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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Deaf-Muteness and the Improvement of the Service of Deaf-Mutes and the Deaf", of

9th January 1952, included a series of measures to extend cultural provision for the deaf, including the subtitling of films and the refurbishment and equipment of club premises. The second, ?On the Improvement of General and Professional Education,

Work Placement and Services for Deaf Citizens in the RSFSR", of 25th August 1962, was equally comprehensive.13 These documents spawned similar decrees by the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Social Welfare, the Ministry of Health and the Secretariat of the VTsSPS.

As a result of this fortuitous combination of VOG investment and state legislation, increasingly large sums of money were spent on developing VOG"s cultural infrastructure over the 1950s. The Sovnarkom decree of 1952 proposed a comprehensive plan of capital investment in the system of VOG clubs, which had been physically and organisationally decimated during the long years of war and occupation. Permission was given to spend a staggering seven million roubles on rebuilding and equipping social clubs over the following two years, including the building of ten more Houses of Culture, each with a 200-seat auditorium, in cities across the RSFSR.14 In 1956 alone, five new Houses of Culture, five residential buildings and five industrial buildings were completed.15 Between 1959 and 1962, 102 clubs were provided with cinema screening equipment, and 210 with televisions.16 This investment was matched by specific projects by state departments, such as the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Cinematography, and organisational changes within VOG, to direct and facilitate the spending of VOG"s money.

In the majority of cases, this new legislation sought to improve access to already existing forms of art and culture. Over the preceding four decades, deaf organisations had developed practices of ?making do" in their engagement with art. Beginning in the 1930s, Zhizn" glukhonemykh published detailed descriptions of the plots of popular feature films, so that deaf viewers could follow screenings in mainstream cinemas; in VOG clubs, films would be interrupted so that a sign-language

interpreter could summarise the action to that point.17 Social clubs would present regular ?sign-language newspapers", covering major events in domestic and international politics.18 Similarly, sign recitals of literature and popular song and sign translations of television programmes were common and popular social events. Such techniques required organisation, however, and many clubs were not able to provide the necessary translators: during a ?raid" inspection of a deaf club in 1960, for example, one of its members admitted that ?it"s boring sitting in front of a television without a translator, many of us have already had enough".19

In this period of post-war investment, VOG"s newfound wealth was seen as an opportunity to harness new technologies to improve the accessibility of culture: ?It is becoming obvious that the creation of a material base is allowing our cultural institutions to make use of all existing forms of mass-cultural work."20 These attempts, such as the move to increase the provision of films with subtitles to the deaf community, illustrated the push and pull between state-directed cultural initiatives and the demands of deaf individuals. A Sovnarkom order from 1948 had pledged to increase the number of films put through the subtitling process; a pledge made again in the 1951 Sovnarkom decree.21 By 1960, the Ministry of Culture of the RSFSR subtitled a total of 40-45 feature films per year, in ten copies each, which were deployed on ten routes around the VOG clubs of the RSFSR.22 This number, which encompassed less than a quarter of feature film releases per annum, was protested vociferously on the pages of Zhizn" glukhikh: ?[the deaf] are deprived of the opportunity to watch newly-released films not only because they cannot hear, but also because the organisation of film demonstration for them does not employ the great opportunities offered by modern technology." Specialists within VOG sought to develop alternatives to the expensive and lengthy subtitling process, which saw feature films reaching the deaf audience at least a year after the film"s general

release.23 A prototype system producing subtitles on a separate reel, which were then projected on a small adjacent screen in synchronisation with the film"s dialogue, was trialled at the VOG House of Culture in Moscow in October 1957. This system was never approved by the Ministry of Culture, however, and the project did not achieve widespread use: by 1976, only ten such systems were in use in republican VOG organisations.24 It is clear, however, that as their capacity to fund innovation increased, members of VOG were less and less inclined to accept the slowness of Soviet bureaucracy to provide for their particular cultural needs.

As the case of subtitling demonstrates, these technological and organisational innovations were employed to increase access to mainstream works of art by translating them into visible, and therefore accessible, forms. This accessibility was championed as an example of ?Soviet humaneness" (sovetskaia gumannost"), in which even those deprived of hearing were not ?unfortunate, denied the opportunity to grow spiritually, enrich themselves with knowledge, take pleasure in art".25 This paradigm of equal access can be viewed as both a constant of Soviet cultural policy, and as a particular response to the political climate after Stalin"s death: whilst Anne White argues that a ?belief in the need to equalize access to culture" was considered one of the basic principles of cultural enlightenment work throughout the Soviet period, Miriam Dobson points out that the growing emphasis on Soviet ?legality"

(zakonnost") engendered by Khrushchev"s denunciation of Stalin ?suggested the emergence of a new political culture, founded on the law (rather than a single leader"s wisdom) and pride in the state"s own Їhumane? treatment of its citizens".26

Discussing the significance of the new theatre, this paradigm of equal access to artistic production was frequently invoked: ?The All-Russian Society of the Deaf unites over 98,000 members in its ranks. The majority of these work selflessly in industry and agriculture. Many entertainment events carried out for hearing people are inaccessible to them. Meanwhile, the deaf, like all Soviet citizens, have equal rights to the satisfaction of their cultural and spiritual needs." In creating the ?First

Deaf Theatre in the World", both VOG and the Soviet state were expressing the benevolent desire of the Soviet system to provide culture for all.

