The best Soviet writers were extinguished under Stalin. Osip Mandelstam died in a prison camp; Marina Tsvetayeva, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Sergei Yesenin committed suicide. Whenever torturers failed to extract immediate confessions, Stalin would ask: “Is this a hotel or a prison?” Isaac Babel was “linked to the wife of the enemy of the people Yezhov,” former chief of the secret police. In January 1940, after a twenty-minute trial, Babel was condemned and shot in the head. His body was burnt, as well as his manuscripts and diaries, and his ashes were thrown into “bottomless grave number 1.” Soon afterwards, the temporarily surviving writers fought for possession of his dacha.

Babel’s life was as interesting as his death. A Jew, he fought alongside the savage Cossacks—portrayed in Gogol’s Taras Bulba and Tolstoy’s The Cossacks, and traditional enemies of the...


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