In December 2021, Mosaic published a sparkling interpretive essay by the literary scholar Gary Saul Morson on the work of the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel, and specifically on his collection of short stories called Red Cavalry. Babel, who was himself embedded in the Red Army during the war, vividly portrays his experiences on the front in the book, where he’s pulled in two different directions: to violent revolution and brutality on one end and to prosaic Jewish tradition on the other.
To bring his vision to life, Mosaic produced a dramatic reading of select stories from Red Cavalry, with the New York actors Mark J. Quiles and Harris Doran. The reading premiered on Wednesday, December 22 at 7 pm and was followed by a post-show discussion with the Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, the Mosaic columnist Ruth Wisse, and Gary Saul Morson. The recording of the program, as well as a transcript of the discussion, is available to Mosaic subscribers below.
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To help us think about Babel, his Red Cavalry stories, and the figures in them whom we’ve just met—the narrator Kiril Lyutov; the old Jew, Gedali; his rabbi, Rabbi Motale; and the rabbi’s son, Elijah; and the other figures, Dolgushov, the peasant farmer who, emboldened by the revolution, returns from the front to torture his old master Nikitinsky; the proud Cossack soldier, Tikhomolov and his horse abused at Kiril’s incompetent hand, Argamak—to help us think about what these figures from Babel’s text mean for us, we’ve assembled a discussion with three of the wisest observers of Jewish literature, Jewish politics, and the moral questions posed by the experience of the Jews in Lenin’s Russia.
Welcome to the critic and Northwestern University professor Gary Saul Morrison. Welcome to Harvard professor emerita, Tikvah senior fellow, and Mosaic columnist Ruth Wisse. And welcome not least to the former chairman of the Jewish Agency, former member of the Knesset and deputy prime minister of the state of Israel, a prolific author, human-rights champion, and for his courage in defying Soviet oppression and his leadership to help liberate the Jews of the Soviet Union, one of the 20th century’s moral heroes, Natan Sharansky.
Saul, one of the powerful things about seeing and hearing the stories aloud is that it allows us to see connections between them, and themes begin to emerge a little more clearly. It strikes me that the first two stories we encountered tonight centered around how families, parents, and children were so utterly destroyed by the revolution and the war. In the case of the first scene, the Poles kill this Jewish father in front of his pregnant daughter, and we meet her as her trauma is becoming a sort of madness. And in the second scene, the letter that Kiril reads, we have fathers torturing sons, sons killing fathers. Can you talk about the family as a human good, about what Babel observes in relation to the family, and the role that it plays in these stories?
Gary Saul Morson:
Babel was entering here into a debate that was very important in the last half-century of Russian literature, and you can put it as: is the essence of life to be found in the ordinary things, in the prosaic, or in the grand, dramatic things? Tolstoy and Chekhov take a very strong stand that it was the prosaic that really mattered, and the intelligentsia, in looking for revolution or dramatic activity, was misperceiving life. The revolutionaries took exactly the opposite position. And so as in revolutions elsewhere, the family was regarded as a kind of bourgeois heritage that the revolution would do away with. In the early 1920s, that was a big idea in the Soviet Union. The ideal was that the time would come when parents would stop thinking of children as their children—they were just everybody’s children. The family taught children to be little bourgeoisie egotists, and to think they were the center of the world, and so the family had to be done away with.
That, of course, disappeared by the end of the 1920s when the revolutionary enthusiasm was gone, but Babel is caught here in the appeal of both, right? The stories turn on the fact of his deep connection to the family, because that’s where Jewish tradition is centered too, right? And yet the enormous appeal of revolutionary transformation, the military and apocalyptic, messianic view, which then gets grafted also on part of the Jewish tradition. And he gets torn between the two. That opening story has him sympathetic to both roles, right? And the second story gives you the sense of how horrible, in the letter, revolutionary enthusiasm can be, and how it can graft onto the most awful human emotions that have nothing to do with revolution at all. There are just deep, brutal instincts of human beings, that well, the traditions of ordinary life were supposed to tame. And once you let them off the hook, terrible things happen.
