Casa de citas / Ehrenburg / Isaak Bábel
Triunfo Arciniegas / Isaak Bábel, el escritor ucraniano fusilado por orden del camarada Stalin
Casa de citas / George Saunders / Isaak Bábel
Casa de citas / Sophie Benech / Bábel
Casa de citas / Testimonio de la esposa de Isaak Bábel / El informante
Casa de citas / Isaak Bábel interrogado por los camaradas
Casa de citas / Antonio Muñoz Molina / Las gafas de Bábel
José María Guelbenzu / La frescura de los clásicos
Isaak Bábel / Elegio de la brevedad
Isaak Bábel / Érase una vez la Ucrania de Isaak Bábel
Isaak Bábel / Sal
Isaak Bábel / La carta
My hero / Isaac Babel by AD Miller
Isaac Babel / brief survey of the short story
Books and writers / Isaac Babel
James Salter's Top Ten List
The Art and Science of Translating Babel
Isaac Babel’s Powerful Humor
Isaac Babel’s The Essential Fictions / Rewiew
‘Odessa’ by Isaac Babel
My First Goosen by Isaac Babel
Awakening by Isaac Babel
Salt by Isaac Babel
Crossing the Zbrucz by Isaac Babel
The Story of My Dovecot by Isaac Babel
Guy de Maupassant by Isaac Babel
Dante Street by Isaac Babel
The Sin of Jesus by Isaac Babel
Soviet Jewish short-story writer and playwright. Isaac Babel was born in Odessa and brought up in the Russified middle-class family of a dealer in agricultural machinery. Odessa was then a thriving center of modern Jewish culture where writers such as Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik lectured and published. In 1916, Babel met Mendele Moykher-Sforim, the “grandfather” of Yiddish literature. Babel’s love of Yiddish is reflected in the subtext of his Russian prose, as well as in his adaptation of one of the popular folktales about Hershele Ostropolyer, “Shabos-Nakhamu” (1918). It was for love of Yiddish, not just want of money, that Babel wrote the screenplays of Sholem Aleichem’s Menakhem Mendl stories, Evreiskoe schast’e (Jewish Luck; 1925), and a novel, Bluzhdaiushchie zvezdy (Wandering Stars; 1926), and edited two volumes of stories by Sholem Aleichem in Shimon Hecht’s Russian translation (1926). The Zionist and Hebrew influences of his childhood had to be concealed after the Bolshevik Revolution, but the response of the post-Kishinev generation to pogroms and to the decay of shtetl life are evident in Babel’s first published story, “Staryi Shloime” (Old Shloime; 1913), which describes an old man’s suicide after his sons abandon Judaism under socioeconomic pressure.
In 1911 Babel enrolled at a business school in Kiev, which was evacuated to Saratov at the outbreak of World War I. In 1915, he drafted a semiautobiographical story, “Detstvo. U babushki” (Childhood: At Grandmother’s). The contradictions and paradoxes of Russians and Jews living together fascinated Babel all his life. He explored this theme even before the revolution, in an undated manuscript about a Jew, Yankel, who helps rescue a priest’s son from imprisonment, and in the story “El’ia Isaakovich i Margarita Prokofevna” (Ilia Isaakovich and Margarita Prokofevna; 1916), about a Russian prostitute in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) who helps a Jew from Odessa to evade tsarist antisemitic residence restrictions.
Continuing his studies at the liberal Psycho-Neurological Institute in Petrograd, Babel contributed to the local press in 1916–1917. In 1918, his pieces in Maksim Gorky’s pro-Menshevik newspaper Novaia zhizn’ (New Life) described the horrors of life in the revolutionary capital. In 1920, Babel joined Semen Mikhailovich Budenny’s legendary First Horse Army as a correspondent and turned his impressions of the brief Soviet–Polish war into a cycle of stories, published originally to great acclaim and controversy in periodicals in 1923–1925, then in book form as Konarmiia (Red Cavalry; 1926). Juxtaposing lyrical modernism and shocking brutality, Babel’s loosely constructed vignettes offer an estranged view of war and revolution as seen by a Jewish intellectual, Liutov, who cannot reconcile his severed roots in Judaism with the price he must pay to be accepted by the Cossacks.
By 1924 Babel had arrived in Moscow, but the recognition of his talent and his involvement in the literary world did not bring him personal or artistic satisfaction. Creative freedom was under attack and conditions in Moscow were becoming unbearable. His mother and sister moved to Belgium, and his wife, Evgeniia Borisovna Gronfein, emigrated to Paris, burdening Babel with financial worries about supporting all three at a time when foreign currency was hard to get and he was short of money because he would not compromise his fastidious and drawn-out process of composing short stories of just four or five pages. A son, Mikhail, was born in 1926 from a relationship with a Russian actress, Tamara Kashirna. In an apparent attempt to patch up his marriage in 1928, Babel lived for a time in Paris; his daughter Nathalie was born there the following year, after Babel had returned to Russia. He was allowed to travel abroad only two other times, in 1932–1933 and, briefly, in 1935. In 1932 he met a Russian engineer, Antonina Pirozhkova, by whom he had a daughter, Lidiia, and with whom he lived from 1934.
In Babel’s Odessa stories (written between 1921 and 1937), the character of the gangster Benia Krik represents lost Jewish empowerment as well as the joie de vivre of Odessa Jews. A film, Benia Krik (1927), relates the fate under Soviet rule of the band of gangsters Krik controlled. Later tales, including “Froim Grach” (written in the late 1920s), “Konets bogadel’ni” (End of the Almshouse; 1932), and “Karl-Yankel” (1931) similarly tell of a vibrant Jewish community that was brought to an end in the name of a socialist future.
In 1924 Babel began to compose a series of stories, Istoriia moei golubiatni (Story of My Dovecote), about his Jewish childhood in Odessa and his work with the Cheka in 1918. These stories depict a child’s vivid impressions of pogroms and antisemitism, while the pull of nature and budding sexuality lure the boy in the tales from his Jewish home to the unfamiliar and hostile Russian world. The title story brilliantly describes the incomprehensible violence of a pogrom.
By the end of the 1920s Babel sought a sparser prose style. An experiment with a longer form, the incomplete novella Evreika (The Jewess; 1927), tells of a Jewish Red Army officer who transplants his family, the Ehrlichs, to Moscow. In 1930 Babel was horrified by Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture, which resulted in deportations, requisitions, starvation, and the destruction of peasant traditions. Babel’s observations provided rich material for a book of connected stories, titled Velikaia Krinitsa after a thinly disguised village in the Kiev district. The two extant chapters, “Kolyvushka” and “Gapa Guzhva,” named for colorful local characters, are eloquent examples of Babel’s new restrained voice that spoke of horror in a village where no dog dared to bark.
Babel’s first stage play, Zakat (Sunset), based on the Odessa stories, had a short and not particularly successful run in 1928, while his second play, Mariia, the first in a trilogy, was banned at the rehearsal stage in 1935. It became increasingly difficult for him to publish his writing, and his works were heavily censored. At the Soviet Writers Congress in 1934, Babel declared himself to be a “master of silence.” He was arrested on 15 May 1939, forced to confess to being a spy and a counterrevolutionary, and executed on 27 January 1940.
