Guest: Richard Robbins on Overtaken by the Night: One Russian’s Journey through Peace, War, Revolution, and Terror published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
The following is the transcript of my interview with Claire Shaw for the podcast Deaf in the Soviet Union. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
I thought we’d start by having you talk about the origins of your work on deafness in Russia. How did you come to this topic?
Well, it was a question of two things coming together in a rather unexpected way actually. My dad was a teacher of the deaf, so I spent my formative years living in the grounds of a boarding school for the deaf called the Mary Hare Grammar School in the UK. So, the deaf world was something that I was very familiar with. I was familiar with what it was like to be around a big community of deaf people, the social conventions, the technologies, and the adjustments, but also of the politics of deaf activism and identity, which were really huge when I was growing up.
It was not something I ever thought I’d be engaged in myself, but the deaf world was always there in the background to my world. And then as I went on to study Russian language and then history, I was becoming more and more intrigued by the idea of the Soviet project to transform society and humankind and create utopia on Earth.
I was researching this from many angles, but I was increasingly frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t find any information on what that project was like for disabled people. It was a big gap in the literature. That seemed strange to me because the ideal Soviet person was always represented in such a strikingly physical way. You know, we have these muscular men and women wielding their hammers and marching through Red Square.
But then when you look for the anti-Soviet enemy, they were also portrayed as equally physically perfect. They were hiding behind their masks. They were thinking anti-Soviet thoughts, so it was always about consciousness. It wasn’t about the body. And it wasn’t clear what the consequences were if your body was permanently imperfect.
I was thinking round these ideas, and then the idea of looking at the deaf community occurred to me one day. I was having a conversation with a teacher of Russian language, and it just struck me as so right as a way into these questions. Because you have the physicality, but you also have the fact that deafness adds this extra dimension, which is language.
And if you know your Marx, of course, you know that consciousness is not innate, but it is created through social interaction. What happens if you can’t interact, if you can’t speak, and you can’t hear? Where did these people then fit in society?
This is something that I was just thinking about how deafness is also an experiential life. And how do you experience the Soviet project differently when it’s an experience without sound?
Absolutely. I have to say, I wasn’t initially thinking of it in those terms. I was thinking of it as quite a theoretical project. I had this idea that I was going to look into theories of deaf education and ideology and how they intersected. And I was also anticipating quite a negative story. I was steeling myself for a story of oppression and struggle.
But then as soon as I got into the archives, and I started meeting members of the deaf community, I just found this whole world. And it was a world whose history was so intimately intertwined with that of the Soviet experiment, but that was also something really unique and unexpected and vibrant.
These people were living and working and socializing together, defending their own interests and advocating for their own social and cultural values within the Soviet system. It was a kind of marginality, but pulled into the center in a way.
This is something I want to talk about later in our conversation because I was struck by this too. I also expected that negative story, and in fact, it was quite something different. But before getting to that, it’s interesting what you say because I have to admit one of the first times I started looking in the archival guide for GARF (the State Archive of the Russian Federation), I noticed that there was an inventory for this society. And I was really surprised that there was an organization, and then of course, an archive.
The history of disability in Russia is a recent development. You mentioned that when you first started thinking about this, there was this lack of discussion on the disabled in this broader context in Soviet Russia. And it’s only now receiving, thankfully, more and more attention. What types of topics, questions and challenges do scholars contend with in the history of disability in Russia?
The first thing to say is that it’s just thrilling to see how it’s suddenly become this active area of research. We had a big meeting at ASEEES recently, and there’s so many people who are working on this and are really interested in disability as a topic. I think quite often disability’s seen as this niche topic. It’s kind of a little marginal, for people who are interested in that kind of thing. But what I like about it is that it actually gets you into the heart of a lot of things. It opens up many avenues of scholarship and ideas.
