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.

Рубрика История и исторические личности
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Person. As David Hoffmann has stated, ?subjectivity - the capacity to think and act on the basis of a coherent sense of self - received considerable attention in the Soviet system. Soviet authorities sought to fashion a certain type of subject - the New Person whose thinking and actions would be based on an awareness of his or her role 51

in building socialism. Through education, propaganda, and subjectivizing practices, Party officials constantly strove to instil this awareness, or consciousness, in Soviet citizens".48 Within this broad striving towards ideal selfhood, certain aspects were given particular emphasis: engagement in socially useful labour, education (particularly the promotion of literacy), and the subordination of individual desires to the collective good. Within this new conceptual world, the deaf began to engage with, and measure themselves against, certain aspects of this ideal.

The most immediate of these engagements, in the aftermath of the revolution, was with the notion of labour. The 1919 ?Constitution of the RSFSR" had asserted that: ?the RSFSR declares labour to be the duty of all citizens of the Republic, and proclaims the slogan: ЇHe who does not work, neither shall he eat!?"49 In this spirit, members of the VSG established organisations in Petrograd and Moscow in 1918, with the explicit intention of providing assistance and training in labour skills to unemployed deaf individuals. The Moscow ?House of Deaf-Mutes" contained workshops in carpentry and the production of ladies" shoes and stockings.50

Petrograd"s equivalent ?House of Labour and Education of Deaf-Mutes" trained members to knit, sew, make boots and work with wood and metal.51 This emphasis on labour had the immediate practical goal of supporting the deaf financially: the goods produced by members of the Moscow ?House of Deaf-Mutes" were sold at markets across the city, and the proceeds contributed to the activities of the organisation.52 In 1924, an article in Zhizn" glukhonemykh stated that ?the House of

Deaf-Mutes is not a factory, nor an enterprise, with the goal of making a profit, rather it is an institution with the task of giving people, who have come in search of a piece of bread, the opportunity to earn that piece not in the form of alms, but through honest labour".53 For the deaf, this ability to support themselves independently was in itself a significant achievement of autonomy in practice. The social independence that they had so urgently demanded before the revolution could be achieved, it seemed, through the acquisition of basic labour skills.

This emphasis on labour as a means to achieve agency demonstrated the interrelation of the conceptual notion of the Soviet individual and the particular goals of the deaf community. On the surface, the enterprises established by the VSG were nothing new within the system of deaf organisations: pre-revolutionary deaf schools and clubs had both promoted handicrafts as a way to achieve practical independence in the face of legal disenfranchisement. Yet the symbolic role of the worker as a central facet of the Soviet self had reconfigured the role of labour in deaf organisation. By finding work in industry, deaf people were able to support themselves, and simultaneously prove themselves worthy of inclusion within Soviet society. This belief was central to the declaration, during the II All-Russian Congress of Deaf-

Mutes in 1920, that ?the Workers" and Peasants" government alone can offer the deaf-mute the possibility to feel himself a person and a citizen".54 To be sure, the path to equality still represented an individual challenge of transformation: as the VSG workshops demonstrated, the acquisition of skills was central to finding work in industry and thus becoming a labourer. However, unlike with the pre-revolutionary emphasis on literacy, the immediate consequences of deafness no longer functioned as an obstacle: legal (or mental) competence (pravosposobnost") had given way to work ability (trudosposobnost") as a marker of inclusion.

In promoting labour as a path to autonomy, deaf organisations thus recognised that the paradigm of ?normality" had shifted, and that deaf individuals needed to engage with the new conceptual framework to achieve social independence. Within this practical striving for autonomy, the deaf situated themselves within the broader

Soviet utopian narrative of transformation, from the ?dark", pre-revolutionary masses to the enlightened proletariat of the Soviet state. Over the course of the decade, this emphasis on the transformative power of labour was enshrined in both legislation and the rhetoric of Soviet deaf activists and state bodies. In 1925, the Deaf-Mute Section under VIKO published a circular to promote new legislation on the organisation of deaf labour artels.55 This document set out a concrete model of deaf

labour organisation: after carrying out a census (uchet) of deaf individuals in the area, representatives of the Deaf-Mute Section were to establish a plan of labour cooperation, and to organise artels on that basis.56 With the proceeds, the Section would organise clubs and cultural activities, and, where necessary, provide legal help for deaf individuals. The circular stated that, for the deaf, this form of organisation represented the ?most correct and true path to their organisation, autonomy

[samodeiatel"nost"], and the improvement of their material position".57 The document, signed by the Deputy Commissar for Social Welfare I. K. Ksenofontov, reinforced the notion that through labour, deaf people could transform themselves from a ?disorganised mass" into Soviet workers.58

Along these lines, deaf labour associations were established on a wide scale in the mid 1920s. Associations in Saratov, Kursk, Penza, Rostov on the Don, Ivanovo Vosnesensk and Voronezh were established, all with the explicit goal of furthering

