Reflections on Isaac Babel's Salt
Narrated by its main character on behalf of “all the fighters of the Second Platoon” (276), Isaac Babel’s short story Salt is, without question, one of the most intense tales I have read in quite awhile. There are so many emotions that swirled through my mind during this story, emotions that radiated from the characters like they were flesh and blood and standing before me, and my “thoughts flew like birds” (274): denial, contradiction, hatred, sympathy, empathy, bravery, ignorance, brutality, and pride.

A Cossack Fighter for the Revolution, Nikita Balmashov’s story begins as a letter to the “Comrade Editor” and tells the dark tale of a woman who, attempting to conceal an illegal bag of salt, runs afoul of a trainload of Cossacks on their way to Gavrilka. By masquerading the contraband as her child, thus playing on the sympathy of her champion Nikita, the woman boards the train and is allowed sanctuary from rape and harm; the fate suffered by her fellow “evil fiends” (273). As the night continues, Nikita ascertains her true purpose and interrogates her. Upon responding sharply in retaliation, she is thrown from the train and survives to dust her skirts defiantly…arousing the wrath of Nikita, who picks up a rifle from its post and kills her: or, in his words, “wiped that blot off the face of the working land and the republic” (276).

One of the main notions I had about this story was how contradictory Nikita was, and how many other factors (ignorance, denial, hatred, etc) tied into this thinking. On the one hand, he swears fealty to all who harm Russia, the “capitalist peddler” (275) and “dishonest citizen” (276) that pulled the country “into the pit and want to turn back the stream and cover Russia with corpses and dead grass” (276). On the other hand, he does not see that, in killing the woman, he has only added another corpse to the pile. He does not see the contradiction in keeping a mother from harm, while other women (possibly mothers themselves) are being raped in the next coach. He doesn’t see the contradiction in he and his fellow brethren telling the woman to just sit and not be frightened…how is that possible, when she is hearing fellow females get raped? When she herself would have been raped had it not been for the single fact that she was a mother and thought to be a “toiling member of the republic” (275)? Very difficult logic. Still, a fanatic always believes that his logic is sound, does he not?

Babel seems to believe that all the war is accomplishing is more death and hatred, and the resurgence of a groundless patriotism based on contradiction and lack of logic….and that it should instead, be promoting solidarity and a better standard of living. In illustrating the act of brother fighting brother, it is as if Babel is attempting to convey that the idea that was supposedly behind the “Common Cause” efforts of building up Russia (making it better for all its citizens) didn’t hold true to reality.

In closing, I thought this story amazing, and only wish I could have written about it for more than two pages! This story was like a dervish; haunting and melancholy, yet infused with passion. I will remember it always.

Written 2/16/05 in response to Isaac Babel's acclaimed story Salt. An assignment for my History of Russia: The Soviet Experiment [HIST-146] class @ San Jose State University. My teacher, Alison Katsev, was amazing!

Babel, Isaac. “Salt.” The Complete Works of Isaac Babel. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2002. 273-276.