Red Cavalry

Red Cavalry

by Isaac Babel, Boris Dralyuk

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"Amazing not only as literature but as biography." —Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

One of the great masterpieces of Russian literature, the Red Cavalry cycle retains today the shocking freshness that made Babel's reputation when the stories were first published in the 1920s. Using his own experiences as a journalist and propagandist with the Red Army during the war against Poland, Babel brings to life an astonishing cast of characters from the exuberant, violent era of early Soviet history: commissars and colonels, Cossacks and peasants, and among them the bespectacled, Jewish writer/intellectual, observing it all and trying to establish his role in the new Russia.

Drawn from the acclaimed, award-winning Complete Works of Isaac Babel, this volume includes all of the Red Cavalry cycle; Babel's 1920 diary, from which the material for the fiction was drawn; and his preliminary sketches for the stories—the whole constituting a fascinating picture of a great writer turning life into art.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

The stories in this classic collection are set in the summer of 1920, when Babel was 25 and sent to cover the Polish-Soviet War for the Red Cavalryman newspaper. Sympathetic to the revolution yet having a satiric eye, he describes the newspaper’s writers who “roam about in the barren dust of the rear and spread the riot and fire of their leaflets.” Babel was a Jew assigned to a Cossack regiment; his stand-in first-person narrator overcomes the soldiers’ animosity when, in the story “My First Goose,” he breaks a fowl’s neck and orders it to be roasted up. In “The Story of a Horse” and “The Story of a Horse, Continued,” a dispute between a squadron commander and a division commander over a horse produces an exchange of letters full of heartfelt (though jargony) prose and brutal honesty—the commanders have more of an emotional connection to the horses than to other people. Casual violence (“ grabbed her hair, bent back her head and smashed her face with his fist”) alternates with beauty, sometimes in the same sentence (“We fled without staining our swords crimson with the wretched blood of traitors”). The stories, which are often not much more than anecdotes, mostly focus on characters like Apolek, an itinerant painter; squadron commander Trunov; and a rabbi in Zhitomir, as well as the occasional flashes of battle. This translation is of the first 1926 edition, before censorship and the author’s own revisions altered the text. (May)

From the Publisher

"One of the great stylistic accomplishments of the 20th century... [and] Mr. Dralyuk’s is simply the best translation available." — The Wall Street Journal

"A classic series of wartime sketches in a translation that emphasizes their lyricism and dark comedy. . . Though the stories are brief and deliver a clear message about the frustrations of battle, Babel's rhetoric is never plainly parable- or fablelike; he uses a blunt realism to sketch out scenes that can have a variety of resonances. Writing about war has changed with the times, but war hasn't, and these stories from nearly a century ago remain grimly current. Short but emotionally deep studies of life during wartime." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

"Red Cavalry remains one of the most powerfully detailed and revealing depictions of a legendary people living through one of the most famously violent experiments of the modern age. . . Babel’s characters are stoic yet passionate, savage yet sophisticated, prone to blind, obstinate rage in one moment, and to sensitive reflection and acts of kindness in the next." — MAKE Literary Magazine

"Red Cavalry is one of Russia’s great books, up there with Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Turgenev, Gogol, Pushkin, Gorky, Solzhenitsyn. Babel’s brief career is marked by the depth, truth, and vitality of what he was able to complete. Boris Dralyuk’s translation will earn Babel new admirers and place him securely in this canon for readers of Russian literature in English." — Los Angeles Review of Books

"Casual violence ('[he] grabbed her hair, bent back her head and smashed her face with his fist') alternates with beauty, sometimes in the same sentence ('We fled without staining our swords crimson with the wretched blood of traitors')… This translation is of the first 1926 edition, before censorship and the author’s own revisions altered the text." — Publishers Weekly

"Babel’s narrative concision and his ability to shift registers, from the prosaic to the poetic and back, are riveting. . . Babel prefigures the sensibilities of David Simon, juxtaposing grit, gore, humor, and beauty—in a very different kind of ghetto."  — Daniel Berchenko, Publishers Weekly Staff Pick