?work placement" (trudovoe ustroistvo) for their members.59 The most developed of these was the ?Help for Deaf-Mutes" (Pomoshch" glukhonemym) society, established in Ivanovo Vosnesensk by A. S. Kolmazin and G. I. Bogorodskii in 1924. At the end of May 1925, its chairman Kliucharev gave a report to the general meeting detailing the progress made by the organisation.60 Serving forty-five members of a local deaf population of 1,500, the society was small in scope. The majority of its female members worked as seamstresses, and male members as boot makers, in the artels attached to the society. The report, however, demonstrated how traditions of labour, and the notion of a labour identity, had begun to be inculcated in society members:

?At first we paid the most attention to trade. This was natural, because we needed funds; we needed to consolidate the work already begun. Now, we concentrate on industry, on labour processes."61 The deaf were thus included in the Soviet conceptual idea of the individual transformation of the labourer, from a backward,

?bourgeois" attention to profit, to a worker able to take pride in the development of his skill and productivity.

Labour, therefore, represented the opportunity not just of emancipation, but of self-transformation. In an echo of the utopian rhetoric of the time, deaf people were considered able to overcome their disability, in effect to become ?normal", by learning labour skills. This could be seen in theoretical discussions of the benefits conferred by Soviet society on the deaf: in an article from 1925, D. Riol"f suggested that through work, ?physiological invalidity is disappearing, giving way to the healthy flow of labour energy, inculcating psychological equality in all sensations".62

Through labour, the deaf could become equal. This utopian idea was borne out in the organisational texts and decrees produced by deaf organisations and the state: in a set of resolutions on the development of work for the blind and deaf, the All-Russian

Congress of Provincial Social Welfare Departments stated that, ?on the question of the welfare of the blind [and, by extension, the deaf], the Soviet government proceeds from the position that a blind person is not an invalid, in need of charity; a blind person is just as capable of work as a healthy seeing person, only in need of special preparation."63

Labour thus represented both a practical means for deaf people to achieve independence and a symbolic means of inclusion in the ?normal" ranks of the Soviet body politic. In its engagement with the Soviet ideal of ?consciousness", deaf organisation repeated this tension between pragmatic use and ideological inclusion. In conjunction with their emphasis on labour, deaf societies in this period strongly promoted the education and cultural enlightenment of their members. From the outset, the Petrograd and Moscow organisations held lectures, literacy classes and cultural evenings. According to the historian Viktor Palennyi, the lectures of the

Petrograd ?House of Labour and Education" were initially received with some impatience: the audience ?whistled, stamped their feet and threw frozen potatoes at the lecturers".64 It can be presumed that members soon got used to these events, as they played a consistently dominant role in the activities of the deaf club. Despite this commitment to education, however, deaf individuals showed a particular, and sometimes ambivalent, attitude to the broader Soviet ideal of promoting a rational, enlightened ?consciousness", which reflected specific concerns about deafness and the role of education in the promotion of deaf autonomy.

The most prevalent form of educational endeavour in this period was that of the likbez, or club for the liquidation of illiteracy. These clubs formed part of a country-wide programme to eradicate illiteracy, instigated by Lenin in 1919.65 For the deaf, the problem of illiteracy was particularly acute. As the majority of deaf people had not been taught to speak, written Russian was their primary method of communication with the hearing. The extremely high level of illiteracy amongst provincial deaf individuals thus presented an obstacle to labour: without the ability to read instructions, a deaf person could not communicate with line managers and colleagues, or study a trade in technical college. The involvement of deaf societies with the likbez programme was enthusiastic, and the VSG even sent its chairman, Sergei Ivanovich Sokolov, to head the deaf-mute section of the central likbez administration.66 Yet this focus on illiteracy as an obstacle to labour demonstrated the attitude of deaf organisations to education at this point. General education, or an abstract idea of ?enlightenment", was rejected in favour of specific goals to achieve integration and independence within hearing society. In 1921, Udal" looked back at the founding of the Petrograd organisation: ?We needed to create a type of establishment that was in no way reminiscent of the pre-revolutionary Їgodly? enterprise [...]; the task was to find a means to give illiterate and so-called

Їbackward? deaf-mutes access to literacy, or, at the very least, to search out means and methods to strengthen the development of their emotional life and the widening of their mental capabilities with the goal, after such preliminary preparation, of giving them the possibility of access to social preparation, access to social life, and, in addition, helping them to master to the maximum the ability to work."67

Education was thus configured as a means to achieve social integration and the emancipation of labour. This privileging of labour over education was further evinced in 1921, when deaf activists met with state representatives to discuss the formation of a new national organisation for the deaf. In a clash over deaf education, deaf representatives argued against the use of the oral method in schools, suggesting that it took far too long (six to seven years) to teach speech, time that could be better spent on imparting basic literacy and labour skills.68 The urgency of the need for autonomy, it would seem, made the rejection of oral speech a necessary sacrifice in favour of the primacy of labour training. One could also read this argument, described by the Moscow based deaf activist Pavel Alekseevich Savel"ev as a ?fundamental divergence of opinions" with state educators, as a reaction to the pre-revolutionary emphasis on spoken Russian as the sole means to gain legal autonomy.69 By relying on labour, the deaf could achieve autonomy on their own terms.

