Study Guide

Red Cavalry

by Isaac Babel

Red Cavalry Essay - Critical Essays

Red Cavalry, Isaak Babel

Introduction

Red Cavalry Isaak Babel

The following entry presents criticism of Babel's short story collection Konarmiia (Red Cavalry), which was published in 1926. For discussion of Babel's complete short fiction, see SSC, Volume 16.

Regarded as Babel's best work, Konarmiia (Red Cavalry) is a cycle of thirty-four short stories that initially appeared in periodicals in the Soviet Union between 1923 and 1925. The stories were eventually collected and published in 1926; in 1931, Babel added another story, “Argamak,” to a new edition of the book. The pieces in the collection are based on Babel's experiences riding with the Russian Cossacks of the First Cavalry during the Soviet-Polish War of 1920. Diverse in subject matter, these stories are linked through recurring themes of identity, violence, alienation, and morality. Red Cavalry is viewed as a major contribution to Soviet literature and Babel's greatest literary achievement.

Plot and Major Characters

Most of the stories in Red Cavalry are narrated by Kirill Vasil'evich Liutov, a Jewish intellectual from the south of Russia who joins up with the First Cavalry and serves as a war correspondent during the short, brutal Soviet-Polish War of 1920. Although the stories are not presented in chronological order, they begin in the spring of 1920, when the Poles came to occupy and control the Russian city of Kiev, and continue to the late summer, when Soviet forces were stopped from reaching Warsaw and the First Cavalry was defeated outside of Lvov. As an observer, Liutov records the vicious, ruthless actions of the Cossacks as they sweep across the Polish countryside and encounter two disparate cultures: the Catholics and the Jews. In the opening story, “Perexod cerez Zbruc” (“Crossing the Zbruch”), Liutov juxtaposes the heroic beauty of the Cossack army with the filth and degradation of a Jewish family he is billeted with one night. When he wakes in the morning after a terrible dream, he discovers he has been sleeping next to the corpse of an old man who had been brutally murdered. Babel contrasts the vitality of revolution and war against the mystery and decay of the Catholic Church in “Kostel v Novograde” (“The Church at Novograd”). When the Cossacks become convinced that the community has hidden valuables in the local Catholic Church, they ransack it. For a moment, the intellectual Liutov is attracted to the Gothic and ornate nature of the surroundings, but rejects the stifling sanctity of the church for the primitive, peripatetic life of a cavalryman.

One of the best-known stories of the collection, “Moj pervyj gus'” (“My First Goose”), finds Liutov struggling to be accepted by the Cossack cavalrymen with whom he is billeted in the house of an old woman. In order to gain their esteem, he brutally kills the old woman's beloved goose and orders her to cook it for them. Although this heartless act earns the approval of the Cossacks, Liutov is haunted by remorse. In “Eskadronnyj Trunov” (“Squadron Commander Trunov”), the Soviet commander of a cavalry unit is killed during a battle with an airplane. As a single man on horseback cannot effectively fight an airplane, critics believe this story signifies the impact of technological progress on human warfare. A deserter who pretends to be deaf in “Ivany” (“Two Ivans”) actually becomes deaf after three days of torture at the hands of his guard. “Zizneopisanie Pavlicenki, Matveja Rodionyca” (“The Life of Pavlichenko”) chronicles the brutal revenge of Pavlichenko against Nikitinskij, his boss and landowner, for taking advantage of Pavlichenko's wife. After the Russian revolution, Pavlichenko returns to the estate and announces that Lenin has given him the power to kill his former employer. He proceeds to trample him to death, a grotesque scene that borders on black comedy. In “Sol'” (“Salt”), a woman deceives a train full of Cossacks by wrapping a huge lump of salt in blankets and pretending it is a baby. When her deception is revealed, the indignant soldiers throw her off the moving train. When they realize she is unhurt, they shoot and kill her.

