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Valeriya Novodvorskaya on Isaac Babel: 'The Pale Horse' (The New Times) - her last article before her death

posted 18 Jul 2014, 07:30 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 18 Jul 2014, 08:35 ]
12 July 2014

By Valeriya Novodvorskaya

Source: The New Times

120 years ago in Odessa a boy Isaac was born, son of the merchant Emmanuil Bobel

The boy had a hard life. At first Isaac was rejected as a student by the Odessa Commercial College (the quota for Jews was not big enough: 10% – for the ‘Pale’, 5% – outside the Pale, and 3% – for both capitals). He was obliged to study at home for a year. Then he was rejected by Odessa University (again because of the quota), and instead he was obliged to study at the Kiev Institute of Finance and Enterprise. The future Babel learned to speak three languages, studied a host of subjects, and in addition learned the Bible, the Talmud and music. He had to fight for this and stand in line. In the Russian Empire, Jews were always put at the back of these queues. And the same happened in the USSR that Babel praised.

But the most terrible thing happened to the boy in the year of the Great Manifesto. In 1905 11-year-old Isaac Babel was caught up in a pogrom. He survived by a miracle. Babel had reason to seek revenge on the old world. And when the time came, he would saddle the Pale Horse and ride around on earth as a Horseman of the Apocalypse, and his Muse would become а provisioner (if not something worse) for the revolutionary forces. Gorky, who in 1916 gave his approval to, and launched, the young writer’s career (Babel by then had almost been convicted of pornography), advised him to go ‘among the people’. Babel did as he was told and went among what one of his contemporaries called the ‘non-people’.

He was not a ‘fellow traveller’ of the revolution. His Pale Horse rode out in front. His gift for sharp and caustic writing, his brilliant death-delivering pen was beyond categories of good and evil. He wanted to see from close up this epoch full of horrors and blood, greatness and despair, an epoch of ‘the last days of Pompei’. He voluntarily went to the Cheka, then to a ‘blocking’ unit – a real Sondercommando that did not allow starving people to buy bread, wheat or salt from the peasants (described in his story, Salt). In 1920 he, a Jew and an intellectual, went to serve in the Red Cavalry, along with participants in pogroms, with bandits and plunderers, joining the real ‘wild hunt’ of the King of Terror (Lenin, Dzerzhinsky, Trotsky & Co.), for after all the Red Cavalry killed Jews in their dozens and hundreds. From this would come the collection of stories, Red Cavalry. These stories exposed a deadly horror, but made no attempt at condemnation. They showed a bare reality that Budennyi himself considered libellous.

This exposes the eternal problem of the realist in terrible times: did Eisenstein admire what was happening, or was he horrified by it? With Eisenstein the question remains open. With Babel, alas, the question can be closed. Evil charmed him. He was intoxicated by destruction and, of course, in his writing he showed the Bolsheviks for what they were. There was also too much truth in Red Cavalry, and in the Jewish stories, especially the Odessa Tales. Working in the foreign department of the Cheka, he went down into the cellars and thirstily observed torture and shootings. He had a rule for himself: ‘A person must know everything. It may not be pleasant, but it is interesting.’ He not only saved his own life this way; he took part with pleasure.

When collectivization began, he asked to be appointed chair of a village council in the region outside Moscow. In this capacity he made his contribution. When the Show Trials of the late 1930s began, he wrote an article, ‘Lies, Betrayal and Smerdyakovshina’, with an unpleasant delight that nobody forced on him. He tried to get his small daughter brought back from France to the USSR ‘so that they wouldn’t make a monkey out of her there’. Thank God he did not manage to do that. He looked into the abyss, and in 1939 the abyss came to him. The same chekists whom he called holy and about whom he wanted to write a novel, tortured him cruelly and shot him in one of the cellars with which he had become familiar. Evil can never be tamed, or directed only against others. I. E. Babel was a great writer who died by his own hand. We are left with his stories. Red Cavalry bears witness to both weapon and crime!