Red Cavalry Summary
by Isaac Babel

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Red Cavalry Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Red Cavalry (or Konarmiia in Russian) is a collection of short stories firmly planted in the birth trauma of the Soviet Union. To the Russian reader of the 1920’s, Red Cavalry had the sound of the new language of the new regime. The very word konarmiia was a coinage of the Russian Civil War, a joining of the Russian words for “horse” and “army,” and was used to replace the old word for cavalry, with its associations of elite regiments staffed by aristocrats. However, the English translator did not attempt to capture that sense, instead choosing the more descriptive title Red Cavalry. Even in translation, however, Red Cavalry loses little of the raw energy of the original Russian.

This collection of short stories begins with a bang in “Perekhod cherez Zbruch” (“Crossing into Poland”), with the news that Novograd-Volynsk has been captured. The narrator describes how he crosses the Zbruch River, followed by an encounter with a Jewish family in the house where he is to be billeted for the night. Each of the stories follows a similar pattern, with the first-person narrator, Kiril Lyutov, having various encounters with the Cossacks and with the Poles and Jews in the territories through which the army rides. Almost all the encounters are violent, and each is vividly limned with strong, active words.

Although there is no obvious continuing between the chapters and each story can be read as a stand-alone tale or vignette, together the stories add up to a plot line that is more than the sum of its parts, making the book resemble a novel rather than merely a collection of unrelated short stories. The overall theme of the book is Lyutov’s acclimation to life among the fierce and wild Cossack horsemen. Through rough and often bitter experience he learns to accept violence with an approximation of the casualness with which the Cossacks approach it. When he goes into battle with an unloaded weapon and his deception is discovered, the Cossacks curse him as a coward, venting their disgust at cowardly, bespectacled intellectuals in general. Yet at the same time they depend upon him to read them their unit newspaper and to write letters home to their families, for they are almost entirely illiterate. It is a curious and awkward symbiosis, but Lyutov begins to adapt, until in “Moi pervyi gus’’(“My First Goose ”) he is able to appropriate and kill a gander he finds waddling about the barnyard of an old woman with whom he argued over recompense for quartering. For the first time he gains a measure of real...

(The entire section is 658 words.)