Isaak (Ichak) Babel - biography
Isaak Emmanuilovich Babel (Russian: Исаа́к Эммануи́лович Ба́бель, 13 July [O.S. 1 July] 1894 – January 27, 1940) was a Soviet journalist, playwright, and short story writer acclaimed as "the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry." Despite being an enthusiastic Communist, Isaac Babel was arrested, tortured and shot during Joseph Stalin's Great Purge.
Isaak Babel was born into a family of Manus and Feyga Bobel (Babel changed the spelling of his surname in his twenties) in Moldavanka, then an impoverished, largely industrial suburb of Odessa. Babel's family moved to the port city of Nikolayev soon after Babel's birth before returning to live in a more fashionable part of Odessa in 1905, but Babel used Moldavanka as the setting for The Odessa Tales and the play Sunset.
According to Babel's autobiographical statements, his father Manus was a shopkeeper, but, per Babel's daughter Nathalie, who edited the first complete collection of her father's work, Babel fabricated this and other details of his background in order to "present an appropriate past for a young Soviet writer who was not a member of the Communist Party." In fact, Babel's father was a dealer in agricultural machines and owned a warehouse, not a store. While Babel's "autobiographical" short stories present the writer's family as "destitute and muddle-headed" (as he wrote in the story "In the Basement"), they were in fact relatively well-off.
Babel's youth was a period of intermittent pogroms and mass exodus of Jews from the Russian Empire. Isaak Babel's family survived Odessa's 1905 pogrom with the help of Christian neighbors, but his great maternal grandfather Shoyl was one of about 300 Jews murdered.
In his teens, Babel hoped to get into the preparatory class of the Nicolas I Odessa Commercial School. However, he first had to overcome the Jewish quota (10% within the Pale of Settlement, 5% outside and 3% for both capitals). Despite the fact that Babel received the passing grades, his place was given to another boy, whose parents had bribed the school officials. As a result he was schooled at home by private tutors. In addition to regular school subjects, Babel also studied the Talmud and music. According to Cynthia Ozick,
"Though he was at home in Yiddish and Hebrew, and was familiar with the traditional texts and their demanding commentaries, he added to these a lifelong fascination with Maupassant and Flaubert. His first stories were composed in fluent literary French. The breadth and scope of his social compass enabled him to see through the eyes of peasants, soldiers, priests, rabbis, children, artists, actors, women of all classes. He befriended whores, cabdrivers, jockeys; he knew what it was like to be penniless, to live on the edge and off the beaten track."
After an unsuccessful attempt to enroll at Odessa University (again due to the quota), Babel entered Kiev Institute of Finance and Business. There he met Yevgenia Gronfein, his first wife, a daughter of a well-to-do industrialist. She eventually eloped with Babel to Odessa. Babel graduated from the Institute still under his original surname of Bobel.
In 1915, Babel graduated and moved to Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg), in defiance of laws restricting Jews to living within the Pale of Settlement. Babel's was fluent in French, besides Russian and Yiddish, and his earliest works were written in French, although none of his stories in French have survived.
In the capital Babel met Maxim Gorky who published some of his stories in his literary magazine Letopis' ("Летопись", "Chronicle"). Gorky advised the aspiring writer to gain more life experience and later Babel wrote in his autobiography: "... I owe everything to that meeting and still pronounce Alexey Maksimovich (Gorky's) name with love and admiration." One of his most famous semiautobiographical short stories, "The Story of My Dovecot" ("История моей голубятни"), is dedicated to Gorky.
The story "The Bathroom Window" was considered obscene by censors and Babel was charged with violating criminal code article 1001.
There is no information on Babel's whereabouts during the October Revolution. According to one of his stories, "The Road" (Дорога), he served on the Romanian front until early December 1917. He resurfaced in Petrograd in March 1918 as a reporter for Maxim Gorky's Socialist but Anti-Communist newspaper, Novaya zhizn (Новая жизнь). This was where he was published until Novaya zhizyn was focribly closed on Lenin's orders in July. Later, without mentioning his work for Novaya zhizn, Babel claimed that during that time he was working as a translator for the Petrograd Cheka (queried in 1990s, the Leningrad State Security denied any association with Isaac Babel). During the Russian Civil War, with the Bolsheviks' monopoly on the printed word, Babel worked for the publishing house of the Odessa Gubkom (regional Bolshevik party committee), in the food procurement unit (see his story "Ivan-and-Maria"), in the Narkompros (Commissariat of Education), and in a typographic printing office.