And so I want to probe a little more, Saul. In these first two stories, we meet Soviet revolutionaries. We also meet obliquely, gently at first—we’ll meet them more later—but we meet the Jews. We come, in the next story in our presentation, to the story of the goose, “My First Goose,” to the Cossacks. This is one of the most famous and disturbing stories in Red Cavalry. I wonder if you can just interpret it for us. What do you read in that story?
Gary Saul Morson:
There’s a lot going on in that story. Part of it is, it’s an initiation story. The Cossacks represent violence, extreme forms of masculinity, and I guess you can almost say it’s like a young man wanting to join a gang would have to overcome his basic reluctance to violence in order to prove himself really a man. And so he has to teach himself to be brutal, not just to the goose, but to the woman, of course, whom he’s abusing at the same time, and who says she wants to hang herself as a result. Abusing a woman, killing a helpless animal, that proves you’re a real man for a Cossack. And you get, of course, the fact that it’s so hard for him to do it. And then at the end of the story, where there’s a kind of homoerotic element, as he joins with those Cossacks with their legs entwined, and he feels he’s grown up to be a real man.
He was initiated, but should you be initiated into such an awful thing? That’s the question that hovers, and yet whether you should or shouldn’t, there’s an enormous attraction to it that people feel, and particularly men tend to feel, and so it plays into the contrast in those stories, of the male ethos of violence and extreme action. The prosaic here is represented by the family and women. That’s why the rabbi, too, is praising women, right? So you get a gender argument here, which leaves the narrator in a very morally ambiguous state, which he’s extremely well aware of. And that’s the whole point of the story, his sense of the ambiguity of his own point of view.
Ruth, in those masculine virtues and their excesses that Saul was just discussing, it introduces this question of power. And though we don’t yet know, I don’t think he’s yet revealed it, but we the reader know that Kiril, the narrator, is himself Jewish. He’s certainly referred to as a four-eyes student of the law, and made fun of that way. The question in this story is also one of Jews’ discomfort with power. Kiril feels the need to stomp the brains out of this goose as a show of strength, but it’s a feeble show of strength. It reveals a lack of confidence as much as confidence.
Well, as Saul so rightly says, this is extraordinarily complicated, but I would take it at a different point. You see, what I see in these stories, and all of the ones that you’ve brought here, and in the whole of Red Cavalry, is the enormous ambition of Isaac Babel. I’m not sure that one can even imagine how great it was. It seems to me that what he saw is that he was now Tolstoy, writing War and Peace. Red Cavalry was going to be the War and Peace of the revolution. That is to say, of the Soviet Union, no longer of the old Russia, but now of what Russia was becoming. And that the Jewish writer was the ideal writer for this situation. So yes, all that conscience and all that internal struggle is certainly going on there. But at the same time, I think he is the interpreter of the revolution.
That’s how he comes across in this story. That’s the role that he has taken on himself. And he says, I mean, I think that he thinks that only the Jew actually can bear testimony to the fact that however terrible this is, however much violence this requires—and you’re in the midst of a war, actually here, the first real war that the Soviet Union is waging—he’s on the side of that war here. But he’s not just on the side of it as that character in the story. He’s also the writer of that story, who really is the only one who is able to give it all to you: I’m able to show you the Cossacks, who they are, without flinching. I can surely show you the Jews, who they are, without flinching. And I can see how the Jews look to the Cossacks, and I can show you how the Cossacks look to the Jews.
If I’m not mistaken here, the one thing you said, which I would question, is that there are no other revolutionaries in these stories except for the Jews. See, the interesting thing is that what Babel seems to have done here is he seems to have taken the real Stalinist, or the real bureaucracy, the real totalitarian movement coming down out of it completely, and put himself there in its place. So that what you see is almost that the Soviet Union is coming into being with a conscience, and it’s extraordinary that he should have taken this role on himself to be the conscience. What I’m saying is that the Jew here is not just the Jew qua Jew, but he is the Jew also as the conscience of this new revolution that has come into being.
