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A Blind Globetrotter
Vasyl Yeroshenko was an inveterate traveler and an admired teacher and writer, with the knowledge of Esperanto and other languages. He actually was a blind person, but also a person with a strong will and lust for life.
Natalya MYKHAYLOVA has researched the life of this extraordinary Ukrainian and now gives a rundown on it.
Vasyl Yeroshenko, who died in 1952, deserves a novel to be written about his life — for lack of space we’ll have to be content, for the moment, with an essay. At the gentle age of four, he lost his sight — but it did not stop him from traveling, from learning foreign languages, from writing in Japanese or from teaching the blind children in various parts of the globe. He was known and respected in several countries of the world — but paradoxically not in Ukraine.
Vasyl Yeroshenko was born in the Ukrainian village of Obukhivka in the Land of Slobozhanshchyna (now Belgorodskaya Oblast in Russia) in the year 1890. The village used to belong to the Ukrainian Hetman Ivan Mazepa (1640–1709), a towering figure in the history of Ukraine. Most of the villagers, the Yeroshenkos included, spoke Ukrainian.
Vasyl grew up in the land of endless fields and dense woods. He loved wild flowers, the greenery of the forest, the blueness of the sky and the ever changing shapes of clouds, these heavenly travelers. He knew the life and language of wonderful creatures that inhabited Nature around him, he loved the music of frogs and of grasshoppers, he intuited that there was so much in the world around him that was Beauty Incarnate. At the same time, he was aware of the dark side of the world too. He could probably have become a musician or an artist — but the destiny ruled otherwise.
When the boy was only four years old, the world went dark for him — measles caused complications and the boy lost the precious gift of sight. It came as a great tragic shock — he begged his parents to do something to restore his ability to see the wonders of the world. But the only thing they could do was to teach him to live more or less normal life — to move around without the blind man’s stick and to figure out where he was in relations to things and places around him. The boy compensated his loss by learning to play the violin, and later the piano and the guitar. Luckily enough, his parents could afford buying these instruments.
Another piece of luck arrived in the form of Count Oleksiy Orlov, the local wealthy dignitary, who happened to hear about the blind boy’s musical talent, listened to him play and arranged for the boy to be taken to Moscow where, at a specialized orphanage, he would be educated.
Studies and work
The schooling over, Vasyl joined an orchestra of folk instruments. Tall, good looking and fair haired, he looked like a character from a fairy tale or a hero from the paintings of the Russian painter Vasnetsov. The young man’s thirst for knowledge was unquenchable — since his blindness prevented him from reading books (and no books in Braille were available), he paid an actor to read the “classics” aloud for him. Hiring people to help him with furthering his education made big holes in his meager budget.
Vasyl happened to meet Anna Sharapova, a follower of Leo Tolstoy’s philosophy of life. She devoted herself to spreading Tolstoy’s ideas, and one of the instruments of popularizing Tolstoy’s ideas internationally was the artificial language of Esperanto. She translated some of Tolstoy’s works into Esperanto (and added to her list of translations works of the early nineteenth-century Russian poet Lermontov and the medieval Slavic epic poem The Tale of Ihor’s Host).
Anna Sharapova inspired Vasyl to learn a language that would allow him to communicate with people regardless of their national and language backgrounds. From Esperanto, Vasyl soon moved on to learning other foreign languages, and by the end of his life he managed to learn about twenty languages. Armed with the knowledge of Esperanto, Vasyl decided to go abroad for further studies. It was arranged with a society of Esperanto enthusiasts in Poland, his first stop on his way to Europe, that they would meet him at the railroad terminal in Warsaw and help him with whatever they could. Wearing the Esperanto green badge, he stepped down from the train only to find no one on the platform to meet him — an unfortunate error in the cable informing of his arrival gave the wrong date.
But Vasyl found the way out of a difficult situation and went on to Berlin where he was met by Esperanto enthusiasts and provided with what he needed, including the tickets to go on to Britain. Once there, he began his studies at a Royal college for the blind. And he never stopped his musical studies either. However, soberly realizing that he would never become an extraordinary musician he had had an ambition to be, he returned to Russia, carrying in his luggage a typewriter that could type in Braille.
Trip to Japan
His wanderlust took him to Japan in 1914, shortly before the First World War broke out. Vasyl was twenty-six then. Why did he want to go to Japan? Probably because he knew that one of the features of the Japanese culture was respect for the blind. One of the founders of Buddhism was believed to have been a blind monk. A ninth-century Japanese emperor encouraged, by his decree, the blind people to be engaged in performing music and doing massage. Incidentally, the long-standing tradition of respect and care for the blind continues to be upheld in Japan, with a lot being done to make the life of the blind easier.
Vasyl taught Esperanto at a local university in Tokyo and at a school for the blind. He himself learnt the Japanese language quick enough to speak. He did not stop at that and went on to learn how to write in hieroglyphs.
He studied Buddhism, oriental philosophy and medicine. He played music, wrote articles for the local newspapers, and even tried himself in sculpture. Another source of income was his services of a massager.
When he learned that Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941, Indian poet, philosopher, internationalist, educator and Nobel laureate, who tried to deepen mutual Indian and Western cultural understanding) came on a visit to Japan, Vasyl found a way of getting the Indian involved in dispute with him, discussing relative spiritual values of Christianity and Hinduism. In the opinion of many of those thinkers who followed the dispute, Vasyl’s arguments were stronger.
Vasyl was a restless person and he walked long distances through the Japanese countryside, with a backpack, his guitar and a walking stick to help him along.