After the end of the Civil War, Babel worked as a reporter for The Dawn of the Orient (Заря Востока) a Russian-language newspaper published in Tiflis. In one of his articles, he expressed regret that Lenin's controversial New Economic Policy had not been more widely implemented.
Isaak Babel married Yevgenia Gronfein on August 9, 1919 in Odessa. In 1929, after Babel's sojourn in Paris in 1927-28, their marriage produced a daughter, Nathalie Babel Brown, who grew up to become a scholar and editor of her father's life and work. In 1925 Babel's marriage was souring, and Yevgenia Babel, feeling betrayed by her husband's infidelities and motivated by her increasing hatred of communism, emigrated to France. Babel saw her several times during his visits to Paris. During this period, he also entered into a long term romantic relationship with Tamara Kashirina.
Together, they had a son Emmanuil Babel, who was later adopted by his stepfather Vsevolod Ivanov. Emmanuil's name was changed to Mikhail Ivanov, and he later became a noted artist.
After the final break with Tamara, Babel briefly attempted to reconcile with his wife Yevgenia and they had their daughter Natalie in 1929. Simultaneously, Babel began a common-law marriage with Antonina Pirozhkova. Babel and Pirozhkova had another daughter, Lydia Babel.
According to Pirozhkova,
"Before I met Babel, I used to read a great deal, though without any particular direction. I read whatever I could get my hands on. Babel noticed this and told me, 'Reading that way will get you nowhere. You won't have time to read the books that are truly worthwhile. There are about a hundred books that every educated person needs to read. Sometime I'll try to make you a list of them.' And a few days later he brought me a list. There were ancient writers on it, Greek and Roman -- Homer, Herodotus, Lucretius, Seutonius -- and also all the classics of later European literature, starting with Erasmus, Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, and Coster, and going on to 19th century writers such as Stendhal, Mérimée, and Flaubert."
In 1920 Babel was assigned to Field Marshal Semyon Budyonny's 1st Cavalry Army, witnessing a military campaign of the Polish-Soviet War of 1920. Poland was not alone in its newfound opportunities and troubles. Virtually all of the newly independent neighbours began fighting over borders: Romania fought with Hungary over Transylvania, Yugoslavia with Italy over Rijeka, Poland with Czechoslovakia over Cieszyn Silesia, with Germany over Poznań and with Ukrainians over Eastern Galicia (Galician War). He documented the horrors on the war he witnessed in the 1920 Diary (Konarmeyskiy Dnevnik 1920 Goda) which he later used to write the Red Cavalry (Конармия), a collection of short stories such as "Crossing the River Zbrucz" and "My First Goose". The legendary violence of the Red Cavalry seemed to harshly contrast the gentle nature of Babel himself.
Babel wrote: "Only by 1923 I have learned how to express my thoughts in a clear and not very lengthy way. Then I returned to writing." Several stories that were later included into Red Cavalry, were published in Vladimir Mayakovsky's LEF ("ЛЕФ") magazine in 1924. Babel's honest description of the brutal realities of war, far from revolutionary propaganda, earned him some powerful enemies. According to recent research, Marshall Budyonny was infuriated by Babel's unvarnished descriptions of marauding Red Cossacks and demanded Babel's execution without success. However, Gorky's influence not only protected Babel, but also helped to guarantee publication, and soon Red Cavalry was translated into many languages.
Argentine author and essayist Jorge Luis Borges once wrote of Red Cavalry, The music of its style contrasts with the almost ineffable brutality of certain scenes. One of the stories, -- "Salt" -- enjoys a glory seemingly reserved for poems and rarely attained by prose: many people know it by heart.
