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Canadian Slavonic Papers

The Underworld of Benia Krik and I. Babel's "Odessa Stories" Author(s): Boris Briker

Source: Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne des Slavistes, Vol. 36, No. 1/2, Centenary

of Isaak Babel (March-June 1994), pp. 115-134 Published by: Canadian Association of Slavists Stable URL: Accessed: 25-05-2015 04:59 UTC

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at info/about/policies/terms.jsp

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

Boris Briker

The Underworld of Benia Krik and I. Babel's Odessa Stories

In 1916, a short essay entitled "Odessa," by thethen young and unknown writer,

  • I. Babel, appeared in M. Gorky's Zhurnalzhurnalov. Using the typical manifesto-

like rhetoricof his times, I. Babel predicted in "Odessa" thata new literary

messiahwould come fromthat sunnyport metropolis to breakwith the literary

traditionof grey and foggyPetersburg. Whileit remains a question whetherBabel

himselffulfilled the role of such a messiah, he was responsible for helping to

shape the popularimage of his native city in his Odessa Stories.It is also true,

however, thatan image ofOdessa hadbeen formed well before Babel provided the

materialfor his picture of Odessa and its Moldavankadistrict. This


of the

city may be viewed as one "Odessa text."1Such a textunites two narrative

structures: the structure providedby the history of the city,newspaper reports,

urban folklore, and also thestructure actualized in literary works.

The very titleof one of Babel's Odessa Stories, "How It Was Done in

Odessa" (KaK 3to aejiajiocb b Oaecce) suggests thatthe Odessa way of doing

things had very distinctfeatures. Indeed, this phrase can be attributednot only to

Odessa Stories, butto the"Odessa text"in general. Whilethe urban landscape of

Petersburg had beenassociated with the evil and oppressivepowers ofthe Russian

Empire, the image of Odessa in thenineteenth century evokednotions of freedom.

In the Jewish context,Odessa, though located withinthe Pale of Settlement,

offereda landof opportunity, an "alternative"to

forbidden Petersburg. As one prerevolutionary

America,Argentina, Palestine, or

Odessawriter commented, "Ifa Jew

fromthe Pale of Settlementdoes notdream of America or Palestine,know that he

willbe in Odessa."2In addition,Odessa hadthe reputation of being whathistorian

Robert Weinberg has called the"Russian Eldorado," a place where easy money

could be made. Like MenachemMendl from Sholom Aleichem's stories, Jewish

"Luftenmenschen"set out forOdessa in hopes of realizing theirdreams. While

  • 1 The semiotic concept of

as Iu. Lotman and V.

thetext of the city has been developedby


such scholars



example, V.


literatury," and Iu.


in Semiotika



in Odessa:

Blood on the Steps

Toporov with regard

Toporov, "Peterburg i peterburgskii tekst



Peterburga i problemy semiotiki

gorodskoi kuVtury.Peterburg (Tartu: Uchenye zapiski TartuskogoUniversiteta,



-■* R.

Svirskii, "Iz putevogo dnevnika"Knizhki Voskhoda No. 7 (1904): 169.


The Revolution of 1905

(Bloomington: Indiana UniversityPress, 1993) 1.

CanadianSlavonic Papers/Revue

canadiennedes slavistesVol. XXXVI,Nos. 1-2,March-June,


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thesedreams did not necessarily come true, the image of Odessa as a land of

opportunity survived throughout thenineteenth century and the beginning of the

twentieth century. This helpsexplain why such literary charactersas swindlers,

opportunists, and thieveshad a betterchance of surviving withinthe context of

Odessa's mythopoetic "text"than within that of Petersburg.

The mythologiessurrounding the notoriousOdessa thievesand bandits

the "Odessa text." According to Vladimir

constitutean importantaspect of

Jabotinsky, an Odessa native,journalist, and latera leading Zionistactivist, the

whole city ofOdessa had a reputationamong non-OdessaJews as being a thieving

city. He explains: "The word 'thief in Yiddish (ganev) has a much deeper

meaning. It characterizeda person who wouldfool you before you foolhim -



short,[a person who is] experienced, shrewd, an exaggerator, a speculator ...

Rumorsabout Odessa thievesand bandits circulated widely, even extending to far-

away lands.In the 1960s, theAustralian writer, Judah Waten, wholeft Odessa in

1914 as a newborn, remembershow his father "boasted that Odessa turnedout the

mosttalented thieves in theworld, certainly more ingenious, dexterousand brazen

thenthe Warsaw ones."

