Last Saturday, 13 July, marked the 125th anniversary of the birth of the Odessan writer journalist and playwright Isaac Babel. The event may not have been cause for much celebration, but it was fittingly marked with an article in the Moscow Times and gives me an excuse to write again about this doyen of twentieth century Russian literature.
Born in 1894 to a middle-class Jewish family in Odessa, present-day Ukraine, Babel was best known for his collection of Red Cavalry stories, drawn from his personal experience as a journalist with the Red Army in 1920, and his Odessa stories, featuring characters from his hometown, including the legendary gangster Benya Krik. It has been said that, “To read Babel is to experience the wild and often terrifying swings of Russian history”.
Babel has also been called "the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry" and is considered one of the luminaries of 20th-century Soviet literature.
Babel’s career was supported by his friendship with the Russian Revolution’s leading literary light, Maxim Gorky. Babel moved from Odessa before the revolution to St Petersburg, where he lived illegally (as a Jew, he was restricted to the Pale of Settlement in the southwest of the country) to be close to Gorky, who began mentoring him in 1916 and published his early works in a literary magazine. The two would remain friends until Gorky’s death in 1936.
Indeed, it was Gorky who urged Babel to become a journalist to gain more life experience in order to inform his writing, prompting him to enlist in the Soviet army as a war correspondent and propagandist. He was assigned to an army division in the Polish-Soviet War of 1920, where he witnessed scenes of horrific brutality, some of which would become the basis for his Red Cavalry stories.
Observers have said the book’s depictions of violence contrasted jarringly with Babel’s gentle nature. His honest, explicit description of war diverged heavily from revolutionary propaganda and was the first exposure many Russian readers had to the realities of the war.
After the war, Babel returned to Odessa, where he began work on a series of short stories that were later published as the Odessa Tales. The stories, narrated by an ironic version of Babel himself, describe the life of Jewish gangsters in an Odessa ghetto around the time of the October Revolution. The character of Benya Krik, has been referred to as one of the great anti-heroes of Russian literature.
Babel wrote that Odessa was ‘the most charming city of the Russian Empire…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…you might not be able to budge these Jews from their opinions but there’s a whole lot you can learn from them. To a large extent it is because of them that Odessa has this light and easy atmosphere.’
In the 1930s, Babel increasingly withdrew from public life as Stalin applied pressure on the Soviet intelligentsia. By the end of the decade he had fallen victim to Stalin’s purges. He was arrested in 1939 by the NKVD, a precursor to the KGB, on fabricated espionage and terrorism charges and taken to the infamous Lubyanka prison, the headquarters of the secret police in Moscow. His papers were confiscated and destroyed, among them half-completed stories, plays, filmscripts and translations. Babel was shot by firing squad in January 1940 following a brief, clandestine trial. His name and work were erased until 1954, when he was rehabilitated during Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’.
The Jewish Review of Books published an intriguing piece in its latest edition, featuring two books about anarchists, both of them Jews who had recently immigrated to the US from Tsarist Russia. The anarchist movement has been largely forgotten amid the later polarisation of the world between Communism and Capitalism. But in the US alone, in the early 20th century there were several hundred thousand anarchists, and they outnumbered Marxists in the country. They stood for the creation of a peaceful, stateless anti-authoritarian society, in which people would freely join together to govern themselves. Anarchists played a significant role in both the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Spanish Revolution of 1936.
Jewish immigrants from working-class families were prominent in the anarchist movement in the US, pursuing arguments in New York’s lively radical Yiddish-language subculture. They were not ashamed of their Jewish heritage, but rejected Judaism and held an annual Yom Kippur Ball, mocking the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
Jacob Abrams was born in present-day Ukraine in 1886, coming to America in 1908. He gained fame and notoriety in the US after he organised a protest in August 1918 in reaction to Washington’s decision to send 15,000 troops to intervene in revolutionary Russia. They distributed leaflets in English and Yiddish around New York’s immigrant district, the Lower East Side, calling for workers to participate in a general strike. “An open challenge only will let the government know that not only the Russian Worker fights for freedom, but also here in America lives the spirit of Revolution.”
