Isaak Babel Biography

Playwright, Author (1894–1940)
Jewish-Ukrainian Isaak Babel, whose tales of the Russian army and ghetto life made him a famous author in the 1920s, was discredited by the Soviet authorities and put to death in 1940.


Isaak Emmanuilovoch Babel was born to a Jewish, middle-class family on July 13, 1894, in Odessa, Ukraine. After attending school and college and then serving in the Russian army, he became known as a writer. His early pieces in magazines and newspapers were followed by his short-story collections Red Cavalry and Odessa Tales. Despite initially earning praise for his realism and his gritty subjects, Babel was later censored by the Soviet authorities and was executed by Stalin's police forces in 1940.

Early Life and Education

Isaak Emmanuilovoch Babel was born on July 13, 1894, in Odessa, Ukraine, a port city located on the Black Sea. His parents, Manus Yitzkhovich and Feyga Bobel (the original spelling of their last name), were Jewish, and they raised Isaak and his sister in a middle-class household.

Soon after his birth, Isaak Babel's family moved to Nikolaev, a port city located about 100 miles away from Odessa. There, his father worked for an overseas agricultural-equipment manufacturer, and Babel, once he reached school age, attended the Count Witte Commercial School. The family returned to Odessa in 1905, and Babel was educated by private tutors until he began attending the Nicholas I Odessa Commercial School No. 1. He graduated from the school in 1911 and went on to study economics at the Kiev Commercial Insititute (which was relocated to Saratov in 1915, during the First World War). Babel graduated from the institute in 1916, afterward briefly studying law at the Petrograd Psycho-Neurological Institute.

Published Writings and Wartime Service

Babel met and befriended writer Maxim Gorky in 1916, and their friendship would become a major force in Babel's life. Gorky began to include Babel's short stories in a journal that he edited, The Chronicle. Thanks to this exposure, Babel was invited to contribute his fiction writing and reporting to other journals as well as to the newspaper New Life. Meanwhile, Babel joined the cavalry of the Russian army in 1917, serving at the Rumanian front and in Petrograd. He was active with the army for several years, during which time he wrote pieces about his military experiences for New Life.

In 1919, Babel married Evgenia (also spelled Yevgenia and Eugenia) Gronfein, the daughter of a wealthy agricultural-equipment importer, whom he'd met in Kiev. After his time in the army, he worked for newspapers and dedicated more time to his writing. He published The Story of My Dovecote, a volume of short stories inspired by his own childhood, in 1925. He achieved literary fame with Red Cavalry, published in 1926. This collection of stories, inspired by his experiences in the Soviet-Polish War of 1920, shocked its readers with its tales of brutality and impressed them with its direct language and humor, even in the face of violence.

Acclaim and Isolation in the 1930s

In 1931, Babel published Odessa Tales, a cycle of short stories set in a ghetto of Odessa. Once again, he was praised for his realism, simple writing style and skillful portrayals of characters from the fringes of society—in this case, a band of Jewish gangsters and their leader, Benya Krik. Later in the 1930s, he wrote a play titled Maria (1935) and four novellas, including "The Trial" and "The Kiss."

As the decade progressed, Babel's activities and written works were monitored closely by critics and censors for any hints of disloyalty to the Soviet government. Babel traveled frequently to France (where his estranged wife and daughter, Nathalie, lived), wrote less and spent much time in isolation during these years. His friend and greatest ally, Gorky, died in 1936.

Arrest and Death

Like many of his contemporaries, Babel was persecuted in the "great purges" conducted under Joseph Stalin in the late 1930s. He was arrested by the Soviet secret police in May 1939, at the age of 45, and was charged with belonging to anti-Soviet political organizations and terrorist groups and serving as a spy for France and Austria. (His affair with Evgeniya Gladun-Khayutina, the wife of the head of the secret police, was likely a contributing factor to his arrest.) Though Babel appealed the charges and tried to revoke the testimony he'd given under torture, he was executed on January 27, 1940.

After Stalin's death in 1953, Babel's name was cleared and his writing was rehabilitated. His work was gradually published again in the Soviet Union and even in foreign countries. He continues to influence short-story writers around the world.

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