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Isaac Babel’s Tales of a Jewish Cossack, in a New Translation

December 30, 2015 | Nirmal Dass
About the author:

First published in 1932, Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry is a series of vignettes told from the point of view of Lyutov, a Jewish political officer embedded in a Cossack regiment of the Red Army during the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921). The book, based on the author’s own experiences, was the major work of his short career. Reviewing a new translation by Boris Dralyuk, Nirmal Dass writes:

Red Cavalry . . . depicts a struggle between the old, humanist culture and the new Communist regime. The former is the result of slow, organic growth; the latter a violent imposition of hurried social change. The old culture is embodied in religion, especially by the Jews whom Lyutov finds strange and even abhorrent (perhaps as a would-be Cossack and certainly as a Communist): “Jews in torn frock-coats were quarrelling in the square, dragging each other about in incomprehensible blindness.” And yet he too is a Jew—he too possesses a deep affinity for the old humanist ideals of laboring in the world of ideas, of contributing to learning and studying tradition.

The new Russia that he is fighting to build is, ultimately, an alien beast: “And monstrous Russia, as improbable as a flock of clothing lice, went stamping in bast shoes along both sides of the carriages.” He knows that the Revolution must destroy this old culture, and he is a willing helpmate in its destruction, yet this knowledge devastates him: “They fell upon me in a scarce, sorrowful rain—a page from the Song of Songs and the cartridges from a revolver.”

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