Babel uses the legendaryfigures ofOdessa thievesand gangsters as themain

charactersin his Odessa Stories. Moreover, Benia Krik's criminalactions

constitutethe plots of thesestories. By "plot," I referto theRussian usage of

siuzhet,or, to the

morerecent term, "story," that is, the "narratedevents or

charactersabstracted by their disposition in thetext."6 In thisarticle I intendto

show thatthe "narratedevents" involving Benia Krik and his underworldin

Babel's Odessa Storiesfunction against the background ofa larger "Odessatext." I

willalso investigateunderground folklore featuring underworld "kings" and track

someof Babel's Odessa sources. Finally, I willlook at Benia Krikand his actions

withinthe historical context of Odessa's experience ofRevolution and CivilWar,

whenthe real-life Mishka Iaponchik, the prototype forBenia Krik, reachedhis

legendary status.

The Odessa Stories,which treat Benia Krik and his gangster activities,

Odessa" (1923),

includethe "The King"(Kopojib- 1921), "How It Was Done in

"The Father" (OTeu-

1924), and "Justice in Quotation Marks"


V. Jabotinsky, "Memoirsof My Typewriter," in The Golden Tradition,ed. L. Dawidowich (New York: SchockenBooks, 1967) 398.



JudahWaten, FromOdessa to Odessa (Melbourne:Cheshire, 1969) 7.

As ShlomithRimmon-Kennan observes, a story is always a

part ot a larger

supposed to

construct, ...the

be living


fictional Reality' in whichthe characters of the story are


to take


and in which its events are


NarrativeFiction: Contemporary Poetics (London:

Routledge,1990) 6. In

our analysis, this large constructis the"Odessa text."

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(CnpaBeAJiHBocTb b cKoóxax - 192 1).7 In addition, Babel's later story, "Froim

Grach" (1934), features"Benia Krik' s people" (jiioah BeHH Kpmca) and is set

during the Civil War in 1919. Therefore, I will consider this story as well.


While Babel's criticshave emphasized his mastery of skaz in rendering the Odessa

idiom in the Odessa Stories, his peculiar treatmentof events has usually been


for granted. Babel's contemporary, K. Paustovskii, records how Babel

would polemicize with the critical notion that his stories are held togetherby

style alone. Using formalistterms and clichés, Babel would

balance of style and plot in his writing:

speculate on the

"How are my storiesheld together? With what kind of cement?You'd thinkthat

they'ddisintegrate at the

slightest touch."And thenhe'd answerhis own


saying that style was the only bindingagent; and thenhe'd laugh at himself.Who

could believe thata story could hold

up without content, plot or intrigue?8

As Babel himself suggested, more unites his stories than style. In fact, a

specific, narrativestructure underpinsmany of his stories.In Odessa

Stories, this

structure originates with the gangster raid (HajieT). The raid may

target small

shops, factories, or apartments. For Babel's leading bandit, Benia Krik, and


friends, "the raid" signifies the main activity, and it organizes the plots of the

stories about

Benia Krik. In "The King," for example, the narrator explains


odd familial relationship between the king of gangsters and his wealthy father-in-

law, Eikhbaum,

HajieTe (I, 121).

by the phrase, "the raid is everything here" / TyT Bee aejio b The story of Benia Krik's raid on Eikhbaum's farmfollows.


In "How It Was Done in Odessa" Tartakovskiiis known by the nickname, "Nine

raids" (fleBüTb HajieTOB). The

tenth raid and

its well-known consequences

constitute the plot of this story. In "Justice in Quotation Marks," two rival


"Justicein Quotation Marks"was


published in 1921 in theOdessa newspaper, Na

Stories." Later,however, Babel did


in which he




and was subtitled"From the Odessa


"How It

in his Odessa

not include this


its heroBenia

Was Done in Odessa," and "Lubka Kazak." Because of

will consider"Justice

Krikand its treatmentof theOdessa underworld, I


Quotation Marks" as part

of the 'Odessa cycle,' but I will not consider"Liubka

noteworthy thatthe

question of whatconstitutes the

example, Efraim Sicher,treats all nine Odessa-

Detstvo i drugie rasskazy (Jerusalem:

Vospominaniia o Babele (Moscow:

fromSochineniia v dvukh tomakh

Kazak" withinthis context. It is

'Odessa cycle' is contentious.For

based tales

as one cycle - see I. Babel1,

Biblioteka-Aliia, 1990).

K. Paustovskii,

"Rasskazy o Babele" in

Knizhnaia palata, 1989) 43.

  • 9 All referencesto I. Babel's stories are

(Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura,1990).


numbersare indicated directly

in the text.Translations from Russian are by R.L. Busch.

