Literary Trails

Image of Issac Babel

Isaac Babel’s story about the fraught entry of a frail, bespectacled intellectual into closed, violent world of soldiers. Will the pressure to be a ‘man’ allow him to retain his identity?

Isaac Babel


avitsky, the Commander of the Sixth Division, rose when he saw me, and I wondered at the
beauty of his gigantic body. He rose, the purple of his riding pants, and the crimson of his little tilted
cap, and the medals pinned to his chest, splitting the hut in two like a war banner splitting the sky. He
smelled of perfume and the sickly sweet freshness of soap. His long legs were like girls, sheathed up to
the neck in shining leather boots.

He smiled at me, smacked the table with his whip, and picked up the order which the Chief of Staff had just finished dictating. It was an order for Ivan Chesnokov to advance to Dobryvodka with the regiment entrusted to him, to make contact with the enemy, and destroy them.

“. . . the destruction of which,” Savitsky began writing, filling the whole sheet, “I make this same Chesnokov entirely responsible, up to and including the supreme penalty, and will if necessary strike him down on the spot; which you, Chesnokov, who have been working with me at the front for some months now, cannot doubt.”

Commander Savitsky signed the order with a flourish, tossed it to his orderlies and turned upon me gray eyes that danced with merriment.

I handed him the document concerning my assignment to the divisional staff.
“Put it down in the Order of the Day,” said the Commander. “See to the paperwork, and have this man sign up for all the amusements except for those of the frontal kind.” It was a crude, sexual joke.
“Can you read and write?”
“Yes, I can,” I answered, bristling with envy at the iron and bloom of his youthfulness. “I graduated in law from the University of St. Petersburg.”
“So you’re one of those little powder puffs!” he yelled, laughing. “With glasses on your nose! Ha, you lousy little fellow, you! They send you to us, no one even asks us if we want you here! Here you get hacked to pieces just for wearing glasses! Think you’ll get on with us?”
“I’ll get on all right,” I answered, and went off to the village with the quartermaster to look for a place to stay the night.
The quartermaster carried my little suitcase on his shoulder. The village street lay before us, and the dying sun in the sky, round and orange as a pumpkin, breathed its last rosy breath.
We came to a hut with garlands painted on it. The quartermaster stopped, and suddenly, smiling guiltily, said, “You see we have a thing about wearing eyeglasses here, there ain’t nothing you can do!
Not a life for the brainy type here. But you go out and ruin a lady, yes, the most cleanest lady, and you’ll have the boys patting you on the back.”
He hesitated for a moment, my suitcase still on his shoulder, came up very close to me, but suddenly lunged away in despair, rushing into the nearest courtyard. The Cossacks were sitting there on bundles of hay, shaving each other’s beards.
“Soldiers!” the quartermaster began, putting my suitcase on the ground. “According to an order issued by Comrade Savitsky, you are required to accept this man to lodge among you. And no funny business, because this man has suffered in the fields of learning!”
The quartermaster flushed and marched off without looking back. I lifted my hand to my cap and saluted the Cossacks. A young fellow with long, whitish blonde hair and a handsome Cossack face picked up my suitcase and threw it out of the gate. Then he turned his backside toward me, and with remarkable skill emitted a series of shameful noises from his buttocks.
“To your guns number double-zero!” an older Cossack shouted at him, and burst out laughing.
The young man walked off, having run out of ammunition. Then, crawling over the ground, I began to gather up the manuscripts and the old, tattered clothes that had fallen out of my suitcase. I took them and carried them to the other end of the yard.

