Vasyl Yaroshenko: writer, restless traveler, humanitarian

by Danylo Kulyniak

Vasyl Yaroshenko's life was one of rigorous self-sacrifice and dedication to his ideals.

In the foreword to one of Vasyl Yaroshenko's works, Lu Hsun, a Chinese scholar, wrote about the blind writer from Ukraine:

"His naive beauty and the reality of his dream became clear to me. Perhaps this dream was a veil that covered the tragedy of an artist? I also was a dreamer, I called upon the author not to part with his beautiful childish dream. I called upon the readers to enter this dream, to see a genuine rainbow and understand that we were not sleep-walkers."

What exactly was the dream that inspired "Iosianke," as the Chinese called Mr. Yaroshenko?

Forced by his blindness to look inside himself, Mr. Yaroshenko envisaged a realm of universal concord and fraternity, a realm where neither language, disease nor want would divide people. When his concept was complete, he moved towards making his vision a reality. He traveled to Britain, where he became one of the Esperantists (a group that included Anna Sharapova, a sister of Leo Tolstoy.) The philosophy of a "universal language," Esperanto, became an ideal for Mr. Yaroshenko, offering as it did an entry to the world scientific community, encouraging him to seek universal values and truths, to synthesize the cultures of West and East.

At the same time, the blind youth became interested in Buddhism. While in Japan, Mr. Yaroshenko attended a series of lectures by a leading intellectual, Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore, lecturing at Tokyo University, defined European culture as material and Eastern as spiritual; Christianity, maintained Tagore, was pragmatic, while Buddhism strove to elevate human consciousness. Mr. Yaroshenko disagreed, stating that although the cultures had little in common, they could not be opposed to one another. He felt that one should look for factors that unify people and help them understand one another in all areas of life. The poet was to dedicate his life to this principle.

"Living is the main art for me, life itself is a drama, and every man performs his role on this great state," Mr. Yaroshenko wrote. He saw his own role as being a guide for the people who found themselves in spiritual darkness. The inner dictates of this role compelled Yero-san, as the Japanese called Mr. Yaroshenko, to leave Japan, where he had spent seven years and found great contentment. "There is too little land and too much happiness here," said Mr. Yaroshenko about Japan, the country where he fell in love for the first time, where he began writing in the language of his mistress, where his works were first published and where he was recognized as a writer.

Mr. Yaroshenko's travels led him to northeastern Asia, where he established a school for blind children in the city of Moulmein. He taught the children how to read and write in Braille and wrote stories for them using this system. Later, on arriving in Russia, Mr. Yaroshenko organized a similar school in the extreme north in Chukotka.

The way of life that Mr. Yaroshenko adopted for himself at the time was not without its dangers. He insisted on traveling independently (unheard of for a blind person at the time) and for this purpose learned to ride a dog sled, but on one occasion fell from the sled while crossing the tundra and almost froze to death.

However, his restless spirit always overcame such obstacles and even enabled him to deal with the arbitrariness of the machinations of government. He was expelled from India (then a part of the British Empire) because of his sympathy with the anti-colonial movement, he was imprisoned in Japan for the participation in the work of the Second Congress of the Socialist League, and only the intervention of the respected writer Lu Hsun saved Mr. Yaroshenko from arrest by the Chinese authorities.

But Mr. Yaroshenko had no real interest in politics for its own sake. His participation in political movements was a result of his actively "pervading" the soul and customs of the people among whom he lived at various stages of his adventurous life. Acquaintance with a new culture resulted in mastery of new languages, in ethnographic expeditions, in literary works. The Chinese poet Hu Yuo-Ji acknowledged that nobody had so deeply penetrated the problems and misfortunes of the Chinese as Ilosianke in his "Moan of a Solitary Soul" and "The Tale of a Solitary Tree."

Mr. Yaroshenko constantly carried out scientific and research work; in 1923 he was awarded a prize at the International Congress of Esperantists of Nuremberg and next year delivered a speech at the International Congress of Blind People in Vienna. In his later years Mr. Yaroshenko taught, translated from Eastern languages and took part in international events.

He lived modestly, almost in poverty, sending his generous fees for translation work to a fund for blind people.

Mr. Yaroshenko died in 1952 in Obukhivtsi (now the Kursk region in Russia).

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, September 5, 1999, No. 36, Vol. LXVII

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