The Ukrainian Poet and Anti-Imperialist You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Vasily Eroshenko was a blind Ukrainian poet and writer of children’s stories. He traveled around the world teaching Esperanto, railing against imperialism, and witnessing revolutions in Russia and China.

Portrait of Vasily Eroshenko by Nakamura Tsune, 1920. (Daderot / Wikimedia Commons)

A blind poet. An Esperantist. A humanist. An egoist. A partisan. An anarchist. A “red” Russian. A “white” Russian. A Ukrainian. A childlike dreamer. A harborer of dangerous thoughts.

These are a few of the labels that have been variously applied to the fascinating yet largely forgotten personality that is Vasily Eroshenko. As a social activist and writer of political fairy tales, he sought to critique the oppressive institutions and conditions that incite violence and conflict around the world, and he urged people, young and old, to radically transform their societies.

Despite the high level of fame — and infamy — he achieved in his adopted homes of Japan and China during the early twentieth century, he remains virtually unknown to enthusiasts of world literature. Because his tales are bound up with his fascinating life, and the fascinating lives of the people he interacted with, it is necessary to take a close look at his biography.

Portrait of an Esperantist as a Young Man

Vasily Yakovlevich Eroshenko was born in an affluent landowner’s family on January 12, 1890, in Obukhovka, a Ukrainian village in the Russian Empire. His father, a loyal subject of the tsar, ran a general store and maintained good relations with his fellow villagers as well as with the local gentry. The third child, Vasily was blinded at the age of four as a result of complications from measles. He described this traumatic event in his semi-autobiographical “Some Pages from My School Days” as having forced him to forsake “the realm of beautiful colors and brilliant sunlight.”

From childhood on, he formed clear anarchistic convictions, claiming that his blindness had taught him “to doubt everything and everyone; to suspect the words of teachers as well as the slogans of authority.” At the same time, his blindness also taught him the value of cooperation and collective action. Throughout his life, he strove to fashion his deep-seated insecurities into a powerful motive for change.

After graduating from the Moscow School for the Blind, a prestigious imperial boarding school where he received a conservative education in the arts, sciences, religion, music, and basket weaving, Eroshenko pursued a career in music and found work playing second violin for a blind orchestra in Moscow. Around 1911, he encountered the Esperantist Anna Sharapova, who introduced him to the international auxiliary language of Esperanto. Invented by Polish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof in 1873, Esperanto was intended to relieve the “heavy burden of linguistic differences” that its creator saw as engendering social conflict on local, national, and international levels.

With its simple grammar and “international” vocabulary, it was promoted as a tool for nonhierarchical communication and was motivated by an “internal idea” of “brotherhood and justice among all peoples.” For Eroshenko, Esperanto allowed him to transcend the linguistic barriers that made navigating the world as a blind person a doubly intimidating experience. Furthermore, with its foundational texts of the Old Testament and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, it equipped Eroshenko with a moral and poetic vocabulary that was to resound in his political and artistic endeavors later in life.

The profound effect that Esperanto would have on his identity, worldview, and art cannot be overstated. As he himself remarked to an audience in 1922, “keep always in your mind that my country is the world, humanity is my nation and my beloved tongue is Esperanto. Remember this thing and you will have the key to all my philosophy in all my writing and speeches.”

In Moscow, Eroshenko drifted from his intention to work as a musician, and a feeling of wanderlust drove him to set down plans for his next journey. In London, he had heard about the respect accorded to the blind in Japan, and how they were encouraged to study as professionals in massage therapy and acupuncture. Intrigued by the economic freedom and social respect that such a life appeared to promise, he began taking Japanese lessons through the Japanese consulate in Moscow.

Moving to Japan

In 1914, with support from the Universal Esperanto Association (UEA), Eroshenko set out across Siberia to Japan, where he enrolled at the Tokyo School for the Blind to study massage therapy and classical Japanese literature. Once settled in his new environment, he began expanding his network at Esperanto meetups and by teaching the language to his classmates.