Back in Odessa, Babel started to write the Odessa Tales, a series of short stories set in the Odessan ghetto of Moldavanka. At their core, the stories describe the life of Jewish gangsters, both before and after the October Revolution. Many of them directly feature the fictional mob boss Benya Krik, who remains one of the great anti-heroes of Russian literature. These stories were later used as the basis for the stage play Sunset, which centers on Benya Krik's self appointed mission to right the wrongs of Moldavanka. First on his list is to rein in his alcoholic, womanizing father, Mendel. According to Nathalie Babel Brown,
"Sunset premiered at the Baku Worker's Theatre on October 23, 1927 and played in Odessa, Kiev, and the celebrated Moscow Art Theatre. The reviews, however, were mixed. Some critics praised the play's 'powerful anti-bourgeois stance and its interesting 'fathers and sons' theme. But in Moscow, particularly, critics felt that the play's attitude toward the bourgeoisie was contradictory and weak. Sunset closed, and was dropped from the repertoire of the Moscow Art Theatre.
According to Pirozhkova, filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was quite fond of Sunset and often compared it to the writings of Emile Zola for, "illuminating captitalist relationships through the experience of a single family." Eisenstein was also quite critical of the Moscow Art Theatre, "for its weak staging of the play, particularly for failing to convey to the audience every single word of its unually terse text."
According to Nathalie Babel Brown,
"The young writer burst upon the literary scene and instantly became the rage in Moscow. The tradition in Russia being to worship poets and writers, Babel soon became one of the happy few, a group that included Soviet writers who enjoyed exceptional status and privileges in an otherwise impoverished and despotic country. In the late 1930s, he was given a villa in the writer's colony of Peredelkino, outside Moscow. No secret was ever made of his having a wife and daughter in Paris. At the same time, hardly anyone outside of Moscow knew of two other children he had fathered. As a matter of fact, Babel had many secrets, lived with many ambiguities and contradictions, and left many unanswered questions behind him."
Clashes with the authorities
In 1930, Babel travelled in Ukraine and witnessed the brutality of the forced collectivisation, dekulakisation, and the resulting Terror Famine. Although he never made a public statement about this, he privately confided in his mistress, Antonina Pirozhkova,
"The bounty of the past is gone -- it is due to the famine in Ukraine and the destruction of the village across our land."
As Stalin tightened his grip on the Soviet intelligentsia and decreed that all writers and artists must conform to socialist realism, Babel increasingly withdrew from public life. During the campaign against, "Formalism", Babel was publicly denounced for low productivity. At the time, many other Soviet writers were terrified and frantically rewrote their past work to conform to Stalin's wishes. However, Babel was unimpressed and confided in his protege, the writer Ilya Ehrenburg, "In six months time, they'll leave the formalists in peace and start some other campaign."
At the first congress of the Union of Soviet Writers (1934), Babel noted ironically, that he was becoming "the master of a new literary genre, the genre of silence." American Max Eastman describes Babel's increasing reticence as an artist in a chapter called "The Silence of Isaac Babyel" in his 1934 book Artists in Uniform.
Babel's stage play Maria, which candidly depicted both political corruption and black marketeering within Soviet society, caused Babel to be chided by Maxim Gorky. Gorky accused his friend of having a "Baudelairean predilection for rotting meat." Gorky further warned his friend that "political inferences" would be made "that will be personally harmful to you." According to Pirozhkova,
"Once Babel went to the Moscow Art Theater when his play Mariya was being given its first reading, and when he returned home he told me that all the actresses had been impatient to find out what the leading female role was like and who would be cast in it. It turned out that there was no leading female character present on the stage in this play. Babel thought that the play had not come off well, but it should be noted that he was always critical of his own work."
Although intended to be performed in 1935, the Maria's performance was cancelled by the NKVD during rehearsals. Despite its popularity in the West, Maria was not performed in Russia until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 1932, after numerous requests he was permitted to visit his estranged wife Yevgenia in Paris in 1932. While visiting his wife and their daughter Nathalie, Babel agonized over whether or not to return to Soviet Russia. In conversations and letters to friends, expressed longing at the thought of being "a free man," while also expressing fear at no longer being able to make a living solely through writing. On July 27, 1933, Babel wrote a letter to Yuri Annenkov, stating that he had been summoned to Moscow and was leaving immediately.