Major Themes

Critics identify the unifying element of Red Calvary as the character of Liutov and his search for identity, acceptance, and meaning in a violent, uncaring world. They argue that as a Jew and Soviet sympathizer, the narrator (like Babel himself) is alienated from, but attracted to, the brutal and Darwinian world of the Cossacks, who were known to be anti-Soviet and anti-Semitic. Moreover, as an intellectual, Liutov is unable to fully reconcile himself to the violence and senseless destruction that accompanies warfare. Injustice and discrimination is a key theme of the stories; the numerous pogroms and rampant anti-Semitism, as well as the random and wanton violence perpetrated by the Cossacks, both repels and fascinates Liutov. The impact of war on individuals and society is a major theme in Red Calvary. Along with the destruction of human life, critics have pointed to the eradication of spiritual and material culture as a recurring motif in the stories. Feminist critics have focused on the role of women in the tales; some have asserted that, as victims of the idiocy and brutality of men, Babel's female characters engender sympathy for women. The hypocrisy and corruption of organized religion, whether Christianity or Judaism, is another recurring concern in the stories.

Critical Reception

At the time of its publication Red Cavalry met with critical controversy. It started with a ferocious condemnation from General Budennyi, who had commanded the First Cavalry during the Soviet-Polish War. In his denunciation Budennyi accused Babel of cowardice, ignorance, and the intentional slander of the heroic First Cavalry. As further debate erupted, detractors of Babel's short story collection echoed Budennyi's points, while supporters of the book praised it as an honest and courageous portrayal of the injustices of war. Since that initial controversy, commentators have investigated Babel's use of skaz (imitation of spoken storytelling) and his references to oral literature, and traced the parallels between Red Cavalry and Babel's Naplo, 1920 (published 1993; 1920 Diary). Because of these similarities, many commentators have argued that the stories are autobiographical in nature. The genre of the book has been another topic of critical discussion, with cycle of related stories, episodic novel, prose poem, baroque novel, modern epic all having their proponents. The organization of the stories has been examined; reviewers note that the pieces are not chronologically arranged, but instead placed to gradually reveal Liutov's background, personality, and philosophical maturation. Critics maintain that the events and geography of the stories do not reflect historical reality and that they should be regarded as Babel's artistic interpretation of the truth, contending that the emphasis is not in individual battles or campaigns, but in the dialectical process of history. Some commentators laud Babel's stylistic concern with economy, precision, balance, and detailed imagery. Others underscore his use of words, phrases and syntax typical of the revolutionary period and analyze the intertextuality of the stories, finding allusions to Christian mythology, Russian folk epics, Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, and Nikolai Gogol's Taras Bulba. In theme and style, most critics find Red Cavalry to be a work of sophisticated maturity and Babel's literary masterpiece.

Principal Works

*Rasskazy 1925

Istoriia moei golubiatni 1926

Konarmiia [Red Cavalry] 1926

Odesskie rasskazzy [The Odessa Tales] 1931

Benya Krik, the Gangster, and Other Stories 1948

The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel 1955

Liubka the Cossack and Other Stories 1963

Chetyre rasskaza 1965

You Must Know Everything: Stories, 1915-1937 1969

Collected Stories 1994

Korol' (novel) 1926

Zakat [Sunset] (play) 1927

Mariia (play) 1935

Isaac Babel: the Lonely Years, 1925-1939 (short stories, letters, essays, and speeches) 1964

I. Babel: Izbrannoe (short stories, plays, autobiography, letters, and speeches) 1966

The Forgotten Prose (short stories and diary excerpts) 1978

Naplo, 1920 [1920 Diary] (diary) 1993

The Complete Works of Isaac Babel (short stories, diaries, plays, speeches, and autobiography) 2002

*Expanded editions of this work were published in 1925, 1932, and 1934.

Criticism

David A. Lowe (essay date spring 1982)

SOURCE: Lowe, David A. “A Generic Approach to Babel's Red Cavalry.Modern Fiction Studies 28, no. 1 (spring 1982): 69-78.

[In the following essay, Lowe explores links between Red Cavalry and the Renaissance novella.]

One would have to search far and wide for a work more emblematic of twentieth-century literary concerns and techniques than Isaak Babel's Red Cavalry (Konarmija, 1926). The narrator, a revolutionary and an outsider, seeks meaning, purpose, and self-knowledge in a world torn apart by violent upheaval. Adrift in a primordial Darwinian maelstrom, Ljutov has only esthetic irony to rely on as an instrument of cognition. His...