Esperanto had seen nearly a decade of contention since its introduction to Japan one year after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. Hailed as one of the biggest fads of 1906 by the leading national newspaper Asahi Shimbun, it was embraced by seemingly unrelated groups, including anarchists, imperialists, missionaries, artists, and shopkeepers. Perhaps because it claimed no affiliation with any one “culture” or “civilization,” words strongly associated with European class- and race-based prejudices, the new “world language” quickly formed links with progressive politics in Asia, with socialists and anarchists as its most vocal supporters.

Naturally, this association between Esperanto and radical thinking deeply disturbed the nation’s elites, especially after the High Treason Incident of 1911, an alleged left-wing plot to assassinate Emperor Meiji. The ensuing clampdown of this incident was said to have ushered in a “winter period” for Japanese anarchism, socialism, and adjacent movements, including the Esperanto movement.

Over the next two years, Eroshenko formed important friendships with an array of progressive individuals who were working in different circles to solve pressing social problems and foster international solidarity on a nonstate level. Perhaps the most significant friendship he had was with Akita Ujaku, who shared his artistic beliefs and was inspired by his dedication to promoting pacifism through Esperanto.

Immediately after their introduction in 1915, the two became constant companions at the theater, lectures, and literary gatherings, and collaborated on different projects. When the ruble collapsed in 1916, and Eroshenko could no longer receive assistance from his family, Akita was one of a handful of friends who helped mitigate his situation, setting him up with a lecture tour and encouraging him to write stories, which he then translated and submitted to literary magazines.

Although Eroshenko’s fame as a storyteller was still some years off, these early works, including “Easter,” “Raining,” and “The Tale of the Paper Lantern,” each filled with romantic melancholy, won him his first public recognition as a “poet.”

Hoping to establish a school for the blind in Southeast Asia, Eroshenko left Japan in July 1916, and spent the next three years traveling around Thailand, Myanmar, and India. During this transient period, he worked variously as a masseur and a teacher, published a polemic on the treatment of the blind in Europe, and collected folklore.

After Eroshenko returned to Tokyo in July 1919, he fell back into his former life among the Esperanto community, reunited with friends like Akita and Kamichika Ichiko, and moved into Sōma Kokkō and Sōma Aizō’s atelier at Nakamuraya Bakery. Eroshenko had briefly lodged at Nakamuraya in 1916, where he had formed a familial attachment to his literary patron Kokkō, whom he referred to as his “mamochka.” Speaking to a crowd of Esperantists at a welcome-back event, he expressed his joy at being among friends who truly understood and loved him.

In 1919, Japanese progressives expressed solidarity with the anti-colonial March 1 and May 4 movements in Korea and China. At the country’s top universities, radical student groups like the Shinjinkai and the Gyōminkai were formed, and several political journals began publication, including Warera, Kaizō, and Kaihō. Topping off this political activity, the Japan Socialist League was established in 1920. If Eroshenko could not participate in the revolution in Russia, he could at least participate in the one taking place in Japan.

Through his Esperanto network, Eroshenko was introduced to highly political students like Takatsu Seidō and Ono Kenjirō, who encouraged him to attend lectures at Waseda University and to further his understanding of Marxist theory. Takatsu also invited him to attend Gyōminkai events and meetings at the Kosmo Club, a collective of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Russian activists working to undermine Japan’s ongoing colonial efforts in East Asia. Gradually, Eroshenko began to add a socialist zeal to his humanitarian convictions, becoming active in revolutionary circles that did not always share the same objectives as those held by the more pragmatic circles with which he had formerly been associated.

As his friendships with people like Takatsu and Ono deepened, he fell out with older friends, particularly the Bahá’ís. To be sure, Eroshenko was not an easy man to be around. When confronted with opinions that ran counter to his own, he could be stubborn, condescending, and chauvinistic. Even Sōma Kokkō referred to him in her autobiography as a “quarrelsome egoist.” Finding the right balance of cynicism, egoism, and cooperation would prove to be lifelong struggle.

