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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Язык английский
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VOG"s activities still did not involve large sections of the deaf population. As an organisation with voluntary (and paid) membership, the society was dependent on the desire of deaf individuals to engage with VOG. Furthermore, VOG was an organisation of adults: membership was only open to deaf people once they reached the age of fourteen and entered the world of work. For deaf children, integration into Soviet life was carried out through the network of schools for the deaf established and run by the Ministry of Education (Minpros), a network that had been similarly destroyed by the conflict. The ?reconstruction and reinvention" of VOG in the

aftermath of war was thus paralleled by a reconstruction and reinvention of this school network, one which called into question the very nature of deafness and its treatment by the state.

Rethinking Deaf Education

The Great Patriotic War had a devastating effect on the Soviet network of schools for the deaf. The contingent of schoolchildren was broken up by the conflict: some pupils from schools in areas threatened by the German invasion were sent home to their parents for evacuation, but in many cases, whole classes of children were evacuated together to the east.126 Attempts to continue their education in new locations often proved difficult. In 1941, a group of 86 schoolchildren were evacuated from Leningrad to Iaroslavl oblast", where they were housed temporarily in the Stalin summer camp in Tashchikha, a location without winter lodgings and unsuitable for establishing a school.127 In addition, the dire need for workers in war industries forced groups of older schoolchildren to forgo their education and transfer to factories in the Urals, learning the necessary skills on the job: in 1942, for example, a group of 53 deaf pioneers and komsomol"tsy from Leningrad were taken by their teacher, Lidiia Sis"ko, to work in the factories of Zlatoust.128 As a result, of the 28,100 deaf children in school in 1941, only 7,600 remained in education by 1943.129 With the dispersal of their pupils, the need for deaf teachers similarly evaporated: in schools under the authority of the Leningrad Institute of Hearing and Speech, the 45 teachers and 35 care staff (vospitateli) who remained after the evacuation of their pupils were fired on 1st September 1941.130

Reconstruction of this decimated school network began before the conflict had ended. As in the case of invalid veterans, the war had provoked a rise in the status of education in general, and of special education in particular. An editorial in Pravda in

March 1942 had declared that ?however preoccupied we may be by war, concern for

children and for their education remains one of our chief tasks".131 As the war progressed, therefore, the Soviet state took action, not only to restore, but also to widen the scope of Soviet education. On 30th July 1942, Sovnarkom passed a decree which made it compulsory for every child to attend school until the age of 14, a concept commonly referred to as vseobuch (vseobshchee obuchenie, or universal education).132 On 11th August 1944, universal education was extended to the deaf in a decree of the Soviet of People"s Deputies of the RSFSR, ?On the restoration of the network of special schools for deaf and blind children", which set out the plan and targets for the reopening of schools in the newly-liberated regions. The concept of vseobuch formed a central part of this decree: not only was the deaf school network to be restored, but all deaf children over the age of seven were expected to attend a special school.133

The increased priority given to the education of deaf children was not immediately translated into reality, however. In September 1944, a meeting of directors of special schools from areas previously under Nazi occupation noted that, although a number of schools had again opened their doors, the Sovnarkom decree was ?being fulfilled unsatisfactorily".134 Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of war, the restoration of deaf schools was ad-hoc and fraught with difficulty. Many school buildings had been destroyed, and those that had been commandeered by state bodies during the war were often difficult to get back, as was the case for two schools in the Gor"kii oblast" and another three in the Krasnoiarsk krai.135 Thanks to the displacement of pupils and teachers and the sharp drop in the number of deaf children in school, many schools were only able to re-open by combining their classes and teaching all age-groups together. For example, at the Biisk school for the deaf in the Altai krai, only five of the original sixty pupils remained and were taught in one combined class.136/

Many schools were simply not reopened: in 1947, only 25 of the 49 schools for the deaf and hard-of-hearing in the occupied territories had been re-established.137

This chaotic state of affairs was vigorously challenged by state organs and VOG. The meeting of special school directors of September 1944 elaborated both the problems facing the system of deaf education, and the steps needed to resolve them. The establishment of new schools in liberated areas was a central priority, followed by the extension of control by Narkompros on schools themselves, the improvement of teaching quality, and the equipment of schools with textbooks, writing equipment, clothes and shoes.138 VOG took a central role in pushing local state bodies to fulfil these tasks: the Society was instrumental in persuading local committees of Sovnarkom to establish schools for the deaf in Moscow, Briansk, Smolensk and Voronezh oblast".139 Progress was slow, but by 1949, VOG could announce that 18,646 deaf children attended a special school for the deaf, a number representing 66 per cent of the pre-war level.140 The post-war period did not merely see the re-establishment of deaf schools, however. As in many areas of Soviet life, the crisis of war provided an opportunity, not merely to reconstruct what had gone before, but to rethink the system of deaf education.

Soviet deaf education had undergone a complex process of theoretical development since 1917. In the immediate post-revolutionary years, in light of the hardships of the Civil War, few attempts were made to alter fundamentally the system of deaf education that had existed during the tsarist period. On 10th December 1919, however, Sovnarkom published a decree, signed by Lenin, that subsumed the education of deaf, blind, deaf-blind and physically disabled children into the system of People"s Education (narodnoe obrazovanie).141 This decree, which tied deaf education into the state system and made it subject to the broader ideological and theoretical trends in Soviet education, was followed by a series of congresses which placed the education of deaf children centre stage: the All-Russian Congress of Workers in the Fight against Child Defectiveness in 1920, the All-Russian

Conference of Surdopedagogues in 1921, and the All-Russian Conference on the Social and Legal Protection of Minors (SPON) in 1924.142

These congresses saw the emergence, both of the fundamental tenets of Soviet deaf educational theory, and of its principal theorist, the young child psychologist Lev Semenovich Vygotskii. Born in Belorussia in 1896, Vygotskii had graduated in law from Moscow University in 1917. His intellectual interests were not confined to the law, however: after teaching literature and history of art in the early 1920s, he ?broke onto the academic scene" in 1924, delivering a paper on consciousness at the Second All-Russian Psycho-Neurological Congress in Leningrad.143 On the basis of this speech, Vygotskii was invited to join the Institute of Psychology in Moscow, newly under the direction of the Marxist psychologist K. N. Kornilov. Within the Institute, he established a Laboratory for the Study of Abnormal (Anomal"noe) Childhood, which by 1929 became the Experimental Defectological Institute under Narkompros. He also began publishing a scientific journal, Voprosy defektologii (Questions of Defectology). From this position, the young ?revolutionary of early Soviet psychology" set about reforming the Soviet system of special education.144

Vygotskii"s theory of deaf education stemmed from the premise that ?every physical lack - be it blindness, deafness or congenital weak-mindedness - does not only change the relationship of a person to the world, but first and foremost affects his relationships with people".145 In contrast to previous studies of child defectiveness, which saw physical defect as a purely medical problem - ?blindness signified simply a lack of sight, deafness, a lack of hearing" - Vygotskii viewed physical defect as primarily a social issue.146 This idea borrowed strongly from Marxist theories of the material development of individual consciousness: ?it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their

consciousness."147 By perceiving and analysing the world around him, the ?normal" child could orientate himself towards his surrounding, and develop ?consciousness and self-consciousness" through interaction with his peers.148 Hearing loss, by directly preventing communication and interaction, ?isolated a person from all interaction with people. It deprived him of speech, it cut him off from social experience."149 In this respect, for Vygotskii, deafness represented the most ?tragic" of disabilities, because it deprived the individual of the means of mental development: communication and speech.

In Vygotskii"s view, therefore, the problem posed by deafness did not lie in the physical fact of hearing loss. Rather, the consequent inability of deaf individuals to master speech and communicate with their peers prevented their mental development.150 Deaf education, whilst it could not return hearing to a deaf child, could restore that deaf child to a normal life by providing him with alternate ?paths" to perception and communication.151 On the basis of this premise, the Soviet system of deaf education could be elaborated. Yet, although the necessity of returning communicative function to a deaf child was not disputed, the means by which to achieve this end were subject to intense debate. Even within Vygotskii"s own theory, the question remained unresolved. The German theory of ?pure oralism", that is, of teaching a deaf child to communicate solely through oral speech, using a combination of lip-reading and learned pronunciation, was definitively rejected. Pure oralism, Vygotskii argued, contradicted the ?nature" of deaf individuals to communicate through visual signs, and could thus be only instilled in deaf children through ?cruelty": ?it is necessary to break the nature of the child in order to teach him speech."152 Similarly, the ?pure oral" method concentrated on mechanically teaching the techniques of pronunciation, rather than emphasising speech as a communicative act. Yet the two other means of deaf communication, the ?natural"

language of gestures (sign language) or the ?artificial" language of gestures (finger-spelling or ?dactylology") were considered equally unsuitable. Sign language was viewed as a ?poor and limited" language, capable of expressing only concrete or literal concepts: ?sign language often degenerates in to jargon."153 At the same time, sign was seen to isolate artificially the deaf individual ?in a narrow and intimate little world of the small group of people who know this primitive language".154 Finger-spelling, or ?writing in the air", on the other hand, was useful as a means of teaching literacy, but had no intrinsic communicative value.155 Soviet pedagogues were thus faced with the question of how to instil speech, a necessary tool of both communication and ?consciousness", in individuals for whom it was ?unnatural".

The early 1920s, therefore, was a time of experimentation, when Soviet pedagogues attempted to establish means to teach oral speech to young deaf individuals. At the SPON conference in 1924, after the presentation of several research papers and some spirited debate, the fundamental concepts of deaf education were agreed upon. Deaf children, it was established, should attend pre-school establishments from the age of two, and be transferred to primary school (nachal"naia shkola) at the age of six.156

Such schools should be internaty, or boarding schools, taking children from the surrounding oblast".157 Whilst introducing deaf children to the usual range of

?general-educational subjects", such as reading, writing and arithmetic, the central purpose of deaf education should be to instil oral speech through a combination of lip-reading skills, the use of dictionaries to widen vocabulary, and the teaching of logic and grammar.158 The theorist F. A. Rau also advocated the simultaneous use of oral pronunciation and finger-spelling to aid the learning of words, drawing on the

work of the Danish pedagogue Forchhammer.159 Yet whilst oral speech was the central goal, it should not be learned as an isolated skill, but rather ?linked to life".

