by Willard Manus
Isaac Babel, the greatest Russian writer of fiction after Anton Chekhov and Vasili Grossman, was arrested by Soviet authorities in May 1939 and executed on trumped-up charges soon after that. Now his grandson, Andrei Malaev-Babel, has teamed up with film-maker David Novack on a documentary about his life, FINDING BABEL.
The 90-minute movie centers on Malaev-Babels quest to find not only his grandfathers grave but the truth about his execution, which was ordered by Josef Stalin himself, with the complicity of the NKVD. In their eyes Babel, a Jew from the seacoast town of Odessa, was an enemy of the state largely because he told the truth as a writer, especially when it came to the atrocities committed by the Soviet army in Western Ukraine right after the Revolution. Babel, who was embedded with a Cossack brigade during that civil war, wrote stories and dispatches that got him in trouble with Stalin, who didnt want the world to know what his army was up to.
In FINDING BABEL, Liev Schreiber reads excerpts from Red Cavalry, Babels book of Cossack tales, which are paired with poetic images of horses or peasant women or bees (the Cossacks drunken, brutal behavior included the wanton destruction of hives). Schreiber also reads from another of Babels famous books, Odessa Tales, with accompanying images from that once-thriving, largely-Jewish enclave on the Black Sea.
sheer agony for Babel; he would rewrite the same page dozens of times.
It often took him a day to do a quarter of a page, yet his study was piled
with manuscripts, all of which were confiscated when he was arrested.
Despite Malaev-Babels best effortshe even got permission to
dig into the NKVDs files in Moscowthe manuscripts have never
Malaev-Babels quest takes him to Paris, where Babel spent a brief amount of time in exile and wrote the play, Maria, which was banned in the USSR because of its political incorrectness. Malaev-Babel, a drama teacher at Florida State, assembled a group of actors to read from Maria and discuss its subversive nature.
Malaev-Babel also sat down with Marina Vlady, star of Jean-Luc Goddards 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and former wife of dissident Soviet poet Vladimir Vysotsky. Asked what rebels like Babel and Vysotsky had in common, she replied, They burn faster.
Equally shocking was Malaev-Babels visit to Peredelkino, the writers colony outside Moscow where Babel once owned a dacha. Now a gated community, Malaev-Babel was denied access by its paranoid inhabitants, who also ordered the guards to give him a good thrashing. So much for Russian hospitality and humanity today.
FINDING BABEL is an admirable tribute to the brief, sad but illustrious life of Isaac Emmanuelovich Babel, who once memorably said, No steel can pierce the human heart so chillingly as a period at the right moment.