Isaac Babel Additional Biography


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Isaac Emmanuelovich Babel (BA-byihl) was born in the Moldavanka, the Jewish quarter of Odessa, then a part of the Russian Empire, on July 13, 1894. His parents Emmanuel and Fanya Babel were firmly middle class and not entirely comfortable with this lively cosmopolitan city full of foreigners and colorful gangsters. As a result, they moved to Nikolaev, about eighty miles up the coast, shortly after Isaac’s birth. Ever the compulsive mythologizer, Babel would later conveniently forget this detail of his upbringing, just as he brushed over his father’s prosperous agricultural machinery business and depicted him as a simple shopkeeper. To be fair to Babel, however, he was writing in the Soviet Union at a time when it was often expedient to soft-pedal bourgeois origins and emphasize one’s closeness with the working people.

In any case, his family’s modest wealth could not insulate them from the fact they were Jews in a virulently anti-Semitic society, where pogroms, or riots, broke out with alarming regularity. His granduncle was murdered during the pogrom of 1905, and Babel had to watch his own father kneel in supplication to a Cossack officer. However, that act of self-abasement did not spare the family business from a mob of looters or consequent financial ruin. Upon the family’s return to Odessa in 1906, Isaac himself had to struggle to be admitted to the Russian-language commercial school, since the regular Russian-language high schools had a harsh quota limiting the number of Jewish students they would admit.

At this time, Babel’s literary interests began to flower, but not in the way one might have expected for a young man of his background. He had little interest in either Hebrew or Yiddish literature, instead preferring the great Russian writers of the era, including Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. He also developed a strong interest in Western literature, particularly French writers such as Guy de Maupassant and François Rabelais. In these authors, Babel found a vision and power in marked contrast to the resignation and frequent self-pity of his coreligionists’ writings.

His literary yearnings led him to the imperial capital, St. Petersburg, where he lived in defiance of restrictions against Jewish settlement. Although this course of action exposed him to considerable hardship, it also put him in contact with writer Maxim Gorky, who enabled Babel to get his first stories published in 1917. The stories proved controversial enough to get Babel...

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Isaac Babel’s continual focus upon characters at once grim and colorful, combined with the peculiar way in which he died, served to make his writings a highly desirable “forbidden fruit” in the Soviet Union for many decades. Even after his rehabilitation in the 1960’s, the official editions of his works, carefully edited to remove references that were still politically problematic—such as an appearance by Leon Trotsky at the end of the segments that make up Red Cavalry—were printed in very small editions and thus nearly impossible to acquire if one did not have the appropriate connections. Even in the West, Babel remained largely unknown because many scholars felt awkward about approaching stories that were so unsparing in their portrayals of the cruelty of war.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Isaac Babel (BA-byihl), for all the sparseness of his literary output, is generally regarded as the greatest Soviet-Russian writer of short stories. He was born on July 13, 1894, to an ambitious middle-class Jewish family living in a colorful, lower-class section of Odessa known as the Moldavanka. Young Babel spent his first decade in the nearby city of Nikolayev, where he was pushed by his family into fanatical diligence as a student, this being the only hope for escape from political oppression. The terrible pogrom of October, 1905, forced the Babels back to Odessa, where Isaac continued his studies and began to write stories. His first published story, “Old Shloime,” about an old man who commits suicide, appeared in 1913 in...

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(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

A leading Russian short-story writer during the 1920’s, Babel became a suspect in the eyes of the Soviet police after publishing Red Cavalry (1926), a collection of stories about the Russian civil war. Although he had joined the Bolsheviks during the revolution, his stories presented the revolution and civil war as he saw them—an orgy of barbarous actions perpetrated by all sides. Publication of that book marked the beginning of official distrust that shadowed Babel through the rest of his life. The fact that he was Jewish contributed to this distrust, although the new Soviet regime officially outlawed anti- Semitism. However, Babel was not a stranger to religious persecution; as a child his family was subjected to a pogrom in which he was almost killed.

When Joseph Stalin consolidated his power and introduced the First Five-Year Plan, establishing his total control over Soviet life, Babel refused to write on demand in support of the regime. He then had difficulties publishing his own work; he was criticized not only for writing “antirevolutionary” stories, but for not writing enough that followed the tenets of Socialist Realism.

During the 1930’s Babel wrote constantly, but published little, while making his living writing film scenarios. He avoided politics and lived in constant fear of being arrested for his views on recent history and literature. Because of this fear, he refused to help others threatened by the police and might have thereby even unwittingly contributed to their plights. His family emigrated to Belgium, but he refused to leave the Soviet Union. After he had an affair with a Russian woman from the Far East, he was unjustly accused of being a spy for Japan. When the secret police arrested him in May, 1939, his neighbors heard him mutter, “They didn’t let me finish.” He was sent to a concentration camp, where he perished in 1941. His death was not announced until fifteen years later, with a brief explanation that he was the victim of the “personality cult”—a current euphemism for Stalin’s dictatorial rule.

Many of Babel’s confiscated manuscripts have never been located; most likely they were burned by the secret police in December, 1941, during preparations for retreat before the German invasion. Babel’s literary rehabilitation was slow, but eventually he received his due as one of the best stylists in Russian literature and as one of the premier short-story writers in the world.