Deaf children should be encouraged to learn practical household and labour skills and then to conceptualise those skills through oral speech.160 As Vygotskii argued,

?it is necessary to organise a child"s life such that speech is necessary and interesting to him, and sign language is unnecessary and uninteresting."161 Only in this manner would oral speech cease to be an abstract skill and become a communicative tool in the fullest sense.162

Soviet pedagogues thus envisaged a form of deaf education that prioritised oral speech, but sought to link it intrinsically to the process of child development and education. By learning to communicate with the world around them, deaf children would be able to ?overcome" their disability and become educated, conscious members of the Soviet collective. In order to achieve this end, it was further necessary to be aware of the full extent of an individual child"s deafness and to tailor their education accordingly. In the report detailing the conclusions of the SPON conference, an abstract on the ?types of establishment for deaf-mutes" stressed the need for ?differentiation" in deaf education: ?For the correct organisation of the educational business (uchebno-vospitatel"noe delo) of deaf-mutes, it is necessary, before the admission of the child to school, to examine them, with the purpose of establishing their educational abilities and placing them in the right type of school."163 Schools for the deaf, it was argued, should be divided into five types: schools for deaf-mute children, for late-deafened children with some remnants of speech, for hard-of-hearing (tugoukhie) children, for mentally backward (umstvenno-otstalye) deaf children, and for deaf children too old for normal school.164 This

differentiation would be the cornerstone of Soviet deaf education, enabling teachers to tailor their classes to the abilities of their pupils, and thus making it easier for deaf children to learn.

This, then, represented the ideal of Soviet deaf education as envisaged in the mid-1920s. By the late 1930s, however, it had become clear that this ideal was not being realised. Whilst the contingent of schoolchildren had grown exponentially, the introduction of new educational methods was confined to the cities of Moscow and Leningrad. According to a history of this period, written by the director of the

Institute of Defectology, A. I. D"iachkov, in 1961, the majority of teachers continued to believe that their only goal was to teach deaf children to pronounce their words correctly. As a result, ?the formation of other forms of speech (written speech, dactylology) was ignored, and the life and activity of deaf pupils was run in fact on the basis of sign-and-gesture [mimiko-zhestikuliatornye] forms of communication."165 Without developed oral speech or adequate literacy, deaf children were unable to study more complex subjects: ?the system of study did not allow for their language development, necessary for mastering knowledge [...]. The lack of appropriate knowledge in arithmetic and science did not create favourable conditions for the study of physics, chemistry and other academic subjects." In 1932, a new plan of study was introduced, which placed emphasis on increasing the knowledge base of deaf pupils and the amount of time spent training them for skilled industrial labour. Yet again, these reforms were barely put into practice.166 By the late 1930s, the assessment of the education of deaf children was scathing. At a meeting of deaf education workers from Narkompros, Narkomsobes and VOG, held in Moscow in 1938, a certain Ivanova asked desperately: ?How can you talk of the progress of deaf mutes, when pupils of Narkompros institutes graduate illiterate? [...] [The teachers] have no methodology, no education. There are no textbooks. They teach as if they came from tsarist times."167

The lack of development in deaf education was not simply a matter of organisational mismanagement. The 1930s had witnessed a sea change in Soviet educational theory that effectively curtailed the development of deaf education. The notion of the testing and ?differentiation" of deaf children, a cornerstone of deaf educational theory of the 1920s, had formed part of a broader trend in Soviet pedagogy known as

?pedology" (pedologiia), or the diagnosis of developmental abnormalities in children.

The theory of pedology stemmed from Vygotskii"s notion that physical abnormality caused problems of mental development. However, in practice, pedology essentially reversed this notion, using developmental abnormalities in apparently healthy schoolchildren to diagnose assumed physical defects. In the 1920s and early 1930s, throughout the Soviet education system, a complex system of intelligence testing had been elaborated, which sought to identify children with developmental problems and diagnose the physical cause behind it. This tendency to pathologise developmental problems had grown exponentially throughout the 1920s: often, children who found their schoolwork difficult, or were merely disruptive in class, were diagnosed with

?oligophrenia", or feeble-mindedness, and sent to special schools.168 By 1926, the educational psychologist Blonskii had tested 10,000 children in Moscow alone, and by 1936, 7.8 per cent of all school children were in special schools.169

This tendency to view children as pathologically and developmentally tainted contradicted the utopian Soviet notion that disability could ultimately be ?overcome" through education and social life, an attitude that became more dominant in the 1930s. The backlash against pedology was perhaps inevitable and unequivocally fierce. In 1930, Vygotskii was removed from his post as head of the Institute of Defectology, which was renamed the Scientific-Practical Institute of Special Schools and Children"s Homes. In 1931, the journal Voprosy Defektologii was shut down.170

Finally, on 4th July 1936, the Central Committee of the Communist Party published a decree, ?On pedological perversions in the system of Narkompros", which condemned pedological testing as a ?false-scientific experiment" which had led to ?a greater and greater quantity of children being counted in the category of mentally-backward, defective and Їdifficult?."171 This ?anti-scientific, bourgeois" theory, the decree asserted, perpetuated the ?rule of the exploiting classes" by establishing ?the physical and mental doom of the working classes and the Їlower races?."172 Greatest scorn, however, was reserved for the ?special" schools to which these falsely-diagnosed, ?talented and gifted" children were sent: ?As for the organisation of affairs in these Їspecial? schools, the Central Committee of the VKP(b) acknowledges that the education and training work in them is utterly intolerable, bordering on criminal irresponsibility."173 As a result, ?a great quantity of children, who in the conditions of a normal school would easily yield to correction and become active, honest and disciplined school pupils, in the conditions of a Їspecial? school acquire bad habits (durnye navyki) and inclinations and become more difficult to correct."174

The decree against pedology had a significant impact on deaf education. It condemned the existing system of special education as ?intolerable" and incapable of educating disabled children ?in the spirit of socialism".175 At the same time, its suggestions for improvement were vague and contradictory at best. The examination and testing of children for the purposes of educational differentiation was rejected as bourgeois, a ?law of the fatalistic conditionality of the fates of children upon biological and social factors". Yet it was unclear how deaf education should proceed in practice without such testing and differentiation. Over the next decade, this confusion was manifest in the decisions made by Narkompros. Whilst the All-Russian Congress of Surdopedagogues in 1938 discussed the means by which deaf schools could widen the scientific and practical knowledge taught to deaf children,

the individual condition of the child, such as the degree of deafness, or the presence of additional developmental problems, was ignored.176 Many schools were staffed by teachers with no training or experience of deafness, as was the case in the Sverdlovsk Support School for the Deaf.177 In 1940, a decree of Narkompros reintroduced the principle of differentiation in deaf education, and banned the teaching of deaf-mute, late-deafened and hard of hearing children together.178 Yet the wariness toward differentiation persisted: of those schools that were not reinstated after the war, the vast majority were schools for the hard-of-hearing (many of which were subsumed into larger schools for deaf-mutes).179

The period of post-war reconstruction, therefore, represented an opportunity, not merely to reconstruct the system of deaf schools, but to recover from the confusion and theoretical ambiguity that had resulted from the political struggles of the 1930s.

In 1946, a new ?Position on Schools for Deaf-Mute Children" was published, which set out the basic goals of Soviet deaf education. The purpose of Soviet education, it declared, was to ?give pupils a general education and professional-labour training" and to ?teach children distinct oral speech that is comprehensible to those around them".180 The mastering of knowledge and speech skills was to emerge from the

?activity" and ?independence" (samostoiatel"nost") of the child, and the linking of knowledge to life.181 From the age of twelve, pupils were to be trained in a particular labour skill at the UPM attached to the school.182 In contrast to the pre-war period, teachers were expected to have either a qualification in defectology or a general qualification in pedagogy and at least five years of experience of teaching.183

The ?Position" of 1946 thus focused on broad goals and administrative practice. In the years following the war, however, the theory of deaf education was opened up to renewed and intense debate, in the form of a protracted and bitter argument between

Moscow"s Institute of Defectology, under D. I. Azbukin, and Leningrad"s Institute of

Special Schools (previously the Institute of Hearing and Speech), under M. L. Shklovskii. This argument is documented in two files, both running to several hundred pages, in the archive of the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences. During the late 1930s and immediately after the war, Shkovskii and the staff of the Institute of Special Schools had been conducting a pedagogical experiment, in which deaf children with some remnants of hearing were trained to use that hearing. Shklovskii worked from the premise that the lack of differentiation in Soviet deaf schools caused children who were not totally deaf, and who thus had the latent ability to learn to hear and speak, to become ?deaf-mute in practice" (prakticheskie glukhonemye) by interacting solely with other deaf-mute children and allowing their hearing skills to atrophy. Shklovskii made a study of 3,337 children in schools for deaf-mutes in the Leningrad and Kalinin region, and determined that of those, 1,159 had some degree of residual hearing, and a further 191 could be classified as hard of hearing.184 These children, argued Shklovskii, could be taught to use their limited hearing with the assistance of hearing aids and to learn to communicate through oral speech, in which case, they would ?not be deaf-mute and should not be taught in schools for deaf-mutes".185

For Shklovskii, therefore, the central question in the education of deaf mutes was