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gangsters unexpectedly meet during a single raid. This situationserves as the

main conflict of the story. Benia punishes the man responsible for informing

both rival parties of the target for an upcoming raid. Although not overtly pertaining to "the raid," the story "The Father"ends withan agreement between

Benia Krik and Froim Grach to punish the grocer,Kaplun, with a futureraid:

" ...

and here begins another tale, a tale of the fall of the house of the Kapluns, a

tale of slow death, of acts of arson and nocturnal gunfire /< > ...

h bot TyT

HaHHHaeTCüHOBaa HCTopHfl,HCTopHü nafleHHüflOMa KanjiyHOB, noBecTb o

ero MefljieHHOHraoejiH, o noaacorax h hohhoh CTpejibóe (146).

In Odessa, the practice of "the raid," originated in the political terrorism

during the time of the 1905

Revolution. V. Jabotinsky recalls this time, when

he writes in his novel that"we all read of the heroic raids against convoys that

were transporting gold from the state treasury" (mu Bee HHTajiH o repoHHecKHx HajieTax Ha kohboh Ka3eHHoro mnoTa). Later, "raids" became

the prerogative of criminal gangs and private individuals, and it was called "eks"

in street slang (an abbreviationfor "expropriation").Gangsters involved in these illegal undertakings were labelled naletchiki, or raiders.This type of robbery in

Odessa was widespread in the Jewish community. As in Babel's stories, both the instigators and the targets of these crimes were very often Jews. In fact, one

journalistcompared the raids to the pogroms: "the Jewishmasses are pummelled

by two scourges - at nightby alien scum with clubs, and during the day by our

own" (b ABa KHyTa xjiemyT eBpeHCKyioMaccy; HOHbio ayÕHHicaMHnyacaa

CBOJIOHb, flHeM CBOfl).11

During World War I and especially right afterthe February Revolution in

1917, Odessa newspapers reportedrampant raids. Benia Krik's raids most likely

originated in the "brazen robberies"of thattime. Gangs were composed of former

prisoners, who were granted amnesty and released by the Provisional

Government.Deserters fromthe front during World War I often participated in

the gangs and provided the gangsters witharms. The statemilitia recruited young

students from gymnasiums and universitiesto replace the unpopular, though

experienced, tsarist police. For example, in the epic

poem, February (OeBpajib)

by the Odessa poet, E. Bagritskii, the lyrical hero is a university studentwho serves as the commissar in just such a militia. As commissar, he invades a den

of thieves and prostitutes. His interactionswith them structuresthe plot of the



V. Zhabotinskii, Fiaterò (Paris: Ars, 1936) 209. On Jabotinsky as a Russian

writerand on his novel, The Five, see Alice Stone Nakhimovsky, Russian-Jewish

Literatureand Identity(Baltimore: The Johns HopkinsUniversity Press, 1992) 62-


  • 11 Zhabotinskii, Fiaterò 209.

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1 19

Justas the duel and card game provided a ready-madeplot constructfor many nineteenth-century Russian literaryworks, so too did the structureof the raid

serve as a ready-madeplot forBabel's Odessa Stones. Thus, "the raid" serves as

the narrative plot even before entering Babel's text. Like other plot constructs,

the raid could yield numerousversions. The narrativestructure of theraid follows

a set of rules, conventions, and an honor code. Using local Odessa newspaper

accounts forthis period, it is possible reconstructa master plot of the raid and to

trace how Babel refashioned this extra-textualmaterial into the raids of his

Odessa Stories.

the ownerof




A typical raidin Odessa would begin witha letterof extortionreceived by

business.In thisletter the extortionist would demandthat the

prescribed sum of money and deliverit to a designatedplace.

Such letters invariably containedsome of the same clichés foundin business

letters. But, because of theintent of these letters, the correspondenceultimately

produces a pureparody of business correspondence. One letter, addressedto the

Odessite,Pinkus, in October,1917, illustratesthe point. It was subsequently

published in the dailynewspaper Odesskienovosti, whereit was accompaniedby

the drawing ofa skulland crossbones:

Dear ComradePinkus: On thefourth of August at nineo'clock in the


from your

be so kind as to bring, without fail, 100 rublesto the tramstation across

house. This modestsum will


life, whichis certainly worthmore than

100 rubles. Any effortsto evade this payment will lead to major difficultiesfor you. If


turnto the


will be

killed immediately. You

and your whole

family will

suffer.We will strikeand you will be ruined.Sit on thebench by thetram station and

have in one hand an


withthe money, and in theother a whitekerchief. The

approach, and you will handthe money over

head of theband of Parisian Apaches will

to him.