I think if we think about the ways in which a lot of historians think about the Soviet Union as this modern project to create an ideal body politic—I’m thinking of David Hoffman here—who’ve been tracing this not just in Russia, but across Europe in the early 20th Century. As soon as we start asking questions about disability, we create new spaces for inquiry because if we’re talking about a group of people who can’t live up to a physical ideal, their experiences then help us to test the limits of these ideals.
If we think about how a society treats disabled people, but also how disabled people themselves live within a social and cultural construct of the societies in which they find themselves, we then ask really profound questions about those societies.
And I think it then allows us to challenge established narratives and chronologies and look at these cultures with a new lens. So, if we’re asking what it means to be embodied, what it means to be human in a Russian context, it gives us a new way of thinking about Russia and the Soviet Union.
I don’t know if you can speak to this, but one of the interesting ironies I noticed, and I noticed that it hasn’t … Well, maybe it has been picked up, and I just don’t know. But Nikolai Ostrovsky, who wrote How Steel is Tempered, which is a main foundational text for the new Soviet person, was himself disabled. And I don’t know if you can comment on that relationship, but I always find this an interesting irony that this foundational text is written by someone who’s a disabled war veteran.
Ostrovsky is such a central figure. He is the one that all able-bodied Soviet people read about and all disabled Soviet people read about. I think this gets us into questions of where disabled people can fit because when you have this sort of emblematic Soviet person, who is himself disabled, in a novel written by someone who is himself disabled, it’s very hard for you to then say, well you know, disabled people aren’t part of the Soviet body politic because they very much are.
Lilya Kaganovsky’s book (How the Soviet Man Was Unmade) is still the one to read about this. This idea of how this fantasy of disability is actually at the heart of the fantasy of the New Soviet Person. When that book came out, I was a couple of years into this project. And it was really influential for me to think around these ideas of fantasy, of embodiment, and how that actually functions in the lives of people.
I have a lot of memoirs of deaf people who were reading Socialist Realist texts about disability and saying, these things are picking me up. These things are showing me what is possible. So actually, it helps them to sort of write themselves into the Soviet identity project.
What about the Socialist Realist texts were inspiring for them?
I think for a lot of people, it was the fact that disability wasn’t this gigantic defining feature of these characters’ lives. It was simply another obstacle, one of many, which they could then use their will and their Sovietness to fight against, if you like.
If you think about The Story of a Real Man, Boris Polevoi’s novel about the fighter pilot who loses his legs. He’s distraught, but then he has this moment where he says, “I am a Soviet man.” And he re-forges himself as a worker and finds a way to be useful. And there are various points at which memoirs of deaf people were talking about reading that and seeing the world in a new way.
Let’s get more in depth into the history of this. How was deafness understood before and after the Russian Revolution?
Well, I think the Russian Revolution is revolutionary for deaf people. I mean I think this is one group of people for whom the before and the after are so radically different that it just changes the world.
Before 1917, if you looked at the Russian Empire’s legal code, deaf people were equated with the insane. They were deprived of all legal rights. They were held under a form of guardianship, so they weren’t allowed to work or to own property or anything like that. And they could apply to revoke the guardianship, but they could only do that if they could demonstrate that they were able to read and write and speak.
This is based on the understanding that without [spoken] language, there can be no thought, which is actually very common, not just in Russia at the time, but all across Europe and the United States. This idea that actually signing deaf people are not able to think in the way that speaking, hearing people are.
But this whole construction was so radically disabling, and I think it makes more sense if we think of the fact that most hearing people at this point were illiterate, so they couldn’t have passed this test. So, it’s not surprising that most deaf people couldn’t pass this test.
1917, with the rhetoric of liberation from oppression overturning hierarchies: this is the transformation. It sweeps away all of these legal restrictions governing deaf people. It enables them to become full citizens of the new state, so they can stand for election if they want to, which they do. They vote. They get involved.
But there’s also a conceptual shift that happens that is really important because the focus moves from the idea of language and legal competence as a measure of inclusion and selfhood to a new model in which the ability to work is the most important thing.