?WHO IS CONSIDERED A DEAF-MUTE?"186 In his theoretical work, he placed himself in opposition to F. A. Rau, a German immigrant and leading figure in late tsarist and early Soviet deaf education. In the Large Medical Encyclopaedia, the entry on ?deaf-mutes", written by Rau, considered the following people to be deaf-mute: those deaf from birth or deafened before the age of one; those deafened before the age of 6 and who have subsequently lost what little speech they had learned, those deafened in their early teens who retained limited speech, aphasics with normal hearing who cannot speak, and those ?who before were deaf-mute, but thanks to special education have learned to speak".187 According to Rau, any child who could not ?spontaneously" master oral speech, without the assistance of a pedagogue,

should be considered deaf-mute. Yet for Shklovskii, this lumping-together of individuals with varied capacity for speech artificially prevented them from overcoming their defect and becoming ?speaking" individuals. His experiments sought to separate children out on the basis of their level of speech perception and to teach them accordingly, with the goal, for those whose speech abilities allowed it, to transfer them to normal school in the shortest possible time.188

From the late-1930s, therefore, Shklovskii sought to persuade Narkompros and the Institute of Defectology of the merits of his research. Members of the Institute of Defectology remained unmoved, however, refusing to accept that a new administrative category of ?deaf-mutes with residual hearing" was necessary, or that deaf children who mastered speech could be transferred to a mainstream school.189 In their reaction to Shklovskii"s theory, members of the Institute seized on a peripheral part of his theory: that the inability of some deaf children to master speech was not necessarily the result of a lack of hearing, but due to other physiological defects affecting their speech.190 This view had been articulated in a paper to the Presidium of the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences (APN) in April 1948, and was violently rejected by its vice-president, B. P. Orlov. In a letter to Shklovskii, he made clear that the work of the Institute of Special Schools ?contradicted the fundamental principles of Soviet pedagogy".191 Later in that year, according to Shklovskii, the Institute of Defectology, informed Minpros that they refused to engage with the

Institute of Special Schools: ?if they receive something unpleasant from them [relating to Shklovskii"s theory], the Institute of Defectology will not reply, having warned the Ministry in good time."192

By 1949, therefore, the battle lines were drawn, and the argument soon spilled over into the public arena. On 15th January, an article appeared in the bi-monthly journal

Literaturnaia gazeta, in which V. Krizhanskii and I. Iurevich, two proponents of Shklovskii"s theory, set out his principle arguments and lambasted his ideological opponent, Professor Rau. Entitled ?The Secret Island", the article stated that Rau, a

German theorist of the ?Fatter school", had imported the ?reactionary views" of his teachers into the Soviet Union.193 Followers of the ?German" theory, it was argued, ?indiscriminately place all children with any hearing disorder in the category of deaf-mute, and declare that the hearing they do possess has no social, practical significance." On the basis of this theory, and in opposition to the decrees of

Narkompros, a ?secret island" of undifferentiated schools for deaf-mutes had been established in the RSFSR, ?to which all children with even insignificant hearing and speech disorders are indiscriminately sent": of the 176 special schools in the RSFSR, only four catered for hard-of-hearing children. In these schools, children ?were instructed according to a muddled programme which gave them scraps of primitive knowledge and ideas". The progressive legacy of Russian surdopedagogues such as Gurtsov and Fleri, who advocated differentiating deaf education and giving deaf children a broad education on the same level as hearing children, was ?constantly belittled and falsified by F. A. Rau and his followers". Through his tenacious hold on Soviet deaf education, the article asserted, Rau and his colleagues thus ?doomed

[deaf children] to a life of deaf-mutism".194

?The Secret Island" thus framed the argument between the Leningrad and the

Moscow Institutes as a fight between progressive, Soviet ideas and reactionary,

?bourgeois" theories. Three years after the conclusion of the Great Patriotic War, the repeated, pejorative use of the word ?German" was clearly designed to stir the sympathies of the reader. According to a later editorial in Literaturnaia gazeta, the article provoked an overwhelming response. P. I. Bragin, the chairman of the

Kamyshin branch of VOG, wrote: ?I read with great attention the article ЇThe Secret Island?, which correctly exposed the reactionary theory of education in schools for deaf-mutes. We, the Soviet people, await the renewal of our school on the basis of a new theory of surdopedagogy." Liudmila Kondrat"eva, from Leningrad, wrote that ?for ten years I was considered deaf-mute. Now I can"t believe that [that term] applied to me. I was taught to hear and speak. I was transferred from the special

school to a mainstream [massovaia] school." Likewise, F. Miroshnaia, a mother from Leningrad, wrote: ?They gave hearing and speech back to my child, whom the doctors had doomed to deaf-muteness!" ?What scientific squabbles could be more convincing than such agitated words!", the editorial concluded.195

The Institute of Defectology was not slow to respond, however. Ten days after ?The

Secret Island" was published, the journal Meditsinskii rabotnik (The Medical Worker) published an answering article. Written jointly by Professors V. Preobrazhenskii, A. Luriia and O. Ageeva-Maikova, the article, entitled ?A Militant