"I had read Babel before, but never realized what I was missing. This was the first time I felt that I really had read Babel. It was just a total experience." — Corey Robin, Cullman Center Fellow, for New York Public Library blog

"Fine writing." — East-West Review

"Babel was a literary chameleon – able to vividly capture the voices and characters he met during the brutal years of the Polish-Soviet War (1919-21), where nations barely born were fighting over borders soon to be forgotten. The stories here are gory and profane, funny and disturbing, filled with the blood, anguish and up-close horrors of one of the last wars in Europe fought with sabers and horses... Red Cavalry is an indictment of the banality of armed conflict through the voices of commissars and idealists, revolutionaries and soldiers alike. It should be required reading in every high school, in every nation where people still think wars are worth fighting." - Paul Richardson, Russian Life Magazine 

"Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, now granted an afterlife in Boris Dralyuk’s lyrical and fluid translation…" - Nirmal Dass, First Things  

Deborah Eisenberg -

If you want to read spectacularly graceful distillations of spectacularly intense, complex, ephemeral experience, you could hardly do better than stories in Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry.

James Salter

From the very first story, Red Cavalry opens like a cannon shot. In glorious, expressionist description, a cavalry division has forded the Zbrucz River at night…Amid beauty, amid courage and even warmth that are often overwhelming, there are butchery and murder, acts that can never be forgiven, only forgotten, and Babel does not let you forget.

James Wood - The New Republic

Marvelously subtle, tragic, and often comic commentaries on the desecration of revolutionary activity.

Richard Price - New York Times Book Review

My favorite writer of fiction is Isaac Babel, primarily for one book, Red Cavalry. I find [it] endlessly haunting for its blunt yet somehow elusive style…it invariably leaves me feeling off balance and on edge. And I can't stop rereading it.

James Salter - Los Angeles Times Book Review

From the very first story, Red Cavalry opens like a cannon shot. In glorious, expressionist description, a cavalry division has forded the Zbrucz River at night…Amid beauty, amid courage and even warmth that are often overwhelming, there are butchery and murder, acts that can never be forgiven, only forgotten, and Babel does not let you forget.”

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2015-03-03
A classic series of wartime sketches in a translation that emphasizes their lyricism and dark comedy. Babel (1894-1940) first published this collection in 1926, after serving as a journalist in the Russian army during the Polish-Soviet War of 1920. It is an unvarnished vision of the ugliness of war, and his anti-propagandistic candor as a writer would ultimately lead to his death in Stalin's purges. If literary immortality is small consolation, there's no denying these stories' enduring power. The first story, "Crossing the Zbrucz," features its soldier narrator looking for a moment's rest in a house before realizing the man sleeping beside him is dead, "[h]is gullet…ripped out, his face…hacked in two." "Salt," one of the collection's most emotionally brutalizing tales, is styled as a letter to the editor from a Cossack soldier, boastfully recalling how he cruelly dealt with a woman who pleaded for safety on their train by pretending the bag of salt in her arms was a baby; in little more than five pages Babel manages nuanced symbolism, a voice of callous inhumanity, and a grotesque vision of herd mentality. Translator Dralyuk writes in the foreword about his interest in emphasizing Babel's poetic style, which emerges clearly in "My First Goose," about a soldier effortfully trying to put Lenin's words into a shallow act of violence, observing how "my heart, crimson with murder, creaked and bled." Though the stories are brief and deliver a clear message about the frustrations of battle, Babel's rhetoric is never plainly parable- or fablelike; he uses a blunt realism to sketch out scenes that can have a variety of resonances. Writing about war has changed with the times, but war hasn't, and these stories from nearly a century ago remain grimly current. Short but emotionally deep studies of life during wartime.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781782271123
Publisher: Steerforth Press
Publication date: 05/12/2015
Series: Pushkin Collection
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Red Cavalry

By Isaac Babel, Boris Dralyuk

Pushkin Press

Copyright © 1926 Isaac Babel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78227-093-5



The sixth division commander reported that Novograd-Volynsk was taken today at dawn. The staff has moved out of Krapivno and our transport sprawls in a noisy rearguard along the highway that runs from Brest to Warsaw and was built on the bones of peasant men by Nicholas the First.

