From Rasskazy (Stories), by Isaac Babel (Moscow: Federatsiia, 1932). Portrait of Isaac Babel by David Shterenberg. (Slavic and Baltic Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

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Babel, Isaac

(Isaak Emmanuilovich Babel’; 1894–1940), 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.

Suggested Reading

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).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 277, David Einhorn, Papers, 1914-1940s.