Presita el Usona Esperantisto № 2021:3 (maj-jun)

Book review

Esperanto and Languages of Internationalism in Revolutionary Russia

Lasta ĝisdatigo: 2021-05-28

Dr. Brigid O’Keeffe is a historian at Brooklyn College who will be presenting at our upcoming virtual Landa Kongreso in June.


Brigid O’Keeffe’s latest book, Esperanto and Languages of Internationalism in Revolutionary Russia, tells a new story about the early life of Esperanto, one that challenges many of our existing myths. Her background as a historian, rather than an Esperantist, also allows her to bring contextual knowledge and theoretical understanding to her exploration of Esperanto in a Russian context. O’Keeffe devotes much attention to the broader cultural landscape of which Esperanto was a part, making for an engaging narrative.

(For potential readers who would like additional context, I strongly recommend the Revolutions podcast series, which provides accessible explanations of Russian history and culture at the turn of the century.)

O’Keeffe begins with the Russian Empire in which Zamenhof grew up. She rejects the notion that it was simply a gray cultural wasteland with a stillborn civil society. She shows how Russian intellectuals and urban dwellers of the period were very much engaged with various sorts of “grassroots internationalisms” just as people were in other parts of the world. Indeed, the vast majority of early Esperantists were located in the Russian Empire.

According to O’Keeffe, Esperanto did not face particular issues from governmental paranoia or anti-semitism. The problem was rather banal: there was simply nobody in the censor’s office who could read it. When a publication was eventually allowed, it was censored — but only because it contained an essay by Leo Tolstoy.

O’Keeffe then discusses the growth of Esperanto in France and the lead up to the first Universala Kongreso, which ended up taking place at the height of the first Russian Revolution in 1905. O’Keeffe documents and brings new interpetation to the efforts of the organizers to rein in Zamenhof for being too Jewish, too Eastern, too backwards and provincial.

The 1905 Revolution was followed by violent repression and pogroms, especially in cities with large Jewish populations. Bialystok suffered a particularly gruesome pogrom in 1906, just on the eve of the 2nd Universala Kongreso in Geneva. The organizers did not want Zamenhof to speak too “politically.” Nonetheless, he did speak directly about the violence in Bialystok, in a famous speech leading to the development of the Interna Ideo. In O’Keeffe’s English translation, the speech feels very relevant today for its condemnation of inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence and the growing “walls between peoples.”

O’Keeffe gives interesting profiles of other Russian Esperantists during this period, for example Vasilij Eroshenko, the blind anarchist poet who learned Esperanto beginning in 1908, traveled to Britain in 1912, and then to Japan in 1914, where he spent five years and became something of a celebrity. She also describes Captain Postnikov, a respected military officer who became a leading Esperantist around 1907. Postnikov was the first president of the Russian Esperanto League, and worked tirelessly to gain official support for Esperanto from members of the royal family and Czarist bureaucracy.

1914 brought the First World War and, with it, the first Universala Kongreso to be cancelled. Like many other Esperantists, Zamenhof was already en route to the UK in Paris, and then suddenly had to find a way home through countries which viewed him as an enemy. O’Keeffe tells the story of a Russian who arrived in Paris early and documented meetings with many other Esperantists even before the UK was due to start.

Zamenhof, according to O’Keeffe, worked and smoked himself to death in Warsaw during the war. Only in his last days did he get a glimmer of good news — the February Revolution (which preceded the more well-known October Revolution) began just a few days before his death. O’Keeffe’s is the first mention I have seen of Zamenhof’s positive reaction to the revolution.

O’Keeffe shows how the period between the February and October revolutions inspired Esperantists in Russia to promote the importance of Esperanto for international socialism and mutual understanding between workers. During this interlude, many workers and socialists came to Esperanto in Russia out of revolutionary zeal, while many of the earlier “bourgeois” Esperantists began to lose prominence in the movement.

Then came the October Revolution in which the Bolsheviks came to power. As their control tightened, many Esperantists joined the Bolshevik party and oriented their promotion of Esperanto around the dominant ideology and the needs expressed by the Soviet state.

In the first years after 1917, the Bolsheviks hoped to inspire a series of revolutions around the globe. In order to promote such revolutions, the Bolsheviks launched the “Communist International” (Comintern) in 1919 as a break from the earlier “Socialist International.”

O’Keeffe devotes a good deal of attention to the problems of language, translation, and interpretation in the early meetings of the Comintern. I found this description very interesting just from a technical/linguistic point of view.

Up to that point, German had been the “lingua franca” of the socialist movement. All of the leading socialists in any country were judged, in part, by their ability to express themselves in German, and secondarily in other Western European languages such as French or English.

The difficulties in interpretation inspired one delegate to propose the adoption of Esperanto. This effort spawned a half-hearted commission to explore auxiliary languages, which stalled and was ultimately fruitless.

By the mid-1920s, the Soviet state was becoming much more focused on its own survival and stabilization as a state. The Soviet Esperantists switched course, and began promoting the utility of Esperanto in new ways: for “citizen diplomacy” via letter writing with workers and activists in other countries; for the acquisition of technical knowledge, blueprints, and other know-how in the drive towards industrialization; and in support of a mass campaign to teach Western languages.