To be a worker in this state, makes you a king. For deaf people, this is really important because for the vast majority, deafness doesn’t stop them from wielding a hammer or working a metal lathe or becoming a shop worker. In that, they were able to prove their ability to be included within this new world. And they could wield the hammer and do all these things through the medium of sign language if they so chose. This model doesn’t necessarily mean that [spoken] language is necessary.
I mean there are caveats to this. There’s an understanding that orality and speaking well is a part of a good Soviet citizen. But there’s nothing in the theory, there’s nothing in the ideology that says that. So actually, this is a moment where people can claim a new way of being.
I think this is the most important thing. This conceptual shift happens, but it has meaning because there are deaf people there who are in a position to take advantage of it. We have this small elite of educated deaf people, who had fought against their disenfranchisement under Tsarism, and who then were able to seize this revolutionary moment to break their own chains and declare themselves masters of their own fate and to say to the government, this is what we want to be. This is the start of the story that I tell.
And so this legal and conceptual shift is just one aspect. The other, of course, is that by 1926, you have a social organization representing deaf people. The All-Russian Association of Deaf-Mutes or VOG. What was VOG’s mission? What are some of the things it did? How were deaf people active in it?
It did anything and everything, actually. It’s one of these huge amorphous organizations. It was founded formally in 1926, but it existed in some form from July 1917, between the two revolutions. And I think it’s important to understand it as a revolutionary organization. It changes its name a few times, just to be annoying, but happily, it always sticks with the acronym of VOG, which is useful. This is what I tend to call it.
It’s an organization with the goal to help deaf people break the chains and become independent. It starts from this position of facilitating deaf people to emerge from guardianship and take control of their own lives. It functions as a Soviet social institution. It’s similar to the Komsomol. It’s similar to trades unions, or in fact, to the Party in the way that it works.
It has a network of local organizations all the way across Soviet Russia. These organizations then elect their representatives to this central body. Then this body makes decisions on spending and organization but also represents its members to various governmental agencies, and it lobbies on behalf of the deaf community.
But it’s not just a lobby organization. It also makes money through its deaf-run workshops. These produce everything from winter boots to motorboat engines. In the 1980s, they’re producing high-tech gadgets and gizmos.
And it’s part of the Soviet government, so it’s within the Ministry of Social Welfare. But it’s made up of deaf people, and it’s run by deaf people all the way through the Soviet period. It’s this strange anomaly of a deaf-run organization within the structures of the Soviet State.
The way that I like to think about it is that it’s this huge social organization more than anything. It’s this network of clubs and social spaces that bring deaf people together and create a deaf world.
And also, as you point out, their families as well.
Yeah, absolutely. It creates a deaf family and it pulls in deaf families too. The deaf community before 1917 had been very small, and it was concentrated in the few cities that had established deaf schools. Places like Moscow and St. Petersburg and Kharkiv. These are places where people at these schools had a better chance at overturning the legal restrictions that governed them. They had a lot more agency than in other places, so this is where deaf people tended to gather.
But beyond that, the vast majority of deaf people were living isolated in villages. They were communicating with hearing relatives through some form of home sign, never meeting any other deaf people. The creation of VOG creates a deaf community. It brings deaf people together, provides them with services, things like sign language interpreting in factories and doctors’ offices. The money that they earned through the deaf workshops are given to deaf people in the form of grants and flats and furniture.
By the 1960s, VOG is building living spaces and palaces of culture and sanitoria on the Black Sea. They had their own professional theater. They sponsored research. They funded deaf schools. And by doing this, they’re sort of pulling everybody together and creating a community that wasn’t there before. And this was the place in which deaf people could find a way of life and an understanding of their deafness that was really powerful and transformative.
We see the deaf community in VOG, and Soviet identity, if you like, developing together and informing each other. And loads of these deaf people married each other as well, so it becomes a kind of family in that sense too.
And also after the Sovietization of Eastern Europe, it also connects people within the Soviet Union with other deaf people, within Eastern Europe as well. Right?
