Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry Cycle & 1920 Diary

The Red Cavalry Stories and 1920 Diary by Isaac Babel (W.W. Norton, translated by Peter Constantine)

Isaac Babel was known to constantly rewrite his stories, cutting out all unnecessary details and making them as concise and brutal as possible. Fittingly, the most haunting and unforgettable story of The Red Cavalry Stories is less than two pages. Titled “Prishchepa,” it is narrated by Babel’s alter-ego Vasily Lyutov (a pseudonym he used in real life while travelling with the Cossacks) who recounts the brief and gruesome tale of the titular soldier. Prishchepa is “a tireless roughneck, a Communist whom the party kicked out, a future rag looter, a devil-may-care syphilitic, an unflappable liar” who abandoned the Whites and his family is massacred as a result. The rest of the story, two paragraphs, recounts Prishchepa’s return to his village and the vengeance he takes on the passive inhabitants who took his dead family’s possessions.

When he had finished, Prishchepa returned to his ransacked home. He arranged his reclaimed furniture the way he remembered it from childhood, and ordered vodka to be brought to him. He locked himself in the hut and for two days drank, sang, cried, and hacked tables to pieces with his saber.

This story is also an example of the fascinating parallels that come from reading the story cycle and Babel’s 1920 Diary back-to-back. Prishchepa is one of the numerous characters Babel takes directly from reality, the actual Prishchepa is quiet and arrogant, as well as syphilitic. His parents were killed, but by the Kadety (Constitutional Democratic Party) instead of the Whites, and he did in fact return to his village and go around repossessing their belongings.

Babel’s 1920 Diary depicts his experiences as a war correspondent with the Cossack cavalry during the chaotic final year of the Polish-Soviet war. From the start it is apparent that a major purpose of this diary is to collect details and ideas that he would later develop and explore in his stories. Continually throughout he reminds himself to describe figures and settings he encounters, and he is constantly cataloguing foods eaten, shtetls and synagogues visited, and the ever-fluctuating division commanders. But as the year progresses and the Soviet army’s collapse increases, the monotony of towns slept in and peasants preached the propaganda of Communism is replaced by destruction and despair.

Why am I gripped by a longing that will not pass? Because I am far from home, because we are destroying, moving forward like a whirlwind, like lava, hated by all, life is being shattered to pieces, I am at a huge, never-ending service for the dead.

In both his diary and stories Babel is constantly turning his eyes to the Jewish communities struggling to survive as the war rages around them. Both the Soviets and Poles are vehemently anti-Semitic. The Jewish villages endure a constant state of occupation, with soldiers treating their homes as cheap hotels. Babel is a rather detached observer. He wanders the shtetls showing a passive respect for those who endure with silent dignity but has little patience for the ugly and pathetic. At the beginning of the diary he is disdainful of the way the peasants he lodges with hide food, but this disdain shifts to a more general misery as the villages are destroyed and the inhabitants fall into destitution. The passivity and guilty complaisance Babel is forced into as part of the Soviet army, and that he honestly relates in his diary, is replaced by a more ambiguous and artfully insidious complicity that he gives his alter-ego in the stories.

The cycle of chaos and savagery that ultimately consumes 1920 Diary arrives far sooner in Red Calvary Stories. The beginning of the collection is made up of a handful of stories that are mostly short vignettes of life during wartime, lighter in tone compared to the stories to come. “Pan Apolek” is the strongest and strangest of these stories. Apolek is an icon painter who causes scandal in the town of Novograd by inserting the faces of the town’s inhabitants onto the religious figures of his paintings. An amusing concept made complex by Babel’s exploration of pride and dignity in the midst of the poverty and humiliation of war. “He has bestowed sainthood upon you people during your lifetime!” says an outraged bishop. “He has endowed you with the ineffable attributes of saints, you, thrice fallen in the sin of disobedience, furtive moonshiners, ruthless moneylenders, makers of counterfeit weights, and sellers of your daughters’ innocence!” The town’s cemetery watchman responds, “Is there not more truth in the paintings of Pan Apolek, who raises our pride, than in your words that are filled with abuse and tyrannical anger?” The natural authority of traditional values and beliefs are less convincing when the world is on fire and people are forced to sacrifice their morals to survive.

