In the summer of 1920, Izaak Babel (1894-1941) was serving as correspondent of Yug-ROSTA, the South Russian Press Agency. He was attached to Budyonny's First Red Cavalry Army, whose political commissar was J.V. Stalin. He later wrote up his experiences in Konarmiya or Red Cavalry  a collection of short stories which throb with the immediacy of historical realism.
Crossing the River Zbrucz"
The Divisional Commander reported that Novograd-Volhinsk had been captured at dawn. The Staff advanced from Krapivno, and the noisy rearguard of our train was stretched out all along the eternal road which Nicholas I once built from Breast to Warsaw on the bones of peasants ... 1
In this, the first paragraph of the first story, the reader might be forgiven for imagining that real events were being reported as they really happened.
Anyone familiar with the Polish-Soviet War, however, must soon smell a rat. There was a town called Novograd-Volhinsk, of course. In 1920 it was the headquarters of Semeon Petlura's Ukrainian Directory. Yet it lies not on the Zbrucz, but on the Slucz; and it was captured not by the First Cavalry but by the Soviet 14th Army. There was indeed a highroad from Warsaw to Brest built by serfs under Nicholas I. But it lay 200 miles beyond the front at Novograd, and could not possibly have been cluttered by the rearguard ...
Numerous examples show that Babel was not simply making mistakes. He was deliberately jumbling dates, names, places and events in order to create a precisely calculated effect. He was engaged in a form of literary collage, whose appearance is often more 'historical' than history itself. "He is quite content to bungle history, so long as the resulting haul is artistically satisfying."2 The same can be said for his cult of violence. Red Cavalry is written in a special brand of 'faction,' which is not historically accurate.
Yet taken into isolation, many of the facts can be verified. In "Squadron Leader Trunov," Babel tells the story of a macho Cossack commander, who went out one day to shoot down one of the American volunteer pilots, who were fighting for the Poles. The Memoirs of the American 'Kosciuszko Squadron,' under Col. Cedric E. Fauntleroy, agree exactly with Babel's account. They relate how a foolhardy Soviet machine-gunner kept firing at the American planes from an unprotected clearing, and how one of them peeled off, executed a low level run, and shot him to pieces.3
In the long run, Babel fared no better. The author who perhaps did most to spread the fame of the Red Army died in Stalin's Gulag.
Norman Davies is Professor of History at the University of London. His Europe: a History will appear later this year.
1 I. Babel, Konarmiya (Moscow 1928), p. 5
2 Norman Davies, "Izaak Babel's 'Konarmiya' stories and the Polish-Soviet War," Modern Language Review, Vol. 67 (1973), pp. 845-57.
3 K.M. Murray, Wings over Poland (New York 1932).