Red Cavalry, Isaak Babel
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.
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.
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.
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.
(The entire section is 103 words.)
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 metaphysics turn on cultural and ethical ambivalence. His insights are evanescent and do not accumulate to form a coherent pattern or system. Significantly, the genre through which Babel explores twentieth-century dilemmas is that of the novella.
A perusal of the substantial body of critical literature devoted to Red Cavalry reveals that relatively little attention has been paid to this question of genre. The few critics and scholars who broach the subject do not linger over it, nor do they define their terms. In “Babel's Novella [Novella Babelja],” for instance, Nikolaj Stepanov asserts that in Babel's hands the novella is reduced to a miniature.1 Here Stepanov may be taking the lead from Babel himself,...
(The entire section is 4422 words.)
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, “Konkin” and “Zamost'e” are not the first and last stories respectively. Babel' seems to have had no interest in describing the campaign of the 1st Cavalry Army as a sequence of historical events. Although the stories form a cycle which was carefully arranged by Babel'3 it is impossible to ascertain from the stories the main events and the main tactical and strategical considerations of the campaign, either from the Polish or from the Soviet side. While there are many scenes of violence, there are few descriptions of battle.
Ever since the book first appeared critics have assumed that the author put the centre of gravity of the cycle as a whole in the figure of Ljutov, the narrator of most of the...
(The entire section is 8391 words.)
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 stories (cf. Terras: 149). Of considerable significance in this respect are the various intertextual and extratextual relations: the allusive play with literary motifs, devices and tradition, with different rituals. The fragmentary and cryptic way in which this is done sometimes leads to discordant notes in the text and thus inevitably induces the reader to supply additional information from his literary knowledge and from his acquaintance with various modes of life (cf. van der Eng: 112, 120).
The second object of this article is to uncover the intratextual relations, “the hidden associations” (Stepanov: 33) and thus to lay bare the thematic essence of the at first glance rather capricious sequence of the narrative...
(The entire section is 3245 words.)
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 Cavalry is to the Russian Revolution what Tolstoy's War and Peace is to the Napoleonic invasion, an attempt of the literary imagination to grasp a climactic historical experience in the life of a people. Of course Tolstoy's novel is broader in scope and deeper in its penetration of human experience. Also, the two authors come out of markedly different traditions: Tolstoy is the supreme master of the realistic novel, while Babel proceeds from the imperatives of modernism. Tolstoy offers a microcosm of the world that is comprehensive, exhaustive, and psychologically persuasive. Babel is fragmentary, elliptical, elusive, very much a modernist in his tendency to decompose a text into pastiche. Less confident than his nineteenth-century...
(The entire section is 9719 words.)
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.]
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 pragmatic sense, as a covert or overt allusion from one text to another. The first approach was launched by Julia Kristeva. She initiated the now widely used term as follows:
Le mot (le texte) est un croisement de mots (de textes) ou on lit au moins un autre mot (texte).
(Kristeva 1969: 145)
Il se crée, ainsi, autour du signifié poétique, un espace textuel multiple dont les éléments sont susceptibles d'être appliqués dans le texte poétique concret. Nous appellerons cet espace intertextuel.
Kristeva is mainly concerned with the fact that a literary text as a...
(The entire section is 10661 words.)
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 final version of Babel's Konarmiya, or Red Cavalry,1 as well their interplay and what the masculine and feminine principles which are established signify. It may seem strange at first sight to consider female characters at all in these stories. No female character has the status of such as Savitsky, Gedali, or Afonka Bida and the rest, to say nothing of the almost ubiquitous Lyutov. Most are marginal, most are unnamed and women in the stories are generally passed over fleetingly in the critical literature, or else are seen merely as iconic, symbolic or emblematic of something in male destinies, especially Lyutov's.2 However, as I will argue throughout this paper, an understanding of the female...
(The entire section is 11168 words.)
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 new myth”1. The chief ingredient of this method is its constant allusions to the Christian myth, a parallelism reinforced at a variety of levels within the work. It is a less conspicuous but equally convincing fact that, in precisely twelve of his heroes, Babel, in creating them, employs—directly or indirectly—Biblical parallelisms; I call these “new apostles”.
The “new apostles” are all ambivalent figures: in almost all of them, Biblical parallels and allusions to Christian culture constitute a sublime pole, with the “earthly”, coarse traits representing the low pole. In the duality of the creation of the new apostles, the Biblical aspects make up a mythicizing system; hence ambivalence is the...
