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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This article made clear that such an ?allowance for deafness" was unacceptable and that such a ?throwback to tsarist legislation [...] should be decisively rejected".90 The perception that deaf people were more inclined to anti-Soviet behaviour, however, remained strong.91

figure 3

A "Deaf" Postcard Seller:

Drawing from Zhizn" glukhonemykh, 1934.

The card reads: "Buy a postcard and envelope from a deaf-mute"

In the light of these fears, many began to argue that the only truly Soviet way to overcome deafness was to eliminate it entirely, through medical prophylaxis. In his speech to the Congress, Lunacharskii had announced, to loud applause, that ?we must act, so that in some ten years, or fifteen at the most, there will be no more deaf-mutes".92 This aspiration was shared by many in the deaf community, not least

Savel"ev, who told a plenum of the VOG Central Soviet that ?yes, we have achieved many things, yes, we have caught up with the hearing fighters of the Five-Year Plan.

But comrades, if you ask any one of us, for example myself, Savel"ev, if he wants to be and remain deaf-mute, then Savel"ev would answer no, I don"t want to. We want to fight deaf-muteness, we want to make it so that in the second Five-Year Plan the causes of deaf-muteness are pulled out by the roots".93 To that end, from 1930 onwards, VOG began to organise a yearly three-day event known as Beregi Slukh!

(Take Care of your Hearing!), the aim of which was ?chiefly, propaganda of the

prophylaxis of deaf-muteness in order that society produces, not defective descendents, but completely healthy fighters and builders of communism".94 During each three-day event, VOG members, with the help of Narkomzdrav, put up posters, produced brochures and special newspapers, held lectures and discussions and collected funds for the work of the Society.

The prevention of deafness was considered particularly urgent in the 1930s. Few concrete statistics exist, but it appears that approximately half the deaf adults in this period were not born deaf, but rather deafened by epidemic illness or accident.95

Diseases such as scarlet fever, typhus and meningitis frequently led to complications of the ear and some degree of deafness, especially in young children.96 Similarly, as the decision to place deaf workers in the ?noisy shop" attested, state bodies at the time were acutely concerned about the long-term hearing damage caused by the noise of industrial machinery.97 In order to combat these threats to hearing, the activities of VOG during Beregi slukh! had a twofold aim: to educate ordinary workers about the dangers of noise pollution and epidemic illness on the hearing, and to fight to make more specialist doctors available.98 The III All-Russian Congress of Deaf-Mutes in 1931 had noted that there were only ten professors of audiology and 327 doctors of the ear for a population of 100,000,000 in the RSFSR - ?that won"t do at all!" - and that the number of deaf people was growing as a result.99 Through the efforts of VOG workers during Beregi slukh!, the situation began to improve: by 1935, there were 1,041 outpatient surgeries for patients with illnesses of the ear in the RSFSR, and over 20 university departments for the study of the ear, nose and

throat.100 During the lifetime of Beregi slukh!, which ran yearly from 1930 to 1937, over 46,400 lectures were held and 7,900,000 brochures, leaflets and posters printed.101

Through Beregi slukh!, members of VOG thus sought to make links with state departments (particularly Narkomzdrav) and to popularise information about the causes and problem of deafness. The events helped to raise significant sums of money for VOG activities: from 1930 to 1933 over 5,000 roubles in donations were collected.102 Yet these events were deeply contradictory. Palennyi has pointed to the irony of making the prevention of deafness the task of VOG: ?Let the state itself take care of the health of its citizens - oh no, people already deprived of hearing must

Їring the bell? in order to Їmobilise the people to fight against epidemic illnesses which cause deafness?..."103 During Beregi slukh! deaf people were obliged to perpetuate the notion that deafness was a relic of the past, and that the deaf had no place in Soviet society: as one slogan from 1931 put it, ?we lose our hearing as a result of our ignorance and unculturedness. Sanitary education through the explanation of the causes and cures of deaf-muteness is on the agenda of VOG work".104

The dominant utopian narrative of deaf transformation was thus consistently undermined by references - foreshadowed by Lunacharskii - to the deaf as criminals, hooligans and relics of the pre-revolutionary era. These undercurrents of suspicion came out into the open in the context of Stalin"s terror. Deaf people, especially those in industry, had been subjected to the purging process since its inception, and many of those who came before the factory purge committees in the early 1930s passed the test with flying colours. Mikhail Gurov, for example, the blacksmith and shock-worker from Elektrozavod, had been called before the purge committee in 1934. His reputation as a hard worker and a good party member, however, was enough to convince the committee: ?when, during the purge of the factory party collective, Gurov was called, and when he calmly approached the table

behind which sat the commission, a thousand pairs of working hands together applauded him. That said it all."105 In 1937, however, VOG was shaken by an event that decimated one of its most successful organisations: the purge of the Leningrad oblast" branch of VOG, known as the ?Deaf-Mute Affair" (Delo glukhonemykh).

