July 01, 2014

Isaac Babel and Russian Jews

Isaac Babel and Russian Jews

Tuesday, July 1st, would have been the 120th birthday of Isaac Babel, Russian-Jewish writer and playwright.

If you’re looking for some very depressing literature, look no further than the short stories of Isaac Babel. Drawing primarily from the author’s own experiences – with some artistic license – Babel’s writings cover such cheery subjects as pogroms, anti-Semitic discrimination, and the violence of war. As you page through Red Cavalry or Story of My Dovecote, you also get a chilling sense of what it meant to be a Jew in the Russian Empire.

It’s telling that the word pogrom, a word familiar to the English speaker, was imported wholesale from Russian погром, meaning, well, exactly what it means in English: violent rioting, destruction of Jewish property, often resulting in the murder of Jews. Such riots occurred remarkably often in Imperial Russia, with particular frequency in times of political crisis – when Jews were blamed for the assassination of Alexander II (1881-83) and again for the attempt at revolution in 1905. Somewhat unsurprisingly, it was not just the word that made its way over to the US: some 2 million Jews emigrated between 1880-1920.

The Pale of Settlement with percentages of Jewish population, c. 1905

Even when they weren’t under direct attack, Russian Jews didn’t have it easy. Ever since Catherine the Great nabbed Russia a piece of Poland (with its significant Jewish population), all Jews were restricted to the Pale of Settlement. Not only did this exclude the Jews from cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, it also kept them out of major cities and even agricultural areas within the Pale itself, hence the rise of the Jewish small town, the shtetl, known as mestechko (‘little place’) in Russian.

There were exceptions for Jews and their families who were needed in other places – like in the army, after Nicholas I revised conscription rules to include Jews. Students were also exempt, but to keep the generally education-valuing Jews from taking too much advantage of this exemption, there were Jewish quotas for the student population: 10% in the Pale of Settlement, 5% outside of it, and a mere 3% in the capital cities.

Anatevka - the fictional shtetl in Fiddler on the Roof - is wonderfully representative of life in the Pale of Settlement. "Why do we stay up there, if it is so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home."

These rules were not foolproof, and Isaac Babel himself is a case in point: in violation of these restrictions, he moved to Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) in 1915. In fact, many Jews had good reason to defy the law and even participate in revolutionary movements, fueling the conspiracy theory that all revolutionaries were Jews and vice versa. Their efforts were not in vain: after the February revolution, in March of 1917 the Provisional Government outlawed discrimination based on religion and national origin. Granted, anti-Semitism remained a threat, reaching a noticeable peak just before Stalin's death.

Unfortunately (or fortunately?), Isaac Babel did not live to see the revived post-war anti-Semitism. In 1940 he was arrested, forced to confess to Trostkyism, and promptly shot. Most likely it was not for being a Jew, but for his involvement with the wife of an NKVD leader. Truly, it was a new time.


Image credits: Wikimedia Commons, IMDB

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