“My First Goose” is an early story in Isaac Babel’s collection Konarmiia (1926; Red Cavalry, 1929), based on the author’s experiences in the Russian campaign against Poland during the summer of 1920. Although this story is not precisely autobiographical, the fuller context of the collection clarifies that the narrator, like the author, is an educated Jew, newly appointed to the Division as “Propaganda Officer.” Virtually all the soldiers in the Division are Cossacks, and anti-Semitic to the bone (as were the men of the historic First Cavalry in which Babel served).
The entire thrust of the first half of the story is to contrast the narrator, the newly arrived, bespectacled officer, with his little trunk full of manuscripts, to the Cossacks of the Division Staff. First, Commander Savitsky is described as a marvelous giant, all in purple and crimson, and beautiful, as he strikes his riding whip on the table. Not content to be merely imposing, Savitsky, on learning that his new propaganda officer can read and write, calls him a “nasty little object” and ridicules his “specs”—referring to him as “one of those [Jew] grinds.” When the quartermaster takes the new officer to his billet, one of the five soldiers living there immediately tosses out the officer’s little trunk, turns his backside to him, and emits a series of vulgar noises.
Mortified, the narrator withdraws and tries to read Vladimir Ilich...
(The entire section is 593 words.)