Sources for this event are difficult to access, yet thanks to research conducted by two historians, D. L. Ginsburgskii and A. Ia. Razumov, the facts of the Affair have become known.106 Between August and November 1937, fifty-four members of the Leningrad oblast" branch were arrested by the NKVD on charges of ?participation in an anti-Soviet, fascist terrorist organisation, created by an agent of the Gestapo, Albert Blum, amongst the deaf-mutes of Leningrad".107 Postcards bearing the image of Adolf Hitler had been found in a flat shared by Albert Blum, a deaf German immigrant, and the deaf Leningrader A. S. Stadnikov. The subsequent investigation had implicated the elites of the Leningrad deaf community, including E. M.

Tot"mianin, the chairman of the VOG branch, and M. S. Mintslova-Piotrovskaia, a founding member of VOG and former chairwoman of the Leningrad House of Enlightenment. After prolonged interrogation, thirty-five of those arrested were condemned to death by shooting, a sentence which was carried out on 24th December 1937.108 The remaining nineteen were sentenced to ten years" convict labour, but were released in 1940. Those shot were posthumously rehabilitated in 1956.109

The accusation that Leningrad deaf people had conspired with a German fascist spy was difficult to definitively refute. Albert Blum, along with a few other members of a German workers" organisation, had arrived in Leningrad in the late 1920s and been welcomed with open arms. Having been presented with a flag from the Leningrad

organisation at the II All-Russian Congress of Deaf-Mutes, ?as a sign of our brotherly solidarity with the German workers", Blum and others were found jobs in

VOG enterprises and they enthusiastically joined in the cultural and social life of the organisation.110 The welcome accorded to these German workers was imbued with particular significance after 1933, in the context of the rise of National Socialism and the widely publicised law of July 1933 which had introduced the sterilisation of the congenitally deaf in Germany.111 Yet this positive attitude towards the German

?refugees" had soured by 1937, when the threat of war had made association with those of German origin politically suspect. In some respects, it is unsurprising that this particular group of deaf individuals raised suspicions: many were former students of the Petersburg School of Deaf Mutes, and thus members of a pre-revolutionary elite whose position in the workers" state had become untenable. Yet in other ways, the ?Deaf Mute Affair" represented the culmination of more general fears about the political reliability of deaf people.

According to Ginzburgskii, the purge began as a result of a new VOG crack-down on deaf postcard-sellers on Leningrad"s railway network. Tot"mianin, he recounts, had informed the NKVD ?as an honest communist" that members of VOG were selling postcards at the railway station, and that they should be arrested as ?persistent speculators".112 When these individuals were arrested and searched, amongst the piles of postcards were found several images of Hitler, ?standard enclosures from the cartons of German cigarettes smoked by Blum".113 Such a combination of deaf speculation and fascist memorabilia was more than enough to start the machine of arrest and denunciation. As this process unfolded, the issues surrounding deaf communication also began to play a role. Excepting Tot"mianin and P. T.

Byshkevich, a twenty-five year old deaf man from Gatchin, all of those arrested were deaf from birth or early childhood (and, by extension, mute).114 Of the thirty-five

shot, only fourteen were literate.115 The majority of these deaf individuals were thus unable to communicate effectively with the hearing, and were seen to count amongst those who, in Lunacharskii"s phrase, had ?fallen from the living cloth of society".

It remains unclear whether deafness was indeed a decisive factor in bringing state suspicion to bear on this group of individuals. What is irrefutable, however, is the way in which deafness was used by members of the NKVD during the process of interrogation and confession. According to Viktor Palennyi the NKVD relied on three translators, A. N. Perlova, T. D. Simonova and L. L. Ignatenko, who had worked with the Leningrad VOG branch for many years. These women were used to question those arrested on behalf of the NKVD, and to persuade them to sign written transcripts of what they had ?said" on the understanding that they would be subsequently released.116 The exploitation of the communicative difficulties of deaf people to extract false confessions was perhaps not surprising in the context of the purges, but it is indicative of the marginalised position of deaf people in this period.

It is important not to overstress the significance of the Deaf-Mute Affair: in the context of the mass executions of the late 1930s, the fact that there exists only one documented case of the organised repression of a group of deaf people suggests that deafness was not systematically used as grounds for arrest and execution. Palennyi does cite anecdotal evidence of other arrests during this period: ?veterans of the Society remembered that so-and-so was arrested because, referring to Stalin, instead of using the sign Їmoustaches? [usy] or Їsteel? [stal"], they used the sign Їto pull the trigger? [nazhimat" na kurok]."117 Such arrests, however, seem representative of the hyper-vigilance of the period, especially with regards to anecdotal references to Stalin. The Affair itself was officially brought to an end in 1940 by Lavrentii Pavlovich Beria, the head of the secret police from 1938, who had received a petition for clemency from the wife of I. M. Solomonov, one of those sentenced to hard labour. Beria, it transpired, had a deaf relative, and ?this circumstance evidently played a role in the release of I. M. Solomonov" and the subsequent release of the

other nineteen prisoners.118 In 1939, all those who had participated in the arrest and interrogation of the deaf prisoners, including the three translators, were also arrested and sentenced to death.119

Throughout the 1930s, therefore, the utopian rhetoric of the transformation of deaf people into model Soviet citizens was tempered both by the very real difficulties faced by deaf people as they entered the school and the workplace and by the interpretation placed on these difficulties by the state and Soviet society. These factors, despite the extraordinary events of 1937, did not curtail the transformation project: for many, the obstacles caused by deafness merely made it necessary to work harder in order for the deaf to be fully integrated into the Soviet masses. As

Savel"ev announced in 1939, ?we cannot accept that our deaf-mutes are at the tail-end of the victorious procession of workers towards communism. Deaf-mutes need to catch up."120 Yet a third dynamic at play further complicated this picture. For certain deaf people, transformation and integration remained secondary to the goal of creating a distinct community that was Soviet, but first and foremost deaf.