(The entire section is 4422 words.)

Gareth Williams (essay date April 1984)

SOURCE: Williams, Gareth. “The Rhetoric of Revolution in Babel's Konarmija.Russian Literature 15, no. 3 (April 1984): 279-98.

[In the following essay, Williams investigates the influence of revolutionary propaganda and language on the stories of Red Cavalry.]

The Konarmija stories are told against the background of the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-20.1 The military engagements described took place in the period from 3 June 1920 (“Konkin”), when the 1st Cavalry Army broke through the Polish lines at Belaja cerkov', to 31 August 1920 (“Zamost'e”), when the Konarmija were caught in the “Zamość ring”.2 However,...

(The entire section is 8391 words.)

Jan van der Eng (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Van der Eng, Jan. “Babel's Short Story ‘Zamost'e.’”1 In Signs of Friendship: To Honour A. G. F. van Holk, edited by J. J. van Baak, pp. 419-30. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1984.

[In the following essay, van der Eng examines narrative aspects of “Zamost'e,” particularly the interrelationship of the story's thematic concerns.]

The object of this article is twofold. In the first place it will deal with the erratic thematic pattern of “Zamost'e”: the striking metaphors, the suggestive variations on certain themes and combinations of themes, the wide range of the dramatic events and experiences which may create the impression of several interwoven...

(The entire section is 3245 words.)

Milton Ehre (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Ehre, Milton. “Red Cavalry.” In Isaac Babel, pp. 63-86. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.

[In the following essay, Ehre categorizes the major thematic concerns of Red Cavalry and views the collection as Babel's attempt “to create an epic of a decisive historical moment.”]

For all their charm, Odessa Tales still smack of the provincialism of the genre sketch. Red Cavalry is a work of sophisticated maturity. The most important fiction to come out of the Russian Revolution—its only real competitor is a poem, Blok's The Twelve—it can advance a claim to stand as the national epic of that momentous event. Red...

(The entire section is 9719 words.)

Marc Schreurs (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Schreurs, Marc. “Intertextual Montage in Babel's Konarmija.” In Dutch Contributions to the Tenth International Congress of Slavists, Sofia, September 14-22, 1988: Literature, edited by André van Holk, pp. 277-307. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988.

[In the following essay, Schreurs analyzes intertextuality as a montage strategy in Red Cavalry, finding allusions to Russian folk epics and nineteenth-century works by Leo Tolstoy and Nikolai Gogol.]

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The phenomenon of intertextuality in literary semantics may be approached in two different ways: in a general sense, as an inherent condition of the poetic word, and, in a more...

(The entire section is 10661 words.)

Joe Andrew (essay date September 1989)

SOURCE: Andrew, Joe. “‘Spoil the Purest of Ladies’: Male and Female Imagery in Isaac Babel's Konarmiya.Essays in Poetics 14, no. 2 (September 1989): 1-27.

[In the following essay, Andrew discusses the interplay between male and female characters in Red Cavalry and argues that “an understanding of the female characters, their plot roles, the way they are depicted, and, indeed, what they symbolise, is critical in a broadly-based and systematic analysis of the world of war, revolution and violence” which constitutes the collection.]

The purpose of this article is to examine male and female characters in the thirty-five stories that comprise the...

(The entire section is 11168 words.)

Zsuzsa Hetenyi (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Hetenyi, Zsuzsa. “‘Up’ and ‘Down’, Madonna and Prostitute: The Role of Ambivalence in Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel.” Acta Litteraria Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 32, nos. 3-4 (1990): 309-26.

[In the following essay, Hetenyi investigates the role of ambivalence as well as the significance of Christian mythology and biblical allusions in the stories of Red Cavalry.]

The stories of Isaac Babel, which he combined into a whole in Red Cavalry, are united by the author's outlook, a coherent world view. The heroes, objects, landscapes and events become constituents of a system in the artistic method that I have called “the creation of a...