Isaak Babel, Red Cavalry and Other Stories, ed. Efraim Sicher, trans. David McDuff (London, 2005); Isaak Babel, The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, ed. Nathalie Babel, trans. Peter Constantine (New York, 2002); Harold Bloom, ed., Isaac Babel (New York, 1987); Efraim Sicher, Style and Structure in the Prose of Isaak Babel (Columbus, Ohio, 1986); Efraim Sicher, “The Jewishness of Babel,” in Jews in Russian Literature after the October Revolution: Writers and Artists between Hope and Apostasy, pp. 71–111 (Cambridge and New York, 1995).
JEWS IN EASTERN EUROPE
Isaac Babel, Isaac also spelled Isaak, original name in full Isaak Emmanuilovich Babel, (born June 30 [July 12, New Style], 1894, Odessa, Ukraine, Russian Empire—died January 27, 1940, Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R.), Russian short-story writer known for his cycles of stories: Konarmiya (1926, rev. ed. 1931, enlarged 1933; Red Cavalry), set in the Russo-Polish War (1919–20); Odesskiye rasskazy (1931; Tales of Odessa), set in the Jewish underworld of Odessa; and Istoriya moey golubyatni (1926; “Story of My Dovecote”), named after the opening story of autobiographical fiction about a middle-class Jewish boy growing up in Nikolayev and Odessa under the old regime. Babel’s innovative prose is distinguished by aphoristic precision, combined with the metaphoric extravagance of Modernist poetry. It had a considerable impact on the genres of short story and autobiographical fiction both in Russia and abroad, especially in the United States. Translated into many languages, his works have for decades exemplified both the achievement of Russia’s literature of the revolutionary Soviet period and the dilemmas faced by a modern intellectual, a Russian, a European, and a Jew, caught in the swell of a violent social upheaval.
Odessa, where Babel was born to a struggling middle-class Jewish family, was a chief inspiration, even though his early childhood passed in the nearby city of Nikolayev (1894–1905). Babel was the third of five children (two died in infancy, and one, Hanna Ghitel, died at age seven, when Babel was four; his only surviving sister, Maria, was born in 1897). In Nikolayev, Babel’s father came to enjoy business success, and in 1904 Babel began his formal education at Nikolayev’s Count Witte Commercial Academy. In December 1905 Babel moved to Odessa and transferred to the Nicholas I Commercial Academy, from which he graduated in 1911. The rest of the family moved back to Odessa in 1906 and eventually settled in the city centre, in well-to-do Richelieu Street (Rishelievskaya). Known for their secularism and cultural vibrancy, the Jews of this most cosmopolitan city in the Pale of Settlement made up a third of the population and were well represented among the poor, the middle class, and the very rich. Although Babel’s parents were observant Jews (albeit not strictly) and subject to the anti-Jewish restrictions of the old regime, their values were largely shaped by the opportunities offered by Russia’s modernization. The family language was Russian (Babel was taught to read Russian by his mother), with enough Yiddish for Babel to be comfortable translating a favorite author, Sholem Aleichem, in his later years. Babel’s father, a moderately successful businessman, did his best to give his two children a full-fledged modern Russian education, replete with foreign languages and, typical for Odessa, classical music (Babel studied violin with the famous Pyotr Stolyarsky). A rabbi’s son, the elder Babel also took care to have his children instructed in Judaism and Hebrew. Babel’s knowledge of the Talmud and the Jewish religious tradition was sufficient to allow him in 1920 to discuss the finer points of traditional Judaism with Hasidic scholars in Galicia. His upbringing, however, was largely secular and rooted in the Russian Enlightenment culture of the country’s educated society. His first attempts at prose fiction (none has survived) were in French, a circumstance he attributed to his charismatic teacher, a French expatriate and member of Odessa’s substantial French community.
In the fall of 1911, Babel went on to study economics and business at the Kiev Institute of Finance and Business Studies, receiving the degree of Kandidat of economic sciences in 1916. While finishing his studies in Kiev, he enrolled in the faculty of law at the liberal Psycho-Neurological Institute in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) and, once there, proceeded to launch his career as a reporter and short-story writer. Although his first known story, “Old Shloyme,” appeared in a small Kiev weekly called Ogni (“Lights”) in 1913, Babel never mentioned it and preferred to place his literary debut at the end of 1916 when he met Maxim Gorky, who welcomed him into literary authorship by publishing a selection of Babel’s stories in the November 1916 issue of his journal Letopis (“Chronicle”), alongside his own autobiography. This was a major coup for a fledgling author and assured his wider recognition. Babel’s friendship with Gorky, the most famous Russian writer at the time, continued, along with Gorky’s patronage, until the esteemed author’s death in 1936.
Consonant with Babel’s background and milieu, his early stories explored the gritty middle-class world of a modern Russian city whose inhabitants often operated at, or over, the margins of propriety and law—such as a small-time Jewish merchant moving in with a prostitute to avoid deportation (“Elya Isaakovich and Margarita Prokofyevna”), a desperate gymnasium girl seduced by a boarder and trying to induce an abortion (“Mama, Rimma, and Alla”), or a young writer watching through a peephole the goings-on in a house of ill repute (“Through a Peephole”). In the manner of Gorky’s fiction and, even more so, Guy de Maupassant, Babel took a keen interest in Russian Jews as urbanites living by their wits, small-time operators, bohemians, and members of the “world’s oldest profession,” whose business he ironically juxtaposed with that of a modern litterateur (“My First Fee”). Unlike his predecessors, such as Aleichem or Anton Chekhov, he tended to see in his Jewish subjects not so much the victims of rapid change but resourceful characters making use of capitalism and urbanization for their own purposes. That sanguine outlook found expression in his youthful but important manifesto, “My Notes: Odessa,” a paean to his native city, in which he saw a model for Russia’s own modernization in matters of economics, culture, and, especially, belles lettres. In conclusion, he predicted the imminent arrival—from Odessa—of a new “literary Messiah,” a “Russian Maupassant,” who would deliver classical Russian literature from its moody northern cast and replace it with the cosmopolitan zest of the empire’s sun-drenched multiethnic southwest. Babel’s subsequent career may be seen as an attempt to fulfill this prophecy.
Little is known about Babel’s whereabouts in the summer and fall of 1917. Babel claimed that he spent those months volunteering at the Romanian front (not far from his native Odessa). He may have later journeyed back to Petrograd, as recounted in his story “Doroga” (“The Road”). We know that he resurfaced in Petrograd in March 1918, when he joined the staff of Gorky’s anti-Bolshevik newspaper Novaya Zhizn (“New Life”), to which he contributed a series of sketches about everyday life in the revolutionary city. At the same time, by his own account in his 1924 autobiography, he moonlighted as a translator for the Petrograd Cheka (secret police, forerunner of the KGB). After Novaya Zhizn was shut down by the authorities in July 1918, Babel continued to publish and do occasional work for the new Soviet Commissariat of Enlightenment. He was also drafted into service with a food procurement detachment traveling to the German colonies of the Saratov region to exchange manufactured good for victuals sorely needed in the depleted city. In the spring and summer of 1919, he was back in Odessa, where in August he married Yevgeniya Gronfayn (1897–1957), daughter of his father’s business associate, who was an artist and an old friend from his student days in Kiev. After Odessa was retaken by the Reds in early 1920, Babel worked as an editor for the Odessa Gubernia State Publisher.
