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January 26: A Twenty-Minute Trial for Isaac Babel

January 26, 2016

Isaac_BabelWriter and war chronicler Isaac Babel was convicted of being a Trotskyist and a spy and sentenced to death in a twenty-minute trial held in a Siberian prison camp on this date in 1940. He would be executed the next day at age 45. Babel, who wrote primarily in Russian (though he was also fluent in Yiddish, Hebrew, and French), is best known today for his stories of the post-revolutionary Russian civil war, Red Cavalry, in which he captured the humanity, brutality, and anti-Semitism of Cossacks fighting with the Red Army. He also wrote Odessa Tales, short stories set in the Odessa ghetto and featuring various Jewish gangsters in pre- and post-revolutionary days, which were adapted into a play, Sunset. Babel was a success under the Stalinist system, which also meant having to duck and cover frequently, as when he witnessed mass starvation in the Ukraine but would not write or speak of it — which led to his being criticized for his low productivity. His time ran out in 1939, however, when Babel, who was involved in a long-term affair with the wife of the head of the Soviet secret police, was arrested, interrogated, tortured, and made into a non-person before being executed by firing squad. To see a short documentary about Red Cavalry, look below.

“I am innocent. I have never been a spy. I never allowed any action against the Soviet Union. I accused myself falsely. I was forced to make false accusations against myself and others... I am asking for only one thing — let me finish my work.” —Isaac Babel