Fields of scarlet poppies blossom around us, a midday breeze plays in the yellowing rye, and virgin buckwheat rises on the horizon like the wall of a distant monastery. The quiet Volyn bends. Volyn recedes from us into the pearly mist of birch groves and creeps into the flowery hills, its feeble arms getting tangled in thickets of hops. An orange sun rolls across the sky like a severed head, a gentle light glitters in the ravines of clouds, and the banners of sunset flutter over our heads. The scent of yesterday's blood and dead horses seeps into the evening coolness. The blackened Zbrucz roars, twisting the foamy knots of its rapids. The bridges are destroyed and we are fording the river. A stately moon lies on the waves. The horses sink up to their backs and sonorous streams trickle between hundreds of horses' legs. Someone is drowning, loudly disparaging the Mother of God. The river is strewn with the black squares of carts, filled with rumbling, whistling, and songs that thunder over snakes of moonlight and glistening pits.

Late at night we arrive in Novograd. In my assigned billet I find a pregnant woman, along with two red-haired, thin-necked Jews; a third Jew is sleeping, huddled up against the wall with the blanket over his head. In my assigned room I find two ransacked wardrobes, scraps of women's fur coats on the floor, human excrement and shards of the sacred plate that Jews use once a year—on Passover.

"Clean this up," I say to the woman. "You live in filth, hosts ..."

The two Jews spring into action. They jump around on felt soles, picking debris off the floor. They jump silently, monkey-like, like a Japanese circus act, their necks swelling and swivelling. They spread a torn feather mattress on the floor and I lie down, facing the wall, next to the third, sleeping Jew. Fearful poverty closes in above my bed.

Silence has killed everything off, and only the moon, with its blue hands clasping its round, sparkling, carefree head, tramps about under the window.

I stretch my numbed legs. I lie on the torn feather mattress and fall asleep. I dream of the Sixth Division commander. He's chasing the brigade commander on a heavy stallion and plants two bullets in his eyes. The bullets pierce the brigade commander's head, and both his eyes fall to the ground.

"Why'd you turn the brigade back?" Savitsky, the Sixth Division commander, shouts at the wounded man—and here I wake up, because the pregnant woman's fingers are fumbling over my face.

"Pan," she says to me. "You're screaming in your sleep, thrashing around. I'll make your bed in the other corner, because you're shoving my papa ..."

She raises her skinny legs and round belly off the floor and removes the blanket from the huddled sleeper. It's a dead old man, flat on his back. His gullet is ripped out, his face is hacked in two, and blue blood sits in his beard like a hunk of lead.

"Pan," says the Jewess, giving the feather mattress a shake. "The Poles were slashing him and he kept begging them, 'Kill me in the back yard so my daughter doesn't see me die.' But they did it their way—he died in this room, thinking of me. And now you tell me," the woman said suddenly with terrible force, "you tell me where else in this whole world you'll find a father like my father ..."

Novograd-Volynsk, July 1920



Yesterday I took a report to the military commissar, who was staying at the house of a priest who had run off. In the kitchen I met Pani Eliza, the Jesuit's housekeeper. She gave me amber tea with biscuits. Her biscuits smelt like the crucifixion. They contained the sly sap and sweet-scented fury of the Vatican.

The bells in the church next door were roaring, set into motion by the maddened ringer. The evening was full of midsummer stars. Pani Eliza, shaking her attentive grey tresses, kept slipping me biscuits, and I took pleasure in the Jesuit food.

