Thursday, March 5, 2015

Russian Censors Study Esperanto

Esperanto: A force for
free speech!
It’s not like they were seeking to bring the world together in unity and peace. They were more afraid of what the Esperantists might be writing. This was one of the worries that Marcus Zamenhof, Ludivick’s father, had about his son’s creation. New language: not going to go over well with the Czarist officials. It’s entirely possible that Marcus Zamenhof’s motivation for destroying the predecessor to Esperanto, lingwe uniwersala, was not so much “don’t waste your life on this crazy dream,” but “don’t jeopardize my job,” since the elder Zamenhof had become a censor.

Marcus Zamenhof was still alive when Esperanto came to the attention of the Russian censors. He couldn’t have been happy about it. The censor’s office probably wasn’t happy when the censor assigned to study the language “died within a couple of weeks of learning the language.” Least happy would be the poor man who died, though I don’t think we can implicate Esperanto in the matter.

The United States has a long-standing tradition of freedom of the press, and so there hasn’t been a need for censors. The Sedition Act of 1798 was a notable blot on this tradition, and ironic given the role of seditious newspapers in spurring the Revolution. Its successor, the Sedition Act of 1918 was upheld by the Supreme Court, but subsequent decisions would seem to make clear a constitutional right to criticize the government.

The article in the March 5, 1905 Los Angeles Herald makes it clear that while the the newspaper had some sympathy for those opposed to the Czar (hint: if you approve, they’re “students,” and if you disapprove, “agitators”), it seems that Esperanto was being used to communicate information and opinions that the Russian government didn’t want disseminated (for which I say, “hooray for Esperanto!”).


Students Throughout the Empire Employing It as a Safe and Convenient Method of Exchanging Information
Special Cable to the Herald.
LONDON, March 4. The Russian press censor has been obliged to take lessons in Esperanto, the new auxiliary world language.

The fear was expressed in official quarters that the new tongue might be used as a secret code of communication, and the same idea seems to have occurred to the Esperantists in Russia, who are cut off from news.[1]

Mr. Mudie of library fame, received a letter this week from a gentleman in Russia imploring him to send out news of present happenings in Russia, written in Esperanto.

Vague rumors of unrest at St. Petersburg had reached him, the letter stated, but no information was contained in the newspapers, and he suggested that, Esperanto being an unknown language to the censor, communications in it might chance to elude the official eye.

“Russian students have had difficulty, owing to the censorship in obtaining news, and many of them have asked for news to be sent in an ordinary letter written in Esperanto,” said the secretary of the British Esperanto association this week.

“I have just heard from a student who subscribes to an English monthly review. A portion of the last number he received had been ‘blanked’ out, and he asked me to tell him in Esperanto what it contained.

“Up to now no Esperantist paper published in England has been ‘blacked.’ A little paper printed for the Russian Esperantists, however, mystified the censor and his assistant, and the order went forth that one of the censors must master Esperanto.

“He died within a couple of weeks of learning the language, and arrangement have just been made for another censor to learn Esperanto.

“Esperanto has attracted much attention in Russia. Tolstoy has learned it, and the Grand Duke Constantine Constantinovich has just taken it up.[2]

“There are over 30,000 fluent Esperantists in Russia, and the president of the British Esperanto association, who has just returned form a tour of the affected parts of Russia, invariably lectured in Esperanto, although he speaks Russian.”
The article mentions one “Mr. Mudie, of library fame,” but here the *Herald is making a mistake. The “Mr. Mudie, of library fame,” was Charles Edward Mudie, who had died in 1890. The actual Mr. Mudie of the article was certainly Harold Bolingbroke Mudie, the first president of the of World Esperanto Association and one of the founders of the Esperanto Association of Britain. It is not clear if the two Mr. Mudies are related.

While getting around government control of information is quite laudable, there’s the problem the government might simply decide that the entire Esperanto movement is a nest of spies and imprison the leader of the movement, despite his prior service to the government. That wouldn’t happen, would it?

The source for this is the otherwise unidentified “secretary of the Esperanto Association of Britain.” It’s our old friend the German Esperantist Hermann Sexauer. The “affected parts” of Russia were, presumably, ones where the Czarist officials were dealing with revolutionaries.

Once again, there’s absolutely no indication that the study of Esperanto is injurious. I’m certain that Russian censor died of something else.

  1. So, we can’t claim that the Russian government was paranoid.  ↩
  2. The Grand Duke may indeed nudge out Oscar Browning as the earliest gay or bisexual Esperantist. He published under the pseudonym K.R., but his play The King of the Jews was written in Russian. References online to his diaries make reference to his visits to male brothels, but no word if any entry goes “spent day studying Esperanto.”  ↩

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