EyabTe aoõpbi h He OTKaacHTeaocTaBHTb 4-ro




k 9

CTaHUHK)TpaMBaa npoTHB Bauiero m>Ma. 3Ta

Heõojibiiiaíi cyMMa coxpaHHT BaM acH3Hb, KOTOpaa HaBepHoe ctoht õojibiiie 100

pyójieñ. BcflKHe nonbiTKH yicjiOHHTbCfl ot stoh noaanH npHHecyT BaM oojibiune

HenpHiiTHOCTH. Ecjih 3aüBHTe MHJIHU.HH, 6yaeTe MOMCHTajibHO yÓHTbi.uocTpaaaeTe

Bbi h Bama ceMbji. Bac pa3rpOMüT h pa3opín' CnjxbTe Ha cicaMenite TpaMBañHoñ

CTaHUHH h aepacHTe b ozjhoh pyice KOHBepT c aeHbraMH, a b apyroñ 6ejibiñ njiaTOK.

K BaM noAOÍtaeTaTaMaH mañicn napH^ccKHx anauíeñ h bbi eMy BpynHTe aern».12

Judgingby the relatively modest sum of money demanded in the letter, we

may assume thatthis extortionist was not an experiencedgangster. Nevertheless,

this bandit certainly knew the

formulaefor extortion found in the lettersof his

more experienced brethren:the business-like, detailed description of handing over

the money and the accompanied threats.In

"How It Was Done in Odessa" Babel

  • 12 Odesskie novos ti, August 19, 1917.

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incorporates into Benia' s letterthe characteristic features of extortionletters. We



own speech:



... etc., etc.

note that the letter reflects this particular pattern more than it does

so kindas to place have
so kindas to place


been allowingyourself

Ruvim Osipovich: Please, by Saturdayevening, be

In thecase of a refusal,which you

recently, a major disenchantmentin yourfamily lifeawaits you.

MHoroyBaacaeMbiH PyBHM Ochiiobhh! EyabTe HacTOJibicojno6e3Hbi nojioacHTb k

cy66cnre noa 6oHKy c roikjxcboPlboaoh ...

h Tait aajiee. B cjiynae OTKa3a, KaK bm 3to

ce6e b nocjieflHee BpeMJi CTajiH no3BOJiaTb, Bac acaeT 6ojibiiioe pa3OMapOBaHHe b

Bauíeñ ceMeíiHOH)kh3hh (130).

In "How It Was Done in Odessa," even the narratorwho worships Benia

Krik seems to mock the letteras a cliché by noting thatBenia Krik's letterto

Tartakovskii is "a letter very much like all letterswritten on such an occasion"

(130). In the story "The King" Babel intensifiesthe parodie element by imitating

Odessa speech patterns in Benia's letterto Eikhbaum. The formof the letter,

however, stays intact:

Monsieur Eikhbaum, I am requesting that you place

20,000 rubles beneath the gate at

  • 17 Sofievskaia Street. If you do not do so, such an unheard of happening will befall

you that all Odessa will be talking in respect of your person.

Mocbe 3ñx6ayM, «



nojioaorre, npoiuy Bac, noa Bopevra Ha CocjDHeBCicyio, 17

flBaauaTb TbicíiH pyõjien. Ecjih bu 3to He caejiaeTe, TaK Bac acaeT Taicoe, hto 3to

HecjibixaHHO, h Bea Oaecca 6yaeT ot Bac roBopHTb(121).

We note here thatthe hero of Il'f and Petrov's The Golden Calf (3o jiotoh

TejieHOK), Ostap Bender, an intellectual swindler from Chernomorsk-Odessa,

also mocks this sortof letteras predictable and thiskind of extortionas petty:

A petty con like Panikovskiiwould writea letterto

rublesunder the

garbage can out back -

Koreiko telling himto place


otherwise,things wouldbe bad forhim, and at

thebottom he'd drawin a skull,cross bones and a candle. (Ch. XII, "The Herculeans")

MejiKaa yrojiOBHaa comica Bpoae naHHKOBCKoroHariHcajia 6bi KopeñKO nncbMO

«IlojioacHTe bo flBope noa MycopHbiñ hii^hk mecTbCOT pyójieñ, HHane 6yaeT njioxo»

  • - h BHH3ynpHpHCOBajia 6bi KpecT, nepen h CBeny.(Fji. XII, «repKyjiecoBUbi»)^

Failure to respond to lettersof extortion represents the firstviolation of

order that ultimately leads to a raid. The second step of the raid follows. The

gangsterssuddenly appear at the home or business of their victims,pretending to

be customers,police officers,soldiers, or else they are garbed in such a way so

as to conceal their identity(for example, theymight wear robes or masks). Thus,

  • 13 This parallel has also been noted



chitatelia. «Zolotoi

Almanach,1991) 510.

by Iu. Shcheglov in

his Romany I. IV fa i E.

telenok» (Wien: Wiener Slawistischer

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in a 1917 issue of the Odesskie novosti newspaper, for example, in the section

entitled "Happenings" (IlpoHciiiecTBHiO, we finda typicaldescription of such a


Around 2:00 a.m. four unknown

subjects, wearing

masks and armed with

revolvers, turned up at a modestdacha near Big

intothe apartment of a certainMil'rud that was



FountainStation No. 1. They broke



and don't makea move," shoutedone of thebandits. The otherbandits

stood silently behindtheir leader, their guns trainedon Mil'rud.