Yes. In the latter half of the Soviet Union, you get a lot of traveling around going on. The All-Russian Society of the Deaf is focused, as the name suggests, in Soviet Russia. There are equivalent organizations in Ukraine and Belarus and other places. Then they make contacts with deaf organizations in Eastern Europe.
The latter 20th Century is a moment where the deaf world becomes much more interconnected. The World Federation of the Deaf is founded in the 1950s, and that facilitates the coming together of deaf people from all over the world in congresses and various sort of meetings and sports meets and the Deaf Olympics are founded as well, that kind of thing.
But there’s always a specialness to the contact between the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that is seen as a sort of place in which there is a particular way of being deaf that is unique, and that doesn’t exist elsewhere.
I want to get into these identity issues. When you started out, one of the things that interested you is this relationship between the deaf and disabled more broadly to the New Soviet Person, which of course, is a central project of the communist system. Talk a bit more in detail about this relationship between deafness and the New Soviet Person.
What are the potentialities and limitations because at one point you speak about in your introduction, that it creates a thinking about the deaf in relationship to the New Soviet Person pushes us to think about the New Soviet Person in pluralities. I found this really interesting because as you rightly said earlier, that we tend to see the New Soviet Person as some kind of monochrome image.
I think generally speaking, we do see the New Soviet Person as this utopian ideal that is homogenizing and therefore, marginalizing and exclusionary. I think that we have to question that. I mean, the idea behind it, of course, comes from the October Revolution and Lenin’s decision to seize power in the workers’ name even though Russia, in Marxist terms, was not ready for this kind of thing.
This then means that the party, acting as a vanguard, has to work to create a new society and the new people who would live in it. And these new people, I think, are seen in the ways in which the kind of the goals of the five-year plan are ultimately seen. As almost unachievable goals, right? These kind of rational, collectivist, perfect individuals who always put others’ needs ahead of their own and are never selfish and are never self-interested.
This seems to be an impossible dream in a way, but I think the stakes for not achieving the goals of the Soviet project are quite high. Anyone who studies the purges will tell you that if you fail to be included, you are eliminated. So we have a very strong sense that there’s one way of being, and if you’re not that way, then there’s no place for you in this society.
But as soon as you start looking at this through a Deaf studies prism or a disability studies prism, you start to get at the fact that the ideal of the new Soviet person is about a transformation or a coming into being that is constant and is always being negotiated. Therefore, no one is ideal, and everyone is struggling with faults and limitations and barriers that they are trying to overcome.
If we think back to Socialist Realism, alongside all of these disabled characters, we have characters who have flaws of personality who are reckless and who through the process of strong will and trials become much more ideal versions of themselves. And in this respect, deafness ceases to be this kind of inherent problem that can never be fixed. It becomes another obstacle on the road to Soviet selfhood that we can equate with these problematic character flaws and various other things that just need to be dealt with.
I think that then transforms the way that we think about the Soviet ideal. It leads us to consider what the New Soviet Person and the idea of Sovietness as an identity means for people who are on the margins of society. I think in that case, it becomes less about this sort of nebulous idea. It becomes more a practical kind of tool of transformation.
If you show yourself to be living up to the ideals of socialism, it gives you the power to integrate. It gives you the ability to become “normal.” If you become a good worker, for example, or you demonstrate your culturedness by reading all the right books and attending plays and doing various things, this is a way in which you can demonstrate your agency and your belonging.
For deaf people, Sovietness becomes a key, in a way, to being part of this world that’s being built. And you see this a lot in memoirs in the later Soviet period. A lot of deaf people talk about the way in which the revolution gave them the world. It gave them this key to independence, and that key comes through writing themselves into the Soviet project and showing themselves to be New Soviet People.
I think I’m interested in how in a sense we see this creation of a hybrid deaf-Soviet identity that was developing throughout the Soviet period. This is a community that’s apart. They’re apart by choice, which is a separate thing, but a community that’s absolutely steeped in the values of Soviet socialism and hangs onto them well after their hearing comrades had abandoned them because they are of value.
