Deaf in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: "Defect" and the New Soviet Person, 1917-1991
This thesis examines the history of the deaf in the Soviet Union. The disability on Soviet programmes of identity and the fashioning of a Soviet subjectivity and selfhood. Deaf individuals adopted Soviet values, to find their place within Soviet society.
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in shaping Soviet selfhood. Soviet individuals, in the scholarship of Sarah Davies,
Sheila Fitzpatrick and others, held themselves ?aloof from the values of the communist regime", using Soviet ideology for their own ends whilst retaining the ability to critically oppose its structures.42 Expressions of dissent and resistance were often read as keys to uncovering a true self, existing outside the influence of ideology, whilst expressions of support for the state, or the explicit use of ideological language, was typically configured as a cynical performance, an attempt to ?play the game" that concealed the ?real" opinions of the individual.43
More recently, however, scholars such as Jochen Hellbeck and Igal Halfin have begun both to question this picture of performance and unbelief and to rehabilitate ideology as a mode of analysis.44 As Hellbeck argues in the introduction to his work on Stalinist diary writing, ideology does not deny the possibility of individual agency: ?The individual operates like a clearing house where ideology is unpacked and personalised, and in the process the individual remakes himself into a subject with distinct and meaningful biographical features. And in activating the individual, ideology comes to life."45 Both ?performative" texts, such as letters to newspapers and Soviet leaders, and ?personal" texts, such as diaries, revealed the influence of ideology as a conceptual framework shaping the expression of individual thoughts and actions, even when these thoughts and actions opposed or contradicted the Soviet regime. Agency and ideology thus co-exist and inform each other.
This thesis seeks to extend this debate by examining how deaf individuals engaged with ideology, a process which both shaped and revealed the particular contours of the deaf-Soviet self. Soviet values, such as collectivism, initiative, consciousness and labour were key categories used by deaf individuals to express their own identity, but they also shaped the ways in which that identity developed. Ideology opened certain avenues and closed others, driving deaf individuals and the deaf community to develop in certain ways. This shaping was not unconscious, however. As deaf individuals engaged with Soviet ideology, fractures and contradictions appeared that reveal the points at which deaf individual and collective selfhood departed from the dominant ideals of the New Soviet Person. In seeking to forge themselves as Soviet, deaf people were often selective in their interpretation of what the New Soviet Person was like, or used ideological language to express their desires in opposition to the state. As such, this active engagement with Soviet ideology can reveal the subtleties and nuances of deaf identity in the Soviet context.
Furthermore, the long chronological perspective of this thesis allows for Halfin"s and Hellbeck"s theories to be challenged in new ways. These scholars have focused exclusively on the Stalinist 1930s, seeing the period as an almost hermetically sealed cultural sphere in which Soviet ideology provided the sole interpretative framework for understanding and expressing selfhood. By extending the analysis of Soviet subjectivity back to 1917, and forward through the post-war period to the Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras, this thesis is able to examine the effect of other influences on the deaf-Soviet self. Ideology did not exist in a vacuum; the challenges faced by pre-revolutionary deaf individuals influenced how they approached the ideology of the new Soviet state, and the post-war period saw the opening up of the Soviet deaf community to the influence of international conceptions of deafness. As such, the experience of the deaf community in certain instances ran counter to the prevailing norms of Soviet selfhood. Soviet identity in the 1930s, for example, has been defined by Jeffrey Brooks in terms of a passive relationship of gratitude to Stalin, the beneficent leader, for material goods and care: conversely, the experience of deaf people in this period was defined by agency and independence, as deaf people sought to shed the constraints of pre-revolutionary charity and tutelage and take charge of their own lives. The 1960s and 1970s, by contrast, a time in which trends of dissidence and opposition to the Soviet regime were gathering force, saw a shift in the deaf community towards the passive reception of state beneficence and care, influenced by international conceptions of deaf people as ?victims" of their social systems. The development of deaf-Soviet selfhood was thus often influenced by other conceptual frameworks.
Nevertheless, these outside influences did not negate the significance of ideology in forming the deaf-Soviet self. Deaf individuals saw the revolution as an opportunity to overcome their marginal status and achieve equality, and they continued to tap into this revolutionary ethos, individually and collectively, throughout the Soviet period. As histories of the deaf community frequently asserted, ?only the Great
October socialist revolution granted deaf-mutes civil and political rights".46 The drive to fulfil the ?promise of October" and lead ?full-blooded lives" was a consistent spur to the activities of deaf individuals and the Soviet deaf community as a whole. This thesis, therefore, refutes the notion of the deaf (and indeed, of Soviet individuals in general) as either passively accepting, or actively resisting, identities imposed upon them by the Soviet state. Deaf individuals had a complex and evolving relationship with the New Soviet Person and Soviet ideology. Whilst their fluctuating engagement with aspects of Soviet identity demonstrated their role as active agents and fashioners of their own identity, their consistent use of ideological language and frameworks suggests the pervasive influence of ideology on the Soviet deaf.