In the spring of 1920, under a Russian-sounding pen name, Kiril Lyutov, Babel joined Semyon Budenny’s First Cavalry Army as a reporter for YugROSTA (the southern branch of the Russian Telegraph Agency) and was soon thereafter assigned to the 6th Division of the army for the duration of the Russo-Polish War. While there he also performed staff duties at the division headquarters, contributed to the army broadsheet Red Cavalryman, and on occasion accompanied his detachment into action. Much of the fighting done by Budenny’s Cavalry Army took place in the ethnically diverse borderlands between eastern Poland and western Ukraine, a region long settled by traditional, largely Hasidic, Jewish communities. Babel had displayed a special interest in Hasidic folklore (e.g., in his story “Shabos Nakhamu,” 1918, from his projected “Hershele” cycle) and was eager to explore the life of these insular communities, little touched by modernization. Decimated in the crossfire of World War I, they were now victimized by the warring armies in the Russo-Polish conflict. Babel’s experience during this campaign, recorded in his 1920 Diary, formed the basis for the stories of Red Cavalry (1926). Some of them, including the opening “Crossing the Zbruch,” are set amid devastated Jewish life, and, while they do not dominate the book as a whole, they provide a counterpoint to the key motif of violence that runs throughout the entire narrative. Babel’s direct exposure to violence, marked by the visceral brutality of a low-tech war, the intensity of the battlefield comradeship, and bonding with people far outside his ken, transformed him as a writer. An author who had eschewed violence before, he now placed it at the centre of his fiction. The first stories of the Red Cavalry cycle began to appear in Odessa’s press as early as 1923.
Babel began to work on this war material in 1921–23, proceeding on parallel tracks: one was devoted to chronicling the Russo-Polish War and the other to his Tales of Odessa cycle, a set of Rabelaisian stories about the colourful Jewish gangster Benya Krik—a mock Jewish messiah—and a subtle allegory of Babel’s own incipient career as a Russian Jewish writer irreverantly “muscling in” on the domain of Russian literature (“How It Was Done in Odessa”). The first story of the cycle, “The King,” appeared in the Odessa paper Moryak (“Mariner”) on June 23, 1921. The Tales of Odessa are narrated by a bookish young man “with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart,” an ironic alter ego of the author. This narrator is fascinated by the brash energy and unabashed sexuality of Benya Krik, a cosmopolitan Jew who resorts to violence for the sake of redistributing wealth, who can take life in the course of justice, and who can also “spend the night with a Russian woman and a Russian woman would be satisfied.” In these stories, Babel found his unique narrative persona and voice. Pitched to a different key, they inform Red Cavalry and indeed his oeuvre in its entirety, including “Story of My Dovecote” and other works. Thus, if the Tales of Odessa represents a “mock epic,” then Red Cavalry is its true epic counterpart. Variations on Babel’s narrative persona and its distinct voice can sometimes be recognized in the works of the post-World War II American writers exploring Jewish American life, such as Philip Roth and Grace Paley.
The short stories and vignettes of Red Cavalry form a unit, similar to a novel, thanks to the character of the narrator Kiril Lyutov. Ostensibly autobiographical, Lyutov evolves as a character in a novel between the opening story of Red Cavalry, “Crossing the Zbruch,” and its closure, “Rebbe’s Son.” He shares many qualities with the chronicler of the Tales of Odessa, just as the Odessa gangsters may be easily transposed onto Budenny’s horsemen of Red Cavalry. Babel used his narrator as a device to probe the uneasy confluence of bookish intellectuals, a violent socialist revolution, redemptive nationalism (the resurgence of Poland), and the messianic beliefs of the region’s Hasidic Jews. While sympathetic to the cause of world revolution, Red Cavalry’s Lyutov finds it hard to reconcile its lofty ends with the immense brutality of its means: Budenny’s motley Cossack army possesses as much instinct for raw social justice as for marauding, pogroms, and rape. This paradox remains unresolved, except ironically on the aesthetic plane, as Lyutov professes his admiration for the will, directness, and vitality of the Cossacks—these cousins to Nietzsche’s blonde Bestie, who are doing the bidding of the Bolshevik regime, even as they oppress and victimize other sufferers. The same contradictions rend to pieces the visions that possess the minds of other players in the unfolding drama of war. In this way, albeit only implicitly, the setting of Babel’s Red Cavalry becomes a latter-day Jerusalem—a focal point of clashing chiliastic and apocalyptic collective dreams. Babel mentions this “Jerusalem motif” explicitly in his war diary, in the July 24 entry, which was made on the eve of Tisha be-Av, when Jews commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temple and recite the Lamentations of Jeremiah. “Everything is the same,” Babel concluded in his description of his surroundings, “as in the days of the destruction of the Temple.” This motif is never spelled out in Red Cavalry, but it is threaded through its whole structure, complete with the figure of Ilya (Elijah)—a defeated precursor manqué—whose last breath animates Babel’s alter ego Lyutov in the concluding story, “Rebbe’s Son.” Thus Babel, as the author of Red Cavalry, made good on his promise of becoming a literary redeemer.
For many leftist intellectuals in Russia and in the West, Red Cavalry embodied the moral ambiguity of the Revolution: its abhorrent brutality on the one hand and, on the other, the irresistible desire to see ideas of truth and justice unleash and animate the people, becoming a force akin to life itself. Babel’s writings enjoyed an enthusiastic critical response in Soviet Russia, even though he himself was classified as a “fellow traveler,” an author who tagged along with the Bolsheviks but only so far. Controversies and condemnation, notably Budenny’s attacks on him in 1924 and 1928, were countered by authoritative figures, Gorky among them, and, while they stung Babel to the quick, they also served to burnish his fame.
In 1925 Babel began publishing a series of semi-autobiographical stories in which his familiar narrator was implicitly summoned to “recall” his early years. Presented as part of a book about his boyhood and dedicated to Gorky, the seminal “Story of My Dovecote” and “First Love” (1925) suggest that Babel conceived of his oeuvre as a set of consecutive autobiographical cycles, not unlike Gorky’s autobiographical trilogy, and he continued to add to it, as he did to his two other major cycles, throughout the 1930s. In those childhood stories, Babel successfully established a new genre of a quasi-autobiographical novella about a middle-class Jewish boy who is tested in and shaped by a complex of opposing cultural forces: opportunities opening up for Jews in the modernizing Gentile world and its anti-Jewish prejudice; the parental pressure to succeed and its opposite, the recoil against secularization and assimilation; and, finally, the confusion of sexual codes articulating the clash between the more traditional Jewish family and the modern cosmopolitan world outside.
The Bolsheviks’ sharp turn toward socialist construction and conformity beginning in 1929 threatened to marginalize Babel. A total mobilization was declared, and Soviet writers all had to pull their weight in the national effort to build socialism in one country on the basis of collectivized agriculture and rapid industrialization. Of the several stories he wrote about the collectivization of agriculture (1929–30), two have survived, and only one was published in his lifetime (“Gapa Guzhva,” 1931). Raw and violent, powerful in the manner of Red Cavalry, they stood out from contemporary Soviet prose and did not bode well for Babel’s future in the emerging Stalinist canon (after reading “Gapa Guzhva,” Stalin referred to Babel as “slippery” and questioned his loyalty to the Soviet cause). His only published “industrialization” story, the resonant miniature novella “Petrol,” appeared in 1934. From the early 1930s on, Babel’s published literary output diminished noticeably: a few short stories and one play.
Like some of the other writers of his generation, Babel began writing for the screen in the 1920s, using this opportunity as both a secondary creative outlet and a major source of livelihood to supplement his meagre literary income. A friend and frequent collaborator of Sergey Eisenstein, Babel enjoyed the reputation of a brilliant screenwriter, an innovative master of silent-film inter-titles and, later, film dialogue. He also encountered adversities in dealing with the Soviet film establishment. Babel and Eisenstein planned to work together on a film version of the Tales of Odessa, but the collaboration was derailed by scandals at the Moscow Film Studios, and Babel, always short of money, was forced to sell his script to the Ukrainian Film Studios. The resulting film, Benya Krik (1927), was, in Babel’s opinion, a failure. It was also banned soon after its release, for one year. Babel’s 1936–37 collaboration with Eisenstein on the film Bezhin Meadow (about a young communist boy, Pavlik Morozov, murdered by his retrograde peasant father) was officially vilified for its “formalism,” an aesthetic deemed too complex for the mass Soviet viewer. The film was banned in postproduction and its stock recycled. Yet many of the films of the late 1920s and ’30s were based on Babel’s scripts, most notably Lyotchiki (1935), also known as Men with Wings; he was also the author of the dialogue for the blockbuster comedy Tsirk (1936), also called The Circus. Preferring to associate his name with his belles lettres only (he used pen names in his early journalism), Babel insisted on not having his name listed in film credits, and we are made aware of his roles only thanks to the memoirs of the filmmakers and Babel’s own private correspondence. Babel may have been the author of the script for the screen version (1938–40) of Maxim Gorky’s trilogy, directed by Mark Donskoy, and he was deeply involved in the film’s production. However, his arrest in 1939 meant that his name, regardless of his wishes or role, would no appear in the film's credits.
From his youth Babel benefited from the rich theatre life of Odessa. He loved theatre and enjoyed writing for the stage. In his lifetime, his sole successful attempt on the theatre stage was his play Zakat (1927; Sunset). Featuring the jolly gangster Benya Krik from Tales of Odessa, the play ends with a grim vision of Odessa’s carnivalesque underworld transforming itself into a routinized capitalist enterprise, replete with bookkeeping and other bourgeois proprieties. The play may have resonated with the Russian Revolution’s turn toward routinizaton and the disenchantment felt by those who missed its creative frisson. A similar sentiment informs a contemporary popular novel, Envy (1927), by Babel’s friend and fellow Odessan Yury Olesha, as well as the late plays by another friend, Vladimir Mayakovsky. Although the 1928 Moscow production of the play received mixed reviews, its 1927–28 run on the provincial stage—in Kiev, Minsk (in Yiddish), and Odessa, where it played simultaneously in two theatres, in Russian and Ukrainian—was an unqualified success. His second play, Mariya (1935), was published and even rehearsed in Moscow and Leningrad. Dark and brooding, with many autobiographical resonances, the play examines the vicissitudes of an upper-class intelligentsia family, the Mukovnins, as they try to adjust to the harsh realities of the revolutionary Petrograd. The action revolves around the family’s hope for the return of Mariya Mukovnin, the clan’s favourite, who, like Babel in his day, joined Budenny’s Cavalry Army at the Polish Front. Mariya never returns and, in a brilliant anticipation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1948), never appears on stage. Full of ambiguities and considered ideologically suspect, Mariya never reached the production stage in Babel’s lifetime. It has since enjoyed successful productions in London, in western and eastern Europe, and, since perestroika, in Russia
A prominent member of the Soviet cultural elite and an international celebrity, Babel lived abroad for prolonged periods of time in 1927–28 and 1932–33 and for two months in 1935, when, along with Boris Pasternak, he traveled to Paris to speak at the International Congress for the Defense of Culture (after André Malraux and André Gide threatened to scuttle the event if Babel and Pasternak were not allowed to travel there). Babel’s mother and sister had emigrated to Belgium early in 1925, followed shortly thereafter by Babel’s wife, who settled in Paris and bore their daughter, Natalie, there in 1929. Abroad Babel maintained a wide circle of friends and acquaintances among the émigrés as well as Soviet expatriates, most notably Ilya Ehrenburg. He even planned a cycle of stories about Paris. Two were published in his lifetime: “Rue Dante” and “The Trial.” He was on friendly terms with Malraux, a famous author and leader of the French antifascist left, who took a keen interest in the Soviet Union in the heady days of the popular front. Babel hosted Malraux in Moscow during the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, a defining moment for Soviet culture in the 1930s as well as for the country’s international standing as a bulwark against Nazism. In his speech at the Congress, Babel referred to himself as a practitioner of “the genre of literary silence” but also as one whose creative “gestation was more akin to that of an elephant than a rabbit.” With daring precision, he identified another cause for his diminished output: his fear of angering the all-powerful authorities with a wrong kind of writing. “The Party and the state have given us everything,” he averred with concealed irony, “taking away but one right—the right to write badly.” This ironic indictment of Soviet censorship may have been too clever to be clearly heard. Ultimately, Babel’s promise to bring forth a work about “socialist construction” that would be comparable to Red Cavalry and his failure to live up to this promise was interpreted as a refusal to celebrate Soviet achievement under Stalin.
The Great Terror swept away many of Babel’s friends in the military, security, the party, and the cultural elite, finally reaching Babel himself on May 15, 1939. By then Babel had started another family in Russia, with Antonina Pirozhkova (1909–2010), a civil engineer, who gave birth to Babel’s second daughter, Lydia, in 1937. A friend, mentor, and former lover of Evgeniia Yezhov, the wife of Stalin’s butcher Nikolay Yezhov, Babel may have enjoyed some immunity at the height of the Great Terror. But with the fall of Yezhov in 1938, the suicide of his wife, and Yezhov’s arrest in 1939, this fortuitous connection became a liability. Babel still enjoyed some immunity as an antifascist celebrity spokesman for the U.S.S.R. in France. But Stalin’s turn toward an alliance with Nazi Germany in the spring 1939 made Babel’s popularity in France irrelevant. He was arrested in his country house in the writers’ village, Peredelkino, where he was then preparing for publication a collection of stories, some of them apparently new. He was accused of espionage for Austria (he once shared a house with an Austrian engineer) and France (for his meetings with Malraux) as well as a terrorist conspiracy (his association with Yezhov’s wife) and various anti-Soviet activities. After several days of nonstop interrogation and torture, Babel signed a “confession.” He later renounced it twice but to no avail. He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death on January 26, 1940. He was executed at 1:30 AM the following day. In 1954 Babel was among the first victims of the Stalinist terror to be cleared of all charges, but his entire personal archive—all of his unpublished works, drafts, notebooks, and other papers—which had been confiscated during his arrest, disappeared without a trace.