Deaf people in the Soviet Union have a community. They have potential integrations within the Soviet project. And I think a really fascinating part of your story is that from the revolution, they have a lot of agency in determining their social world, determining their institutions, advocating for their own rights.
You said how the identity of deafness in the communist bloc was particular than that of the more developing international deaf community. How do you understand the experience of deafness in the Soviet Union compared to that of other modern states in the 20th Century?
Talking about agency, I think, is very important here. In tracing the agency of deaf people in the USSR, this is partly an ethical position as a historian of deafness, who is not herself deaf. There’s been a long tradition of hearing people speaking for deaf people and denying them agency and power. It’s important, I think, when we write deaf history, that we recognize their agency. We recognize deaf people as subjects rather than objects of history. That’s really important.
Also, it just jumps off the page of every source that I have read. All of these people who are creating their lives in a revolutionary sense. They’re breaking their chains. They’re shaping themselves as socialist people. I think that narrative is really important.
In terms of placing that in this bigger understanding of deaf history and the difference between the Soviet Union and the West. I think there’s a difference between the ways in which the Soviet deaf community understood and explained the difference and the ways in which I understand and explain the difference. For me, it comes down to the tension between the social and the medical models of deafness.
Just to explain this a little bit; around the 1970s, deaf activists and scholars in the West started advocating for a conceptual shift in the understanding of deafness: moving from thinking about deafness as hearing loss, as something rooted in the body that can never be changed except through expert medical intervention, to an understanding of deafness as a social identity that is rooted in visual ways of being and sign language culture, and that requires particular adjustments and spaces in order to flourish.
This was a really powerful shift, and it’s fundamentally changed the ways in which we think about deafness, moving from thinking about it as a negative lack to a positive gain. We think about things like the fact that this deaf activist turn pioneered the use of capital “D” Deaf to refer to a social cultural deaf identity. And coining the word “audism” to refer to hearing discrimination against deaf people and their culture. These are really significant things.
But what’s fascinating to me, is that I think we see this social model of deafness present in the USSR from the Revolution. And I think this is mostly to do with Marxist theory—the idea that the social experience is really everything. And it’s much more important than the body. We see this in various other studies of this. I’m thinking of Tricia Stark’s The Body Soviet.
It’s partly as well, I think, to do with the fact that medical and educational intervention wasn’t as developed in Tsarist Russia and therefore in early Soviet Russia too. But really the early deaf activists were so united in their belief that the right institutional frameworks and social interventions would allow them to become what they called “full-blooded” Soviet people.
In fact, deafness is less of the issue than the way in which society is structured. And I think the fact that you see this in 1917, when in the West, we’re talking about this in the 1960s, 1970s, I think is extraordinary. Of course, it’s not straightforwardly mapped. It’s not a straightforward rejection in the USSR of medical understandings of deafness. In fact, the two things are intertwined with each other.
When you look at the ways in which Soviet deaf people talk about their deafness, they see it as at the same time an embodied identity and a cultural one, as a tragedy and a joy, and quite often, they’re celebrating and their denigrating their deafness at the same time. Sometimes their language moves into slightly audist territory. But they really see what they’re doing as a way of overcoming deafness and allowing deaf people to just take their place in the world.
But they want to do it through being together, and I think this is the really significant thing. And this is again where it maps in interesting ways against the West. Scholars of deafness in the US, for example, like Christopher Krentz, have talked about the power of the deaf liberation narrative. This desire of deaf people at various points in history to relocate to places where they could escape prejudice and manage their own affairs.
And to me, I think VOG is that self-sustaining deaf world because it’s formalized, and it’s institutionalized in ways that are not seen elsewhere. And if there are ever any attempts by the state to pull it apart and integrate it within the Soviet structures of governance, there’s always this massive pushback from the deaf community saying, “You know, only we can understand our own problems. Only we can make ourselves Soviet.” So, they’re always wanting to be together.
