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1920 Diary, by Isaac Babel

By Mark Heckman

Related to: Volhynia (Province)Book Reviews

Author: Babel, Isaac; [edited by Carol J. Avins; translated by H.T. Willetts]. Publishing information: New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-300-05966-3; 126 pages.

In Russia at the end of WWI, the Bolshevik Red Army was locked in a civil war with the remnants of the Royalist White Army and with various nationalist groups. In 1920, having finally gained the upper hand over the White armies, the Bolsheviks faced a new threat from the newly reconstituted Poland. Trying to conquer territory that they had last ruled 150 years before, Polish armies marched eastward into Rusia. The Poles made rapid advances, eventually taking Kiev in May of 1920. To counter the Poles in Ukraine, the Red Army brought up its powerful Cossack First Cavalry Army. By the summer of 1920, Bolshevik forces managed to push the Poles back through Volhynia into Eastern Galicia (to within five miles of Lvov) and behind the borders of Congress Poland, advancing west of Bialystock. Polish resistance stiffened, however, and with armaments supplied by Western nations the Poles turned back the Russians. By September the Poles had once more advanced as far east as Rovno.

Isaac Babel was an army correspondent with the Red Army's First Cavalry Army, attached to the Political Department of the Sixth Division, filing stories for the Army's daily newspaper, the Red Cavalryman. In addition to his official duties, Babel kept a personal diary, which was later a source of material for his most famous literary works, a group of short stories collectively titled Red Cavalry. 񓞠 Diary" reflects Babel's simultaneous admiration of the Cossacks' daring and his disgust at their cruelty. Despite the efforts of the political officers, the Cossacks were notorious for slaughtering prisoners, for plundering each town, and for attacking and raping the townfolk. Another source of unease was the uncomfortable position of a Jew in the Red Army, where anti-Semitism was officially counter-revolutionary, but where deep-seated bigotry still remained -- especially among the Cossacks.

While not necessarily keeping it a secret, Babel kept his Jewishness quiet. Sometimes, when asked point-blank if he was a Jew, he would say only that his father was Jewish. Babel was also troubled by the conflict between his belief in the value of socialism and the brutality of his army toward the people it was ostensibly intended to liberate.

A major theme that runs through the Diary is Babel's reaction to the plight of the unfortunate people in each town, primarily Jews, caught between the two armies. In town after town, Jews were robbed, raped and murdered, first by one army and then the other. Babel describes in detail some of the worst of these events that occurred in Komarow and Berestechko, and at one point draws a parallel between the destruction caused by Bohdan Khmelnytsky's army (see the book review for Abyss of Despair) and the First Cavalry Army: "Unfortunate Jewish population, everything repeats itself, now that whole story -- Poles, Cossacks, Jews -- is repeating itself with stunning exactitude, the only new element is communism."

The value of 1920 Diary for Jewish genealogists who are researching their families from Volhynia and Eastern Galicia is its first-hand account of the conditions endured by the people during a period whose history is not well known in the West. The Diary contains entries that Babel made in a number of towns, including (from Volhynia) Dubno, Khotin, Berestechko, and Kovel, as well as (from Eastern Galicia) Brody, Laskow, Adamy, and Sokal. A true diary, and not a narrative, each entry consists of impressions and shorthand descriptions -- intended to jog the writer's memory rather than to convey complete descriptions to another reader.

Isaac Babel was arrested in May 1939 by the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) and shot eight months later; his papers were burned. The Diary, however, had been left at a friend's house in Kiev and survived. Excerpts were finally published for the first time in 1987. I obtained this book from the library at the University of California at Davis, call number DK 265.7 B28 1995. -- Mark Heckman (Apr 1998)

  • Last Modified: 06-08-2012
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