‘The Death of Dolgushov’ by Isaac Babel, translated by David McDuff

Jump forward nine hundred years and here’s another war story. Men love them apparently – as much as war itself. Can’t get enough of them! Isaac Babel couldn’t, anyway, not in 1920. By then he’d met Maxim Gorky in Petrograd (as St Peterburg had been renamed) and shown him his early short stories. “Not bad,” Gorky says, “but you’re still pretty young, you need to go out and experience life a bit more. Then you’ll really have something to write about.” 

No sooner said than done: Babel’s conscripted into the Tsarist army and sent to the Romanian front during WW1 – his desertion and return home later to be described in his incredible seven-page story ‘The Journey’. Not content with that exploit he then volunteers to become a war correspondent with the Red Cavalry during the Soviet-Polish war of 1920.

The Red Cavalry stories are famous for their concision. But an equally important aspect is the tension throughout, the tension that’s manifest within the Babel-character himself. On one hand he’s the “milksop intellectual” with “glasses on his nose”, yearning after his Jewish heritage: “Oh, Talmuds of my childhood, turned to dust!” At the same time he’s desperate to shed these aspects of his personality and become a “noble savage”, an authentic manly warrior like the Cossacks he finds himself among. All the Red Cavalry stories treat this tension to some extent, but in ‘The Death of Dolgushov’ the movement between the two inner personalities ends in humiliating defeat for the heroic. 

Following an attack, Comrade Dolgushov lies on the side of the road: “His stomach had been torn out, his intestines had sagged down to his knees, and the beating of his heart was visible.” Dolgushov, however, can still speak: “If the Poles come they’ll make a right ninny of me… You’ll have to spend a cartridge on me,” he tells the narrator. (We know from his 1920 Diary that Babel found himself in these and other very similar situations). 

But Babel can’t do it. He runs away. And the response he receives from the Cossacks he wishes so badly to emulate has, here, the vicious ring of authenticity: “Go away,” says Afonka Bida (until that moment Babel’s best friend), “Or I’ll kill you. You four-eyed lot have as much pity for us as a cat has for a mouse.” Afonka Bida does not hesitate to place his revolver in Dolgushov’s mouth and pull the trigger. 

Whether or by how much this episode was self-dramatised we’ll never know. But a word on modern approaches to this writer. Many editors these days prefer to seek the wellsprings of Babel’s talent in his Jewishness – which is fertile ground indeed. Much has been revealed. Yet many of these same editors evince bafflement that Babel could have supported the Russian Revolution, or not availed himself of the opportunity to flee Russia when he had the chance to do so. In order to explain away Babel’s revolutionary activities during these years they insist on seeing in his lines heavy doses of irony. 

For myself, I detect little of this quality, and in sentences such as this: “The evening flew up towards the sky like a flock of birds, and the darkness laid its wet wreath upon me. I was exhausted and, bent under the sepulchral crown, moved forward, begging fate for the simplest of abilities – the ability to kill a man” (from ‘After the Battle’), I find none at all.

First published in Russian in 1926. First published in English in Red Cavalry and Other Stories, 1994, and in Penguin Classics in 2005

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