This notion of ?humaneness" was essentially passive, however, with the deaf conceived as consumers of artistic works produced by others. Distinct in discussions of art for the deaf were those art forms which did not involve hearing in their production or reception: namely, visual art and silent theatre. Articles in Zhizn" glukhikh portrayed these art forms as ?natural" to the deaf in their reliance on the purely visual: ?Fine art belongs to the number of creative pursuits that are the most akin to those people who live for the most part through the visual perception of the world."27 As such, they were regarded as art forms which the deaf could not only access, but in which they could also participate. This period of cultural investment was marked by attempts by VOG to encourage deaf participation in fine arts and theatre, from amateur work in social clubs to the creation of professional educational establishments: the opening of the Theatre Studio in 1957 was followed by the creation of the VOG studio of Fine and Applied Arts in Leningrad in 1960.28

For the deaf, therefore, theatre was not merely an object of cultural consumption, but rather an art form in which they could be actively creative. Indeed, in their engagement with theatre, the deaf could further assert their claim to a unique artistic tradition. This tradition had been long in the making: sign theatre had its own particular history, inextricably entwined with that of deaf organisations. From the earliest years of deaf clubs, theatrical skits performed in sign language had featured in evening concerts and social events.29 Shortly after the revolution, the first officially registered ?Club-Theatre of Deaf Mutes", funded by the Theatre Department of the People"s Commissariat of Education, was formed in Moscow.30

development as a professional theatre, the group continued to perform on an amateur basis as the Moscow Theatre of Deaf-Mutes. This amateur tradition grew in popularity; in 1939, VOG held its first All-Russian Review of Amateur Art, a competition for amateur theatrical ensembles, in which drama groups from sixteen clubs took part.31 The Review became a major cultural event on the VOG calendar after the war, when investment in clubs significantly increased the numbers participating in amateur dramatics: the first post-war Review took place in 1948, and by 1962 was being held every two years.32 A VOG report from 1958 confirmed that 4,526 deaf individuals took part in amateur dramatics in their local clubs that year, a figure which represented 4.6 per cent of the society"s members.33

By the late 1950s, therefore, amateur theatre had become the central component of cultural activities throughout the VOG club system: ?the principal living nerve of club work."34 In its involvement of deaf individuals as both actors and spectators, the theatre tradition was increasingly referenced as a factor in the development of a particular deaf-cultural identity at this point. Significant in discussions of amateur theatre was the emphasis placed on performance as a means of uniting the deaf as a group. In an article detailing the history of the Moscow Theatre of Deaf-Mutes, A.

L"vov described their first show; a performance entitled ?The Living Museum": ?As if it would be possible to forget that performance, in the intervals of which the made-up actors came out to the audience! Hands pulled at them, they were congratulated...

Together they rejoiced in the birth of the deaf drama collective."35 The notion of having a theatrical tradition that represented the deaf community -"our theatre", as it was termed by activists - was a vital part of this developing identity politics.36

In the creation of the Theatre Studio in 1957, deaf activists drew on this strong history of amateur deaf theatre at the level of both nostalgic memory and practical organisation. Many members of the teaching staff were veterans of the deaf stage:

Pavel Savel"ev, the former chairman of VOG and director of the original Club

Theatre of Deaf-Mutes, was appointed director; Elena Nikolaevna Minasova, a founding member of the Moscow Theatre known for her tragic roles, such as the eponymous heroine of Gor"kii"s Vassa Zheleznova, was brought in as a sign-language consultant.37 Yet the ambition inherent in the creation of the Theatre suggested more than just a desire to continue an amateur tradition. By training in the art of stagecraft and forming a professional sign-language theatre, deaf people sought to assert their capacity to participate in art at the highest level, despite their physical lack. In the article ?Long Live the Mute Stage!" from 1957, I. K. Labunskii boldly claimed that ?in the heart of nearly every non-hearing person lives a keen sense of rhythm, a striving for musicality, for plasticity".38 Although such sweeping statements were elsewhere contradicted (?They say that deaf-mutes are born actors.

That is, of course, nonsense"), the essential argument that, with training, deaf actors could demonstrate the same talents and artistic sensibilities as the hearing, was consistently made.39

On that basis, the Theatre Studio aimed to perfect and professionalise sign theatre as an art form. A 1959 article, ?They Will Be Actors", described the training undertaken by students of the theatre studio in their attempt to become ?real artists".40 Although most of the students had experience in amateur theatre, they found that ?several received ideas of stage play, acquired in amateur theatre, need to be rethought or rejected altogether". Students were therefore trained in all aspects of stagecraft: stage movement, acrobatics, individual and group acting, and signed and spoken language. They also learned rhythm and dance with the help of large balloons held in both hands, through which they could sense the vibrations of the music played. Alongside theatre training, the students also received grounding in Russian language and literature, the history of the theatre and of the USSR, and the fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism. In 1961, the management of the Studio was taken over by the Shchukin Theatre School, the educational establishment attached to the Vakhtangov

Theatre in Moscow"s Arbat district, then under the leadership of Professor B. E.

