Isaac Babel Explores How a Jew Can Sacrifice His Morals, but Not His Conscience

November 3, 2022 | Ruth R. Wisse
About the author: Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at Tikvah. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

In his novel Red Cavalry, the Soviet Jewish writer Isaac Babel tells the story of the bookish Jewish political officer Lyutov—a stand-in for the author—who finds himself assigned to a unit of Bolshevik Cossacks during the nascent USSR’s 1919-20 war with Poland. Ruth R. Wisse examines the chapter “My First Goose,” in which Lyutov tries to win the respect of his new comrades by killing a civilian woman’s goose and ordering her at sword-point to cook it:

[O]nly a decade earlier, thousands of young Jews like Babel had left Russia to avoid compulsory service in its armies. Yet here a young Jewish writer volunteers for the Russian front, admiring in the commander the very qualities that his Jewishness disallows. The new Soviet society, whose writer he aspires to be, espouses a set of values opposite to his own: Cossacks are valuable for how well they can fight wars, and Jews for whether they can reeducate the society as Leninists. The traditional Jewish emphasis on literacy that formed him is now to be exploited in the service of propaganda.

This would appear to be a proper Soviet story. The squeamish Jew does what he must do to win the trust of these men, and, for all their profound differences, Jew and Cossack independently recognize the truth of the new regime. Babel was writing this under Lenin’s rule in the early 1920s, before Stalin imposed political correctness as a required rather than preferred literary standard. Yet in his writing, as opposed to his actions, Lyutov remains quite independent of the political program he endorses. “Hidden” behind his narrator Lyutov, Babel the writer knows that his changed behavior cannot change what he is made of. As he sleeps among the men, their legs now intermingled, his dreams reclaim him, “I dreamed and saw women in my dreams—and only my heart, crimson with murder, screeched and bled.”

The sacrifice of Jewish (and Christian!) conscience was a requirement of the new regime, which had seized power by killing the tsar’s entire family, shutting down democracy, and ruling by dictatorial decree. The extreme conditions of war had imposed still harsher demands. But Babel, who became an agent of this government, does not ascribe Lyutov’s actions to necessity. In this story as in all of Red Cavalry, the narrator claims full responsibility for everything he does and declares through the story’s title that this was only his first goose, his first such transgression against the old values and his commitment to the new.

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