Isaak Babel

I am asking for only one thing—let me finish my work.
–Isaak Babel’s last words at his trial before being shot

Executed Today, a delightfully historical but very morbid blog, reminded me via Twitter that today, January 27, is the seventy-fourth anniversary of the execution of Isaak Babel.

He was forty-five when he died. It’s so sad to think of what other amazing work he could have produced.

Isaak Babel
Isaak Babel, ca. 1937. Photo from here.

It’s such a shame that Babel isn’t more well-known in the English-speaking world. He is one of my favorite writers of all time. His most famous work was Red Cavalry, which I studied in a Russian literature class. Babel wrote a ton of short stories. Some were about his childhood, others were about the Russian civil war, when he fought with the Reds. (Two of my other favorite Russian writers, Mikhail Bulgakov and Ivan Bunin, also wrote about their experiences during the civil war. I guess I just really like civil-war-inspired writing.)

Babel grew up in Odessa, which was then a part of the Russian Empire. As a Jew, he and his family experienced pogroms (see his work “The Story of my Dovecote”). He was a supporter of the revolution (as I said, he fought with the Reds).

Babel fell afoul of the Soviet authorities in the late 1930s (it probably didn’t help that he had an affair with NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov’s wife). After his arrest in May 1939, he was made a persona non grata in the Soviet Union. His trial took place January 26, 1940, and he was executed by firing squad the next day.

If you’re going to read Babel, it’s obviously best to do so in Russian. If you don’t know Russian, the best translation in English is Peter Constantine’s. In fact, that translation is one of the best works of Russian rendered in English that I have ever read.

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