Zakhava, People"s Artist of the RSFSR.41 The educational plan was reworked and standardised: the seventeen original students, and the second intake of twenty in 1960, worked towards a four-year higher education (VUZ) qualification on a level with other theatre schools.42 This contact with hearing theatre professionals served to validate the students" desire to be judged on an equal footing with hearing actors. In the early 1960s, Zhizn" glukhikh published several articles by hearing actors on their impressions of the Theatre. In a review of the 1960 examination performance by studio students, Zakhava, who initially admitted to finding the idea of a professional deaf theatre ?unbelievable", declared that ?there was no need to make any allowances" for the work of deaf actors.43 Similarly, the actor L. D. Snezhnitskii, reviewing a performance of Dmitrii Timofeevich Lenskii"s vaudeville Lev Gurych Sinichkin, concluded his positive comments with, ?are you serious, they"re deaf?"44

In these articles, vaudeville became symbolic of the surprising capability of deaf actors to perform at the highest level: ?it was completely natural that all waited for the vaudeville with keen anxiety. Vaudeville is a genre of unbelievable complexity, where all is built on couplets, dance, precision and the grace of the performance - and suddenly all this is shown by deaf actors!"45

This desire to perfect and professionalise also extended to the amateur dramatic circles within VOG"s club system. From the outset, the Theatre Studio was expected to ?concentrate within it the generalisation of experience and methodological guidance of peripheral circles", and to communicate that experience to amateur groups.46 The Theatre began to tour in the early 1960s, performing in cities throughout the RSFSR and Ukraine, and giving guidance and advice to local groups

after each performance.47 These tours were expected to raise the artistic taste of both local actors and the audience: ?This Theatre is called on to educate the deaf viewer in the best examples of Soviet and world drama, to cultivate a taste for realistic art, and also to help amateur dramatics."48 Regional conferences were established in order for local amateur theatre workers to meet and ?exchange experiences", and the Theatre established short courses in Moscow for amateur directors to improve their skills and qualifications.49

Distinct in this plethora of methodological initiatives was the magazine Zhizn" glukhikh, which had been re-launched in 1957, and by 1963 had a subscription of 27,250.50 Specialists from the Theatre published frequent articles on the basic organisation of amateur plays, from the choice of repertoire to the subtler points of stagecraft. These articles detailed the ?mastery of the actor" and the traits seen in ?highly qualified work", and reinforced the need for professional guidance in order to achieve the highest levels of performance.51 A regular column, ?Director"s Notes", used examples from the All-Russian Reviews of Amateur Art to demonstrate what to do - and, more importantly, what not to do - on the stage. This advice covered all aspects, from make-up (drawing a beard and moustache on with pen was not acceptable), to stage interaction (dialogue in sign required that the conversationalists should be able to see each other"s hands).52 This was not merely education for the artists themselves; the magazine also published reviews of popular plays by the

Theatre and amateur groups, in order to explain how best to ?read" the performance.53 Theatre was thus seen as a school of artistic taste, as a means to

?strive for beauty", for members of the deaf community on both sides of the curtain.54

The Theatre Studio, and later the Theatre of Sign and Gesture, was thus placed at the centre of an explosion of deaf interest and participation in art in general, and theatre in particular, during the late 1950s and early ?60s. Through its collaboration with the

Shchukin School and its strong educational programme, it attempted to establish deaf theatre as an art form and to transmit this artistic knowledge to amateur actors and audiences throughout the VOG system. Yet this process necessitated a profound questioning on the part of actors, directors and theorists into the very nature of deaf theatre itself. In order to ?perfect and professionalise", such parties first needed to establish the form and content appropriate to such a unique theatrical experiment.


For deaf artists and activists, the foundation of the Theatre Studio in 1957 represented a unique opportunity, not merely to build on the traditions of amateur deaf theatre, but to challenge existing conventions in order to develop a self-consciously ?new" art form.55 On the pages of Zhizn" glukhikh, articles called for a wide-reaching debate into the nature of deaf theatre: ?All those who are interested in the birth of, in principle, a new deaf theatre, must make a great effort, in order that, through creative discussions and practical experiments, the essence and forms of the Theatre of Silence can be found. The first step in this matter is to carry out an impartial discussion of this question on the pages of our magazine."56 This collaborative process of analysis and debate stressed the agency and creativity of deaf people in the formation of a new theatrical tradition.

