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The Theater of Isaac Babel: Montage of Identity

Andrei Malaev-Babel, Assistant Professor of Theater, Asolo Conservatory, Sarasota, FL, and Producing Artistic Director, Stanislavsky Theater Studio, Silver Spring, MD

Date & Time

Dec. 4, 2006
10:00am – 11:00am ET


Isaac Babel was a man whose personal destiny was particularly closely connected with the history of the Soviet Union and Russia, according to Andrei Malaev-Babel, assistant professor of theater at Florida State University's Asolo Conservatory and producing artistic director at the Stanislavsky Theater Studio. Speaking at a recent Kennan Institute talk, Malaev-Babel said that Isaac Babel defies any categorization, and that no particular social, political, or national group can fully consider him "their own." He was a Jewish author, who wrote in Russian, while the style and content of his prose is part of European culture.

Malaev-Babel named different masks Babel wore both throughout his life and as a narrator in his various stories: a young rebel breaking out of traditional middle-class Odessan society; an aspiring young writer, Maxim Gorky's protégé, a dreamer who aspired to become the Russian Moupassant; a Jew with a false passport in revolutionary St. Petersburg; the war-correspondent, Liutov, "embedded" in the Cossack Red Cavalry; a prominent Soviet Author, admired in the West; and ultimately, one of the most famous victims of Stalin's regime.

The first mask is that of a young rebel, who is straining against the rules of bourgeois society in early 20th century tsarist Odessa. The narrator of such notable childhood cycle stories as "The Awakening" and "Di Grasso" has artistic inclinations, but feels a great deal of pressure to conform to a typical bourgeois career. This mask was rooted in Babel's youth in Odessa, and his stories, although essentially fictional, do contain obvious parallels with his life, Malaev-Babel pointed out. At the same time, however, every story contains enough originality that each narrator can be said to be wearing a different mask, he said.

Another mask that appears in the stories of Babel's St. Petersburg cycle is that of an aspiring young Jewish author with "a false passport and not a kopeck to his name," said Malaev-Babel. In reality, Babel did not have to "spend his mornings hanging around morgues and police stations" in order to publish an article about street life in the yellow press, he said. Because he was Maxim Gorky's protégé, Babel was able to publish his first stories in Gorky's anti-Bolshevik journal New Life. His journalistic descriptions of revolutionary St. Petersburg speak of chaos, brutality; they speak about a world undone. After the revolution, Babel was sent by his mentor "to join the people."

Following Gorky's advice, Babel joined the Red Cavalry Cossack unit as a war correspondent during the ill-fated 1920 Polish campaign. Babel achieved international fame in the 1920s after the publication of a cycle of stories titled The Red Cavalry, which was based on this experience. During the campaign, he took the name of Kirill Liutov—an obviously Slavic name—to hide his Jewish identity. The Cossacks, however, remained suspicious of the young man, because he wore glasses, and wearing glasses was a sign that one belonged to the intelligentsia. As the Red Cavalry unit marched through Jewish shtetls, Babel would occasionally have to preach Lenin to the Jews, who suspected that he might be one of their own, but who also feared him as one of the Red Cavalry Cossacks, notorious for their brutality toward civilians and for their anti-Semitism. While he was in the cavalry, Malaev-Babel said, Babel was, in many ways, a Jew among the Cossacks, and a Cossack among the Jews.

In the famous Tales of Odessa cycle Babel assumes the mask of "a man with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart," said Malaev-Babel. The narrators in these stories takes on the character of a dispassionate historiographer, he said, chronicling the life of infamous gangsters in his hometown of Odessa. In the story "Froim Gratch," Babel juxtaposed the criminality of the Odessa gangsters with the brutality of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. In this story the seemingly dispassionate narrator clearly sides with the gangsters, as they are meticulously wiped out by the "new power." According to Malaev-Babel, Babel's honest and unsparing look at Soviet society earned him great fame both in the Soviet Union and abroad, while it also began to place him in danger with the Soviet authorities.

Because of his fame and his family situation, Babel was able to travel frequently outside the Soviet Union. This gave him a reputation as "a Westerner." He even appeared as "the Frenchman" in a later memoir of a distinguished Soviet writer. In European literary circles, however, he was still known as a Soviet writer in the true sense of the word, he said. This seeming paradox was another instance of Babel wearing multiple masks. Although he perceived the impending personal danger to him, Babel kept returning to the Soviet Union, said Malaev-Babel. Russia provided him with artistic inspiration, and it was also only in the Soviet Union that he could support himself financially through his writing, he said.

The final mask Babel got to wear was that of "a spy for Austria, England, and France," when he became one of the most famous victims of Stalin's regime. He was arrested in 1939 on fictional charges and shot in 1940. Babel was cleared of all charges posthumously following Stalin's death in 1953. Literary critics and historians still speculate about the true reasons for Babel's murder. According to Malaev-Babel, Isaac Babel was arrested for his literary works. They told the truth about the Civil War, about collectivization, and the Cheka, he said, and, according to Stalin and his close circles, they presented a threat to the Soviet state. Many of his works remained unpublished after they were confiscated with Babel's arrest. Delivered to Babel's most curious readers—those standing at the helm of the Soviet State—they were either destroyed or they disappeared in secret archives. To this day, we do not know the destiny of Babel's confiscated manuscripts.

Malaev-Babel noted that these are only a few of the many masks worn by this incredible man, whose life and works are truly theatrical because of the author's gift for constant transformation. The famous Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein considered Babel's writings to be incredibly cinematographic. Perhaps, however, Babel's greatest montage was the one of his own identity. Despite Babel's genius for mystifying his contemporaries, Malaev-Babel said, his true face does emerge from behind a mask. Although they deal with the specifics of the early Soviet period, his works contain a certain universality, because of his signature theme of closely interweaving life and death, he said. To underscore this, Malaev-Babel quoted Babel's Red Cavalry cycle story "Cemetery in Kozin" and Ilya Ehrenburg's description of Babel as "a wise rabbi, striving to penetrate the mystery of our life and death."


Hosted By

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

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