Guest Post by visiting fellow Brigid O’Keeffe, Brooklyn College

In 1930, Bernard Long of the British Esperanto Association published a compact booklet titled, Esperanto: Its Aims and Claims. A Discussion of the Language Problem and its Solution. Humankind, Long argued, was not fated to remain helpless prisoner to “the confusion of tongues” that had for so long stood obstinately in the way of international understanding and cooperation. Just like bridges built to cross rivers, or like tunnels carved through treacherous mountains, language could be designed in such a way as to facilitate not merely human interaction, but also international cooperation of the type that the world’s proud optimists, worrying statesmen, and enterprising businessmen so desperately craved. Esperanto, Long insisted, was just such a language. Designed not to replace the world’s national languages, but instead to transcend them, Esperanto presented itself as “an easy, expressive, neutral form of speech for international use.” Esperanto’s appeal spoke to “the practical and idealistic alike,” Long argued, and Esperantists eagerly invited “all thinking people” to join the growing and avowedly global Esperantist movement. Esperantists welcomed “all progressive men and women whose vision extends beyond their national frontiers, and who feel, or desire to feel, that they are also citizens of the world.”

Long’s celebratory booklet was but one of countless broadsheets, pamphlets, journals, and books that had been published worldwide to extol and to popularize Esperanto since the international auxiliary language’s debut in 1887. In that year, a Polish Jew of the Russian empire, L.L. Zamenhof, published the first Esperanto primer – the product of this precocious polyglot’s years of painstaking efforts to create an effective, logical, and felicitous international auxiliary language. In the avowed name of hope, Zamenhof unveiled his creation as the easily assimilable answer to the linguistic, ethnic, and ideological fractures that divided not only tsarist Russia, but also humankind. In so doing, Zamenhof launched what rather quickly developed into a global movement and, ultimately, global movements, to deploy Esperanto as the key to lived internationalism, variously conceived.

The understudied history of Esperanto, and of the diverse array of adherents and political entrepreneurs whom Esperanto inspired in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is where my research interests coincide with those of the Reluctant Internationalists project. In June 2015, I joined the Reluctant Internationalists Project Team in London for a month of scholarly collaboration and conversation. My month as a Visiting Fellow at Birkbeck College also enabled me to conduct essential primary source research at the British Library and Cambridge University Library for my current book-length research project, tentatively titled Speaking Transnationally: Esperanto, Citizen Diplomacy, and Internationalism in Russia, 1887-1939.

Speaking Transnationally places Russian and Soviet history in global perspective. It is a study of how tsarist Russian subjects and Soviet citizens communicated transnationally via Esperanto in pursuit of a variety of ideological aims. My project highlights Esperanto as a cultural tool with which “ordinary” citizens pursued global efforts to variously promote “international brotherhood” and mutual understanding. I focus on the underappreciated story of how Esperantists from Russia and the USSR met, face-to-face, with fellow Esperantists from abroad. It explores how Esperantists shared ideas, commodities, as well as the sheer joy of communicating via an international auxiliary language. It is also a patently modern story of Esperantists forging affective bonds and ideological solidarity by means of the postal service, telegraph, radio, and rail. My project illuminates the unique transnational encounters that Esperanto made possible by focusing on how Esperantists in late imperial Russia and the early Soviet Union imagined and asserted themselves as members of global communities with global concerns.

Although “reluctant” may not be the first adjective logically applied to the Esperantists whom I study, their visions and experiences of lived internationalism as Esperantists do raise questions that sync well with those of my colleagues of The Reluctant Internationalists project. In particular, my research not only looks into the ambitions of my historical subjects to collaborate with fellow Esperantists (and others) on an international basis, but also focuses on their practical ability to communicate via their chosen international auxiliary language, or via any other language for that matter. Historians who study internationalism cannot escape the literal question of (mis-)communication. Agents of internationalism – reluctant or otherwise – themselves inescapably confront the challenges and the opportunities that language presents to them in pursuit of their global endeavors. At a fundamental level, language is crucial to the lived experience of internationalism (or any attempt thereof). Arguably, the success or failure of an internationalist project hinges on its participants’ ability to effectively communicate amongst themselves and with others.

With this in mind, I also worked with the Reluctant Internationalists Project Team during my residence at Birkbeck College to begin planning for a “Languages of Internationalism Conference” to be held in May 2017. The conference will bring together scholars whose work examines how language has enabled and/or frustrated human efforts to communicate and collaborate on an international basis. A formal call for papers will be announced in due time, but I join the Reluctant Internationalists Project Team in looking forward to what is bound to be a stimulating “Languages of Internationalism Conference.”