Deafness as Identity

In their engagement with the transformative project of the 1930s, deaf members of VOG were caught between the imperative to work towards the broader goals of

?socialist construction" in the Soviet Union, and the more limited need for the construction of their own organisation. The work undertaken over this period to locate rural deaf individuals and draw them into the industrial life of the Soviet state had the secondary function of developing VOG as an institution: whilst in January 1929, VOG had 8,624 members, 64 local departments and 29 social clubs and red corners, by the tenth anniversary of VOG in 1936 there were over 30,000 members, 400 departments and 228 clubs and red corners.121 At the III All-Russian Congress of Deaf Mutes, members had announced that ?at this congress, the foundation stone will be laid for the close collaboration of all united deaf-mutes of the USSR on an

organisational basis", and over the next few years, VOG established the concrete lines of this organisation.122 A localised administration developed, with regional departments in major cities and regional centres across the RSFSR and other republics of the Soviet Union. Managers and workers of these local departments made up the VOG Congress, held every two years, which elected a Central Soviet to establish the ?general line" of VOG"s activities.123 Decisions of the Central Soviet were scrutinised by an Inspection Committee, also elected by the Congress, and both bodies made a yearly report on their activities to the People"s Commissariat of Social

Welfare, to which institution VOG remained subordinate.124

The simultaneous transformation of VOG and its members had the result of rhetorically tying the development of deaf people to the development of their organisation. VOG existed to ?serve" deaf people and to facilitate their transformation and inclusion in Soviet life, and the fruits of this inclusion were seen to reflect on VOG as an institution. As Savel"ev put it in his speech to the III Congress, ?if before, two years ago or so, about 1,200 were working in general industry, then now 7,000 people are working. You will remember how at the II Congress you said that we, deaf-mutes, need to have our own [svoiu] deaf-mute intelligentsia, to open a department at the Bukharin rabfak, and today, comrades, we can say that we have two departments in the rabfak and our rabfakovtsy study there."125 The successes of ?our" deaf-mute individuals, in industry and in education, thus reflected on the deaf mute collective as embodied by VOG. Yet as the transformation of the 1930s progressed, the links between deaf people and VOG began to weaken. The VOG leadership had anticipated that those deaf individuals who had entered the rabfaki and VUZy would become a true ?deaf-mute intelligentsia" and would return, educated, into the ranks of VOG to transform new generations of deaf people. The VUZ thus represented the source ?from which VOG will receive its red specialists".126 In reality, however, almost all those who successfully completed the VUZ courses made the decision to find jobs in industry,

shunning the organisation that had developed them.127 Without them, VOG"s activities were seriously compromised. This issue was discussed at length at the III

Congress: ?Where do we get our cadres from, in order to send workers to the regions?"128 In the absence of an educated deaf elite, it was feared, ?the old biddies [baby] make do".129

The lack of qualified cadres was not the only problem facing VOG in this period. As an organisation, its activities were diverse, encompassing work placement, industrial education, cultural and leisure activities, sport, and legal and medical advice. Its sources of funding were thus also disparate: Narkomsobes provided money for cultural work and the likbezy, the UPMs were funded by VIKO, educational work was funded by Narkompros and Beregi Slukh! by Narkomzdrav.130 It proved particularly difficult for VOG to obtain the necessary funds from relevant departments: for example, in 1929, the VOG plenum noted that VIKO had not provided any money for the deaf artels it had taken over, and the II Congress complained that there was not enough money from Narkomsobes for job allocation and training.131 By 1935, as Palennyi has pointed out, VOG clubs were in dire financial straits: ?VOG collected funds for the support of Їtheir? clubs from the profsoiuzy, invalid cooperatives and departments of popular education [narodnoe obrazovanie]. It still was not enough."132 Similarly, problems were encountered when liaising with government departments such as the People"s Commissariat of

Trade, with whom arrangements needed to be made to provide raw materials for the UPMs. As a result of these difficulties, by the mid-1930s, VOG members had begun to recognise the urgent need to reform the organisation.