With “The Life of Matvey Rodionovich Pavlichenko” Babel explores the consequences of petty cruelty for peasants on the brink of destitution and soldiers barely holding on to their sanity. Pavlichenko has his wages and beloved stolen by his cruel master, and in desperation he joins the army and becomes a war hero—his experiences as a soldier are covered in a single paragraph. He then returns to his village and pretends to read (he’s illiterate) a note by Lenin to his master ordering him to commit murder at the state’s discretion. When his former master panics and shows him a secret stash of valuables to avoid his fate, Pavlichenko finds no satisfaction in his victory. “And what about my cheek? How am I supposed to live with my cheek this way?” he responds, meaning the reddened cheek of shame that has continued to curse him throughout all the years of war and glory. “Then I started kicking Nikitinsky, my master, I kicked him for an hour, maybe even more than an hour, and I really understood what life actually is.”

“Treason” is a story of bureaucratic disorder and crushed illusions. Narrated by a wounded soldier who was brought to a hospital to recover with two of his comrades. The three of them are fiercely patriotic, ready to recover and return to fighting. However, the hospital staff and even other wounded soldiers are acting as if the war is already over. The narrator and his comrades rebel against this resignation but are mocked and soon start to believe the staff is conspiring to steal their possessions. As the story progresses the narrator grows increasingly outraged by the situation, becoming unhinged and more unreliable. Knowing of the complete collapse of the Soviet army and the extents they went to to hide the reality of their defeat, the story takes on an ambiguous quality. Is the narrator and his comrades dealing with PTSD which could explain them seeing conspiracies everywhere, or are they having their weaknesses manipulated by a government hiding its failures and people taking advantage of the chaos for monetary gain? Babel fittingly provides no answers. The narrator’s climactic lament about treason says everything that needs to be said:

Treason, I tell you, Comrade Investigator Burdenko, grins at us from the window, treason creeps in its socks through our house, treason has flung its boots over its shoulders, so that the floorboards of the house it is about to ransack will not creak.

The stories of this collection are short, rarely longer than five pages. Babel condenses large amounts of information and plot movement into single punchy paragraphs. Skimming back over some of the stories, it is remarkable to discover that a story like “The Story of a Horse” with its narrative of a rivalry over a horse between two soldiers that alternate between being honored and dishonored in war is barely four pages. Then there’s “Squadron Commander Trunov” which is an amazingly chilling depiction of the hysteria caused by war, and also one of the longer stories in the collection at six pages.

With the quick pace of the stories and how they mostly occur during transitory moments of disorder and chaos, with the battles themselves written in explosive and succinct paragraphs, I did find that I would have read five stories and had trouble remembering which individual moments went with each story. But the power of Babel’s vision has you going back to them and being struck by the way he eloquently connects moments of such subtle beauty and staggering violence right next to each other.

I live for literature’s little coincidences. While reading Isaac Babel’s grotesque, morbidly funny, haunting story cycle I was struck by the diversity of perspectives explored, many narrated by Babel’s alter-ego Vasily Lyutov, but other stories narrated or following soldiers, rabbis, and peasants. Each concise story linked by war and brutality with an undercurrent of gallows humor, it felt reminiscent of another master story writer who also wrote many stories to the soundtrack of war—Guy de Maupassant. While reading up on Babel I discovered that not only did he write a story titled “Guy de Maupassant,” but he was influenced by the French writer of numerous stories set during the Franco-Prussian war and wrote some of his earliest stories in French. When Babel was executed by the NKVD at the age of forty-five he was only three years older than Maupassant who died at forty-two.