‘I know that intuition is a poor argument; I know that it is presumptuous to touch even the fringe of the Russian problem without cognizance, economical, political, historical, of all the facts;I know that intuition is a poor argument [].’
Vita Sackville-West, Passenger to Tehran

In this discussion, I’m referring to four works: Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, Vita Sackville-West’s Passenger to Tehran, Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi, and the album Lament by Einsturzende Neubauten.
Red Cavalry is a cycle of thinly veiled short stories covering the Soviet-Polish War of 1920-1921. I say thinly veiled, because Babel did not change the names of the officers he showed in a poor light. In later years, these officers rose to prominence in the Soviet Union and in the Stalin years, Babel would pay for these portrayals with his life.
In Passenger to Tehran, Sackville-West documents a journey she took from England to Iran in 1926. The purpose of the journey was to join her husband Harold Nicolson for the coronation of Reza Shah Pahlavi. Nicolson at the time was the chief of mission at the British embassy. Following the coronation, she returns to England by way of Ukraine, Russia, and Poland. (Reza Shah, a creature of both British and Russian interests, was placed on the Iranian throne as a puppet. Come World War II, The British and the Soviets combined to depose Reza Shah and put his more tractable son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi [the one later deposed by Ayatollah Khomeini] in charge.)

Ubu Roi covers a war in the same region, but he’s working on a more universal indictment of the warring classes. The intersections and divisions in how we talk about war and the waging of war are pulled into high relief when we consider the satire Jarry is trying to pull off. He names his main characters Mama and Papa Turd and Buggerlaus and has them engage in the most dreadful acts of murder. The fact that Papa Turd is greedy and incompetent is a reflection of the ruling class’ image that people already recognize. A century before Jarry, Europe fought the age’s first wars over the incompetence of the French royal family and continued for much of the century. While Jarry was writing before World War I, the path the various nations were on might have been clear. That the battlefield is Poland is key for what came next in the 20th century.

Barely established and World War I barely over, the Russians (or newly branded Soviets) roll in with a journalist named Babel who takes copious notes and writes some very popular stories about the Revolutionary takeover of Poland.
And while Jarry and Babel are writing about the same place, at a remove of almost thirty years from each other, the dynamics of leaders and soldiers are the same.
And shortly after that, a well-traveled English woman is waylaid in both Russia and Poland in the aftermath of that war, just trying to get home from a visit to Iran. Each has interesting words for what happens at the various levels of society in a battle for ‘a place that is nowhere.’ These words close Jarry’s introductory statement to the only performance of his Ubu Roi, a reference to the fact that Poland was partitioned into three sections belonging to Russia, Austria, and Prussia. From 1795 until 1918, Poland did not exist.

Sackville-West wasn’t sure what her journey home was going to entail. She traveled relatively easily from Teheran to Baku, Azerbaijan, but required intervention from the Persian consulate to secure seats on a train to Moscow. The intervention was the clearing out of a train car of those already aboard so that she might have an otherwise unavailable seat. “There is nothing further to be said in favour of the journey from Baku to Moscow, for it is exceedingly monotonous; the names of the Caucasus, the Sea of Azov, Rostov-on-Don seemed full of suggestion, but it very quickly evaporated: the Caucasus was reduced to a few foothills, the Sea of Azov looked much like any other sea, and of Rostov one sees only the railway station, unrelieved even by the presence of a Don Cossack.” Babel describes the region similarly in one of his diary entries.
Ukraine depressed her, for she’d enjoyed its pre-war feudal elegance. This one paragraph is probably even more pertinent to what Babel describes of the Polish-Soviet War:
“I remembered how before the war I had stayed there in the magnificent hospitality of Polish friends, riding, dancing, laughing; living at a fantastic rate in that fantastic oasis of extravagance and feudalism, ten thousand horses on the estate, eighty English hunters, and a pack of English hounds; a park full of dromedaries; another park, walled in, full of wild animals kept for sport; Tokay of 1750, handed round by a giant; cigarettes handed round by dwarfs in eighteenth-century liveries; and where was all that now? Gone, as it deserved to go; the house razed to the ground till it was lower than the wretched hovels of the peasants, the estate parcelled out, cut in half by the new Polish frontier, the owner dead, with his brains blown out, and his last penny gambled away in Paris. I had not realised that we should pass so near.”
As it deserved to go. The reasons behind revolution are both unique and astoundingly common.
After waiting a few days in Moscow for a train over the frontier to Poland, ‘civilized Europe again,’ Vita was met with the next aspect of the revolution. The train stopped miles from Warsaw where the revolution was in the streets. The waiting and the travel were simply difficult, but she, like those under the boot of the Red Cavalry, hadn’t planned on being behind the frontier. No one does, not even the revolutionaries.

Poland claimed parts of Ukraine and Belarus as part of its empire prior to its partition – though in 1896 Poland ‘didn’t exist’ according to Jarry. It’s a weird agglomeration of history and fiction, made even more relevant by the daily reports out of Ukraine and the assertions that Ukraine has always been Russian.
Nearly a century later, Blixa Bargeld and his band Einsturzende Neubauten produced Lament, a kind of inquiry into the experience of World War I, and first performed on the 100th anniversary of that war’s opening salvos. In the album’s notes, Bargeld notes that World War II was a result of the unfinished business of World War I.
Lament opens with a macro view of the war from the point of view of Tsar Nicholas and his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm. A family tree in the CD booklet reminds us that all of the European royal families were intertwined (in much the same way that monetary powers are today). Bargeld and band mate Alexander Hacke read the texts of telegrams sent between the two rulers, overlapping their words to the same degree that the telegrams themselves overlapped in transit.
Another top-down representation of the war is a percussion piece simply called Der 1. Weltkrieg. The instrument is a set of pipes named for each country in the war. The powers are named as they enter and each day they’re in the war is represented by one beat. It takes 392 4/4 bars to represent the entire war.
A rendition of Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind (Where Have All The Flowers gone) reminds of the human toll of war in terms of the people we may know, but as archetypes, whereas In De Loopgraaf, How Did I Die, and All Of No Man’s Land Is Ours tell war’s experiences quite literally from in the trenches.
These take the contrasts between Jarry’s satire on war and Babel’s nearly amoral accounts of what was happening in battle and around it from the points of view of the people who fought and forge them into one song cycle.