This call for reform did not merely involve VOG. As the industrialisation drive had progressed and deaf workers had entered the factory, the burden of providing

services for deaf people had shifted onto other worker organisations, in particular the trades union (VTsSPS). In 1931, the VTsSPS Secretariat had published its first

?Decree on Work amongst Members of the Union of Deaf-Mutes", which proposed, in collaboration with VOG, to expand the number of deaf people in industry, establish factory-based deaf clubs which would encourage deaf people to participate in the ?industrial life of the enterprise", and encourage literacy and cultural activities amongst the deaf.133 In 1932, VTsSPS established a new position of ?instructor for work amongst deaf-mutes", for which the Central Soviet of VOG put forward one of its most energetic workers, Nikolai Alekseevich Buslaev. Over the course of the next few years, the Secretariat of VTsSPS proposed taking over more and more of the activities previously conducted by VOG, such as likbez work, technical education and labour training, propaganda and political education.134 The first profkom for deaf people was established in the Elektrokombinat factory in 1933, shortly followed by profkomy in the Gor"kii Car Factory, the Stalingrad Tractor Factory and the

Ordzhonikidze Heavy Machinery Factory in the Urals.135 These organisations ran technical training and political education. In 1933, the newspaper Zhizn" glukhikh was re-launched under VTsSPS, with Buslaev as editor, and in its first issue made the organisational shift clear: ?the task of VOG is not to stand in for the trades union or the cooperatives, but to help the trades union and the cooperatives to organise the service of deaf-mutes."136

The shift away from VOG and towards the trades union made sense in the context of the transformation of deaf people: the change of institution mirrored a change in the social identity of deaf people. As an article from 1931 made clear, ?if even during the period of the New Economic Policy the deaf-mute was considered an invalid, then in 1931 [...] the figure of the deaf-mute shock worker, catching up and overtaking his hearing comrades [...] has come to the fore."137 As deaf people ceased to be ?invalids

and became industrial workers, it made sense for them to no longer be grouped together with their ?comrades in misfortune", but instead to be included with the wider mass of industrial workers.138 On a purely practical level, too, entrusting the service of deaf people to the trades union would solve the chronic problems of funding experienced by VOG clubs and services. On that basis, Buslaev, amongst others, began to argue that the activities and organisation of VOG should be fundamentally reduced and its provision of services handed over to VTsSPS. VOG, he suggested, should confine itself to working with rural and as yet unorganised deaf-mutes in order to attract ?new deaf-mute cadres to the factory", and to organising ?mass sanitary-educational work in enterprises, for prophylaxis and the fight against diseases of the ear". 139 Once in industry, deaf workers should be served by VTsSPS, the only organisation able to ?realise the political management of the mass movement of the proletariat".140

Buslaev"s comments, however rationally argued, unleashed a storm of protest within

VOG. At a particularly lively meeting of the Central Soviet (now renamed the Central Directorate) on 29th December 1935, Buslaev"s attack on VOG, and his proposals for reform, were debated. His criticisms of VOG"s work - that it was not meeting its targets for inclusion, that people were leaving VOG for the trades union, that VOG clubs were poorly funded and managed - were challenged point for point. Yet it was the perception that Buslaev favoured the limitation, or perhaps even the abolition, of VOG that caused the most violent reaction: ?Comrade Buslaev, I think that you need to stop this disgraceful attitude towards VOG. We need VOG. Without VOG, nothing can be done. We need the profsoiuzy. Without the profsoiuzy nothing can be done. We need to coordinate our work. [...] Everybody, as they say, needs a slap on the wrist."141 In its defence, Savel"ev aligned VOG with other worker"s organisations: ?For now, we have a dictatorship of the proletariat, mass organisations of the proletariat, trades union, soviets, cooperatives, the Komsomol, plus a multitude of mass unifications of workers - these are necessary. Necessary."142

This passionate defence of VOG"s activities was unsurprising in light of the experience of the 1930s. Attempts to transfer services for deaf people to other government bodies in this period had proved to be a resounding failure. In 1929, the transfer of VOG artels to VIKO had led to the bankruptcy and closure of many enterprises; their subsequent incorporation into the Narkomsobes system in January 1933 had seen such organisational chaos that salaries had not been paid.143 More recently, in March 1935, the All-Russian Conference of Social Welfare Workers had decreed that, ?for the purpose of eliminating the excessive demarcation of functions within the Social Welfare system", VOG"s regional departments should be liquidated, to be replaced by a system of voluntary workers under Narkomsobes. This decision, in part an attempt to reduce costs, was ratified by Sovnarkom in August of that year. 144 Over the following months, 390 VOG workers in the region were fired and 92 VOG departments liquidated. The result was chaos. The abolition of VOG"s paid aktiv in the regions ?entail[ed] the flight of the fired aktiv from non-industrial and sparsely populated regions into industrial centres and cities to find work, as the work offered to them in red corners [could] not support them materially: this means that the common masses of deaf-mutes in the stated regional centres

[were] left without service or management". Regional Social Welfare inspectors were unable to carry out cultural and educational work amongst deaf people ?in light of the sharp turnover [of workers], the constant workload of all manner of campaigns and mobilisations, and, most importantly, the fact that they don"t know the deaf-mute language, sign".145