(The entire section is 7616 words.)

Allan Reid (essay date June 1991)

SOURCE: Reid, Allan. “Isaak Babel's Konarmiia: Meanings and Endings.” Canadian Slavonic Papers 33, no. 2 (June 1991): 139-50.

[In the following essay, Reid notes that over the years there has been little agreement on the style, themes, or genre of Red Cavalry, and examines the structure and function of the ending of the collection.]

Despite its brevity, Isaak Babel's Konarmiia1 has been the victim of a great variety of readings, most of them unsupported textually or extra-textually; few cohere into any intellectually satisfying whole. Fortunately, several recent studies suggest that Babel scholarship—and, in particular, the study...

(The entire section is 4854 words.)

Judith Deutsch Kornblatt (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Kornblatt, Judith Deutsch. “Isaak Babel and His Red Cavalry Cossacks.” In The Cossack Hero in Russian Literature: A Study in Cultural Mythology, pp. 107-25. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Kornblatt finds a number of connections between Babel and Nikolai Gogol and analyzes Red Cavalry in light of the Cossack myth.]

In his A History of Russian Literature, D. S. Mirsky praises Taras Bul'ba with an enthusiasm rare among students of Gogol. The novel is “heroic, frankly and openly heroic,” he writes, and “its place in Russian literature is unique—it has had no imitators or followers (except,...

(The entire section is 10228 words.)

David K. Danow (essay date March-June 1994)

SOURCE: Danow, David K. “The Paradox of Red Cavalry.” Canadian Slavonic Papers 36, nos. 1-2 (March-June 1994): 43-54.

[In the following essay, Danow considers the stories of Red Cavalry to be full of depictions of mindless violence coupled with futile attempts to understand such behavior.]

In Red Cavalry the first story sets the tone: horrific violence thrust upon the unsuspecting narrator and reader, accompanied by a question at the end for which there is, and can be, no response. “And now I should wish to know … I should wish to know where in the whole world you could find another father like my father?” asks the daughter whose father has been...

(The entire section is 5858 words.)

Yuri K. Shcheglov (essay date fall 1994)

SOURCE: Shcheglov, Yuri K. “Some Themes and Archetypes in Babel's Red Cavalry.Slavic Review 53, no. 3 (fall 1994): 653-70.

[In the following essay, Shcheglov examines the plot, symbolism, and major themes of “My First Goose,” focusing on the “archetypal patterns,” the “literary motifs of ancient, ritualistic, and mythological origin which serve as a kind of concealed amplifier enhancing the paradigmatic effect of the story's events.”]

It is an established fact that the so-called “Southern” (mainly Odessa-based) school of writers enriched Soviet literature of the 1920s with a number of “European” dimensions neglected by the then dominant...

(The entire section is 9089 words.)

Carol J. Avins (essay date fall 1994)

SOURCE: Avins, Carol J. “Kinship and Concealment in Red Cavalry and Babel's 1920 Diary.Slavic Review 53, no. 3 (fall 1994): 694-710.

[In the following essay, Avins elucidates the relationship between Babel's diary and the stories of Red Cavalry, and she investigates identity and the expression of kinship as key thematic concerns in the book.]

To begin, three encounters, and then some ruminations about two deaths, the veiling of identity and the expression of kinship. The encounters are from the diary Isaac Babel' kept during his service with Budenny's First Cavalry Army in the Polish campaign of 1920; the deaths are those that frame the work...

(The entire section is 8838 words.)

Cynthia Ozick (essay date 8 May 1995)

SOURCE: Ozick, Cynthia. “The Year of Writing Dangerously.” New Republic (8 May 1995): 31-8.

[In the following essay, Ozick investigates autobiographical aspects of the stories in Red Cavalry and elucidates the relationship between the short story collection and his 1920 Diary.]

Identity, at least, is prepared to ask questions.

—Leon Wieseltier

A year or so before the Soviet Union imploded, S.'s mother, my first cousin, whose existence until then had been no more than a distant legend, telephoned from Moscow. “Save my child!” she cried, in immemorial tones. So when S. arrived in...