Attending lectures and meetings left Eroshenko with few opportunities to earn a living. Besides, he was spending the allowance he received from Sōma Kokkō on feeding his activist friends. Noticing the toll that this lifestyle was having on his health, and recalling his talent for telling stories, Kamichika encouraged Eroshenko to write her a fairy tale that she could potentially sell to a magazine.

The story that he brought to her was “The Sad Little Fish,” which they published in Shinkatei, a women’s interest magazine. Perhaps owing to the curious nature of this anti-religious tale of ecological destruction, or the exotic air evoked by Eroshenko’s name, the “The Sad Little Fish” proved to be a big success, and more stories were commissioned. In brilliant twists of anarchist logic, he wrote from the perspective of plants, animals, and children to criticize the oppressive sociopolitical conditions created and maintained by adults.

Eroshenko distinguished himself from his peers by pushing his anarchist impulse to its limit, questioning the value of innocence without social consciousness. This impulse can be seen in many of his tales, such as “By a Pond,” “The Martyr,” “The Death of a Canary,” and “Two Little Deaths,” where it is precisely the qualities praised by his contemporaries that lead his protagonists into dangerous traps set by capitalism, religion, and authoritarian systems. Although Eroshenko was indeed reflecting a politically driven trend in children’s literature, he also was expanding it, anticipating the arrival of a Japanese proletarian children’s literature in the late 1920s and 1930s.

In addition to being a producer of fairy tales, Eroshenko became a sort of fairy-tale production himself. The fact that he always dressed in a Ukrainian peasant blouse and carried a balalaika, with which he sang romantic ballads and rousing political songs, aligned well with the popular image of him as a transnational common man. And like a fairy-tale hero, he was often described by his supporters with infantilizing literary signifiers, such as “ruddy cheeks,” a “soft feminine face,” and a “pure heart.” Furthermore, his wanderings were interpreted in quest-like terms, and his blindness as a powerful moral force, as evidenced by the following piece by liberal critic Hasegawa Nyozekan:

His sightless eyes cannot make him unhappy. The world he saw for but a short time with the heart of a small child was all that he has seen with his own eyes. Nevertheless, this made him happy. His eyes could not develop the distinction of skin color, the reason that man has tormented man. His eyes also cannot see the horrible colors that divide the world map and incite war. Now his eyes see the skin of man and the world map in monochrome, and he roams across a singular world.

When Nakamura Tsune and Tsuruta Goro unveiled their paintings of Eroshenko in 1921 to domestic and international acclaim, the image of “the blind poet” and “partisan” from an idealized version of Russia was cemented in the public’s mind. Even after his years in Japan, Eroshenko continued to appear as a character in poems, plays, and short stories by well-known Japanese authors like Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Kusano Shimpei, Tsuji Jun, and Ehara Koyata.

But Eroshenko’s life was hardly a fairy tale. Since his return to Japan in 1919, the Special Higher Police had regarded his surging popularity, particularly as a public speaker, as a threat to social order, collaborating with the British Foreign Office to report on his many activities and connections. One of their concerns lay in the sheer emotional support he seemed to elicit from the public.

A Gyōminkai event on April 16, 1921, at which Eroshenko delivered an impassioned speech entitled “The Cup of Misfortune” drew in well over a thousand people despite heavy police presence. Action was finally taken when, after two arrests in 1921 — first at a May Day march, and a week later at a Japan Socialist League convention — Eroshenko was arrested for a third time and was deported from Japan for harboring “dangerous thoughts.”

When the public learned of Eroshenko’s arrest and the fuzzy grounds for his deportation, there was a tremendous uproar. Newspaper articles and letters to the editor were written; a young girl wrote a poem expressing her sympathy for the poet; and funds were raised for his travel expenses.

To the everyday observer, Eroshenko was simply a fairy-tale writer, if not a fairy-tale hero, who wore a humble rubashka, sang folk songs, and spoke on the need for transnational cooperation. According to a detailed police report on public opinion, his biggest sympathizers at the time of his arrest and deportation were women, socialists, and artists.