In the eyes of many deaf leaders, therefore, the chaotic liquidation of approximately half of VOG"s organisational structure had conclusively proved that ?we need VOG. Without VOG, nothing can be done".146 The passionate defence of VOG seen in the Central Directorate plenum was not merely a question of practicalities, however, but also a question of identity. Members of the plenum dwelled particularly on Buslaev"s point that the ?difference between deaf-mutes and the speaking [should be] erased": ?How are we to understand this? The difference between deaf-mutes and speaking

workers was erased in October 1917; you and I received equal rights to vote, to work, etc. Perhaps comrade Buslaev is implying the abolition of differences in communication. Then he needs to say so. To erase the differences in communication is very hard, because you hear and I do not, and it is hard for me to communicate with the speaking."147 Whilst keen to establish economic and cultural equality between the deaf and the hearing, therefore, deaf members of VOG were clearly reluctant to subsume their identity as deaf people into the broader identity of the Soviet collective.

Whilst the transformative process of the 1930s was intended to integrate the deaf into Soviet society, it had also had the paradoxical effect of strengthening the nascent deaf community identity that had developed in the 1920s. The decision to concentrate deaf people in industry, to teach them in small groups, and to provide them with sign language translators, had encouraged deaf people to band together. This community identity was intimately bound up with language; although state policy considered sign language to be inferior to spoken and written Russian, the immediate needs of industrialisation had caused that language to be increasingly institutionalised. Deaf people coming from the countryside to the towns were taught sign language first, in order to allow them to enter the factories and be taught labour skills: ?if a person comes from the countryside, it is necessary to teach him sign language first, so that he knows city sign."148 Translators were provided for all encounters with the hearing community, including visits to the doctor.149 Symbolic integration was therefore accompanied by a growing sense of a deaf community, united by a common language, but isolated from the hearing world.

At certain points, this developing deaf community was even conceptualised in nationalist terms. At the IV Plenum of the VOG Soviet, Savel"ev explicitly ?drew a parallel between a nation [natsiia] and VOG, although he admitted that VOG was

not a nation".150 The comparison was drawn in both positive and negative ways: whilst Savel"ev suggested that VOG"s national characteristics aligned it positively with other republics of the Soviet Union, which were ?national in form and socialist in content", the local VOG manager E. Mokhonov was not convinced. In 1935, he wrote that ?deaf-mutes have lost touch with life, having locked themselves up in their club, in their own circle, they avoid and ignore the speaking, having created their own nation, so to speak, and even developed their own form of deaf-mute chauvinism".151 Such parallels were rarely drawn, and the notion of the deaf community as a nationality did not become widely discussed in this period. Yet these nationalist comparisons, however rare, bore witness to the growing distinctiveness of the deaf community during this period.152

The development of VOG and the inclusion of deaf people into Soviet industrial life thus had the effect of developing a deaf community identity, including the notion of the ?deaf-mute masses" (glukhonemaia massa). As in the 1920s, this identity was not seen to sit at odds with the broader goal of becoming ?Soviet people". The grouping of deaf people together was interpreted in collective terms: ?the deaf-mute proletariat, by virtue of their physical lack, are always drawn towards mutual unification and collectivism."153 VOG members stressed that the broad goals of their organisation were the same as those of Soviet society as a whole; that is, the transformation of society and the transition to communism: ?it is absolutely natural that we must not have some sort of special general line of VOG; on the contrary, VOG must walk, as must all other organisations, along the path that is drawn by the

Party."154 Yet when tensions arose between the needs of the country (for cadres in industry, for example) and the needs of the deaf community, VOG workers always sought to put the deaf community first.

In these moments of tension, VOG"s members fought for the needs of their own contingent, the ?deaf-mutes" against those of the ?other", that is, of the hearing. Over the course of the 1930s, however, the notion of the ?other" expanded. Deaf people began to talk scathingly of the ?speaking", a group that encompassed not only normal hearing people but also late-deafened members of VOG. As Beregi Slukh! highlighted, a significant proportion of VOG"s members had lost their hearing in adulthood as a result of illness or accident, after they had mastered spoken Russian. This contingent of late-deafened people had proved invaluable in the early years of VOG: they liaised between VOG and state departments, using their language skills to overcome the communicative difficulties that hampered VOG"s work.155 Yet these individuals, unconstrained by the lack of language that stymied their deaf-mute peers, were on the whole reluctant to work for VOG, choosing instead to find better paid and more prestigious jobs elsewhere. At the III Congress, an activist from

Leningrad, O. Z. Kessel", commented that ?you all know perfectly well that the late-deafened are the leading party of our aktiv, but they themselves are completely uninterested".156

It was not only the reluctance of late-deafened people to work for VOG in the provinces that upset deaf-mute members. Late-deafened people were similarly reluctant to socially identify themselves as ?deaf-mute". Their refusal to learn sign language caused particular offence: ?the late-deafened can"t communicate with deaf-mutes. This is shameful, they need to learn sign language and finger spelling, but the late deafened can"t speak in either and they are often proud of this fact. I repeat, this is very shameful of them."157 As an article from 1931 explained, these ?lip-readers"

(gubisty), a term used pejoratively, were engaged in a ?covert battle" with the organisation of deaf-mutes: ?the lip-readers propose to get rid of sign language, to get rid of the finger alphabet in special situations and in everyday life, to carry out social work and to socialise amongst themselves - solely through the medium of oral speech. And in conclusion they promise heaven - Їwe will enter hearing society?."158

For the author of this article, however, lip-reading represented ?political death". He made the decision to ?break with lip-reading and go where the duty of each conscious citizen calls him - to help the backward, to transfer my knowledge to deaf-mutes. And I went to the deaf-mutes, having denied myself the right to a personal life, because the masses call and the party demands that I go". In this analysis, being a ?speaker" rather than a ?deaf-mute" was ultimately an anti-Soviet act.

These dynamics - the privileging of a ?deaf-mute" identity and the denigration of the ?late-deafened" as ?other" - came to the fore in the debates over the reform of services for deaf people. The desire to transfer VOG"s duties to other ?hearing" state organisations and out of the hands of deaf people was considered unacceptable by VOG members, for practical as well as symbolic reasons. The backlash against these proposals was directed personally at Nikolai Alekseevich Buslaev. Born in 1906 in Astrakhan, Buslaev had lost his hearing at the age of fourteen as a result of meningitis. Having studied at the Arnol"do-Tretiakov School (now the 1st Moscow Institute of Deaf Mutes), he trained to be a typesetter before entering the Frunze Professional-Technical School in 1925. In 1926 he began working for VOG as an organisational instructor, and in 1931 he became a member of the VOG Soviet. He retained this post when, in 1932, he became the first ?instructor for work amongst deaf-mutes" in VTsSPS. He carried out this work with considerable efficiency and notable success: the concentration of deaf people in industry, the inclusion of deaf people in factory-based schools and the opening of the first deaf health resort in Gelendzhik were largely down to his efforts.159 His continued advocacy of the downsizing of VOG, however, made him numerous enemies amongst the VOG leadership. The 1935 Plenum of the Central Directorate, discussed above, was one of many meetings held to debate Buslaev"s proposals, and in many instances the criticisms were directed personally at him. On one particular occasion, in a fit of rage, the Orenburg-based activist Udal" called Buslaev a ?Trotskyist", a slur for which Udal" was formally reprimanded.160

In the context of the purges, however, Buslaev"s reluctance to toe the ?VOG line" was imbued with particular political meaning, and on 14th August 1937 a special evening session of the VOG Party Group was held to discuss his conduct. The meeting took the form of a ?special purge meeting", as described by Oleg

Kharkhordin: following a formal denunciation, the individual was brought before a special commission which questioned him at length. Having made their decision, the commission then published their findings to the society at large.161 In this instance, the charges against Buslaev were twofold; first, that Buslaev, on behalf of the VTsSPS, had been illegally distributing passes (putevki) to the deaf health resort in Gelendzhik, and second, that he had been using Zhizn" glukhonemykh and other forums to ?prematurely sing the funeral song of VOG".162 After a heated debate, the party group decided to expel Buslaev from the VOG Soviet for ?violation of party discipline" and to recommend that VTsSPS replace him as an instructor.163

Again, the discussion centred on the deaf community"s desire to be in control of their own services. The controversy over the distribution of putevki echoed these concerns: only VOG, Tot"mianin argued, should have the right to control access to a health resort for deaf people.164 This argument was couched in the language of

?democracy" and ?mass control", yet at the same time it emphasised the unique social identity of deaf people. This identity was intimately bound up with the nature of their disability: according to Romanchuk, a member of the party group, ?Buslaev believes that deaf-mutes are not invalids, that they are equal to physically healthy people. Is that really so? I believe that deaf-muteness is the most negative type of invalidity."165

This invalidity was best served, it was implied, by those who shared and understood

its specificities. Buslaev"s suggestion, therefore, that ?VOG isn"t necessary" was seen to deny the particular identity, and particular needs, of this invalid group.166

In this debate, VOG members were quick to acknowledge the faults in their own organisational work. Yet Buslaev"s constant criticism of these faults on the pages of

Zhizn" glukhonemykh was considered ?a disgrace" (bezobrazie) that threatened services for all deaf people. As members of the party group made clear, this discrepancy stemmed from the fact that Buslaev criticised VOG from the point of view of an outsider; not only as a representative of the VTsSPS, but also as a

?speaking" person. At the various meetings involving Buslaev, archival notes make clear that he was contributing to the discussion in spoken Russian, which was then being translated into sign for the benefit of the deaf-mutes present.167 Savel"ev, one of Buslaev"s sternest critics, consistently referred to him as outside the deaf community: ?As a VTsSPS instructor, comrade Buslaev does not want to work with the collective [...]. There are the deaf-mute masses, which Buslaev does not want to take into consideration." Savel"ev"s wife, Sof"ia Ivanovna Lychkina, was even more cutting: ?he is no friend of deaf-mutes."168