Abrams and his co-conspirators were swiftly arrested and tried under the espionage act, receiving sentences of up to 20 years. Their appeal went to the US Supreme Court and became famous as a trial for free speech, and a compromise was reached offering the prisoners’ release provided they leave for Russia – their birthplace – at their own expense and never return to the US. In November 1921 they set sail for the Soviet Union.
Abrams spent five years in the USSR, and quickly gained the impression that it was not the workers’ utopia that he had dreamed of. He and his wife were assigned a space in a communal apartment, a single room shared with three other people. He found people hungry and dressed in rags. He gained permission to set up Russia’s first automatic laundry, which operated out of the basement of the foreign ministry. But his protestations about inefficiencies and graft were ignored and eventually led to charges of anti-Soviet activity being brought against him. He quit his job and was immediately evicted from his home as his accommodation was tied to government service.
He eventually managed to convince the authorities that he would be of more value to the revolution if he continued his work abroad and, surprisingly, he and his wife were given passports. They left for Mexico, where Abrams became director of the Jewish Cultural Centre and published Yiddish books and newspapers, and later became a close friend of the exiled Leon Trotsky.
Sam Dolgoff was born in Vitebsk, in present-day Belarus, in 1902. His father Max had been a rebel back in Russia, where he enraged his own father, a rabbi, by renouncing religion. He left for America to avoid being conscripted into the army, and was joined by his wife and son in 1905. Sam was a socialist by the age of 14, but he soon concluded that the socialists were mere reformers who were not really interested in uprooting the capitalist system or transforming society. When he started expressing these views at meetings and publishing his ideas he was expelled from the socialist party for insubordination.
He joined the Industrial Workers of the World in 1922, becoming a migratory worker and activist. He is described as having “a strong face, a rugged Russian Jewish face, wild black hair swept back, acute black eyes behind the glasses, a prominent nose,” and apparently looked like he combed his hair with an eggbeater. Later, in New York City, he joined with a group of Italian anarchists to found the Vanguard Group, an anarcho-communist group that largely propagated the ideas of the 19th century Russian revolutionary anarchists Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, and in 1954 he helped form the Libertarian League, which held weekly forums featuring non-anarchist speakers.
In the 1960s, Dolgoff despaired of the new wave of anarchists, whom he described as “half-assed artists and poets who reject organisation and want only to play with their belly buttons”. He scorned the young radicals’ embrace of the new Cuban leader Fidel Castro, decrying him as a Stalinist dictator, and campaigned on behalf of the Cuban anarchists that Castro had attacked and exiled.
As the review concludes, both these men accomplished little, they failed to achieve the goal of an anarchist society and to attract enough believers to their cause to keep the movement alive. But “they were dreamers… their dream was a noble one and worthy of being remembered”.
For the full review, click here https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/3222/free-radicals/
The J. Abrams Book: The Life and Work of an Exceptional Personality by Jacob Abrams, trans Ruth Murphy
Left of the Left: My Memories of Sam Dolgoff by Anatole Dolgoff
My first blog post of the new year is inspired by a passage written by the Russian Jewish author Isaac Babel, which I came across while doing research for a new book that I am starting this year.
Babel was born in Odessa, in present-day Ukraine. He initially embraced the Russian Revolution, welcoming the new freedoms that Jews experienced under the Bolsheviks – the Pale of Settlement, where Jews were confined to living under the Tsars – was dissolved, quotas for schools, universities and professions were abolished and censorship ended.
Like many other artists and writers, Babel became an ardent Bolshevik, but found himself increasingly out of favour during the rule of Joseph Stalin, who led the Soviet Union from 1924. Stalin promoted the bland Socialist Realist artistic style and the exciting, experimental art and literature of the immediate pre- and post-revolutionary years was brutally supressed.