In many ways, this desire for the new was equally a rejection of the old. Until this point, deaf theatre had been based on the translation of written plays into sign-language, and their performance in the ?natural" style in keeping with traditions of

socialist realism. In 1958, however, this form was being questioned. In his article

?Towards New Forms", I. A. Sapozhnikov stated bluntly that ?the limited Їdeaf method? of expressing thoughts and feelings on the stage has aged [and] is not achieving its goals." 57 For Sapozhnikov, the problem lay in the incompatibility of traditional, dialogue-driven plays with the bodily nature of sign language. By literally rendering the dialogue into sign, such plays effectively tied the hands of their actors, hindering any other form of action or gesticulation: ?The result is not a performance, but a soulless reading of the roles in sign."58 Later articles made a similar distinction between performance (igra) and translation (perevod), implying that true artistic value was only to be found in the former.59 Declaiming dialogue, it was asserted, was not art.

According to deaf theatre specialists, therefore, the attempt to replicate traditional,

?hearing" forms in sign language ?narrows and weakens the composition and execution of stage works".60 Instead, they argued, deaf theatre should seek to develop a new form, which privileged the unique attributes of deaf communication: silence and bodily gesture. To that end, specialists from the Theatre Studio and amateur dramatic circles focused on two particular areas of potential development: the use of an established genre of silent, physical theatre - classical mime (pantomima) - and the growth of theatrical forms of sign language.


The turn to classical mime was perhaps unsurprising in the late 1950s. Mime was very much in vogue in the Soviet Union at the time, following a tour by the world-renowned French mime Marcel Marceau. Marceau"s fame in the Soviet Union derived less from his alter ego Bip, the sad clown, and more from his portrayal of Bashmachkin in a Berlin-based mime production of Gogol"s The Overcoat. A film of his performance in this role had been shown during the 6th World Festival of Youth

and Students in Moscow in 1957, where it was met with much critical acclaim.61

Driven by interest in Marceau, and informed by the political reaction to Charlie

Chaplin"s persecution as a ?left-wing sympathiser" by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the United States, mime as a distinct genre had grown in popularity amongst Soviet audiences. Publications on the theory, history and contemporary practice of mime began to appear in Soviet bookshops, and mime began to warrant study within the theatrical schools of the capital. The Shchukin School was not exempt from this trend: mime was taught as a distinct genre and, during his tour, Marceau visited the School and discussed the art of mime with teachers and students. 62

Whilst this broader interest in mime could perhaps be downplayed as theatrical fashion, Marceau"s mime had a deeper resonance for the deaf. His performance in

The Overcoat seemed to prove that deep emotion and meaning could be conveyed through the sole means of the plastic gesture: ?in his performance, the mime retains the genuine sense of Gogol"s art, his humanist essence."63As a result, specialists of the Theatre Studio turned to mime as a means to imbue the deaf theatrical tradition with the highest values of performance art. ?Dramatic theatre, such as we have grown used to seeing, cannot transmit through the usual means the heroic pathos, the romance, the revolutionary symbolism of these literary characters that have become classics. In our view, they are accessible to one sole genre: mime."64 Articles in

Zhizn" glukhikh called on the Theatre to ?creatively rework [mime] in the context of our deaf theatre".65 This encouraged experimentation with mime techniques both as a facet of deaf theatre performance, and as a genre in its own right. This mime, it was stressed, was not the ?half-danced mime-miniatures" of the variety hall, but the serious business of ?dramatic mime", the difference between which, according to L.

Kalinovskii, the head director of the Theatre, was like the difference between classical ballet and ?Dancing on Ice" (reviu na l"du).66 ?Dramatic mime" conveyed a serious, sustained subject through the controlled plasticity of bodily gesture: ?The mime must perfectly master his body, his movements, know how to speak through a

glance, a smile, the smallest wave of the hand, the finger."67 At the Theatre Studio, the art of mime took a central role in the curriculum and improvised mime-йtudes became a fundamental part of students" training in stage movement.68 In 1963, the Theatre performed its first extended mime work, People Lived, sometimes referred to as Sparks from Danko"s Heart (Iskra ot serdtsa Danko), based on a short story by Maksim Gorky (figure 6). According to a VOG report, ?the success of this work, which attracted a wide stratum of viewers, demonstrated the correctness of existing opinion, that the collective should devote more attention to the study of mime."69

figure 6

Poster for Zhili liudi, 1963

Mime works also began to feature in the repertoire of amateur theatre circles across the RSFSR: during the 1962 All-Russian Review of Amateur Art, third prize was awarded to the mime collective of the Leningrad House of Culture.70 The leading role in the development of mime theatre was not taken by Russian theatre groups, however. By far the most enthusiastic proponent of mime theatre in this period was

the amateur theatre collective of Kiev"s House of Culture. According to Sapozhnikov, its artistic director, the Kievan collective had performed its first mime, based on Cervantes"s farce The Caves of Salamanca, in 1940. The group had continued to develop the genre: in 1959, they received a first-class award from the Communist Party of Ukraine for It"s All Fine! (Vse Iasno!), a mime performance derived from Khrushchev"s famous cold-war statement that ?the barometer shows fine!"71 It is clear from Zhizn" glukhikh that theatre specialists were looking to Ukraine as a leader in the field of mime: a 1961 meeting of the cultural organisational department of TsP VOG suggested that methodological information on mime should be sent to local theatres, ?using, in particular, the scripts of mimes created by the workers of the Ukrainian Society of the Deaf".72 The VOG archive contains examples of such scripts: they read as extended stage directions, to be interpreted by the performers into movement and gesture.73