These particular criticisms had been raised with Buslaev before, but by 1937, his supposed ?distance" from the deaf community and his rejection of the idea of separate services for the deaf had taken on new meanings. Criticisms of his position had become couched in the language of the purges, and his arguments began to be interpreted as ?a line against the party, a line against VOG".169 Lychkina again raised the spectre of ?Trotskyism": ?I was surprised that in a previous plenum Udal" was reprimanded for calling Buslaev a Trotskyist. And why should he not say that, if what Buslaev is putting into practice looks like the Trotskyist line?"170 Udal" took this even further: ?Like all Trotskyists, Buslaev conceals his true face, plays a double game, says one thing and does another. That"s a fact [...]. In his head he has a different plan, to carry out his destructive propaganda against VOG from within the very masses of deaf-mutes. Why? In order to fulfil his plan - to throw off the only

drive [privod] that links our deaf-mute masses to the party, and that is the plan of an enemy. Buslaev is not a Communist, he"s an enemy."171 By arguing for the integration of deaf services into the trades union, therefore, Buslaev had shown himself to be an enemy of deaf people, and perhaps even an ?enemy of the people".

In the face of these charges, however, Buslaev remained unrepentant. He refused to be judged by the VOG party group, announcing that ?if I have a line that is coordinated with VTsSPS, and I act as an instructor of VTsSPS, you can"t hold me to account for it. You can inform VTsSPS of your opinion, you can demand that VTsSPS take your opinion into consideration, but you cannot punish me for my work along the VTsSPS line".172

In response to this recalcitrance, the party group made the decision to expel Buslaev from the Central Soviet and from VOG. The report of their decision, ?Protocol No. 5", echoed the classic tropes of purge discourse: ?Comrade Buslaev, abusing his position in society (member of the VOG Central Soviet) and in service (editor in chief of Zhizn" glukhonemykh and instructor of VTsSPS), has committed in his activities a whole series of acts [postupki] directed at the slanderous attack against the Central Directorate of VOG [...] Opposing the Society and, in addition, not revealing his Їprincipal? line, comrade Buslaev has caused obvious disorganisation in the work of VOG."173 Yet in light of these charges, his punishment was relatively mild. He was ejected from the Central Soviet and from VOG, but his position in VTsSPS was never put in serious jeopardy, and the threats of party group members to ?convey our conclusions to the party organs, not only of the Palace of Labour, but even further" and to inform the procurator of the putevki affair came to nothing.174

Given what had happened in Leningrad, this leniency was surprising. In fact, after a brief period in the wilderness, Buslaev was reinstated as a member of the VOG Presidium on 21st September 1941, and continued to serve the deaf community until his death in 1998.175

Whatever its outcome, the Buslaevshchina demonstrated that by 1937, it was no longer acceptable to advocate for the institutional integration of deaf people into the state system. The particular needs of the deaf community, and their developing identity as a social group, made it imperative that they be served by VOG alone. This was not a rejection of the Soviet project, or an attempt to isolate the deaf from the broader collective; on the contrary, members made clear that VOG was their direct line to the party and their only hope to become truly Soviet people. Yet the decision to privilege VOG as the representative body of the deaf community was to decisively shape the history of deaf people for the remainder of the Soviet period. Over the next few years, VOG would regain control of those services and organisational functions that had passed to other state departments, and become not only the sole provider of services for the deaf, but also the locus of their institutional identity.176 This process was helped in no small measure by the violent rupture of the Second World War, which placed acute pressures on central state departments, and moved the issue of provision for the disabled to centre stage. These issues will be explored more fully in Chapter Three.


In their discussion of the changes wrought amongst deaf people since the revolution, deaf writers often cited Ivan Turgenev"s short story Mumu. The hero of this tale, the deaf-mute porter Gerasim, was held up as an example of the poor existence of deaf people in tsarist Russia: ?the dumb, gloomy and serf-like peasant-giant [...] has become the model in Russian literature of the universally-recognised deaf-mute

Їtype?."177 Yet the fundamental transformation of self and society engendered, not only by the revolution, but by Stalin"s Five-Year plans, had consigned this ?type" to history. The ?new hero of deaf-mute society" was the shock-worker, the

Stakhanovite, who demonstrated the capacity of deaf people to integrate into society and to excel. Literature of the new era would reflect the great change wrought in deaf people, and showcase their potential to the world at large.

The period of Stalin"s industrialisation and the Five-Year Plans did indeed see the wholesale transformation of tens of thousands of deaf people. Systems put in place by VOG and state bodies allowed for the systematic identification and inclusion of deaf people, and facilitated their transfer to the gigantic factories of the new industrial age. For many, this transformation was fundamentally liberating: translation and training freed them from the constraints of their ?defect" and allowed them to show their talents. Yet for others, the transformation proved hard to accomplish. The utopian rhetoric of ?overcoming" was undermined by painful individual struggles which raised doubts about the ability of deaf people to integrate into Soviet society. Not only that, but the institutionalisation of a separate deaf community and the privileging of a unique deaf-mute identity served to further divorce the ?deaf-mute masses" from the masses at large.

