Literature has borne witness to the ravages of war since at least the time of Homer. About a century ago, the writer Isaac Babel contributed his own penetrating stories to this rich tradition with the publication of Konarmiya (in English, Red Cavalry). The armed combat he remade into fiction, however, was no Trojan War. Babel’s tales are set during the Polish-Soviet War, a relatively brief and largely forgotten conflict that lasted from early 1919 until late 1920. Yet, in an uncanny way, the world of Konarmiya mirrors our own historical moment—a year after Russian troops invaded Ukraine.
Only a few months after the end of World War I, the defeated Germans evacuated from the Ober Ost territories in present-day Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, and eastern Poland. Almost immediately, both Polish and Soviet forces launched military operations to gain control of this region. According to the historian Norman Davies, the Polish-Soviet War constituted revolutionary Russia’s first attempt “to export the communist system to Europe at the point of the bayonet.” Still, it “has rarely received the attention it deserves,” due to a lack of reliable sources and years of neglect “under mountains of Soviet propaganda.”
Our best-known record of the war comes from Babel. A Russian Jew born in Odessa and educated in Kyiv, he arrived at the Polish front toward the final months of the conflict. Babel worked as a correspondent for the Russian Telegraph Agency and later as an assistant quartermaster for the 6th Division of the 1st Cavalry Army. In these roles, he gained a first-hand view of life by the front lines and kept a detailed journal of everything he experienced.
Babel captured the indiscriminate violence and injustice of warfare. His stories, Davies observes, “convey the true nature of fighting … in a way that the military histories with their neat maps and generalizations can never achieve.” He was not interested in documenting precise dates, battle details, or plain facts. Instead, the history behind his narrative “was essentially confused and fragmented”—echoing hungry and sleep-deprived soldiers’ (and civilians’) own psyches.
As Davies eloquently argues, Babel simply “obeys orders”:
He treks from place to place in a maze of half-remembered locations. He rarely thinks of politics, even though he is an intelligent man. He never questions the cause he serves, because to do so is pointless and might well be painful. He watches the thoughtless brutality of his primitive comrades, and is himself brutalized. They kill as a matter of course; he ends by killing, and advertising his viciousness, as a matter of good sense. He boasts, he lies; he gets confused; he slides off to the rear whenever he can; but he survives.
How will the ongoing Russia-Ukrainian war be remembered, especially once it mixes in with fiction? Red Cavalry remains essential reading for anyone interested in such a project—and an all too relevant reminder of the brutal theater of war, everywhere and always.