Unwilling to leave Mother Russia and follow his wife and daughter into exile in Paris, Babel was eventually shot in 1940, during Stalin’s purges, following a brief show trial. His name and work were erased in the Soviet Union until 1954, when he was rehabilitated during the so-called ‘thaw’ under Nikita Khrushchev.
The passage below is a wonderful illustration of the contradictions that people – perhaps Jews especially – felt about the revolution. It comes from the short story Gedali, which forms part of Babel’s Red Cavalry collection. The Red Cavalry stories describe snapshots from Babel’s experience as a war correspondent during the 1920 campaign by the newly formed Soviet Red Army to invade Poland and spread socialist revolution to neighbouring countries.
We sit down on some empty beer barrels. Gedali winds and unwinds his narrow beard. His top hat rocks above us like a little black tower. Warm air flows past us. The sky changes colour – tender blood pouring from an overturned bottle – and a gentle aroma of decay envelops me.
“So let’s say we say ‘yes’ to the Revolution. But does that mean that we’re supposed to say ‘no’ to the Sabbath?” Gedali begins, enmeshing me in the silken cords of his smoky eyes. “Yes to the Revolution! Yes! But the Revolution keeps hiding from Gedali and sending gunfire ahead of itself.”
“The sun cannot enter eyes that are squeezed shut,” I say to the old man, “but we shall rip open those closed eyes!”
“The Pole has closed my eyes,” the old man whispers almost inaudibly. “The Pole, that evil dog! He grabs the Jew and rips out his beard, oy, the hound! But now they are beating him, the evil dog! This is marvellous, this is the Revolution! But then the same man who beat the Pole says to me, ‘Gedali, we are requisitioning your gramophone!’ ‘But gentlemen,’ I tell the Revolution, ‘I love music!’ And what does the Revolution answer me? ‘You don’t know what you love, Gedali! I am going to shoot you, and then you’ll know, and I cannot not shoot, because I am the Revolution!’”
“The Revolution cannot not shoot, Gedali,” I tell the old man, “because it is the Revolution.”
“But my dear Pan! The Pole did shoot, because he is the counterrevolution. And you shoot because you are the Revolution. But Revolution is happiness. And happiness does not like orphans in its house. A good man does good deeds. The Revolution is the good deed done by good men. But good men do not kill. Hence the Revolution is done by bad men. But the Poles are also bad men. Who is going to tell Gedali which is the Revolution and which the counterrevolution? I have studied the Talmud. I love the commentaries of Rashi and the books of Maimonides. And there are also other people in Zhitomir who understand. And so all of us learned men fall to the floor and shout with a single voice, ‘Woes unto us, where is the sweet Revolution?’”
I have been perusing the fascinating work of Project1917, which documents day by day the thoughts and deeds of dozens of individuals who witnessed and participated in the events of the Russian Revolution.
Here are some of the views expressed exactly 100 years ago, at the end of November 1917, about events in St Petersburg and Kiev, three weeks after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Firstly, the Ukrainian-Russian writer Vladimir Korolenko, a life-long opponent of Tsarism, who initially welcomed the Revolution, but later became a critic of Bolshevik power:
“Ukraine has been pronounced a republic. There is no centralised power in Russia. The country is falling apart. Maybe the healing process will begin from the provinces? However, it's not clear if the Rada has any authority.”
Ukraine’s Central Rada had declared a Ukrainian People’s Republic opposed to Communist rule, and gained independence from Russia in 1918. But the healing process Korolenko spoke of took many years. Russia’s Civil War tore through Ukraine and the Russian ‘provinces’; peace was not restored until 1921. Korolenko spent the war years in Poltava, Ukraine, protesting against the atrocities committed by all sides in the conflict.
