1920 Diary 
by Isaac Babel, edited by Carol Avins, translated by H.T. Willetts.
Yale, 126 pp., £14.95, June 1995, 0 300 05966 3
Show More
Collected Stories 
by Isaac Babel, translated by David McDuff.
Penguin, 364 pp., £6.99, June 1995, 0 14 018462 7
Show More
Show More

Isaac Babel was a middle-class Jew from Odessa who rode to war with a Cossack regiment. This extraordinary conjunction occurred during the Russo-Polish war of 1920. It is not news, because the single work that made Babel a famous writer – the short story collection Red Cavalry – is based on his experiences that summer, when he turned 26, at the First Cavalry Army HQ in a Volhynian village. The Red Cavalry stories are beautiful, brutal and shocking; but the shock of the unexpected in the Diary – the unlikelihood of such a man being in such a place at such a time – is even greater. Not just a Jew with the Cossacks, his traditional persecutors: but an astonishing writer coming into his own on the battlefield, finding a vision somewhere between surrealism and expressionism, and a new, abrupt and plangent voice to put it over. Besides, Babel witnessed the last battles ever to be fought on horseback and with sabres. Mounted nurses – ‘all whores, but comrades, whores because they’re comrades’ – rode with the Cossacks, while bombs dropped from American planes defending the newly created Polish republic. Their commander was called Major Cedric E. Fauntleroy. What could be more surreal than that?

In 1939 Babel was arrested by the secret police and his papers were confiscated. He died in prison the following year – there seems to be some doubt as to whether he was shot or succumbed to typhus. But the ruled cashbook in which he wrote his 1920 Diary had been left years before with a friend in Kiev. In 1954 it was given to Babel’s widow, and some of it was transcribed by a Hungarian scholar, although the Soviet authorities would not allow the full text to be copied. An extract from this extract appeared in the LRB five years ago. Now the full text has been published. The English version comes with a gripping introduction by the editor, Carol Avins, who produces exactly the information one needs to keep up with the diary entries as they hurtle past. The translation by H.T. Willetts reads like a translation. But the Diary is in note form, and the occasional jolt gives it an extra touch of authenticity, of having been dashed off on the hoof.

‘In Russia,’ Avins explains, ‘cavalry meant Cossacks.’ But like every other division, the First Cavalry had a political unit in tow. Its job was not just propaganda, but teaching the soldiers reading, writing and hygiene, and Babel began by sharing its special train (‘filthy’). There were Jews in the unit, and he despised them as a weedy lot. He himself was a correspondent of the army newspaper Red Cavalryman, Not much of what he wrote made it into the paper, owing to the chaotic conditions in an army always on the move. But he was given a tunic and boots and plenty of things to do: keeping records and interpreting military reports for Budyonny, Voroshilov and the other Cossack commanders; provisioning; interrogating prisoners and deserters; helping with ambulance work. On 12 July he was given a horse. He had never ridden before. By August he was spending five consecutive days in the saddle. ‘Night in Niwice again,’ he wrote on the 18th, ‘sleep on straw, anywhere, because I can’t think any more, my clothes are in shreds, my body aches, ONE HUNDRED VERSTS on horseback.’

Babel first joined his unit on 3 June in Zhitomir, where the retreating Poles and then the occupying Cossacks had carried out pogroms: ‘45 Jews in the marketplace, led them to the slaughteryard, tortures, cut out tongues, wails heard all over the square. They set fire to six houses, I went to look at Koniuchowski’s house on Cathedral Street, they machine-gunned those who tried to rescue people.’ Babel goes to the synagogue – ‘How deeply it all moves me’; then to the house of the tsaddik, a Hassidic wise man.

I can’t find my place in the prayer book. Podolsky puts me right.

No candle – a tallow dip instead.

I feel happy, enormous faces, hooked noses, black beards with a sprinkling of grey, I think of many things, good-bye dead men. The tsaddik’s face, his nickel-rimmed pince-nez.

  ‘Where are you from young man?’

  ‘From Odessa.’

  ‘How is life there?’

  ‘People live.’

  ‘And here it’s a horror.’

