Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel
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This week, Matt and Cameron will be delving into a few short stories from the cycle Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel.
Babel was an early Soviet writer who covered the Polish-Soviet 1920 war as a journalist and would later use these experiences as the basis for this very story collection. If you’re interested in getting a first-person look into what exactly the various conflicts across the crumbling Russian empire, Babel is absolutely a great introduction.
Major themes: Bolshevism, Buyer’s Remorse, The Russian Civil War, Cossacks, Socratic Debate
05:07 - Actually it was 14 years later in 1954.
5:39 - To continue to our third story, "Gedali," go to 35:40
11:00 - Cossacks are a broad-ranging group comprised of a number of Tartar-descended groups (sometimes including other Slavic groups), which settled across Russia, with traditions distinct from ethnic Russians.
Hello and welcome to Tipsy Tolstoy: Russian Literature for the Inebriated.
I'm Matt Gerasimovich, PhD student by day, and also PhD student by night. It's a never ending torment.
And I'm Cameron Lallana. This week employed contingent upon passing my drug test.
This is a podcast where me and my good pal Cameron get to unwind from our week with some Russian literature and maybe a drink or two. This week, we're taking a look at a collection of short stories by Isaac Babel, called Red Army, we're going to be going through three of my favorite ones. "My First Goose," "Salt," and "Gedali."
It was really interesting reading, super excited to get into it, as both of us are, we both have a fair amount of background, at least in terms of our interests in the Russian Civil War. So kind of fun to actually get to talk about the literature of it.
Yeah, this is my actual area of, well, I don't want to say area of expertise, because I'm sure this is the episode I'm going to say something horribly, horribly incorrect. But this is definitely my favorite period of Russian, Soviet literature.
Yeah. And in my background, I did a lot of political theory. And this is my favorite time to talk about political theory, because of how absolutely wonky it was in Russia. So a lot to cover here. I won't claim that I will add that in because I don't want to talk about because it's been a long time since I've read anything about that and I would also get things horribly wrong.
Well, sometimes you gotta. Before we get into the first the first story, what... What is your drink of choice this week?
Okay, my drink is a nice. Let me pull up the can. It's a Kolsch style ale. I don't know what that means. But it's a very light crispy San Francisco beer. How would you What are you drinking?
I am drinking an IPA from Revolution Brewing as the can says brewed only in Chicago. Nowhere else on this planet can you get this drink.
It's good. We're supporting hometown... We're supporting hometown nationalism.
You love to see it. Okay, before we get into the stories themselves, it is worth mentioning a little bit about Isaac Babel, kind of who he was, what his life entails, he has a really interesting life. And it's reflected a lot in Red Cavalry. A lot of the stories are autobiographical, they deal a lot with what he went through, and kind of his life up until that point. So Red Cavalry as a whole is a collection of short stories. It takes place in the early 1920s, during the Russian Civil War, after the Revolution. This story cycle specifically takes place in the again in the early 1920s, during the Polish campaign of the Russian Civil War. So basically Poland, you know, is trying to establish and affirm their independence. And the Soviets say no we don't we don't want that. And really what they're what they're fighting over is areas of Western Ukraine, and I think parts of Belarus, and places that did end up becoming part of the Soviet Union.
And like I mentioned, a lot of these stories are autobiographical. Babel was a writer, a journalist, a playwright and a literary translator. What was probably the most impactful was his his journalism. Though, initially, before any of that, he was he was born in Odessa, which is modern day Ukraine. And his his formal education was blocked, because there were quotas on Jews in the Russian Empire as to where they could study, how many Jewish people you could have studying at all in an institution. And Babel obviously, was Jewish. So this was an issue for him. He eventually moved to St. Petersburg, where he was mentored by Maxim Gorky, who was another really popular writer at this time. And the thing that he told Babel, which is very relevant is he said, You just got to get some life experience. So Babel decides, Hey, you know what, I'm going to go check out what all what all these people are doing over here, what's this? What's this civil war going on down here. And he served in a cavalry unit, a cavalry regiment in 1920, where the events that he witnessed eventually became the backbone of Red Cavalry. And it's worth noting some of the really interesting parts of Babel's life and political theory is really that he was a socialist and he was a believer in the system. Initially, though, the more he saw, the less he was interested in pursuing it. And as you'll see, a lot of the writings are pretty controversial even for the time and he was eventually arrested by the NKVD, the secret police, on May 15 1939, shortly to be executed thereafter, in January of 1940.
That's what I got for a little background on Babel.
Yes. Although maybe it's worth noting that the Soviet Union leader cleared him of the Chargers about 16 years later, I think.
Something like that. Yeah.
During the Thaw after Stalin died, yes.
All right, you want to get into the first story?
It should be worth noting before we actually get into any of the stories that this this week, the stories are a little bit less fun thematically, and just an upfront content warning that several of these stories feature depictions or descriptions of rape and sexual assault. So if you are uncomfortable listening to that, feel free to check the show notes where we will fast forward you to the third of our stories, which does not talk about any of these topics.
So you want to get into "My First Goose"?
Absolutely. So "My First Goose" takes place when Babel's character... I don't... I'm not entirely clear on how much of this is autobiographical, and how much of it is including fictional elements. But for the sake of the story, I will just be referring to the narrator as Babel.
Actually, is it orders that the commander is giving that he is moving? Or is he giving the commander something?
He's given the commander an order saying that he's being transferred to this regiment is basically the start.
Got it. Yes. So basically, he's just arrived and Savitsky is portrayed very regally his breeches, purple, his crimson cap cocked to the side, his medal is pinned to his chest. This is the part that really got me: long legs that looked like two girls wedged to their shoulders and riding boots. Really confused about that particular description, although it is very evocative.
Yeah. There's a lot of imagery that raised my eyebrows a little bit during parts of it.
It's definitely interesting, but also very confusing. So he speaks to the division commander, the guys like, Can you read? And Babel very proudly says yes, I graduated in Law from the University of Petersburg. And the commander essentially laughs in his face. And tells him here, you can get hacked to pieces just for wearing glasses. So you think you can live with us, huh? And Babel says yes. And that's the end of their conversation, and he's taken out to the yard where the other members of the unit are hanging out.
So the narrative walks into the yard and he's introduced very abruptly with another soldier from the regiment. And they do not get along, as the commander kind of said, and initially, they are not too fond of people with glasses, which is partially something we'll get to later thematically, but it also is, I probably would imagine, like coated anti-semitism in the writing. Glasses, something that I think at this time were associated with Jews. And as we already mentioned, Jews in Russia, really not always the most... Not always the group of people that were the most respected in the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. So he's being shown around by this one guy, a second guy comes up to him. He takes a suitcase, and he just kind of throws it across the room.
And it's his first encounter with what appears to be a not good start to him coming into this regiment.
Not great, I would call it.
Yeah, I would say probably the worst situation possible.
Yeah, I think I've been hazed with greater gentleness than this.
Yeah, it's not... it's not great. And the person that's showing him kind of around, the one who's like the neutral of the two, the one who doesn't throw his suitcase around. He says, and this is our translation that I'm reading from sounds a little old, reading it out loud. But he says, Our lads here have a stupid thing about glasses, and there's nothing to be done about it. Your man of distinction, he's not to be found here. But lay a finger on a lady, the properest lady that ever was, and are fighting lads will give you a fond caress. Insinuating, basically that in this regiment and what's presumed to be this part of the Red Army in general, that rape is a rite of passage for the soldiers, and something that they are really actively encouraging, which from the perspective of the law graduate is pretty jarring. And so he obviously doesn't want to partake in these sort of activities. So after he picks up his his papers from his briefcase, he starts to read Lenin's speech in Pravda, which is the Russian word for truth. Pravda was a revolutionary newspaper that was printed throughout the Soviet Union where speeches like that would be published. And the soldier comes up and starts mocking him for reading. So he puts it down and he goes to try and find something to eat. And obviously as we've mentioned these people, the other soldiers, are not fond of him so far. And so he goes out, and he's looking around for something to eat.
So he goes up to the owner of the house, and he says to her mistress, I need some grub. And the woman looks up at him and says, comrade, all of this makes me want to hang myself. And he is now beginning to act more in line with, I guess, the expectation that has been placed upon him by the other soldiers around him, and he says, God dammit, I muttered with frustration, shoving her back with my hand, I'm in no mood to start debating with you. And nearby, he sees the saber and a goose, and he goes over and just crushes its head with his boot. And he takes the saber and points at it and says, roast this for me. The woman who is partially blind, picks up the bird and goes inside, muttering after herself, This makes me want to hang myself, again. And then she pulls the door shut. And then all the Cossacks are sitting around the yard, staring at him, say to him well, I guess you'll fit in here well enough and make room for him, including the the flaxen-haired boy from Ryazan, who had just thrown his suitcase out into the street, who actually, he specifically mentions scoots aside to let him in, and they give him some of their cabbage soup, and they start eating the pork. And now instead of making fun of him, they invite him to read out from his paper and ask him what is exactly in Pravda.
Yeah, also something I want to point out, that's before he actually kills the goose. He pushes the lady. Gives her a good shove in the chest, which is come back to thematically is important, I think. But after after he does all of that. And you know, they eat the soup, and they read Pravda together. So yeah, they all fall asleep together in the hayloft. And the story ends with the line in my translation, I had dreams and saw women in my dreams, and only my heart, stained crimson, with murder squeaked and overflowed. So to me, this was probably one of the first stories that I've read. But it was the first story I had read from this era when I started college. And I read this story. And I was like, wow, this is such a story, the composition of it, the way that every word really counts. I mean, this story is only like, what two and a half pages long. It's really, really short.
And so I saw the way that it all kind of came together. I thought, this is amazing, the way it is so deep and embedded with meaning. It was really, I guess, kind of inspiring the first time I had read it, and what what did you think of it? What are your impressions of it?
I thought it was super interesting, because it kind of almost reads like... I've read a lot of accounts, or at least Russian accounts of someone going to war. And it has an almost newspaper like aspect, which I saw here as well. And then it almost feels like they're writing a character piece. And I'd say that not what turned it around for me, but made what made me go back and read it a second time. And I think, start seeing a lot of the things that you were reading when you... or that you saw when you were reading this was the end where he dreams and sees women and then only his heart, which is crimson with murder is screeching and bleeding, which is the whole thing he really his feelings are entirely removed. He's really just an actor we're watching and this is the first real look into his emotions, I would say that that he directly describes to you. And I go back and read this now as, like you've said, he's someone arriving here dealing with immediate pushback on his educated background, on not that they know it, but on his Jewishness. Something that he's privy to, but they are very much not intentionally. And it's definitely a really interesting look at a very honest encounter with the extreme violence that this conflict brought out. Which is something that was really normal because of a variety of factors. I won't go into it here. But this is something that was reflected in a lot of Babel's writings at the time, which is part of the reason that he got in trouble because even in the USSR, they were not real big fans of his very honest portrayals of the violence of the war. And in this story, his, I guess, his conflicted feelings over becoming involved in that violence in order to be accepted by the people who are going to be keeping him alive.
Yeah, I think the story, if I were to sum it up, it's a story of initiation is really what it's all about. It's him coming in with somebody who has no experience with kind of the Revolution as it is from the day to day. He's coming as a law graduate from St. Petersburg, which is you know, a beautiful city. And well I guess it's depending on which Russian author you are not all of them thought that having been there. I am inclined to say it is. So he's coming there from from St. Petersburg and he's got his law degree. And he's got his classes and his nice little suitcase, and he's ready to help. And they're just... they don't want any of it. And within the two and a half, three pages, you can really see how he changes. I mean, at the end, the way he says his heart was stained crimson with murder, squeaking and overflowing. To me, that kind of meant that there's... it's going to happen again, there's going to be more, this was just the first step. Hee didn't rape the old woman, he didn't kill anybody. But he killed the goose, that's still... it's still a living creature. And it's something that I think speaks deeply... the goose especially speaks deeply to kind of Russia, in general. I was told when I was reading the story that a lot of villages in Russia, they're kind of occasionally... can be protected by geese, which are pretty nasty, you know, they try and bite you, it's not just something that would be easy to kill necessarily, it's something you would have to... not some expertise, but you'd have to have some, you know, you'd really have to be trying to do it. And so this outsider coming in and kind of taking away... I don't know if the goose was protecting this lady or the village or not, but he's taking away kind of some of the the natural elements of this place. And, you know, really subduing the woman, and you know, making her cook for him and do all this stuff. He changes so quickly throughout the story. It's very interesting.
And to echo your point about the goose, something I noticed on my second read through was that the goose has by far the most description of anything in this entire short story. Like you said, this is barely over two and a half pages. You know, every other person gets maybe a sentence at most of description, and this goose it's life and death gets an entire paragraph on what it's doing before he kills it. And on several sentences on what it's like after he kills it on how he cracks its head what it looked like it's bleeding, it's white necked... how its white neck was strung out in the dung. And that is a moment that I came to realize, even though he does not actually comment on it is something that he was really focused on and really stands out to him.
Yeah, I think also in terms of dialogue as well, I was really struck by how... it was very out of place the first time I read it, the old lady kind of saying, in my translation it says, comrade, all this business makes me want to hang myself. And it's interesting. It's more nuanced, I think, in this particular narration than in some of the stories that we're about to read, at least particularly the next one, where he is forced to do something that he probably doesn't ideologically think he should have to do. I mean, the Revolution, ideally, it's supposed to be coming and enlightening and helping the people in exactly these villages. And instead, what happens is he kills the goose, and he assaults this old woman, so that she can cook it. And the only people it helps are... it helps himself and it helps the people in his cavalry regiment. And it's, you know, I guess it doesn't explicitly, necessarily say that in this piece. But considering how autobiographical it was, I think that this was something that probably would have struck Babel when he had been coming through these villages and kind of seeing like, is this doing what I thought it was going to do?
Right. And to your point, when he reads Lenin's speech to them, he although he does not put forth any expectations, this is in my book, this is their reaction: truth tickles all and sundry in the nose, Surovkov said when I had finished, it isn't all that easy to whittle it out of the pile of rubbish, but Lenin picks it up right away, like a hand picks up a grain of corn. That is what Surovkov, the squadron commander said about Lenin, and then we went to sleep. Him describing Surovkov's response indicates to me that he was kind of expecting or he kind of figured they would have more to say about Lenin. This is the Revolution after all, but all they have to say is they kind of nod their head and are like yeah, that's... he's good at picking out the truth. And then they go to sleep. That's about as deeply as they think about it because they're out here fighting a war not trying to engage within an ideological debate which is very far removed from their reality.
Yeah, it is. It makes sense why they would think poorly or think... kind of look down on him as he comes to this village into the fight because this is a long, drawn out fight. If you had been fighting on the front lines every day and some random guy, you know, dressed nicely, with his nice suitcase comes down and says I'm ready to help, you'd be like, okay, well where were you all these other years.
And it's something that he's really uncomfortable with. Right when he joins them, he mentions that he feels anguished. And in my in my translation, it says this, that the moon hung over the yard like a cheap earring. I don't have a clear interpretation of what that means. But clearly he's seeing something that he was not expecting, something which had once been familiar now reduced to but an imitation.
Yeah, that's a good point. I think kind of, as you're pointing out these examples they're doing the same thing, which is they're describing something new in a way that is familiar to the narrator. And so he's trying to make sense of what this new very strange world is to him, something he's only seen in books, so something he would only be able to describe by what he already knows. Whereas he hasn't really been able to see it firsthand, which is what he's getting to do now. And does he like it? I don't know. It's hard to say. He fits in at the end, it seems okay. He's got some comradely love, some camaraderie. It's okay at the end, I guess. Minus killing the goose and, you know, kind of being pretty mean to the old lady. But I think that as we trace through some of the next stories, it becomes a lot more clear what he's thinking about this.
Right. And I think that's a good way to, or a good place to transition to our next story "Salt". So, "Salt" is written from not Babel's perspective, but from the perspective of Nikita Balmashov who is one of the members of the Second Platoon, who is probably was not a real person, but they've been pulled together from some of Babel's experiences, and it's in the form of a letter to the editor of a magazine. And he opens it up with Dear Comrade Editor, I want to tell you of some ignorant women who are harmful to us. I set my hopes on you, that you who travel around our nation's fronts have not overlooked the far flung station of Fastov, lying far beyond the mountains grand in a distant province of a distant land where many a jug of homebrew beer we drink with merriment and cheer. So it opens up on a very kind of folksy tone, calling to many very provincial images of people enjoying things. And then it proceeds to the story of how he and their red cavalry transport with all his comrades are moving on to Berdychiv. And one night, it begins to slow down due to passing through town where a number of people, he mentions a number of women among them, are trying to sell things to the people on the train. So they're kind of slowing it down as they try to sell various contrabands, salt especially. And then he says, you know, these, quote, capitalist peddlers their victory did not last long, as many of them were essentially pushed off by the railroad authorities, with the exception of a few people... actually think he says only the female species with their bags of salt stayed around, showing you a lot of his opinion of a lot of the women in this area. And some cars let the women on, some cars don't. But there's a woman who comes to their car and says, Let me in my dear Cossacks, I have been suffering through the whole war at train stations with a suckling baby in my arms. And now I want to meet my husband. But the way the railroad is, it isn't possible to get through. Don't I deserve some help from you? And this, guy Balmashov, goes to the rest of the unit and asks them, do you think we should do this? Do you think we should allow her on? And their response is yes, but so we can sexually assault her. And he says no, which he said politely, which is interesting. And he's like, I bow to your words, but I'm astonished to hear such horse talk. Then he implores them to remember their own mothers and tells them they should not talk that way. And he essentially persuades them to let this woman on and allow her safe passage to the station where her husband is waiting for her with their child. So after that, they continue on, and it's a long ride. So they remember the nights of Kuban and the greenstar of Kuban and their thoughts flew like birds and the wheel is cluttered and cluttered until a thought comes to Balmashov.
What he's wondering is how has this lady and her baby been on this train for so long, and yet the baby has caused no issues for her. The baby hasn't cried, the baby hasn't needed to be fed, the baby hasn't peed on her, the baby has done nothing. And so he goes up to her and he takes what the baby is wrapped in, the salt sack or whatever it was, and well there's there's no baby. So he's understandably, well... he's understandably unhappy that he's been lied to and does something that is not quite understandable and they get into a little bit of debate. And he's kind of saying, you know, you've betrayed the Revolution for doing this, you've done this, you've done that. And you've not only betrayed me, but you've betrayed everyone on this cart. And so he says to himself, I wanted to jump down from the wagon and kill myself or kill her. But the Cossacks had pity on me and said, give her one from your rifle. And taking my trusty rifle from the wall, I wiped that infamy from the face of the working land and the Republic. So a really dramatic end to the story. And what he concludes saying, Comrade Editor basically, that we won't hesitate do this again to whoever it has to happen to. And also... whew a little burp there.
A consequence of our profession.
It is, it is, professionalism is what I strive for. So, to me, this was a really shocking story when I had first read it as a freshman in my undergraduate, and it probably would have been shocking to those who were not in the Red Army who were reading this, which is really who this short story collection was published for, I would imagine. And so one of the first things, obviously, we can comment on how kind of ridiculous and over the top this is, but there are some thematic things that I wanted to touch on. The very first line of the thing for me is translated a little bit differently, I think, a little bit better potentially. It says, I want to write to you about unconscious women who are harmful to us. And this is something that's really important in the early Soviet Union is this dialectic between unconscious and conscious. And those who are unconscious are the peasants, the people who don't understand what true socialism is, those who really don't understand the ideology. And those who are conscious are the ones who get it, the ones who are really working to make things better. That's where you get to the phrase like raising class consciousness comes from. So I think that this is an important aspect of framing the story where when people who are unconscious, you are either trying to raise their consciousness, or you're trying to kill them. Because you know, if they're not willing to, I guess, try to have the consciousness raised, then they're going to be no good for you in your perfect conscious, you know, communist utopia, right. So that was something that I thought was important to point out just in terms of the framing of the overall story, kind of why the soldier would be thinking in these very rigid binary terms. That would be why.
Yeah, and I think this discussion leads pretty naturally into the conversation that Balmashov has with this woman. There's a lot of things you can read from it, I'm actually going to read the opening to the conversation. When they realized that what this woman has is not a baby, but in fact, a 40 pound sack of salt. The woman says to them, forgive me, my dear Cossacks, it wasn't me who tricked you but my hard life. And Balmashov says... responds I, Balmashov, forgive your hard life. It doesn't cost Balmashov much, what Balmashov pays for something, that is the price he sells it for. But address yourself to the Cossacks, woman, who elevated you, as a toiling member of the Republic. Address herself to these two girls who are crying now for having suffered under us last night. Address herself to our women on the wheat fields of Kuban... and he keeps on going for a while. And he finishes on address yourself to Russia, crushed by pain. And I think this is a really interesting thing because obviously these are very carefully chosen words by Babel as the author and that this character Balmashov is... initially opens up with kind of a, I assume some sort of phrasing that's common to maybe Cossacks and says, I'm not really mad at you. I understand you've had a hard life. But you have acted as if you are a member of the toiling peoples of this world, you act like you are one of the members who have suffered. Ironically, including... he includes in this list the the women who have suffered under themselves. He includes two women who were presumably assaulted by these very Cossacks. And he asks her to apologize to them because they have suffered pain and as many other people and he says you've basically, you have almost committed a crime against Russia as a whole because you are taking on their suffering falsely in the way you've done so. And the woman responds, you know, I'm not... she says as it is, I've lost my salt so I don't really care and don't get me all of that about saving Russia and then she insults Lenin, Trotsky calling them a slur for Jewish people and his response is, you know, I don't really know... I don't think Lenin is Jewish But, you know, here's why Trotsky isn't actually bad despite being a Jew.
Yep. It's an interesting dynamic between her and Balmashov. I think that yeah, it's a tough read... not tough in the sense of like, it's long or difficult. It's tough just thematically based on, I think how freely they throw around the concept of just kind of raping anybody who comes into their path, who happens to be a woman and somebody that they don't like, and somebody that they see as basically as a traitor to the Soviet Union and the way in which that really kind of dehumanizes them throughout the story. And so, this is a little bit, I would say, probably less... definitely less nuanced than "My First Goose." "My First Goose" you're kind of like, okay, killed the goose, he was kind of mean to the old lady, you know, the soul soldiers were kind of jerks. How is that? But this... he, I mean, he really gets into, I guess, the head and the psychology of a Red Army soldier. And in the sense, it could be, I mean, it is like, I guess a little bit of a caricature and a little bit of, like a generalization. I'm sure this this person wasn't a real person, I'm pretty sure it's just kind of an amalgamation of all of his experiences. But that being said, I think that this was probably pretty widespread. The practices, the intentions, the way in which the ideology ended up practically being applied to the people that were not only being conquered, but here, it's I know, they're like black market traders, but I think they are Russians. So they're in theory, I guess, people who could be reformed into positive, productive citizens, but they don't see it that way. It's kind of this really rigid binary between not just you're with us or against us, it's not that simple. It's much more extreme, I think, because there's really no coming back once you do something that they don't agree with.
Yeah, that's really interesting. I actually... I read it as... I was actually really interested in this story, in particular, because if you were to read this, from the perspective of this as an anti communist author writing a fictional story that, you know, that totally makes sense. But the thing is that this was a pro-communist author, someone who, at this time and into the future would continue to support this very government. So it was really interesting that this is the story that Babel chose to tell. And I... the thing that I thought was really interesting, was the the part, and you kind of identify this earlier, when he identifies her, despite being just a person, just someone who is trying to... who has had a hard life and is trying to sell salt, as a flea. He calls her a flea who just bites and bites and actually says that she's a worse counter revolutionary than a White general. Because you can see that White general from every road, and then that every worker has the dream to kill him. But she, who he calls her in my copy a dishonest citizen, you are the one that they don't see. And he identifies her as a worst threat to the Revolution, than even the actual counter revolutionaries. Which that's a mindset that would play into his own kind of downfall as an author in the USSR, and potentially even his death. This mindset of stamping out, beyond just practical enemies, to pure ideological enemies, when they themselves. You know, the story kind of demonstrates, they don't have a very clear relationship to that ideology. Because his problem is that she has not gone... she is falsely claiming struggle struggles, which she clearly has, but he cites all these people who have like the real ones, and they should be the ones that are... or you're offending by selling the salt, the comrades of his who are going to the front right now and will die. And he specifically cites the raped girls actually twice over and again, at once admitting that that was something they've done. And so among all these things, her struggles, which are real, but not legitimate. And I think that's a really interesting ideological line for Babel to kind of demonstrate in this short story.
Yeah, I just want to point out for people who might not be familiar, the White generals, the White Army was who the Red Army was fighting against, so really, I guess what you're saying there is that he's viewing... and what he's saying there is that he views this person with the fake baby with the bag of salt as worse than the generals of the army that they're fighting against. Which is... it's in some ways comical, but I think it does speak to, I guess the the ways in which some people were thinking at this time. Yeah, I think that... the reason that they, at least what I picked up when I read this, one of the reasons that they kind of were leaving this woman alone in my translation it says, you know, sit in the corner and no one's going to talk to you in the corner, and you'll reach your husband untouched as you desire. And we're relying on your conscience to raise some new recruits for us. So he's... it's this interesting thing that recurs... It's this interesting thing that recurs in a lot of stories and a lot of Russian stories, the idea of motherhood and maternity as being something that's really positive. And in this case, for the sake of raising a new generation of soldiers, basically, he's not even thinking like, you know, we'll raise some good, loyal communist. He just... some more people to fight with us. That's it. And, you know, that's our purpose.
Right. Yeah. Speaking of continuity through the stories of the what exactly the Revolution is to these soldiers, I think it's appropriate that finally we end on a conversation between the journalist who wasn't really a soldier and a shopkeep, who is never even intending to be a soldier.
So "Gedali" is the third and final story that we have read this week. And it's a much more somber story. For me, these were some of the first stories that I had read from the story cycles. So "My First Goose," I really liked a lot, it was impactful in a lot of ways. And "Gedali" was impactful as well, but in a different way, in a way that was much more, I think, a lot more emotional in a lot of ways. You could see how much this story really kind of meant the Babel, while he was writing it, and it's the story of the narrator, the same soldier, he's going back to a part of Western Ukraine, I think, an area with a heavy Jewish population. And he's kind of going around a, like a market area. And he's looking at kind of how things have changed Since he has left. We're kind of presuming that this is autobiographical, in the way of Babel thinking about how some of these areas have changed since he has left his hometown to go to St. Petersburg, and then presumably returned to some similar areas, maybe the same area, I don't know for sure, during the Civil War. And so he's going to the market and he's noting how, you know, there's really, there's nothing there, it's really beat down. And all he sees is the shopkeeper, Gedali. And they basically, they have a really long conversation that takes up most of the story. And it's about the ethics of the Revolution, more or less. But it's really... it's simplified in the way that somebody living through this probably would have thought about it. And it's most interesting, because the soldier has a really strong opinion on the Revolution, and what it's doing and what it needs to do and what it should do, and how it's all going to turn out. And Gedali... his experience and his thoughts are much more nuanced when it comes to that. And it's just... I don't know. It struck me in a way that was... in the other ones kind of like you were saying, Cameron, like "My First Goose," there wasn't really a lot of internal stuff until the end. And while describing the goose, and "Salt" also, because it was written as like a, like an article more or less, it was very external. And this one for me was one of the ones that was the first one that was very internal. And it was just very interesting to read the way that the narrator's kind of encountering these old spaces in a new way, in a way that he thought he was making better. And although he's saying that he still thinks it's going to be better, I think like he's really not sure. Maybe the character in the story is sure, for the point of just being like, a foil character to Gedali. But I think that, you know, the point of the narrative is probably that, right? Like, he's not sure that what he's doing is the right thing.
Very well said. Yes, I don't, I don't know if this is... and this is among those stories in which I could very easily see either being flatly autobiographical, or completely made up or even a compilation of experiences. When I went through this, I almost read it as a sort of Socratic debate between two different sides of Babylon. It's entirely possible that he in this story, if it didn't really happen, he was the character he plays, he's Babel, and Gedali was a real person. But you can also, at least as I read it, read it as like in sort of internal conflict between someone who is a little bit more attached to his history, to his Jewish heritage, and to the people who are living through these conflicts that you mentioned. And then you have the revolutionary who is more accepting of the fact that violence will have to happen because there is no peaceful outcome to this war, because even if it's horrific, the Czarist forces, the Whites and not all the members of the White opposition to the Reds, were actually Czarist, but for the sake of simplicity, and majority of them were, the forces against the Reds will kill them if they roll over. The Czars were not a kind, peaceful time, that was a time of secret prisons and secret executions. And the Revolution has to be violent. And it's kind of like this clashing of two forces who really cannot reconcile that I'm sure was something that he had within himself.
Yeah, I think some of the passages, and I don't even know necessarily that... I mean, it's really hard to pin down like exactly what Gedali is thinking. He just kind of poses interesting questions. I think that the revolutionary in the story doesn't necessarily have the same... He doesn't have a great response to I guess, I would say, or a very nuanced one. It's very cut and dry. Like you were saying, like a lot of revolutionaries thought, okay, yes, there needs to be violence, you need to overthrow the system, you need to do this, you need to do that. And Gedali is kind of posing a different set of questions to me. He wasn't posing necessarily, like whether or not there needs to be violence. It was more like the senselessness, I guess, in some ways of the violence in the same way that I saw from "My First Goose," and then "Salt," which is why, part of the reason why I thought it was interesting to present these stories in this order. Because you get varying levels of nuance and opinions before you kind of come to this, and it will probably, I guess, affect to some degree, how you read it. So Gedali... I'll just read from my translation here. One of the lines that I really liked that he said. He says, Good deeds are done by a good man. The Revolution is the good deed of good men. But good men do not kill. That means the Revolution is being made by bad men. But the Poles are also bad men. So who will tell Gedali where is the Revolution and where is the counter revolution? And so he's making a point that I guess he really doesn't, he doesn't feel safe with with the White Army or the Red Army. Gedali is having really not a great time with anybody right now. And he's, I guess, you know, here, he's saying that good men do not kill, which is probably something that revolutionaries at this time would definitely not agree with, they would agree that there has to be some level of violence, whether that's killing or not, I don't know. Probably killing, based on how it played out. And so I think it's just, I don't know, I found it very profound to kind of listen and kind of also partake in this discussion between the two of them trying to figure out, you know, where were their opinions? What were they thinking, what do they think is good or bad? How did they assign that category to the Revolution or to the White Army or the Poles? And you know, what did they kind of going through the people that are actually in this, you know, in this area that's being fought over. And it does feel like he's going, you know, back and forth, much like this territory has.
Yeah. And I think continuing with that theme of like, almost debating this Revolution, in the sentence that you cite, at least in my translation Gedali goes on to say, and so all of us learned men fall to the floor and shout with a single voice, woe unto us. Where is the sweet Revolution? And actually Gedali kind of goes on to say that he's in support of the idea of a revolution and that he wants the same things that the revolutionaries tell him they want, that he wants every soul to be accounted for and given first class rations. And it kind of... in response to this the revolutionary, to your point about him not really budging, perhaps reflecting, you know, like the hardline nature of the Bolshevik Party, because one of its organizing principles was not whether or not we are right overall, but the organizing principle was we are right right now, period. Because the Bolshevik [?], as due to a lot of Lenin's influence over time, especially once you get to wartime, was that we need to be a united front right now. So we can't worry about being perfect. So we need to worry about actually being united as it is. And so you kind of see that reflected in the revolutionary's response. When the old man, when Gedali, says, you know, the International sir comrade, you've got no idea how to swallow that and reference to everyone having food and the revolutionary responds with gunpowder, and season with our best blood.
Yeah. So you kind of see a conversation which is almost invited to happen, which is just flat out rejected because it's not a conversation that can happen, because that's not really what this is about, at least to the revolutionary.
Yeah, it's not even... I don't even want to say it's necessarily a conversation where the, where you can say Babel is definitively weighing in on... it's more you're reading it as a progression of his thoughts, I think. And I think probably by the end of having written Red Cavalry, he's probably less on the side of the revolutionaries than he was when he started. Just having kind of seen all this violence. I think that the end of the story is very telling and you can read it different ways. But there's one way that I definitely read it that I think, I would say is the right way to read it because that's me. The last line that I have in my translation is the Sabbath is coming in, Gedali, the founder of an unrealizable International, has gone to the synagogue to pray. So to me here, he's kind of saying that Gedali's ideas are... they're not right, they're never going to happen. You're never going to have a revolution without violence. So you know, instead of that, he's just gonna go pray. And so I guess there's a couple of things here. One of them I think he's not saying that Gedali is completely right. Because this whole story, I think that, he the revolutionary character, does really believe in what there is to create. However, I think that probably what bleeds through the most for me here at this point is kind of... Babel is not that faithful himself. I think there's there's not a lot of good happening in the story. The market is really, it's not a, it's not a great spot. There's a lot of death. As we pointed out, even like before we started recording the podcast, there's skulls in his like stall or his marketplace spot. There's skulls of dead flowers, and there's just a lot of death all around. There's nothing really particularly good here. And that's a profound sense of sadness that I think kind of seeps through all of the narrative.
Right. Although in a minor point of comedy when he enters the shop, Gedali is dusting the dead flowers.
Which I mean, maybe is kind of a reflection of like, the environment that Gedali is existing in.
Yeah, I think it's, I mean, it's partially like a minor point of comedy. It's probably like black humor more than anything, because I don't think that it's like supposed to necessarily be funny because they are dead. It's not ironic like he really thinks they need to be kept clean, I think it's more that he's really clinging on to what this revolutionary is seeing as an old way of life, it's something that's dying out and is no longer going to be. He's really the last of his kind as the revolutionaries is kind of seeing.
Right. It's actually interesting, the things you're pointing out, because actually, as we're talking about this, my view on this story is kind of evolving.
Because as we went into this conversation, I almost saw this as a... almost like a Socratic debate between the inflictor of violence and the recipient, or at least a representative of the recipient of violence. But the more we talk about it, the less I'm actually able to read it like that. And the more like, in line with a lot of what we've been talking about, through these three stories of the violence inherent in this Revolution and this is not violence that's particular to the Red Army, of course, every side in this in this conflict is incredibly brutal, but Babel is writing about the Red Army, because that is the side... that is who he is experiencing. In an earlier story I think it's the Whites he talks about staying with a Jewish family who have had their their father hacked to death by by counter revolutionary forces, obviously, it's deeply brutal. But this is almost like a meditation on just the place of violence and the real effects it's having, even if that kind of has to happen, because I really read Gedali as a very sympathetic character. And I think one of the most important things is when the story ends, the the character, Babel or the revolutionary, asks him, where can he get some some Jewish biscuits and a Jewish glass of tea, and Gedali he says you can't. You used to be able to get some next door, and there were good people who could give it to you there. But they don't... no one eats there anymore, they just weep. And I kind of... I see this as almost, he's sympathetic to everyone in this story. And everyone Gedali may represent as like, that's... your life is hard. And we are kind of... this is not something I want. But however, it never really portrays I guess, the revolutionary in a bad light or his answers are not, although maybe not adequate answers to the questions. They're never really challenged either. So maybe this is just a meditation on to like the sadness of what these series of events have entailed. And it's not just like the fact that one side or another is doing it just that, you know, at this time, I would bet that he was still probably pretty concerned with the rightness of his cause. And he still thinks that outside of the story but maybe is saddened by the human cost in the course of it.
Yeah, it's hard to say 100% for sure, which is what I kind of like about this. I think this is even shorter than "My First Goose." This is about to two pages, three pages, maybe about the same length. I don't know. But it's so nuanced, like you could read that line you were saying when he's asking for, you know, the Jewish shortcake and tea. And that line to me is kind of the culmination of their debate and you called it like, a Socratic debate. It's interesting because to me, I don't actually think... the revolutionary is not intentionally painted in a bad light, but he doesn't come off in a good way. Because Gedali is having this kind of moral and ethical conversation about the, I think, I guess the totality of the Revolution, how can you say for sure, this is your enemy, this is not, and then come back here and want like some aspects of the old life. And that's, I guess, really interesting to me, because this revolutionary must truly believe, okay, we need to eradicate everything that is old, and we only want, you know, what is new, what will inherently be better. But then he comes back, and he still says at the end of the story after he has this whole conversation, okay, where can I get this? Which, you know, this tea, the shortbread, which presumably, is from his childhood. And so it's yet... that's for me... Yes, there's definitely like that element of profound sadness, but I think it's like a deeper... like he's not quite comprehending, I guess the consequences of what he's doing. Like where it's leading, I guess, like I said earlier, the totality of it all. The way it all inevitably has to come to this certain end point, if you do believe in what you're doing to get there. Right.
It's heavy, it's a good story, it touches on a lot of aspects that are relevant to the Revolution, relevant to Russian history, but may not be discussed. Or, you know, I don't know, it gets boiled down in a history textbook, and you really lose a lot of the human aspect of it. Whereas this one, to me really kind of put it back in touch.
Yeah. And I love the fact that we are reading this from the perspective of, at the time, a true believer in this Revolution, because I think that really allows him to write a very nuanced, really interesting perspective on these events, rather than, say, a later Solzhenitsyn or Nabokov, who are pretty certain how they feel about these turn of events and are much more incisive. And you know, there's something to be said for being incisive. And I think there's interesting things to find in their works to, less so in Solzhenitsyn, fully honest. But this is super interesting, his perspective and his really, really nuanced take on these things.
Yeah, I guess, to give my kind of final thoughts on the three works as a whole. For me, what was so interesting was, like you had just said, reading somebody who does believe in the system that they're fighting for, I found that a lot of times until college, when we, you know, we were taught about the Soviet Union, it was really, you know, this is bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. This is why it was bad. This is of course, it had to end bad, but obviously, not everybody thought that if it was going... you know, if it had happened, if it really did have some level of support, there had to have been people that really did believe in something better. And so getting to read somebody who really did believe in that, and who did want to kind of expose some of the aspects that he saw early on that were like, Hey, you know, maybe this is not going to end so well. If we don't consider maybe a couple of these things. That, you know, that's interesting to me. That humanizes it a little bit more and makes it like, you know, it's more self aware. Writers like this, I think, are extremely important. And it was, it was just very interesting... I keep saying the word nuanced. But it really is to get inside the revolutionaries head to get inside other people's heads. He does a really good job. He's really, I think, a master of the short story, especially in the early Soviet period.
Yeah. And the more you go over it, the more there is to find. The first time I went through these stories, I was almost kind of wondering what the point was here. Because this is not the first time I've read like war stories. And that's just what it seemed like. And it was only upon a second read. And even during our conversations that I began to pull up more and more and realize more and more pieces about each of these stories. So I highly encourage you to read it. I encourage you to reread it too.
Yeah, I think that the good part about these as war stories is, to me, every time I read them, they become less of a war story. They become a story about the people that were actually living through it, and kind of the morality of what they were doing. And yeah, if you haven't read him, you should. All three of these stories are only like 10 pages total.
And perhaps you can see a lot of the themes in the story carry through in Babel's own life. In the intro to the copy that I have, his daughter Nathalie writes that towards the end of his life, when his family, Nathalie and her mother, were living in France, they often invited him when he visited them to stay, don't go back to the USSR. And he would tell them, I don't know what I could do if I left the USSR. I'm through and through, I'm a Russian writer, and I don't think I could come out here. I obviously I could not be an emigrant writer out here. I don't have that kind of soul. I don't have an audience. So he chose to continue to go back to the USSR, where he would eventually be arrested and executed.
Yeah. I don't know... I feel like that's a good spot to end. That's kind of all I have to say about it.
Yeah, me as well. Okay, well, on that incredibly cheerful note. So what... Matt, looking forward, what are we going to do next week? That actually, for once, in our two episode history, finally is going to relate back to our supposed mission statement.
Yes. Next week, we're going to be reading the short story "Alyosha the Pot" by the Leo Tolstoy, the one who this podcast is named after. It's another one that's really short but it's packed with a lot of meaning. It will potentially be a little bit shorter of an episode than this one but it will still be hopefully just as interesting.
I think it will be.
Cameon, before we go, on a scale of one to Yeltsin: how drunk are you?
Oh gosh. I am... I'm gonna say Brezhnev, but like the teetotaller Brezhnev to be unfortunately honest. How about you?
I think I'm probably... I'm probably with you. I'm kind of there, but I'm like, a sad there after talking about some of these stories.
Turns out talking about war and violence and like civilian suffering is a little bit of a damper on your... this is like a little bit more sad drinking than celebratory.
Yeah, I miss "The Nose."
Yeah, yeah. Me too. All right. Well, maybe hopefully next week when we can shoot for full Yeltsin.
Oh, I hope.
All right, well, thank you all for listening to Tipsy Tolstoy. I didn't have an outro...
The music used in this episode was Soviet marched by toasted tomatoes. You can find more of their stuff on toastedtomatoes.bandcamp.com and also on YouTube under the same username. If you enjoyed the episode, first of all, that makes us happy. But also grad school doesn't pay very well. So if you happen to have a few dollars to spare, you can find us on patreon at patreon.com/tipsytolstoy. It'll help us buy the books we'll be reading in the future. We'll be back next week.