This notion of the deaf-Soviet self, developing in dialogue with Soviet frameworks of identity, informs the approach to sources in this thesis. The sources analysed here could be described as ?performative", encompassing records from the archive of VOG (official reports, transcribed sign-language debates from congresses and organisational meetings, letters to state departments), deaf journalism, published books and theatre. ?Private" sources, such as the diaries analysed by Hellbeck, have yet to be found and, given the pervasive problem of illiteracy amongst deaf people
throughout the Soviet period, may not be forthcoming. As a result, one could argue that the sources used should be approached with caution, showing, as they do, a particular bias towards positive expressions of support for the Soviet project and the use of dominantly ideological language. However, the sources examined do not represent a straightforward replication of Soviet models of selfhood. Deaf individuals" relationship to the New Soviet Person was in constant flux: from the intense debates over aspects of Soviet selfhood in the 1920s, through the complex engagement with Soviet narratives of ?overcoming" and transcendence in the 1930s, into demands for ?benefits" and welfare in the post-war period. Even into the 1960s and 1970s, a period dominated by extremely formulaic propaganda, the occasional fractures in the dominant narratives enable the particular nature of deaf-Soviet selfhood (as it differed from the broader contours of Soviet ideals of selfhood) to be traced.47
To be sure, the sources examined in this thesis only permit access to one narrative: that of deaf people who chose to enter the Soviet deaf community and remake themselves as Soviet subjects. At points within this narrative, there are hints at the existence of ?other" deaf individuals who rejected the dominant ?deaf-Soviet" identity as promoted by VOG, such as the deaf postcard-sellers who were the subject of a VOG crackdown in the 1930s, or the deaf hooligans who became a pressing concern in the post-war period. Only the shadow of this deaf ?other" is present in this thesis: uncovering him will be the work of future studies.
This thesis, therefore, situates the experience of deaf individuals within the frameworks of Soviet identity and selfhood. It does not, however, argue that deaf-
Soviet selfhood unconsciously mirrored that of the ?hearing" population at large. A combination of factors influenced the development of Soviet models of deaf identity, including memories of pre-revolutionary disenfranchisement, a growing community identity, and the obstacles posed by the physical constraints of their disability. Yet the positive engagement of deaf individuals with the Soviet project remained
constant. The revolution had indeed been liberating for the deaf, and the memory of this liberation informed their relationship to Soviet ideology and Soviet power.
In examining Soviet deafness as a facet of broader, culturally specific frameworks of identity, this thesis also seeks to extend the paradigm of disabled or ?Deaf" identity, as developed primarily in the works of American historians. A relatively new historiographical phenomenon, the school of disability history has emerged in response to dramatic shifts in the understanding of disabled identity in the United States since the late 1980s. These shifts have attempted to change the interpretative framework surrounding conceptions of disability, from a medical model of physical
?lack", to a social model in which ?politics, culture, economics and larger ideological notions of normality define who is and who is not disabled; or conversely, who is and who is not normal".48 Disabled individuals have sought to challenge the dominant constructions of ?normality" within American society which, in their eyes, have caused disability to be framed as ?deviant". To that end, disabled activists have turned to history as a means both to understand the development of these models of
?normality" and to challenge them: ?If, in the present moment, America is truly engaged in Їthe last great inclusion?, then the new disability history must provide that moment with a usable past."49
As a facet of disability history, and as a field in its own right, deaf history has also been marked by a striving for redefinition and a rediscovery of agency. John Vickrey Van Cleve, the editor of a volume on deaf history published in 1993, argued in his introduction that ?as historians probe more deeply into the past, they ask new questions and discover new evidence, it is becoming apparent that deaf people have played a larger role in their own history than has been recognised [...] deaf people
were involved actively in trying to shape their own experience".50 Histories sought to show how social, economic and political factors had shaped the treatment of deaf people. Yet in seeking to reconceptualise deafness, the ?new scholarship" posited a new model of deaf identity. Drawing on the experience of the American deaf community in the 1980s and 1990s, this model saw deafness not as a disability, but as a form of ethnic difference. As Lennard Davis has suggested, American deaf individuals have come to define the deaf as ?a linguistic subgroup like Latinos or
Koreans. [The deaf] feel that their culture, language and community constitute them as a totally adequate, self-enclosed, and self-defining subnationality within the larger structure of the audist state."51
This view of deafness as an ethnic category was shaped, in particular, by the ?Deaf President Now!" protest at Gallaudet University, the liberal arts college for the deaf in Washington D.C. In 1988, deaf students of the university barricaded the campus and forced the new hearing president to resign, in favour of a deaf man, I. King Jordan. 52 Students explicitly framed their demands in ethnic terms, with placards declaring, ?We still have a dream", and ?This is the Selma of the Deaf". Two years later, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was ?presented as a new civil rights law, extending anti-discrimination protections to people with disabilities".53 As Karen Nakamura has argued, this adoption of the ethnic framework of identity was politically powerful: ?Minority politics in the United States is unique because of the availability of the powerful and articulate frame of ethnic multiculturalism [...]. Members of new immigrant groups are understood as being entitled to bilingual language support in the classroom, minority civil rights, or protection under anti-discrimination laws without having to argue for this status"54 By defining themselves as ?Deaf-American", the deaf community could thus assert their rights to recognition within American society. On this basis, histories of deafness in America have sought to align the deaf community with other marginal groups, including Native Americans
and immigrants, whom the state sought to ?Americanize" during the early twentieth century.55
This ethnic framework of identity is somewhat problematic, however. Minority ethnicities are defined by heredity, with the cultural values of the community handed down from parents to children. Whilst deafness may be hereditary in some cases, many deaf people are born to hearing parents. As a result of this disjunction, historians of deafness have posited a model of ?Deaf culture", rooted in the use of sign language, which distinguishes the deaf community from the hearing world.
Children enter this world through deaf schools, the ?hubs" of Deaf culture, in which they learn sign language and become members of the Deaf cultural community. A functional distinction has thus emerged between ?deaf", indicating an inability to hear, and ?Deaf", suggesting membership of this ?linguistic subnationality" with its implications of unique cultural experience. As such, these historians posit a form of deaf identity which stands outside of the cultural frameworks of the society in which deaf people live, and which, historically, has been subject to interference and imposition by that society (an argument which strikingly mirrors that of Soviet historians of ?everyday resistance"). Examples of these histories include Harlan Lane"s deeply polemical When the Mind Hears, or Susan Burch"s Signs of Resistance.56
Deaf history has thus far been dominated by this linguistic-ethnic model of American Deaf identity. Extending the ethnic paradigm further, this model has even come to be regarded as universal and international, with several recent histories attempting to locate a sign-language-based ?Deaf culture" within other, non-Western communities.57 Yet some historians have sought to challenge this interpretative framework by situating deaf identity within nationally specific conceptions of selfhood. One such example is Karen Nakamura"s Deaf in Japan, an analysis of changing notions of Japanese deaf identity over the course of the 20th century. Nakamura takes pains to explain the lack of a linguistic-ethnic conception of deaf identity amongst Japanese deaf people: ?In Japan, for many reasons, it has been difficult to establish a similar type of powerful ethnic-minority frame. As a result, [Japanese deaf people] have had to use other frames in order to leverage political power: human rights, an appeal to the commonality (and thus mutual responsibility) of all Japanese, neighbourhood volunteerism, and perhaps most powerfully with the government, a sense of falling behind the West."58 Japanese deaf identity, in
Nakamura"s argument, has developed in dialogue with notions of selfhood that are historically specific to Japan.59
This thesis thus attempts to follow in Nakamura"s footsteps by examining Soviet deaf identity as a facet of Soviet selfhood more broadly. In doing so, somewhat paradoxically, it uncovers the existence of a Soviet ?deaf culture" that is strikingly reminiscent of its American counterpart. These similarities have been highlighted by the American Deaf historian Susan Burch: ?As in other nations, [the deaf] joined associations of and for the Deaf, communicated with each other in their native language, RSL, actively sought improvements for their community, shared a folklore and other communal values."60 In fact, seen in these terms, Soviet deaf culture would seem to be a much stronger and more distinct phenomenon than its American equivalent, with the institutional framework of VOG fostering and perpetuating the particular linguistic, cultural and communal identity of Soviet deaf people. Yet the lack of an ethnic dimension to this ?culture" must be stressed. Deaf people did not seek to stand outside of Soviet society; instead, their consistent desire to engage with the Soviet project influenced how they viewed their developing community. The desire to conform to Soviet values, such as collectivism, labour, consciousness and autonomy, framed and directed the development of this community. Tellingly, as the Soviet deaf community opened up to the wider world in the 1960s and came into contact with other models of deaf selfhood, their sense of ?Sovietness" was only reinforced. This examination of Soviet selfhood, therefore, contributes to this debate on frameworks of deaf identity, and supports the argument that deaf identity is tightly bound to its historical context.
While the structure of this thesis is broadly chronological, each chapter focuses on a particular theme or issue. Beginning with the creation of the first All-Russian Union of Deaf-Mutes in July 1917, Chapter 1 traces how tsarist conceptions of deaf people as objects of state tutelage influenced deaf responses to both Soviet power and the ideal of the New Soviet Person. Whilst engagement with Soviet concepts of identity was seen as an opportunity to avoid marginalisation and attain independence, the push for deaf autonomy was also seen in communal terms, with deaf individuals demanding the right to rule themselves. Opening after the creation of VOG in 1926, Chapter 2 moves into the mass politics of the 1930s, tracing how deaf people wrote themselves into the broader transformative project of Stalin"s ?Great Break", fighting to overcome their own bodies and join the ?first ranks" of the Soviet body politic. At the same time, it examines how the discourse of the purges influenced demands for deaf-only organisations within Soviet social and economic structures, and inflamed fears about those deaf people who could not, or would not, conform to the Soviet deaf ideal. Chapter 3 examines the Second World War as a decisive break in Soviet deaf history, tracing how the legacy of war provoked new ways of seeing and treating deafness. The post-war period saw a rise in the status of the disabled and, with it, a growing demand for services and benefits. As a result, VOG as an institution became more powerful and more tightly controlled, eventually subsuming all services for deaf people into its purview. At the same time, the chapter examines the post-war educational debates on the nature of deafness and its treatment in schools, debates which would shape the structure of deaf education for the remainder of the Soviet period.
By the early 1950s, therefore, the institutional structures surrounding deaf people were concretely elaborated, and the foundations of deaf-Soviet identity were laid. The remaining two chapters document the development of this deaf-Soviet identity 36
in new arenas. Chapter 4 examines the creation of the Theatre of Sign and Gesture, the professional deaf theatre founded in Moscow in 1957, as a means to investigate the impact of the ?thaw" in the Soviet deaf community. By analysing discussions on the form and content appropriate to deaf theatre, it attempts to define the parameters of deaf engagement with art and culture, and the nature of a particular deaf-Soviet cultural identity. Chapter 5 looks at the activities of VOG in the international arena, especially the interaction of its members with the World Federation of the Deaf and other national deaf organisations. It assesses the impact of the Cold War on Soviet understandings of deafness abroad, and on the ways in which Soviet experiences of deafness were propagandised. Through this propaganda, it traces the development of the ?welfare paradigm" within Soviet deaf identity, and examines the impact of this paradigm on the Soviet deaf community itself. Finally, an epilogue considers the final years of the Soviet Union, tracing the ways deaf-Soviet identity was historicised and undermined during the late Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras.
1. Revolutionising Deafness
Deaf-Mute Cell of the RKP(b), 1925
In October 1925, the fortnightly newspaper Zhizn" glukhonemykh (Life of Deaf-Mutes) published a short article entitled ?The Life of the Komsomol", celebrating the fourth anniversary of a deaf branch of the communist youth organisation in Saratov. 1
The article detailed an evening event held to celebrate this milestone: the benefits that communism had conferred on deaf individuals were palpable in the descriptions of the newly decorated, cosy club, lit by electric lighting and hung with pictures of
Lenin and other party leaders. Yet the focus of this article was the change that had been wrought in the young deaf individuals themselves. Groups of active, cultured young deaf people were portrayed ?carrying out lively debates amongst themselves", discussing the issues of the day. Local party members gave speeches to enthusiastic applause and, after the Internationale had been sung in sign language by the young members, instructive plays, games and entertainments continued well into the night.
This article, and others like it, attested to the articulation by the mid-1920s of a model of deaf Soviet selfhood. Drawing on the broader conceptual framework of the New Soviet Person, the ideal deaf individual was conscious and educated, lively, energetic and devoted to the cause of building communism. Even in this short article, however, it is clear that this model in no way represented an unproblematic appropriation of Soviet concepts of identity. Although much was made of the engagement by deaf komsomol"tsy with the symbols and rituals of Soviet life, the very existence of a deaf-only branch of the komsomol undermined the ideal of inclusion within the Soviet body politic. The clear desire to engage with Soviet models of the self was likewise undercut by the delight taken in the sense of a deaf community; the few hearing people at the party were clearly at a disadvantage: ?and here and there amongst all the masses dart hearing people, separated from the deaf-mutes by the paucity of their sign language, alternated with lip-read explanations."2
Whilst unmistakably ?Soviet", the model self in this article is first and foremost ?deaf", and is thus both engaged in and distanced from the Soviet drive to remake the individual and society. This tension between inclusion and difference was to be given concrete form in 1926, with the foundation of the All-Russian Unification of Deaf-Mutes (Vserossiiskoe Ob"edinenie Glukhonemykh, or VOG), a deaf-run organisation under the auspices of the People"s Commissariat of Social Welfare established to provide services to deaf people and facilitate their engagement in Soviet society. This body, later renamed the All-Russian Society of Deaf-Mutes, would play a central role in the lives of deaf people for the duration of the Soviet
This chapter examines the development of this complex and contested model of deaf Soviet selfhood, from the revolutions of 1917 to the foundation of VOG in 1926. The seismic shifts in legal and conceptual frameworks engendered in this period fundamentally revolutionised the ways in which deaf people sought to define themselves and were defined by the state and society. On one level, this transformation was practical: deaf people could finally shake off the legal constrictions of tsarist society, with its structures of tutelage and reliance on charity, and begin to direct and shape their own lives. On a conceptual level, though, this new direction was framed by the shifting conceptions of agency and the self being played out in Soviet society as a whole. In engaging with the both state and the language of revolution, with its privileging of (at different times) notions such as autonomy (samodeiatel"nost"), mutual aid (vzaimopomoshch"), labour (trud) and consciousness (soznatel"nost"), the contours of this path to deaf self-definition and agency were drawn. This dialogue with dominant cultural frameworks, however, was influenced in no small measure by the pre-revolutionary experience of deaf people. The rejection of charity and state tutelage, and the demand, on an individual and a group level, for rights and citizenship, informed and shaped the ways in which deaf people responded to Soviet notions of humaneness and social welfare. ?Sovietness" was thus mediated by issues of normality and disability, competence and the definition of ?deafness".
Tracing the development of these concepts in the context of deaf organisation poses particular problems for the researcher. This revolutionary decade was a period of experimentation, of attempts (and failures) to organise and define the deaf as a group with a coherent identity and place within society. Before the foundation of VOG, no systematic records were kept, and thus the few sources available are concentrated around the major milestones in Soviet deaf organisation in this period: the convening of the All-Russian Congress of Deaf-Mutes in July 1917, the liquidation of grass-roots deaf organisations in 1921, the establishment of deaf party organisations from 1921 to 1925, and the foundation of VOG in 1926. The limited scale of such organisation, and its confinement to a few urban centres, further impacts on the type of archival sources available: for the most part concerned with dry, organisational matters and usually written by one of a small group of deaf ?activists". To be sure,
deaf journalism, specifically the organisational newspaper Zhizn" glukhonemykh, published from 1924, allowed for discussion of ideals and methods beyond Moscow and Leningrad and thus broadened the scope for engagement. The limitations of the early sources, however, reflect the limited nature of deaf organisation in this period: driven by a very few deaf activists educated in pre-revolutionary institutions, and hampered by the obstacles of civil war and lack of funds. It would not be until the 1930s that these organisations would engage with deaf individuals on a large scale. Nevertheless, even in this limited forum the specific trajectory of deaf engagement with revolutionary and Soviet models of selfhood can be traced.
Deaf Organisation before October
The revolutionary upheavals of 1917 proved a watershed for deaf people, both through their promotion of new conceptual frameworks of self and society, and in their rhetoric of liberation from the social and political structures of tsarist society. For the deaf, revolution entailed an end to the legal restrictions which had, up to this point, curtailed their activities and engagement in society. Until October, deaf individuals had been governed by Article 381 of the State Legal Code, which had remained essentially unchanged since 1833.3 According to this document, deaf-mutes (glukhonemye) were equated with the insane, held under guardianship until the age of 21, and were then only registered as ?legally capable" (pravosposobnye) after being examined by an ?expert" to prove mental competence.4 This quality was measured primarily by a grasp of the Russian language: the individuals in question were required to demonstrate that they could ?freely express their thoughts and express their will" in order to have the right to ?direct and dispose of their property with all others of majority".5 They would then have to read the relevant legal acts aloud, affirm that they reflected their will, and sign their name. The assumption was made, therefore, that deafness impaired mental competence, and with it the ability to participate fully in society. Deaf individuals were held in a position of state tutelage, with the onus on individuals to prove their own competence in order to become independent citizens in the eyes of the law.
In legal terms, the liberation of 1917 represented an end to the state-imposed, tutelary position of deaf people. However, it should not be assumed that this legal disenfranchisement had curtailed all deaf organisation. For several decades before the revolution, new spheres of activity and agency, and a growing sense of identity as a distinct social group, had been developing amongst deaf people. These shifts developed within two particular social spaces: the school and the social club. Deaf education in Russia had, from its outset, been charitable in nature: the first school for the deaf was formed after a chance meeting in a Pavlovsk park between the Empress Maria Fedorovna and a young deaf boy, Alexander Meller, in 1806.6 The school, relocated to St. Petersburg in 1810, was maintained with considerable funds and personal involvement by the Imperial family. In a similar fashion, the Arnol"do-Tretiakov School in Moscow, founded in 1860, and schools in Kharkov, Novocherkassk, Tsaritsyno and Vitebsk were established through individual charitable initiative.7 Yet despite this implicit rendering of deaf people as passive recipients of charity, education was to prove a vital means to achieve agency. According to a sub-clause of Article 381, graduates of both the St. Petersburg and the Arnol"do-Tretiakov School were not required to undertake the usual examination to prove legal competence, and could instead immediately enter government service as a chinovnik of the 14th rank.8 Of the seven pupils to graduate from the St. Petersburg School in 1870, for example, five were admitted to state service.9 Others, having been granted legal independence, entered private service, worked as artists or engravers, or ran their own businesses.10
For deaf people, education thus proved a means to circumvent the legal restrictions imposed upon them by demonstrating their mental competence and fitness for inclusion within society. Although the primary focus was on literacy, educational establishments also sought to provide their pupils with practical skills to enable them to make a living. The St. Petersburg School built its own handicraft workshops in 1865, with the goal ?to teach the poor deaf-mute some form of craft, [and] in this way to put into his hand the means to support himself after he leaves the school and lives independently".11 By 1900, these workshops trained deaf pupils in carpentry, boot making, bookbinding and even farming, on a working farm outside the city.12
Thus, educational establishments sought to help their pupils achieve some form of social independence and integration into hearing society. Yet this push for individual autonomy was complemented by a growing sense of a deaf community fostered by these schools. Many pupils chose to remain as teachers after graduation, and to devote themselves to educating further generations of deaf children. Even outside the schools, the social links between pupils remained strong. As one deaf individual commented in 1907, ?young deaf mutes, upon leaving their schools, are [...] unable to ignore their reminiscences and renounce their spirit of comradeship even after many years; they retain the desire to associate with their comrades, with people who share their views and educational habits."13
Alongside providing an education, therefore, deaf schools enabled a nascent deaf community to take shape.14 These ties of friendship and the desire to socialise initially manifested themselves informally, as in the ?deaf side-street" (pereulok glukhonemykh) in Astrakhan, so named because groups of deaf people with links to the nearby school would congregate there to chat.15 Yet these clubs soon took on an official character. In 1888, Fedor Aleksandrovich Bukhmeier, a state advisor and graduate of the St. Petersburg School, formed the St. Petersburg Society for the Care of Deaf-Mutes (Sankt-Peterburgskoe Obshchestvo popecheniia o glukhonemykh),
whose membership consisted almost exclusively of graduates and current staff of the school. The state-registered society sought to support other deaf-mutes, practically and financially, and to ?assist closer relations between deaf-mutes for the attainment of the opportunity to spend their free time with the highest possible use and variety".16 To that end, a club, ?small in size, and with an exceptional family character" was established, alongside a shelter and workshop for unemployed deaf school graduates, and followed in 1897 by a ?Deaf-Mute Children"s Shelter".17
Activities were funded by the Society"s membership fees, and an annual 1000 rouble subsidy from the St. Petersburg Executive Committee.18
The St. Petersburg Society broadened the scope of the deaf club from a forum for deaf friends to meet and socialise to a body that engaged in charitable works and sought to elevate the living standards and spiritual level of deaf people. In this respect, the Society was reminiscent of the ?voluntary associations" identified by
Joseph Bradley as a constituent part of the civil society that began to emerge during the last decades of the tsarist regime.19 Such bodies, broadly defined by Bradley as the ?modern, secular, self-regulating philanthropic, educational, cultural and learned societies, membership in which was voluntary rather than compulsory or ascribed and that offered new forms of sociability and self-definition", functioned as a counterpoint to the ?tutelary authoritarian regime" of the state, in creating forums for public debate and engagement.20 The St. Petersburg Society, with its limited membership and small budget, could not rival the scope of the philanthropic bodies discussed by Bradley, such as the Russian Technical Society or the Free Economic Society. However, it is clear that, in its aims and function, the Society drew on the framework of the voluntary association, and set itself up as an embryonic deaf interest group. Members lobbied government ministries for the right to build workshops, shelters and schools, and demanded state subsidies and revenue from church collections. Its charter, another typical facet of the voluntary association as defined by Bradley, set out aims to support deaf families in all aspects of life, from financial aid to help in finding work and a place to live.21
In these early years, state-directed charitable activity and the nascent deaf organisations developed concurrently, with some deaf individuals working in government posts and participating in deaf societies, and strong family ties influencing policy in both forums. For example, the first Moscow-based deaf society was headed by A. V. Shlippe, the deaf son of a state advisor whose brother, F. V. Shlippe, was the chairman of the local zemstvo board.22 This concurrence of aims was evident in 1901, when the St. Petersburg Society voted to dissolve itself and hand its funds over to a newly established state body, the Imperial Highness Maria Fedorovna Trust for Deaf-Mutes (Popechitel"stvo Gosudaryni Imperatritsy Marii
Fedorovny o glukhonemykh), which sought to centralise and standardise education for deaf children.23 However, new deaf organisations continued to be registered, including a new St. Petersburg Society of Deaf-Mutes in 1904, and to declare themselves to be the true representatives of the ?very urgent and just desires" of deaf people.24 Over time, these societies began to frame their activities as a reaction against the ?charitable and educational" attitude of the state towards deaf people, and explicitly, through their policies of work placements, loans and leisure activities, to engender a system of mutual aid.25 Charity thus gave way to the notion of group autonomy, and the desire for deaf society members to act on behalf of their peers.
