Born to a Jewish family in Odessa, Ukraine, during a mass exodus of Jews from the Russian empire, Isaak Babel experienced a relatively peaceful youth. At school, he studied Talmud, music, and the German and French languages. In 1915, Babel completed his formal education when he graduated from Kiev University and moved to St. Petersburg.
In St. Petersburg, Babel met the Russian author Maxim Gorky, who published some stories in 1916. During the Russian Civil War, Babel was assigned as a journalist to Field Marshall Budiony's First Cavalry army, witnessing its unsuccessful Polish campaign to carry Communist revolution outside Russia. The Red Army penetrated almost to Warsaw but were driven back. In Odessa Babel started to write a series of stories set in the Odessan ghetto of Moldavanka, where he was born, describing the life of the Jewish Underworld in Odessa , before and after the October Revolution During this same period, Babel met and maintained an early friendship with Ilya Ehrenburg, while continuing to publish stories, to wide acclaim, throughout the 1920s.
However, as Stalin tightened his grip on Russian culture in the 1930s, and especially with the rise of socialist realism, Babel increasingly withdrew from public life. Unlike other Russian authors, Isaak Babel was allowed to travel during this time (as his family was living in France), and in 1935 delivered a speech to the International Congress of Writers in Paris.
Isaak Babel collaborated with Sergei Eisenstein, on the film Bezhin Meadow.
Babel returned to the Soviet Union, and in May 1939 he was arrested at his cottage in Peredelkino, and eventually interrogated, at Lubyanka, on charges of espionage. After a forced confession, Babel was tried, found guilty, and, on January 27, 1940, shot in Butyrka prison.
On December 23, 1954, a year after Stalin's death, Isaak Babel was publicly exonerated of the charges against him.