The Arty Semite

Isaac Babel's Last Days in Lubyanka

By Sarah Kessler

  • Print
  • Share Share
Isaac Babel, NKVD Photo, May 1939.

During a script reading at the Jewish Museum London on October 24, two writers with mortality on their minds came face to face: the bushy-eyebrowed 83-year-old East End poet and kitchen sink dramatist Bernard Kops, and the eternally 45-year-old journalist and playwright Isaac Babel.

“Some things grab you; you know what makes a play,” explained Kops on the phone the next day, reflecting on the public debut of his new work “Whatever Happened to Isaac Babel.”

Babel, a one-time protégé of the activist and publisher Maxim Gorky, was a writer held in high esteem among the Russian literary elite, widely translated as he moved between languages and lovers in Moscow and Paris. But during the 1930s, his depictions of corruption in Soviet life (not to mention an affair with the wife of the head of the NKVD), came to a head during Stalin’s Great Purge. Babel was arrested in 1939 for so-called anti-Soviet activities.

Kops’s play is set during the Babel’s last days in Lubyanka, the infamous headquarters of the secret police (and the tallest building in Moscow, it was said, as you could see Siberia from the basement). Staged with 50-odd variations in the minds of the audience, the play is claustrophobic, always returning to the violence of the interrogation cell.

“Lubyanka — funny how beautiful it sounds, like lovers’ whispers during foreplay,” muses Babel as the play begins. It sounds like a tribute to his own writings, whose poetry sharply contrasts the brutalities they detail.

The truth of Babel’s arrest and execution is a surprisingly recent revelation, as is the return of what remained unburned of his manuscripts. Though much of Kops’s script is drawn directly from accounts of the interrogation, he never intended to add to the growing body of Babel scholarship.

Rather, as electrodes are clamped to the arrested author’s testicles, and his interrogators wax lyrical about their families, the mystical joys of a good bowel movement, and that special something of a forced confession, the intention is to grab the audience with nauseating specifics. And then, by this approach, lead the audience to universal themes: identity, art, suffering, and approaching death.

“I am Isaac Babel. I am Isaac Babel!” the character repeats like a mantra as he is kicked across the floor. “He’s trying to reassure himself, constantly,” explained Kops, drawing his own parallel. “I mean here I am getting dizzier by the day and yet I’m 83 at the moment — the enigma of existence is still the enigma, and still haunts me.”

The hauntings are literal in the case of Babel, who escapes interrogators and anguished reality through periods of blacked-out surreality. He is visited by Benya Krik, “king of the underworld, the scourge of Odessa,” the Jewish gangster of the short stories “The Odessa Tales.” Benya, full of chutzpah and lacking any pity for his creator, leads Babel back to his childhood village and doting grandma, who begs her “Izzy” to play his violin, but he will not — he is a writer, and he has no choice.

Ah, his grandma informs him sadly, as the author’s hallucinations speed up in the second half of the play, and his village is sacked. “Artists are the avant-garde — and those who believe the most will suffer the most.”

These are familiar words, not from Babel as it turns out, but from Kops, repeated from an interview he gave seven years ago about the pain of being an artist. “Why do the best and intelligent who believe so much, suffer the most? Of course that’s been my life, really,” he laughs ruefully.

Except, with three new plays written since “Babel” and an appearance at the upcoming Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, Kops clearly could not have it any other way. Nor, his play asks us to believe, could Babel, whose last known words, after retracting his forced confession, were a demand to be allowed to finish his work.

“They’re going to kill me,” he says to his grandma as the play draws to an end, aware that this meeting is a dream and there is something terrible whispering for him at Lubyanka. “I’m desperate and inspired.”

The next reading of ‘Whatever Happened to Isaac Babel’ will be at the Whitechapel Gallery in London on November 4.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Red Cavalry, Polish-Soviet War, NKVD, Maxim Gorky, Lubyanka, London, Josef Stalin, Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, Jewish Museum London, Isaac Babel, East End, Bernard Kops, Benya Krik, Russia, Russian Literature, Stalinism, The Odessa Tales, Theater, Whitechapel Gallery

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.