Vasili Eroshenko.

Herewith another in my occasional series of posts about remarkable people whose lives involved languages in a significant way; I’ll present some excerpts from his Wikipedia article, passed on to me by Dmitry Pruss, who knew I’d be interested in an “English poet of Russian descent who primarily wrote in Japanese”:

Vasili Yakovlevich Eroshenko (Russian: Василий Яковлевич Ерошенко) (12 January 1890 – 23 December 1952) was an anarchist writer, esperantist, linguist, and teacher. At the age of four, he contracted measles and as a result, became blind. From 1907 to 1914 he worked as a violinist for the Moscow orchestra for the blind. Around this time he studied Esperanto, as well as English. He travelled to Britain in 1912 and studied in a school for the blind. […] Later he went back to Moscow via Paris and resumed his work in the orchestra. There he began studying the Japanese language. In April 1914 Eroshenko, due to contacts with the Japanese Esperantists, left for Japan. He studied massage in a school center for the blind in Tokyo, after learning their reputation in the practice. There he promoted Esperanto among the blind students. His first novels, in Japanese, were published there. After two years he went to Siam and tried to establish a school for the blind. […] During the summer of 1919, he went back to Japan through Shanghai. With a good grasp on the Japanese language, Eroshenko wrote numerous children stories in that language and became famous among the Japanese literary community. […] From 1921 to 1923, Eroshenko went to China and lived in Harbin for more or less three months, then stayed in Beijing, China, where he taught Esperanto. From October 1921 to February 1922 he worked for the Institute of Languages in Shanghai. He was in contact with the Chinese writer Lu Xun, who translated a play and a collection of fairytales by Eroshenko in Chinese. Eroshenko features in Lu’s short story ‘The Comedy of the Ducks’. […] In 1924 he participated in the 16th Esperanto Congress in Paris and the congress of blind Esperantists in Vienna. From 1924 to 1927 he worked as a translator in the communist university for the working people in the east. He translated works of Marx, Engels and Lenin into Japanese. In 1929-1930 he traveled to Chukotka and established a school for blind children. […] From 1930 to 1932 he worked in a school for blind brush-makers in Nizhni Novgorod as a teacher in mathematics, Braille and the Russian language. A year later he went back to Moscow to work as proof reader in a printing house. […] In 1946-1948 he worked as an English language instructor in a school for the blind children in Moscow. […] In 1952 he went back to Obukhivka, his birthplace, and worked on his last book. He died on 23 December and was buried in a country cemetery.

I’ve left out a number of adventures; what I want to know (as I said to Dmitry) is, how the hell did he survive Stalin’s purges? There were so many reasons to have him killed, from Esperantism to anarchism to all that foreign travel… You can read more about him in Transnational Japan as History: Empire, Migration, and Social Movements; here’s p. 174. Thanks, Dmitry!


  1. That was my first thought, too. Did blindness, deafness, or other handicap protect one to any extent from the purges? Or were they as arbitrary as a lightning strike?

  2. Probably a little of each, but I’d guess arbitrariness was the main factor.

  3. The whole text seems to be a translation from Russian or maybe Ukrainian (otherwise, why call a Russian village, even from Belgorod district, Obukhivka?)

    In what sense is he an “English poet”?

    Not that it explains completely not being purged, but Eroshenko lived in Turkmenistan from 1935 to 1945. I’ve heard that moving voluntarily to far away places sometimes helped people not to get arrested, but I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this statement.

  4. Probably via the most common way to avoid purges – someone working at NKVD warned and advised to get the hell out of town and go as far as possible – fortunately, the Soviet Union was the largest country on Earth.

    Going to Kushka (in Turkmen republic, the southernmost town in the USSR, on the Afghan border) or Chukotka (the easternmost edge of Russia, bordering Alaska) would do the trick nicely.

  5. I think English poet was more a point of view of my grand uncle who chaperoned Eroshenko across India. Vasili studied in London as a child, worked in English schools in Siam and Burma, and was apparently looking for a career in India or South Africa at the time. And he was a close disciple of Agnes Alexander, a scion of a British plantation owner family in Hawaii and one of the movers of the Baha’i

    Kushka in Turkmenistan apparently attracted Eroshenko because it was the spiritual center of the USSR Baha’i

  6. I note that “English poet” is no longer in the WP article. A blow for the truth!

  7. I note that “English poet” is no longer in the WP article.

    It wasn’t there to begin with, it was in Dmitry’s e-mail to me to lure me to visit the link. Sorry if I was misleading.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    Despite Stalin’s intermittent suspicion of them, google reports that as of this moment:

    No results found for “first thing we do let’s kill all the esperantists”.

    So while various illiberal regimes have treated Esperantists badly, I guess anti-Esperantist sentiment isn’t strong and/or widespread enough to really be an organizing principle of such a regime?

  9. Despite Stalin’s intermittent suspicion of them

    I’m not sure if you’re joking, but just so we’re clear (from Wikipedia): “in 1937, Stalin […] denounced Esperanto as ‘the language of spies’ and had Esperantists exiled or executed.”

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    By “intermittent” I meant that as with so many other groups in Soviet history they oscillated unpredictably between being in favor (or at least being tolerated) and being killed.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    By pure chance I discovered today that Charles Bouchard, an eminent nineteenth-century French pathologist who I was looking up for (unfortunately) personal reasons, was president of the Medical Esperantists of France; and that led me by e-serendipity to this interesting paper on the Esperanto of L1 speakers and how it differs from the “standard”:

  12. many other groups in Soviet history they oscillated unpredictably between being in favor (or at least being tolerated) and being killed
    Esperantist sources tell that the leaders of their Russian, Ukrainian and regional groups have been arrested and executed in a coordinated way (the case of “Soyuznyj Centr”, described as a Trotskyist terror group organized by German secret services), and that their affiliation with the CAT, the International Esperantist umbrella group, was a part of their charges. As a result, Esperantist organizations shut their doors in February 1938, due to the simple fact that there wasn’t anyone left to man the offices. They didn’t reemerge until after Stalin’s death, meaning that the regime never expressed interest in creating a loyal Esperanto organization

    It isn’t claimed that the rank and file enthusiasts faced an increased risk of persecution.

  13. Dmitry Pruss says

    I browsed through interrogation protocols and it’s clear that the regular enthusiasts were at risk. People who traveled abroad for learning or conferences were being targeted and tortured in order to extract dozens names of co-conspirators, locally and in different cities, and of course anyone with some visibility was becoming a target. Eroshenko isn’t mentioned in any of the published interrogations, though

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