In the work of amateur groups and the Theatre itself, deaf artists looked to mime as a means to create a new and unique silent art form. Yet, whilst stressing the essential nature of deaf expression through silence and gesture, specialists maintained that the attributes of ?silent theatre" were in fact innate to theatre art in general. In her article

?The Theatre of Silence", T. Smolenskaia insisted that all theatre collectives ?acknowledge the value of the expressive, plastic gesture, the significance and dramatic weight of stage pauses, the strength of the impact of animated mimicry.

These powerful methods of an actor"s performance were and are well known by all great masters of the stage, past and present. Actors of any professional theatre are obliged to master the art of the Їexpressive pause?. Not for nothing has this catchphrase, born on the stage, become widespread both in theatre and in life".74

Gesticulation and the silent pause were thus present in the very fabric of ?normal" theatre performance. By emphasising the ways in which ?silent theatre" and ?normal theatre" drew on the same artistic techniques, Smolenskaia underlined one of the central desires inherent in deaf theatre: the desire for inclusion in the universal world of true art. Making a distinctive feature of the silent gesture was not a question of

adapting theatre to suit the exclusive needs of the deaf, she argued; on the contrary, through mime, members of the deaf theatre sought to show how their art was already a vital part of theatre, and that they were merely drawing out certain of its fundamental qualities.75

The attempt by the Theatre to integrate mime into the fabric of its stage action thus sought to include deaf theatre in the universal art of theatre. In its emphasis on the extreme control and plasticity of the body as a means of conveying emotion and meaning, mime theatre was also seen to hark back to the very roots of theatre itself. Critics and theorists referenced the tradition of mime in ancient Greece in order to demonstrate the solid foundations of this experiment in silent theatre: ?Long ago, in ancient Ellada, mime theatre eclipsed ordinary, spoken theatre in the perfection of its expression. Mime came into being because of the enormous size of ancient amphitheatres, in which the voice of the actor was lost. On the evidence of ancient historians, the mastery of ?mimes" (mime actors) [sic] was amazing: it seemed that every finger had a voice."76 Such accounts often contained a barely-veiled snub to spoken theatre; in its essential silence, it was suggested, deaf theatre alone was able to approach the purity of the original art form.

The discussion of links between silent theatre and theatre in general were not limited to ancient forms, however. Articles on mime also drew comparisons with the Soviet theatrical tradition. Citing Konstantin Stanislavskii, F. N. Sofieva, a director of the

Theatre Studio, argued that all actors ?know how to tell what the word cannot, frequently working in silence much more intensively, subtly and irresistibly than speech itself. Their wordless conversation can be no less interesting, convincing and full of substance than verbal discourse".77 Similarly, A. Zvenigorskii, an artist of the

Moscow (Gor"kii) Arts Theatre, suggested that silent theatre was in fact the embodiment of Stanislavskii"s famous ?fourth wall" theory: ?the actor must be expressive enough on stage that, if he was divided from the viewer by a glass wall, the viewer, seeing but not hearing the actor, would understand what was happening

on stage."78 Reference to this ?master of the Russian theatre" lent credence to the theory of mime and silent theatre, and thus supported deaf theatre"s claim to inclusion within the larger Soviet tradition.79

Beyond Stanislavskii, such articles explicitly referenced certain avant-garde proponents of physical theatre from the 1920s: Evgenii Vakhtangov, and the recently

(posthumously) rehabilitated Vsevolod Meierkhol"d. The latter"s theory of ?biomechanics", or the reduction of theatre to a limited number of perfected physical movements as a means to convey intense emotion, was described as a fundamental influence on the mime of Marcel Marceau, and thus, indirectly, on deaf theatre.80

The avant-garde influence was clearly visible in the staging of the Theatre"s 1963 mime performance People Lived: actors wore identical black form-fitting outfits, and performed on a set which strongly recalled the constructivist simplicity of some of

Meierkhol"d"s staging (figures 7 & 8). This homage to the experimental forms of the avant-garde reflected broader trends of the ?thaw" era: in the climate of cultural flux engendered by Khrushchev"s denouncement of Stalin, the ?impetus to dissociate from the Stalinist stylistic and cultural heritage" saw Soviet theatre increasingly turn to the legacy of modernism and the avant-garde.81 Nancy Condee, for example, cites the revival of ?official interest in the Meyerhold lineage" in 1964 as one of the key moments in the renewal of theatre during this period.82 Despite their insistence on inclusion and tradition, therefore, deaf theatre"s use of mime also represented an experimental break with traditional forms which reflected the particular cultural climate of the thaw.

