1996: John Albert Taylor, the last American to face a firing squad 2010: Five for the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

1940: Isaak Babel

January 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1940, Isaak Babel, “the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry,” was shot in Moscow.

The Odessa-born 45-year-old had managed the difficult trick of maintaining a high-profile writing career in the 1930s Soviet Union without abandoning his artistic integrity. (This meant he published a lot less in that decade, which fact was held against him in his trial: “deliberate sabotage and a refusal to write.”)

A pre-revolutionary friendship with Maxim Gorky and an early affinity for the Bolsheviks had helped see him through such transgressions against Communist ideology as describing Red atrocities during the Russian Civil War, and writing a play about the underbelly of Soviet society.

Babel remains beloved today for that very reason; his Odessa Tales collection of short stories about Jewish gangsters still charms Russians and foreigners alike.

But Gorky died in 1936, and without that elder statesman’s protection, Babel’s insufficiently lockstep scribbling laid him increasingly liable to public denunciation for, e.g., “aestheticism.”

And as sickle follows hammer, miscalibrated revolutionary ardor in Stalin’s Russia led in 1939 to that dread knock on the door, that stay in Lubyanka Prison, that inevitable “confession” of Trotskyism, and that bullet to the head after a perfunctory trial.

Babel’s work is recent enough that it’s mostly not freely available in English. A couple in English and several in Russian are linked here; literary criticisms with plentiful excerpts of Babel’s work are available here, here, and here, among many other places.

Babel was officially rehabilitated during the Khrushchev era.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Espionage,Execution,Famous,History,Jews,Posthumous Exonerations,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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