AByx nacoB hohh neTbipe HeH3BecTHbix cyõ-beicTa b MacKax,

BOOpyaceHHbixpeBOJibBepaMH, üBHjiHCb b oziHy h3 HeóojibuiHx flan b6jih3h 1-oíí

CTaHUHH Bojibuioro OoHTaHa.




C MeCTa,

Ohh BopBajiHCb b KBapTHpy HeKoero Mnjibpyaa, b


rpaÓHTejieñ. OcTajibHbie rpaÓHTejw, HaBeaa peBOJibBepbi Ha Mmibpyaa, MOJina

ocTaHOBHJiHCb3a cnHHoñ CBoero npeABOAHTejia.^

Even this newspaper report conveys the essentially theatrical nature of the

gangsters' entrance. In "How It Was Done in Odessa," Babel also resorts to

theatrical gestures in describing how Benia and

his friends, who are prepared to

raid Tartakovskii's store, make theirentrance:

The next day he and fourfriends turned up at Tartakovskii'sstore. Four masked

barging intothe room.

started brandishing their pistols.

youths withrevolvers came

"Hands up," they said and

Ha cjieayiomHH aeHb oh aBHjica c neTbipbMfl apy3bflMH b KOHTOpy

TapTaKOBCKoro.HeTbipe iohoiiih b MacKax c peBOJibBepaMH BBajwjiHCb b KOMHaTy.

- PyKH BBepx! - CKa3ajiH ohh h CTajiH MaxaTb nHcmneTaMH (130).

Afterthe letterof extortionand the unannounced visit, "the work" of theraid

follows in the sequential order of its constituentevents. While threatening the

owner or the guards with weapons, the gangstersexpress theirdemand. They

then get to "work," - confiscatingmoney or goods. The following real-life report

narratesa rather complex procedure of negotiations with guards and clerks before

the gangstersget to the safe:

The banditsdemanded that the clerk



them money. The clerkdeclared thatthe

thesteel safe,but, when

on it. Then


was in the safe. The banditsthen tried to break open

they saw thiswas morethan they could

handle, they tried usingkeys

wentto thestore manager, and took 15,000rubles before tying himand the guardup.

rpaÓHTejiH noTpeóoBajiH y KOHTopmHica Bbmann aeHer. IIocjieflHHH 3aüBHji,

HTO AeHbrHb Kacce. Toraa rpaÓHTejiH


nonbiTajiHCbB3JiOMaTb acejie3Hyio

Kaccy, ho,


  • 14 Odesskie novosti, July 3, 1917.

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OTnpaBHjiHCb B KBapTHpy K ynpaBjiiiiOLueMykohtopoh h 3a6pajiH 15 Tbican pyojieñ.

Cßü3ajiH KOHTopmHKa,ynpaBjiflKHnero h CTOpoaca.


Babel's narrativein "How It Was Done in Odessa," translatesthis sort of

event into dialogue, thus, creating a "scene" in his short story, ratherthan a

narrative summary. Consider the conversationbetween Benia Krik and the clerk

Iosif Muginshtein, when Krik demands thatthe clerk open the safe:

"Is Jew-and-a-Halfin the

"No, the boss's not in the



"So who's here to be boss then?



. .


"I'm here to be

boss". .



"Then, may God help you, let's see you open the safe for

  • - IlojiTopa MAa b 3aBoae?


Hx HeT b 3aBoae, -<





Kto 6yaeT 3ziecb HaKOHeu 3a xo3flHHa?< >


51 3aecb 6yay 3a xo3>iHHa, -<



  • - Toraa othhhh HaM c ooacbeñ noMombio Kaccy! <





According to the unwrittenmaster plot, the raid should end with the

gangsters getting the money and leaving the scene of the crime. The raids in

Babel's stories violate this. In his stories, a violation of

the rules and conditions

of the raid leads to an unexpected plot twisttowards comedy or tragedy, or, in

most cases, towards a combinationof the two. In "How It Was Done in


the events of the plot initially correspond to the typical features of the raid.

Suddenly, however, it turnsinto an unplanned and

unnecessary death. Afterthe

demand for money is made, the clerk Iosif Muginshtein is murdered.In the story,

"The King," when the raid is almost over and Eikhbaum and Benia Krik reach an

agreement, Benia Krik violates the

patternby falling in love with Eikhbaum' s

daughter.Consequently, the agreement betweenBenia and Eikhbaumis broken.In

"Justicein Quotation Marks," the violation of the pattern manifestsitself as


meeting of two rival gang leaders at the site of a single raid. According to the

rules of the raid, "work" should stop if two rival gangsters meet at one raid, while

the tipster for the raid should be killed. The plot continues withBenia' s revenge

against the tipster.

Clearly, the raid and othercriminal actions do not dominateall events in the

stories featuring Benia Krik. Yet the parodox of the plot of these stories is that

Babel sets the criminalraid in the contextof the most important events of Jewish

familylife, - duringweddings, funerals, and marriageproposals. By consistently

functioning in these archetypalsettings, the raid achieves equivalent status as a

plot component. In "The King," the raid on

Eikhbaum literally concludes with

  • 15 Odesskie novos ti, August 31, 1917.

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Benia's marriageproposal followed by a prenuptualagreement. In "The Father,"

the prenuptualagreement precedes theraid on Kaplun. And in "How It Was Done

in Odessa" the gangsters' raid on Tartakovskii ends with a double funeral

procession. The same ritualserves to bury the victimof the raid and his murderer.

The leader of the raid and of the funeral procession is the very same Benia Krik.


in "The King" the Jewish wedding of Benia's sister is played out

against the background of the raid on the local police station.Benia Krik directs

and organizes both the raid and the wedding. His gangstersplay two roles, as

wedding guests and

raider-arsonists. By the end of this story, Babel rendersthe

two events indistinguishable: "When Benia returnedhome the lanternswere dying

out and a glow was lightingup the sky." / Kor/ja BeHü BepHyjica aomoh, Ha

ABope yace noTyxajiH (JxmapHKH h Ha He6e 3aHHMajiacb 3apü (126). The

extinguishing of the fireat the police station literally coincides with the end of

the wedding party at the Krik household.

The family events in which the raid functionsin Odessa Stories represent the

archetypal plots in Jewish literature, as in, for example, the works of Sholom

Aleichem. In order to show how the plot of the raid is interwovenwith such

archetypalplots, it is worth comparing the plot of Babel's story, "The Father,"

with Sholom Aleichem's short story,"Shprintsa" (1907).16 In this storyTevye

the milkmanrelates the tragedy of one of his daughters,Shprintsa. Shprintsa falls

in love with Aronchik, the dissipated son of a rich widow, who asks her fatherfor

her hand. When Aronchik's motherreceives the news, Tevye is summonedto the

rich widow's dacha. Here Aronchik's uncle demands that Tevye and his daughter

leave his nephew in peace, arguing that the daughter of a milkman is no match

fora rich heir. The widow, together withher brotherand son, suddenlydissappear

fromthe town withouta trace. Tevye looks on helplessly as his daughter mourns

the loss of her beloved and eventually commits suicide. The comic featuresof

Babel's story notwithstanding, "The Father," follows a very similiar plot


Aleichem's. Froim Grach is also a fatherwhose daughter dreams



getting married. She is interested in Solomonchik Kaplun, the son of a

prosperous Odessa grocer. When, however, Froim Grach visits Solomonchik' s

parents, the marriage proposal is rejected by Mme Kaplun: "I do not want any

part of you just as a bride does

not want pimples


KaK HeBecTa He xoneT npbimen Ha rojioBe

on her face." / fla, a He xony

(140). Like Tevye's daughter,

who drowns herself, Bas'ka Grach threatensto end her own life, "or I'll do myself

in" / HjiH ñ cAejiaK) KOHeu, Moeñ *ch3hh (139). Up untilthis point, the story of

  • 16 "Shprintsa" belongs

to Sholom Aleichem's

cycle of stories, united by the

his collected works,

narrator Tevye the milkman.I have used the Russianedition of


sochitienii,vol. 1 (Moscow: GIKhL, 1959) 562-79.

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Froim Grach follows that of Tevye the milkman; both fathersact on behalf of

their daughters' wishes and are rejected by the suitors' families. While Sholom

Aleichem's Tevye goes on living, accepting his fate with wisdom, pride and

humour, the story of Froim Grach takes an unexpected twist.The local smuggler

and brothel keeper, Lubka Kazak, comes up witha new match forBas'ka. Benia

Krik and Froim Grach make an agreement thatBenia will marry Bas'ka and will

punish Kaplun by committing raids on his shop. Benia Krik the gangsterplays

the role of

the long awaited fairy-taleprince. Thus, in "The Father"the archetypal

tragedy of

the Jewishfather who cannot finda matchfor his daughter turnsinto a

gangster's raid and a triumph over therich. In this way, then, Babel introducesthe

plots of criminal activity into archetypal events of Jewishliterature.


Babel was not the only writerto incoiporate Odessa's local colour into his early

stories. As W. Cukerman has shown, between 1919 and 1923, a whole group of

young Odessa writers,including Paustovskii, Il'f, Kataev, and

Slavin, exploited

Odessa materialfor the setting of their literary works.17 However, even beforethe

1920s, storiesabout Odessa banditsand theirraids were already actualized through

the medium of urban folklore and local popular culture. Moreover, Odessa

undergroundsongs (blatnyepesni), which belonged to both the genre of popular

entertainmentand to urban folklore, cultivatedthe image of Odessa's thieves and

bandits. Thus, Babel and the anonymous authorsof the undergroundsongs derived

theirmaterial fromthese very same sources, fromOdessa's local mythologies,

including similar heroes, situations, and mileaux. In order to account for the

world which Babel created in his Odessa Stories, I will considerthe underground

songs as literary texts.18

Dating back to before the Revolution, the role of the outsider, the man of

"the lower depths," served as a common mask forOdessa's local


comedians. Such figures were oftenfeatured in performances at variety theaters,

cabarets, and in the summer theatersthat flourishedin Odessa. The poor and

predominantly Jewish outskirtsof Odessa, "Moldavanka," which also serves as

the locale for Babel's Odessa Stories, not only gave a home to its thieves and

bandits, but nurturedlocal popular songs about these figures in its cafes and



Because this


studied by scholars, I

approximate dates

of these



W. Cukerman, "The Odessan Myth and Idiom in Some Early Worksof Odessa

culturehas not been collected and

Writers," Canadian AmericanSlavic Studies14.1 (1980): 36-51.


of folkloreand

have used textstranscribed from tape recordings of local Odessa

Severnyi's "Old Odessa" concert.For the

on memoirsof the time.The

restaurant performers, such as, Arkadii

songs, I have had to rely

that figure in this section were apparently well knownin the years, 1917-

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taverns. The songs of the Odessa underground often combine the traditional,

urban, semi-folkloric genres, such as cruel romance (acecTOKHH poMaHc), and

prison songs with the specific humourof Yiddish language patterns and jokes of

Moldavanka. Like an urban romance, the undergroundsongs oftencontain a tale

or a story. "Moldavanka" became synonymous in these songs with a den of

thieves (malina), which functions very much

contrary to the world at large.

During the Civil War, a popular song known in Odessa held that "everyone had

gone off for to fight the Civil War, but as forthe thieves,they all stayed back in

Moldavanka" (Bee Ha bohhc aa Ha rpa^c^aHKe, A Bopbi Bee Ha MojiflaBaHKe).

The authorsof

the textsof these songs used the men of the underground not

only as their main heroes, but also as implied narrators.It was said that the

authors of the undergroundsongs and the Odessa naletchiki could have easily

switched roles. Thus, the songs present Odessa and the world at large fromthe

point of view of the bandits and theirattitude to crime and justice. Recurrent

themes include extortions, encounters with the police, vengeance,

and street

violence. The heroes featured in these texts lack any pangs of conscience

characteristicof the villain in Russian folklore.The narratorof one Odessa song,

reminiscent of the real-life Mishka Iaponchik, describes his attitude to


Though poor, hungry, and wearing patched clothes, he knows that in five

minuteshe could become rich simplyby "signing" a receipt in the bank withhis

machine gun.

mother, cares

The generous nature of his native town Odessa, which, like a

about her sons whether they are pawns or "kings," nurtureshis

optimistic outlook. The maternal image of Odessa presented in the song

originated withthe popular phrase of thieves' jargon, "Odessa-mama."

The thieves and bandits in the songs act according to theirown code of

behavior and to the laws of their particular world. Thus, murdercommitted by

bandits is often presented as an inevitable act of justice. In the popular song,

"Murka" (or, in another version,"Liubka"), the narratortells how he murdered

his fellow bandit, a woman by the name of Liubka, whose connections with the

police endangered the thieves.The narratorcontends that justice has been served:

Greetings,my Liubka, greeetings,my dear.

Greetings and You've
Greetings and


blownour cover,we're all as


So as a partingshot, I'll have you eat

as dead.


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3apaBCTByñ, Moa Jlioõica, 3apaBCTByñ,aoporaa.