figure 7 Zhili liudi, 1963

figure 8

Set design, Zhili liudi, 1963

In their discussions of mime, therefore, deaf artists were making quite radical claims, both for their contribution to theatre and high culture, and for their role in redefining it through experimental forms. Silent theatre was seen as a facet of a universal art form, whose value was no less (or possibly even more) than the dialogue-driven performances of the ?normal" stage. This utopian notion of universality was further grounded, in these mime debates, in the idea of universal communication through theatre. One of the severest criticisms of the pre-1956 ?limited ?deaf method"" of theatre was that sign-language dialogue could not be scripted: each theatre group had to come up with its own translation from the written text as part of the rehearsal process. As a result, plays were usually performed in local sign-language dialects, with the expressiveness of the dialogue dependent on the skill of the local translator. Plays performed in Kiev, for example, were incomprehensible to deaf viewers in Moscow, and even between Leningrad and Moscow there arose differences in language. Mime, on the other hand, was seen as a universally comprehensible mode of communication: the ?intelligibility, popularity of [Marceau"s] performance for any viewer" made his art form truly international.83

In its reliance on the ?eloquence of the body" to convey meaning, mime allowed the deaf to bypass the limits not only of local sign dialects but also of sign itself. In stressing the international, universal nature of bodily gesture, deaf actors stated their intention to perform their art for all viewers, not just the deaf: ?This Їart of silence? is an art for all." 84 This desire to bridge the gap between the deaf and hearing audience was consistently stressed in internal VOG documents: according to a 1967 report, ?the fundamental goal, pursued by the very existence of the Theatre, is the striving of deaf actors to create accessible art, the utmost expansion of the contact between non-hearing people and the world around them. Therefore, the Theatre"s plays must attract deaf and hearing viewers equally."85 Measures taken to advertise the Theatre"s performances reflected this intention: in 1963, Theatre shows were advertised on the radio, in addition to visual (poster) advertisements throughout Moscow and other cities visited on tour.86 Similarly, in November 1963, Sutiagin

sent a written request to A. I. Popov, the Minister of Culture of the RSFSR, to include the Theatre of Sign and Gesture on the ?combined poster of Moscow Theatres", a move which would have allowed tickets to the Theatre to be sold through the central ?Box Office" system.87 These measures resulted in a strong bias towards a hearing audience: in the first official tour to Ukraine in January 1963, eighty per cent of the audience for the Theatre"s evening performances were hearing; and by 1967, VOG could report that, whilst regional tours generally catered to local deaf audiences, ?in Moscow, the Theatre generally serves hearing viewers".88

For some, therefore, mime was conceived as a key to artistic inclusion. It allowed the deaf to create art that had a recognised place within the world of theatre and that, quite literally, spoke to all audiences. In bridging the gap between hearing and deaf creative practices and communication, deaf mime theatre was seen to transcend the limits of deafness: ?Deprived of hearing, they were given the opportunity to speak in the most difficult and complex language - the language of art."89 To be sure, this utopian rhetoric was not universally accepted. For some, mime did not represent the pinnacle of deaf art, but was instead a gimmick, an attempt to court popularity with the hearing that betrayed the essence of deaf theatre. In an article from 1960, ?Notes of a Partial Viewer", A. Platov, an engineer from Moscow, described an occasion when the VOG Presidium ?invited a newsreel director to the Moscow House of Culture to film an amateur performance of Ostrovskii"s ЇA Profitable Post.?" The director arrived, watched, but refused to film: ?This is a completely ordinary performance, just in the language of the deaf. In the USSR, Ostrovskii is performed in forty languages. I thought you had something more like Marcel Marceau."90 For

Platov, mime was merely a ?fashionable peculiarity" (modnaia dikovinka), but one

that was dangerous to follow, as it denied sign language its rightful place as the true form of deaf theatre. He accepted the links to ancient Greece, but countered with the argument: ?This is true. But it is also true that long ago, people used a stone axe, bow and arrows. Why hark back to the stone-age? Replace the language of Shakespeare,

Gogol and Ostrovskii with grimaces?"91

Although Platov represented a minority view on the pages of Zhizn" glukhikh - his arguments were passionately refuted by F. N. Sofieva in a subsequent issue - his article revealed a central paradox in discussions of deaf theatre during this period. Whilst it is true that the development of mime theatre was the chief preoccupation of deaf actors and theorists, it was universally admitted that mime had only taken its

?first timid steps" as a form of deaf theatre.92 Sign-language dialogue, although questioned in print, still remained the most popular theatrical medium, both in amateur circles and in the Theatre itself. In 1965, for example, the experimental mime performance People Lived was one of six plays in the Theatre"s repertoire: the remaining five, encompassing drama, comedy and vaudeville, were performed in sign language, with an announcer reading the dialogue aloud for the benefit of hearing members of the audience.93 Consequently, whilst mime was being engaged with as a potential means to bypass the limits of sign language, the presence of sign on the theatre stage provoked a parallel discussion of how, through theatre, it could be renewed and developed as a language.


