My People

Isaac Babel

Zhitomir, 5 June 1920. Jews beside a large house, including a yeshivah-bokher in glasses. An old man with a yellow beard. I want to stay, but the men from signals are winding the wires in. Naturally, since the headquarters has gone. I decide to stop with Duvid the Disciple. The soldiers try to dissuade me, but the Jews ask me to stay ... I wash ... Bliss ... Large numbers of Jewish girls. They sit around me. The household is alarmed; the Disciple says: ‘First the Poles looted us, then these came with their whoops and noise, took away all my wife’s belongings.’ A girl: ‘You’re a Jew, aren’t you? We’re in trouble, we’re going to be looted, don’t go to bed.’ Night. The lantern by the window. A Hebrew grammar-book. My soul aches. Zuckerman the assistant with his rifle ... Soldiers in the yard.

The village of Goryn – Jews and old women at the little porches. Goshche has been looted and is now clean and silent. Clean work. Someone whispers: ‘They’ve lost everything and they aren’t weeping. Expert looters.’ Goryn, a network of lakes and tributaries, the evening light, the scene of the battle before Rovno. Conversations with Jews – good heavens, they take me for a Russian, and my soul opens up. I am on my way to defend the Disciple ... I slept fitfully for a couple of hours. I wake up to sunshine, flies, a good bed, Jewish pink cushions, down ... The soldiers’ crutches knock. Again: ‘Give us something, lady.’ They flop down with their top-knots hanging loosely. They are dressed for war, with their army-issue fur-hats. And their stumps hang down bravely ... The women have brown faces ... None of them has slept. Duvid the Disciple is in his waistcoat and says to me: ‘Don’t go away before they arrive ...’ They requisition a cart. Sunshine. There is a park opposite. The cart waits. They’ve gone. That’s it.

19 July. Berezhtsy. Sienkiewicz. I am lying on a sprung mattress drinking cherry tea. Alongside, some child or other is choking. I doze off for two hours or so ... They wake me up ... In the night we ride back to Smordva and beyond to the edge of a wood. The night journey, the Moon, the squadron somewhere in front ... Sounds of battle – the wounded and the dead.

Opposite us is the house of a countess, the Countess Ledukhovska. A low white building, full of understated nobility, overlooking a lake. I remember my childhood, novels and a great deal else ... I am sleeping beside a churchyard fence. Some brigade commander is sleeping with his head on some girl’s stomach ...

A hut in the wood. Old men and women sleeping alongside the walls. Konstantin Karlovich is dictating. An unusual scene: the squadron is asleep all round, everything is dark, you can’t see a thing. Cold percolates out of the wood. I trip over horses. In the headquarters they are eating. I feel ill and lie down on the ground beside a machine-gun carriage, sleep for three hours covered by Barsukov’s scarf and greatcoat. That’s good.

Boratyn. In the solid sunny village of Boratyn I meet the Khmil family. A daughter much given to laughter, the father a taciturn rich peasant. Eggs fried in oil, milk, white bread – gluttony. The sun, cleanliness, my illness passes. (All peasants look alike to me.)

A beautiful day. My interview with Konstantin Karlovich. What kind of a man is our Cossack? Posters: slovenliness, courage, professionalism, revolutionary fervour, bestial cruelty. We are the advance party: the people are expecting saviours, the Jews are expecting freedom, and what do they get? Cossacks.

Every house is engraved on my heart. A group of Jews. Faces, here’s the ghetto, and we are an ancient race, the tormented, we still have some strength left. A shop: great, I drink wonderful coffee, say soothing things to the shopkeeper but his mind is on the noise in the shop. The Cossacks are shouting and swearing, climbing onto the shelves in this poor shop with its sweaty Jew with his ginger beard ... An old Jew – I like talking to my own people – they understand me. A cemetery, Rabbi Azrail’s ruined little house, three generations, a monument with a tree that has grown up over it. These old stones, all the same shape, all containing the same.

23 July, Verba. I am travelling with a new acquaintance, an illiterate Communist called Prishchepa. His caftan and white hood ... Before our eyes there are quiet green and yellow hills, drenched in sunlight, and woods, the woods of Dubno. The Army, damn them, have felled a lot here for military use.

Dubno changes hands ... And again everyone is jittery, again there are the endless humiliations ... I say: ‘Things are on the mend.’ My usual method: in Russia wonderful things are being done, we have express trains, free education for children, theatres, the Internationale. They listen with pleasurable incredulity. I think: ‘Hang onto your illusions – life here is going to be turned upside down and inside out for the n-th time, and I’m sorry ...’

A quarrel between a Jewish youth and Prishchepa. The youth wears glasses, has black hair, he is nervous, with red inflamed eyelids, speaks inaccurate Russian. He believes in God, God is an ideal we carry in our souls, every man has his own God in his soul, if you do something bad then God grieves. These absurdities are pronounced with a mixture of rapture and pain. Prishchepa pretends to be insultingly dense: he talks about ancient religion, confuses Christianity with paganism, the main thing about antiquity was the commune. Of course, this is nonsense. He has no education at all, whereas the Jew has finished six years at the Rovno grammar school, talks about Platonov – how touching and absurd.

