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Tsarist Babel, Bialystok Global: The Imperial Russian Origins of Esperanto

November 20, 2017 @ 4:00 pm - 5:30 pm

The Jordan Center’s Colloquium Series serves to introduce the most recent work of scholars within the Slavic field. Participants come from universities across the country and abroad, and work in disciplines ranging from history, political science and anthropology to literature and film. The colloquium discussion is based on a working paper which will be circulated prior to the event. On November 20th, please join us for the next installment of our Fall 2017 Colloquium Series with Brigid O’Keeffe from CUNY Brooklyn on “Tsarist Babel, Bialystok Global: The Imperial Russian Origins of Esperanto”.

In 1887, Ludwik Zamenhof published the first primer for his constructed language, Esperanto.  Designed explicitly as an international auxiliary language, Esperanto was a hopeful attempt to give the fractured peoples of the world a linguistic means through which to forge mutual understanding and solidarity.  Zamenhof was born in 1859 in Bialystok, a growing industrial town on the edge of the tsarist empire’s Pale of Settlement.  He would later insist that the multiethnic, multilingual, and multiconfessional realities of his childhood milieu fundamentally shaped his evolving worldview and ultimately prompted his creation of Esperanto.

When Zamenhof is remembered popularly today, he is often flatly introduced as a Pole, a Polish Jew, or as a humble Jewish eye doctor from Warsaw. That Zamenhof was Jewish and politically motivated by Jewish concerns in his launch of Esperanto, meanwhile, is a fact that scholars have only quite recently begun to seriously explain.  While building from their productive work, this paper widens the frame of analysis and argues for the imperial Russian origins of Esperanto and of Zamenhof’s broader philosophical vision for a unified humanity.

Brigid O’Keeffe is an Associate Professor of History at Brooklyn College (CUNY) and the author of New Soviet GypsiesNationality, Performance, and Selfhood in the Early Soviet Union (University of Toronto Press, 2013). She is currently at work on a second book, Comrades Without Borders: Esperanto and the Promise of Internationalism in Late Imperial and Early Soviet Russia.  She has previously held a postdoctoral fellowship at the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University, a Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation Fellowship for Outstanding Teaching in the Humanities, and a Visiting Research Fellowship with the Reluctant Internationalists Project Team at Birkbeck College, University of London.  In 2017-2018, she is a Faculty Fellow at the Ethyle R. Wolfe Institute for the Humanities at Brooklyn College and a Writer in Residence at the NYU Jordan Center.

Please contact jordan.russia.center@nyu.edu for a copy of the pre-circulated paper.


November 20, 2017
4:00 pm - 5:30 pm
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Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia
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