In their organisations and activities, therefore, deaf people interacted with the Soviet project to transform the individual and society. Labour, the acquisition of literacy and skills, and the cooperation of deaf people were all refracted through the prism of Soviet ideology, and situated deaf organisation within the utopian rhetoric of liberation. This interaction, however, was driven by the particular needs of the deaf: to overcome the disabling effects of their deafness, and to gain individual and group autonomy. In their engagement with the political structures of Bolshevism, this dialogue between belief in the utopian potential of socialism and the particular desires of the deaf was again brought to the fore. The first deaf-mute cell of the Communist Party was established in Moscow on 14th August 1920. Its membership consisted of the chairman of the VSG, Sokolov, alongside four other prominent deaf activists. Later that year, students training in the workshops belonging to the

Arnol"do-Tretiakov School established a cell of the Party"s youth organisation, the

Komsomol (Communist Union of Young People) and elected as its secretary a young typesetter named Kanakin. The notion of political consciousness situated this party activity in the narrative of individual transformation. The Bulletin of the

Conference of Deaf-Mutes, published to coincide with the Conference of Active

Deaf Workers in 1921, announced that ?all conscious deaf-mutes must in their turn take an active part in the propaganda of the ideas and views of the Soviet government amongst their backward [temnye] deaf-mute comrades, enlightening them in their clubs and organising them in strong nuclei (cells), in order that, at the first call by the Soviet government, they will fight [stat" grud"iu] to defend her...".70

In the context of Civil War, this emphasis on defence of the revolution formed a central part of party activities. On the fifth anniversary of the deaf Party cell, members described its foundation as a response to the Civil War: deaf members wanted to join the Party in order to go to the Polish front and ?fight the Whites".71

Yet this desire to defend the revolution was also presented as a means for the deaf to symbolically integrate themselves into the Soviet collective, and to safeguard the gains made by deaf people since the revolution. Savel"ev later wrote that they hoped to fight, ?on the one hand, in order to prove the devotion of the Soviet government, who, regardless of the contingencies existing in tsarist Russia, had given deaf-mutes full rights on an equal basis with workers, and, on the other hand, to defend the victory of October together with hearing people."72 Inclusion within the Party structures was thus a way to consolidate and propagandise the achievements of deaf people under Soviet power.

In their engagement with Soviet ideals, therefore, the deaf displayed complex motivations. On the one hand, the Soviet regime was presented as a utopian opportunity for the deaf to overcome their disability and integrate themselves into society. On the other, the pre-revolutionary drive for autonomy and independence led the deaf to privilege certain facets of the New Soviet Person over others, and to negotiate, sometimes literally - as in the case of meetings between deaf activists and state officials - over the ways in which deaf people functioned within Soviet society. For the most part, these negotiations were easily resolved. On occasion, however, the divergent views between what the deaf expected from the new social structures, and what the state proposed, caused latent tensions to break into the open. One such occasion was the closure of the first national deaf society, the VSG, in 1920. In a decree published by Sovnarkom in December 1919, followed by a similar decree in 1920, the state declared that the needs of deaf people would be met by three government departments: children up to the age of three by the People"s Commissariat for Health (Narkomzdrav); children from 3 to 15 by the People"s

Commissariat for Enlightenment (Narkompros); and adults incapable of work by the

People"s Commissariat for Social Protection (Narkomsobes). Adults capable of work would undergo training under Narkompros.73 In light of these provisions, which sought to integrate deaf people into the structures of Soviet governance, the state began to refuse to register local deaf organisations and to actively campaign for the closure of the VSG.

This drive to close deaf organisations formed part of a general trend in the lead up to the tenth party congress of 1921 to close down independent proletarian or revolutionary organisations. As Lynn Mally has pointed out, organisations such as Proletkult were targeted, and ultimately subsumed into government organisations, as a result of their autonomy: ?members of the Communist Party"s central leadership, and Lenin in particular, distrusted any institution that demanded independence, from trade unions and party factions to opposing political parties."74 Attacks on the VSG, as exemplified in an article from Izvestiia in 1920, echoed the rhetoric of the day in criticising the organisation, which was ?created in the era of Kerensky and is now unnecessary ballast".75 This challenge to deaf organisation, however, highlighted the divergent views of autonomy on the part of the state and the deaf. For the former, an autonomous deaf organisation represented an obstacle in the integration and transformation of deaf individuals into Soviet citizens. For the latter, the VSG represented their best chance to achieve this transformation: ?deaf-mutes, on the strength of the awareness of their isolation from other citizens, and as a result of the difficulty in communication with them, on all questions require uniting in Unions."76

The closure of the VSG, announced on the final day of the II All-Russian Congress of Deaf-Mutes, was not solely the result of state pressure. As a report of its activities from 1917 to 1920 made clear, the chaos of the Civil War and a chronic lack of funds had made the continuation of VSG activities on a national scale almost impossible.77 Nevertheless, the event provoked a furious response, most notably from the Petrograd department of the VSG, headed by Maria Sergeevna Mintslova-Piotrovskaia. On her initiative, members of the VSG signed a petition in which they declared that they ?protest categorically against all attempts to violate our will, which is directed towards the collective cooperation with the authorities of the Workers" and Peasants" republic. We protest against the attempts to force onto us and onto our Union the remnants of a gendarme ideology, according to which an association of free citizens is harmful and unnecessary to the state".78 For Mintslova-Piotrovskaia, the actions of the state were not intended to help the deaf: on the contrary, they were indicative of the state"s fear of deaf ?self determination". While the activities of the Petrograd department could not save the Union, the incident generated considerable debate on the nature of deaf organisation, and of state involvement with deaf people.

The debates around the closure of the VSG and subsequent attempts to form a national organisational body for deaf people served to highlight ambivalence on the part of deaf activists towards state control of provision for deaf people. This ambivalence focused on two particular areas: a perceived misunderstanding of deafness by the state, and its adoption of a charitable or tutelary role towards the deaf. In their discussion of these areas, members of the VSG echoed much of the pre-revolutionary rhetoric of liberation from oppression and the rejection of guardianship. This was perhaps unsurprising: the VSG had retained its core membership since the Congress of July 1917, and as such, a mere three years since the revolution, the memory of tsarist tutelage remained fresh. One such activist was the ex-chairman of the VSG, Sergei Ivanovich Sokolov. Born in 1888 in Kamyshin, Saratov Province, Sokolov was a typical example of the educated, pre-revolutionary deaf organiser. Educated at the Arnol"do-Tretiakov School in Moscow, he worked as

an accountant before becoming actively involved in the Moscow Deaf Society. In the aftermath of the closure of the VSG, Sokolov produced a document, Theses on the Question of the Position and Unification of Deaf-Mutes, in which he argued the need for deaf organisations to facilitate the development of deaf individuals.79 In this document, Sokolov focused at length on the misunderstanding of the deaf by the hearing: the surrounding world, especially those who ?have been bureaucratised"

(obiurokrativshchie), he argued, had a ?scornful" attitude towards deaf people. Should they happen to meet an ?abnormally developed deaf-mute", they believe every deaf-mute to be the same: ?this results in a misunderstanding on the part of the state in their attitudes to deaf-mutes."80 Point sixteen, which is crossed out in the archival draft, complains that ?the general opinion regards deaf-mutes as people who can only be dealt with by Social Protection, and in these cases conscious and work-capable deaf-mutes are refused work amongst normal people [normalnye]".81

The heart of Sokolov"s complaint, it seemed, was the state"s tendency to regard deaf people as invalids, rather than as normal, ?work-capable" people. This complaint was borne out in government legislation. The Sovnarkom decrees of 1919 and 1921 had made a distinction between deaf-mutes capable of education and labour, and those

?incapable of education, weak-minded, adult- and child- idiots, and groups of backward deaf mutes", who were to be given over to Narkomsobes, the People"s

Commissariat for Social Protection.82 Similarly, an Explanatory Note produced by the Trades Union in 1925, detailing methods of working with deaf people, stated that

?deaf-mutes, as a result of their physical lack, which complicates their communication with the hearing, their mental and professional education, have a different psychology, a lower cultural and professional level, and therefore must be transferred into groups with those invalids with a lowered work-ability".83

This tendency to regard certain deaf people as ?backward" and incapable was deeply reminiscent of tsarist attitudes. Its presence in state legislation was thus vociferously challenged by the deaf. As Udal" argued at a meeting of deaf representatives and state bodies in 1921, the division of deaf people into ?capable" and ?backward" groups was impracticable: ?it is not specified which deaf-mutes should be counted in this Їbackward group? and which not. The result of this lack of specificity [nedogorovennost"] for deaf-mutes making a living from their own labour is not hard to imagine, if you consider the fact that, relying on this lack of specificity, Narkomsobes plans to deprive deaf-mutes of the right to lead and manage enterprises for deaf-mutes, founded on the selfless strengths of the best representatives of the Union of Deaf-Mutes."84 As Udal""s words demonstrated, however, the rejection of this label was now framed in the language of Soviet subjectivity: defining deaf people as ?backward" and incapable denied them the chance to ?make a living from their own labour", and thus to become an integrated part of the Soviet working masses. In a similar manner, Sokolov rejected the definition of ?invalidity" using the class language of the 1920s, arguing that deaf people without the ability to labour were forced into ?parasitism": sponging off the Soviet state. 85

According to Sokolov"s Theses, the significant point was whether the deaf should be defined as invalids, or as a distinct social group with the potential to overcome their physical lack and become integral members of the body politic. In another point to be crossed out in the archival draft, Sokolov suggested a different mode of definition for the deaf: ?these conditions in several details are similar to the conditions of foreigners, who know only their mother tongue."86 He sought to liken the position of deaf people to that of the foreigner, capable of learning the dominant language and actively integrating, not as invalids in need of welfare. Whilst this nationalistic paradigm of deaf identity did not become widespread, its presence in Sokolov"s draft pointed to the search for new definitions of deafness that did not negate individual and collective agency.

The desire to define deaf people as invalids was thus presented by the deaf community as a fundamental misunderstanding of deafness on the part of the state, which impacted negatively on the lives of deaf people. As such, deaf activists

argued, the affairs of deaf people should be in their own hands. In the Bulletin of the All-Russian Conference of Deaf-Mutes, Udal" argued that deaf-run enterprises were necessary ?in light of the numerical predominance of hearing people, who on top of everything else have entirely vague impressions of deaf-mutes and deaf-muteness, and are therefore inclined to foist their norms and models on deaf-mutes, not considering to what extent these norms suit deaf-mutes".87 Sokolov, in turn, argued that ?the interests of deaf-mutes are more clear and dearer to the hearts of deaf-mutes and those who work and live in their world".88 However, the closure of the VSG, and the failure to establish a new national deaf body in the mid-1920s, demonstrated definitively that provision for the deaf was to be kept firmly in the hands of the state.

From the state"s perspective, this integration of deaf affairs into Soviet governmental structures was not an attempt to deny deaf agency. In fact, provision for marginal and disenfranchised peoples was central to the Soviet state"s self-image. As Juliana

Fьrst suggests, the care of marginal members of society =was supposed to right the wrongs of the tsarist regime, and at the same time to signal to the capitalist world the moral and social superiority of the Soviet system".89 For the deaf, however, this provision, with its emphasis on welfare and pensions, seemed merely to return them to a system of guardianship not dissimilar to that of the tsarist era. In 1921, in a meeting held between deaf activists and state representatives to discuss the formation of an organisational body under VTsIK, debates repeatedly returned to the problem of tutelage and the denial of agency. ?Why do the representatives of the People"s

Commissariats wish to keep this affair in their hands?" asked Alexei Valerianovich Mezhekov, a deaf party activist from the Kursk region. ?They don"t trust us. We can work, we have sufficient strength; in this affair we must do the work ourselves."90

Udal" complained that ?they talk to us as if we were children".91 The discussion touched on concrete areas of policy on which the state and deaf activists differed, such as the disagreement over sign language, and the need for specialised labour training. However, at the end of the meeting, the deaf educational theorist F. A. Rau conclusively rejected the proposal for a special department: ?I don"t doubt that you deaf-mutes have heads that work well, but the People"s Commissariats must control this work, [...] a separate department is not necessary."92

By denying the deaf the ability to organise themselves as a group, and to determine their own provision, the state was seen to be setting up a new system of tutelage, albeit with a new ideological guise. Looking back, Savel"ev commented on this meeting: ?This was the second mistake made by deaf-mutes: to allow hearing people into their world and not show them that they can themselves work independently, without the need for guardianship."93 Within this continued rhetoric of autonomy and the rejection of tutelage, therefore, Soviet attempts at social welfare and philanthropy, although ideologically set up as a rejection to the ?bourgeois charity" of tsarist times, was seen by the deaf to be a different mode of the same disabling system. This strong resistance to charity on the part of the deaf was recognised as a danger by the state: in an article in the newspaper Izvestiia in November 1925, the

People"s Commissar for Social Protection N. A. Miliutin argued that an organisation dealing with the deaf ?cannot by its very character have a flavour of philanthropic aid towards deaf-mutes, even if this is on the part of the organisation, and not individuals. In addition the reasonable resolution of the problem of the welfare of invalids, including deaf-mutes, lies solely in the plane of the development of their independence and initiative".94 Yet in adding that ?Deaf-Mutes must not stand aside from the social movement of the invalid masses", the Commissar merely reinforced the state"s tendency to align the deaf with the ?invalid masses", rather than the masses in general. For the deaf, this remained a denial of their agency.

It would be tempting to interpret this moment as resistance on the part of the deaf to an overbearing Soviet state. However, as their interaction with the Soviet transformative project demonstrated, the deaf did not reject the utopian potential of the Soviet system. Even at the official closure of the VSG, its members declared:

?All people must be in one Union, called Communist Society, and not separated from each other by fences with the name of such and such a union [...] Protect deaf mutes

- from whom? The laws of the Soviet republic are just as equal for us as for hearing people."95 It was a case, they argued, of ?all for one and one for all" in the new Soviet order.96 Yet in demanding autonomy, group identity and self-determination, the deaf invoked the revolutionary spirit of 1917 for support, and employed Bolshevik and revolutionary rhetoric to advance their claims. In the concluding report of the II All-Russian Congress of Deaf-Mutes, after the announcement of the closure of the VSG, the committee claimed that ?if Marxist theory states that Їthe emancipation of the proletariat is the work of the proletariat?, then we say Їthe renaissance of deaf-mutes and their awakening to conscious, creative life is work for the hands of deaf-mutes themselves.?"97 Deaf artels, workshops, clubs and party organisations were framed in the language of Marxist ?cooperation". The revolutionary anthem of 1917, the

Internationale, was called upon to reinforce these claims: ?No one will grant us deliverance/ Neither god, nor tsar, nor hero/ We will win our liberation/ With our own hands."98

In their push for a central, deaf-run organisation, therefore, the deaf claimed the revolutionary banner in opposition to the state and insisted on the liberation promised in 1917. Their language supported the goals of the Soviet state: to transform the deaf into conscious, politically active workers who engaged fully in the Soviet body politic. Yet they insisted that such transformation was only possible on their own terms, and under their own organisation. In the wake of the closure of the VSG, its members took pains to point out how the event damaged the ability of the deaf to become New Soviet People. In a speech in May 1921, Sokolov described the situation thus: ?I ascertain the impossibility in the current circumstances of creating an apparatus of widespread, mass labour of deaf-mutes."99 Udal" concurred: ?Whoever is in the least bit close to deaf-mutes, their everyday lives, their language, their psychology, he must inevitably agree that, with the liquidation of the Union, the state lost a valuable partner in the field of creating deaf-mute citizens."100

With the closure of the VSG, and in subsequent interactions with state departments, competing interpretations of the role of the deaf in Soviet society were played out. Yet these ideological tussles happened on a small scale, within the small circles of deaf activists campaigning for a national deaf organisation. With the establishment of the first national deaf newspaper, Zhizn" glukhonemykh (Life of Deaf-Mutes), the forum for these debates was widened. First published in February 1924, during the days of mourning for the death of Lenin (whose portrait adorned the front page of the first issue), Zhizn" glukhonemykh was a joint publication of the Deaf-Mute Section under VIKO and the Deaf-Mute cell of the Communist Party. With an initial run of 500 copies, it was widely distributed amongst provincial deaf organisations.101

As such, the newspaper represented a space in which the fundamental questions of deaf organisation could be debated more widely, and the concrete problems facing local deaf individuals could be highlighted and discussed. In the very first issue, an article by Kuznetsov spelled out how the theoretical tension between categories of

?invalid" and ?normal" was preventing unemployed deaf individuals from either finding work or claiming unemployment benefits from the state. ?One after the other during October and November [deaf-mutes] were deprived [of benefits] on the pretext that, as invalids, deaf mutes had the right to state welfare from MOSO [the Moscow Department of Social Protection], and MOSO in its turn rejects them as educated workers."102 In a later issue, the paper highlighted the problem of invalid artels, which the Deaf-Mute Section had sought to champion as a means of integrating deaf people into the workforce. Such artels, they argued, tended to restrict their membership to victims of war or labour accidents, and rarely took deaf people without some form of financial incentive.103 The competing categories of

?invalid" and ?normal" were seen to have a real, practical impact in the administrative reality of the urban workplace. With Zhizn" glukhonemykh, therefore, the practical impact of Soviet definitions of deafness was explored.

Individuals in deaf organisations further used the newspaper as a space to agitate and complain about concrete issues. In October 1925, the chairman of the Moscow Deaf-

Mute Cell of the Communist Party, P. A. Savel"ev, writing under the pseudonym B. Volgin, published an article entitled ?Shadows on the Sun".104 In it, he argued forcefully against the recalcitrance of the Moscow Department of Social Welfare (MOSO), which had failed to lend support to the deaf in setting up their own artels, as provided in the government circular of 1925. The article described unused factory buildings and machine equipment lying idle, which could be productively used by the many unemployed deaf individuals in the capital. In a mishmash of metaphor,

Savel"ev compared MOSO in turn to a sun, refusing to shine rays of light on the deaf in its orbit, and to a husband refusing to pay alimony to his former wife. In a similar article by Savel"ev (again writing as Volgin), the decision by the Moscow branch of the Invalid Cooperative Association (MOSGIKO) to close deaf artel No. 393 was described as a ?bull-fight" between the deaf and the state.105 The reason given for the closure was that the artel had not developed strong work practices, and as a result was not making any money. According to Savel"ev, however, MOSGIKO had not been honest about its motives, and in fact had wanted to use the premises for other projects. This hint of secrecy and intrigue only compounded the sense of injustice:

?There you have it. There"s deaf-mute cooperation for you in the capital of the

USSR." Besides, Savel"ev argued, the ideological imperative of developing labour skills should surely trump the need for profit: ?You surely don"t think that artels must be organised by capitalists, able to bring in shares and acquisitions, and not those in need of job development. It"s stupid." These articles allowed local individuals to point the finger of blame at government organisations for thwarting the initiative of deaf groups. In the case of artel No. 393, a change of personnel in the Moscow branch of the department of Social Protection led to the artel being kept open.106 However, this only underlined the arbitrariness of the provision for deaf people, dependent on the presence of sympathetic individuals in the relevant departments.

Having such a newspaper thus allowed deaf individuals to protest and publicise their struggle for initiative. On the pages of Zhizn" Glukhonemykh, cases of state heavy-handedness against the deaf were frequently discussed, and by 1925 the issue had spilled over into the hearing press. On 1st October 1925, the newspaper Rabochaia Gazeta (The Worker"s Newspaper) published an article titled ?The Bunglers"

(Golovotiapy) by Vasilii Kumach, which discussed the closure of a literacy club in Ekaterinoslav.107 The club had enjoyed great success in teaching the deaf of the region to read, the article argued, only to be liquidated ?on the basis that the education of deaf mutes must be under the control of the Sobes". Kumach suggested that this decision was down to ?paper formalism", which did not take into account either the success of the club or the needs of deaf-mutes in the area. Kumach"s article is headed by a description of deaf people that suggests a growing awareness of their ability to work alongside the hearing: ?In general, they are not a bad lot. Practical, energetic, industrious. The only thing they lack is quickness of wit and comprehension." Yet despite this potential, he argues, it was proving difficult to develop cultural work within the deaf community. This process needed support, and yet ?the bunglers think otherwise".

