Why Does Ukraine Have a Jewish President? Ask Isaac Babel

Zelensky’s bravery is reminiscent of the Russian writer’s fierce refusal to curb his independence.

By guest author Ruth R. Wisse.  Ms. Wisse is a professor emerita at Harvard and author of the memoir “Free as a Jew.”

Caption courtesy by the Wall Street Journal






Ukrainians and Jews were trapped in a fateful pattern for centuries. Whenever Ukrainians fought for their independence—against the Poles in 1648, the Soviets in 1919 or the Germans in 1941—Jews were the plunder at their disposal. Bohdan Khmelnytsky figures in Ukrainian history as the George Washington of the nation. He figures in Jewish history as the pogrom killer of thousands. How can a Jewish descendant of Holocaust survivors now be the country’s accepted leader?

Our guide to an answer is a native of Odessa, Isaac Babel, one of the boldest writers who ever lived. In 1920, during the first war waged by the newly formed Soviet Union, against Poland over territory that is now Ukraine, Babel served as the embedded correspondent in the First Cavalry army, made up of Zaporizhian Cossacks. His account of that war in the stories of “Red Cavalry” shows why Jews and Ukrainians may be the two peoples readiest to live and die for their freedom—and how their fused spirit lives in Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

As a Soviet functionary charged with forging Soviet unity, Babel was privately taking notes for the great work he intended to write. “Red Cavalry” documents the contrast between the sensitive Jewish narrator and the Cossacks he accompanies into battle. The stories show that an “intellectual with glasses” could find no way to protect the Jews from being crushed between the warring armies. In this work, as in real life, the author and narrator took on the assumed Russian patronym Lyutov, not to deny his Jewishness but better to fulfill his professional role.

The function of the creative writer differed from that of the embedded propagandist. Behind the more obvious contrast between Jews and Cossacks, Babel sensed that the two groups shared a common destiny under the new Soviet regime, which would tolerate neither the Jewish way of life nor the essential autonomy of the horsemen. He was witnessing the imposed death of both these civilizations. Jews suffered the brunt of the violence, but the Cossacks had to submit to foreign codes of conduct and severe limitations on their freedom. Soviet dictatorship bore down equally on both.

Their common fate under communism led Babel to notice other resemblances. The Jews and Cossacks were equally brave. Lyutov is billeted in a Jewish home that has been looted, and on waking where the landlady had bedded him down, he discovers that he has been sleeping beside a corpse. The old man has had his face hacked in two, with “dark blood clinging to his beard like a clump of lead.” The Jewish landlady tells how he had begged the Poles to kill him in the backyard so that she, his daughter, would not see him die. “Now, I want you to tell me where in all the world one could find another father like my father!”

There are no trigger warnings to shield delicate sensibilities. Every murdered Jew in Babel’s writing has wounds in front as a sign of unarmed resistance. The valiant father has his counterpart in a rabbi’s son who leaves home to join the fight, dying with his Hebrew pages and Communist pamphlets strewn around him. And while the physical bravery of the Cossacks makes them more useful in battle, they are not natural soldiers either, since they resist military discipline.

Because Stalin’s suppression had not yet solidified when Babel wrote these stories, he felt unconstrained by any cultural expectations. He extended his writerly respect to the Cossack attributes that Jews thought evil, and he let the Cossacks speak for themselves without romanticizing their sometimes brutal justice. At the same time, while he valorizes the pacific Jews, whom he knew better, he does not sentimentalize their victimhood, and he shows through the self-portrait of Lyutov how the desire to be blameless may not be a virtue.

Lyutov is hardest on himself in these stories. In one, he is shamed for endangering his comrades in arms by not carrying a gun into battle. In another he earns the lasting contempt of a friend when he is too squeamish to pull the trigger on a fatally wounded soldier who begs to be shot. The most trenchant criticism comes when an officer tells Lyutov, “I see right through you. All you want is to have no enemies.” Denying enmity is not morality, but cowardice.

Babel did not realize the high price he would have to pay for writing as a free man. He was arrested, tortured and executed in 1940.

President Zelensky’s readiness to die for Ukraine’s freedom feels much like Babel’s refusal to curb his independence. Likewise, Lyutov’s wanting to have no enemies helps us understand why the Jews who finally reclaimed their sovereignty in Israel would fight so tenaciously to repel the Arab-Muslim aggressors who still deny them their country after almost eight decades. Small nations, such as those of the Ukrainians and Jews, will always seem easy prey.

Among the many appeals Mr. Zelensky has issued, he has asked Jews to “cry out over the murder of civilisation.” That he now does it in the name of Ukraine is no anomaly but the sequel to what Isaac Babel described.

This article was published on March 8, 2022 in the Wall Street Journal.

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