Babel’s literary rehabilitation began in 1957, when a collection of his stories and plays, with a foreword by Ehrenburg, appeared in the Soviet Union. Two years earlier a notable American edition, with an introduction by Lionel Trilling, had become the foundation of the Babel revival in the United States. In 2010 Babel became the first Russian writer of the 20th century to be published in W.W. Norton’s Critical Editions series, which is the most authoritative edition to date of Babel’s short stories in English translation. The most authoritative annotated edition of Babel’s stories in Russian, Rasskazy, edited by Elena Pogorelskaya, was published in St. Petersburg in 2014.BRITANNICA
by David Levine
Isaac Babel: “They Wouldn’t Let Me Finish”
Isaac Babel is a bit of a conundrum. It’s not an easy task to trace his scattered trajectory from Jewish youth navigating the quotas in the Russian education system, cutting his literary teeth at the feet of his beloved mentor Maxim Gorky in Petrograd (present-day St. Petersburg), rising to renown as a champion of Soviet literature, and being imprisoned for allegedly spying for France and Austria. No stranger to prejudice, Babel wrote with revolution and religious persecution at his backdoor. His own time on the warfront further ignited his incendiary prose and became the basis for his most celebrated story cycle, Red Cavalry. Babel’s loosely autobiographical style coupled with his modernist sensibility lent his writing a personal yet subliminal quality. His stories sometimes read like morality tales, sometimes like diaries, sometimes like journalistic dispatches. One thing they all have in common is his staggering ability to convey with succinct confidence the far and ridiculous reaches of human suffering.
Babel was born in 1894 to a family on the ascent to the middle class in the southern city of Odessa (in present-day Ukraine). A port city on the Black Sea, Odessa —“Paris of Russia” — was known for its diverse population. Soon after his birth, Babel’s family moved to Nikolayev, about 100 miles northeast of Odessa for his father’s work, and the family lived there until in 1905, when they moved back to Odessa. This same year, Czar Nicolas II established his constitutional monarchy via his “October Manifesto” – a list of provisions ostensibly giving the Russian people more civil liberties. The manifesto was a grudging response to the Russian Revolution of 1905 in which various factions made their voices heard regarding unjust governmental policies including limited land rights for peasants, poor treatment of minorities, and unfair labor practices. Its issuance sparked a turn of events that led to violent pogroms in the region. Russian backlash against Jewish inhabitants grew exponentially after months of mutual agitation and distrust. Jews and Russians alike celebrated and fought. Witnesses reported widespread murder and other heinous acts against Jewish men, women, and children. Over 400 were killed in the Odessa pogrom alone (Weinberg, 248).
Though Babel’s family was spared the 1905 pogroms’ atrocities, he writes of a young boy who is affected by a pogrom in The Story of My Dovecote, published in 1925. Dovecote was written in the years just after the Red Cavalry cycle – the cycle that brought him notoriety across the country. Today, Dovecote is generally referred to as a standalone story as opposed to part of a larger cycle, though his daughter Nathalie Babel, who has steadily worked to compile publish her father’s work over the years, explains that with this story her father had “…broadened his range of subject matter, dealing more directly than before with autobiographical material and writing in longer form. He intended to collect the stories he wrote based on his childhood in a single volume….” (The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, pg 599-600). In Dovecote, the 9-year old protagonist learns that he has earned, after a rigorous examination, one of two Jewish spots at a prestigious school. Babel himself was only allowed into a school open to sons of Jewish merchants. (“No Time to Finish”, page 520). The boy’s parents react:
When my father saw me, he abandoned the muzhik and drank in my story without a moment’s doubt. He shouted to his sales clerk to close the store, and rushed over to Sobornaya Street to buy me a cap with the school emblem on it. My poor mother barely managed to wrest me away from my delirious father. She stood there, pale, trying to foresee my fate. She kept caressing me and then pushing me away in disgust. She said that a list of all the children admitted into the lycée was always published in the newspapers, and that God would punish us and that people would laugh at us, if we bought a school uniform ahead of time. My mother was pale, she was trying to foresee my fate in my eyes, and she looked at me with bitter pity, as if I were a little cripple, for she was the only one who fully realized how luckless our family was. (Complete Works, 603).
Later in the story, after the protagonist begins school, he realizes in all the excitement he has forgotten to buy doves for their newly refurbished dovecote as his father had promised he could if he got into the lycée: “I had gotten everything ready for them…On Sunday, October 22, I set off to the wild game market but I ran into unexpected obstacles on the way.” The obstacle, of course, being the unrest created by the October Manifesto. He finally sneaks away to the market, buys two doves, but while he is there someone from his neighborhood informs the bird catcher that “Grandpa Babel” (the boy’s grandfather) had been “served…a helping of death.” The boy begins to make his way home, stopping to ask the legless cigarette seller Makarenko about how to find someone he knows, when Makarenko notices the bag under his shirt. He takes a dove out of the bag, and slaps it against the boy’s face, killing it. Babel writes:
I lay on the ground, the innards of the crushed bird trickling down the side of my face. They trickled, winding and dribbling, down my cheek, blinding me. The dove’s tender entrails slithered over my forehead, and I closed my uncaked eye so that I would not see the world unravel before me. The world was small and ugly. A pebble lay in front of my eyes, a pebble dented like the face of an old woman with a large jaw. A piece of string lay near it and a clump of feathers, still breathing. My world was small and ugly. I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t see it, and pressed myself against the earth that lay soothing and mute beneath me. This tamped earth did not resemble anything in our lives. (ibid, 609)
These passages are great examples of Babel’s straightforward yet dreamlike and visceral prose. His use of repetition is prevalent and unsettling—a sort ofstream of consciousness used to great effect to get readers’ minds in the correct perspective. Many of his stories are only a few pages long, but dense with imagery and message.
In 1916, after Babel finished his schooling, he went to Petrograd to find work. He shopped stories around to no avail until he met Maxim Gorky. Gorky was a dissident writer and socialist, a founder of “Socialist Realism.” To say Gorky was Babel’s mentor is an understatement – Babel credited him for much of his development and success as a writer. Gorky wasn’t especially impressed with Babel’s nascent efforts, but he detected in Babel a voice that could speak clearly through the noise of revolution and war. Gorky instructed him in the hardships of the writer’s vocation, telling him that “the writer’s path…is strewn with nails…you will have to walk on them barefoot, a good deal of blood will flow, and each year it will flow more freely. If you’re weak – they’ll buy and sell you, harass you to death, lull you to sleep, and you’ll fade away while pretending to be a tree in bloom.” (Ehre, pg 21) Two of Babel’s earliest stories appeared in Gorky’s Letopis (“The Chronicle”), and Babel went on to write many dispatches for Gorky’s later publication New Life.
