Isaac Babel


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Russian short-story writer and playwright.

The son of a tradesman, Babel was born and grew up in the Jewish community of Odessa. Determined to establish himself as a writer outside this closed Yiddish-speaking society, he went to St Petersburg where he met Gorki, who published his first two stories, written in Russian, in his magazine Khronika (1916). In World War I Babel at first served with the Tsarist army but in 1917 joined the Bolsheviks. His experience as a war correspondent with the First (Cossack) Cavalry in Poland in 1920, under the command of Semyon Budyonny (1883–1973), formed the basis of his first collection of stories, Konarmiya (1926; translated as Red Cavalry). The book brought him worldwide recognition, being received not so much as fiction as an eye-witness account of events of historical importance. The viewpoint of the stories, however, was not one of simplistic propaganda. The intellectual narrator observes not only the extreme violence and chaos of the Polish campaign but also the humanity of some of those involved. The stories caused some controversy in Russia and Budyonny accused Babel of neglecting to take into account the revolutionary objective of the campaign. Babel's position was secure, however, through the continued support of Gorki. In his second collection, Odesskiye rasskazy (1924; translated in The Collected Stories, 1955), Babel turned to the shady and brawling low life of the Odessa Jewish community of his youth. A second series of Odessa tales (written 1925–30) were autobiographical in theme. Zakat (1928), his first play, also dealing with the Odessa underworld but from a less comic point of view, was produced by the Moscow Art Theatre, but neither it nor Mariya (1935), a play about the October Revolution, met with much success.

Although Babel was sympathetic to the revolution, his writing had a moral complexity ill-suited to the dogma of socialist realism required of the arts under Stalin in the 1930s. He attempted to revise his stories (in 1932 and 1936) to conform to the new line but otherwise published nothing of importance. While Gorki's patronage had protected him from the first Stalinist purges, he was arrested in 1939 and, according to later Soviet reports, died in 1941. He was ‘rehabilitated’ in 1957 and his collected works, including new material, have been republished in the Soviet Union (1957 and 1966).

Subjects: Literature.

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