(The entire section is 7616 words.)
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 of Konarmiia—is undergoing serious and profound revisions.2 Nevertheless, there is still very little agreement about this work's style, themes, or even genre. The problem of genre, for example, betrays itself in translations of the title which frequently carries the dubious epithet “Tales.” This implies an autonomy for each of the parts making up the work—something which is not obvious at all. While one article cannot reflect on all the problems that have evolved in Babel scholarship over the last six decades, I would like to take up the question of Konarmiia's ending. Under the heading of closure, this paper will examine the internal structure of the ending and discuss its function within the work as...
(The entire section is 4854 words.)
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, perhaps, Babel in his stories of the Red Army).”1 Maksim Gor'kii also suggested the comparison of Gogol and Isaak Babel (1894-41), but with little elaboration. He defended Babel, who had recently been attacked in the press, by claiming that Babel's Cossacks were bolder even than Gogol's.2
A critical tradition similarly links Babel with Tolstoi. “Like Tolstoi,” writes Steven Marcus, “he [Babel] saw in the Cossacks a conjunction of beauty and fierceness, in which their athleticism gave grace to their aggressiveness.”3 In this reading, Babel's Red Cavalry is firmly planted within the Cossack tradition, but the myth is reduced to a unidimensional manifestation of the noble savage....
(The entire section is 10228 words.)
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 butchered before her eyes.1 The question itself, we are told, is delivered “with sudden and terrible violence.” In Babel's cycle of stories, violence that is sudden and terrible appears generic to the world he describes. That disturbing feature generates an equally compelling need to understand; these two aspects of the tales are inextricably united in the minds of both teller and reader. The focus of this essay will be on this fearful, human union, born of that need for understanding linked to mindless brutality.
Like questions pervade the cycle. While Liutov, the most prominent consciousness of the work, is clearly and most consistently seeking to understand, throughout the tales there are numerous other...
(The entire section is 5858 words.)
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 Russian realist tradition, such as (to name but a few) intertextuality, a focus on language and style, and a sharpened sensitivity to plot and composition. It can be said that in Babel' criticism some of these aspects are just beginning to receive the full measure of attention that they merit. However, the rich fabric of Russian and western cultural subtexts in Babel''s prose and its intricate relationships with various literary and mythological prototypes remain largely unexplored. Among recent studies that begin to fill this gap, the forthcoming monograph in Russian by Yampolsky and Zholkovsky deserves special mention as one of the most comprehensive to date.
The diversity of functions of archetypal and literary motifs...
(The entire section is 9089 words.)
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 of fiction he drew from this experience, Red Cavalry.1 That book begins and ends with the narrator contemplating a corpse—in each instance, the body of a Jewish man whose passing leads the narrator to confront the meanings of kinship and loss. In the first case, he witnesses bereavement; in the second, he experiences it. On one important level, the narrator's trajectory in Red Cavalry is captured in the contrast between his links to the first death and to the last. Reading the story cycle against the background of the diary, one can see this feature of the cycle's design in terms of the central dilemma for Babel' (bearing papers in the name of Kirill Vasilievich Liutov, the name he bequeaths to his narrator) in...
(The entire section is 8838 words.)
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.
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 New York, I expected a terrified refugee on the run from the intolerable exactions of popular anti-Semitism; at that time the press was filled with such dire reports. For months, preparing for her rescue, I had been hurtling from one agency to another, in search of official information on political asylum.
But when S. finally turned up, in black tights, a miniskirt and the reddest lipstick, it was clear she was indifferent to all that. She didn't want to be saved. What she wanted was an American holiday, a fresh set of boyfriends and a leather coat. She had brought with her a sizable cosmetics case, amply stocked, and a vast, rattling plastic bag stuffed with hundreds of cheap tin Komsomol medals depicting Lenin as a boy....
(The entire section is 6399 words.)
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 Cavalry (Pervaia konnaia armiia) from May until September 1920, Babel adopted the pseudonym Liutov and passed himself off as a Russian. The name Liutov itself speaks for the ironic contrast between its connotation of fierceness in Russian and Babel's meek appearance. Babel found himself a Jew among Cossacks whose animosity toward the Jews was as awesome as their ferocity and horsemanship. If we now examine the conflict of Russian and Jew in the writer's identity, we will 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.
The legendary First Cavalry had been formed in November 1919 out...
