In the early 1990s, when I became a full-time writer, it coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Over the next few years, stories spilled from its various nations like meltwater from a retreating glacier. I found myself constantly being pulled back there. After a year studying Armenian communities in the Middle East, I spent the summer of 1991 in the republic of Armenia; the book that came out of that was The Crossing Place.
The following year I went to Belarus with the Polish poet Zofia Ilinska. In 1939, at the age of seventeen, she’d fled her native village on the River Niemen. She’d waited fifty-three years to go back. Her own story was dramatic enough but that of her mother was still more so – the vicious advances and vicious retreats of Germans, Bolsheviks and Poles. From Zofia’s family papers, I reassembled two generations of lives lived amidst unimaginable upheaval and flight in The Bronski House.
Then I fell in love with a Russophile and we rented a flat in Moscow and I researched the Cossacks and pre-Soviet religious dissent. Come spring, we travelled around the villages of the southern steppe and the Caucasus. Out of that came The Spirit-Wrestlers and Other Survivors of the Russian Century.
All of which required a lot of reading. I wasn’t the first to find that an immersion in Russian literature changes forever the way you look at the world. All the chaos I was seeing, all the stories I was hearing, were echoed in those pages - public horror and private joy. I loved Tolstoy’s two great epics, the febrile grip of Dostoyevsky, the pastoral pathos of Turgenev, the absurdism of Daniil Kharms, the plain genius of Chekhov. Any one of these, and others, I could single out. But who do I go back to most? I’d say Isaac Babel and his short stories.
Brought up in the Jewish community of Odessa in the early 1900s, Babel found himself in St Petersburg around the time of the Revolution. He became an enthusiast for all it promised. As a journalist and commissar during the Polish-Soviet War of 1920, he was embedded with a Cossack cavalry unit. Their casual violence and ribaldry form the backbone of his brilliant Red Cavalry. He wrote too about the Jewish gangs of Odessa, and about his own struggles (familiar to me at the time) of a young writer resisting taking a sensible job:
The wisdom of my ancestors was firmly lodged in my head: we are born to enjoy our work, our fights, and our love; we are born for that and for nothing else.
Much more than what he wrote about was the way he wrote it: with such brevity and such energy that reading him becomes a physical experience, an exhilaration. More than anyone, he taught me what good prose can do - to recreate the suddenness of life, its random gifts and triumphs, as well as the bleak neutrality of truth:
no iron can strike the heart with such force as a full stop put just at the right place.
Isaac Babel was executed by the NKVD in January 1940.
Philip Marsden is an award-winning writer of travel, history and fiction. His work includes books set in Ethiopia – The Chains of Heaven and The Barefoot Emperor, and in Cornwall - The Levelling Sea and Rising Ground. His most recent book is The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination charting a single-handed sail up the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and lives on the Fal river in Cornwall with his family and a number of boats.
In an old wooden sloop, Philip Marsden plots a course north from his home in Cornwall. He is sailing in search of The Summer Isles, a small archipelago to the north of Scotland that holds a deep and personal significance. Click here to buy this book.