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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The creation of VOG thus represented a moment of potential, rather than of resolution. It would be in the subsequent decade, as VOG began to involve deaf individuals on a ?mass" level, that the possibilities of deaf autonomous organisation, and the contours of Soviet deaf identity, would be fully explored. Yet in 1926, within
the limited circles of deaf organisation, VOG was seen to represent the best opportunity for the deaf to fulfil the ?promise of October" and work together for their common liberation: from tutelage, from charity, and from the social impact of their disability.
2. Making the Deaf Soviet
May Day Parade, 1933
On 1st May 1933, amongst the columns of Soviet athletes that made up the traditional May Day parade in Moscow, one particular group stood out. Dressed in orange t-shirts and navy blue shorts, under a two-sided banner emblazoned with the word ?Deaf-Mutes" (Glukhonemye), 350 deaf sportsmen and women marched in
?enigmatic silence" towards Red Square. As they approached Lenin"s mausoleum and saluted the Soviet leaders atop the structure, these deaf fizkul"turniki symbolically claimed their place amongst the ranks of the Soviet masses. As Zhizn" glukhonemykh commented, ?with their cheerful appearance, the deaf-mutes testified
to their readiness to fight alongside the working class of the USSR for the general line of the party and its leader, comrade Stalin."1
Through their enthusiastic participation in the mass celebrations that characterised Soviet life under Stalin, the deaf in the 1930s thus bore witness to their own transformation: from ?backward", illiterate invalids into the ?first ranks" of the Soviet industrial working class. This transformation process both echoed the tropes of, and borrowed the techniques from, Stalin"s industrialisation drive, with the utopian goal of ?overcoming deaf-muteness" tackled through forward planning and the setting of targets. Conceived in these terms, the transformation of the Soviet deaf became the ultimate ?Soviet project". Yet this ambitious undertaking raised certain questions that undermined its utopian overtones. In the first instance, these questions were organisational in nature, as deaf and hearing alike sought to find institutional structures and systems of service provision that could best facilitate the transformation of the deaf. Through these debates, however, more fundamental and disturbing questions surfaced. Could the deaf really be integrated into Soviet society? Did they even want to be?
This chapter examines the events of the 1930s, as deaf organisation moved from the limited grass-roots activity of the 1920s into the mass politics of the Stalin era. Through their participation in the industrial and political life of the country, the deaf strove to demonstrate their ability to march alongside their hearing Soviet comrades towards the ultimate goal of a communist society. As mass celebration and enthusiasm gave way to the fear and violence of the purges, however, faith in the ability of the deaf to integrate into Soviet society, both on the part of the deaf and the hearing, was sorely shaken. 1937, the most violent year of Stalin"s purges, saw two significant events rock the deaf community: the ?deaf-mute affair" in Leningrad, which culminated in the execution of 35 deaf people by the NKVD for ?espionage", and the so-called ?Buslaevshchina", an internal VOG dispute which saw one individual, Nikolai Alekseevich Buslaev, expelled from the organisation for insisting that the deaf should not be institutionally isolated from the broader Soviet collective.
Both of these ?purges", although demonstrably different in scale and direction,
revealed the tensions between the ideal Soviet transformation of the deaf and the complex reality of its implementation in practice.
Techniques of Transformation
As the historian Moshe Lewin has pointed out, the years 1929-1933, the period of the ?Great Break" and Stalin"s first Five-Year Plan, were characterised by a social transformation of ?incredible intensity and scope".2 Fashioning an industrial economy in a predominantly peasant country entailed a wholesale transformation of society, as ?backward" peasants developed into the technically and politically literate vanguard of the Soviet working class. For the deaf, the imperative to turn themselves from ?backward invalids" into productive members of the Soviet masses was considered particularly urgent. At the end of the 1920s, according to information compiled by the newly-formed All-Russian Unification of Deaf-Mutes (VOG), the majority of deaf people stood outside the structures of Soviet economic and social life. Figures for the first quarter of 1927 had shown that only 3,526 of an estimated 80,000 deaf people in the RSFSR were members of VOG. Of those, 608 worked in a branch of state or cooperative industry, 1,002 in VOG workshops, 1,460 in rural handicraft workshops, and 483 were unemployed.3 A mere 74 were members of the Communist Party.4 The rest were illiterate, unemployed and scattered in isolation throughout the villages of the RSFSR. Members of VOG, and those state bodies that dealt with the deaf, thus faced the task of transforming this predominantly illiterate, atomised group of deaf individuals into collectively-minded members of the Soviet working masses.
To that end, over the course of the first Five-Year Plan, VOG and several state bodies published a succession of decrees, instructions and informational circulars setting out methods for identifying, employing and acculturating the deaf in the mould of the New Soviet Person. In the first instance, members of VOG sought to identify deaf individuals (a process referred to as uchet, or ?census") and convince
them to join the newly-established VOG (okhvat, or ?inclusion").5 In urban centres, where the tradition of deaf organisation was already well-established, this task was relatively simple. Deaf grass-roots organisations established in the 1920s were converted into departments of VOG and used their existing links within the deaf community to draw local deaf people into the work of the Unification.6 Finding the large numbers of rural deaf people proved harder. In the countryside, VOG activists worked alongside the Peasant Societies of Mutual-Aid and the organs of the People"s
Commissariat of Social Welfare (Narkomsobes).7 In the absence of official data on the number and location of deaf people, workers had to rely on information gleaned through word of mouth and the occasional letter of enquiry from relatives to Zhizn" glukhonemykh.8 The high rate of job turnover amongst Narkomsobes workers made the task particularly difficult. VOG activists frequently complained that these workers had little or no knowledge of the needs and requirements of the deaf; the majority did not even know sign language.9 However, even deaf members of VOG found communication to be difficult, as deaf individuals in the countryside usually communicated through some form of primitive ?home sign" which VOG activists found hard to comprehend.10 In addition, the ?scatteredness" of these rural deaf individuals made it extremely difficult to establish a form of VOG organisation in the countryside that could successfully unite them: with distances of hundreds of kilometres between villages, trying to establish a local deaf club often seemed futile.11
Over the course of the late 1920s and early 1930s, VOG developed a set of strategies to combat these problems. In order to identify rural deaf people and draw them into VOG, the Central Soviet, its ruling body, sent established members of the
organisation into the countryside to make personal contacts with local deaf people. Viktor Palennyi records one such example: in 1932, a certain Valentina Kovaleva was sent from Leningrad to Pskov to head the local branch of VOG established there. Upon her arrival, she set about contacting local regional and agricultural soviets to request information on the deaf people in the area. Having established the location of deaf individuals, she visited many of them in person, speaking to their relatives when communication was difficult and persuading them of the benefits of joining VOG. This technique was evidently successful: before her arrival, the Pskov branch of VOG recorded a total of 55 members, but through her efforts, the number quickly rose to 270.12 Kovaleva clearly approached her work with enthusiasm, but others appear to have been less eager: during the II All-Russian Congress of Deaf-
Mutes in 1929, N. N. Minakov, a delegate from Rostov on the Don, stormed that ?the strictest measures must be taken against the reluctance of certain activists to go out to the provinces to work, even as far as to exclude them from the party and from
VOG".13 Minakov"s proposal to make the transfer of VOG activists to the countryside compulsory was ultimately rejected by the Congress, though the practice was kept up throughout the 1930s on a voluntary basis, with VOG"s chairman Pavel Alekseevich Savel"ev personally making regular trips to locations throughout the
RSFSR.14 With such perseverance, the number of VOG members began to rise, from 5,143 in 1929 to 16,198 in January 1932, and reaching 39,000 by 1937.15
The question of how to unite such individuals in VOG also proved an intractable problem. With such huge distances separating the tiny rural residences of these deaf people, it was impossible to establish a deaf organisation along the lines of those found in urban centres. VOG"s response was to instigate a system of rural ?rally-conferences" (slety-konferentsii), at which groups of deaf villagers could congregate. The purpose of these rallies, according to a 1934 article by Savel"ev, was ?the
establishment of a vital link [zhivaia sviaz"] to the deaf-mutes of the countryside, the study of each, individually, from the point of view of his political literacy, his potential to be assigned to study […] or to work". Having established such facts, the rallies could then be used to provide specific services for the deaf, such as ?legal consultation, medical assistance, placement in studies, work etc". The article went on to give advice on how to carry out these events, from the choice of location, the hiring of premises and the organisation of refreshments to the establishment of links with local state organisations, such as Peasant Committees of Mutual Aid and Machine Tractor Stations.16 The VOG department in the Central-Volga krai was the first to make such events a central part of their work, carrying out rallies in six regions in the early 1930s and thereby establishing links with 180 villagers.17 history selfhood soviet deaf
Through their experiences in the villages, VOG activists became increasingly convinced that the ?scatteredness" of rural deaf people hindered their ability to access the services they needed to become good Soviet citizens.18 VOG rally-conferences in the provinces thus sought to bring the deaf together, to ?concentrate" them, in order to facilitate their transformation. Yet for the unemployed, illiterate rural deaf, a twice-yearly gathering in a regional town was not considered sufficient to overcome the combined obstacles of deafness and rural isolation. As a Zhizn" glukhonemykh article from 1930 pointed out: ?The life of these unfortunates is truly pitiful. The vast majority of them live ?on charity" ["iz milosti"] with their relatives, and for their labour (and they work no less than the hearing) they receive only a subsistence and ragged clothes [da plokhuiu odezhonku]."19 A more serious change was therefore necessary in order to lift these people out of their dire situation. As a result, VOG began to look to the more traditional locus of early Stalinist transformation: the factory. By involving the deaf in labour on a mass scale, and grouping them together in order to provide the services necessary to help them, VOG members believed that the forging of the new deaf person could be more easily achieved.
Initially, VOG workers and government officials focused on developing the system of small-scale, deaf-only artels and workshops that had been established in the
1920s, which, according to a speech made by Savel"ev at the II All-Russian Congress of Deaf-Mutes in 1929, would allow the deaf to ?[stand] together with all adults in the general cooperative ranks and [begin] to fulfil the great plan of Il"ich, which he bequeathed after his death".20 The majority of these artels were handicraft based: according to figures for the RSFSR from 1927, there were sixteen sewing and leatherwork artels, seven bread-making artels and six printing shops.21 In addition to these, a small number of deaf-only Soviet farms (sovkhozy) were created by VOG following Stalin"s collectivisation of agriculture after 1928.22 One such enterprise, the sovkhoz ?Kolos", was located in a former Trinity monastery on the banks of the
Sheksna River outside Leningrad. The land was not ideal for farming: of the 2,500 hectares of land, only 250 could be used for crops, whilst the rest was forest and bog in need of drainage. Despite its problems, however, the Leningrad oblast" branch of VOG settled approximately one hundred and sixty deaf workers there in 1931.23
Also within the VOG system was the vine-growing sovkhoz ?Vogovets No.1" in the
Northern Caucasus, the livestock sovkhoz ?Vogovets No. 2" in Armavir, and the sovkhoz ?The Deaf-Mute Proletariat" in the Rzhevsk oblast".24
As the pace of Soviet industrialisation picked up, however, both the VOG leadership and state departments began to change their tactics; from focusing on deaf-only artels, workshops and farms, to including the deaf in the large-scale industrial projects that characterised the first Five-Year Plan. A joint circular, published in 1929 by the Supreme Soviet of the Economy (VSNKh) and the People"s
Commissariat of Labour (Narkomtrud), set out the procedures for the hiring of deaf people by state industrial enterprises. According to the circular, those deaf individuals who had previously worked in industry, or who had the necessary labour skills, ?taking into account their social position and property [sotsial"no-
imushchestvennoe polozhenie]", could be accepted for work.25 The circular set out a proposed system of putevki, or labour vouchers, similar to those issued to unemployed hearing workers by the Labour Exchange. These putevki would be issued by VOG and certified by the Labour Department, to be presented to prospective employers as proof of an individual"s eligibility to work. In 1930, VOG and Narkomtrud published a further Instruction that refined this system, establishing concrete links between VOG and specific factories and setting out measures to plan deaf job allocation rationally throughout the RSFSR.26
As a result of these measures, by the III All-Russian Congress of Deaf-Mutes in 1931, a qualitative change had taken place in the membership of VOG. Of approximately 14,000 members, over 6,000 were working in general industry, with significant numbers working on the ?gigantic" construction projects of the Five-Year
Plan, such as Moscow"s ?Elektrozavod", Gor"kii"s ?Elektrostroi", the Cheliabinsk and
Stalingrad Tractor Factories and the factories of Magnitogorsk, among many others.27 In the majority of cases, the involvement of deaf workers with these great construction projects began on a modest scale, with groups of four or five rural deaf people hired as unskilled labourers (chernorabochie) to work on the construction of the huge factory complexes.28 As the factories went on line, however, the deaf moved inside, training on the job and ultimately achieving the status of skilled workers. In Gor"kii, for example, four of the five deaf workers originally hired were unskilled, but after proving their worth in construction, they took courses in metalwork and obtained work in the completed factory.29 Traditions of hiring the deaf in these factories soon became established, and by 1933, groups of over 100 deaf people could be found working in ?concentrated" groups in several enterprises, including ?Electrozavod" and Rostov on the Don"s ?Rostsel"mash".30
The hiring of deaf workers in state industry did not always proceed on an equal basis with that of the hearing. The 1929 Circular by VSNKh and Narkomtrud included a particular caveat: that the hiring of deaf people should be carried out on the basis of a
?concrete list of positions for which a deaf-mute"s labour can be accepted, and also a list of positions that may not be taken on the strength of the necessity of hearing or the threat of the loss of sight".31 In other words, there was a perception that the deaf could perform some jobs, but not others.32 Conversely, however, from the early 1930s, efforts were made to use the labour of deaf people in certain jobs which, thanks to their high noise levels, threatened the hearing of ordinary workers. Placing groups of deaf workers in the ?noisy shop" - a designation which covered the majority of workshops involving heavy machinery, including boiler rooms and foundries - was adopted as policy by VOG and the central administration of the trades union (VTsSPS) in 1931.33 This ?rational" approach to hiring policy coexisted harmoniously with VOG"s policy of ?concentrating" the deaf in the workplace, with brigades of deaf people, sometimes several hundred strong, to be found working together in the noisiest parts of the Soviet factory throughout the 1930s.34
By the early 1930s, therefore, the use of deaf labour in state factories had become widespread, with VOG acting as a type of job centre, placing individuals in suitable factories. For those seeking work in state industry, however, it was not always enough to show a willingness to work. Whilst many of the earliest deaf workers in state industries had found opportunities to move from unskilled construction work to skilled labour, this opportunity to learn on the job was not open to all. The majority of deaf workers were required to demonstrate some skills and literacy to be accepted
to work.35 In light of this, VOG and Narkomsobes made the decision in 1929 to reform the system of VOG enterprises, turning existing workshops and artels into Educational-Industrial Workshops (Uchebno-Proizvoditelnye Masterskie, or UPMs).36 Both deaf adults and school leavers could enter these workshops and receive the training necessary to master technical work and the use of specialist machinery (as well as basic literacy) in order to make the transition to state enterprises. By 1931, the VOG system had a total of 75 UPMs, in which 2,424 individuals were working and 827 studying.37 Over the course of the 1930s, many groups of deaf individuals successfully made the leap from studying at the UPM to working in state factories.38
Yet in labour education, too, the deaf had begun to make the transition from a narrow focus on practical literacy and skills to an aspirational desire to be included in the most prestigious worker education programmes of the ?cultural revolution": the workers" faculties (rabfaki) and the Higher Educational Institutes (Vysshie uchebnye zavedeniia, or VUZy).39 At the II All-Russian Congress of Deaf-Mutes, E.
N. Mokhonov, a delegate from the Crimea, complained to the People"s
Commissariat of Enlightenment A. V. Lunacharskii about the lack of educational opportunities for deaf people: ?Now, amongst speaking people, there are rabfaki,
VUZy, technical schools, they go to schools of ballet and drawing, are supplied with millions in funds, and deaf mutes are supplied with nothing." ?Why", he asked, ?can"t we organise groups in rabfaki and VUZy to work with translators? They will not admit us - deaf-mutes are not allowed [glukhonemym nel"zia]."40 In response,
Lunacharskii promised that, if a group of deaf people could be organised to work with a translator, he would personally find a rabfak to take them.41
On this basis, a group of 18 students entered the Bukharin rabfak in Moscow in September 1930. By 1931, one of their number, M. L. Shorin, could proudly tell the III All-Russian Congress of Deaf-Mutes that deaf students were studying in all faculties of the rabfak: ?It has become an everyday occurrence, not an exception."42
All 18 of the original class graduated and went on to study at the VUZ. In September 1931, a group of 26 students entered the Rykov rabfak in Leningrad.43 In addition to the deaf workers studying in hearing rabfaki, 1931 also saw over 100 deaf people begin their studies at the Frunze Professional-Technical School, a newly opened higher educational establishment for invalids in Leningrad.44 Following this initial watershed, groups of deaf students studying with translators became commonplace in many hearing rabfaki and VUZy, and soon spread to other forms of worker education, such as the system of Factory-Plant Studentships (Fabrichno-zavodskoe uchenichestvo, or FZU). According to a report by Zhizn" glukhonemykh in 1933, which described in some detail the experiences of the first group of deaf students to study on the FZU programme at the 1st Kaganovich State Ball-Bearing Factory, these students would ?provide qualified cadres for socialist industry", which represented the ?urgent task of VOG" in the run-up to the XVII Party Congress of the CPSU in 1934.45
By the time the first Five-Year Plan drew to a close, therefore, the basic contours of the deaf community"s path to transformation, and VOG"s role within it, had been drawn. According to the ?Position on the All-Russian Society of Deaf-Mutes", published by VOG in 1932 and approved by the Soviet of People"s Commissars, VOG had certain ?fundamental tasks": the ?exposure, census and unification" of deaf people in VOG, the carrying out of cultural-educational work and the raising of their level of political and technical understanding. Yet the organised transformation of
VOG members into industrial workers was particularly stressed: ?the industrial training and re-training of deaf-mutes and those who have become deaf or mute, both in specialised educational-industrial workshops, the professional-technical schools and tekhnikumy of the People"s Commissariat of Social Welfare, and in general state educational establishments of all types", was to be followed by the ?planned placement of deaf mutes [...] in work in state and cooperative enterprises". These aims formed the basis of VOG"s work throughout the 1930s. Their achievement was, in practice, a little more ad-hoc and fragmentary than the talk of ?plans" suggested: although attempts were made to establish a ?general VOG plan" along the lines of the
Five-Year Plan, the nature of VOG planning was usually confined to individual discreet targets set in agreement with Gosplan, the Trades Union and the People"s
Commissariats of Labour and Social Welfare.46 However ad-hoc the organisation, by 1937 VOG could report that, of 39,000 members, approximately 17,000 were working in state industry, 9,000 in industrial cooperatives and 18,000 studying.47
The decision to move from the deaf-only artels and invalid cooperatives of the 1920s to the large-scale industrial shops of state industry was in part a pragmatic one. Deaf-only artels in the 1920s suffered from organisational isolation; neither within the system of invalid cooperatives, nor industrial organisations within the Trades Union, they had few sources of ready credit and their managers found it very difficult to procure raw materials or achieve any degree of profitability.48 A decision in 1928 to hand the artel system over to the All-Russian Cooperative Unification of Invalids (Vserossiiskoe kooperativnoe ob"edinenie invalidov, or VIKO) did little to improve matters. According to reports from Zhizn" glukhonemykh, deaf workers soon began to be pushed out of the transferred artels: ?In Novosibirsk [...] by the sweat of their brow, deaf-mutes had built an artel. They elected a deaf-mute manager. But the deaf mute manageress didn"t please the IKO workers. They removed her, and brought in a speaking manager. [...] They hired a lot of healthy people, kicked the deaf-mutes off the machines and made them make buttonholes, sew on buttons, and seated speaking
workers at the deaf workers" machines."49 Deaf members of these artels had lower wages than their hearing workmates, and no social insurance in case of injury in the workplace.50 By contrast, deaf individuals in state industry were automatically granted membership of the Trades Union, with all of its associated benefits, and the concentrations of deaf individuals in the ?noisy shops" of large factories made it possible for VOG to establish factory-based ?cells" that were easily accessible and well attended.51
If placing the deaf in state industry was thus a practical choice, it was also a deeply symbolic one. As Stephen Kotkin has suggested, ?work served as both the instrument and measure of normality" during this period of intense social transformation.52 As the experience of deaf organisation after the revolution had shown, the Soviet deaf community desired above all to prove their ?normality" and capability within the new symbolic frameworks of Soviet society. In the era of socialist industrialisation, this proof lay in industrial labour. By showing themselves able to work alongside their hearing comrades, the deaf could demonstrate their ?normality" by their ability to integrate into the Soviet working masses. At the same time, through labour, the deaf individual was seen to ?forge" himself in the mould of the New Soviet Person. This desire to achieve ?normality" - integration and equality with the hearing - was tangible in discussions of the period. As the Deputy People"s Commissar for Social
Welfare, Samsonov, commented in 1929, the task of VOG and the Soviet state was
?to accustom the deaf-mute masses to the construction of our Soviet Republic; that is, to accustom deaf-mutes to labour, on an equal footing with the healthy, in all forms of industry". According to Samsonov, the excellent results produced by the deaf were ample proof of their equality: ?already in the Red Capital more than a thousand proletarian deaf-mutes work side-by-side with the speaking and the
hearing, and their salary, work discipline and industrial labour are no lower, and in some cases higher, than the speaking and the hearing."53
The inclusion of the deaf in industry, therefore, was seen as proof that ?there are no fortresses a Bolshevik cannot storm", even if the Bolshevik happened to be deaf, and the fortress happened to be the ?gigantic towers of the factory-fortress Electrozavod, the child of the first Five-Year Plan".54 Having stormed the industrial fortress, these deaf Bolsheviks then had the opportunity to become truly ?Soviet" through their experiences within the factory. In 1934, Zhizn" glukhonemykh published an article about one Mikhail Gurov, a blacksmith at Elektrozavod. For ten years, the article explained ?he worked as a hammerer in an invalid artel, where only one thing was asked of him: physical strength and a precise strike". Once he had found work at
Electrozavod, however, ?he encountered new demands. He was asked to study, to become conscious, to grow". By raising his qualifications, studying mathematics, technical drawing and political literacy, he was able to become a blacksmith in his own right, a valued member of the factory. In the words of a party worker: ?We need more Leninists like Gurov."55 Experience of the factory thus forged the deaf in the Soviet mould, and proved their ability to be counted amongst the labouring masses.
Yet, as the words of Deputy Commissar Samsonov had hinted, with the instigation of the first Five-Year Plan, equality for equality"s sake had ceased to be the ultimate goal. In the context of breakneck industrialisation, new attitudes to labour were being fostered that placed pressure on workers to exceed their norms and to beat the records of their peers. This phenomenon was initially known as ?socialist competition" or ?shock work" (udarnyi trud), a system in which gangs or brigades of workers would issue written challenges to each other to beat existing records in speed and volume of production. In 1935, this competitive attitude to labour gained a figurehead in the person of Aleksei Stakhanov, a Donbas miner who, in a record-breaking shift on the night of 30th August, mined 102 tons of coal, exceeding his
quota fourteen times over.56 In the aftermath of this feat, workers were encouraged to become ?Stakhanovites": to exceed their ever-increasing production quotas, and to surpass the records of other workers. In this context, it was no longer enough for the deaf to demonstrate their equality. In order to prove their worth, they now had to excel.
Deaf workers were thus encouraged to participate in socialist competition and Stakhanovism throughout the 1930s. As one of the slogans of the VOG electoral campaign of 1931 declared, ?the lack of hearing and speech must not serve as an obstacle to being in the first ranks of shock workers."57 Similarly, VTsSPS made it their goal, in a decree of 8th March 1933, to ?get deaf-mutes involved in shock work".58 Stories began to surface of individuals such as Sergei Rodionov, a deaf metalwork-assembler at the State Liuberetskii Factory who gained the title of ?shock worker" having fulfilled his yearly plan by 127 per cent, or Alla Paramonova, a deaf car-fitter from the Gor"kii Factory who organised an uninterrupted shift and fulfilled her norms by 130 per cent.59 The significance of these achievements was clearly spelled out: Sergei guarded his shock worker ticket ?like a banner, like a document, attesting to the deaf-mute"s usefulness to this great country" and was permitted to lead his brigade during the 7th November demonstrations; Alla"s name was hung proudly on the wall. Shock work was not confined to industrial workers: in 1931, groups of students from the Rykov and Bukharin rabfaki announced that they had begun socialist competition with each other, and that ?five brigades, in honour of the
III All-Russian Congress of Deaf-Mutes, declared themselves to be shock
[students]".60 The students were not only competing amongst themselves; the Bukharin rabfak was also in competition with ?normal hearing rabfaki". According to their representative, Shorin, the deaf students were ?not only not lagging behind, in many subjects we are ahead of [the hearing]".61
This ability to excel was considered all the more significant in light of the perceived
?backwardness" of the deaf before their Stalinist transformation took place. As the VTsSPS decree of 1933 declared, the deaf, ?in their masses, on the strength of their specific characteristics [spetsificheskie osobennosti], are the most backward group of workers".62 Overcoming this backwardness and entering the ?first ranks" of the
Soviet masses thus suggested a transformative leap that surpassed that of the average, hearing worker. This narrative trope, from ?backwardness" to ?first ranks", is repeated again and again in meetings, articles and documents: ?deaf-mutes have for a long time been able to show that their social importance is very high, that they are in no way backward, and sometimes they even surpass normal people."63 In many respects, the status conferred on the deaf by this ?overcoming" of backward roots was reminiscent of the Stalinist celebration of the socialist transformation of ?uncultured" peasant women: as Choi Chatterjee suggests, ?The conversion of the baba [the illiterate and superstitious peasant woman] to a civic subject constituted a revolution of unique social dimensions, and was represented in Soviet ideology as one of the more triumphant results of Stalinism."64
The existence of deaf Stakhanovites thus demonstrated that the deaf were not only as capable as hearing workers, but they were in fact more exceptional, by virtue of their ability to overcome difficult circumstances and excel. This ?overcoming" was not merely attributed to the efforts of deaf individuals, however: it was seen as a direct result of the opportunities for individual growth provided by the Soviet regime. In 1936, Molodoi Stalinets (The Young Stalinist), a newspaper produced by the Saratov Komsomol, told the story of Petr Spiridonov, a deaf man from the Volga region who found success as a Stakhanovite safe-maker in Saratov. Spiridonov, the article made
clear, had suffered a most tragic loss in becoming deaf: ?Fate played an evil trick on him: she deprived Petr of voice and speech [...] she doomed Petr to a wretched existence."65 Yet whilst this defect would have been devastating in other circumstances, ?Petr had the advantage that he lived in the land of socialism, the land that takes care of a person like a mother". Having travelled to Saratov from his trans-Volga village, Petr found work in the VOG UPM and learned literacy and labour skills. He mastered the complex metalwork techniques and soon became Stakhanovite, leading the best brigade in the factory.
As this article made clear, this transformation was down to Petr"s hard work - ?his inexhaustible persistence, all his amazing diligence" - but it was also a uniquely Soviet success story. Without the opportunities afforded by the Soviet state, such as the chance to study literacy and labour skills at the UPM, Petr would have been condemned to a life surrounded by ?general shame and scorn": ?But... it happened differently." The author recorded a lively conversation with Petr, conducted through a sign-language translator, in which he described his successes and the benefits he enjoyed as a successful industrial worker. Yet the link between these successes and benefits and the beneficent role of the state (and, by extension, Stalin) was firmly underlined: ?And in conclusion, the Brigadier-Stakhanovite, with special expressiveness, gesticulated: ЇLife has become better, life has become more joyous.?
Having made sure that we understood him, he headed for his brigade in the depths of the workshop, from where the clatter and clang of metal could be heard." Reference to Stalin"s famous speech to a Stakhanovite conference in 1935 thus linked Petr"s victory to the general progress of the Soviet people as a whole, a progress that was clearly attributed to the generosity of its leader.
By 1936, therefore, the tenth anniversary of VOG"s creation and the year of the new ?Stalin" constitution of the USSR, the deaf could claim a great transformative victory. Their own ?socialist project" - their inclusion in the ranks of the Soviet working masses - had, for significant numbers of deaf people, been achieved. In a letter to Stalin, composed in honour of VOG"s anniversary, the Central Soviet declared that ?at the present time amongst the deaf-mutes included in our
organisation there is not one unemployed. Every deaf-mute capable of work has the opportunity to become a qualified worker, to receive a general and professional education, to stand in the first ranks of Stakhanovites, the distinguished people of our socialist motherland, and to live a happy life, of which the working deaf-mutes of those countries in which capitalism reigns dream unrealisable dreams".66 This inclusion was not confined to industrial labour: the deaf were active members of the Communist Party, marched in parades and demonstrations, collected funds for women and children caught in the Spanish Civil War and worked to make their living space ?cultured".67 Yet despite this narrative of literal and symbolic inclusion, the picture of the deaf 1930s was somewhat more contradictory and fragmented. For many of the deaf, and for those who worked with them, the path to transformation was a difficult one. In a dominant narrative of successful ?Sovietisation", what happened to those who struggled?
Deafness as Obstacle
Whilst the 1930s saw the creation of a dominant narrative in which deaf people transformed from isolated, backward individuals to exceptional members of the Soviet collective, the reality was more complex. As deaf individuals fought to enter the factory and the classroom, their deafness represented a unique obstacle that threatened to hinder their Soviet transformation. This obstacle was practical in nature, yet over the course of the 1930s its effects were interpreted in increasingly political and ideological ways. In a period defined not only by aspiration and utopian progress but also by social fears and political stigma, deafness began to take on new and more troubling meanings.
In the first instance, deafness manifested itself as a problem of communication: the deaf found it consistently difficult to communicate effectively with the hearing, either through speech, or through the use of written instructions. Despite the promotion of literacy by VOG and Narkompros, the statistics had not improved
greatly: in 1925, 51 per cent of the general population and 10.5 per cent of deaf people were literate, yet by 1933, whilst 90 per cent of the general population were literate, the figure for the deaf had only risen to 15 per cent.68 Similarly, even with advances in the education of deaf children, the designation ?deaf-mute" was the reflection of a lived reality in the 1930s: deaf individuals - especially adults - were not expected to be able to speak.69 This communicative isolation caused many problems, both symbolic and literal, as deaf people attempted to enter the workplace.
In many cases, these problems were at the level of small, everyday misunderstandings. A 1933 VTsSPS report listed several such examples: a deaf worker named Novikov, for example, was short-changed on his pay packet and was unable to communicate with the factory accountant in order to resolve the problem.70
In this instance, the trade-union representative stepped in and the shortfall was quickly made up. Yet these small misunderstandings could prove devastating: one deaf individual was late for work after losing his factory pass, was unable to explain what had happened, and was subsequently fired for absenteeism.71 In another instance, a deaf sweeper at the Projector Factory was reassigned to a post he was not physically capable of holding: ?in response, without comprehending, he nodded his head, which the administration took as a sign of assent. When he was placed in his new work he finally understood and refused the post, in light of his inability to carry out heavy physical labour due to his state of health, at which the administration made the decision to fire him for shirking his work [kak za otkaz ot raboty]."72 It appears that such incidents were commonplace, and the trades union noted the resultant high turnover of deaf workers in industry.73
Whilst misunderstandings in the workplace could be overcome through the intervention of trades union representatives and VOG translators, some problems caused by deafness proved more fundamental. The groups of deaf students who had fought for their right to study in the rabfaki and VUZy alongside their hearing peers
found their deafness a bigger obstacle than they had expected. Much emphasis in these courses was placed on ?independent study with a book", which ?demanded [...] of the deaf student a far greater expenditure of time on individual work".74 For those deaf individuals just beginning to master literacy, the reliance on the written word in these classes represented an obstacle that many could not easily overcome. As the report concluded, ?all of this has placed deaf-mute students in a particularly difficult position, as a result of which at the present time a series of students have been obliged to abandon their studies."75 Even the decision to teach the deaf in groups and use sign-language translation did not always make the educational process easier. With students from a variety of educational and family backgrounds, a variety of communication methods was evident: ?in our classes students differ. One reads lips and does not know finger-spelling or sign language. Another does not lip-read but knows finger-spelling and sign language, a third only knows sign language. And there are those who come from rural areas with their peculiarities, with their non-speak. It is natural that in one and the same class they do not understand each other."76 As a result, whilst deaf people were seen to be able to learn practical skills with ease, it was increasingly recognised that they found higher education, with its emphasis on theory, difficult to master.77
Yet despite their practical skills, the particular nature of their disability proved problematic even within factories. In the 1930s, as Stephen Kotkin has pointed out, it was not enough to be a skilled labourer: ?the leadership was no less concerned about workers" political attitudes and allegiance. New workers had to be taught how to work, and all workers had to be taught how properly to understand the political significance of their work. Soviet style proletarianization meant acquiring industrial and political literacy, understood as the complete acceptance of the party"s rule and willing participation in the grand crusade of Їbuilding socialism?."78 The ?life of the factory" in the 1930s thus encompassed much more than just the process of labour:
cultural activities, political activism, leisure and education were all carried out within the factory walls. In many cases, difficulties in communication caused the deaf to be excluded from these activities. At the 8th March Factory, the factory committee refused to carry out labour education work amongst deaf people: ?they announced that they were not in a position to carry out such work because they didn"t know how to talk to deaf-mutes."79 Whilst many deaf workers did try to attend the workers" clubs with their hearing colleagues, their inability to grasp what was being discussed meant that most did not stay long: ?we have a good club in the print shop but we never go there, because special conditions are not created for us there. We feel ourselves to be isolated there and prefer to go to our own club."80 As a result, the majority of deaf people chose to return to the VOG cell, which, according to B. A. Mikhailov, a teacher from the Frunze Professional School, was failing in its duty to politically educate deaf individuals. Of 30,000 VOG members in 1931, Mikhailov stated, only 25 per cent were involved in any kind of cultural work: ?this means that
75 per cent of deaf-mutes will stand outside political life, outside society, will remain illiterate."81
For many deaf people, therefore, their disability, and its resultant communicative isolation, proved a concrete obstacle to becoming ?Soviet" in the fullest sense: not just a labourer, but a highly educated, politically conscious individual. For VOG, and for the trades union, the task of the 1930s was to find ways to overcome this obstacle. Yet at various points during this transformative period the question was raised: could this obstacle be overcome at all, or did deafness in fact prevent an individual from becoming Soviet? This troubling question was first fully aired by the
People"s Commissar of Enlightenment, A. V. Lunacharskii, in his speech to the II
All-Russian Congress of Deaf-Mutes in 1929. Whilst he acknowledged the latent potential in all deaf individuals, Lunacharskii viewed deafness as a defect that stymied that potential: ?As an individual, the deaf-mute, in his entire organism, can be good and responsive to the highest degree. In other conditions he could have been a better socialist than all those around him. But, by birth, he was deprived of that immediate thing that nature gives every person, the possibility to hear another"s
speech and to use speech oneself." Without that speech, Lunacharskii argued, ?it is as if [the deaf-mute] falls from the living cloth of society."82
This isolation - despite its physical cause - was viewed by Lunacharskii in strictly political, and ideological, terms. The Soviet state, he argued, ?fights above all against individualism, [...] wants to achieve it so that people unite, merge with each other, understand each other and help each other". As a consequence of his defect, however, the deaf individual was unable to ?enter into real relationships with others, to extend those telegraph lines that are speech between people". In this respect, his defect made him an individualist, and as such, politically suspect. The parallels between deafness and political fallibility were made abundantly clear: according to
Lunacharskii, ?if some shopkeeper or some kulak limits his property from others, then he is an egoist." The inability of deaf people to communicate with the world, it was implied, represented an equivalent tendency to ?limit" themselves from the wider community, and was thus similarly egoistical and anti-Soviet. Turning the comparison on its head, Lunacharskii argued that ?in this business, in our fight against muteness, I see a sort of sign, a symbol of our general battle against human unresponsiveness. [...] He who thinks only of himself is deaf. He who does not unite in a single thought and action with his brother people is deaf".83 Being deaf, whether literally or metaphorically, could not coexist with being a good Soviet citizen.
For Lunacharskii, deafness led to an isolation from the collective that found parallels in the behaviour of such anti-Soviet figures as kulaks and speculators. In stark contrast to the positive narratives of the 1930s, in which this isolation could be overcome through diligent labour and study, Lunacharskii"s description of the plight of the deaf cast doubt on their capacity to transform. He made reference to the recent advances in deaf education, ?when, taking a deaf-mute from childhood, we give him the ability to understand speech directly from the lips of the speaker, and when he himself, not hearing even his own speech, clearly and fully articulates his thoughts, so that if one didn"t know that he was deaf, one would not realise". Yet this ?fight
against muteness" would not necessarily enable the deaf to become Soviet: ?We must act, so that if nature provides (and of course, it will provide) born deaf-mutes, we must educate them so that they can hear another"s speech and speak themselves, like real people [kak zhivye liudi]." Addressing the Congress directly, he concluded: ?I wish from my heart that you not only begin to master real speech, to a greater extent than now, but also that, as a result of this, you are able to fully master the great ideas of our teacher Lenin and that you turn out to be our fellow travellers in the great battle with that human deafness and muteness which, to this point, has made people not brothers but enemies."84
In Lunacharskii"s eyes, therefore, whilst education could ?bring a deaf-mute close to [being] a normal person", it could not completely overcome the isolation that distanced them from the Soviet collective. The deaf could be nothing more than
?fellow travellers" in the march towards communism. Echoes of this correlation between deafness and anti-Sovietness were evident throughout the 1930s, as deaf and hearing alike grappled to understand the difficulties faced by the deaf as they attempted to transform. One such example was the controversy surrounding the activities of deaf postcard-sellers in the railway stations of Russia"s major cities. The selling of postcards, which often featured photographs of city sights or a line drawing of the ?deaf-mute alphabet", was a tradition stretching back to before the revolution, when local deaf clubs would sell charity cards to raise money for their activities. Yet the continued presence of deaf postcard-sellers well into the 1930s was problematic for VOG. As Savel"ev commented at the III All-Russian Congress of Deaf-Mutes, ?It is a source of shame for deaf-mutes that in the fourteenth year of the revolution they travel the railways, selling, etc. In order that this stops, I request that, if you notice these travellers, you throw them out and hand them over to the police, so that such an outrage ceases".85 For those illiterate deaf people who did not succeed in making the transition to industry, such work represented a much-needed means of subsistence. From 1936, the activity was even legalised.86 Yet in ideological terms, deaf postcard-sellers merely reinforced the correlation between the
?backward" state of the illiterate deaf and the anti-Soviet activities of traders and
speculators, the spectre of which had carried over from the end of the NEP era:
?Only inveterate loafers, lovers of Їeasy profits?, go in for such begging."87
In many respects, the fight against deaf postcard-sellers represented another facet of the ?backwardness to first ranks" narrative, in which these poor, illiterate individuals merely required some training and political education to see the error of their ways and become good Stakhanovites. Yet discussions of these individuals also hinted at fears that deaf individuals, by virtue of their lack of education and isolation, could be easily corrupted by more sinister anti-Soviet elements. An article from 1936 explained that ?often, behind ordinary postcard-sellers, those straightforward workers, stands a more powerful figure, calmly taking a cut from his Їagents? without risk to himself".88 Such discussions emphasised the naivety of deaf people in allowing their disability to be exploited. Elsewhere, however, the perceived tendency of deaf people to turn to crime was emphasised. An editorial in Zhizn" glukhonemykh from 1935 lamented the rise of hooliganism amongst deaf people. The administrative organs and the justice system, it argued, ?Їlet them go in peace?, saying, a deaf-mute is a defective person, not completely of sound mind, what can you expect of him?"89
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