More has probably been written about Babel’s Jewishness than about any other aspect of him. He served under a Christian nom de guerre which must have been pretty transparent even to the Cossacks, though he records only one case of anti-semitic behaviour towards him. The campaign was fought over areas that had been inside the Russian Pale of Settlement, so about halt the people in the towns and villages were Jews. Babel does not seem to have concealed his identity from them, except on his first day out, when he pretended that only his mother was Jewish. He felt for them – especially on the day of commemoration for the destruction of the Temple. That was in Demidovka, a village of not quite seven thousand inhabitants, all Jews. A young man recited ‘the terrible words of the prophet – they eat dung, their maidens are ravished, their menfolk killed, Israel subjugated, words of wrath and sorrow. The lamp smokes, the old woman wails, the young man sings melodiously, girls in white stockings, outside – Demidovka, night, Cossacks, all just as it was when the Temple was destroyed, I go out to sleep in the yard, stinking and damp.’

Babel had moved among the Petrograd intelligentsia after leaving his home in Odessa. In Odessa, he said, Jews were fat and jolly and he found the cowed, emaciated, dirty Hassids of the Pale strange and often repulsive. The synagogues may have moved him, but so did sightings of things he associated with Western culture: a classical façade on a Polish manor house; a German bookshop in Brody, where there was even a Hotel Bristol (but can it have been any less seedy than Joseph Roth’s Galician Savoy Hotel?); and an American airman shot down, ‘barefoot but elegant, neck like a pillar, dazzlingly white teeth ... Ah, but all at once – the smell of Europe, its cafés, civilisation, power, ancient culture, so many thoughts, I watch him, can’t take my eyes off him.’

As for the Cossacks, Babel comes to recognise that ‘this isn’t a revolution, it’s a rebellion of wild men.’ They rape and plunder, and their legendary cruelty turns out not to be exaggerated. ‘The military commissar and I ride along the line begging the men not to massacre prisoners.’ Prisoners of war are massacred whenever possible – not shot, because that would be a waste of bullets, but sliced up with sabres. A despatch rider boasts to Babel of torturing a village policeman who had sided with the White Russians. ‘They slit his back open, danced on him, and an epic conversation took place. Does that feel nice, Stepan? Awful. And those you mistreated, did it feel nice to them? It was awful. Did you think it would be awful for you someday? No, I didn’t. Well, you should have, Stepan.’ And yet the Cossacks are seductive too:

The First Squadron is in my fenced garden. Night, I have a small lamp on my table, horses are quietly snorting, they’re all Kuban Cossacks here, they eat together, sleep together, cook together, a splendid silent comradeship. They are all more or less peasants, in the evening they sing songs that sound like church music in lusty voices, their devotion to horses, beside each man a little heap – saddle, bridle, ornamented sabre, greatcoat, I sleep in the midst of them.

Avins quotes this passage to support her view that Babel’s ‘stance is more that of an anthropologist than of a weakling intellectual who wishes he could shed his scruples’.

Lionel Trilling thought otherwise. Babel described himself as a man with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart, and in his miraculously perceptive introduction to the first English translation of Red Cavalry, published in 1955 and reprinted at the end of the new Penguin collection, Trilling writes that ‘the spectacles on his nose were for Babel of the first importance in his conception of himself.’ He also quotes a bizarre – surreal – passage in which Babel compares a Cossack’s beautiful legs to ‘girls sheathed to the neck in shining riding boots’. After quaintly reassuring his readers that there is nothing ‘sexually perverse’ about this image, Trilling compares Babel’s attitude to the Cossacks to D.H. Lawrence’s fascination with cruel archaic cultures and Yeats’s yearning for ‘the old disturbed exalted life’; he also cites Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, in which Stephen admires Gino, ‘the embodiment of male grace’, even though – or because – Gino tortures him by twisting his broken arm. He might have added to his list Thomas Mann’s dark-haired, sickly, bookish Tonio Kröger, who worships his robust blond schoolmate. All these opposites can be made to stand for the useful dichotomy between Hellene and Nazarene, extrovert and introvert, classical and romantic and soon. Here it’s Cossacks and Jews, and Trilling ends by summing up Babel’s position between them:

It was no doubt easier for Babel to respond to the spiritual life of the Jews of Poland because it was a life coming to its end and having about it the terrible strong pathos of its death. He makes no pretence that it could ever claim him for its own. But it established itself in his heart as an image, beside the image of the other life that could also not claim him, the Cossack life.