The old Polish woman called me "Pan", grey old men with ossified ears stood to attention near the threshold, and somewhere in the serpentine twilight a monk's cassock was fluttering. The pater ran off, but he left his assistant—Pan Romuald.

A snuffling eunuch with the body of a giant, Romuald addressed us respectfully, as "comrades". He'd draw a yellow finger across the map, tracing the circles of the Polish rout. Overcome with raspy enthusiasm, he'd recount his fatherland's wounds. Let gentle oblivion engulf all memory of Romuald, who betrayed us without pity and was shot dead in passing. But that evening his narrow cassock flitted at every door-curtain, furiously sweeping all the roads and grinning at anyone who wanted vodka. That evening the monk's shadow tailed me relentlessly. He would have made bishop, Pan Romuald—if he hadn't been a spy.

I was drinking rum with him. The spirit of a mysterious way of life still flickered beneath the ruins of the priest's house, and its insidious temptations weakened me. O crucifixes as tiny as a courtesan's amulets, the parchment of papal bulls, and the satin of women's letters worn thin in the blue silk of waistcoats! ...

I can see you from here, faithless monk in a lilac robe—your hands swollen, your soul as tender and pitiless as the soul of a cat; I see the wounds of your God, oozing seed, a sweet-smelling poison that intoxicates virgins.

We were drinking rum, waiting for the military commissar to return from headquarters, but he wouldn't show. Romuald dropped down in a corner and fell asleep. He sleeps and trembles, and outside the window the garden path shimmers beneath the black passion of the sky. Thirsty roses sway in the darkness. Bursts of green lightning flare in the church's domes. A naked corpse sprawls at the foot of the slope. Moonbeams stream across the dead legs jutting wide apart.

There's your Poland, there's the haughty grief of the Commonwealth! A violent intruder, I spread a louse-ridden mattress in a temple abandoned by the clergyman and rest my head on folios full of printed hosannas to His Excellency, the illustrious chief of state, Józef Pilsudski.

Hordes of beggars roll onto your ancient cities, O Poland, and a song calling all serfs to unite thunders above them—and woe to you, Commonwealth, woe to you, Prince Radziwill, and to you, Prince Sapieha, who rose for but an hour! ...

My commissar doesn't show. I look for him at headquarters, in the garden, in the church. The church gates are open; I go in and am met by the sudden glare of two silver skulls on the lid of a broken coffin. In terror I rush downstairs, to the crypt. An oak staircase leads from there to the altar. And I see a multitude of lights darting high above, up in the very dome. I see the commissar, the chief of the Special Section, and Cossacks with candles in their hands. They respond to my weak cry and lead me out of the basement.

The skulls, which turn out to be carvings on the church bier, no longer scare me, and we all continue the search, because this was a search, which began after piles of military uniforms were discovered in the priest's rooms.

Sparkling with the horses' muzzles embroidered on our cuffs, whispering, and rattling with our spurs, we go round the echoing building with guttering wax in our hands. Mothers of God, studded with precious stones, follow us with their pink, mouse-like pupils, flames pulse in our fingers, and rectangular shadows writhe on the statues of St Peter, St Francis and St Vincent, on their rosy cheeks and curly beards coloured with carmine.

We go round and search. Ivory buttons spring beneath our fingers; icons that are split down the middle move apart, revealing vaults in caves that blossom with mould. This temple is ancient and full of secrets. Its glossy walls conceal secret passages, niches and trapdoors that swing open without making a sound.

O foolish priest, who hung the bras of his parishioners on the nails in the Saviour's hands! In the Holy of Holies we found a suitcase stuffed with gold coins, a morocco-leather bag of banknotes and Parisian jewellers' cases with emerald rings.

Later we counted the money in the commissar's room. Columns of gold, carpets of banknotes, a gusty wind blowing on the candle flames, the crow-like bewilderment in Pani Eliza's eyes, Romuald's thunderous laughter and the endless roar of the bells struck by Pan Robacki, the maddened ringer.

