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February 10, 2004

Series of events devoted to the late Russian writer Isaac Babel

By Esther Landhuis

A trio of Stanford public events -- a stage production, exhibition and international conference -- will highlight the life and art of Isaac Babel, a Russian-Jewish master of short story. Also a journalist and playwright, Babel has influenced prose fiction worldwide with his bold commentary on war and society.

"Babel became, both in person and as a writer, the embodiment of the main dilemma of the 20th century -- the tension between ideas and power," said Gregory Freidin, professor of Slavic languages and literatures and the main organizer of the Babel events. "He found the formula to express this tension in fiction."

The U.S. premiere of Babel's play Maria will run Feb. 19-21 and 26-29 on campus at the Pigott Theater. The exhibition, "Isaac Babel, a Writer's Life: 1894?1940," will be on display through March 2 at the Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion. Concluding the series of events will be a Feb. 29-March 2 conference featuring speakers and guests from the United States, Russia, Hungary, Israel and China.

Maria, one of Babel's two known plays, is set in 1920 during the Russian Civil War -- a period marked by desperation, violence, corruption and the disintegration of class boundaries. Written in 1933 but deemed too racy and too politically ambitious by the Leningrad Party, Maria was not produced anywhere until the 1960s but has since made its way into a number of European theaters.

Guided by internationally recognized director Carl Weber, a Stanford professor of directing and dramaturgy, the Drama Department's production of Maria will feature a newly built revolving floor for the Pigott Theater stage.

Though much of Babel's writing found its roots in struggles he observed and experienced as a war correspondent during the Russian Civil War, his themes hold universal appeal.

Years ago, according to Freidin, a Chinese doctoral student in computer science read Babel's short story "My First Goose" in a Stanford creative writing class and fell in love with it. "It touched him," Freidin said. "For him, it was not a story about a Russian Jew who had to become part of the community of Cossack warriors. It was a story about the Chinese intellectual in China, integrating himself into a community of violence for the sake of an idea."

Moved by Babel's writing, the student hooked up with a director in China, who is now making a Chinese movie that is based on Babel's "Red Cavalry" (a short story about the Russian Civil War) but set during the Chinese-Japanese War.

Here on campus, Babel exhibit visitors can experience some of the Russian writer's universal charm while wandering through various stages of his life depicted in photos and excerpts from his autobiography, short stories, essays and personal correspondences. The exhibit details Babel's rise to international literary acclaim, his controversial involvements with women and his arrest by the Russian secret police in 1939, after which his letters, drafts and unpublished works were confiscated and never recovered.

These and other mysteries in Babel's life will be explored by international scholars during the conference "The Enigma of Isaac Babel," organized by Slavic languages and literatures Professors Freidin and Gabriella Safran and Jewish culture and history Professor Steven Zipperstein. The three-day conference, which begins Feb. 29, will feature a number of special guests, including the translator of W. W. Norton's Complete Babel, Peter Constantine; Babel's widow, Antonina Pirozhkova; and his daughters Nathalie Babel and Lydia Babel.

"We are trying to understand the reasons for Babel's intense popularity, his significance," said Freidin, who hopes to complete a book-length biographical essay, The Other Babel, later this year. "He did not compromise his art in order to curry favor with the authorities."

For more information about the Babel events, visit, or contact Gregory Freidin at or by phone at (650) 725-0006 or (510) 524-3518.



John Sanford, News Service: (650) 736-2151,

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