Isaac Babel

by Alexander Roberto Moust on July 13, 2011

in Literature

isaak babel

Isaac Babel

Born July 13 (The Day of Taken Opportunity)

The Ukranian-Jewish short-story writer, playwright and journalist Isaac Babel lived a highly exciting, persecuted and tortured life. Best known for his book of short stories entitled Red Cavalry, Babel wrote from his life experience, after being urged to do so by Maxim Gorky.  Strangely, this Jewish intellectual who looked anything but a warrior, became a Cossack soldier after the October Revolution of 1917, not only serving in the Red Army but also writing about it at the same time as if he were a journalist. It was these real life experiences which gave Babel the first-hand material  he needed to write his Red Cavalry stories which later became the rage in Moscow.

To call Isaac Babel’s writing political, is a bit redundant, since all writing and indeed all art created during the Stalinist regime (1924-1953) was considered political and therefore seriously judged and if necessary edited or censured by the State.  The Party line had to be observed if one was to get one’s works read or keep one’s head on one’s shoulders. In fact, Babel was a Communist who supported the regime but at the same time was very critical of it. His humor and wit, interspersed with horrifying real life portraits of war, became his identifying characteristics. Reading his stories is like watching a documentary film portraying the horrors of battle, but at the same time filtered through Babel’s lens, which unemotionally enlightens while it reports.

During the many decades of Stalin’s rule, even musicians were subjected to strict party control. Shostakovitch, and later Prokofieff on his return to the Soviet Union, perhaps the two most important world-recognized geniuses of modern Russian music, were openly criticized and often condemned not only for the subject matter of their operas, cantatas, film music, but even for their non-literary works of pure music. They were torn to pieces by the published pronouncements of the Soviet music committees who considered their work formalistic and not dedicated to the glory of the Soviet state and the millions of common men and women that comprised it. Socialistic art was the only accepted expression in this time of living political nightmare in which dissenters were spirited away in the middle of the night, following the well known knock on the door that invariably came around 4 AM.

Isaac Babel’s work was of course already highly controversial, since he wrote openly about political issues, the government, the army, both interwoven with the narrative line in his short stories and straight out in articles written as a journalist. Inevitably, he was finally seized and taken to Lubyanka prison in Moscow where he was ultimately shot to death in January of 1940 after weeks of interrogation and torture, also being forced to sign false confessions. Today he is recognized the world over as one of the leading Soviet writers. His complete works in English translation are collected in one volume of only 1000 pages (lovingly and faithfully edited by his daughter Natalie) which can be easily purchased or ordered.  His stories are translated into many languages and are read today in the original Russian in his own land. This was all Isaac Babel ever asked or hoped for.

– Gary Goldschneider

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