Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
“I have only one request: that I be allowed to complete my last work…” Isaac Babel
The Stalinist purges assumed monstrous proportions with an opportunity: Sergei Kirov’s assassination. Eugenia Ginsburg begins her memoir about her arrest in 1937 and experience in labor camps, Journey into the Whirlwind (Mariner Books, 2002), by stating as much: “That year, 1937, really began on December 1, 1934,” the day when Kirov, the head of the Communist party organization in Leningrad, was murdered. This assassination, which some suspect was facilitated by the NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), provided Stalin with the perfect pretext to launch “the Great Terror”. The Soviet leader started a witch hunt for traitors, Trotskyist conspirators, saboteurs, and “enemies of the people” that would culminate in the spectacular show trials, incarceration, torture, enslavement in labor camps and often death of leading cultural, military and political figures. Like Ginsburg herself, the notable short story writer Isaac Babel also fell prey to Stalin’s purges of the intelligentsia. Best known for his collections of short stories Red Cavalry and Tales of Odessa, Babel is considered to be one of the best Jewish Russian authors. Although he knew both Yiddish and Hebrew, Babel most admired the nineteenth-century French classics: particularly Guy de Maupassant and Gustave Flaubert’s works. He was arrested in May of 1939, tortured, then shot on the standard made-up charge of being a Trotskyite terrorist and spy, in January 1940.
Isaac Babel was well known both for his fiction and for his adventurous romantic life. In the 1930’s he made the mistake of becoming romantically involved with Nikolai Yezhov’s second wife, Yevgenia Feigenberg. She was a sensual and promiscuous woman notorious for her intrigues that ran a popular literary salon in Russia. Babel would pay for his transgression, as well as for his lack of enthusiasm for the communist regime, with his life. Yezhov himself, the head of NKVD from 1936-1938, was dubbed the “bloody dwarf”. Under his leadership of the secret police, Stalin began the Great Terror, staging show trials that relied upon forced confessions and purging millions of people from all strata of society. Leading cultural figures, particularly those known for independence of mind, were favorite targets of the regime. Having a liaison with Yezhov’s wife, however, put Babel in a particularly vulnerable position. The NKVD began closely monitoring the famous writer right up to his arrest on May 15, 1939, by which time Lavrenty Beria, Yezhov’s equally bloodthirsty successor, had taken over the secret police.
In a last, desperate note to Beria, Babel famously wrote: “I have only one request: that I be allowed to complete my last work…”
It was not only Babel’s life that was threatened with extinction, but also his writing, which would be burned without a trace by the NKVD. The contemporary American writer Travis Holland masterfully captures Isaac Babel’s last days in prison in his critically acclaimed novel, The Archivist’s Story. This novel offers a window into the Great Terror. Without scenes of graphic violence, only through strong characterizations and vivid descriptions, The Archivist’s Story reveals the palpable fear and great strain weighing upon all human relationships during the Stalinist purges. Even the most intimate bonds–between mother and son or among friends and lovers–are threatened by suspicion, fear and forced denunciations. Incredibly, and to his credit, Holland is able to humanize even the employees of the NKVD. He reveals some of them not as Stalin’s heartless marionettes, but as complex human beings, with their own inner struggles and family bonds. Prisoners and prison guards, writers threatened with not only death but also extinction and archivists in charge of destroying their works, are all entrapped in the same totalitarian system where nobody is safe or free.
The novel follows the life of Pavel Dubrov, a former teacher in the prestigious Kirov Institute who was demoted to the position of Lubyanka prison archivist following a political scandal. His new job is to classify and destroy “deviationist” literature. Risking his own safety, Pavel attempts to save some of Isaac Babel’s short stories from being obliterated by the NKVD. In a sense, the protagonist has little to lose. Although young, he’s already lost much of what made life meaningful. His beloved wife, Elena, died in a suspicious train accident. His best friend, Semyon Borisovich Sorokin, was demoted and wanted by the NKVD for criticizing a popular Soviet professor, a puppet of the regime. His mother, to whom Pavel used to be very close, is diagnosed with a brain tumor and suffers, increasingly, from blackouts. He, himself, languishes in a position antithetical to his former profession and principles. As Pavel’s world crumbles around him, he continues to fight the regime in the only way he can. He tries to help those around him threatened with imprisonment to escape to safety and attempts to save some of Babel’s fiction as a record of literary value; as pages of living history.
Before the NKVD has the chance to arrest him, Pavel manages to stow away a few valuable things in the wall, hidden behind a brick: Babel’s short stories and an anonymous postcard from his mother telling him that she loves him. “If he can save Babel’s story, save some remnant of his work, perhaps he can redeem himself, if there is anything in him left to redeem. Perhaps it is not too late” (The Archivist’s Story, Bantam Bell Publishing Group, 2007, 159). Although, like millions of others taken away by the NKVD during the Great Terror, Pavel has little chance of survival, he manages to salvage what matters to him most: his own humanity.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon