Mark's Reviews > The Complete Works of Isaac Babel

The Complete Works of Isaac Babel by Isaac Babel
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's review
Feb 18, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction, nonfiction
Read in February, 2012

I hadn't set out to read this book but, after reading the first chapter of Elif Batuman's The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, in which she talks about her involvement with an Isaac Babel seminar in grad school, her recounting of Babel's tragic story grabbed hold of me and, since I already had this book sitting on my shelf, I was moved to read it before I'd even finished The Possessed.

I haven't read all 1072 pages yet, but I did read the sections that interested me most. I started with Babel's 1920 diary, then read his Red Cavalry stories, the "additional" Red Cavalry stories (which hadn't been included in the initial Russian collection), his propaganda articles for the Red Cavalrymen, and a few other miscellaneous stories (about 300 pages in all).

What these sections taught me, first and foremost, is that my knowledge of Revolutionary Russia (both pre- and post-1917) is woefully lax. Considering that I was in middle school and high school in the leadup to the end of the Cold War (graduating high school in 1991), it's actually pretty unbelievable that I don't know much about Russian (or Soviet) history--"know your enemy" and all that nonsense. What I really could've used, before reading these sections, were a few history books--particularly on the Cossacks and on Soviet Russia's failed conflict with the Republic of Poland, circa 1919-1921. (I've already tracked down a copy of Philip Longworth's The Cossacks.)

Nonetheless, Babel's diary and Red Cavalry stories provided me with a visceral, first-person look at the cruelty and hypocrisy of the war (on both sides). The people who suffered most horribly, it seems, are the civilians who lived in the villages that were occupied, retreated from, and reoccupied as the battle lines shifted, first by the Russian army and then by the Polish army, perpetually throughout the war. And each time a village was reoccupied, the houses were looted, the civilians' food, equipment, and horses were confiscated, their wives and daughters were raped, and their husbands and fathers were executed as spies for the opposing army. These horrors, metaphorically typified in Babel's most famous story, "My First Goose," seem to have been omnipresent, despite the Red Cavalry's b.s. party line of how they're bringing the glories of Revolution to the oppressed Polish people.

Babel's stories tend to be pretty short, usually only two or three pages. In the Red Cavalry stories, anyway, the plots are somewhat rambling, focusing on brief, sometimes chaotic sequences of events or definitive moments in a character's life. He emphasizes the pettiness and ineptitude of the Red Cavalry's officers, the casual depravity of the mercenary Cossacks, and the dreary, oppressed lives of the villagers caught in the crossfire. Babel's Red Cavalry stories and his 1920 diary are, in other words, completely depressing, though there are moments of humor and humanity lurking within them. They had a profound effect on me and, as I mentioned, they've motivated me to learn more about this aspect of Russian history, not to mention the enigmatic Cossacks.
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