O'Keeffe: Bolshevik Tower of Babel: The Language Politics of Internationalism in the Early Comintern

OCT 24, 2019 | 4:30 PM TO 6:30 PM



The Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue




October 24, 2019: 4:30 PM-6:30 PM




Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC)


In early 1919, the Bolsheviks convened the founding congress of the Third Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow. In the first decade of its operations as the Bolshevik headquarters of international proletarian revolution, the Comintern attracted socialists from all over the world. They brought to Moscow not only their own revolutionary hopes and dreams, but also their diverse national languages. Most foreign delegates to the Comintern did not speak Russian, let alone the other working languages of the early Comintern (German, French, and English). Many Cominternarians thus soon found the business of planning and enacting international socialist revolution an impossible headache. In their multilingual gatherings, they were building a Bolshevik Tower of Babel instead of laying the foundation for global communism.

In this seminar presentation, I will explain the Bolsheviks’ evolving approach to the politics of language diversity in their struggle to kickstart global proletarian revolution in the first decade of Soviet rule. Leading Bolsheviks – most of whom were fluent in multiple European languages – provided the bulk of the translation and interpretation services at the first two Comintern world congresses. As the Comintern and its influence grew, however, so too did the dilemmas of multilingualism for socialists who were attempting to unite in pursuit of global communism. Calls came from within and without the Comintern for it to adopt Esperanto as one of its working languages. Bolshevik leaders quickly concluded, however, that the Comintern simply could not afford the “utopian luxury” of an international auxiliary language like Esperanto for their global revolutionary endeavors. Instead, the Bolsheviks recruited a rapidly growing cadre of translators and interpreters to facilitate Comintern affairs and began to promote Russian as the lingua franca of global communism. At the Sixth Comintern Congress in 1928, held in the early months of Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan, the Bolsheviks’ approach to the global politics of language was cemented. Russian was the privileged language of Comintern affairs, while telephone technology and wired headsets made possible the Comintern’s first successful effort at providing delegates with simultaneous interpretation in the working languages of proletarian internationalism. The Bolsheviks’ approach to the global politics of language in revolutionary Russia, I argue, laid a foundation for later Soviet efforts to establish Russian as a “world language” during the Cold War.

Brigid O’Keeffe is an Associate Professor of History at Brooklyn College (CUNY) and a specialist in late imperial Russian and Soviet history.  Her first book, New Soviet Gypsies: Nationality, Performance, and Selfhood in the Early Soviet Union, was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2013. She is currently writing a book tentatively entitled Tongues of Fire: Esperanto and Languages of Internationalism in Revolutionary Russia. She has also recently published an article on Ivy Litvinov in Slavonic and East European Review.  O’Keeffe has 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 was 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 for the Advanced Study of Russia.