Robert Minto at Open Letters Monthly:
The Odessa stories are less well known than Babel’s Red Cavalry stories, a collection of reports from the front of the Polish-Soviet War that secured his reputation as one of the greatest 20th century Russian writers, and they have their own quite different atmosphere. Pushkin Press has published them together in a short volume, retranslated by Boris Dralyuk, to highlight the unity of the set. The book is broken into parts which show Odessa in its romantic heyday, run by the gangsters, and then in its Soviet decline, as it is ruthlessly standardized, normalized, and drained of color. Babel’s autobiographical notes and essays about Odessa are tacked onto the end, to make the book a complete testament to his vision of the city.
That vision is complex and tragic. Odessa in pre-Soviet days may have been a region of mythic heroes, who share something of the amoral vigor of the bandits and warriors of folklore, but it also hosted a plundered populace. A city run by bandits is a paradise for no one but the strong. Still, compared to the regime that pacified the city, old Odessa may not have been so bad after all. The Soviet government rooted out corruption and crime, but it also cracked down on religion and innocent customs, reorganizing here as everywhere according to the blunt dictates of unnuanced rationality.