Babel's mistress, Antonina Pirozhkova, recalled this era as follows, "Babel remained in France for so long that it was rumored in Moscow that he was never returning. When I wrote to him about this, he wrote back saying, 'What can people, who do not know anything, possibly say to you, who knows everything?' Babel wrote from France almost daily. I accumulated many letters from him during his 11-month absence. When Babel was arrested in 1939, all of these letters were confiscated and never returned to me."
After his return to Russia, Babel decided to move in with Pirozhkova, beginning a common law marriage which would ultimately produce a daughter, Lidya Babel. He also collaborated with Sergei Eisenstein on the film Bezhin Meadow, about the informer Pavlik Morozov, and worked on the screenplays for several other Stalinist propaganda movies.
According to Nathalie Babel Brown,
"Babel came to Paris in the summer of 1935, as part of the delegation of Soviet writers to the International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture and Peace. He probably knew this would have been his last chance to remain in Europe. As he had done numerous times during the last ten years, he asked my mother to return with him to Moscow. Although he knew the general situation was bad, he nevertheless described to her the comfortable life that the family could have there together. It was the last opportunity my mother had to give a negative answer, and she never forgot it. Perhaps it helped her later on to be proven completely right in her fears and her total lack of confidence in the Soviet Union. My mother described to me these last conversations with my father many times."
Relationship with the Yezhovs
During a visit to Berlin, the married Babel began an affair with Yevgenia Feigenberg, who was then a translator at the Soviet embassy. Yevgenia, whom Simon Sebag Montefiore has dubbed an, "irrepressible literary groupie," according to Babel's interrogation protocolls began her seduction of Babel with the words, "You don't know me, but I know you well." Even after Yevgenia married NKVD boss Nikolai Yezhov the affair continued and Babel frequently presided over Mrs. Yezhov's literary gatherings, which often included such luminaries as Solomon Mikhoels, Leonid Utesov, Sergei Eisenstein, and Mikhail Koltsov. On one such occasion, Babel was heard to say, "Just think, our girl from Odessa has become the first lady of the kingdom!"
In her memoirs, Antonina professes complete ignorance of Babel's affair with Mrs. Yezhov. Babel informed her that his interest in the Yezhovs was, "purely professional," and was tied to his desire to understand the Party elite. In retaliation for Babel's affair with his wife, Yezhov ordered the writer placed under constant NKVD surveillance. As the Great Purge began during the late 1930s, Yezhov was informed that Babel was spreading rumors about the suspicious death of Maxim Gorky and alleging that his former mentor had been murdered on orders from Stalin. Babel had also been heard to say of Leon Trotsky, "It's impossible to imagine the charm and strength of his influence on anyone who encounters him." Babel further commented that Lev Kamenev was, "...the most brilliant connoisseur of language and literature."
As the number of Purge victims skyrocketed, however, Nikolai Yezhov's overenthusiastic pursuit of suspected "enemies" began to be thought a liability by Stalin and his inner circle. In response, Lavrenti Beria was assigned as Yezhov's assistant and swiftly usurped the leadership of the NKVD.
According to Montefiore,
"The darkness began to descend upon Yezhov's family where his silly, sensual wife was unwittingly to play the terrible role of black widow spider: most of her lovers were to die. She herself was too sensitive a flower for Yezhov's world. Both she and Yezhov were promiscuous by then they lived in a world of high tension, dizzy power over life and death, and dynamic turmoil as men rose and fell around them. If there was justice is Yezhov's fall, it was a tragedy for Yevgenia and little Natasha, to whom he was a kind father. A pall fell on Yevgenia's literary salon. When a friend walked her home to the Kremlin after a party, she herself reflected that Babel was in danger because he had been friends with arrested Trotskyite generals: 'Only his European fame could save him.' She herself was in greater danger."