As deaf societies established a space for deaf people to become socially active, and to help others like themselves, they began to undermine the social framework of tutelage surrounding the deaf. One of the central aspects of the voluntary association, Bradley notes, was the role it played in allowing the disenfranchised scope for action: ?thus disenfranchised individuals could appear in public, represent themselves and their projects before their peers, frame public opinion, organise meetings, and hold public authority accountable; they could even assert a claim to represent others."26 Although Bradley is talking of women here, his words aptly apply to the deaf. Deaf organisation in this period refuted the traditional stereotype of the deaf as mentally incapable or as passive recipients of charity. Bodies such as the St. Petersburg Society were established on the initiative of deaf people, and run by them. Yet this discovery of a forum for public engagement and action by educated deaf people only served to highlight the tutelary status of the majority. Increasingly, members of these societies began to express concern about the divide between the developing deaf elite and the residual masses of deaf people. In 1895-1896, a study was conducted under the direction of Fedor Andreevich Rau, a German pedagogue who had become the director of the Arnol"do-Tretiakov School in Moscow in 1892.27 The results showed that, of 1,404 deaf people in the Tula province, 1,198 lived with and were supported by their families. Of the 206 who supported themselves, the majority were unskilled workers, with a few cobblers and carpenters. Whilst 38.8 per cent of the men were married, only 2 per cent of the women had husbands, and there were no marriages between deaf people. For deaf society members, such facts only served to underline the necessity not only of developing ties between the deaf as a group, but of challenging the legal restrictions that prevented deaf people from helping themselves.28
The development of a socially active deaf elite thus raised questions of autonomy and independence for the majority of deaf people. The revolutionary upheavals of the early twentieth century gave new impetus to this debate. The rhetoric of liberation that characterised the workers" movement echoed in the activities of deaf organisations. Shortly after the February Revolution of 1917, a decision was taken to organise an All-Russian Congress of Deaf-Mutes to be held in Moscow in July of that year.29 The Congress was envisaged as a catalyst to debate the position of deaf-mutes in Russia as a whole, and to organise an All-Russian Union of Deaf-Mutes (Vserossiiskii soiuz glukhonemykh, or VSG) to coordinate activities on a national scale. The organisational meetings, and the pamphlets written to publicise the event, demonstrate the impact of revolutionary rhetoric on the deaf. At a mass meeting held in St. Petersburg on 18th March 1917, Evgenii Efremovich Zhuromskii, a deaf
graduate of the St. Petersburg School and a teacher of dactylology (finger-spelling),
explained the significance of the proposed Union:
Away, ancient yoke! Under the weight of ancient slavery, the suffering deaf-mutes have endured [pereterpeli] privation, humiliation and insult. We will shake off the bonds of slavery and renew our lives ourselves. […]
Comrades, remember that the Union is an organ of struggle for existence. Remember that the Union is the defence of your rights and interests. The more deaf mutes in the Union, the better and more true will be the work! Herein lies the pledge of success and happiness.30
The desire for autonomy was thus reconfigured as a fight for individual and group
rights in the face of centuries of oppression and hardship. With this rhetoric, the deaf
implicitly equated themselves with the ?downtrodden masses" that the revolution was
seen to have liberated. As Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii have pointed out,
Russian workers of the revolutionary period had ?a strong sense of themselves as
Їthe labouring people? (trudiashchikhsia narod) [sic] united by a common sense of injustice and exclusion from society".31 By virtue of their tutelary status and lack of
rights, deaf people asserted, they too were deeply invested in the struggle for political recognition and autonomy.32 This equation with the revolutionary masses
also impacted on the manner in which deaf people sought to claim autonomy. In the
context of the revolutionary movement, which had gained political power and
recognition through its unity and ?mass" nature, the need for a unified deaf
organisation to speak for the interests of deaf people was invested with new urgency.
In the pamphlet ?An Appeal to Deaf-Mutes", deaf people were assured that ?now is not the time for each to speak for himself. Only a group of people, united in a union, will now have meaning, strength and authority".33
In the aftermath of February, therefore, deaf organisers and activists sought to harness the revolutionary potential of the moment and demand rights as a group. Yet this emphasis on rights only served to underline the limitations placed by state tutelage on deaf people, and the divergence between the expectations of deaf people and the assumptions made by the state and society about their role in society. In the weeks before the All-Russian Congress of Deaf-Mutes, the Provisional Government promulgated a draft ?Law on Elections to the Constituent Assembly", which contained the clause, ?deaf-mutes are not included in the electoral role and will not participate in elections".34 This denial of the right to vote, not just to the legally disenfranchised, but to all deaf people, provoked considerable outrage. The Moscow Committee of Deaf-Mutes held protests outside the Provisional Government"s headquarters, matched by similar protests in St. Petersburg, now renamed Petrograd.35 In the face of such a strong reaction, the Provisional Government revised its position. On the first day of the Congress, 17th July 1917, an answer was received from the minister F. F. Kokoshkin, informing delegates that the final edit of the law would read: ?Those recognised as mad or insane under the established legal order, and likewise deaf-mutes under legal guardianship, will not participate in the elections."36 As a result, the question of legal rights was officially removed from the Congress"s agenda.37 However, the new wording merely brought the focus back to the problem of tutelage, and underlined the problematic disjunction between the categories and conceptions prescribed by the state and the reality of deaf people"s lives.
