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Isaac Babel - Biography

Isaac Babel (1894-1941?)
commentary by Karen Bernardo

Isaac Babel was born in the Russian city of Odessa. His father was a merchant, and sources differ about the family's economic status; but unquestionably Isaac deeply felt the persecution that came with being Jewish. He began to write as a teenager and met Maxim Gorky, another Russian writer, who published several of Babel's stories in the periodical Letopis.

However, Russian censors, unable to comprehend what Babel was trying to do, had Babel charged with obscenity. Babel seems to have concluded that the best solution to his sense of "differentness" was to abdicate the lifestyle of a Jewish intellectual altogether. This was also in response to Gorky's advice to get more life experience with commoners. He joined the Cossacks, an experience which provided the background for his short story collection Red Cavalry, which he would write several years later in his life.

But the life of a Cossack soldier was not for him. Babel had been raised on equal doses of Talmudic scholasticism and French literature, neither of which were compatible with the brutality he saw during his tenure as a supply officer in the Russian Army. He moved to Moscow in 1923 and began writing in earnest. He completed Red Cavalry, a book of short stories based on his youth entitled Odessa Tales, and several other short fiction collections as well as several plays and works for the cinema.

Although he was tremendously popular with readers, Babel's subject matter and viewpoint did not strike a responsive chord with the censors. First they took exception to his characterizations of the Army officers and soldiers in Red Cavalry; then they began to cast an increasingly critical eye on everything he wrote. During the Stalinist era, he wrote that he was becoming "the master of a new literary genre: the genre of silence." Apparently he was not silent enough, however, for in 1939 he was arrested and sent to a concentration camp in Siberia, where he died. 

Babel is well-known for his terse yet evocative descriptions of Russian life in the early part of the twentieth century. He eloquently described the confrontation between Jewish culture and the gentile world. However, in so doing, he also described the confrontation between the writer/intellectual and a world hostile to individuality. Check out your local library to rent textbooks like the one above, or if you would prefer to purchase this book, follow the links below.

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These stories can be found in Babel's collection "Red Cavalry."

"Red Cavalry" is available from Amazon as a paperback here:

and as a Kindle download here:

It can also be purchased from Barnes and Noble as a paperback here: