Shevchenko and Babel

A few weeks ago we organized a benefit fundraiser for the people of Ukraine. I wanted the money to go for the purchase of weapons but I was voted down in favor of humanitarian support. The evening event was hastily organized but very successful; we raised over four thousand dollars. Event participants got to enjoy Ukrainian food, music, singing, and readings. I volunteered to read briefly from two Ukrainian writers: Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) and Isaac Babel (1894-1940). Both writers came from Ukraine but lived much of their lives in St. Petersburg, Russia. The lives of both ended violently, in the endless conflicts and purges of the Russian empire. 

Taras Shevchenko’s 1845 poem Testament is heartrendingly appropriate to the current Russian genocide in Ukraine:

When I die,

let me rest, let me lie

amidst Ukraine’s broad steppes.

Let me see

the endless fields and steep slopes

I hold so dear.

Let me hear

the Dnipro’s great roar.

And when the blood  

of Ukraine’s foes flows

into the blue waters of the sea,

that’s when I’ll forget

the fields and hills

and leave it all  

and pray to God.

Until then, I know no God.

So bury me, rise up,

and break your chains.

Water your freedom  

with the blood of oppressors.

And then remember me

with gentle whispers

and kind words

in the great family  

of the newly free.

Taras Shevchenko

Isaac Babel is one of the most anomalous and idiosyncratic figures in modern world literature. Born into a middle-class Jewish merchant family in Odessa, he thrived in that port city’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious and cosmopolitan environment. His literary talents were recognized by the famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky.  He served in the Red Calvary, associating with Cossacks who were the absolute antithesis of the Jewish intellectual. I first got to know Babel in my highschool Bolshevik days, when I read Russian writers voraciously, and exclusively. The book I have, Isaac Babel: Collected Stories, was published in 1960 and contains a lengthy but valuable introduction to Babel’s writing by Lionel Trilling. Diving back in to that book after sixty years was like bumping into an old and respected friend, one who is idiosyncratic and full of surprises.  Babel’s stories are highly condensed as he navigates through Odessa neighborhoods, Polish battlefields, Jewish gangster rivalries, whorehouses and Cossack battalions. The stories are all very personal, but somehow he writes as both spectator and participant, simultaneously. I suspect Babel was sexist even back in his unreconstructed era, since he was incapable of describing any female character without mentioning their bosoms.

I’ll end this with a couple of Babel quotes:

A well-crafted story doesn’t need to resemble real life. Life itself tries with all its might to resemble a well-crafted story”

“In our day, bad taste is no longer a personal defect; it’s a crime. Even worse, bad taste is counter revolution”

2 thoughts on “Shevchenko and Babel

  1. “…..remember me…in the great family of the newly free.” Thanks Don. With all my heart I pray for freedom in the Ukraine.

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