, he describes how Odessa Jews were obsessed with turning their sons into great violinists, like Mischa Elman or Jascha Heifetz; but Babel, who concealed copies of Turgenev on his music stand, preferred the traditional Russian view of literature as the most important thing in the world.

Influenced by Maupassant, he wrote his first stories in French, but as he recalls in his autobiographical tale “My First Honorarium,” he was inhibited by his belief that “it was pointless to write worse than Lev Tolstoy.” With Tolstoy, he told an interviewer, “the electric charge went from the earth, through the hands, straight to the paper, with no insulation, quite mercilessly stripping off any and all outer layers with a sense of truth…both transparent and beautiful.” But it was not Tolstoy’s incomparable realism and transparent style that Babel would cultivate. It was his ability to strip away all life’s accidents and reveal its “essence.”

In his tale “Childhood. At Grandmother’s,” the young Babel learns to see everything around him—streets, shop windows, stones—“in a special way…and I was quite certain that I could see in them what was most important, mysterious, what we grown-ups call the essence of things.” He discovered in his grandfather a man who “was ruled by an inextinguishable search for knowledge and for life.” His grandmother told him not to trust anyone, but to acquire all human knowledge: “You must know everything,” she demanded, and with these words she shaped “my destiny, and her solemn covenant presses firmly—and forevermore—upon my weak little shoulders.” That destiny, as he conceived it, was to become “the [Russian] literary Messiah, awaited in vain for so long.”

To see into the essence of things requires experience. In one autobiographical tale, a proofreader rebukes Babel for not knowing the natural world: “And you dare to write! A person who doesn’t live in nature, as a stone or an animal lives in nature, will never write two worthwhile lines in his entire life.” But it was human beings, in all their beauty and loathsomeness, he most wanted to know. In 1915, he moved to St. Petersburg and wrote some stories that impressed Maxim Gorky, who published Babel’s work in his newspaper New Life, until the Bolsheviks shut it down. As Babel recalled, Gorky advised him to go into the world and acquire real experience. Over the next few years, Babel served as a soldier on the Romanian front and may even have worked for the nascent Cheka (secret police) before becoming a war correspondent.

There could hardly have been a more grotesque pairing than a sensitive Jewish intellectual with a brutal Cossack regiment. For Trilling, this contrast constitutes the central theme of Red Cavalry, and it is certainly important. But something else is going on. The author approaches the world as an anthropologist, a disinterested spectator recording the odd customs of Cossacks, Jews, Poles, priests, Hasidic rebbes, camp whores, and every sort of perpetrator or victim of extreme violence. Observing his own reactions as if they were someone else’s, or placing himself in dangerous situations in order to monitor his own emotions, he treats himself as just another specimen of the human condition. In his story “My First Goose,” he wonders at his own taste for violence and its intimate link with sexuality. He has to know everything.

But what is the morality of looking at human suffering from outside, as a scientist examines specimens? That, too, is a theme of these stories and of Babel’s work in general. In her memoir Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam describes Babel as a risk-taker, willing to do anything, however dangerous or morally questionable, to learn about unexpected situations and strange people. Babel listened with more intensity than anyone she had ever met, while everything about him “gave an impression of all-consuming curiosity—the way he held his head, his mouth, his chin, and particularly his eyes…. Babel’s main driving force was the unbridled curiosity with which he scrutinized life and people.”

Babel even seemed to enjoy risk itself. During the great purges, he had an affair with the NKVD chief Yezhov’s wife. Instead of living in apartment buildings for writers, he chose a house where foreigners stayed. “Who in his right mind would have lived in the same house as foreigners?” Mandelstam asked, since any contact with foreigners was a likely death sentence. She also reports that Babel spent a lot of time with “militiamen,” a euphemism for NKVD agents. Mandelstam’s husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, asked Babel why he was so drawn to such company: “Was it a desire to see what it was like in the exclusive store where the merchandise was death?” Babel replied: “I just like to have a whiff and see what it smells like.”

One might suppose that Yezhov had Babel arrested for sleeping with his wife, but in fact he was arrested after Yezhov fell, apparently because it was routine to incarcerate anyone associated with an enemy of the people. Under interrogation, which almost always involved torture, Babel implicated other cultural figures—not as spies, but for the views they actually held, which no one but a totalitarian would find objectionable. Sergei Eisenstein, according to Babel, had remarked that under current conditions gifted individuals could not fully realize their talents, while the writer Ilya Ehrenburg complained that “the continuing wave of arrests forced all Soviet citizens to break off any relations with foreigners.” As was not uncommon, Babel’s confession was bloodstained.

The narrator of Red Cavalry—the war correspondent Vasily Lyutov, the pseudonym Babel himself had used among the Cossacks—observes everyone anthropologically, even his fellow Jews, as if they were a strange tribe. In the opening story, “Crossing the Zbruch,” he is quartered with a poor Jewish family, consisting of a pregnant woman, a man with a covered head asleep against the wall, and two “scraggy necked Jews” who hop about “monkey-fashion.” As if he were disgusted by contact with Jews, Lyutov describes finding in the room assigned to him “turned-out wardrobes…scraps of women’s fur coats on the floor, human excrement, and shards of the hidden dishware Jews use once a year—at Easter.”

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