Gary Saul Morson:
If I could just comment on that, yes, that’s true. But you have to realize that the very idea of conscience was an un-Leninist idea, which the revolution was designed to reject, right?
Gary Saul Morson:
The idea that there’s conscience or moral standards outside of the success of the revolution was precisely what the revolution was designed to reject. And so, by being the conscience of the revolution, that’s itself paradoxical. I mean, some of the other revolutionary groups could have easily believed in a conscience, but not Lenin’s Bolsheviks. So that’s what made it particularly paradoxical. I don’t know, [Babel] may be a Bolshevik, but his sensibility is more like that of an all-purpose intellectual revolutionary, rather than specifically a Bolshevik.
Natan looks very uncomfortable.
Well, I think we are making our work of evaluating those Jews who joined the revolution very easy by saying that they simply abandoned their consciences or whatever. I would say there are three categories of Jews who joined and supported the revolution, but there were many who were simply sitting on the side and were waiting. First of all, there were the real fanatics who believed that we are destroying all the old world, all the old civilization of thousands of years, and that we’re creating a new paradise. There were few, but among the general number of fanatics, Jews were very prominent. At least one third, maybe one half of all the fanatics who really believed in what they were doing—beginning from Trotsky, or Rosa Luxemburg, even before the revolution—were Jews, but Babel was not one of them. But for example, the one who was torturing him and interrogating in the KGB many years after, when Babel was arrested and killed, was Lev Shvartzman, who was a fanatic, and who was himself killed years later in another purge; he was a Jew. We don’t know whether he was sorry for his fanaticism, but I personally knew several old Bolsheviks who spent fifteen or seventeen years in Stalin’s prisons, they came back from Siberia, their health was destroyed, their families were destroyed, but they still believed that it was a great idea, that it was the way it should be. That’s the first group.
The second group, where I think, at least partially, Babel does belong, is the Jewish intelligentsia which believed it’s terrible, it’s really awful, the Jewish world which is so dear to us is disappearing, but it’s such a great idea of tikkun olam, can we Jews stand aside and not participate when finally this idea with this terrible price, this Jewish idea, is implemented? Sometimes I think, when I hear how Jews are supporting Black Lives Matter in America, explaining that despite all the awful pogroms and violence and anti-Semitism, how can we not be in this social-justice movement of tikkun olam? So there was a lot of this among the Jewish intelligentsia, and by the way, this illusion disappeared very quickly. A few years after Babel wrote, already many of them understood this.
Then there is a third group of simple Jews who felt, “we were discriminated against from the moment that we became citizens of Russia. We are discriminated against awfully, it’s awful what’s happening now, but let’s hope it’ll finish quickly, and then we will be equal. We will be apart, or we will live where we want, we will have the same opportunity, but let’s hope for the better.” So Babel, to some extent is among all three of these categories. Especially knowing his future, we know how he really never was part of the first category. He was surely part of the second, and part of the third. And then he tried to go through the next twenty years of his life, let’s say, with more dignity than most of the Soviets tried, but he couldn’t do it really while keeping all his dignity. And well, as to conscience, I think he had this conscience, but he had to sacrifice part away.
Friends, I want to come back to the Jews in a moment, because I’m turning that idea of those three categories over in my mind. Natan, I want to ask you about a different scene that we saw earlier this evening. We saw this peasant farmer abused by his master, and then disappear into the army and return to take revenge on Nikitinsky. And I wanted to see if you can just talk about how the exposure to Lenin’s ideas, and feeling a part of this revolutionary movement, unleashed this adoration of violence, and brought to the surface a sort of cruelty in normal people, in peasants and working people who didn’t just turn on the upper classes, or on the Jews, but who wanted to see them suffer.