But at the time, it doesn’t quite translate across the borders of the Soviet world. At the moment, I’m trying to get into this a little bit in some new research about how this was propagandized internationally in the late Soviet period. They don’t really spell out the significance of this deaf world at all.
The way that they talk about this in international propaganda was that capitalism is inherently cruel, and socialism is the only system in which deaf people can thrive. This is partly to do with the realization of deaf people’s own talents, but it’s mostly to do with the care of the state. That’s the way that they put it forward.[State propaganda says] deaf people in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union are happy because the state cares for them. This of course then obfuscates the uniqueness of the Soviet deaf community. And of course, it goes down terribly badly in the West where deaf people are trying to overturn the paternalistic attitudes of the hearing majority. It’s a miscommunication that’s quite unfortunate, but it means that telling the story has a real resonance because I don’t think it’s been heard before.
No. It certainly hasn’t. I certainly didn’t know it, so for my own personal knowledge, it’s quite an amazing story. Now, World War II is really a defining moment historically for disability in the Soviet Union more broadly, just in the sheer numbers of disabled people explodes because of the war.
How does the notion of deafness change after World War II? You really get a further institutionalization of providing services, welfare, but also social institutions for the deaf community. How does World War II change things?
World War II is a game changer, but it isn’t, at the same time. It’s a really big watershed, but I don’t think it necessarily changes the way in which the Soviet deaf community are thinking about themselves and their own Sovietness. It just shifts, I think, the means by which they’re trying to prove that, if you like.
You’re right. The vast numbers of disabled veterans that flood back into society after the Second World War changed the public profile of disability. This means a lot of money that is being put into the social support of disabled people. But it’s also a recognition of organizations like VOG. They become seen as experts in the task of rehabilitating disabled people and bringing war veterans back into productive life.
The project of transforming deaf people in the Soviet mold suddenly is invested with new status, which I think is quite important. But also, we have this huge change in society that’s provoked by the experience of war. The trauma of the occupation, the massive loss of life transforms the relationship between individuals and society.
Then after the death of Stalin, we see the opening up of new spaces for alternative identities and institutions. This then changes quite a few things for the Soviet deaf community. I think one of the biggest things is to do with welfare.
Welfare was always really problematic in the early Soviet period because it was seen as a form of charity, and charity was seen as disabling. It was seen as a sign that deaf people were not fully part of society. That they were in a position of dependence.
So they would always say that they did not want to have any welfare. They didn’t want to have any support in that sense. They wanted to work. They wanted to earn their own money. They wanted to be independent.
But in the post-war period, we see welfare becoming something that all Soviet citizens demand. They had suffered. The rewards for that suffering would be a new materiality, a new way of living that involved support from the state. So actually, what you see is deaf people starting to assert their Sovietness by demanding and accepting welfare and benefits.
It’s slightly more complicated because most of the material support that they’re getting comes through VOG, and VOG takes no subsidies from the state after 1954. So, this is deaf people financially supporting other deaf people. Actually, what it shows is there’s a sense that deafness necessitates material reward, and this is being very publicly stated.
Then you move from that into the Thaw, and I think this is where the changes from the war start to open up in new ways. The opening up of the new spaces for debate create a sense that deaf culture can come into its own.
Sign language becomes much more overtly used. There are linguistic studies of sign language. The state starts to sponsor courses for interpreters. There’s a professional sign language theater, the Theater of Sign and Gesture, which operates from 1957, and this becomes very, very popular amongst hearing society in Moscow. Then it goes on tour around Eastern Europe.
So, deafness becomes kind of one of the many alternative identities that are starting to proliferate in this period. Actually, you see deafness becoming a much more confident cultural identity at this point.
