Babel′’s Quest for Spiritual Renewal in Red Cavalry

Linda Tapp, Independent Scholar

The goal of this paper is to present a syncretic view of the historical, religious, and philosophical subtexts in Isaak Babel′’s Red Cavalry, an exploration of which is almost totally lacking in Babel′ scholarship at the present time. By unlocking Babel′’s hieroglyphic of religious and historical symbols and examining them within a more universal religious context, I present a new interpretation of Red Cavalry. This is important because ultimately it demonstrates that Babel′, like other writers at the turn of the last century, attempted to devise a philosophical, in this case “spiritual,” context within which to frame the Revolution, that is, to accommodate violence and the destruction of an entire class of people in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Careful identification of the religious and historical images in Red Cavalry reveals a subtext of repetitive motifs which serve as guideposts for interpreting the meaning of the text as a whole. In reality, Babel′ was engaged in Red Cavalry in an almost obsessive reevaluation of the roots of primitive Christianity similar, in some respects, to that of his spiritual mentor Lev Tolstoj, whose search for religious reconciliation based upon a reexamination of Christ’s teachings he embraced enthusiastically in his youth.

In stories like “U svjatogo Valenta”, for example, Babel′ uses religious imagery to suggest the need for reinterpretation of the Scriptures. The name Valent (Valentus in Latin) actually refers to a well-known saint in Eastern Orthodox hagiography and not to “Saint Valentine,” as some scholars have mistakenly assumed. At the end of the third century he assisted Pamphilos the Presbyter in correcting scribal errors in the New Testament. Babel′ then evokes traditions, symbols, and ideas shared by Jews and Christians alike in order to tell us what the correct reading should be. In “Pan Apolek,” for instance, the itinerant painter Apollinarius tells Ljutov, a Jew in Cossack’s clothing, “I to čto govorjat panu popy i evangelist Mark i evangelist Matfej,—to ne est′ pravda” (Sočinenija 2: 24). In reality this was the conclusion reached by Apollinarius’s namesake, the actual Bishop of Laodicea Apollinarius the Younger, founder of a fourth-century heresy which claimed that Christ was a natural man, whose mind had been replaced by the Logos (Magoulias, Byzantine Christianity, 24–27). By referring to Apolek as “Apollinarius” Babel′ actually reinterprets the biblical image of Jesus, bringing it in line with that of early Christians who still regarded themselves as Jews and Christ as an earthly redeemer. (Conzelmann, History of Primitive Christianity) When Ljutov later vows to follow this “gospel” saying, “… sud′ba brosila mne pod nogi ukrytoe ot mira Evangelie … ja dal togda obet sledovat′ primeru pana Apoleka” (Sočinenija 2: 18), Babel′’s purpose becomes clear: Ljutov’s quest for acceptance by his Cossack compatriots is actually an attempt at reconciliation between Jews and Christians in a modern-day setting. Thus the real key to Red Cavalry, and Babel′’s perplexing conclusion to Ljutov’s violent journey among the Cossacks, lies buried in its religious and historical subtexts.