"By far, the best-known 'chronicler' of the Polish-Soviet War was the Odesa-born Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel. . . ."
SEE DISCUSSION QUESTIONS BY THE TEAM OF WHITE AND JERNOW BELOW!
Babel, the bespectacled twenty-something writer "fought in the ranks of Budenny's First Cavalry Army and kept a diary that he later used to write a collection of short stories titled Red Cavalry. The collection, which Budenny criticized for distorting the heroic image of his soldiers, describes the brutality of war, the violence of Red cavalrymen, and the tragic plight of the Jewish population of Ukraine in conditions of permanent warfare. With numerous armies fighting one another for almost three years, constantly changing front lines, the civil population of Ukraine suffered new terror and destruction without having had a chance to recover from the devastation of the first world war that had . No group fared worse than the Jews, who became subject to attack from all sides, by Reds, Whites, Ukrainian armies, and warlords."
--Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine
"In April 1920, Polish and Ukrainian forces advanced toward Kyiv from the north, beginning what came to be known as the Polish-Soviet War. Their goal was to challenge Bolshevik ascendency in the region and reclaim the historic lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. . . ."
-- Jeffrey Veidlinger, In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust.
Yiddish Schmoozers Andrea White and Judith Jernow will be our guest facilitators and offer the topics below for thought and discussion. You will recognize great minds at work in the questions they crafted.
By the way, Andrea White is a well-known scholar of the work of the Polish-born writer Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), author of "The Heart of Darkness." Her scholarship goes Deep into the Heart of Conrad to interrogate Europe's imperialist project of colonization and exploitation of racialized others.
See her books Joseph Conrad and the Adventure Tradition: Constructing and Deconstructing the Imperial Subject ; Conrad’s Trojan Horses: Imperialism, Hybridity, and the Postcolonial Aesthetic; and an edited volume (with fellow Schmoozer Carola Kaplan) on re-reading Conrad in the 21st century.
1. How would you characterize the narrator of these stories? Does he change? Like Babel himself, Kiril Lyutov rode with the Red Cavalry into Ukraine and eastern Poland in order to furnish various organs of propaganda with updates and ideologically charged “news.” As he does this, he is also helping the regiment, delivering messages, and reports, writing a letter dictated to him, reading the newspaper to illiterate troops, among other things. Along the way, he tells many stories. How have these 4 months, embedded with the Red Cavalry changed him, or not?
2. Is there a progression in the stories themselves? Could they be rearranged?
3. What character in particular and/or whose story most interested you?
4. What should we make of Babel’s use of documents: letters, photos, paintings, etc.?
5. How do you respond to the moral ambiguity in these stories? How might Soviet citizens who read these stories in the 20’s in magazines and again as a book in ’26 have responded to them?
6. How do the stories about Pan Apolek function in this collection? (If anyone has access to or remembers Robert Browning’s poem “Fra Lippo Lippi,” you might consider it in relation to the stories about this artist. There are several Italian references in these stories actually. What’s that about?)
7. Do these writings strike you as sketches , or anecdotes, or are they reports from the front or stories?
8. What effect does the brevity of these pieces have on you as. A reader, and on the collection as a whole?
9. Do you notice an influence of De Maupassant whom Babel admired.
10. How would you characterize Babel's attitude and depiction of Jews, Jewish life, shtetls, synagogues, etc.? Sympathetic, journalistic? Or how?
11. There is a fair amount of landscape description. Does this add to the tales? How does it function in these pieces?