1917 was a year of massive upheaval, echoing sentiments from the 1905 Revolution twelve years prior. The February Revolution, in which Czar Nicholas’ military mutinied to join anti-establishment factions, forced the czar’s abdication and the end of the Russian empire. The subsequent provisional government was overthrown during the Lenin/Trotsky-led October “Bolshevik” Revolution by Soviet workers insistent on a socialist state. Thus began the Russian Civil War that would last until the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922.
In the intervening years, according to Russian scholar Milton Ehre, Babel signed up to fight on the Rumanian front (until he contracted malaria), pushed paper for the Checka (Russia’s first secret police agency), went on a grain requisition expedition in the Volga, and worked a bureaucratic position with the People’s Commissariat of Education. In 1919 he served with the Northern Army against General Yudenich’s White Army, and in 1920 was assigned asa war correspondent with General Budyonny’s First Cavalry under an assumed Russian name, Kiril Vasilievich Lyutov, to hide his Jewish heritage. Budyonny’s outfit was charged with reclaiming land that the Polish had overtaken in the Ukraine and neighboring regions, as well as bringing Communism to the Poles. (Ehre pg 19-20)
Babel’s style of storytelling and reportage reveals his interest in new literary forms. The twenties saw the rise of notable American authors such as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, and in Europe T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Franz Kafka, to name a few of many. With increasing access to and receptivity of Western influences, Russian poets and novelists had more freedom to experiment with form as well as previously untouched subjects, such as prostitution, a common theme in Babel’s work. A break from the realism tradition in Russian literature paved the way for more innovative, poetic prose. James Falen states:
Russian realism had had a place in its aesthetic for truth and goodness, but it had sadly neglected – or so the modernists held – the claims of beauty. A new wave of aestheticism encouraged Russian writers to turn to the West…and make their own contributions to symbolism and other movements…The Russian modernist sought to bring literature closer in form to painting and music. (pg 40)
From 1921-25, Babel produced his most potent and celebrated works: The Odessa Tales and Red Cavalry, in fact they were written practically simultaneously. Falen writes:
…(T)he two sets of stories share certain themes and attitudes and have as a common setting a background of passion and chaos. Though the Odessa stories possess a surface of broad comic intent, they like those of Red Cavalry, have conflict and violence at the heart of their world. While Red Cavalry portrays soldiers engaged in actual combat, in legally sanctioned ward, the Odessa characters are criminals, men at war with the society and their fate. The life of the Jewish underworld depicted in The Odessa Tales shows traditional moral and cultural values as fully under assault, and in much the same way, as they are in Red Cavalry. Furthermore, in both cycles the moral questioning of violence is linked to certain common attitudes toward Jewish identity. (ibid, pg 59)
The Odessa Tales are comprised of eight stories each less than 10 pages long. Set in 1905, they follow Jewish gangster Benya Krik’s ascent to infamy in his Odessa neighborhood. The first story, “The King,” recounts how Benya handles the new police chief’s threat of a raid on Benya’s sister’s wedding day feast. She is a 40 year-old goiter sufferer marrying a young mute who had been “bought” by Benya. A young man comes to tell Benya of the threat:
The chief called the whole station together and gave them a speech: “We must finish off Benya Krik,” he said, “because when you have His Majesty the Czar, you can’t have a King too. Today, when Krik gives away his sister in marriage, and they will all be there, is when we raid!” (Complete Works, pg 134)
It is revealed that Benya already knows of the raid and Babel goes on to describe how Benya became the son-in-law of a man he robbed, named Eichbaum. While Benya and his henchmen were killing Eichbaum’s cows as leverage to extort money from him, he saw and fell in love with Eichbaum’s daughter, Zilya. A few days later, dressed in an orange suit and diamond bracelet, Benya gave back Eichbaum’s money in exchange for Zilya’s hand in marriage and promised that he would be his business partner and proclaimed, “I will kill all the dairymen except you. No thief shall walk the street you live in…your son-in-law will be the King, not some snotface! The King, Eichbaum!.” (ibid, pg 136)
This darkly humorous description is followed by an equally colorful description of the wedding feast and associated antics, yet there is a sense of garish overindulgence with sinister undertones. The same young man as before returns to tell Benya that the police station is on fire. Without giving away the ending entirely, Benya goes to appraise the fire then returns to the wedding feast to find his sister “with both hands…edging her timid husband to the door of their nuptial chamber, looking at him lustfully like a cat which, holding a mouse in its jaws, gently probes it with its teeth.” (ibid, page 136)
“The Father” – the fifth story in the cycle – is a story about Froim Grach and his daughter Basya who has come to live with him after 20 years of living with her mother’s mother (Basya’s mother had died in childbirth). Basya is eager to find a husband. Babel presents us with a description of the gangsters heading to a brothel after the work day is over:
They rode in lacquered carriages and were dressed up in colorful jackets, like hummingbirds. They were goggle-eyed, one leg resting on the running board, their steel hands holding bouquets of flowers wrapped in cigarette paper. The lacquered cab moved at a walking pace, and in each carriage sat one man with a bouquet; the drivers, sticking out on their high seats, were covered in bows like best men at weddings. Old Jewish women in bonnets lazily watched the flow of this everyday procession – they were indifferent to everything, these old Jewish women, it was only the sons of shopkeepers and dockworkers who envied the kings of the Moldavanka. (ibid, page 162)
Babel’s illustrative prose conveys the allure of the life of the gangsters to the young men of the town. These are the shopkeepers’ sons role models – the slick, the fashionable, the deliberate. However, one of the shopkeepers’ sons, Solomonchik Kaplun, catches Basya’s attention because he was “among those who tried to turn their eyes away from the splendor of other men’s success.” (ibid, page 162) She sets her mind on him and begins sewing her trousseau, all the while lamenting that she is not a suitable match since she is Grach’s daughter. She’s right – the Kaplun family rejects her as she is not from a family of grocers like them. Grach then goes on a mission to find a way to marry off Basya, and ends up in negotiations with Benya Krik. Benya makes Grach wait hours while he spends time with a prostitute. In his desperation, Grach knocks on the door and makes Benya come out. Benya, casual as a breeze, agrees to marry Basya, winning her dowry and forcing the Kapluns to pay him for his trouble as a result of their arrogance. This psychological warfare is an interesting counterpoint to the physical violence he instigated in the first story, though just as effective and lucrative for Krik.
