Isaac Babel

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Isaac Babel

Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel, Russian: Исаак Бабель (July 13 (New Style), 1894January 27, 1940) was a Russian journalist, playwright, and short story writer.

Born to a Jewish family in Odessa, Ukraine during a period of social unrest and mass exodus of Jews from the Russian Empire, Isaac Babel survived the 1905 pogrom with the help of Christian neighbors who hid their family, but his grandfather Shoyl was one of about 300 Jews murdered. ([1] (

To get to the preparatory class of Nicolas I Odessa Commercial School, Babel had to overcome the 5% quota for Jews, but despite the fact that he received the passing grades, the place was given to another boy whose parents bribed the school officials. Homeschooled for a year, Babel went through the curriculum of two school years. In addition to regular school subjects, he studied the Talmud and music at home. Inspired by his teachers of French language and literature, young Babel revered Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant and his own first stories were written in French.

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 future wife. In 1915, Babel graduated and moved to Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), in defiance of laws restricing Jews to confinement in the Pale of Settlement. In the capital he met the famous Russian writer 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 autobiographical 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.

In the next seven years, Babel fought in the Russian civil war (between the Soviet Union and Poland), worked in the Cheka as a translator for the counter-intelligence service, in the Odessa Gubkom (regional Bolshevik party committee), in the food requisitioning unit, in the Narkompros (Commissariat of Education), in a typographic printing office, and served as a newspaper reporter in Petersburg and Tiflis. He married Yevgenia Gronfein on August 9, 1919 in Odessa.

In 1920, during the bloody Russian Civil War, Babel was assigned as a journalist to Field Marshall Semyon Budyonny's First Cavalry army, witnessing its unsuccessful Polish campaign to carry Communist revolution outside Russia. The Red Army penetrated almost to Warsaw but was driven back.

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Isaac Babel writing

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 famous LEF ("ЛЕФ") magazine in 1924. Babel's honest description of the brutal realities of war, far from revolutionary romanticism, brought him some powerful enemies, among them Budyonny, but Gorky's intervention helped to save the book, and soon it was translated into many languages.

Back in Odessa Babel started to write a series of short stories set in the Odessan ghetto of Moldavanka where he was born, describing the life of the Jewish underworld before and after the October Revolution. During this same period, Babel met and maintained an early friendship with Ilya Ehrenburg, while continuing to publish stories, to wide acclaim, throughout the 1920s. In 1925 Babels wife emigrated to Paris.

In 1930, Babel travelled in Ukraine and witnessed the brutality of the collectivization in the USSR. As Stalin tightened his grip on Soviet culture in the 1930s, and especially with the rise of socialist realism, Babel increasingly withdrew from public life. During the stalinist campaign against "formalism" in the art, Babel was criticized for alleged "esthetism" and low productivity. At the first congress of the Soviet Writers' Union (1934), Babel noted that he was becoming "the master of a new literary genre, the genre of silence."

After numerous requests he was permitted to visit his family in France, and in 1935 he delivered a speech to anti-fascist International Congress of Writers in Paris. Upon his return, Babel collaborated with Sergei Eisenstein on the film Bezhin Meadow and worked on the playscripts for other Soviet movies.

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The NKVD photo of Babel made after his arrest

After the suspicious death of Gorky in 1936, Babel noted: "Now they will come for me." (See Great Purge). In May 1939 he was arrested at his cottage in Peredelkino, and eventually interrogated at Lubyanka on charges of espionage. After a forced confession, Babel was tried, found guilty, and, on January 27, 1940, shot in Butyrka prison. His widow, Antonina Pirozhkova (Антонина Пирожкова), did not know about his fate for 15 years. According to the official Soviet version, Isaac Babel died in a prison camp in Siberia on March 17, 1941. His archives and manuscripts were confiscated by the NKVD and lost.

On December 23, 1954, a year after Stalin's death, Isaac Babel was publicly exonerated of the charges against him.


  • Конармия, Red Cavalry (1926)
  • Одесские рассказы, Odessa Tales
  • Закат, Sunset, play (1926)
  • Мария, Maria, play (1935)


"No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place."

External links

  • Babel's Biography ( by Gregory Freidin
  • Prose ( in original Russian language at
  • Tough Guys ( reading "The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel" by Tom Teicholzcs:Isaak Emmanuelovič Bábel

de:Isaak Emmanuilowitsch Babel he:אייזק באבל ru:Бабель, Исаак Эммануилович


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