Born on July 13, 1894, in Odessa,  Isaac Babel’s life spanned a tumultuous time in Russian history. Raised in a middle class Jewish home, Babel had both a full Jewish education and a robust secular education. However, in two separate instances he was unable to attend the school of his choice because of quotas on Jewish students.

In 1915, Babel moved to St. Petersburg, although this was against the law restricting Jews to live only in the Pale of Settlement. In St. Petersburg, Babel met the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, who had a tremendous impact upon his life. After the October Revolution, Gorky gave him a job at his Menshevik newspaper.

Babel’s first collection of short stories, The Story of My Dovecoat, was published in 1925. Its eponymous story is an autobiographical narrative of surviving a notorious pogrom. His fame was sealed with his next book, The Red Cavalry, which was an honest look at life in the military. His writing was praised for both realism and simplicity of language.

Babel’s third book of short stories, Odessa Tales, presented an array of interesting residents of a ghetto in Odessa. The characters were complex, perhaps because they were far from perfect. One of his most notable characters from this collection was Benya Krik, the chief gangster of the ghetto.

While Socialist Realism was in vogue at the beginning of the Soviet Union, the ascension of Joseph Stalin to the head of the Politburo left little room for the possibility of subversiveness. Babel continued to write, and Maria, his play about both sides of the October Revolution, drew particular attention from the Soviet secret police and was pulled before ever opening.

In 1936, Maxim Gorky died mysteriously, and Babel recognized that his own safety was now also in question. In 1939, the secret police arrested him and he was executed as part of Stalin’s great purge.

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