Pseudo-Innovator and his Henchmen", hit back against Shklovskii and passionately defended Rau. Rau, the authors asserted, had at no point argued against differentiation, and ?was himself one of the authors of a project for a differentiated network of special institutions". By repeating this slander, they argued, the ?zealous and ignorant satellites of Shklovkii cynically distort the truth": ?Who needs this patent lie? Who benefits by this slander of an honourable Soviet scholar who has helped thousands of people to become able-bodied workers and citizens of the socialist country?" Preobrazhenskii and his colleagues did not deny that ?the organisation of work with deaf-mutes is in poor condition." However, they insisted that steps were being taken, and that Shklovskii"s ?perverse and unscientific theories", if accepted, would lead to further disintegration of that ?great and noble task". Besides, they concluded, ?it is a pity that the editorial board [of Literaturnaia gazeta] did not look into the essence of the question and did not concern itself with the personality of the authors, one of whom was removed from an executive position for maladministration of children"s homes."196

Shklovskii"s followers made one final effort to convince the Soviet public, in a

Literaturnaia gazeta article of 19th February 1949. The authors pulled no punches: 35 to 40 per cent of children declared deaf-mute had considerable residual hearing, but thanks to Rau"s theories, these children remained ?deaf in practice, and hence deaf-mutes". Rau"s belief in the hereditary transmission of deaf-muteness, they

asserted, was based on Mendel"s theories of inheritance, and was thus a short step away from promoting outright racism and eugenics: ?We see with particular clarity the deathly, soulless essence of Mendelianism carried into a field which is concerned with the speech of living people." Moreover, the authors argued, the article in

Meditsinskii rabotnik had proved that it was not just Rau who perpetuated these harmful theories, but that other senior defectologists, such as Preobrazhenskii and

Luriia, had ?also played a considerable role".197 Yet, despite this forceful rhetoric, by the spring of 1949 it had become clear that the tide had turned definitively against Shklovskii. Immediately after the publication of the first article in Literaturnaia gazeta, an inspection commission, headed by Professor Leont"ev and including

Luriia and other luminaries of the Institute of Defectology, was sent to inspect the work of the Institute of Special Schools.198 During the course of the inspection,

Shklovskii"s notes were removed from the Institute and kept for several days. After the conclusion of their work, the commission informed Shklovskii that his experiment to ?lift children out of the condition of practical deaf-muteness" could ?harm pedagogical practice", and the experiment was shut down. Thus the commission, Shklovskii commented, ?thought it possible, as a result of a two-day, cursory examination of single children, to destroy with a stroke of a pen over fifteen years of pedagogical experience."199 From that point on, Shklovskii"s theories, when mentioned at all, would be reduced to the notion of ?combined hearing and speech defects" and dismissed as ?false theory".200

Yet whilst Shklovskii became persona non grata in the world of Soviet defectology, a number of his ideas had taken root in the theory of post-war deaf education. In 1948, the Institute of Defectology repudiated its existing system of differentiation, in which children were determined to be deaf or hard-of-hearing on the basis of their

speech ability when entering school. Instead, the new system proposed differentiation on the basis of the level of residual hearing.201 The use of residual hearing, with the assistance of group hearing aids, to teach deaf children to speak became a fundamental part of the Soviet deaf education system in the 1950s.202 This also had the result of making the doctor"s diagnosis of hearing loss a defining moment in the education, and life, of a young deaf child. Yet the most significant impact of Shklovskii"s theories was the shift in terminology from ?deaf-muteness" to ?deafness". The idea that deaf children could not learn to communicate through speech, a view which (despite Vygotskii"s efforts) had persisted throughout the

1930s, was definitively rejected. The Institute of Defectology and Narkompros began to refer separately to ?deaf-mute and deaf children" from 1948, and by the late 1950s, the definition of ?deaf-mute" had ceased to be an administrative category, even disappearing from the name of VOG in 1959.203 Similarly, the view that, without speech, deaf children could not reach the same intellectual level as hearing children was dismissed in 1949 with the introduction of the first unified plan for a standard middle-school education for deaf children, which followed the same syllabus as the mainstream Soviet middle school (with the exception of foreign languages). 204

By 1949, therefore, the squabbles amongst the different ?schools" of deaf education had been concluded, and Narkompros and the Institute of Defectology could begin the process of establishing and standardising the system of Soviet deaf education. Deaf children, according to this system, were to be diagnosed quickly at birth or after the onset of deafness and sent to an appropriate pre-school facility, from which they would progress to the eight-year standard middle school for the deaf. Whilst at school, they would be taught to speak, using their residual hearing to the fullest, and aided by hearing aid technology and the use of finger-spelling. Through oral speech, they would then go on to study the full range of academic subjects, alongside gaining labour skills in the school"s workshops. Upon leaving school, they would thus have the opportunity to find a job in industry or move on to higher education in the tekhnikumy. Explicit in this view of deaf education was the notion that pedagogy

could ultimately be curative: whilst deaf-mute adults could work around their deafness with the aid of sign-language translation and a worker identity, pupils of Soviet deaf schools had the opportunity to fully overcome their defect, shedding their identity as ?mute" and becoming fully integrated into the Soviet collective.205

The post-war period, therefore, enabled Soviet theorists to elaborate a comprehensive system of deaf education and to take steps to put that system into practice. In a similar manner to the reforms of VOG, these steps involved the training of cadres and the enforcement of standardised methods from the centre. Soviet deaf education would undergo further changes: notably in 1960, when attempts were made to align the teaching practice of schools for the deaf with the December 1958 reforms of general education, and in 1967, when the rise in the profile of sign language amongst the deaf community would provoke educational theorists to consider new ways of conceptualising and teaching speech.206 Yet by 1950, the fundamental notion of what deafness represented in the Soviet context, and how it could be overcome through education, had been definitively established.