Well, I just mentioned something much more challenging for us, for Jews; one of the leading sadists of KGB, who tortured Babel, who tortured [the great Russian theater director Vsevolod] Meyerhold and many others, was a Jew. He joined the revolution, the war, when he was young, sixteen years old, whatever. And then this idea that now, after all these injustices which were done to us, all the injustice in the world would disappear. But Lenin said, Lenin wrote that for this great cause we have to kill without any emotion—he underlined “without any mercy”—a few hundred of these capitalists who are exploiting our people, who are doing all these crimes, who are using human rights and morality, all these protections for the bourgeoisie, to exploit us in all these different ways, so of course it’s worth doing this.
The moment Lenin calls people to do it, they’re more than happy. I’m speaking as a Jew, but for sure, it’s also about these primitive peasants and others. They are now called to take revenge, and that’s fully justified by the future justice for everybody. It appealed to the most primitive, the rudest instincts, and I’m much less surprised, though not impressed, by the Russian peasants, or Cossacks, who were nurtured by this anti-Semitic hatred. But how many Jews became sadists? Half of the heads of the departments of the KGB and the most awful years of felonies were led by Jews. And believe me, they couldn’t be the heads of the departments if they were not sadistic and cruel, while waiting for the next time, when they would themselves would be the victims of this cruelty.
Gary Saul Morson:
I wonder if I can mention something, one slight correction there. You said, if we have to kill, then we kill. That actually is not a good statement of Lenin’s ethics, because that suggests that you are reluctant to kill. The essence of Lenin’s ethics truly was that if you believed in the sanctity of human life, if you believed that there was anything that should restrain you from violence, then you were not a Leninist. You were implicitly religious, or a philosophical idealist. The test of whether you were truly a Leninist was whether you would be as cruel as possible. Cruelty was not what was necessary, it was the default position. What you describe is, let’s say, what [the revolutionary theorist Peter] Kropotkin or an anarchist might have said, but Lenin was constantly saying, “I can’t find people cruel enough. Find crueler people,” he’s saying. It was the first resort, not the last.
But he does insist that it must be against enemies of revolution. The fact that he understood that they’re the enemies of revolution, to almost everybody that’s rousing. He didn’t call to kill people in order to kill them. He wanted to kill the enemies of revolution. The historical justice of the revolution is above all, that was his philosophy.
But friends, we don’t want to get too far away from Red Cavalry. Because to Natan’s three categories, and to what Saul was saying, the passion that I share, there is a fourth category. There may be only one person who belonged to it, but I think there may be one or two others who we can find. And that is the greatest artist that you could imagine in this period, who knew that that’s who he was. He [Babel] knew what power he had. And I think that what he positioned himself as was not as one of those categories, but he was the one who was going to give voice to it all. Red Cavalry was the process through which this revolutionary movement was imposing itself.
Frankly, actually, I think that the Cossacks here play a slightly different role. I think that what Babel is showing in this is that the Jews and the Cossacks are being oppressed by and reshaped by the revolution to an equal degree, right? And there’s a parallelism that he draws very often between the woman in the first thing, who says, “You will never find a father like this father,” and then chapters later, someone says exactly the same words. “You will never find a horse like this horse,” or a father like this father. And in mothers, too.
Cossacks had their own culture. It was diametrically opposite to Jewish culture, true. But the fact is that the revolution was going to squelch them both in the same way and to the same degree. And here he is, again, I’ll come back to that. You are so right that of course conscience is not the word, but am I wrong in seeing that in many of these stories, because Lyutov has the conscience, and because he is the representative of the revolution, ergo, he shows that here is the aspect of this revolution that does have a conscience?
So the Jew, [Babel], uses him in these stories. The Jew is the entity that can still reflect on these subtleties, that can still be attentive to all these things. He can’t expect this of Lenin, who may have ancestors who are Jewish, but Lenin is already the anti-Jew in this. But he is the Jewish writer, you see. I think that he can show you the whole debate, the whole process taking place. And I do think though, I think that you would agree that in 1926, between 1922 and until this time, and even 1930, this was still what history had wrought. I’m not sure Babel ever saw that it could be undone. So in some sense, I think that he saw it as inevitability to which he was witness.
