(Short Story Criticism)

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.