The Stalinist period thus consolidated the separate deaf-Soviet identity that had been born in the post-revolutionary decade. The deaf community was given institutional shape; not only in VOG, but in the brigades of deaf in the factories, the groups of deaf in rabfaki and VUZy, and the constant presence of translators and mediators. Soviet deaf people were thus deeply invested in their own Soviet transformation, but that transformation was carried out at arm"s length from the hearing.

3. War and Reconstruction

figure 4

Moscow, 22nd June 1941

On 22nd June 1941, the war photographer Evgenii Anan"evich Khaldei captured the scene as anxious Muscovites listened to the announcement that the Soviet Union was at war. To the left of the photograph, raising her hand to her face, is the figure of the deaf woman Nina Borisovna Zvorykina. Years later she remembered the moment:

The radio was broadcasting, everyone stood in silence with worried faces and, although I could not hear, the worry transmitted itself even to me. I still did not understand what was happening, but I was immediately afraid for my son.

Zina didn"t know sign language, so she whispered it all to me, clearly articulating the words. ?Molotov is speaking," she said, ?Hitler has deceived us." And then: ?War! Kiev has already been bombed."

I was terribly frightened: what would become of us all, I - a deaf woman, and now with a son?1

Zvorkina"s fears were justified. The Great Patriotic War was a violent rupture in the history of Soviet society in general, and of the Soviet deaf community in particular. The deaf, and the institutional structures that surrounded them, were displaced and fragmented by the events of 1941-1945, and the ongoing process of individual transformation and Sovietisation begun during the 1930s was put on hold. In the aftermath of war, therefore, the need for reconstruction was paramount. Even before hostilities had ceased, VOG and the Soviet state were working to re-establish the networks of education, labour training, cultural and social life that had surrounded the deaf before the war.

Yet the post-war period did not merely see the recreation of the Soviet deaf community as it had been before Hitler"s invasion. The legacy of war, in particular the large numbers of disabled and deafened veterans who returned from the front, raised the status of disability. The rehabilitation of disabled individuals and their return to active labour was transformed from a marginal concern of the disabled community to the imperative need of Soviet society as a whole to reconstruct a healthy body politic. As such, institutions dealing with disabled people, such as VOG and its sister organisation VOS (Vserossiiskoe Obshchestvo Slepykh, or the All-Russian Society of the Blind), were strengthened and raised in profile over the first post-war decade. At the same time, the theories and methods of the rehabilitation of the deaf were subject to renewed debate. In the field of education in particular, the question of what deafness really was, and how it could successfully be overcome, became a subject of intense argument, as rival theoretical organisations fought for control over deaf schools. In a rare occurrence, this debate about the

nature and treatment of deafness spilled onto the pages of central Soviet newspapers, as society grappled with the problem of disability.

For the deaf, therefore, as for other parts of Soviet society, the late-Stalinist era was

?as much about reinvention as it was about reconstruction".2 In this respect, the experience of the deaf corroborates the findings of historians such as Juliane Fьrst, Mark Smith and others, who see the post-war period as the source of many of the social and political changes that would reach their zenith during Khrushchev"s ?thaw".3 The desire to heal the wounds of a country torn apart by war provoked new ways of seeing and treating deafness. These new ideas were often highly theoretical and not matched by the contradictory practices of post-war Soviet life. Yet their elaboration and implementation would shape the existence of deaf individuals until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Deaf Experience of War

The experience of the Second World War both reinforced and undermined the deaf-Soviet identity that had been developing since the revolution. At a time when individual commitment to the Soviet cause was demonstrated by eagerness to

?staunchly defend the Motherland", the deaf were, for the most part, confined to the home front. Despite their enthusiastic participation in pre-war military training programmes, such as the GTO and Osoaviakhim, deaf men were not permitted to

serve in the Red Army.4 The desire to fight appears to have remained strong: many hard-of-hearing and late-deafened individuals managed to conceal their deafness from the army medical commissions and be sent to the front. These included Ivan Andreevich Zav"ialov, who served as a member of the 639th rifle division and was wounded in combat on the Briansk front, and Viktor Mikhailovich Sharshutin, who took part in the liberation of Estonia.5 The twenty-year-old Komsomol activist Ivan Samusenko, turned away by the military on account of his deafness, sent a letter to army commander Marshal Zhukov begging to be allowed to fight: he perished as a machine-gunner in the defence of Leningrad.6 The vast majority of deaf men, however, did not have the necessary language skills to deceive (or persuade) the medical commissar, and were forced to remain in the rear.

Deaf people may have been unable to fight on the front lines, but in the context of

?total war", they soon found other ways to participate. In August 1941, at the House of Unions in Moscow, a city-wide meeting of deaf people and state representatives, including individuals from the People"s Commissariat of Arms (Narodnyi Komissariat Vooruzheniia SSSR), was held to discuss how best to aid the war effort.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the participants published a resolution: ?At this terrible hour, when our Motherland is in mortal danger, our duty is to increase tenfold our efforts in our work. We are exempt from military duty and must show all the more selflessness and persistence in labour, conscious that every component produced above the plan is a blow to the enemy".7 This resolution was transmitted

across Russia, with similar meetings being held in Sverdlovsk, Nizhnii Tagil,

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