There was a lot in his Japanese experience and cultural features that was inspirational for him, and Vasyl began to write about his experiences, his love of animals and of nature in general, and to have his writings published in Japanese. He began to be addressed as Ero-san.
Meeting Kamitko Itiko, a Japanese journalist and a beautiful woman, brought love into Vasyl’s life. It does not seem to have been a stable or happy love affair but it warmed his heart. He wrote a story in the style of a parable, A Tale Told By A Paper Lampshade, and had it published. The story about a beautiful geisha and a blind foreigner, evidently based on Vasyl’s own experience, was both critical and popular success.
Teaching in Burma and return
Probably it was this love that did not last or his never exhausted wanderlust that made Vasyl leave Japan and travel to Siam (Thailand) and then to drift to Burma where he founded a school for blind children from poor families. It took some time to get the word about the school to spread — and then he had blind children coming to study and live at his school from across the country. His teaching methods were liberal and he earned love of his pupils. He never stopped writing parables and fairy tales, inspired by his ever more profound understanding of Buddhism.
When Vasyl learned that the February Revolution in Russia had overthrown tsarism, he rather naively decided that the era of justice and future happiness had come to Russia — and he wanted to go back to take part in helping build a new life.
But traveling at that time was fraught with all sorts of dangers and difficulties — the world was still at war. Despite detentions (“a suspicious blind foreigner”) and endless delays, he managed to get back to Russia in 1921. By that time Russia had been caught firmly in the grip of the Bolsheviks whose ideas of liberties and freedoms were very peculiar.
On his long way to Russia, Vasyl was known to have encountered seemingly insurmountable obstacles — but he managed to overcome them all. One of the stories has it that in Shanghai he had to disguise himself as a Chinese coolie to throw the police, that was in hot pursuit, off the scent. Later, being in a place in the Far East that was under the Japanese control, he joined the local socialist movement, began writing satirical anti-government pieces for the local press. Vasyl was arrested, beaten up and deported to “communist Russia” to indulge his socialist ideas there.
China and Red Russia
The Red Russia turned out to be very different from the land of freedom Yeroshenko had hoped to see. He soon got himself into trouble with the Bolshevik authorities but managed to leave Russia unscathed. Yeroshenko went to China where he met the well-known Chinese writer Chou Shu-jen, known by the pseudonym Lu Hsing. Chou had studied in Japan and had become a leader of the literary revolution soon after returning to China. Lu Hsing’s acerbic, somewhat westernized, and often satirical attacks on China’s feudalistic traditions established him as China’s foremost critic and writer (one of his works has become an international classic). Lu Hsing offered to translate Vasyl’s works written in Japanese into Chinese, and probably helped him land a job of a teacher of Esperanto at a university in Beijing. Yeroshenko also conducted classes for the blind and had some of his works published in China. Yeroshenko seemed to have found more or less stable station in life but his nostalgia for his homeland and his wanderlust continued to keep him restless. In one of his stories, Lu Hsing described a blind poet whose heart is uneasy and whose best intentions end in disaster. The story seems to reflect Yeroshenko’s longing for change and his restlessness.
In 1924 Yeroshenko arrived in Moscow. This time the encounter with the Bolshevik regime seemed to be more auspicious — he was given a job of an Esperanto teacher at the Communist University of the Working People of the Orient. He was also given an opportunity to conduct classes for the blind. But at the end of the nineteen twenties, Yeroshenko felt he had spent enough time at one place and had to move on. This time he went to Chukotka, in the Far East of the Soviet Russia. It was a desolate land of tundra and permafrost but he found it to be to his liking. He studied the local language and customs, he taught blind children. He loved dogs that were used for pulling the sleds, and he, a blind man, traveled long distances by sled to which dogs were harnessed. He knew the direction by the smells, sounds and the wind. He knew each dog’s name too, by knowing which “voice” belonged to which dog, and his sense of touch helped him “recognize” the feel of the fur of each dog.
The year 1935 found him in the town of Kushta in the southernmost part of Turkmenistan, then a soviet republic. He was invited to be headmaster of a school for blind children and he gratefully accepted the invitation.
Yeroshenko leaned the Turkmen language, adjusted Braille for the Turkmen language and gave himself fully to teaching the blind.
In the early fifties, Yeroshenko went to Kyiv and then traveled across Ukraine. His final years he spent in his native village of Obukhivka. His only treasures that he had amassed during his life were his books in Braille and his archives — and they burned down in a fire shortly after his death. His name and his life were forgotten.
The time has come to resurrect him.
Since most of what Yeroshenko wrote was in Esperanto and in Japanese, it is very difficult to trace his writings. Some of the translations done by Lu Hsing were helpful in reconstruction of Yeroshenko’s literary legacy. In 1969, a collection of Yeroshenko’s works, entitled Kvitka spravedlyvosti (The Flower of Justice), edited by Nadiya Adrianova-Hordieynko, was published in Ukraine. Later, in the nineteen seventies, Nadiya Adrianova-Hordieynko published a novel about Vasyl Yeroshenko, Zapalyv u sertsi vohon (The One Who Kindled a Fire in the Heart). Both books are now great rarities. In 2007, a philanthropic fund, Espero, named after Yeroshenko was founded.
The Yeroshenko Fund has published a book, Kazky ta lehendy (Tales and Legends) which is a collection of Yeroshenko’s works in Ukrainian and in Esperanto. The work on rediscovering, collecting and publishing his works goes on.
Yeroshenko with pupils in the school for the blind children in Japan.
Vasyl Yeroshenko and Lu Hsing. Beijing, China. 1922.