The post-war period saw great changes in the institutions and structures surrounding deaf people. Efforts to reconstruct the shattered infrastructure of the Soviet state provoked lasting shifts in that infrastructure, as deaf people and state bodies sought to rethink the nature of deafness and the relationship of deaf people to the state. New ideas of welfare and care became apparent: the presence of disabled veterans of war engendered a new conception of ?service", as deaf people began to demand welfare and benefits in compensation for their disability. Concurrently, theorists of deaf education sought to establish how deaf children could be helped to overcome their defect and become ?healthy", active members of the Soviet body politic. Both processes presupposed a certain passivity on the part of deaf individuals in the face

of state service and care, one which would grow in significance over the subsequent decades. In addition, both processes provoked a stabilisation of the institutional structures surrounding the deaf. Over the 1940s, VOG became a stronger, more accountable and more centrally-controlled organisation, with an increasingly rich material base. Similarly, the network of special schools under Narkompros fell under stronger practical and theoretical control from the state and from the Institute of Defectology. This stabilisation laid the groundwork for the development of both institutions over the subsequent decades.

Between the declaration of victory and the beginning of the 1950s, therefore, significant changes had taken place within the deaf community. These changes were enshrined in legislation on 9th January 1952, when the Soviet of Ministers of the RSFSR published its first comprehensive decree concerning the treatment of deaf individuals, ?On Measures in the Fight against Deafness and Deaf-Muteness and the Improvement of the Service of Deaf-Mutes and the Deaf."207 This document detailed the various services provided to the deaf by the Soviet state. Universal education for deaf children was to be achieved by 1956, with the requisite surdopedagogues trained by the state and new school buildings financed by Minpros. Newly-trained ear, nose and throat doctors were to be hired to work in crиches and children"s homes for pre-school deaf children. The differentiation of deaf schools and the correct placement of deaf children were to be ensured through a new system of diagnosing hearing loss in hospitals. Deaf adolescents were to be found places in factory and plant schools and trained for jobs in all branches of industry, and provided with dormitories, ?everyday-cultural services", and trained instructors and translators at their place of work. New VOG clubs were to be built, and demands placed on VOG for the liquidation of illiteracy and the provision of cultural and material services to the deaf.

This comprehensive decree represented the culmination of the changes of the 1940s, and set the scene for the deaf community to develop further. The concrete legislation of the tasks of VOG and the state brought to fulfilment the new emphasis on service and welfare that had been developing over the 1940s. At the same time, the deaf

community"s fight for the right to run their own services, which had raged throughout the 1920s and 1930s, found resolution in the stabilised VOG of the 1950s. Yet the passivity of the reception of these services sat at odds with the desire for autonomy and ?normality" inherent in the deaf community in the pre-war period. The post-war period thus engendered certain tensions in the way deaf people viewed themselves and were viewed by the state. Following the death of Stalin, these tensions would have the scope to develop in new and unexpected ways.

4. Speaking in the Language of Art"

figure 5

Poster, the Moscow Theatre of Sign and Gesture, 1966

On 15th January 1957, the Soviet of Ministers of the RSFSR approved a proposal to establish a Theatre Studio within the VOG House of Culture in Moscow. Drawing on a tradition of amateur deaf theatre reaching back to before the revolution, the Studio was to train young deaf actors in all aspects of theatre craft, with the intention

of founding, upon graduation, a professional deaf theatre. Despite its inauspicious beginnings - with no premises, the young collective were forced to rehearse in a ticket office, with only two square metres of floor space - the Theatre of Sign and Gesture (Teatr Mimika i Zhesta) was officially registered with the state in 1963.1

Over the following decade, the Theatre staged performances throughout the Soviet Union, thereby establishing its central role in the lives and cultural identities of Soviet deaf individuals.

