Courtesy of The World Odessit Club
Eighty-five years after bestowing “The Odessa Tales” and “Red Cavalry” to both the Russian and the Jewish modernist literary canons; 71 years after a 20-minute show trial resulted in execution by firing squad; 54 years after his posthumous rehabilitation by Soviet authorities, and several decades after plans were first laid, a monument to Isaac Babel has been erected in his home town of Odessa, across the street from his former apartment building on the corner of Rishelyevskaya and Zhukovskaya streets.
Located in a plaza in front of the lumpy neo-Soviet columns of high school number 117, the monument depicts a frocked Babel sitting next to a massive “wheel of fate,” scribbling in a notebook while gazing dreamily into the distance.
The tribute was dedicated September 4 by The World Odessit Club, a loose confederation of associations that produces nostalgic get-togethers. Expatriates of the cosmopolitan port town collected money for the sculpture over the better part of the last five years, one donation at a time.
Until now, the discerning Babel fan in search of a public tribute to the scribe of the Jewish tough guy had to content himself with a nicely etched marble plaque hanging over the entrance to Babel’s former apartment building. This is the house in which Babel spent his productive adult years, occupying it (as the plaque tells us in Ukrainian) from 1909 to 1924. The ornate door and doorknob are the only visible architectural motifs that hint at the building’s former sumptuousness. A mere 15-minute walk from the city’s opera house and port, it was probably a nice place to work.
But for several years the structure has been enclosed by construction scaffolding, which in turn has been plastered over with advertising and graffiti. A massive billboard for a Paul & Shark clothing shop located next door obscures the plaque, and one has to step around a set of aluminum sided walls and lift up a heavy plastic construction tarp to get a peek at it.
Everyone involved in the new tribute proudly points out that the funds for the monument to Russia’s national poet, Alexander Pushkin, which stands with its back to city hall due to the city’s refusal to help finance it, took twice as long to collect. The Russian celebrity sculptor Georgy Frangulyan, best known for his statues of singer-songwriter Bulat Okudzhava in Moscow, Pushkin in Brussels, Peter the Great in Antwerp and, entertainingly enough (and to this Russian, grotesquely also), Boris Yeltsin in Yekaterinburg, reportedly took a hefty pay cut to work on the statue, out of his love for Babel’s stories.
Fittingly, this being Odessa, the story is not without hints of lurid machinations. The New York and Odessa branches of the club broke off relations after allegations that the former was keeping a portion of the donations for their own club’s coffers. The Odessan Diaspora in Los Angeles, however, was heartily thanked for its generosity.