Friday, 3 April 2015

The red cavalry, Isaak Babel

The Dutch cover
Isaak Babel was a beginning writer when Maxim Gorki advised him to go out more and meet people, because this would improve his writing. This is why Isaak Babel joined the Red Army after the Russian Revolution and during the Russian-Polish war he joined a group of Cossacks as a war correspondent. He kept a diary and this formed the basis of his collection of short stories he published under the title The red cavalry.

In these stories you have beautiful descriptions of nature, but these are in contrast with the violence and the horrible things that go on in a war.
All aspects of war are seen in these stories; the wounded, the dead, the sufferings of the civilians living in the towns the Cossacks raided.

Often in these stories there is an outsider, a man wearing glasses who studied and does not fit in, until he behaves as savagely as the Cossacks and they think he is a splendid man. He only looses himself in the process.

The stories are short, some only two or three pages long, but they tell enough. The memories of war never left Isaak Babel.

Isaak Babel was born in 1894 in Odessa. His Jewish family moved there after a few big pogroms in other towns they lived. Jews did not have an easy time in those days and in those parts of the world, Isaak himself survived a pogrom, he was not allowed to go to school and in the army he took on a different name so he would not be recognized as a Jew.
 
The red cavalry by K. Malevich.
Photograph made by me, at an exhibition about Malevich.

Although he was a communist, he did not write propaganda about the Revolution and communism and the leaders of the Soviet Union were not happy with him. His wife even left to live in France because she did not like the way Russia turned out and Babel visited her there a couple of times. This was all held against him.
In 1939 he was arrested by the secret police, the NKVD. He was tortured and, after he confessed, condemned to death as a ‘spy for the French’. Only after Stalin’s death was Isaac Babel exonerated.

The red cavalry was published in many countries and Isaak Babel is even called Chekhov’s successor. I cannot say if this is the case, I personally like Chekhov’s stories better, but I also found Isaak Babel’s stories interesting and often even beautiful.

Originally published in 1926

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