The writer and philosopher Vasily Rozanov echoed Korolenko’s view: “Russia has disappeared in two days. In three days at most. Even the paper Novoe Vremya couldn’t be closed faster than Russia was closed. It’s astonishing that it fell to pieces all at once. The world has never experienced anything similar. There was no Tsardom left, no Church, no army, no working class. What is left, then? Almost nothing.”
And I love this description of a trip to the theatre by the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, a granddaughter of Tsar Alexander II and cousin of Tsar Nicolas II, which illustrates the immediate changes experienced by Russia’s elite after the Revolution.
“One evening at the very beginning of the Bolshevist rule, my husband and I decided to go to the ballet. I had never before been in the Imperial Theatres otherwise than through a private entrance and in the imperial box, and I found it interesting to view the house from orchestra seats, as a private individual. We bought our tickets and went. At that time no one ever thought of dressing for the theatre so we went as we were.
“We arrived when the spectacle had already begun. During the first interval we went into the foyer. The theatre was crowded by people from all walks of life. I remember that from the beginning I was shocked by the contrast between the well-known music and performance and the unusual, odd appearance of the house.
“On our way back to our seats I looked up—it must have been for the first time—and saw the box on the right side of the stage which from time immemorial had been occupied by the imperial family. Framed by the heavy silk draperies, in the arm-chairs with the gilded backs, there now sat several sailors, their caps on their dishevelled heads and with them their ladies in woollen, coloured kerchiefs.
“All things considered, there was nothing unusual in this sight, but nevertheless it affected me powerfully. My sight grew dim; I felt myself about to fall, and groped for the hand of my husband, who was walking beside me. Beyond that, I remember nothing. I came to myself after a thirty-minute fainting spell, the first and the last in my life, lying upon the hard oilcloth couch of the theatre's infirmary. The strange face of a doctor was bending over me and the room was filled with people who must have come to stare.”
The Grand Duchess escaped from Russia, via Ukraine, in July 1918 and led a peripatetic life, settling in Paris, New York, Argentina and finally Germany. Many close members of her family who remained in Russia were murdered by the Bolsheviks.
Today marks the centenary of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. As recent media broadcasts have repeatedly told us, Lenin’s men seized power in the autumn of 1917 and the world’s first communist state was born. But the reality was not so simple. Across parts of the Russian Empire the revolution unleashed a brutal civil war and it was several years before the Bolsheviks consolidated power. One such area was the territory of present-day Ukraine, my ancestral home.
The fall of the Russian Provincial Government in Petrograd on 7 November 1917 (25 October according to the Russian calendar of the time) prompted a power struggle in Kiev that was to last for four years. The abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917 had led to the formation of Ukraine’s Central Rada, or parliament. In November, following the Bolshevik Revolution, it declared a Ukrainian People’s Republic opposed to Communist rule, and gained independence from Russia in 1918. In the years that followed, the government in Kiev changed hands so many times that it became difficult to keep track of who was supposed to be in charge.
My family came from the village of Pavoloch, about 60 miles from Kiev. Here the October Revolution gave way to anarchy, as newly formed ‘banda’ – or armed factions – roamed the land. Some fought for Communism, others for Nationalism, Anarchism, Freedom or Holy Russia. The names of their leaders instilled fear: Petlyura, Makhno, Zeleny, Denikin.
Later, in 1919 Pavoloch repeatedly became a sea of carnage as one banda after another passed through, stealing, raping, pillaging and killing. The White Army, under General Denikin, was the most ruthless of all. His professional soldiers were armed by western powers, including Britain, which wanted to see the Communists defeated. The Whites hated the Communists, but more than anything else they hated the Jews. They barged into Jewish homes, drew their swords and cut inhabitants down regardless of age or sex. Anyone who tried to escape was shot in the back as they fled. They threw grenades into cellars, blowing up entire families; poured petrol over synagogues and set them alight; raped thousands of women.