"Away," I told myself. "Away from these winking Madonnas deceived by soldiers ..."



Here is a letter home, dictated to me by Kurdyukov, a boy in our detachment. It doesn't deserve oblivion. I copied it out, without any embellishment, and pass it on word for word, in accordance with the truth.

Dear mama Yevdokiya Fyodorovna. In the first lines of this letter I hasten to inform you that, thank the good Lord, I'm alive and well, which same I'd like to hear from you. And I bow low before you, my white brow on the damp earth ... (There follows a list of kith, kin, godparents. We'll omit it and proceed to the second paragraph.)

Dear mama Yevdokiya Fyodorovna Kurdyukova. I hasten to write that I'm in Comrade Budyonny's Red Cavalry, and so is my godfather Nikon Vasilich, who is at present a Red Hero. He took me to workfor him, in the Polit-Department's detachment, where we distribute pamphlets and newspapers along the front—the Moscow Central Committee's Izvestiya, the Moscow Pravda and our own merciless paper The Red Cavalryman, which every frontline fighter here wants to read all the way through, because then they get the heroic spirit and hack the damn Polacks to pieces, and I get along here at Nikon Vasilich's real fine.

Dear mama Yevdokiya Fyodorovna. Send whatever you can spare. I'm asking—slaughter our speckled boar and put together a parcel, send it to Comrade Budyonny's Polit-Department, make it out to Vasily Kurdyukov. I lay myself down every night without eating, without any clothes, so it's mighty cold. Write me a letter about my Styopa—he alive, dead? I'm asking—look after him and write me about him. Is he still clipping like he used to, and also about the mange on his front legs, and is he shod? I'm asking, dear mama Yevdokiya Fyodorovna, keep washing his front legs with soap all the time—the soap I left behind the icons—and if papa's used it up, buy some more in Krasnodar so God don't abandon you. And I can tell you that the land's plenty poor here. The peasants run to the woods with their horses, hiding out from our Red eagles. There's not much wheat, you know, and it's awful small—good for a laugh. Those with land, they sow rye and oats. Hops grow on sticks' in these parts, so they come out very neat—and everyone makes moonshine.

In the second lines of this letter, I hasten to describe about papa, how he chopped down my brother Fyodor Timofeich Kurdyukov a year back. Our Red Brigade, under Comrade Pavlichenko, was advancing on the city of Rostov, when there was treason in our ranks. And papa was with Denikin at the time, a company commander. The people that saw him back then, they said he had medals all over him, like under the old regime. And on account of this treason, all of us were taken prisoner, and papa caught sight of brother Fyodor Timofeich. And papa took to slashing Fyodor with a sabre, calling him a worthless hide, red dog, son of a bitch, and all sorts of things, and he slashed him till it was dark, till Fyodor Timofeich was gone. I wrote you a letter then, how your Fedya is lying without a cross. But papa, he caught me with the letter and he said, "You're your mother's sons, you take after that whore—I filled her belly up once, I'll do it again—my life's ruined—I'll kill off my own seed for the sake of justice," and all sorts of things. I suffered at his hands like the saviour Jesus Christ. Only soon I got away from papa and found my way to my unit, under Comrade Pavlichenko. And our brigade received orders to go to the city of Voronezh for reinforcements, and so we got reinforcements there, along with horses, cartridge pouches, revolvers, and everything we had coming to us. As for Voronezh, I can describe about it, dear mama Yevdokiya Fyodorovna, that it's a real fine town, probably a trifle bigger than Krasnodar—the people are mighty handsome, and the river's fit for bathing. They gave us two pounds of bread a day, half a pound of meat, and proper sugar, so that when we'd get up we'd drank sweet tea, and we'd have the same in the evening so we forgot about hunger, and for lunch I'd go to brother Semyon Timofeich's for pancakes or goose, and then I'd lie down for a rest. At the time the whole regiment wanted Semyon Timofeich for a commander, on account of how wild he is, and so Comrade Budyonny gave the order, and Semyon got two stallions, proper clothes, a whole separate cart for this and that, and the Order of the Red Banner—and they gave me special consideration as his brother. From then on, say some neighbour treats you badly—Semyon Timofeich can cut him right down, just like that. Then we gave chase to General Denikin, and we cut them down by the thousands and drove them into the Black Sea, only papa was nowhere to be found—and Semyon Timofeich looked for him all over the front, on account of he missed our brother Fyodor. But you know full well, dear mama, about papa and how stubborn he is—so what did he do? He went and dyed his beard from red to black and holed up in the town of Maykop, in civilian clothes, so that nobody there had a clue that he'd been as much a constable as could be under the old regime. But the truth, it'll always out. Godfather Nikon Vasilich happened to see him in some local's hut and wrote a letter to Semyon Timofeich about it. So we get on our horses and ride two hundred versts—myself, brother Senka and some boys from the village what were willing.

