The most terrible pogrom in the history of Jewish Odessa took place on October 18-22, 1905, when there were some 175,000 Jews living in the city. It enveloped the entire city and the bloody [activity] spread from the central streets to the outlying districts, primarily Moldovanka, which had a large and impoverished poor Jewish population. For three days and nights the crowds, which included inhabitants of the surrounding villages, robbed shops, destroyed houses, tortured and killed Jews with knives, daggers and firearms. Bursting with rage, and spurred on by the knowledge that they were assured impunity, the thugs did not spare women, the elderly, or children. The pogrom left 299 victims in its wake, from Isser Zeltzer, aged one and a half to 85 year-old Shimon Tsmelzon. Several thousand Jews managed to escaped from the to the huge yard of the city's oldest Jewish hospital, which was surrounded by solid stone buildings. The wounded were also brought to the hospital for treatment.
Fighters from the Jewish self-defense groups displayed great courage in rescuing people often at risk to their own lives. In most cases when the self-defense groups appeared the mob would scatter, but when troops and police arrived they would return and continue with their pillaging. Invaluable assistance in rescuing Jews was provided by voluntary medical groups that included university students and marine college cadets and, it is important to note, often contained non-Jewish citizens of Odessa. Similarly, there were people of various nationalities among the doctors from the ambulance station, who went to the areas affected by the pogroms under rain of fire, giving first aid to the wounded and transporting them to the hospitals. Documents show that among the doctors who helped the wounded was the founder of the ambulance station, Dr. Yakov Bardach, whose fame spread far beyond the city. After the 1905 pogrom, there was a marked increase in the emigration of Jews from Odessa.
The stories covered in this post are from the sections "Stories, 1925 - 1938" and "Early Stories" in The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, edited by Nathalie Babel and translated by Peter Constantine.
Similar to Babel’s “formal” collections of stories, these varied stories paint a broad picture of life in Russia. The easiest way for me to touch on these stories is to address a few of the major themes which show up in much of Babel’s work.
Jewish/Russian identity and Babel’s detachment
Babel highlights the Jewish/Russian identity question in many of his stories but his usual tone is detachment (similar to the Red Calvary Stories in which his Jewish narrator rides with the Coassacks). When he does appear to lean in one direction, it tends to be toward the Russian identity. The major exceptions are “The Story of My Dovecote” and “First Love”, two of his more powerful stories, which weave factual and shocking events with a semi-fictional first-person account. Compounding the ambiguity is that the family in these stories are named Babel. “The Story of My Dovecote” starts by highlighting the quota system for Jewish students and the bribing that occurred to enroll the wealthier students. Upon achieving a place in the class, the fictional little Babel goes to buy doves for his long-promised dovecote on the day that a new constitution was issued, an excuse for anti-Semitic pogroms to take place. The ten year old narrator does not understand what he sees but relays it in chilling detail. He witnesses his grandfather’s dead body, fish (symbolically) stuffed in his pants fly and his mouth (one of the perches still alive and wiggling). Still in all this Babel adds some humor in the twisted actions of Makarenko, a legless and leprous old man from whom the local boys affectionately bought cigarettes and other treats. Makarenko and his wife are joining the looting going on all around them but he bemoans their meager haul: "'Bonnets!' Makarenko shouted, choked, and made a sound as if he were sobbing. 'Obviously God has chosen me to bear the Cross, Katyusha! People are carting off whole bales of cloth—these people get nice and proper things, and what do we get? Bonnets!'"