Arrest, torture, and execution
On May 15, 1939, Antonina Pirozhkova was awakened by four NKVD agents pounding upon the door of their Moscow apartment. Although surprised, she agreed to accompany them to Babel's dacha in Peredelkino. Babel was then placed under arrest. According to Pirozhkova,
In the car, one of the men sat in back with Babel and me while the other one sat in front with the driver. "The worst part of this is that my mother won't be getting my letters," Babel said, and then he was silent for a long time. I could not say a single word. Babel asked the secret policeman sitting next to him, "So I guess you don't get too much sleep, do you?" And he even laughed. As we approached Moscow, I said to Babel, "I'll be waiting for you, it will be as if you've gone to Odessa... only there won't be any letters..." He answered, "I ask you to see that the child not be made miserable." "But I don't know what my destiny will be." At this point, the man sitting beside Babel said to me, "We have no claims whatsoever against you." We drove to the Lubyanka Prison and through the gates. The car stopped before the massive, closed door where two sentries stood guard. Babel kissed me hard and said, "Someday we'll see each other..." And without looking back, he got out of the car and went through that door. According to Peter Constantine,
"From that day on, Babel, one of the foremost writers of his time, became a nonperson in the Soviet Union. His name was blotted out, removed from literary dictionaries and encyclopedias, and taken off school and university syllabi. He became unmentionable in any public venue. When the film director Mark Donskoi's famous Gorky trilogy premiered the following year, Babel, who had worked on the screenplay, had been removed from the credits."
Interrogated under torture, Babel confessed that his "creative impotence, which has prevented me from publishing any significant work for last few years," was, "deliberate sabotage and a refusal to write." This, however, was not enough for Stalin and his minions. In his confession paper, which still contains blood stains, Babel "confessed" to being a member of Trotskyist organization and being recruited by French writer Andre Malraux to spy for France. He named Sergei Eisenstein, Ilya Ehrenburg, Solomon Mikhoels, as co-conspirators.
Despite months of pleading and letter sent directly to Beria, Babel was denied access to his unpublished manuscripts. In October 1939, Babel was again summoned for interrogation and denied all his previous testimony. A statement was recorded, "I ask the inquiry to take into account that, though in prison, I committed a crime. I slandered several people." This led to further delays as the NKVD frantically attempted to salvage their cases against Mikhoels, Ehrenburg, and Eisenstein. According to Nathalie Babel Brown,
"As we now know, his trial took place on January 26, 1940, in one of Lavrenti Beria's private chambers. It lasted about twenty minutes. The sentence had been prepared in advance and without ambiguity: death by firing squad, to be carried out immediately. Babel had been convicted of 'active participation in an anti-Soviet Trotskyite organization,' and of 'being a member of a terrorist conspiracy, as well as spying for the French and Austrian governments.' Babel's last recorded words in the proceedings were, 'I am innocent. I have never been a spy. I never allowed any action against the Soviet Union. I accused myself falsely. I was forced to make false accusations against myself and others... I am asking for only one thing -- let me finish my work.' He was shot the next day and his body was thrown into a communal grave. All of this horrific information was revealed in the early 1990s, a relatively short time ago.
According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, Babel's ashes were buried with those of Nikolai Yezhov and several other victims of the Great Purge in the necropolis of Moscow's Donskoi Monastery. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a plaque was placed there which reads, "Here lie buried the remains of the innocent, tortured, and executed victims of political repressions. May they never be forgotten." The grave of Yevgenia Yezhov, who committed suicide in a mental institution, lies less than twenty paces away.
According to the early official Soviet version, Isaak Babel died in the GULAG on March 17, 1941. His archives and manuscripts were confiscated by the NKVD. Peter Constantine, who translated Babel's writings into English, has described the writer's execution as, "one of the great tragedies of twentieth century literature."
On December 23, 1954, during the Khrushchev thaw, a typed half sheet of paper ended the official silence. It read,
"The sentence of the military collegium dated 26 January 1940 concerning Babel, I.E., is revoked on the basis of newly discovered circumstances and the case against him is terminated in the absence of elements of a crime."
Babel's works were once again widely published and praised. His public rehabilitation as a writer was initiated with the help of his friend and admirer Konstantin Paustovsky, and a volume of Babel's selected works was published in 1957 with a laudatory preface by Ilya Ehrenburg. New collections of selected works by Babel were published in 1966, 1989 and 1990. Still, certain "taboo" parts such as mentions of Trotsky were censored until the Perestroyka period shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The first collections of the complete works of Babel were prepared and published in Russia in 2002 and 2006.