The connections between Soviet and foreign Esperantists is particularly interesting. One of the big draws for ordinary Soviet citizens to learn and practice Esperanto was the opportunity to cultivate pen pals across the world, even for someone who might never leave their province. The Soviet Esperanto Union (SEU) originally encouraged this correspondence as a way for Soviet citizens to tell the truth about Russia and bypass lies of the foreign capitalist press. Soviet Esperantists found themselves in a semi-unique position of being able to talk directly about their lived experiences with friends and comrades abroad, with little censorship.

Of course the problem with being able to tell the truth directly, without any oversight, is that nobody knows which truth you are telling …. SEU’s solution was to make letter writing a “collective” process, even putting suggestions in their journals for how to respond to common questions.

During this period SEU’s leaders complained to Soviet officialdom about the unregulated correspondence, and about the independence of the international worker-Esperantist movement from Soviet domination. As O’Keeffe points out, these actions tragically contributed to eventual doom for the Soviet Esperanto movement. If Esperanto allowed for uncensored exchanges through which dangerously critical ideas could enter the country, then from the perspective of the Soviet bureaucracy, the language was a problem to be dealt with.

As Esperanto was increasingly sidelined in the Soviet Union, SEU’s leaders grasped for legitimacy. They engaged in debates about the future “language of Communism” in which, as with genetics, art, or military science, the “correct” position was determined by whoever held Stalin’s favor at the time.

Beginning in 1935, Esperantists with pen pals in the Soviet Union began to notice that responses stopped coming. During the Great Terror, anyone with knowledge of a foreign language or international connections was suspect. One leading Esperantist “confessed” that Esperanto was being used to organize a spy ring; several of the other leaders he named then also “confessed.” We know what followed …

O’Keeffe does an excellent job showing Esperanto’s rich and dynamic life and place in Russian society between 1887–1937. Her book should bring increased academic attention to the social history of Esperanto and the overlooked importance of the “International Language Question.” There is also much for the contemporary Esperanto movement to learn from and consider during our own tumultuous times.

Additional Notes

  1. O’Keeffe explores Zamenhof’s engagement with Zionism as a youth, and follows Esther Schor in arguing that his transition to universalism, as expressed with Esperanto and Hillelism, came from a desire to create a world where Jews could exist safely among other peoples. A particularly interesting detail was his suggestion that Jews should settle in an uninhabited corner of North America. This makes it even more fitting that Michael Chabon paid tribute to Zamenhof and Esperanto in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, his alternate-history novel depicting a Jewish metropolis in Alaska.

  2. O’Keeffe points out that the Dreyfus Affair would have been part of the context for the French organizers of the first UK to be worried about Zamenhof seeming “too Jewish.” This began with the secret conviction of Dreyfus, a Jewish-French army officer, for espionage in 1894. Emile Zola’s famous “J’Accuse” letter of 1898 exposed the lies that led to the conviction, for which Zola had to flee France. The French government collapsed in 1903 over the affair, after which it was re-opened, and Dreyfus was finally reinstated in 1906. The affair polarized French society, leading to popular calls for exoneration as well as numerous anti-semitic riots. The Dreyfus Affair convinced Theodor Herzl, known now as the “Spiritual Father of the Jewish State,” to move from universalism to Zionism — the opposite of Zamenhof’s evolution just a few years prior.

  3. Captain Postnikov is a very interesting character; if I had to find something to complain about in O’Keeffe’s book, it’s that I would have liked more detail on Postnikov. He was arrested in 1911, accused of military espionage, and quickly convicted. Unlike Dreyfus, his conviction did not lead to a social crisis. Although the Esperanto movement quickly distanced itself from him, it still suffered from the association. O’Keeffe mentions this in a footnote, where she assumes that his conviction was legitimate, but does not say why. She does not detail his later fate, which is almost a mirror of the Russian Revolution as a whole. Postnikov received an amnesty after the 1917 February Revolution and returned to St. Petersburg, where he joined a small, non-Bolshevik socialist party. He was arrested and released three times between 1919–1922. In 1925 the entire leadership of his small party was arrested; Postnikov was sentenced to death and immediately shot. This was before Stalin had consolidated power, and a full decade before the Great Terror. I didn’t find mention of Postnikov engaging with Esperanto after 1911. Postnikov is the subject of a novel, Dek tagoj de Kapitano Postnikov (Mikaelo Bronŝtejn, 2004), which was also adapted into a play for the 2011 UK, on the centenary of his conviction.

  4. The delegate who proposed Esperanto to the Comintern was Ángel Pestaña, from Spain. He was disillusioned by the authoritarianism and corruption he saw in Russia, and his reports played a key role in keeping the anarchist-influenced Spanish labor movement out of the Soviet orbit.

  5. O’Keeffe devotes attention to the enthusiasm for radio as a new border-crossing technology in the 1920s. Her exploration of the cultural impact of radio was interesting, and gave me a better appreciation for the long overlap between Esperanto and amateur radio enthusiasm.

Esperanto and Languages of Internationalism in Revolutionary Russia]. Brigid O’Keeffe. Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. Available June 17th from Bloomsbury USA and Bloomsbury UK. A free preview is available. Readers of Usona Esperantisto are eligible for a 35% discount on both print and ebook versions: use the discount code ESPER21.