Trilling’s insight is at its most subtle in a passage on Babel’s procedure: ‘We soon see what he is up to. His intense concern with the hard aesthetic surface of the story, his preoccupation with things and events, are, we begin to perceive, cognate with the universe, representative of its nature, of the unyielding circumstance in which the human fact exists; they make the condition for the epiphany, the showing forth; and the apparent denial of immediate pathos is a condition of the ultimate pathos the writer conceives.’ It’s a shame Trilling had no chance to read the Diary. He would have been able to see not only what Babel ‘was up to’, but also exactly how, because many of the scenes and characters correspond to scenes and characters in the stories.

Take the trampling-to-death episode in the Diary. This is how it goes in the Red Cavalry tale, ‘The Life Story of Pavlichenko, Matvey Radionich’:

and then I trampled on Nikitinsky, my master, I trampled on him for an hour or more than an hour, and during that time I got to know him and his life. – Shooting, in my opinion, is just a way of getting rid of a fellow, to shoot him is to pardon him, and a vile compromise with yourself; with shooting you don’t get to a man’s soul, where it is in him and how it shows itself. But usually I don’t spare myself, usually I trample my enemy for an hour or more than an hour, I want to find out about the life, what it’s like with us.

This gruesome recital, some of it couched in pretentious, priggish politspeak, defines the speaker as the swineherd-turned-Red-Army-general which he is (in the story – not in the Diary). It tells you exactly ‘about the life, what it’s like with us’. It also adds irony to the irony implicit in the story’s title, where the surname strides bureaucratically ahead of the Christian name and patronymic. Babel was a brilliant mimic of speech – a spin-off from his fastidiousness about words and horror of cliché. Pavlichenko’s recital is a tour de force, as becomes clear when you compare it with the Diary entry about the torture of the village policeman. All the same, the ghoulish question and answer game in the Diary packs its own punch.

There aren’t many verbs in the Diary. Some entries are just lists of things to remember, punctuated by injunctions: ‘describe the forest’; ‘describe the wounded man’; ‘must not forget Brody and those pitiful figures’; ‘describe the squadron at rest, the squealing of pigs, hens stolen, agents, fanfares out on the square.’ They sound like a rider urging on his horse. One sees how he captures flashes of beauty as he gallops past, ‘white geese on green meadows’. He’s also a specialist in nocturnes: the lamp burning on the table, the stillness outside – or else the Cossacks prowling there.

The Diary makes it clearer than the stories what actually happened in 1920, and what Babel thought about the campaign. When he joined the Cossacks they were pushing back the Poles from just West of Kiev. By the middle of July, the Poles were breaking through the Russian lines after every Russian advance – ‘a quadrille’. By the end of August they were pushing them back to where they had set out from. The Cossacks were reckless but hopeless. At the battle of Czesniki General Voroshilov makes a gung-ho speech and

the regiment rushes out in disorder, hurrah, let them have it, one gallops, another keeps a tight rein, a third is trotting, the horses won’t go, mess tins and carpet cloth. They’re waiting for us on the hill, drawn up in columns. Amazing – not one man budges. Steadfastness, discipline. An officer with a black beard. I am being fired at. My sensations. Flight. The military commissars try to turn the fleeing men. Nothing helps ... some are saying the army isn’t what it was, time it was given a rest. What next.

All through the Diary, Babel deplores Russian gloom, inertia, incompetence and squalor, the last two defects shared by the Cossacks. He makes about two efforts to pretend to himself that socialism will cure these ills, and meanwhile invests the Poles and Czechs he comes across with what he sees as Western virtues: order, cleanliness, discipline, cheerfulness. These passages are his only descents into higher journalism. The rest is reportage – but reportage by a genius preparing a work of genius. His own amazement and glee at being where he is, doing what he does, putting up with what he puts up with, are too intoxicating to be suppressed by his tragic insights. The impact is stunning.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences