Isaac Babel's Guide to Life and Death

The great Russian Jewish writer was caught between revolution and daily life, Bolsheviks and Jews, a desire to kill and an inability to pull the trigger. Did he ever choose?

A Bolshevik propaganda poster from the Polish-Soviet war, circa 1920. The red text at the top reads “This is how the Polish lords’ plan finishes.” Wikimedia.

A Bolshevik propaganda poster from the Polish-Soviet war, circa 1920. The red text at the top reads “This is how the Polish lords’ plan finishes.” Wikimedia.

Essay
Dec. 6 2021
About the author

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas professor of the arts and humanities at Northwestern University and the author of, among other books, Anna Karenina in Our Time (Yale).

From the mid-19th century to the present, Russian writers and thinkers have tirelessly debated human life’s essential nature. Is life defined by the countless ordinary events or the few extraordinary ones? Should one focus on the forgettable prosaic moments or the memorable dramatic ones that make a good story? Which sentiment comes closer to the truth: the proverbial curse, “May you live in interesting times!” or Wordsworth’s enthusiasm that “to be young” during the French Revolution “was very heaven”?

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More about: Arts & Culture, Bolshevism, Communism, History & Ideas, Isaac Babel, Literature, Russian Jewry