The engagement with sign as a theatrical language formed part of a broader debate on the role of sign language amongst the deaf. This debate had been imbued with a new urgency in July 1950 when, in the wake of the publication of Stalin"s theoretical work On Marxism and Linguistics, the newspaper Pravda had published a series of articles in which Stalin answered readers" questions. In answer to a question posed by D. Belkin and S.Furer, Stalin dismissed ?deaf-mutes, who have no language"

(glukhonemykh, ne imeiushchikh iazyka) as ?abnormal people" (anomal"nye liudi).94

According to Stalin"s thesis, spoken language was the basis of thought, and without that language, the deaf were incapable of thoughts that went beyond the immediate response to sensory stimulus. The bulk of his response, however, addressed itself to the role and significance of sign language. If, he argued, in ?the history of mankind, spoken language has been one of the forces that helped human beings to emerge from the animal world, unite into communities, develop their faculty of thinking, organize social production, wage a successful struggle against the forces of nature and attain the stage of progress we have to-day", then sign ?is not a language, and not even a linguistic substitute that could in one way or another replace spoken language, but an auxiliary means of extremely limited possibilities to which man sometimes resorts to emphasize this or that point in his speech". Sign and speech were thus ?as incomparable as are the primitive wooden hoe and the modern caterpillar tractor".95

Stalin depicted sign language in stark terms of progress and backwardness; in a country advancing rapidly towards socialism, there could be no room for a group of people who communicated in such a primitive language of gestures. This view was not initially contradicted by members of VOG. In a private letter to Stalin, Nikolai Alekseevich Buslaev, the deaf representative to the Secretariat of the VTsSPS, accepted that the 50,000 illiterate and 53,000 semi-literate VOG members ?remain on the level of abnormal and semi-abnormal people", but blamed this situation on a lack of provision in education and club work for deaf people.96 Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, however, the lowly status of sign was vigorously challenged. Much of this was due to the work of linguist I. F. Geil"man, who published the first dictionary of Russian sign language in 1957. In Zhizn" glukhikh, a double-page spread was regularly given over to letters from pedagogues, workers and other interested parties arguing for and against the use of sign.97 These views were polemical and strongly held: whilst some believed that teaching literacy and lip reading and formally banning sign language was the only way to achieve the

education of the deaf, others argued that sign was ?vitally necessary" (zhiznenno neobkhodimo) and should be recognised as a language in its own right.98

Within this debate, theatre was invoked as a powerful argument in defence of sign language. In the Stalinist vein, those who opposed the use of sign had cited its poverty, its inability to express abstract and complex ideas. Through theatre, however, the expressive ability of sign was underlined: ?They played without words, but their silence, thanks to the subtle sign performance of the participants, spoke more eloquently than words."99 The notion that sign could be artistic, expressive and ultimately beautiful - a language capable of transmitting high artistic content - underpinned the rhetoric of theatre specialists on the pages of Zhizn" glukhikh. In many ways, this rhetoric borrowed from the discussions on mime art: the expressive value of the silent gesture, established in relation to classical mime, was extended to incorporate sign language itself. According to a review by T. Smolenskaia of a performance by the Theatre, ?literal sign is, to a certain degree, akin to pure mime.

At least because the actor, freely mastering his face, hands, body, accurately and expressively in every movement, is half a mime already."100 Such descriptions focused, as in the case of mime, on the performative value of the silent gesture as a mode of expression. However, in stressing this expressive value, these articles indirectly commented on the nature of sign itself. In the same article, Smolenskaia praised the Theatre for the ?great labour of their transformation of words into gesture

[...] which unexpectedly proved to be stronger, more effective and more voluminous [ob"emnyi] than speech".101

As a result of such articles, a new concept of ?cultured sign language" (kul"turnaia mimika) began to figure in discussions of sign language. Conceived in opposition to the ?crude, distorted forms of sign" (grubye iskazhennye formy mimiki) that were frequently observed amongst groups of deaf people,102 ?cultured sign" was grammatically correct, rich in vocabulary, and free of the ?rude, vulgar [...] ugly

gestures" that characterised much sign-language conversation.103 This ideal language needed to be promoted on a wide scale, however, and proponents of ?cultured sign" looked to theatre as a means to disseminate it. The potential of theatre in this regard had been long recognised: as early as 1933, V. Sungarin had asserted that ?with the lack of coordination and disorganisation of colloquial sign, the theatre serves as the best embodied [obraznoi] school of sign".104 By 1963, the Theatre"s role in promoting sign was included in official reports of its activities, treating it as an extension of the development of mime: ?The combination of mime with work on conversational sign, having at its basis the plastic symbol, can make the language of the Theatre even more expressive and accessible to those who do not know sign language. For those who speak in sign language, the Theatre can become a sort of school of correct, precise and colourful language."105 For students and actors of the

Theatre, the study of ?clear, distinct sign language; beautiful, flowing gesture" was of vital importance.106

