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ISSAK EMMANUILOVICH BABEL

Isaak Babel was Soviet author and prominent victim of Stalinism; one of the most accomplished short-story writers in Russian literature.

Background

  • Isaak Babel was born on July 13, 1894 in Odessa. Son of a Jewish merchant.

  • Education

    • Throughout his life, revolutionary ideals seem to have clashed with the moral values of his Jewish upbri nging. Born in the lively, cosmopolitan Black Sea port of Odessa, Isaac Babel received a traditional religious as well as a secular education.

    Career

    • After completing his studies in Kiev, he managed to acquire forged papers enabling him to evade anti-Semitic police regulations and move to Petrograd, where his earliest stories appeared in Maxim Gorky’s periodical Letopis.

      Though modeled on the type of French conte written by Flaubert and Maupassant, they eventually displayed great individualism in their content and linguistic style.

      Like many other Jewish intellectuals of his time, Babel welcomed the downfall of tsarism in 1917 and fought on the Bolshevik side during the Russian Civil War. As a political commissar attached to Semyon Budyonny’s First Cavalry Army, he may well have been the first Jew to ride with the dreaded Cossacks.

      From 1923, Babel devoted himself to writing plays, scripts for films that have apparently vanished, and narrative works. His true genius was revealed, however, in the two collections of short stories that brought him worldwide renown and that Ilya Ehrenburg, a close friend, judged to be the chef d’ouevre of a “superlative craftsman.”

      Drawing on his own experiences during the Polish campaign of 1920, Babel’s Red Cavalry tales made skillful use of Russian and Ukrainian dialect to create an authentic atmosphere and convey both the heroism and the horrors of full-scale war.

      After 1929, Babel fell foul of the Soviet literary establishment and, while continuing to write, chose to publish very little.

      The death of Maxim Gorky in 1936, as Stalin’s purge of veteran communists was gathering speed, robbed Babel of his most influential protector. Whatever the grounds for his arrest by the NKVD in 1939, he vanished completely and may well have been shot immediately, without the brief reprieve of a Siberian labor camp.

      Babel’s name and best-known works were finally “rehabilitated,” however, in the 1950s, after Stalin’s death. Many unpublished tales have been lost; some printed earlier were reissued as Collected Stories (1955); others, rescued from oblivion by Isaac Babel’s daughter, appeared in her biographical volume, The Lonely Years, 1925-1939, published outside of the USSR in 1964.

    Works

    • Red Cavalry (Pushkin Collection)
    • Based on Babel's own diaries that he wrote during the Russo-Polish war of 1920, Red Cavalry is a lyrical,  unflinching and often startlingly ironic depiction of the violence and horrors of war.

    Personality

    The left-wing Jewish idealists who figure in Babel’s stories are mainly reflections of himself — “a guy wearing specs” eager to be accepted by his comrades, but incapable of descending to their rough-and-ready level, the Bolshevik son of a rabbi who carries portraits of Lenin and Maimonides with him into battle. Thus, while helping to build a new world, he could not entirely shake off the old, attending synagogue on the Day of Atonement and observing the traditional Passover Seder.

    ISSAK BABEL
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    Born July 13, 1894
    Died January 27, 1940
    (aged 45)
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