During the course of the All-Russian Congress of Deaf Mutes, held from 17th to 22nd
July 1917 and uniting forty delegates from societies around the country, debates focused on the continuing problem of tutelage, and the means by which deaf individuals could bypass legal restrictions and prove their legal competence. The set of resolutions published at the conclusion of the conference demonstrated the primacy of this concern. Delegates called for changes to the way in which legal competence was conferred in order to grant deaf individuals greater control over the process: ensuring, for example, that the ?experts" employed to conduct the examination were familiar with deafness, or at the very least accompanied by a deaf-mute representative.38 They also proposed that graduates of deaf schools and those in service (sluzhashchie) should be granted automatic legal rights without examination. Other demands, such as the right of illiterate deaf individuals to sign-language translation in a court of law, sought to ameliorate the effects of legal disenfranchisement.39 Beyond this, the vital role of education and skills in widening the scope of social autonomy was reinforced: a reform of deaf education was proposed to include a greater range of skills, so ?the student should be granted access not only to physical, but also to mental labour".40 Yet, in the absence of fundamental legal reforms, none of these measures could solve the problem of tutelage. Deaf activists could only seek to alleviate its most limiting effects.
The Congress, therefore, manifested certain preoccupations that had been developing over several decades. The first, a demand for autonomy, had shifted from a general desire for independence from tutelage and the achievement of agency to a demand for legal rights and citizenship. The second, the expression of a particular group identity as deaf people, had become not just a goal, but a tool in the achievement of that autonomy. As a deaf activist from Petrograd, Aleksandr Iakovlevich Udal", suggested: ?there is no need to state that a cause of our unenviable legal position is […] our Їscatteredness? amongst the rest of humanity and our lack of organisation into a whole, complete [komplektnoe] society."41 In the context of the revolutionary upheavals of 1917, the Congress, and the resulting creation of the All-Russian Union of Deaf-Mutes (VSG), represented an opportunity to seize revolutionary momentum and demand rights alongside other oppressed minorities. This notion of oppression did give rise to a certain amount of anti-hearing rhetoric: Udal" talked scathingly of ?normal" people (normal"nye), who ?believed and still believe that they have a right
to exploit their deaf-mute brothers in humanity".42 This reference to the malicious exploitation of deaf people by the hearing, whether justified or not, served to create a rhetorical ?other" against whom the deaf community could define themselves, and further reinforced the view that only as a group could the deaf represent their own interests. The revolutionary period, therefore, was both liberating and constraining for the deaf: the rhetoric of freedom engendered by February validated their own struggles for autonomy, even as this freedom was still legally denied them. On the eve of October, therefore, the All-Russian Union of Deaf-Mutes set out their demands for equality with a sense of revolutionary urgency.
New Laws, New Concepts
With the October Revolution of 1917, it seemed that the liberation promised by February had been finally achieved for the deaf. Both the wave of initial decrees produced by the Bolshevik government and the Constitution proclaimed on 10th July
1918 declared the conferral of civil rights and ?genuine freedom" on all working peoples of the new revolutionary state, including those with disabilities.43 The right to elect and to be elected was granted to those labourers and soldiers ?who have been to any degree incapacitated".44 In late 1918, Zhuromskii, by now a prominent member of the All-Russian Union of Deaf-Mutes (VSG), was elected member of the Petersburg Provincial Soviet.45 A year later, a decree published by the Soviet of
People"s Commissars (Sovnarkom) set out the state"s intention to integrate the education of deaf children into the state system, and allow deaf adults to work alongside the hearing in ?those branches of industry, where deafness does not prevent the completion of labour responsibilities".46 It would seem that, in breaking the shackles of ?oppression and arbitrary rule" that had bound the proletariat, the revolution had also broken the legal shackles of tutelage that had bound the deaf.47
Yet despite removing the negative influence of legal restrictions on the deaf, the first years of the revolution saw little positive guidance on how deaf individuals were to engage with this new society, or to gain this liberation in practice.
The decade following 1917 was consequently characterised by experimentation, both by deaf people and the state, in establishing how the deaf were to function within the new ideological framework of self and society promoted by the Bolsheviks. This period of experimentation proceeded in two distinct stages. The All-Russian Union of Deaf-Mutes (VSG) continued to function through the revolution, and attempted to guide deaf activities on a national scale until economic and state pressures forced its closure in 1920. Between 1920 and 1926, provision for deaf people was transferred to the state and split between several branches of the People"s Commissariat.
Concurrently, however, a burst of grass-roots organisation by deaf people in the provinces led to increasing calls for a new central body to guide deaf activities.
Several abortive attempts to form such a body, such as the short lived ?Deaf-Mute
Section", a small state body under the umbrella of the All-Russian Cooperative Association of Invalids (VIKO), and a proposed deaf-mute council within the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK), culminated with the founding of the All-Russian Unification of Deaf-Mutes (VOG) in June 1926. Throughout this period of experimentation, the shifting ways in which the deaf acted and, crucially, sought to frame their actions, demonstrated the dialogue between deaf organisation and the conceptual frameworks of socialism.
In their pre-revolutionary struggles for autonomy and agency, the deaf had sought means to gain inclusion within the body politic. The criterion for this inclusion, or the definition of the ?normal" against which the disabling effects of deafness were measured, was that of education and mental competence. With the Bolshevik revolution, however, that definition had shifted. A new ideal of subjectivity had emerged against which the individual was to be judged: that of the New Soviet
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