by Boris Dralyuk
pushkin press, 224 pages, $18.00
Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, now granted an afterlife in Boris Dralyuk’s lyrical and fluid translation, consists of thirty-five episodic stories about the Soviet First Cavalry Army. Comprised of Cossacks, the army fought during the Polish-Soviet War (1919–1921), a conflict in which Poland successfully battled the communists in the Ukraine, Belorussia and Lithuania, and then in Warsaw itself.
Babel had just gotten married in his native Odessa when, in 1920, his friend Maxim Gorky suggested that he join the army as a journalist. He found a position as a political agent and correspondent for Rosta, an early Soviet news agency, to write articles for the newspaper, Red Cavalryman, and to teach the illiterate Cossacks how to read, politically indoctrinate new recruits, write reports for military staff, and interrogate prisoners. He also had to learn to ride a horse on his own time—something he never truly mastered.
Babel disappeared with his unit into the vortex of war. Only four of his articles, which he wrote under the pseudonym “K. Lyutov,” which means “fierce,” are known to be published. Although reported killed at the end of 1920, he returned to his wife in Odessa in 1921, filthy, lice-ridden, and suffering from severe asthma. While recovering, he wrote the thirty-four stories that would be published as Red Cavalry in 1926. In the later edition of 1932, he added one more story to bring the total to thirty-five. He was a notoriously slow writer.
Babel gave his journalistic pen-name, “Lyutov,” to the narrator of these tales. Lyutov is a conflicted character, forever idealizing the Cossacks as handsome, virile warriors, while he himself is neither: “You’re one of those pansies. . . and with glasses on your nose. What a louse. . .” (“My First Goose”).
These Cossacks are a closed fraternity, bound by a code of casual violence: “Kudrya drew his dagger with his right hand and carefully stabbed the old man, without spattering himself” (“Berestechko”). They keep Lyutov at arm’s length, seeing him as little more than an interloper, though he tries to imitate their nonchalant brutality, expended on a pet goose and later a horse, and leaving him guilt-ridden: “I had dreams—dreamt of women— and only my heart, crimson with murder, creaked and bled” (“My First Goose”). Despite his name, Lyutov cannot be fierce. He is also a Jew among these Cossacks, an identity he successfully hides.
The collection ends with Lyutov’s defeat. In the final story, when he ruins a good horse, the Cossacks reject him, and he gets a transfer to another division. He can never belong: “I was alone among these people, whose friendship I had failed to win” (“Argamak”).
Red Cavalry also depicts a struggle between the old, humanist culture and the new communist regime. The former is the result of slow, organic growth; the latter a violent imposition of hurried social change. The old culture is embodied by religion, especially by the Jews whom Lyutov finds strange and even abhorrent (perhaps as a would-be Cossack and certainly as a communist): “Jews in torn frock-coats were quarrelling in the square, dragging each other about in incomprehensible blindness” (“Squadron Commander Trunov”). And yet he too is a Jew— he too possesses a deep affinity for the old humanist ideals of laboring in the world of ideas, of contributing to learning and studying tradition. The new Russia that he is fighting to build is, ultimately, an alien beast: “And monstrous Russia, as improbable as a flock of clothing lice, went stamping in bast shoes along both sides of the carriages” (“The Rebbe’s Son”). He knows that the Revolution must destroy this old culture, and he is a willing help-mate in its destruction, yet this knowledge devastates him: “They fell upon me in a scarce, sorrowful rain—a page from the Song of Songs and the cartridges from a revolver” (“The Rebbe’s Son”).
Lyutov’s two most poignant stories are of men like himself—the otherworldly religious mural painter, Pan Apolek, and Ilya, a rabbi’s son. Apolek responds to the wrack and ruin around him by contriving religious stories that he may one day paint. Ilya is a militant communist who cannot abandon his Judaism. Apolek exists on the margins of a vanishing world, a madman. Ilya dies of wounds, never knowing whether he is a good communist or a good Jew.
When Babel’s mentor and protector, Maxim Gorky, was liquidated in a Stalinist purge in 1936, Babel was left adrift. The “monstrous Russia” he had helped create now came to devour him. On May 15, 1939 he was arrested, never to be freed. And on March 17, 1941, he was brought before a tribunal, found guilty on trumped-up charges, condemned to death and shot, mere minutes after judgment was passed. Babel was Apolek and Ilya—and defeated Lyutov. His grave is unknown. It is said that he died with regret that he was not allowed to finish his writing. But he had written his epitaph in Red Calvary: “He died, the last prince, among poems, phylacteries and foot cloths. We buried him at some forgotten station” (“The Rabbe’s Son”).
Nirmal Dass teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada.