January 26, 1940 is the date on which Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel, widely considered one of the finest stylists of the 20th century, was tried and convicted on a variety of trumped-up charges, in a Soviet legal proceeding that lasted all of 20 minutes. He was executed the next day in Moscow by firing squad.
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Isaac Emanuilovich Babel was born in Odessa, in the Russian Empire (today Ukraine), on July 13, 1894. Although his family soon moved from the Moldavanka quarter of the city, and he grew up in more well-off environs, it was this working-class Jewish section that served as the background and inspiration for many of his tales. Similarly, although Babel described his family as “destitute and muddle-headed,” his father, Manus Babel, was an affluent seller of farm machinery. He and Isaac’s mother, Feyga, had their son homeschooled by tutors after the boy was rejected from the school of their choice due to its Jewish quota.
Babel was educated in both traditional Jewish subjects and secular ones, and, by the time he was 16, was enamored of modern French literature, particularly the work of Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant, and even was writing stories in French (he wrote a short story in 1922 named for the latter). He also translated the Yiddish stories of Sholom Aleichem into Russian in the 1920s.
His first short story was published in 1915. By the following year he was living in St. Petersburg and had met the writer and editor Maxim Gorky. In his autobiography, Babel declared, “I owe everything to that meeting and still pronounce the name of Alexey Maksimovich Gorky with love and admiration.” He claimed that Gorky urged him to immerse himself in life, and write from his experiences.
In 1920, he served as a correspondent with the 1st Cavalry Army in the Soviet-Polish War, out of which he produced first the nonfiction “1920 Diary,” and later “The Red Cavalry,” a book of stories.
By the late 1920s and early ’30s, Babel was an acclaimed and prominent Soviet author. In 1926, he published his book of short stories “Odessa Tales,” many of which centered around a colorful Jewish leader of a criminal gang named Benya Krik. That later served as the basis for the play “Sunset,” as well as for a film named for Krik, with Babel writing the screenplay.
Soon, however, Soviet realism was in, and Babel’s literary formalism was out, and he stopped publishing, even telling the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934 that he was becoming “the master of a new literary genre, the genre of silence.” The following year, a new play was cancelled by authorities while it was still in rehearsals.
In the meantime, Babel’s first wife, Yevgenia Gronfein, had relocated to Paris, where he visited and considering staying; the two had a child, who, as Nathalie Babel Brown, became one of the main scholars of his work. Back in Moscow, Babel had children with two other women, and also became close with, and perhaps had an affair with, Yevgenia Feinberg, the wife of Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the secret police (the NKVD).
It was Yezhov’s successor, Lavrenti Beria, however, who ordered Babel’s arrest, on May 15, 1939. At the same time, the police confiscated 15 manuscript folders, 11 notebooks and seven notepads belonging to him; they were never seen again; in 1988, the KGB announced that it had no record of the papers.
Once he was under arrest, Babel’s name disappeared completely from public life. During his confinement, he was apparently tortured, and he confessed to being a spy and a Trotskyite counterrevolutionary terrorist. He was tried in Beria’s chambers on January 26, at which time he rescinded his confession, saying: “I have never been a spy. I never allowed any action against the Soviet Union ... I was forced to make false accusations against myself and others ... I am asking for only one thing – let me finish my work.”
Isaac Babel was found guilty of all the charges against him and shot to death the following day.
His official rehabilitation began in 1954, during the rule of Nikita Khrushchev, when his conviction was declared annulled. His extant writings were published in full editions in Russia only during the past dozen years.