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Isaac Babel’s war diaries. It’s not just the Red Army that imagines it’s fighting for a new world; on the Polish side the new state, the Rzeczpospolita, has only been in existence for a couple of years. Does it help to explain the brutality on both sides, that they both lay claim to the future? Probably not. After a point Babel despairs of explanation. Part of his job is to explain the coming marvels of socialism to the terrified families on which they’re billeted.

In 1920 there are still so many Jewish towns about, so many shops and synagogues. Reduced and scrambling, but extant, expecting more centuries of hard survival.

A Rzeczpospolita is a fragile thing. A people less so, and yet.

To reach for the historical lens, and think of the present as past, is not a matter of removing the obligation to act where one can, nor of washing out morals in blanket fatalism. One speaks of historical tragedy as one wouldn’t speak of geological tragedy.

The live trees, the dead trees, in Sequoia National Park. Venus can’t happen here, they said—

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