Finding Babel

Review 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-Babel’s quest to find not only his grandfather’s 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 didn’t want the world to know what his army was up to.
In FINDING BABEL, Liev Schreiber reads excerpts from “Red Cavalry,” Babel’s 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 Babel’s famous books, “Odessa Tales,” with accompanying images from that once-thriving, largely-Jewish enclave on the Black Sea.

Writing was 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-Babel’s best efforts–he even got permission to dig into the NKVD’s files in Moscow–the manuscripts have never been found.

FINDING BABEL gives considerable screen time to Babel’s second wife (and Malaev-Babel’s grandmother), Antoine Pirozhkova, who was 101 years old at the time of filming. Pirozhkova, a retired civil engineer, testifies to the mix of sadness and humor that made Babel great. She also describes his last days, his arrest and disappearance, with still-smarting pain and grief.

Malaev-Babel’s 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 Goddard’s “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-Babel’s visit to Peredelkino, the writer’s 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.”