And what did we see in this Maykop? We saw that the rear don't feel a whit for the front, that there's treason all over the place, and that it's full of yids, like under the old regime. And Semyon Timofeich got into a fine quarrel with the yids in Maykop, who didn't want to hand papa over and put him in prison under lock and key, saying an order came down from Comrade Trotsky about not hacking prisoners up, we'll judge him ourselves, don't get sore, he'll get his. But Semyon Timofeich proved that he's regimental commander and has every Order of the Red Banner from Comrade Budyonny, and he threatened to cut down anyone who stood up for papa and wouldn't hand him over, and the boys from the village did a little threatening too. Soon as Semyon Timofeich got papa, they set to whipping him and lined all the fighting boys up in the yard, in proper military order. And then Senka splashed water on papa Timofei Rodionych's beard, and dye came dripping off the beard. And Senka asked Timofei Rodionych:

"Well, papa, does it feel good, being in my hands?"

"No," said papa. "It's bad."

Then Senka asked:

"And, Fedya, when you were slashing at him, was it good for him, in your hands?"

"No," said papa. "It was bad for Fedya."

Then Senka asked:

"And did you think, papa, that it'd be bad for you?"

"No," said papa. "I didn't think it'd be bad for me."

Then Senka turned to the people and said:

"Well, I think that if yours ever get ahold of me, there won't be any mercy. And now, papa, we'll finish you off ..."

And Timofei Rodionych commenced cursing Senka—mother this, Mother of God that—and smacking Senka in the face, and Semyon Timofeich sent me away from the yard, so I can't, dear mama Yevdokiya Fyodorovna, describe to you how they finished papa off, seeing how I was sent away from the yard.

After that we had a stop in the city of Novorossiysk. Of this town I can say that there's no land beyond it, only water, the Black Sea, and we stayed there right up until May, when we set out for the Polish front and now we're giving the Polacks real hell ...

I remain your dear son Vasily Timofeich Kurdyukov. Mama, look after Styopka so God don't abandon you.

That's Kurdyukov's letter, not a word of it altered. When I'd finished, he took the paper covered with writing and stuck it inside his shirt, next to his naked body.

"Kurdyukov," I asked the boy, "was your father bad?"

"My father was a dog," he said grimly.

"Is your mother any better?"

"Mother's proper. If you want—here's our folk ..."

He handed me a creased photograph. It showed Timofei Kurdyukov, a broad-shouldered constable with his official cap and a combed beard, rigid, with high cheekbones, and with a sparkling gaze in his colourless, senseless eyes. Next to him, in a bamboo armchair, glimmered a tiny peasant woman in an untucked blouse, with sickly pale, timid features. And against the wall, against this pitiful provincial photographic background, with its flowers and doves, hulked two boys—monstrously huge, dumb, broad-faced, goggle-eyed and frozen as if on drill: the two Kurdyukov brothers—Fyodor and Semyon.


Excerpted from Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel, Boris Dralyuk. Copyright © 1926 Isaac Babel. Excerpted by permission of Pushkin Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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