The ninth of Ab. An old woman is sitting on the floor, sobbing. Her son, who worships his mother and declares he believes in God so as to please her, is singing in a pleasant thin tenor and explaining the story of the destruction of the Temple. The terrible words of the Prophets: people eat excrement, girls are defiled, men are killed and Israel vanquished. Angry, poignant words. The lamp smoking, the old woman howling, the youth singing tunefully, the girls in their white stockings. Outside the window – the village of Demidovka, the night, Cossacks, everything as it was when the Temple was being destroyed.

28 July. We leave Demidovka in the morning. Two hours of torment because the Jewish girls have been woken up at four in the morning and made to cook Russian meat and it’s the ninth of Ab. The girls, half-dressed and dishevelled, run around the wet allotments. Prishchepa, overcome by lust, attacks the old hunchback’s son’s fiancée. Just then they take away the cart, to an accompaniment of incredible obscenities ... Good heavens, I think, women nowadays hear the whole spectrum of obscene language, they live like soldiers, where’s tenderness? ... The soldiers are eating meat out of the stewpots. She threatens to scream. Her face. He squeezes her against the wall. Disgusting scene. She does what she can to get the cart back, though they’ve hidden it in the loft. She’ll make a good Jewish girl. She argues with the Commissar who says that the Jews don’t want to help the Red Army.

The looting of a church is a terrible thing. The vestments are ripped, the priceless shining fabrics are torn up on the floor, as is the lining. A sister of charity has helped herself to three bundles. The candles and money have been taken. Boxes are smashed open and the Papal bulls taken out. A wonderful church – imagine what it must have witnessed in two hundred years (Tuzinkievich’s manuscript). How many counts, how many peasants. Wonderful Italian paintings, Madonnas in pink rocking the baby Christ, a wonderful dark Christ, a Rembrandt, a Madonna in the style of Murillo or perhaps a genuine Murillo. The main thing is the holy well-fed Jesuits. A revolting Chinese figurine swathed in veils and a crimson caftan, a bearded little Jew, a shop, a broken wound, a statue of St Valentine. The priest is quivering like a bird, mixing Russian and Polish, I can’t get to him. He sobs: ‘The animals, they came to loot, it’s obvious.’ The destruction of ancient gods.

Levka, the Divisional Commander’s orderly, is the man who likes to cut a dash driving the horses. There’s a story about how he whipped his neighbour Stepan, who used to be a village policeman under Denikin and who had behaved insultingly to the people upon his return to his village. They did not let Levka slit his throat. In prison they beat him up and cut his back open, jumped and danced on top of him. An epic dialogue: ‘Is this good, Stepan?’ ‘It is bad.’ ‘What about the people you were nasty to, was it good for them?’ ‘It was bad.’ ‘And did you imagine that it would be bad for you?’ ‘No, I did not think so.’ ‘Well, you should have, Stepan. Now, we think that if you catch us you’ll cut our throats. So now, Stepan, we’re going to kill you.’ He was nearly cold when they had finished with him.

I could write volumes about women in the Cavalry Army. Squadrons going into battle, the dust, the clatter, the naked swords, the frenzied swearing. They gallop in front with their skirts pulled up, dusty, with fat breasts, all whores, but comrades, and whores because they are comrades, that’s the main thing. They serve as best they can, the heroines, and look at the contempt they come in for ... I must penetrate the warrior’s soul, and when I do it is dreadful – I find a beast with principles ...

The enemy is ahead. In the rye we see something sparkling in the sun: two naked Poles with their throats cut, their little faces cut to ribbons. The interrogation of prisoners in Yablonovka. People in their underwear, including Jews and fair-haired Poles, exhausted. A little lad from an educated family. The hatred they attract. The blood-stained underwear of a casualty. No water is being distributed. One fat-faced little chap is poking me with his documents. You’re lucky, I think, you’re out of it. They surround me, gladdened by the sound of my sympathetic voice. The miserable lot, what’s the difference between Cossacks and them? No backbone, that’s what.

These extracts are from a diary written when Babel was serving with Budyonny’s Cossack army. He was 26. In a cashbook ruled with red squares, a book he had taken from his father’s office, the writer jotted down observations which were to from the basis of his Red Cavalry stories. For years after Babel’s imprisonment by the Soviet authorities (he was shot in a Moscow prison in 1940), this diary was kept, at some risk to herself, by a woman in Kiev. She delivered it to Ily Ehrenburg, a supporter of Babel’s rehabilitiation, who, in 1954 handed it over to the writer’s widow. A professor at the University of Budapest, Agnes Gereben, has transcribed a large part of the diary – Soviet law did not allow it to be copied in full – and published a Hungarian translation, with a historical and literary commentary. The extracts which appear here, translated by Antoni Marianski, are based on Dr Gereben’s transcription.