The Red Cavalry cycle is less, perhaps, fanciful or ornamental than The Odessa Tales, and the characters operate in a larger theater of war as opposed to gangland circles, though much of the action in Red Cavalry is intimately set in war-torn villages. Babel casts a more damning than amused eye in his treatment the human toll taken on both sides. The protagonist for many of the stories, the journalist Lyutov (the same name and occupation Babel had as part of Budyonny’s regiment in real life), navigates his station in a kind of pitying fog, seemingly an outsider among the Cossacks, but we, the readers, aren’t at first entirely sure if that is because he is, as Babel was, a Jew trying to hide his heritage. There is a sense of uneasy detachment towards the villagers, a devastating presentation of the sad reality of life in a war zone. Repetition of imagery and certain phrases and sentiments surrealize Lyutov’s existence among his “comrades” and the villagers – his so-called “enemies” his regiment frequently has to rely on for food and shelter. The first story, “Crossing the Rivers Zbrucz” opens with Lyutov’s regiment traveling to their next encampment amidst this rollercoaster of discordant imagery:
Fields of purple poppies are blossoming around us, a noon breeze is frolicking in the yellowing rye…Silent Volhynia is turning away, Volhynia is heading into the pearly white fog of the birch groves, creeping through the flowery hillocks, and with weakened arms entangling itself in the underbrush of hope. The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head, gentle light glimmers in the ravines of the clouds, the banners of the sunsets are fluttering above our heads. The stench of yesterday’s blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill. (ibid, pg 203)
Upon their arrival in Novograd, Lyutov is assigned quarters in a ransacked dwelling inhabited by a pregnant woman and two “red-haired Jews”. Disgusted by their living conditions, he tells the woman to clean up the house. They make a place for Lyutov to sleep next to another Jew on the floor. He falls into a fitful sleep and dreams of his division commander shooting bullets through the brigade commander’s eyes. The pregnant woman awakens him, saying, “Pan (Polish for “Sir” or “Mr.”), you are shouting in your sleep, and tossing and turning. I’ll put your bed in another corner, because you are kicking my papa.” She proceeds to lift the blanket to reveal her massacred father. She explains how he was killed by Polish forces and continues forcefully, “I want you to tell me where one could find another father like my father in all the world!” This is how the story ends, with an unanswerable exclamation of a question, apropos to the inexplicability of war.
Babel became a master of skaz, a narrative written in “language marked not as the author’s own – especially in the language of a more popular and oral register than that of the author” (Vinokur, page 679). Babel grew up learning Yiddish, Hebrew and French, and even wrote some stories in French, so his ear for language was most likely quite keen. Crucial to skaz is careful observation of spoken language and transcribing it meaningfully to preserve its freer qualities. Gregory Freidin’s chapter on Isaac Babel in European Writers: The Twentieth Century, explains Babel as “a writer who was able to justify they revolution morally and aesthetically, who made this justification the matter of self-sacrifice. Babel was likewise credited with the invention of the new linguistic culture.” (pg 21) Though there are many instances of skaz narrative in Red Cavalry, the story “Zamosc” provides a particularly insightful glimpse into the attitudes of the peasants caught in the war zone. As before, dream-filled sleep comes to Lyutov, a dream of a woman offering breast milk to him, which at first he believes is an act of attempted nourishment, but then the woman puts coins over his eyes as though he is dead. Lyutov wakes to find that he his horse, whose reins were tied to Lyutov’s foot while he was napping, has dragged close to the line of action. A peasant is lying next to him with a rifle. Rockets are exploding over the Polish camp. The peasant, naturally unaware of Lyutov’s heritage, says:
“It’s all the fault of those Yids,” he said. “That’s how we see it, and that’s how the Poles see it. After the war there’ll be hardly any of them left. How many Yids you reckon there’s in the world?”
“Around ten million,” I answered, and began to bridle my horse.
“There’ll be two hundred thousand of them left!” the muzhik yelled, grabbing me by the arm, afraid that I was about to leave.
The dream of refused salvation while being brought to war unaware, then stranger’s words damning Lyutov’s own heritage is pretty rough stuff. Babel’s head-on treatment of Lyutov’s cultural complexity and the nature of war itself in the space of a few pages is succinct yet brimming with beauty of imagery. Not a word is wasted and his meaning is clear yet still somehow full of mystery and symbolism. About Lyutov’s dream, Vinokur writes,
Curiosity is a one-way street which one loses one’s innocence by bearing witness. Beauty and lyricism cannot extract Lyutov from the reality he has chosen to witness out of eager curiosity; they can only pluck his strings. Skaz draws on the power of song, which can often involve a suspension of judgment, almost a seduction…But Babel’s craftsmanlike rigor invests this otherwise physiological, participatory aestheticism with critique and hidden meaning. Where beauty and lyricism take one’s breath away, Babel’s labor of whittling and polishing a story through dozens of drafts brings your breath back. (Vinokur, page 691)
There is much more to Babel’s life and works than what has been covered here. His others works include articles, early stories, reports from Petersburg, Georgia and France, and screenplays. Nathalie Babel published his letters and diaries in a volume titled Isaac Babel: The Lonely Years 1925-1939, which have been helpful in sorting out to what extent his stories are autobiographical. After Stalin came to power in1924, Babel’s works failed to meet Party guidelines, he was charged with “silence” and his production waned. Babel’s wife emigrated to Paris, where she gave birth to Nathalie in 1929. His mother and sister also emigrated – to Brussels – but Babel “clung to Moscow, hotly wed to his truest bride, the Russian tongue” as Cynthia Ozick puts it in her introduction to the Complete Works.
Babel commented on his imposed “silence” dictated by Stalin at the First Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow in 1934, calling himself “a great master of the genre (of literary silence).” (Complete Works, pg 1055). He was also denied traveling privileges, with the exception of one trip to Paris in 1935 arranged by writer André Malraux to attend the Communist-sponsored International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture and Peace. On this trip he was able to see his wife and daughter Nathalie for what would be the last time. As Stalin systematically tries and executes military and political leaders one after another, Babel continues to quietly publish a few stories and scripts here and there, but does not go unnoticed. On May 15, 1939, Babel is arrested and charged with anti-Soviet activities including spying for France and Austria, and is tortured into making a false confession against himself and a few fellow writers. The transcripts reveal his last words in the proceedings: “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.”
Babel was executed the next day, on January 27, 1940. Rumors of his release from prison were in circulation as late as 1948. He is exonerated in 1954, the government acknowledging that he had not committed any crimes. KGB archives obtained in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union reveal Babel’s death was by firing squad after which his body was deposited in a communal grave. (Complete Works, 28) His untimely death may seem to have been in vain, but his work lives on, taking away and giving back our breath one glorious story at a time. Babel has had the last word.
- Babel, Isaac E., Carol J. Avins (ed.) and H.T. Willets (trans.), 1920 Diary. Yale University Press, 1995
- Babel, Isaac E., Nathalie Babel (ed.) and Peter Constantine (trans.), The Complete Works of Isaac Babel. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.
- Babel, Issac E., Nathalie Babel (ed.) and Andrew MacAndrew and Max Hayward (trans.), Isaac Babel: The Lonely Years 1925-1939. New York: Farrar, Straus & Company, 1964.
- Babel, Isaac E. and Nathalie Babel (ed.), You Must Know Everything: Stories 1915-1937. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.
- Ehre, Milton, Isaac Babel, Boston: Twayne, 1986.