(The entire section is 6399 words.)

Efraim Sicher (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Sicher, Efraim. “The Jewishness of Babel.” In Jews in Russian Literature after the October Revolution: Writers and Artists between Hope and Apostasy, pp. 70-111. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Sicher chronicles Babel's time with Russian Cossacks in the First Cavalry in 1920, maintaining that by exploring “the conflict of Russian and Jew in the writer's identity, we … see how Babel came to form his image of the post-Revolutionary Jewish intellectual, torn between Judaism and Communism, alienated from his past and unable to come to terms with the future.”]

As a war correspondent attached to Budyonny's First...

(The entire section is 10087 words.)

Charles Rougle (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Rougle, Charles. “Isaac Babel and His Odyssey of War and Revolution.” In Red Cavalry, edited by Charles Rougle, pp. 5-65. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Rougle provides a stylistic analysis of the stories of Red Cavalry and argues that Babel does not focus on accurate descriptions of the military and historical aspects of the Soviet-Polish War, but rather on “the effect of violence on human life, morals, and culture.”]

RED CAVALRY AND THE POLISH-SOVIET WAR

Relations between revolutionary Russia and the newly created Republic of Poland had been smoldering for more than...

(The entire section is 8520 words.)

Stephen Brown (essay date 1996-1997)

SOURCE: Brown, Stephen. “The Jew among the Cossacks: Isaac Babel and the Red Cavalry in the Soviet-Polish War of 1920.” Slavonica 3, no. 1 (1996-1997): 29-43.

[In the following essay, Brown discusses the autobiographical nature of the stories of Red Cavalry, asserting that “Babel's depiction of a Cossack Red Cavalry should be viewed not as a mere recounting of the facts of the writer's wartime experience but as an integral part of his pessimistic account of war and revolution.”]

For the historian, Isaac Babel's literary masterpiece, Konarmiia, represents an intriguing blend of historical fact, autobiography and literary fantasy. Konarmiia...

(The entire section is 5770 words.)

Janet Tucker (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Tucker, Janet. “Skaz and Oral Usage as Satirical Devices in Isaak Babel's Red Calvary.1Canadian-American Slavic Studies 34, no. 2 (summer 2000): 201-10.

[In the following essay, Tucker considers Babel's use of skaz and the oral tradition in Red Cavalry as parodic devices.]

Given the density and intricacy of his short story collection Red Cavalry, justifiably regarded as one of the great prose works of twentieth-century Russian literature, Isaak Babel' is notoriously difficult to pin down. Even the briefest of his tales masterfully develops the subject central to all of them: the violence inherent in the October...

(The entire section is 4539 words.)

Robert A. Maguire (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Maguire, Robert A. “Ekphrasis in Isaak Babel.” In Depictions: Slavic Studies in the Narrative and Visual Arts in Honor of William E. Harkins, edited by Douglas M. Greenfield, pp. 14-23. Dana Point, Calif.: Ardis, 2000.

[In the following essay, Maguire examines Babel's use of ekphrasis, or elaborate description, in the stories of Red Cavalry.]

Toward the beginning of Babel's “Pan Apolek,” one of the longest and most complex stories in Red Cavalry, the narrator, Liutov, pauses to describe a painting he sees hanging on the wall of a fugitive priest's house in Novograd-Volynsk:

I remember: the spiderweb stillness...

(The entire section is 6915 words.)

Igor' Sukhikh (essay date winter 2000-2001)

SOURCE: Sukhikh, Igor'. “About Stars, Blood, People, and Horses.” Russian Studies in Literature 37, no. 1 (winter 2000-2001): 6-26.

[In the following essay, Sukhikh offers a thematic and stylistic examination of Red Cavalry and chronicles the writing of the book, which he asserts happened in “three steps, over three stages of transformation of the raw material of life into a work of art.”]

In the seventh year of the new era (a.d. 1924), Army Commander Budennyi, “having rode into literature on horseback, and criticizing it from the height of his horse” (Gorky), discovered that serving under his command was a slanderer, sadist, and literary degenerate:...

(The entire section is 9158 words.)