Zhizn" glukhonemykh, therefore, functioned as a space in which the state"s attitude towards deaf individuals could be interrogated. The newspaper"s critical gaze was not turned solely towards the state, however. From the outset, the pages of Zhizn" glukhonemykh were used to debate and consolidate the ideal of Soviet deafness, and to critically assess the successes and failures of deaf organisation to date. Articles portrayed the deaf as communal, capable people with initiative, able to integrate themselves into the Soviet body politic, but thwarted both by the problematic attitude of individuals in state organisations, and by the failure of deaf organisations to seize the initiative and help themselves. As the drive to create a national deaf organisation, VOG, began to gain momentum, the newspaper became a forum to discuss the lessons learned over the last eight years. In his article ?History is Repeating Itself"

(Istoriia povtoriaetsia), Savel"ev focused on the liquidation of the VSG as the decisive moment.108 By allowing control to be wrested from them, Savel"ev argued, the deaf had left themselves at the mercy of state organisations, with provision and legislation fluctuating with changes in personnel. The lesson, therefore, was that ?the

affairs of deaf-mutes are their own" (delo glukhonemykh, est" delo ikh samykh).109 In the build up to the creation of VOG, the pages of Zhizn" glukhonemykh were used to agitate for this initiative on the part of deaf people: ?Organise yourselves locally, establish links with each other, maintain close links with the central organisation, as only by means of organisation and mutual effort by local and central organisations will it be possible to carry out work to develop culturally, educate and find work for deaf mutes."110


On 23rd June 1926, the Deputy Chairman of Sovnarkom, A. P. Smirnov, published his ?Position on the All-Russian Association of Deaf-Mutes", setting out the details of a national deaf organisation. The ?Position" declared that ?the All-Russian Association of Deaf-Mutes (VOG) is a social organisation, which fulfils its tasks and goals through the work placement of deaf-mutes in all branches of industry accessible to them, uniting them in artels, associations [tovarishchestva], communes and other such collectives on the basis of autonomy, mutual aid and individual initiative".111 According to this document, the proposed organisation would have a wide remit: tasks would include carrying out a national census of deaf people, training deaf individuals in labour skills and finding them work placements, participating in education and political-cultural work, establishing activities to promote the cure and prevention of deafness, and working to regulate the legal position of the deaf in the Soviet system.112 As had been the case with the Deaf-Mute Section, VOG was to function under the administration (and budget) of the People"s

Commissariat for Social Welfare. However, as deaf people had demanded for so many years, the proposed body spanned the activities of all the People"s

Commissariats which dealt with deafness, uniting them under one, deaf-controlled organisation.

Smirnov"s ?Proposal", with its emphasis on ?autonomy, mutual aid and individual initiative", portrayed the creation of VOG as the inevitable culmination of a developing sense of Soviet deaf identity. Yet in many ways, the organisation pointed to the legacy of pre-revolutionary deaf organisation. Membership was restricted to deaf-mutes (by birth and late-deafened), and a maximum of 25 per cent of hearing members who worked closely with the deaf community. The organisation functioned as a self-contained deaf interest group, not unlike pre-revolutionary voluntary associations such as the St. Petersburg Society. Organisationally, VOG retained the traditions of the voluntary association, with an official charter, approved by Sovnarkom in September 1926, and a democratically elected council and president.113 Delegates voted unanimously for their president, Pavel Aleksandrovich

Savel"ev, by holding up their hands and making his sign name, ?trifles" (pustiaki), with their right palm facing forward and their left hand forming a fist around their right thumb.114

Although the old traditions persisted, the creation of VOG also attested to the dramatic shift in deaf identity over the previous nine years. At the III All-Russian Congress of Deaf-Mutes (later known as the First Congress of VOG), held from 21st to 25th September 1926 in Moscow, it became clear that the old guard of deaf activists had begun to cede their position to a new generation of Soviet deaf people. This could be clearly seen in the election of Savel"ev over his old friend and mentor, Sokolov. Savel"ev had been born into a peasant family in the village of Andreevka,

Saratov province.115 He was not born deaf, but at the age of eight had fallen through the ice whilst skating, contracted meningitis and lost his hearing. As a result, he could speak well, read and write. At thirteen, his father had taken him to Saratov and found him a position as an apprentice metalworker. He did not have any contact with the deaf community until around 1910, when, whilst standing in a queue for cigarettes, he met Sokolov, who introduced him to the local deaf society. Having learned sign with some difficulty, he moved to Moscow in early 1920 and became actively involved with the ?House of Deaf-Mutes", before forming the first deaf-mute cell of the Communist Party. Thus, whilst Sokolov was of the old, elite circle of deaf activists, Savel"ev was a skilled worker from a poor background, much closer to the proletarian Soviet ideal. The list of delegates from this conference also demonstrated this shift: whereas at the All-Russian Congress of Deaf-Mutes in 1917 the majority of delegates were graduates of the local schools in state or private service, the delegate list for the 1926 congress included metalworkers, boot makers, seamstresses and machine operators.116 The delegate information forms also showed how working on behalf of the deaf community had become more prestigious: one delegate, G. P.

