Isaac Babel's Stanford biographer explores the Russian writer's world of violence, irony

Two new books by Stanford scholar rediscover the writer who died at Stalin's hands.

As a teenager in the mid-1960s, Gregory Freidin moved with his family to a rough side of Moscow, to what he described as a neighborhood notorious "for its Jewish thieves, counterfeiters and dealers in stolen goods." He had entered "the Jewish underworld." In short, the Soviet kid discovered Isaac Babel's world. 

Freidin is now perhaps the world's foremost scholar on Babel, the Russian-Jewish short story writer, playwright and journalist. He is throwing a spotlight on the writer who described the horrors of war and the gangsters of Odessa with trademark irony and acute observation. 

Freidin, professor of Slavic languages and literatures, has edited two recently published books, The Enigma of Isaac Babel (Stanford University Press) and Isaac Babel's Selected Writings (Norton).  Freidin is currently working on the first biography of Babel, A Jew on Horseback, to be published by Stanford University Press.

Freidin ran across the "Odessa Stories" by Babel – the author who was born in 1894 and disappeared during the Stalin years – about the same time Freidin's family changed neighborhoods in Moscow. He immediately recognized the familiar milieu "of Jews who did not shrink from violence."

"He created archetypal stories about modern Jewish childhood, about intellectuals and violence, the violence that accompanied Russia's transition to modernity and the revolution in which Russia's Jews were both uplifted and victimized," said Freidin.

Babel's reach is farther than generally supposed. “These archetypal stories have inspired some of the best American writers” – Grace Paley, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow among them – as well as such filmmakers as Ken Russell (in his Gustav Mahler) and most recently David Simon (Generation Kill).

Initially, Babel's very different take on Russian Jews impressed the Moscow teenager – "a verbal image of a pugnacious gangster with style." The image was at odds with the professional milieu of Freidin's family. In postwar Russia, when the state incited anti-Semitism and imposed quotas, Jews tended to be quiet and preferred to be unnoticed. Not so in Freidin's noisy neighborhood, nor in Babel's.

The writer Cynthia Ozick wrote, "The breadth and scope of his social compass enabled him to see through the eyes of peasants, soldiers, priests, rabbis, children, artists, actors, women of all classes. He befriended whores, cabdrivers, jockeys; he knew what it was like to be penniless, to live on the edge and off the beaten track."

In the Soviet Union, Freidin's generation, coming of age after Stalin's death, tried to recapture the world on the other side of the hill of Stalinism – "reviving it, recovering it, restoring it, trying to understand it, and going far beyond what Soviet cultural policy allowed."

Issac Babel created archetypal stories of modern Jewish childhood that have inspired some of the best American writers.

Issac Babel created archetypal stories of modern Jewish childhood that have inspired some of the best American writers.

Decades would pass, however, before Freidin, who came to the United States in 1971, made Babel a focus of his scholarship. Now he calls him "a writer's writer": "As you follow him, you are changing optics so many times," said Freidin.

"Babel is a writer who forces you to confront yourself," said Freidin. "Babel makes art out of unsettling your point of view by irony. You have to follow his game and test your own ability to follow his ironic twists and turns."

The violence in this pacifist writer continues to fascinate Freidin: "He was probably, to my mind, the greatest writer to portray violence, as it were, without judgment – and at the same time show its horror, and beauty, and the great pleasure people get from violence, while somehow sneaking in his pacifism as well."

Lionel Trilling agreed, writing in his famous 1955 essay, "The Forbidden Dialectic": "The stories were touched with cruelty. They were about violence of the most extreme kind, yet they were composed with a striking elegance and precision of objectivity, and also with a kind of lyric joy, so that one could not at once know just how the author was responding to the brutality he recorded, whether he thought it good or bad, justified or not justified."

A 'foreign policy asset'

Babel was a forerunner in other ways: Freidin noted that Babel was an "embedded correspondent" before the term was coined. He joined the Red Army, turning the horrors of the Polish-Soviet war of 1920 into literature with his signature collection of stories, Red Cavalry. He earned the enmity of some of the most powerful men in Soviet Russia, who tried to drive him into exile and threatened violence against him.

Babel went into the Red Cavalry, but "didn't load the gun," said Freidin, "and we must keep this in mind. He was an adherent of Tolstoy's teaching of not resisting evil with violence."

"He helps you understand something about the conflict of the modern world. He himself was rent apart by it," said Freidin.

"He welcomed the fall of the old regime in 1917, but his acceptance of the Bolshevik Revolution was a more complicated affair." He was also fascinated that, for the first time, intellectuals – "the men with glasses" – were moving from the world of ideas to commanding armies and spilling blood. Power inevitably trumped ideals, and grand notions led to the world's most massive concentration camps.

Babel, a devotee of Maupassant and Flaubert who began writing in French, was sent abroad to represent the human face of Stalinism during the "Soviet charm offensive" in 1935.

Someone once said friends come and go, but enemies accumulate. It seemed to be the case with Babel. He had been the poster boy of the revolution, a civilized front for Stalin, but he was abandoned when that Stalin made a 180-degree turn in 1939.

What had he done to anger the regime? No more, no less than millions who perished in the gulag. That is the point of mass terror, said Freidin: "It is applied randomly and on a colossal scale; the whole idea is that nobody knows who is going to 'get it' next."

New archival material came out in the mid-1990s, including interrogation files from the Lubyanka, where Babel had been held. It shifted the optics, as much as in any of Babel's short stories: "The kind of Babel I had known before is very different from the Babel we know now. I had to abandon the book on him that had been practically done and start anew."

"We have a much more sophisticated view of what was going on," said Freidin, and how little and how much some, like Babel, understood what was going on. Rather than separating the people into "sheep and goats," "black and white," said Freidin, "we now see a spectrum of tones."

Babel's mentor, the acclaimed author Maxim Gorky, who had protected his protégé, died in mysterious circumstances in 1936, probably eliminated by the NKVD. Babel lived through the Great Terror, seeing his friends disappear one by one until he was arrested in 1939.

The Soviet government sent out agents who pretended to have seen him in the subsequent decade – they even met with his family abroad. "Even after his death, Babel was used as a foreign policy asset," said Freidin. Confirmation of his arrest, torture and death in 1940 did not occur until 1954.

Nathalie Babel Brown, the daughter who was to become a leading Babel scholar, wrote that "Babel had many secrets, lived with many ambiguities and contradictions, and left many unanswered questions behind him."

One of them is on the copyright page of both of Freidin's new books. Freidin opens a book and shows the Library of Congress information on Babel.

The cataloging information lists "Babel, I. 1894-1941" – using the year Nazi Germany invaded Russia, which is the "Soviet propaganda date" of his death. The Soviet authorities wished to make Babel's 1940 death under Stalin melt into the numberless victims of World War II.

The Library of Congress has since corrected the error.

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,