One day five White Army soldiers burst into my family’s home. They searched the house for money, kicking down the door of the warehouse and smashing floorboards. One of the soldiers dealt my great-great grandfather a blow with his rifle butt and watched him crumple to the floor, then kicked him repeatedly in the stomach. They hustled the old man onto the table, pull his scuffed leather belt from around his waist and force his head into the noose they made with it. Then they hanged him from the meat hook on the kitchen ceiling.
After the soldiers left, the frayed old belt snapped in two and my great-great grandfather landed with an almighty thump on the hard stone floor. He had survived!
This is only one of around a dozen terrible incidents that affected my family during the Civil War. Here is Canadian scholar Orest Subtelny’s assessment of the time:
“In 1919 total chaos engulfed Ukraine. Indeed, in the modern history of Europe no country experienced such complete anarchy, bitter civil strife, and total collapse of authority as did Ukraine at this time. Six different armies-– those of the Ukrainians, the Bolsheviks, the Whites, the Entente [French], the Poles and the anarchists – operated on its territory. Kiev changed hands five times in less than a year. Cities and regions were cut off from each other by the numerous fronts. Communications with the outside world broke down almost completely. The starving cities emptied as people moved into the countryside in their search for food.”
The Bolsheviks finally secured power in the region in 1921 and the following year it became part of Soviet Ukraine.
The Ukrainian city of Kharkiv recently played host to an art exhibition based on a novella by the Yiddish writer Kalman Zingman (1889-1929). Published in 1918, In Edenia, a City of the Future, imagines a utopian vision of Kharkov projected 25 years into the future – to 1943. Edenia is a city where Jews, Ukrainians and other communities live side by side in peace and harmony, free to establish their own laws. Material needs are provided for with no need for money. The city is serviced by ‘airbuses’ and has fountains that keep the temperature at an ambient level year round. Children celebrate Jewish holidays in lush public gardens.
The theme of utopia was a common one among Russian writers and artists of the early 20th century, in a Futurist movement drawn towards the dynamism of modern technology and urbanisation. But it is an unusual topic for Yiddish literature, which more commonly focuses on the past or present.
Photo: Kharkiv, circa 1900.
Zingman’s projection of a utopian vision to the 1940s conflicts terribly with the reality of that time – the Nazi invasion and the murder of an estimated one million Jews in Ukraine. The book was written during Ukraine’s brief flirtation with independence following the Russian Revolution. The Ukrainian People’s Republic of 1917-1921 was the first modern state to have a Ministry for Jewish Affairs, and Yiddish became a state language.
But despite this, the era, and particularly the year 1919 – the year after Zingman’s work was published – was marked by the most devastating pogroms, in which tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered across Ukraine. Some put the number of deaths as high as 100,000.
And today the Jewish population of the region has been torn apart by the horrific war in eastern Ukraine, with a new diaspora fleeing the region for other parts of the country or abroad, many departing for Israel.
Nearly 100 years on from the publication of Zingman’s novella, an international group of contemporary artists came together to create works of art for a museum in his imaginary city. The exhibition presents the artists’ work as an invitation to view our dreams from various angles. In the story, the protagonist Zalman Kindishman returns to his native city from Palestine and visits the art gallery. “He…looked at the figure sculptures of Kritsenshteyn, Lisitski and Roza Fayngold, then he went to the top level. The door closed behind him, and he looked for a very long time, thought for a long time, and got lost in his ruminations.”
At a time when Ukrainians are divided in their views of their Soviet past, of nationalist ‘heroes’, and of their country’s present and future allegiance with Europe or with Russia, the exhibition’s curators see it as an invitation to examine the country’s multicultural history and its early Soviet dreams or nightmares in the light of today’s political challenges.
With thanks to the Calvert Journal for some of the content of this article www.calvertjournal.com
One hundred years ago
2017 marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution, an event that heralded the country's 1918-21 Civil War and a period of terrible suffering for my family and others who lived through it. This blog began as an investigation of current events affecting Jews in Ukraine today and comparing them with historical events from a century ago. It is broadening to include personal experiences and my exploration into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.