- Falen, James E., Isaac Babel, Russian Master of the Short Story. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1974
- Babel, Nathalie. “’No Time to Finish’: Notes on Isaac Babel.” The Kenyon Review 26:3 (Summer 1964): 514-532, accessed August 27, 2014. http://jstor.org/stable/4334467
- Bernstein, Richard. “Isaac Babel May Yet Have the Last Word.” New York Times 11 July 2001: E1. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Accessed 22 July 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/11/books/critic-s-notebook-isaac-babel-may-yet-have-the-last-word.html
- Bojanowska, Edyta M. “E Pluribus Unum: Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry As a Story Cycle” The Russian Review 59 (July 2000): 371-89, accessed August 27, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2679461
- Freidin, Gregory, “Isaac Babel (1894-1940),” in European Writers: The Twentieth Century, ed. George Stade (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2009), 11:1885-1914
- Muldoon, Amy. “Classics of Marxism: Leon Trotsky.” Review of History of the Russian Revolution, by Leon Trotsky. International Socialist Review, Issue #60, July 2008. Accessed August 27, 2014. http://isreview.org/issue/60/history-russian-revolution
- Vinokur, Val. “Morality and Orality in Isaac Babel’s “Red Cavalry.” The Massachusetts Review 45:4 (Winter 2004/2005): 674-695, accessed August 27, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25090939
- Weinberg, Robert. “The Pogrom of 1905 in Odessa: A Case Study” in Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History, John D. Klier and Shlomo Lambroza, eds. (Cambridge,1992): 248-89
- Gregory Freidin’s Isaac Babel page, hosted by Stanford University
Bentley Clifford Utgaard is a writer and artist living in Murray, Kentucky.
- Elya Isaakovich and Margarita Prokofievna, 1916
- Doudou, 1917 (in Svobodnye mysli)
- Doudou (translated by Peter Constantine, in The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, 2001)
- Doudou (suom. Mikko Viljanenen, Nuori Voima 4/2005)
- Na pole chesti, 1920 [On the Field of Honour]
- Moi pervyi gonorar, 1922-28 (short story, published 1963)
- My First Fee (translated by Peter Constantine, in The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, 2001)
- Ensimmäinen kirjoituspalkkioni (suom. Mikko Viljanen, Nuori Voima, 4/2005)
- V shchelochu, 1923 (in Siluety)
- The Bathroom Window (translated by Peter Constantine, in The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, 2001)
- Kylpyhuoneen ikkuna (suom. Mikko Viljanen, Nuori Voima, 4/2005)
- Rasskazy, 1924
- Konarmiya, 1926
- Red Cavalry (translators: John Harland, 1929, Walter Morrison, 1955; Andrew R. MacAndrew, 1963; David McDuff, 1994; Peter Constantine, 2003; Boris Dralyuk, 2014)
- Punainen ratsuväki (suom. Juhani Konkka, 1958)
- Bluzhdaiushchie zvezdy: Kino-stsenarii, 1926 [Wandering Stars: A Cine-Story]
- Istoriia moei golubiatni, 1926
- The Story of My Dovecote (translated by Peter Constantine, in The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, 2001)
- Benia Krik: kinopovest', 1926 [Benia krik: A Film-Novel]
- Benia Krik: A Film-Novel (translated by Ivor Montagu & S. S. Nolbandov, 1935) / Benya Krik, The Gangster, and Other Stories (translated by Avraham Yarmolinsky, 1948)
- Korol', 1926
- The King (translated by Peter Constantine, in The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, 2001)
- Evreiskie rasskazy, 1927 [Jewish Tales]
- Sakat, 1928 (play)
- Sunset (translated by Raymond Rosenthal and Mirra Ginsburg, in Noonday, 3, 1960)
- Odesskie rasskazy, 1931
- Tales of Odessa (translators: Walter Morrison, 1955; David McDuff, 1994; Boris Dralyuk, 2016)
- Odessalaisia ja muita novelleja (suom. Esa Adrian, 1970)
- Mariia, 1935 (play)
- Marya (translated by Michael Glenny and Harold Shukman, in Three Soviet Plays, 1966, reprinted as The Golden Age of Soviet Theatre, 1981)
- Maria: näytelmä (suom. Annikki Laaksi, 1978)
- Rasskazy, 1936
- Collected Stories, 1955 (edited and translated by Walter Morrison)
- Izbrannoe, 1957 [Selected Works]
- Liubka the Cossack and Other Stories, 1963 (translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew)
- The Lonely Years 1925-29, 1964 (translated by Max Hayward and Andrew R. MacAndrew)
- Zabytye rasskazy. Iz pisem k druz'iam, 1965
- Izbrannoe, 1966
- You Must Know Everything, 1969 (translated by Max Hayward)
- Benya Kirk, The Gangster, and Other Stories, 1971 (edited by Avrahm Yarmolinsky)
- The Forgotten Prose, 1978 (edited and translated by Nicholas Stroud; as Zabytyi Babel, 1979)
- Detstvo i drugie rasskazy, 1979 [Childhood and Other Stories]
- Chetyre rasskaza, 1981
- Sochineniia, 1991 (2 vols.)
- Collected Stories, 1994 (translated by David McDuff)
- 1920 Diary, 1995 (edited by Carol J. Avins, translated by H.T. Willetts; Konarmeyskiy Dnevnik 1920 Goda, in Sochineniia I, 1990)
- Sochineniia, 1996 (2 vols.)
- The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, 2001 (edited by Nathalie Babel, translated by Peter Constantine, with an introduction by Cynthia Ozick)
- Isaac Babel's Selected Writings: Authoritative Texts, Selected Letters, 1926-1939, Isaac Babel Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, Isaac Babel in Criticism and Scholarship, 2010 (translated by Peter Constantine; selected and edited by Gregory Freidin)
- The Essential Fictions, 2017 (translated by Val Vinokur)
- Конармейский дневник 1920 года (written 1920, published 1990). 1920 Diary, trans. H. T. Willetts (1995, Yale University Press;
- Конармия (1926). Red Cavalry
- Закат (written 1926, performed 1927, published 1928). Sunset
- Benya Krik (1926, screenplay). Filmed in Ukraine and available on DVD from National Center for Jewish Film.
- Одесские рассказы (published individually 1921–1924, collected in 1931). Odessa Stories
- Мария, Maria, play (published 1935, not performed in USSR)
- Benya Krik, the Gangster and Other Stories, ed. Avrahm Yarmolinsky, with translations by Walter Morison, Bernard Guilbert Guerney and the editor (Schocken, 1948)
- The Collected Stories, trans. Walter Morison (1955)
- Lyubka the Cossack and Other Stories, trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew (1963)
- You Must Know Everything, Stories 1915-1937, trans. Max Hayward, ed. with notes by Nathalie Babel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966)
- The Forgotten Prose, ed. and trans. Nicholas Stroud (Ardis, 1978)
- Collected Stories, trans. David McDuff (Penguin, 1994)
- The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, trans. Peter Constantine, ed. Nathalie Babel, intro. Cynthia Ozick (Norton, 2002)
- Odessa Stories, trans. Boris Dralyuk (Pushkin Press, 2016)
- The Essential Fictions, trans. Val Vinokur (Northwestern University Press, 2017)