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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 45 November 4, 2023

Review of O’Keeffe’s, Esperanto and Languages of Internationalism in Revolutionary Russia

Saturday 4 November 2023



Reviewed by Jasmine Calver

Esperanto and Languages of Internationalism in Revolutionary Russia
by Brigid O’Keeffe

London: Bloomsbury Academic
2021. 266 pp. $35.95
(e-book), ISBN 978-1-350-16067-5; $35.95
(e-book), ISBN 978-1-350-16066-8.

Esperanto and Internationalism

Historians of internationalism in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries will have at least some knowledge of Esperanto, although for most the international language project remains an interesting side note, indicative of the hopeful, but perhaps misguided, utopian thought that characterized early globalization. Created in the atmosphere of late imperial Russian linguistic orthodoxy by the ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof, Esperanto had several key ideological features: it was designed to be easy to learn, to foster peace through its inherent “neutrality,” and to facilitate communication in an increasingly globalized world. Esperanto gained traction at the same time as communism began to offer an alternative approach to societal construction that hinged on global community and world revolution, theoretically presenting Esperantists with the ideal partner in the proliferation of their language. Despite lofty ambitions and some early success, Esperanto suffered from internal conflicts and a lack of governmental support for its adoption, and thus never became the official second language of global communication between peoples or states. Why did the Esperanto project, which demonstrated arguably the most promise of any constructed international auxiliary language (of which there were several in the fin–de–siècle and interwar periods), fail to build upon the significant community of speakers it initially attracted and become the language of internationalism in this crucial period of globalization?

Brigid O’Keeffe’s book, Esperanto and Languages of Internationalism in Revolutionary Russia, considers Esperanto’s place in the Russian Empire, its growth in the early Soviet period, and its decline as a result of Stalin’s repressive policies. O’Keeffe thoroughly traces the development of Esperanto from Zamenhof’s origins in the linguistically pluralist Polish city of Bialystok through the persecution suffered by Soviet Esperantists during the purges in the 1930s. She questions how the changing fortunes of one of the largest national Esperantist groups impacted the progress of the broader Esperantist movement by the outbreak of the Second World War. O’Keeffe paints a vibrant picture of a community of language learners dedicated to advancing the Esperantist cause as a means of peace between nations and solidarity between workers, despite the obstacles they faced.

O’Keeffe’s book blends microhistorical approaches to Esperantist individuals and small Esperantist communities with macrohistorical examinations of the role of international institutions in the validation of Esperanto as an international language. On one hand, O’Keeffe examines how imperial Russian and Soviet citizens understood their place in a rapidly globalizing world through Esperanto, specifically the “politics, meaning, and experience of fashioning one’s self a global citizen from their various corners of the fracturing tsarist empire” (p. 3). On the other, she seeks to question “the dilemmas of language diversity and international communication” faced by nations (specifically the Soviet Union), while simultaneously advocating for the study of Esperanto as a “useful lens through which to examine how the global politics of language figured in the Russian Revolution and ultimately helped shape twentieth–century socialist internationalism” (pp. 10-11). O’Keeffe’s book is structured chronologically, covering Esperanto’s origins in the late nineteenth century and the development of a distinct Esperantist culture in the last days of the Russian Empire, the relationship between Esperantists and the Bolsheviks in the post–October Revolution period, the use of Esperanto for the advancement of the Soviet Union, and its downfall in the paranoid atmosphere fostered by Stalinism in the 1930s.

In the first chapter, O’Keeffe introduces the reader to Esperanto through a detailed portrait of its creator, L. L. Zamenhof, placing the development of the language and the ideological premise behind it into context. O’Keeffe emphasizes Zamenhof’s identity as a Polish Jew from a distinctly polyglottic city (Bialystok) on the western edges of the Russian Empire during a period of rampant anti–Semitism, clearly identifying Esperanto’s link with contemporary discussions about the Jewish future in the Russian Empire and across the globe, including debates about the establishment of a separate Jewish homeland. She highlights how ideological concepts were constructed by Zamenhof to fit with Esperantist principles as a model for the “spiritual unification of humanity.” Specifically, the author explores the concept of Zamenhof’s plan for a reformed Judaism, Hillelism, as well as the central “Inner Idea” of Esperanto: that it would not intrude “upon the personal life of peoples and in no way … replace existing national languages” (p. 36). The author completes this detailed chapter with fascinating examples of Esperanto’s early transnational promise including the circulation of promissory notes, Esperantist directories, and regular meetings of adherents to the language.

The second chapter builds upon this and considers how the transnational social networks forged by Esperantists fit with the ideals of educated Russian society in the last days of the empire. O’Keeffe boldly advocates for a reappraisal of the period as one of Russian “patriotic cosmopolitanism,” starkly contrasting with the traditional historiographical opinion that it was marred by “authoritarian essentialism” (pp. 42, 60). The early successes of Esperanto in the Russian Empire are therefore presented as a “unique brand of grassroots internationalism” that allowed Esperantists to participate in exchanges of geographic, epistolary, cultural, and technical significance that were otherwise linguistically limited for them (p. 78). This chapter also considers the response of tsarist censors to Esperanto and the impact of censorship on the fledgling movement, particularly after the translation of some texts by Leo Tolstoy into Esperanto. The juxtaposition of the transnational Esperantists with the authoritarianism of tsarist censors offers an interesting analysis of late imperial Russian society that emphasizes nuance and diversity in the population; however, it is not entirely convincing about the need for a full reappraisal of the society as “cosmopolitan.” The evidence presented suggests the reality was somewhere in between: pockets of cosmopolitanism operating within and shaped by autocratic repression. O’Keeffe also expands the timeline here to compare with the situation after the 1905 Revolution, which offered Esperanto new avenues for literature publication and resulted in a significant increase in Esperantist speakers across the empire. The first compelling microhistorical portraits of individual Esperantists are also included in this chapter, with an emphasis on how the globalizing impact of Esperanto shaped their lives (in this case, the avid epistolary traveler, Genadii Ivanovich Tupitsyn).

How the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 influenced the development of the Esperanto movement in Russia is the central theme of chapter 3. It charts the movement’s departure from neutrality toward a political marriage with Bolshevism. O’Keeffe offers a thorough treatment of global language politics as conceptualized by Soviet leaders following the establishment of the Third International in 1919 and details the myriad ways in which Esperantists tried to convince them of the utility of Esperanto as a solution for language diversity amongst the world proletariat. This includes the publication of tracts which specifically framed Esperanto as a proletarian movement (despite its decidedly bourgeois roots) and the creation of organizations linking Esperanto and socialism, namely the Union of Soviet Esperantists (SEU) and the Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda (Worldwide Anational Association, SAT).

Chapter 4 explores the civilian diplomacy conducted by Soviet Esperantists on behalf of the USSR as “uniquely capable of unmediated conversation with foreign comrades” (p. 114). In particular, the author discusses the transmission of programs in Esperanto on Comintern radio, written correspondence both private (between individual Esperantists) and public (in Esperanto language journals), and Esperanto congresses held in the Soviet Union. Particularly interesting is the interaction between the official organization tasked with undertaking cultural diplomacy on behalf of the Soviet government, the All–Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (VOKS), and Esperantist visitors to the USSR. However, a deeper discussion of VOKS evaluations of Esperantist visitors would have further enhanced this section.

O’Keeffe builds upon the earlier discussion of Soviet language politics in chapter 5 by tracing how they developed in the fraught political atmosphere of the 1930s in Stalin’s Soviet Union. O’Keeffe links the Five-Year Plans and the Soviet drive for foreign language education that arose from a desperate need for foreign technical expertise to the need to increase Soviet industrial production. Within this analysis, there is a fascinating discussion of various linguistic theories on international language from Soviet linguists, officials, and even Stalin himself, all based on Marx’s belief that an international language would need to be adopted following the establishment of a worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat. The author argues that although these debates initially considered Esperanto as a viable option, Esperantists were increasingly on the defense as the political atmosphere worsened, jeopardizing the relative freedom afforded to Esperantists until this point. O’Keeffe argues that Esperantist correspondence was increasingly regarded with suspicion and eventually viewed as evidence of espionage, as few Soviet censors could understand the language.

The monograph ends with a short epilogue of compelling microhistories of a select group of Soviet Esperantists, with emphasis on their fates during the purges and beyond. In many of the cases presented, individuals were sent to the Gulag or executed for perceived espionage as a direct result of their engagement with foreign Esperantists. The epilogue is an excellent means of concluding a topic which broadly focuses on linguistic theory and globalization; it humanizes Esperanto speakers in revolutionary Russia and solidifies for the reader the real–life consequences of living against the status quo in the Soviet Union.

Throughout the text, O’Keeffe emphasizes how Esperantists were able to operate with a surprising level of freedom under the Soviet dictatorship, conducting correspondence across borders with comparatively little oversight. She also highlights how Soviet Esperantists used, or were determined to use, their language to further global revolution and Soviet industrial development in the period between the 1917 Revolution and the Second World War. While this is clearly evidenced throughout the book, I am left wondering about instances of the opposite. The origins of Esperanto were bourgeois and by the 1917 Revolution, most speakers were from educated bourgeois classes. It would be interesting to note any examples of the obverse present in either Esperantist correspondence or police/party files. Is there evidence that any Esperantists living in the USSR used the international auxiliary language to actively undertake counterrevolutionary work, or was this an entirely unfounded fear on behalf of the Soviet government? It could very well be the latter; the paranoia of the Stalinist purges was conducive to false accusations, and many were punished for imagined slights. Some recognition of this question would have enhanced the core discussions of chapter 5 in particular.

Nevertheless, Esperanto and Languages of Internationalism in Revolutionary Russia is a substantial appraisal of an understudied effort to surmount the problems increasingly posed by linguistic diversity in the early era of globalization. This book places Esperanto squarely in its rightful position in historical debates about internationalism, while thoroughly considering the complexities of the contemporary debates about the importance of international languages in an increasingly globalized world. Although O’Keeffe’s book takes the late Russian Empire and the early Soviet Union as its main setting, she also forges clear transnational connections between individual Esperantists and Esperantist organizations. The book offers a fascinating insight into the specific challenges of promoting an international auxiliary language in the climate of the Russian revolutionary period, blending compelling microhistories with deep analyses of larger linguistic trends.

[Reproduced from H-Net under a Creative Commons License]

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