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At His Side


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A. N. PIROZHKOVA, now eighty-six years old, has recently moved from Russia to Washington, D.C.


The Soviet Union was singularly successful in murdering its intelligentsia. Isaac Babel (1894-1940), one of the great Russian writers of the century, disappeared into the gulag in 1939 and was executed in 1940. Pirozhkova met him in 1932 and became his second "wife" (Babel never divorced his first wife, who had moved abroad) while she was an engineer-designer on the Moscow subway system. She lived with him until the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs) arrested him. Comparisons inevitably come to mind with the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam (Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned), wife of poet Osip Mandelstam, who was also exterminated by Stalin. Yet Mrs. Mandelstam was intimately acquainted with her husband's work and preserved much of it for posterity, in some cases by memorizing it, whereas Babel ordered Pirozhkova not to read his drafts or engage him in literary conversations, and she obeyed. One wishes she'd contravened his orders. Pirozhkova's observations are often less than edifying about Babel the author: "Babel spent a great deal of time writing, and he finished many works." Still, her memoir is an invaluable guide to the writer's day-to-day existence, and says a lot about his relations with other Soviet and Western writers. Paley's poetic foreword reveals Babel the writer for American readers. (Dec.)

A master of the short story, Isaac Babel (Red Cavalry and Tales of Odessa) first met second wife Pirozhkova in 1932 and was separated from her by arrest in 1939, two years before his death in a Siberian concentration camp. Frydman's introduction and Grace Paley's foreword do a good job of explaining Babel's personal qualities and the brutal times in which he lived. Pirozhkova, who was a construction engineer, describes in great detail aspects of Soviet life during the Thirties and World War II. The stories of everyday life are fascinating, bizarre, and wonderful views of how life continues in the midst of political and human tragedy. Babel's character, his meeting with Pirozhkova, and their love story are beautifully drawn. Babel's arrest, execution, and Pirozhkova's attempt to find out the truth forms a terrible and harrowing narrative. Pirozhkova shows Babel with other literary and artistic figures, in conversation about the times, and with his friends and politicians throughout the country. A touching, detailed, and humane book. Recommended for large literature and Soviet/Russian studies collections.‘Gene Shaw, NYPL

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