Esperanto & Historical Imagination


Esperanto and Historical Imagination

In early summer 1932, an anonymous Soviet functionary opened an envelope containing a formal invitation for the Soviet Union to participate in the 24th World Congress of Esperanto, a lavish event to be held in Paris from 30 July through 6 August 1932. The invitation was typed in French and dripped with saccharine pleasantries. Soviet “messieurs” were generically invited to participate in the Congress, for which, they were informed, the French President Albert Lebrun had accepted an honorary chairmanship. Dispatched from the Geneva headquarters of the Internacia Centra Komitato de la Esperanto-Movado (the International Central Committee of the Esperanto Movement), the invitation included a provisional schedule of social events and public lectures meant to entice invitees. Thus, Soviet representatives were welcomed to join other foreign dignitaries, Esperanto enthusiasts, and business interests in Paris for more than the mere discussion, debate, and learning of Esperanto. Participants in the Congress could look forward to a garden party, theater (en Esperanto), an excursion to Versailles, automobile tours of the City of Lights, a visit to the Chamber of Commerce, and – tantalizingly – a free lunch sponsored by the upscale merchants of the “Galeries Lafayette” department store. In the form of religious services, Sunday’s events promised a bit more sobriety and restraint. The more academically inclined Congress participants could look forward to a lecture docket that included a presentation on “Commerce in the Past Century, Today, and in a Hundred Years.” Last, but perhaps not least, was the promise of a Friday evening dance where, presumably, attendees could literally shake off their memories of dry committee meetings and offer rousing toasts in Esperanto.

While reading these invitation materials in the files of the State Archive of the Russian Federation this past winter, I could almost hear the clink of champagne flutes, smell the exhaust of excursioning automobiles, and taste the scrumptious desserts that the Congress’s Planning Committee was so eager to offer to Paris’s visiting Esperantists in the summer of 1932.

I wondered, though, about how the anonymous Soviet bureaucrat who fielded this correspondence responded to it in 1932. Who was he (or she)? Could he read French? (Or even Esperanto?) Presuming that the bureaucrat could linguistically digest this arguably curious epistolary fare, how did he respond to it? Did he, nonplussed, briskly set the pages aside for desk drawer filing? Did he, eager to move efficiently through a stack of envelopes, leave it on the desk of a superior for further consideration? Or did he, as I did, take a few moments to read the invitation materials through and unleash his imagination? If so, did he scoff at the religious services? When reading the heavy-handed importance attached to the Parisian Chamber of Commerce, did this Soviet bureaucrat let out a snarly laugh? Did his belly growl at the thought of a free lunch? Did he daydream about strolling Versailles, or envision foxtrotting with Esperantists from all over the globe? Did his mouth water at the thought of ice cream, or of French wine? Did he roll his eyes at the words “garden party?” Did he want to hear the promised lecture about “television and shortwave (with a demonstration)”? All or any of this, I cannot know.

I do know, however, that this invitation and others like it were saved for posterity in the Soviet archives. Having recently made some headway into my research for a new book-length study of Esperanto and internationalism in late imperial Russia and the early Soviet Union, I am not in the least surprised.

In 1932, the Soviet Union was home to a relatively small but determined cohort of Esperantists who, since 1917, had proven eager to align their activities with both the domestic and foreign policy goals of the Bolsheviks. These activists coalesced in an organization known as the Union of Soviet Esperantists and published a monthly journal titled Mezhdunarodnyi iazyk (International Language). They diligently promoted the ideals of Soviet socialism among Esperantist workers and intellectuals both at home and abroad through pen pal letter-writing campaigns, transnational radio broadcasts, and the publication of broadsheets, brochures, and books. Allied with the Communist International (Comintern), the Union of Soviet Esperantists worked to dispel vicious anti-Soviet “rumors” abroad and to discipline foreign socialists into bowing to the Comintern’s undisputed leadership. In the monumental age of the Stalinist Five-Year Plan, these Soviet Esperantists advanced Esperanto not only as a weapon of international revolution, but also as a tool of achieving Soviet technological superiority.  Although state support (both practical and moral) for the Union of Soviet Esperantists was already on the wane in 1932, its members still reveled in confident visions of their harmonious Soviet future as well as the sheer delight of socializing with worker pen pals, trade union officials, and other diehard Esperantists from around the globe.

By 1932 as well, the Soviet Union could boast its own limited experience in hosting international Esperantist gatherings. Notable in this regard was the International Congress of Esperantists held in Leningrad in August 1926. The Soviet press was then happy to announce that of the Congress’s 600 delegates, 250 were foreign visitors. Leading Soviet Esperantists celebrated the opportunity for these foreign delegates to see for themselves the new Soviet society in-the-making. They also relished the opportunity to exchange stamps and postcards with their foreign comrades over discussions of the promise of international proletarian revolution and of Esperanto itself. The following year, the Soviet Union hosted a much smaller delegation of foreign Esperantists who had been formally invited to participate in the Moscow celebration of the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution.

