Comrades Without Borders
I am currently writing a book that I have tentatively titled Tongues of Fire: Esperanto and Languages of Internationalism in Revolutionary Russia.
Esperanto is a constructed language that was designed by L. L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), a Jewish eye doctor who was born and raised in the western borderlands of late imperial Russia. Launched in 1887 from Warsaw, Esperanto means “one who hopes.” It was Zamenhof’s hope that an international auxiliary language would allow the world’s peoples—then frightfully fractured by ethnic, linguistic, religious, and class divisions—a linguistic means through which they could communicate and cooperate internationally.
What began as an obscure oculist’s quixotic daydream on the periphery of the tsarist empire quickly transformed into a global Esperantist movement. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Esperanto inspired people throughout the world to learn and to use this international auxiliary language in pursuit of a wide variety of ideological aims. My book examines how Esperanto ignited the global imaginations of ordinary people in late imperial Russia and the early Soviet Union in particular.
One of the perks of studying a history that is inherently international is that it has required that I travel more widely in its pursuit. So far, researching this book has led me to various archives, libraries, and museums in Moscow, St. Petersburg, London, Vienna, Bialystok, Berlin, Warsaw, and Palo Alto.
New Soviet Gypsies
In 2013, I published my first book, New Soviet Gypsies: Nationality, Performance, and Selfhood, with The University of Toronto Press.
New Soviet Gypsies provides a unique history of Roma, an understudied and often misunderstood diasporic people, by exploring their social and political lives in the early Soviet Union. The book is focused on the Soviet mission to transform so-called “backward Gypsies” into New Soviet Men and Women through a range of nation-building projects.
The Bolsheviks promised to “uplift” and “advance” the Soviet Union’s ethnic minorities via a nationality policy that would liberate them from the “backwardness” to which tsarist rule had ostensibly condemned them. Roma and their fellow “backward” ethnic minorities in the early Soviet Union were promised preferential access to jobs and education, but also the creation of national languages, literatures, theaters, native-language schools, and territories (within the USSR). In the Bolsheviks’ famous slogan, these were all to be “national in form, socialist in content.” In other words, this nationality policy was designed to integrate the Soviet Union’s ethnic minorities into the modern socialist economy and new Soviet culture by means of institutionalized ethnic particularism.
Regardless of their intentions or sincerity, Roma engaged Bolshevik nationality policy. They participated in the Soviet civilizing mission and thereby transformed themselves into citizens. I argue that Roma proved the primary agents of their own assimilation of Soviet culture and integration into the socialist economy. Yet I understand Roma’s Soviet self-fashioning as having been variously motivated within a system built on the foundations of both ruthless coercion and exultant visions of a liberating socialist future.
Based on extensive research in the archives of the former USSR, my book is thus a study of how minority peoples creatively mobilized Bolshevik nationality policy. It is also a methodological intervention that draws from subjectivity studies to redirect our attention to the agency of Soviet citizens. New Soviet Gypsies is also a significant contribution to the growing subfield of Romani Studies. It provides needed understanding of Roma and the diversity of their histories and cultures.