The Japanese public was not alone in expressing its contempt at the gross mistreatment of Eroshenko. Following the story from China, a soon-to-be-famous Lu Xun — he had not yet published his first collection of stories — felt compelled to translate the author’s most recent tale, “A Narrow Cage,” for New Youth, the flagship journal of the anti-imperialist, anti-traditionalist New Culture movement centered around scholars and writers at Beijing University.

His aim, as he saw it, was to “transmit the pained cry of one who had been abused” and so “elicit rage and disgust against those in power.” Chinese intellectuals readily embraced Eroshenko’s tale of a tiger driven mad by the psychological prison of colonial oppression, reading into it the trauma they themselves had been dealt by foreign aggressors since the later decades of the nineteenth century.

Chinese Disappointments

On June 4, 1921, Eroshenko was deported from Japan; and two days later, he arrived in Vladivostok, then under the control of anti-Bolshevik forces. From there, he endeavored to travel by train and foot into Red Russia, making it as far as Iman, where the Chita government refused to allow him to cross the border on account of his not being a communist.

After waiting for three weeks in a pest-ridden freight train while the Chita authorities looked into his personal file, Eroshenko headed south to Harbin, China. In Harbin, he lodged with Japanese expatriates, wrote three accounts of his recent trials, and began reaching out to the local Esperanto community for help.

One person who responded to Eroshenko’s call was Hu Yuzhi, a UEA member in Shanghai. Hu invited Eroshenko to Shanghai, where he secured him a teaching position at the Shanghai Esperanto School. Thanks to Lu Xun’s efforts, coverage of Eroshenko’s arrival in the Chenbao Fukan, a literary supplement to the Beijing Chenbao, portrayed him as an international celebrity whose status was on par with that of Bertrand Russel, Rabindranath Tagore, and George Bernard Shaw, all of whom visited China during this period.

While in Shanghai, Eroshenko organized fundraising concerts for the Shanghai Esperanto School and began working on his first piece of Esperanto fiction, “The Tales of a Withered Leaf.” A cycle of dark prose poems, “Tales” was an outpouring of grief for the Chinese people, whom Eroshenko viewed as victims of political corruption, cultural conservatism, and foreign imperialism.

Although excessive in its attack on traditional Chinese values and practices, his commentary was entirely in line with the currents of the New Culture movement, which, in the words of New Youth editor in chief Chen Duxiu, had been warning “of the incompatibility between Confucianism and the new belief, the new society, and the new state” of China since 1916.

Since its inception, the New Culture movement had made a project of establishing a vernacular literature that would raise the consciousness of the masses. Responding to various developmental and socializing discourses circulating the globe, New Culture critics like Lu Xun, Zhou Zuoren, Zhao Jingshen, Chen Bochui, and Hu Yuzhi turned to children’s literature as an incubator for such a project.

Specifically, they held up Eroshenko’s fairy tales as the model for a new type of children’s literature and as a tool for developing the nation through its youth. “After Andersen came Wilde, and after Wilde came Eroshenko,” remarked Zhao in the Chenbao Fukan: “so that through the eyes of literature, art is gradually progressing! . . . Perhaps we should use just such a progression — from Andersen to Wilde to Eroshenko — to lead children forward as they gradually mature from infancy to adolescence.”

In February 1922, Eroshenko arrived in Beijing to much fanfare. The capital was the center not only of the New Culture movement but also of China’s anarchist and communist movements. As in Japan, each political group saw in Eroshenko the embodiment of their imagined Russia. Consequently, his lectures at Beijing University, where he was promised a generous salary of $200 a month, initially were well attended.

After spending a brief stint in Russia and Finland, Eroshenko returned to Beijing in November. There he discovered that his former celebrity status had all but faded. While there had been initial enthusiasm for his university lectures, his students were left unimpressed, and enrollment dwindled. This low enrollment was due to several reasons — the first being that Eroshenko did not speak Chinese, a fact that, despite the efforts of his interpreters, must have put a wall between him and his students. Second, his criticisms of Bolshevism offended the pro-Bolshevik camp at the university. Third, and most important, he held a negative opinion of the Chinese intellectual class, criticizing students, teachers, writers, socialists, and anarchists in China for lacking what he saw as a spirit of self-sacrifice.