Issac Babel image quote


ear the hut, on a brick stove, stood a cauldron in which pork was cooking. The steam that rose from it was like the far-off smoke of home in the village, and it mingled hunger with desperate loneliness in my head. Then, I covered my broken little suitcase with hay, turning it into a pillow, and lay down on the ground to read Lenin’s speech at the Second Congress, which the newspaper had printed. The sun fell on me through the jagged hills, the Cossacks kept stepping on my feet and legs, the young fellow incessantly made fun of me, the beloved sentences of Lenin struggled toward me over thorny paths, but could not reach me. I put away the newspaper and went to the mistress of the house, who was spinning yarn on the porch.
“Mistress,” I said, “I’ve got to eat.”
The old woman raised the diffused cataracts of her half-blind eyes to me and lowered them again.
“Comrade,” she said, after a short silence, “with all this going on, I want to go and hang myself.”
“Christ!” I muttered, and pushed the old woman in the chest with my fist. “You don’t suppose I’m going to get into a debate with you, do you?”
And turning around I saw somebody’s sword lying within reach. A severe looking goose was waddling about the yard, calmly grooming its feathers. I caught the goose and forced it to the ground, its head cracking beneath my boot, and emptying itself of brains and blood. Its white neck lay stretched out on the muddy ground. Trembling wings twitched and folded down over the corpse of the bird.
“Christ!” I said, digging into the goose with my sword. “Go and cook it for me, mistress!”
The old woman, her blindness and her eyeglasses flashing, picked up the slaughtered bird, wrapped it in her apron, and started to carry it off toward the kitchen.
“Comrade,” she said to me, after a while, “I want to go and hang myself.” And she closed the door behind her.
In the yard the Cossacks were already sitting around their cauldron. They sat motionless, stiff as heathen priests at a sacrifice, and had not looked at the goose.
“The lad’s all right,” one of them said, winking and scooping up the cabbage soup with his spoon.
The Cossacks began eating with the restrained grace of peasants who respect one another. I wiped the sword with sand, went out of the courtyard, and came back again, feeling depressed. The moon hung over the yard like a cheap earring.
“Hey, brother!” Surovkov, the oldest of the Cossacks, suddenly said to me. “Sit with us and have some of this soup untill your goose is ready!”
He fished an extra spoon out of his boot and handed it to me. We sipped the cabbage soup and ate the pork.
“So, what are they writing in the newspaper?” the young fellow with the whitish blonde hair asked, and moved aside to make room for me.
“In the paper, Lenin writes,” I said, picking up my newspaper again, “Lenin writes that right now there is a shortage of everything.”
And in a triumphant voice, like that of a nearly deaf man, I read Lenin’s speech out loud to the Cossacks.
The evening wrapped me in the soothing dampness of her twilight sheets, the evening placed her motherly palms on my burning brow.
I read, and rejoiced, waiting for the effect, rejoicing in the mysterious curve of Lenin’s straight line of reasoning.
“Truth tickles everyone’s nostrils,” Surovkov said when I had finished. “It isn’t all that easy to wheedle it out of the pile of rubbish, but Lenin picks it up right away, like a hen pecks up a grain of corn.”
This remark about Lenin was made by Surovkov, platoon commander of the Staff Squadron; after which we lay down to sleep in the hayloft. We slept, all six of us, beneath a wooden roof that let in the stars, warming one another, our legs intermingled. I dreamed: and in my dreams saw women. But my heart, stained with bloodshed, grated and brimmed over.


--“My First Goose” is a story of an unnamed young intellectual, frail, bespectacled, appointed as “Propaganda Officer” to a Cossack regiment in the Soviet Russia- Poland war in 1019-1920. The narrator loves “the mysterious curve of Lenin’s straight line of reasoning.”  Ironically, in 1939, after a brief spell of recognition by the Soviet regime, Isaac Babel was arrested on trumped-up charges of espionage by Stalin’s secret police. The following year he was shot. His last words before he died, at the age of forty-five, were: “Let me finish my work”

--Born in cosmopolitan Odessa, Ukraine into a Jewish middle class family on July 13 1894, Babel took to writing early. He wrote for magazines and newspapers before he started his short stories. He served in the Russian army during the war with Poland that inspired the collection of stories published in 1929 under the title Red Cavalry (of which “My First Goose” is one). Babel along with Kafka is considered one of the greatest short story writers of the twentieth century.

--A new edition of Isaac Babel’s stories (2002): The Complete Works of Isaac Babel.Edited by Nathalie Babel.Translated by Peter Constantine.Introduction byCynthia Ozick 

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