After Makarenko kills the little Babel’s doves by smashing them against the boy’s face, the narrator finds the rest of his family hiding at the tax inspector’s house. It is there that the young Babel’s “First Love” lives, and the burgeoning sexuality of the narrator toward his adult protector invokes a parallel to the state of the Jewish citizens during the pogrom—impotent, unknowing, and bitter at second-class citizenship. Worse, however, is his father's humiliation that the young narrator witnesses. His father, dazed and disoriented after the murder of his father and the looting of his store, kneels in the dirt before an apathetic Cossack officer. The soldier, trying to appear helpful, offers no assistance as the nearby family store is being looted. The Jewish/Russian identity is also explored in “Karl-Yankel” in which the role of circumcision becomes a matter of the state instead of a religious matter. In “Odessa” Babel paints the Jews located there with a broad friendly brush:
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. 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. You might not be able to budge these Jews, but there’s a whole lot you can learn from them.”In highlighting the question of Russian vs. Jewish identity, Babel also shows the limited ways Jews had available to succeed in society (which may be one reason critics of his Odessa Stories feels he romanticizes his gangsters since they succeed on their own terms, outside the norms of regular society). The usual portrayed method of escape or success is through education. In “The Public Library” Babel describes “an immutable feature of every public library in the Russian Empire: a sleeping Jew.” The pressure to study and succeed wore him out, as also characterized by the ten-year-old narrator in “The Story of My Dovecote” deliriously shouting lines of Pushkin during his examination. One exception for succeeding used in his stories (which is unique to Odessa) was learning the violin from the teacher who had trained many prominent violinists. The story “The Awakening”, which also includes a humiliation of the father but this time at the hands of the narrator/child, shows the family's attempt at getting the child to succeed with violin lesson. In “At Grandmother’s” the narrator has his grandmother cynically summarize why the boy should study: “Study and you can have everything—wealth and glory. You must know everything. Everyone will fall on their knees before you and bow to you. Let them envy you. Don’t believe in people. Don’t have friends. Don’t give them your money. Don’t give them your heart!”
All these instructions are mocked in another story, “In the Basement”, where the young narrator is an aspiring story teller. Actually he was “a boy who told lies.” Once he has the friendship of the smartest boy in the class, whose family has connections and money, the narrator has to figure out how to mask his family’s poverty and gloss over the lies he has told about them. Everything comically falls apart while the narrator shouts from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, his family repeatedly stabbing him in the back.
Religion in general
In one of Babel’s first stories he delves deeply into religion. “Old Shloyme” looks at a family's reaction to the imposed renunciation of their Jewish religion. The son has no problem renouncing, eager to keep what he has amassed and willingly takes the “Russian first and only” mantle. His father, never a religious person, refuses to renounce his faith and hangs himself instead. An exceptional fable, “The Sin of Jesus”, provides a new twist in looking at Babel’s view of religion. The story centers on Arina, a pregnant hotel worker who is at the beck and call of boarders and other employees. After receiving a strong beating, she turns to Jesus to assist her in her desperate situation. Among other questions, Jesus asks “(H)ow about if you led a pure life?” to which Arina replies “Do me a favor and spare me such advice!” Jesus comes up with a compromise, providing Arina with an angel to satisfy her sexually but without the risk of conceiving. But the angel Alfred, whose wings “were made of infants’ sighs”, was crushed by Arina’s swollen belly. An infuriated Jesus swears he will do nothing to help her. Just before Arina is to give birth, she appeals to heaven one more time, holding up her pregnant belly with fresh marks from the beatings she receives. Jesus regrets his earlier action and asks for forgiveness from Arina. “’I will not forgive you, Jesus Christ!’ Arina replied. ‘I will not!’” Just as situations can be inverted in other stories, Babel has humans refusing to grant forgiveness to a deity that causes so much pain and suffering. The humorous tale “Shabos-Nakhamu” provides different sources of man’s suffering—he has no one to blame but himself. The story relays a couple’s superstitious beliefs, which are preyed upon by a crafty Jew who takes advantage of their credulity.