As Xiaoqun Xu has keenly observed, “while criticizing capitalism and Western governments’ policies, he cherished Russian literature, theater, music, and visual arts, and scolded educated Chinese for lacking tastes in all these [Thus] coming from a different locus (and personal experience) in the colonial world order, [Eroshenko] would reach a position of dismissing Chinese culture and reinforcing the cultural power of the West.”

It might be said that Eroshenko was merely repackaging sentiments expressed by Lu Xun — and one need only read the latter’s stories “A Village Opera” and “Dragon Boat Festival” to sense this — but to reiterate Xu’s analysis, Eroshenko was indeed speaking from a different locus; and the alleged notion that he was unable to distinguish race did not change the fact that he was a white man criticizing Asian people for being “culturally backward.”

The final straw came in December, after Eroshenko wrote a scathing review of a play put on by the Beijing University Experimental Theater Group. In it, he denounced the group for perpetuating what he saw as the “barbaric custom” that prevented women from performing onstage with men. He bemoaned the fact that there was “no good theater in China,” comparing the male students playing females to “monkeys imitating human beings.” Needless to say, his criticisms were an affront to the young performers, and a war of words broke out in the Chenbao Fukan — one that sadly turned into an attack on Eroshenko’s blindness. Although the Zhou brothers came to Eroshenko’s defense, and Eroshenko offered a half apology for his review, it was too late — the damage was done. On April 16, Eroshenko packed his bags and left China for good.

An Unhappy Return

From 1928 to 1929, Eroshenko lived on the Chukchi Peninsula, in northernmost Siberia, where his brother Alexander was working as a veterinarian. During his stay, he collected folklore and studied the situation of the local blind population, possibly for the All-Russia Association of the Blind, with which he was associated at the time. In the early 1930s, he began writing sketches, poetry, and essays inspired by his experiences among the Chukchi people, many of which were published in the braille periodical Esperanto Ligilo.

These writings are said to be among Eroshenko’s finest contributions to Esperanto literature, and, moreover, they offer a strong rebuke of Soviet bureaucracy and European civilization, which he viewed as self-destructive and “fatally stupid.” They are even more remarkable when one considers that they were written around the time of Stalin’s Great Purge.

Throughout the 1930s, Stalin and the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs initiated a series of show trials and covert executions to remove rival influences in the Communist Party. Amidst this culture of deadly paranoia, Soviet Esperantists were but one group that was singled out as a threat to party stability, particularly for their transnational networks, which were feared to be full of spies. Charged as “Trotskyite counterrevolutionaries” and “socially dangerous elements,” many Esperantists were sent to labor camps or summarily executed for little reason beyond possessing Esperanto literature or international correspondence.

This dire situation may explain why, in 1934, Eroshenko fled to Kushka, in Turkmenistan, where he worked for several years as a teacher at a school for blind children. Writing to a friend in 1940, he expressed the concern he had for his own safety as well as that of his Esperanto-speaking peers: “You must write to me in Russian. Esperanto is no longer in fashion. All of the central Esperanto institutions are closed, and many Esperantists have been arrested as spies and traitors. For this reason, I have stopped writing to my foreign friends. Only rarely do I receive copies of Esperanto Ligilo. Are you receiving anything from abroad?”

On December 23, 1952, he died and was buried in his village cemetery, unrecognized as a storyteller in both Russia and Ukraine. Not even his friends in Japan or China were to learn the news of his passing until years later, when the Russian translator Vladimir Rogov noted his name in Lu Xun’s “The Comedy of the Ducks” and began looking into his life. According to family and friends, Eroshenko continued to write until his final days. Fortunately, some of his last works were preserved, but most of his personal archive is said to have been confiscated by the secret police and likely disposed of.