(The entire section is 10087 words.)
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 a year before Babel arrived on the scene. They erupted into a major conflict in late April and early May 1920, when the Poles occupied Kiev, then the capital of the shaky Ukrainian People's Republic recognized by the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The principals are still debating whether the move was a preemptive strike prompted by fear of Russian designs now that the civil war had turned in favor of the Bolsheviks or an aggressive gambit to regain historically Polish territories. At any rate, the Soviets quickly responded to this challenge along a front extending from the Ukraine to the Baltic, and they were initially quite successful. By the end of May the Poles had been driven out of Kiev. By June they were steadily retreating, pursued...
(The entire section is 8520 words.)
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 is set amid a strange and nightmarish world of brutal Cossack cavalrymen, plundered Jewish settlements and the failure of the Soviet government's first attempt to bring about the export of communism during the Soviet-Polish War of 1920. The Konarmiia of the title refers to Semen Budennyi's First Cavalry Army, the Red Army's elite cavalry unit with which Babel served during summer and autumn 1920.1 The name of Liutov which Babel gave to the narrator of Konarmiia was the nom de guerre Babel himself used while riding with the Red cavalry. Like Liutov in Konarmiia, Babel was born to Jewish parents, wore spectacles, and wrote for Krasnyi kavalerist, the newspaper of the First Cavalry Army....
(The entire section is 5770 words.)
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 Revolution and the civil war that followed it. No writer explores this theme more cogently than Babel'. There is no single element in his stories that more strikingly underscores the horror of this violence than Babel's use of skaz and images from the folktale.
Babel's employment of skaz, coupled with his references to oral literature, reminds us that he is writing about semi- or illiterate people who are still immersed in traditional culture. The very word skaz, from skazat' (“to say” or “to tell”) suggests oral usage, which itself can variously encompass oral folk narrative (typically, in folktales, in prose) or can appear as the speech of a semi- or uneducated narrator quoted by the...
(The entire section is 4539 words.)
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 of a summer morning hung between the straight and bright walls. A straight shaft of light had been placed at the bottom of the picture by the sun. In it swarmed sparkling dust. The long figure of John [the Baptist] was descending straight down upon me out of the dark-blue depths of the niche. A black cloak hung in triumph from that implacable, repulsively thin body. Drops of blood glittered in the round clasps of the cloak. John's head had been cut off at an angle from the flayed neck. It lay upon an earthenware dish that was held tightly by the large yellow fingers of a warrior. The dead man's face looked familiar to me. I felt a touch of mystery in the offing. On the earthenware dish lay a head that had been copied from that of Pan...
(The entire section is 6915 words.)
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: citizen Babel'.
Under the fine-sounding, patently speculative title, “Iz knigi Konarmiia” [from the book Red Cavalry], the hapless author has attempted to depict the life, mores, and traditions of the First Cavalry Army during the hectic period of its heroic struggle on the Polish and other fronts. To describe the heroic struggle of classes never before seen in the history of mankind, one must first understand the essence of that struggle and the nature of classes, that is, one must be a dialectic, a Marxist artist. The author is neither. … Citizen Babel' tells us old-wives' tales about the Red Army, he rummages in old-wives' trash and clothes, he recounts with old-wives' horror how...
(The entire section is 9158 words.)
Bojanowska, Edyta J. “E Pluribus Unum: Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry as a Story Cycle.” Russian Review 59 (July 2000): 371-89.
Identifies the unifying thematic and stylistic elements of the stories in Red Cavalry.
Borenstein, Eliot. “Isaak Babel: Dead Fathers and Sons.” In Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1929, pp. 73-124. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.
Considers masculinity as a key theme of Red Cavalry.
Danow, David K. “A Poetics of Inversion: The Non-Dialogic Aspect in Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry.” Modern Language Review 86, no. 4 (October 1991): 939-53.
Discusses the lack of verbal communication in Red Cavalry, contending that “this is a world in which a dialogic response, were it offered, would yet prove of no avail.”
Erlich, Victor. “Color and Line: The Art of Isaac Babel.” In Modernism and Revolution: Russian Literature in Transition, pp. 145-62. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.
Elucidates the defining characteristics of Red Cavalry.
Hetenyi, Zsuzsa. “The Visible Idea: Babel's Modelling Imagery.” Canadian Slavonic Papers 36, nos. 1-2 (March-June 1994): 55-67.
Maintains that by...
(The entire section is 627 words.)