There is no doubt, however, that Soviet Esperantists had already by 1932 suffered a degree of nagging awkwardness in their appeals to the Comintern and other state agencies for a robust investment in Esperanto as the key to revolution abroad and technological supremacy at home. If the relatively small membership to the Union of Soviet Esperantists was one hurdle, Esperanto’s roots in tsarist Russia were another. In the Soviet Esperantists’ typical rendering of the man, the creator of Esperanto, L.L. Zamengof (1859-1917) was, alas, a “petit-bourgeois” pacifist. A Jew from Bialystok, Zamengof had been inspired by the ethnic strife he had witnessed as a young man living in the pre-revolutionary Russian Pale of Settlement. In publishing his first Esperanto primer from Warsaw in 1887, Zamengof intended – indeed hoped as his nom de plume, Doktoro Esperanto, made clear – that this international auxiliary language would help to ameliorate conflict among classes, ethnic groups, and nations and thus promote international peace and mutual understanding among diverse peoples.

Soviet Esperantists thus dismissed the “counter-revolutionary” Esperantism of the movement’s own founder, insisting in the face of an often skeptical Soviet audience that Esperanto could be reforged into a sharp and worthy weapon of class struggle. Their detractors, however, could certainly point to the stalwartly bourgeois orientation of many of the by no means inconsequential numbers of foreign Esperantists (some of whom were more interested in deploying Esperanto to promote commercial interests rather than world peace). Thus, the 1932 invitation for Soviet participation in the Paris Congress could conceivably later be dredged up for more nefarious use when, in the context of Stalin’s Purges, the Union of Soviet Esperantists was shuttered and many of its members were executed as traitorous spies or else banished to the Gulag.

My goal in conducting this research on Esperanto and internationalism in late imperial Russia and the early Soviet Union is to better understand how subjects of the tsarist empire and citizens of the Soviet Union sought to look beyond national boundaries and impediments to transnational communication in the search of solutions to ethnic, religious, political, technological, and ideological dilemmas both at home and abroad. In particular, my project seeks to highlight Esperanto as a cultural tool with which even “ordinary” citizens were drawn into larger Soviet efforts to globally and domestically promote “international brotherhood,” no less than Soviet ideology itself. Not least of all, I want to contribute to a recent historiographical trend in the field that has begun to focus long needed, even if renewed attention to how a wide variety of people with a wide variety of motivations in late imperial Russia and the early Soviet Union imagined themselves as members of global communities with global concerns.

In studying the internationalism(s) of my historical subjects, I of necessity need to follow their lead in concentrating on not only their imperial Russian or early Soviet contexts, but also their wider European and global contexts. Such a research project, of course, presents certain challenges – linguistic ones not least of all. Borrowing from the apparent and varied idealism of my historical subjects, however, I argue that these challenges are just as easily labeled opportunities.

While Moscow and St. Petersburg remain both obvious and crucial sites of my archival research, my imagination and my laptop must travel still farther afield. While I have yet to attend an Esperantists’ garden party or enjoy a free Parisian lunch in my pursuit of this project, I have discovered that the Austrian National Library in Vienna, for example, is a hospitable site for exploring the rich and often overlooked histories birthed by the Esperanto movements that Zamengof inspired. Home to the Department of Planned Languages and Esperanto Museum, the Austrian National Library preserves an array of primary source material essential to my own study. In different but no less important ways, a weekend trip to Warsaw this past winter proved yet again that history is found on contemporary streets no less than in archives or libraries. Within ten minutes of having arrived in Warsaw, I saw the living legacy of Zamengof to be blinking on the electronic signage of a city bus: Route 180 to Esperanto Street. Judging by the stones respectfully placed on Zamengof’s headstone, his grave in Warsaw’s Jewish Cemetery continues to be visited, even if Esperanto is typically remembered these days merely as an intriguing historical oddity (if it is remembered at all). Needless to say, Bialystok – Zamengof’s proud birthplace – beckons.

The Esperantists whom I am currently studying fervently believed in the varied promises that looking beyond their own Russian and Soviet borders seemed, to them at least, to provide. I hope to show in my own way that the field of Russian history has yet to fully avail itself of the benefits of examining how, for example, late tsarist-era intellectuals and even semi-literate Soviet workers attached their own fates to those of their comrades abroad. Even if the Esperantists whom I am studying could not travel beyond their own borders as easily as I can today, they offer us valuable lessons in historical imagination no less than insight on internationalism in late imperial Russia and the early Soviet Union.

Brigid O’Keeffe
Assistant Professor of History
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York


Image: V. Svistunov, Elementy Esperanto: Uchebnik dlia kruzhkov i samoobucheniia s rabotami, razgovornymi navykami i risunkami (Moscow: TsK SESR, 1932).


The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

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