In thinking about Ruth’s point, let me introduce one change that I observe in the stories, in the figure of Lyutov himself, in Kiril himself. In the very first story, Saul, when we first meet him, he describes the Jews who are hosting him in the third person: those filthy Jews, and their filthy scraps, and those weird Passover dishes that they have. By the end, in burying Elijah, Rabbi Motale’s son, he refers to him as “my brother.” And there’s been a change over the course of this war that has brought Lyutov, it seems, into closer identification with the Jews. Do I read that correctly?
Gary Saul Morson:
Yes. It’s a good point. It’s really a change of emphasis, because the whole point of that first story is that he is pretending not to be Jewish, right? That’s his role. He couldn’t be openly a Jew in a Cossack regiment. It would be too dangerous. And Babel certainly himself took down, adopted that name, and he took a very Russian name. So he’s playing that role, and then suddenly has it thrown into his face. There are several places where he drops it—in the stories when he goes to see the rabbi, when he goes to see Gedali, he drops it—but by the end, the emphasis is switched, and he is sort of embracing [his Jewishness], although he hasn’t given up the other either. He couldn’t.
It was always the fate of the Jews, those who tried to join this big world, sometimes enlightened world, sometimes awful world, they try to be like them. Well, this story about the goose, killing the goose, is simply a very visual example of this. But as one who lived there, they know how it was tempting, and not only tempting. That’s how I grew up. On one hand, there is anti-Semitism, and you should not be ashamed that you have to be number one in physics and mathematics in every way, because that’s how Jews survive. On the other hand, you try to be accepted and to show to them that you are as good a Russian as they are. Whether in knowing Russian tradition, whether in behaving like a Russian, whether in ignoring the discipline at school together with the others. It’s probably in our nature, it’s how when the Reform movement was born it was good to be a goy in the street and to be Jew at home. So I think that he [Babel] tried to be a goy in the street, but it was very hard, and inevitably, when he’s meeting the real tragedies, challenges, and connections with his heritage, inevitably, his Jewish voice is coming to the surface, and yes, probably he realizes it to show it, but also to feel it, probably.
I don’t think there was ever a Jew who was so unconflicted about his Judaism. I mean, I go back to one of my favorite stories of his, “Odessa,” which was one of the earliest stories. There’s never been a description, neither in Sholem Aleichem nor in any other writer I know, this thing about Odessa. “If you think about it, it’s a town in which you can live free and easy. Half the population is made up of Jews, and Jews are a people who have learned a few simple truths along the way. Jews get married so as not to be alone, love so as to live through the centuries, hoard money so they can buy houses and give their wives astrakhan jackets, love children because, let’s face it, it is good and important to love one’s children.”
And then he says, “The poor Odessa Jews get very confused when it comes to officials and regulations, but it isn’t all that easy to get them to budge in their opinions, their very antiquated opinions.” And he says, “That is why Odessa has this light and easy atmosphere.” Odessa is great because it is a city of Jews. I mean, there’s such happiness in Isaac Babel. There is really such bourgeois pleasure in these things. But at the same time, you see, we all know this: if your language is not a Jewish language, and that is your instrument, that is your Stradivarius, that’s the only instrument on which you can play, you’ve got to play it in Russian, and to have that opportunity to be there in that historical moment, it’s the strangest situation in which one could imagine a person. But I think, didn’t he do it justice, in a way? Didn’t he do it justice by showing us these complexities, of Jews caught up in this situation? And as Natan says, of everybody being caught up in that situation, of every decent human being, really, must have seen the enormity of violation to morality as we know it, that was being brought in.
Natan, your concluding thought?
I only will say about Odessa that my father and mother were both from Odessa, and they loved it very much. My father once said, “In Odessa, even goys spoke Jewish.” And so I think for Babel, that was his childhood. That was from where he came. Odessa, where goys spoke Jewish, and he had to come to the world where Jews speak goyish.
Gary Saul Morson:
You suddenly made me understand my childhood in the Bronx. That was true of the Bronx when I was growing up.