Problems in Russia
Babel had planned on a novel tentatively titled Velikaya Krinitsa, but only two chapter have survived—“Gapa Guzhva” and “Kolyvushka”. Both detail the cost of collectivization under Stalin. In “Kolyvushka” the farmer, seeing his farm and equipment about to be handed to someone else destroys his own possessions, essentially a criminal act against the state. Gapa Guzhva finds out, much to her chagrin, that whores like her will be put to other (more productive?) use. The political themes in the stories don’t pull any punches against the government. Atrocities abound in “The Road,” from a teacher being shot in the face for having a politically incorrect signature on his papers (additionally being castrated, his severed genitals shoved in his newlywed’s mouth) to the pervasive desperation in “Mama, Rimma, and Alla.” The latter tale is a rather unremarkable story until you get to the (intended) abortion scene. Sometimes it is hard to reconcile Babel’s courtship of Soviet power with his critical stories. Maybe, just like having multiple families in real life, he was caught up in the current moment to the exclusion of everything else. In the story “Inspiration”, one man’s dedicated work inspires depression in the narrator when he sees the unremarkable output. It is difficult not to read this as thinly veiled toward those in power, whose work causes much of the desperation Babel describes in so many of his stories. But maybe that isn’t the intent at all. Babel is such a contradictory character that lurks so far beneath the surface in his stories that it is difficult to discern how deep the meaning is to go. One story not needing interpretation is the blunt “Petroleum”, which documents the unworkable nature of the country’s five-year plans. The implausible goals are made more ironic when the uncontrollable present is poignantly highlighted.
Writing about writing
One last topic I’ll mention from these stories is Babel’s description of the writing process. After reviewing a co-worker’s attempt at translating Maupassant in “Guy de Maupassant”, the Babel-like narrator notes: “This work isn’t as bad as it might seem. When a phrase is born, it is both good and bad at the same time. The secret of its success rests in a crux that is barely discernible. One’s fingertips must grasp the key, gently warming it. And then the key must be turned once, not twice.” Upon reading his corrections to the co-worker the next day, she marveled at his improvements. Responding to how he did it, the narrator responds: “I spoke to her of style, of an army of words, and army in which every type of weapon is deployed. No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.” [Aside—this point is emphasized several times in other Babel stories. “Justice in Parentheses” ends with “Then I can say I put the period where it belongs.” The story “Chink”—which could have been renamed “Kink”—ends with the single-word sentence “Period.”] Once again, Babel is full of contradictions. Immediately after this claim, he sensuously describes his co-worker listening to his improved translation…it seems a period in the right places isn’t the only thing to icily pierce the heart (or other body parts) better than an iron spike. But then the end of “Guy de Maupassant” uses four iron spikes to full effect: “I read the book through to the end and got up from my bed. The fog had come to the window, hiding the universe. My heart constricted. I was touched by a premonition of truth."
In “Odessa”, Babel provides a key to his oft-used imagery: “(I)n Russian literature there haven’t been so far any real, clear, cheerful descriptions of the sun”. The imagery of the sun or of sunset fills Babel’s stories, usually clearly but not always cheerful. In conjunction with that imagery, cold and heat often appear in setting the mood or tone. Colors are also used to relay more than imagery: grays usually indicate melancholy or a flatness of spirit, while vibrant colors signify a strong emotion (whether for good or bad). An additional story where Babel uses literature within his stories is in the story “An Evening with the Empress.” Browsing through the books of Empress Maria (wife of Czar Alexander III) chronicled her life in great detail to the narrator, more than any biography possibly could have.
While there is so many possible things to cover in Babel’s work, I’ll close with a source that seems to underlie some of his work. Haim Nahman Bialik’s poem "In the City of Slaughter" was an anguished response to the Kishinev pogrom. While detailing the actions carried out, Bialik also decries the timidity and acquiescence of the Jewish response. Babel doesn't explicitly goes as far as Bialik, but there is a definite undercurrent at times that feels like he is on the same page, describing both atrocities and the meek responses to them. It might help explain or bridge between the two stories on the 1905 pogrom (“The Story of My Dovecote” and “First Love”) with “The Sin of Jesus”. Here is the end of Bialik's poem, something I would not have been surprised to read in Babel's work:
What is thy business here, O son of man?
Rise, to the desert flee!
The cup of affliction thither bear with thee!
Take thou they soul, rend it in many a shred!
With impotent rage, thy heart deform!
Thy tear upon the barren boulders shed
And send thy bitter cry into the storm.