Friday, March 6, 2020

Red Cavalry

Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel

First off, I just have to say that visually speaking, this is one of the most awesome book covers in the history of the world and I love it.  Of course, what it actually depicts is terrible; it's a Soviet propaganda poster showing a map of Eastern Europe/Russia, with a giant Red soldier stomping on his neighbors -- specifically Poland -- and the neighbors are mostly depicted as bloated plutocrats and outdated military officers.  So it's not that I like the subject matter; it's just an amazing poster showing the official Soviet message -- an arresting primary source and window into this time.

This time is 1919 -1920, when the newly-established Soviet Russia and Ukraine are involved in a war with Poland.  The whole thing is complicated enough that I'm just going to direct you to the Wikipedia page on the conflict, but the very short version is that Poland wanted to extend its territory east, and invaded Ukraine, and the Soviets wanted to...liberate Europe from the shackles of capitalism by speeding the world revolution that they knew would come soon.  Yeah, that's the ticket.  So they invaded right back, with the intention of getting all the way west.

Isaac Babel was in his mid-20s, and was attached to the First Cavalry Army as a journalist.  He kept a diary, of which the first 24 pages have been lost.  From that, he wrote quite a few short stories and vignettes that showed the war in all its brutality and misery.  They were mostly published (1920's Soviet literature was somewhat freer than it became later, and the stories were withdrawn in 1933) and gave the public its first glimpse into the realities of the glorious Red Cavalry riding forth to free the Polish proletariat.  The whole collection is called the Red Cavalry cycle.  This volume also includes unpublished stories, Babel's journal of the war, and his notes.

Babel narrates the stories from the point of view of Kiril Lyutov, a Russian Jewish character somewhat like himself but not the same.  These are often very short scenes, and they are beautifully, even exquisitely written, with strange and arresting imagery.   They are also explicit in their depictions of the violence and careless cruelty of the soldiers -- Cossacks with only the barest veneer of Communist ideology -- they're interested in their horses and in eating, looting, and stealing whatever they can, and worse.  Officially, they're liberating the Polish peasants from their oppressors, bringing a new and more prosperous way of life, and definitely not destroying anybody's houses; in reality, they're ravaging the country, murdering, raping, and pillaging their way along.  What they don't eat or steal, they often wreck and burn.
The buglers sounded the alarm.  The squadrons lined up in a column.  A wounded man crawled out of a ditch and, shading his eyes with his hand, said to Vytyagaichenko, "Taras Grigorevich, I represent the others here.  It looks like you're leaving us behind."
"Don't worry, you'll manage to fight them off," Vytyagaichenko muttered, and reared his horse.
"We sort of think we won't be able to fight them off, Taras Grigorevich," the wounded man called after Vytyagaichenko as he rode off.
Vytyagaichenko turned back his horse.  "Stop whimpering!  Of course I won't leave you!"  And he ordered the carts to be harnessed.

I mourn for the bees.  They have been destroyed by warring armies.  There are no longer any bees in Volhynia.  We desecrated the hives.  We fumigated them with sulfur and detonated them with gunpowder.  Smoldering rags have spread a foul stench over the holy republics of the bees.  Dying, they flew slowly, their buzzing barely audible.  Deprived of bread, we procured honey with our sabers.  There are no longer any bees in Volhynia.

"Let's go for it, Spirka!" I shout.  "Either way, I'm going to hurl some mud at their chasubles!  Let's go die for a pickle and World Revolution!"

...when we cross into Galicia -- it will be the first time that Soviet troops will cross the border -- we are to treat the population well.  We are not entering a conquered nation, the nation belongs to the workers and peasants of Galicia, and to them alone, we are only there to help them set up a Soviet power.  The order is important and sensible -- will the rag-looters stick to it?  No...
...everything repeats itself, once again the same story of Poles, Cossacks, Jews is repeating itself with striking exactness, what is new is Communism. 

A quiet evening in the synagogue, this always has an irresistible effect on me...No decoration at all in the building, everything is white and plain to the point of asceticism, everything is incorporeal and bloodless to a monstrous degree, to grasp it fully you have to have the soul of a Jew.  But what does this soul consist of?  Is it not bound to be our century in which they will perish?

Through all these days the old man was in the clutches of a sudden, stormy, vague hope, and, in order not to let anything darken his happiness, he did his best to overlook the foppish bloodthirstiness and loudmouthed simplicity with which in those days we solved all the problems of the world.
Well, with writing like that, Babel couldn't last long in the good graces of the USSR.  He was allowed to travel between Paris and Russia -- he left his wife and child in Paris, but felt that he was bound to live and write in Russia even though it would lead to disaster; he simply couldn't do anything else.  His good friend Gorky protected him, but Gorky died in 1936.  In May 1939, Babel was arrested, his papers and manuscripts confiscated, and neither he nor they were ever seen again.  There was no word of him until 1954, at which point there was a short declaration that Babel's sentence, given in January 1940, was revoked.  It was stated that he had died of unknown circumstances in March of 1941, which was entirely false.  It was not until the 1990s that it was confirmed that he had been executed in January 1940, the day after his 20-minute trial and sentence.

These stories are truly great literature.  I don't know that Babel is well-known outside of the true devotees of Russian literature -- being a mere dilettante, I only heard of him fairly recently myself.  He deserves more fame.

2 comments:

Ruth said...

Sounds like another one I need to add to my list. Thanks!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Yep, this is a great one.