Isaac Babel’s “My First Goose”

Resource Kit by
Amelia Glaser

Module Content



The Russian Jewish fiction writer Isaac Babel (1894-1940) is best known for his carefully crafted short stories written in the 1920s. “My First Goose” is one of the most famous stories from Babel’s Red Cavalry cycle (1923-1926), a fictionalized account of the Soviet-Polish War based on Babel’s experience as a reporter and propagandist in General Budyonny’s First Cavalry Army in the summer and fall of 1920. Babel—who was born and raised in the cosmopolitan port city of Odessa—witnessed first-hand, and wrote about, the changes the war and Revolution wrought on Jewish and non-Jewish East European life.

"My First Goose" takes place in a Europe transformed by World War I and by the Revolution. The Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German empires had fallen, giving rise to independent states in Eastern and Central Europe, and Budyonny’s Army was fighting resurgent Poland, attempting to push the Soviet border west. The narrator, Kiril Lyutov, is a Russian Jewish leftist intellectual struggling to reconcile his socialist ideals with the violence of the war and to fit in with the physically impressive but brutal Cossacks in his regiment. Ultimately, a mock act of violence earns Lyutov a place among the rank-and-file, and the story ends with him interpreting Lenin’s speech for his illiterate comrades. The story invites many interpretations. Some see the ending as a metaphorical sexual conquest by the narrator, through a combined use of force and storytelling. Some scholars have read the slaughter of the goose as a rejection of kosher-butchery. Lyutov’s violence against an old woman has been read as a form of self-violation—after all, she wears glasses just like him. This kit offers resources that provide context for this complex story and that will help students consider its many possible interpretations.

(Many thanks to Gregory Freidin for his assistance on this guide.)

Cover image: Photograph of Isaac Babel, circa 1920s.