Vaganov, had listed his profession as ?deaf-mute activist".117

With the creation of VOG, therefore, the struggle by deaf individuals for their own autonomous organisation was finally successful, and the role of VOG within the broader transformative project of Soviet society, with its emphasis on proletarian roots and personal initiative, was enshrined in legislation. However, the debates during the first VOG Congress showed that not all deaf activists were behind the new organisation. Again, it was the delegates from Leningrad, namely Zhuromskii and Mintslova-Piotrovskaia, who were vocal in their opposition. According to Zhuromskii, the creation of VOG would only serve to undermine efforts at integration: he ?considers Savel"ev"s report unsatisfactory, and VOG dangerous for deaf-mutes: they will fire deaf-mute labourers from their jobs, alleging that they have their VOG to look after them".118 Having a separate organisation for deaf people, he argued, would only reinforce the impression that they needed special treatment and care. He proposed that VOG should only take as members those deaf individuals who cannot work, and therefore need welfare protection, whilst leaving qualified deaf workers within the state system.119 For Mintslova-Piotrovskaia, the problem centred on the fact that, with the creation of VOG, those local organisations set up under the Deaf-Mute Section would necessarily be liquidated: ?with the abolition of the deaf-mute section under GIKO, all that has been achieved during its existence will disappear in vain." ?We expended so much energy on creating local organisations, and for what? [...] As if VOG can instantly give as much as is needed even for our House of Deaf Mute Enlightenment in Leningrad, or for the salaries of VOG workers? The Deaf-Mute Section under Leningrad GIKO must continue to work, in order that everyone can prepare for the moment when LOG [the Leningrad branch of VOG] strengthens."120

For the Leningraders, therefore, VOG was ?dangerous, as it is beautiful from the outside", yet lacked the funds and organisational experience to replace the Deaf-Mute Section.121 Again, the arguments returned to the notion of agency and autonomy: without a strong organisation, deaf individuals would be reduced to living on welfare payouts from the state. However, for Savel"ev, such arguments were hollow: ?Comrade Zhuromskii has surprised me. I consider him my teacher. How can he think such nonsense?"122 For Savel"ev, VOG represented the resolution of deaf struggles for autonomy: ?VOG includes all facets of the lives of deaf-mutes - that is what we need."123 Splitting the organisation between VOG and the People"s

Commissariat of Social Welfare would thus be a retrograde step. In the subsequent debates, the position of Zhuromskii and Mintslova-Piotrovskaia was overwhelmingly rejected by delegates, and VOG"s charter was agreed for submission to the People"s

Commissariat of Social Welfare, which approved it on 19th October 1926.124 In the concluding remarks of the Congress, the significance of VOG in the fight for deaf independence was definitively stated: ?With the formation of VOG, deaf-mutes have been given every possibility to build their own lives and demonstrate autonomy."125


The period between the revolutions of 1917 and the creation of VOG in 1926 saw a reconceptualisation of deafness in the Soviet context, and a discovery of alternate models of selfhood, informed by Soviet ideology, which shaped the ways in which

deaf people functioned within society. This shift was not unproblematic. Deaf organisation, and engagement with notions of Soviet identity, was fundamentally shaped by the pre-revolutionary experience of deaf people. Resistance to tsarist structures of charity and tutelage shaped deaf responses to Soviet notions of welfare and ?humaneness". Similarly, the desire for autonomy and independence led to the privileging of the Soviet notions of labour and initiative, and the use of proletarian rhetoric to support calls for equality and rights. The creation of VOG, with its strong emphasis on labour and its structures of deaf control, gave this uneasy balance between Soviet integration and a distinct deaf group identity concrete form. Whilst situating themselves firmly within the Soviet transformative project to remake the individual and society, deaf individuals had asserted their right to ?do it themselves".

Even by the creation of VOG, however, these changes had affected a very narrow group of deaf people. The progress described so vividly in the Saratov deaf Komsomol had been experienced by a very small number of urban deaf individuals. By the mid-1920s, deaf activists had begun to turn their attention to those individuals not yet served by deaf organisations. In the same year as the foundation of VOG, the All-Union Population Census of the USSR counted 112,000 deaf-mutes, with 78,400 in the RSFSR alone.126 Estimates by deaf organisations put the figure significantly higher, at 250,000.127 Articles in Zhizn" glukhonemykh discussed the plight of the 98 per cent of deaf people living in the country, with no access to education, training, or a deaf community: ?Deaf-mutes are illiterate, scattered in ones and twos in all settlements, without trade, the poorest of the poor, beggarly shepherds and farm-hands".128 Despite advances in urban centres, in both attitudes and practical organisation, for deaf peasants, ?the revolution passed them by".129

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