The foundation of the Theatre formed part of a ?golden age" of deaf culture that developed from the late 1940s and continued well into the late 1960s.2 In the context of a developing state interest in culture and leisure, a wave of VOG initiatives and state legislation saw the deaf gain improved access to all forms of art and culture; from poetry and dance to fine art and cinema. What marked this period out, however, was not just an increased consumption of culture by the deaf; rather it was the development of cultural forms in which the deaf actively participated and through which they increasingly defined themselves. It is within this story that the Theatre of Sign and Gesture - referred to by activists as ?our theatre" - gains particular significance. In the theoretical discussions following its creation and through its professional performances, the Theatre provided a locus for debate on the goals and parameters of deaf engagement with theatre in particular, and with art and culture in general.3

This chapter analyses the debates surrounding the foundation of the Theatre of Sign and Gesture as a facet of the development of a particular deaf-Soviet identity in the cultural sphere. At the same time, deaf engagement with theatre can be seen to cast new light on the particular dynamics of culture in the post-war and Khrushchev eras. In their discussions on theatre, deaf actors and activists contrasted the nature of theatrical form, on the one hand, and content or repertoire, on the other. Deaf theatre drew on experimental mime and the theatrical use of sign-language as a means to develop a supremely innovative theatrical form that was both culturally unique and, at the same time, aspired to inclusion within the universal world of high art. This experimentalism in form was counterbalanced by a rather conservative adherence to socialist-realist content. This opposition did not conform to the classical interpretation of the post-Stalin period as polarised between ?reformers" and ?conservatives", however.4 Deaf theatre, as with all areas of Soviet culture, grappled with the ambiguities of the thaw, and sought to engage with the complex nature of

Sovietness after Stalin"s death.


The foundation of the Theatre Studio in 1957 was one small part of a wave of legislation and financial investment in deaf cultural engagement enacted in the post-war period. From 1956, this wave explicitly engaged with Khrushchevian rhetoric of

?communist education" and the creation of the New Soviet Person, yet it had a longer trajectory, driven by stimuli specific to VOG and the post-war deaf community. The financial position of VOG had changed dramatically in the years following

Sutiagin"s election in 1949. ?The General", with his strong experience of management in VOG enterprises, had streamlined and mechanised production in the UPMs (now renamed Uchebnye proizvodstvennyi predpriatii, or UPPs). The result was an unprecedented influx of money into the VOG system: by 1951, profits had doubled, and in January 1954 VOG formally became financially independent,

refusing any further contributions from the state.5 This change had two significant results. On the one hand, increased revenues meant that more money could be spent on work within the society. On the other, the success of deaf individuals in industry, both in state-run enterprises and within the VOG workshop system, was interpreted as evidence that this work no longer needed to focus exclusively on the problems of skills training and work placement. As Viktor Palennyi puts it, ?questions of job creation for deaf mutes ceased to be a problem: the deaf had proved that their labour was important to the country." By 1956, the new VOG charter asserted that the main task of VOG, on an equal footing with the encouragement of ?active participation [of deaf people] in the political and economic life of the country", was now the promotion of ?cultural-educational work amongst them".6

As a result of these changes, the Presidium of the Central Board of VOG began to focus more of its attention on the cultural lives and leisure of deaf members. From 1950, a new post was created in the Presidium: the Deputy Chairman for Cultural-Educational Work. This post was initially filled by N. M. Krylov, previously the head of the Moscow Regional department of VOG, and from 1953 by P. S. Isaev. On their initiative, new proposals to develop cultural provision for the deaf were developed and codified. These proposals focused on clubs and red corners, which formed the primary organisations (pervichnye organisatsii) of the VOG system, the point of contact between deaf individuals and cultural services.7 The system of clubs and red corners grew over this period, from 314 in 1949 to over 450 in 1956, and new forms of cultural institutions (kul"tuchrezhdeniia) were introduced, such as the library and the House of Culture. The first such House of Culture was organised in the former Stanislavskii Theatre in Moscow in 1950.8 In 1951, VOG produced a

?Statute of the Moscow City VOG House of Culture", later expanded to become the general ?Statute of the VOG House of Culture and Club", which set out not only the administrative framework of the club, but also its role in deaf individuals" engagement with culture. Its general task, the ?carrying out and instructive-methodological management of all forms of political-educational and mass-cultural work amongst deaf-mutes", was broken down to detail the various cultural forms this work entailed, from political lectures and thematic evenings to library circles, amateur theatricals, excursions and cinema screenings.9

This initiative on the part of VOG reflected a broader concern on the part of the state with developing access to culture and leisure for all Soviet citizens. In the post-war era, this concern had been driven by the need to rebuild a shattered system of clubs and services, and to employ cultural forms to ?re-socialise" the Soviet population after the trauma of war and Nazi occupation.10 Under Khrushchev, this emphasis on culture reflected a growing concern with the nature of leisure. As Anne White explains, ?according to official doctrine, as Communism approaches, so the working day should be shortened and more time made available to workers for cultural activity".11 This shift was re-asserted by Khrushchev in 1956, when workers began to transfer to 7-hour working days, with the promise that, under communism, the working day would be 3 hours or shorter. Yet this abundance of free time needed to be used correctly: to eliminate the nefarious influence of Western cultural trends, and to develop the Soviet individual. The rational use of leisure time, and the development of cultured leisure pursuits, was thus regarded as a primary facet of the utopian project to build the New Soviet Person. This emphasis on culture and leisure could be seen in the abundance of state legislation promulgated in the 1950s and early 1960s to improve the lives of deaf individuals, encompassing education, labour, culture and living conditions.12 Two Sovnarkom decrees set the trend for this period of legislation. The first, ?On Measures in the Fight against Deafness and

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