Soviet secret police shot writer Isaac Babel in Moscow's Lubyanka prison for no particular reason Jan. 27, 1941, at one of those pre-dawn hours when babies are born and old men die.
Babel wasn't old, just 45. The indictment against him was a Stalinist fantasy. Fourteen years later, the same Soviet Military Collegium that condemned him declared the original charges baseless and "rehabilitated" him. Unfortunately, it was too late for him.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Today section misidentified the writer of the introduction in the book At His Side by A.N. Pirozhkova. It was Grace Paley.
The Sun regrets the errors.
In the years after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Babel had been acclaimed as the first great Soviet prose writer. He became Russia's most famous writer with the publication of Red Cavalry, one of the greatest short-story collections of the 20th century.
He had ridden as a war correspondent "embedded" with Semyon Budyonny's Cossack Cavalry on the Polish front during the Civil War that followed the revolution. The Red Cavalry stories were distilled like good vodka from the raw Red mash of the ruthless Cossack warriors.
"The Russian Revolution was his main theme," says Andrei Malaev-Babel, the author's grandson. "Red Cavalry put him on the map as a writer. [But] his description of Cossacks is not at all written through rosy glasses, so to speak. It's so clear he is very objective toward revolutionary practices of Soviet power.
"The ideals of the revolution were dear to his heart," he says, his English slightly tinged with a Russian accent. "But not the way it was executed, not the way it was conducted and not how it evolved and what it became, especially by the late 1930s."
Malaev-Babel, 37, a Moscow-trained actor and director, has created a theater piece from his grandfather's stories called Babel: How It Was Done in Odessa, which he will perform at the Theatre Project beginning tomorrow. His grandmother, Antonina Pirozhkova, now 95, who shared the last years of Babel's life as his wife, lives in Wheaton with Malaev-Babel and his family. His 4-year-old son, Nikolai, rattles around the Theatre Project as Malaev-Babel talks about his production and his grandfather.
He emigrated from Russia in 1993. Pirozhkova came three years later. She was an engineer who helped build the Moscow subway. She's written a memoir of her life with Babel. She was with him when the NKVD, Communist secret police, barged into their dacha outside Moscow. She rode with him to the Lubyanka prison. She remembered that he turned to the agent beside him and cracked with bitter wit: "You don't get much sleep, do you?"
"Then he laughed," she told Scott Shane, a Sun writer, in 1997. "Even at such a time he laughed."
That bitter gallows humor threads through many of Babel's stories. Nina Pirozhkova called it "merriment" in her memoir At His Side.
Malaev-Babel translated five stories for How It Was Done in Odessa. He worked with Roland Reed, playwright in residence at the Stanislavsky Theatre Studio, which Malaev-Babel founded in Washington in 1997, and an associate professor of drama at Catholic University.
"I translated, and he adapted," Malaev-Babel says. "We have done quite a few works of literature for the stage in that fashion, plays as well."
Sarah Kane, a follower of the Stanislavsky methods of Russian actor Michael Chekov, directed. She also teaches in the master's acting program at Catholic University.
Coincidentally with the Theatre Project performance, novelist Cynthia Ozick, who wrote introductions to Pirozhkova's memoir and a collection of Babel's stories, will deliver a lecture titled Isaac Babel Rides with the Cossacks on Sunday at the Gordon Center in Owings Mills. She'll also receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Baltimore Hebrew University and the Maurice A. Stiller Prize for Literature.
Malaev-Babel's performance will include just one story from The Red Cavalry, a later story, Guy De Maupassant, the tale of an aspiring author who has his first sexual conquest while translating the French author, and three pieces from Babel's first series, Odessa Stories.
Writers about Babel have often found an incongruity in a short, pudgy, bespectacled Jewish intellectual riding with the fierce, brutal Red Cossacks. Indeed, he had never been on a horse before he was assigned to Budyonny's cavalry.
But he was a native of Odessa, a tough, cosmopolitan seaport that seems as though it must have been pretty much like Brooklyn in the 1920s and 1930s. About one-third of the population was Jewish, making it the city with the largest number of Jews in the Russian Empire.
Odessa -- the scene of Sergei Eisenstein's classic revolutionary film Potemkin -- produced violinists Nathan Millstein, Mischa Ellman and David Oistrakh, and pianist Sviatoslav Richter. But the Odessa of Babel's stories was also the home of the sensational Jewish gangster he created, Benya Krik, "The King," a sort of combination Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky who would have fit nicely into the Brooklyn of Murder Inc.