Red Cavalry

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Book cover

Red Cavalry or Konarmiya (Russian: Конармия) is a collection of short stories by Russian author Isaac Babel about the 1st Cavalry Army. The stories take place during the Polish–Soviet War and are based on Babel's diary, which he maintained when he was a journalist assigned to the Semyon Budyonny's First Cavalry Army. First published in the 1920s, the book was one of the Russian people's first literary exposures to the dark, bitter reality of the war. During the 1920s writers of fiction like Babel were given a relatively good degree of freedom compared to the mass censorship and totalitarianism that would follow Joseph Stalin's ascent to power, and certain levels of criticism could even be published. But his works would be withdrawn from sale after 1933 and would not return to bookshelves until after Stalin's death twenty years later.

On the advice of Maxim Gorky, the young Babel, his literary career only beginning, set off to join the Soviet Red Cavalry as a war correspondent and propagandist. The violence of Red Cavalry seemed to harshly contrast the gentle nature of the young writer from Odessa. This contrast is also apparent in stories like "My First Goose", where the narrator, on account of his glasses, must prove himself worthy of his fellow soldiers' camaraderie (and deny his "intellectuality") by brutally killing a goose and ordering a woman to cook it.

Antisemitism is another major theme dealt with in the book. Babel chronicles how both the Red and White Armies, while fighting each other, would also both commit horrible atrocities against the Jews in the old Jewish Pale, leading Gedali, a Jewish shopkeeper, to famously ask, "Which is the Revolution and which the counterrevolution?" In stories like "Gedali", the narrator is forced to confront his dual, seemingly contradictory nature as both a Jew and a fighter for the Revolution.

The book contains references to actual people who, unbeknownst to Babel at the time, would later emerge as prominent figures in the Soviet Union. These include Semyon Budyonny, Kliment Voroshilov, and Semyon Timoshenko (called "Pavlichenko" in the book), all of whom would later become Marshals of the Soviet Union and close allies of Stalin with considerable power.

Contemporary American writer Denis Johnson cites the book as an important influence for his collection of short stories Jesus' Son, saying dismissively that the collection was "a rip-off of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry" in an interview with New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman.[1]

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