3flpaBCTByñ,aoporaa h npomañ!

Tw 3aiuyxepHjia bck> Hamy MajiHHy-

TaK Tenepb MacjiHHbi nojiynan.19

Despite the grimsubject matterof these undergroundsongs, the anonymous

authors express a light and humorousattitude towards violence. Moreover,

violenceis sometimes presented as desirablefor the victim. As early as 1917,

the youngsinger and comedian, L. Utesov,performed therole of a newspaper

boy in a popularstand-up routine.In one songannouncing themost important

town news, Utesovdescribed how an old

womanwas robbedand rapedby six

bandits. Notwithstanding

its disturbingsubject matter, the song

is nevertheless

rather light and cheerfuland ends withthe old woman'sdream of reliving the


On Deribasovskaiiaat thecorner of Richelieu,

At six in the evening thenews came out.

How some old

gal (a

Six raiderschanced to




And while







She dreams,oh

my, of takingpart

In yet anotherraid.

fineold babe, all right)


partaking of her compote

KaK Ha flepHÕacoBCKOH,yroji PniiiejibeBCKOH,

B mecTb nacoB Benepa pasHecnaca BecTb.

y CTapyuiKH-õaôyuiKH,y 6a6yuiKH-CTapyiiiKH

UlecTepo HajieTHHKOBotkhjih necTb.

Ou-tou- nepeBepTOu-õaõyiiiKa3AOpOBa.

  • Ou-tou- nepeBepTOi;-KyiuaeT komiiot

    • Olj-toij- nepeBepTOu- h MenTaeT CHOBa

      • Ou-tou- nepeßepTOu-nepe^cHTb HajieT.20

Such a joyous attitude to violent actions creates the impression that the

violence and murders represent not the reality of Odessa streets, but constitutea

comic performance. Often violence is described as merry-making. For example,

one song, "On Deribasovskaiia they opened a pub" (Ha


oTKpbijiacü riHBHafl) describes a violent fight between two parties which





Utesov recalls this


he describesit


Paustovskii's fellow

passengerssing this song


in the trainfrom Kiev to

around 1918. K Paustovskii, Sobranie sochinenii.PovesV o zhizni, vol. 4

Although he does not quote

whenin fairly frivolous

(Moscow: Khudozhestvennaialiteratura, 1982) 673.

performanceforty years

euphemistically: "So, for example,

couplets and in accordancewith the taste of


those days, I sang of theold lady robbed

veryvividly perceived and

banditson DeribasovskaiiaStreet, the couplets were

remembered,because towardsthe end of thewar,

therewere a fairnumber of robberies

in Odessa.

L. Utesov, S pesneipo zhizni (Moscow: Iskusstvo,1961) 67.

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parodies a then popular Argentiniantango. The story of the violent act is not

only accompanied by the melody of tango music, it is referredto as a tango.

But Kostia the junkman was a fiery fellow:

He blasted Chubby Churmanwith a bottle,

Jammedhis forkin a waiter's leg,

And thusstruck up a glorioustango.

Ho KocTü-ruMapoBO3 6biJi napeHb nbijiKHñ:

HypMeHa acnpHoro oh 3acBeTHJi 6yTbijiK0H,


H Hanajiocfl cjiaBHoe TaHro.

In Babel's "The King,"shooting and fighting are part of the merry-making

at the wedding:


first,the raiders, who were seatedin tight rows,felt constrained in the

theygot going. Levka Katsap

presence of

strangers, but aftera while

brokea bottleof vodka over

his sweetheart'shead, and Monia-the- Artilleryman started firing intothe air.

HajieTHHKH, cuaeBuiHe coMKHyTbiMHpflflaMH CHanajia CTecHJijiHCb nocTopoHHHx, ho

noTOM OHH pa30iujiHCb. JleBKa Kauan pa3ÓHJi Ha rojiOBe CBoeñ BO3Jno6jieHHOH

ÕyTbIJIKy BOflKH, MOHfl ApTHJlJiepHCTBblCTpeJIHJl B BO3/*yX(I, 123).

Gangsters' slang, together with Yiddish words and expressions, also

produces a comic effect. Thus, in the undergroundsongs

even themost tragic

eventsare recountedas comic. In the popularsong, "FromOdessa Prison" (C

OAeccKoroKHHMaHa), twobandits stop at one of theirdens to restafter having

just escapedprison. One of themis fatally woundedand realizes that he willnot

be able to survive. Facing death, he nevertheless expresses his last wishesin

comically distortedRussian:

Comrade Skumbrievich,




Her son died doin'

A sabre in t'other,

Ms duty

Wid 'is riflein one 'and

And a song in 'is t'roat.