The desire to foster a ?cultured" form of sign language reflected a broader concern with the development of kul"turnost" (culturedness) amongst deaf people. As Vadim Volkov has argued, kul"turnost" referred to the ?background everyday practice" of culture in Soviet society, which signified the internalising of cultural values as a key step in the coming into being of an idealised New Soviet Person.107 In his examination of kul"turnost" as a dynamic of the Stalinist ?civilising process", Volkov points to a shift from pragmatic cultural values, such as personal hygiene, dress and labour discipline, to ?higher" forms of culture, such as literature, art and science, as markers of the inner cultural level of the Soviet individual. The discovery and promotion of ?cultured sign language" amongst deaf individuals replicates the emphasis placed on cultured speech and language within this ?higher" stage of the kul"turnost" paradigm: according to Volkov, ?unlike material attributes, the Їculture of speech? (kul"tura rechi) was naturally perceived as inalienable from the

personality, related more to the internal rather than the external qualities."108

?Cultured sign language" thus echoed ?cultured speech" as an indicator of inner cultural development. The promotion of correct speech and the elimination of

?vulgarity" (poshlost") are similarly identified by Miriam Dobson as particular concerns of the 1950s, in the context of gulag returnees and the prevalence of criminal (blatnoi) slang.109 Sign-language theatre performances, with their multiple linguistic layers - the translation of established texts into sign language, and its replication by the announcer during the performance - and their emphasis on

?correct" forms of speech, thus actively engaged with the particular concern with speech and language within Soviet culture.

The development of deaf theatre, therefore, despite its ambivalent relationship to sign, had the effect of raising the profile of the language and tying it to broader notions of culture and progress. Indeed, the use of sign on the stage further allowed the language to develop in new ways, to become an artistic language, rather than a basic communicative tool born of ?bitter necessity".110 The relative scarcity of sign-language vocabulary was a consistent problem for theatre translators, which was usually overcome by the overuse of dactylology (finger-spelling) by actors to literally spell out the unknown word. The growth of the sign-theatre tradition thus effectively encouraged theatre groups to push linguistic boundaries and to develop new gestures in order to render complex texts into sign. Neologisms created on the stage found their way into the conversation of artists and audience members, renewing and expanding the language. Nowhere was this process more obviously relished than during the rehearsals for the Cheliabinsk Amateur Dramatic Theatre"s performance of Maiakovskii"s play The Bedbug (Klop). The process of rendering

Maiakovskii"s satirical verse, with its wordplay and invention, into sign proved a new challenge for the group: ?Maiakovskii"s unusual vocabulary, his neologisms, required us to search for distinctive new signs or to replace the word with a synonym. Geil"man"s dictionary was no use here. Take the word Їto unfreeze?

[razmorozit"]. How is that verb to be translated into sign? Say Їice? and Їto melt??

They won"t understand. We decided to combine the sign-language gesture Їto unfreeze? with Їto revive?."111 Whilst the particular demands of Maiakovskii"s verse represented a unique challenge for deaf theatre, the translation of plays into sign represented a constant driving force for linguistic innovation.

In the work of the Theatre and other drama collectives, sign language was thus expanded and developed, and its ?cultured" forms were perpetuated by actors and audiences. As a result, both the language itself, and its theatrical representation, began to function as a marker of cultural identity for deaf people. Discussions of the Theatre in Zhizn" glukhikh stressed the ?natural" reliance of the deaf on sign language: ?Sign and gesture are innate to deaf-mutes."112 As the dominant language within the deaf community, moreover, sign increasingly defined the deaf as a group. Consequently, the use of this communal language on the stage also became a means to represent the group in art. Articles frequently cited the example of national theatres within the Soviet Union to articulate the role of sign-language theatre: the hearing actor E. Polevitskaia argued that her attitude to deaf theatre was ?similar to the attitude we cherish towards national theatres, whose language we do not know, but whose successes we applaud".113 Deaf theatre, therefore, not only provided the deaf with a chance to access and participate in art, but also gave the deaf as a group the opportunity to represent themselves within it: ?The existing literal Їlanguage? of deaf-mutes has the right to representation even on the stage."114

In their experimental and innovative engagement with theatrical forms, the deaf claimed their place as producers and consumers of an art that both embodied and transcended the specifics of deafness. The experimental nature of the Theatre of Silence drew on thaw-era engagements with the avant-garde and the innovative use of sign-language to produce a unique theatrical form. In their discussions of theatre, deaf theorists drew explicitly on the notion of kul"turnost" and theatrical tradition to

assert their claims to inclusion in high art and culture. This striving towards innovation and high culture firmly situated deaf theatre within the utopian rhetoric of the post-war and Khrushchev periods. Yet discussions of form only told half the story. Those involved in deaf theatre also needed to establish the nature of the content this unique form was to convey.


In 1961, F. N. Sofieva, a director of the Theatre Studio, published an article, ?In Search of its ЇFace?...", in which she argued that the Theatre needed to establish a definitive identity, or ?face", that would distinguish it from other theatres. In an era which saw the emergence of such ?celebrity theatres" as Moscow"s Sovremennik and Taganka Theatres, and Leningrad"s Bol"shoi Drama Theatre, and the growth of auteur theatre (avtorskii teatr), Sofieva recognised that the Theatre of Sign and

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