I mean, it’s not always positive, and I think we have to acknowledge that. The Khrushchev era is really interesting because it’s known as this era of liberation from the winter of Stalinism, from the strictures of Stalinism. But it’s also accompanied by this renewed push towards the utopian communist future. We have this promise that communism is coming by 1980. What this means is that Soviet citizens have to be ready, and you make them ready by instilling behavioral norms and policing individuals who don’t conform.
Suddenly we have the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism, and this leads to a lot of panic in the deaf community about the dangers of being too overtly “deaf” in public spaces. There’s a push against signing in the street for example. Signing in the theater is good because that is artistic and cultural. But signing in the street is just being different, and different is not quite what you want really.
You see this tension all the time between inclusion and exclusion, even as deafness is having this massive cultural moment. You’re getting deaf characters in mainstream films in the 1960s, which I think is quite extraordinary.
How does the history of deafness provide us a different understanding of the Soviet experience? Because you started out by pointing out the physical issues in relation to the new Soviet person. There’s a different physical experience, but then you also state that there’s a different experiential experience in the sense of the sensory world. How does looking at the deaf give us a different understanding or a different narrative of the Soviet system?
Well I think it forces us to question a lot of the things that we think we know about the Soviet Union. We’ve spoken about this a little bit already, but I think it challenges our view of the USSR as a homogenizing place that is really exclusionary towards people who might be different in some way. I think we see that because the deaf community really comes into being as a product of socialism. It comes into being through deaf people engaging with the frameworks of Soviet identity and claiming their place within the Soviet body politic.
But in order to do that, they don’t have to cease to be deaf. They don’t have to deny their difference, which I think is really important. You see VOG fostering a form of identity that is at the same time Soviet and distinctly deaf. It’s deaf in the sense of a set of institutional frameworks and visual spaces and a distinct culture that is rooted in sign language.
And the fact that this identity or these two identities can coexist and inform each other, I think it tells us something new about the Soviet experience. This idea that a plurality of identities can exist within the Soviet space, I don’t think that’s something that we often think about when we think about the USSR.
And this is something that scholars of nationalities have been noting too, that is the ability to maintain difference within the broader context of Soviet. Right? Based on this very famous slogan [National in form, socialist in content]. I think that’s actually something worth pointing out, and also too, as you state, the agency of deaf people to foster, maintain, and legitimize that difference.
Yes. Absolutely. I think there’s a very interesting parallel there between deafness and minority nationalities within the Soviet Union. There’s the famous slogan “National in Form, Socialist in Content” which was used to justify the proliferation of different nationalities within the USSR. There’s a point at which the deaf community starts playing around with that as well and asking whether they can be “Deaf in Form, Socialist in Content.”
A few people don’t like that. A few people feel that’s actually advertising their difference in too big a way. But I think the fact that it’s there is important, and I think it also helps us to understand why VOG as an organization is so important. And why it fosters this sort of institutionalized marginality that has developed by the end of the Soviet period.
If we think about Brigid O’Keeffe’s work (New Soviet Gypsies: Nationality, Performance, and Selfhood in the Early Soviet Union. You can hear an interview with Brigid here), she talks about how the Roma in the USSR have to be Roma first, in order to become Soviet. I think we see that with the deaf community too. They have to be deaf first and come at socialism through the deaf culture and the deaf institutions that they have created. There’s not really a way of being deaf outside of VOG, which I think is important.
But that’s not something that happened because the Soviet state chose to push them into a separate organization. It happens because whenever there’s a chance to integrate, they always say, no, no, no. We have to stay together. Staying together is the only way that we can achieve our independence.
This actually pushes to another point that you make I think early on, that you actually state, and this is something that I think might surprise many, many people, and that is VOG is a form of a civil society.
We tend to conceptualize civil society in very liberal terms. But here you do get something like VOG in the Soviet Union. Particularly, the fact that you say by 1954, they’re also financially independent, which is fascinating. What makes you see VOG as a civil society organization?
I think the question of civil society is really important because we often think again, about the Soviet Union as being this top-down controlling system in which there’s really no space for independent debate and independent agency. But what you see with VOG is a very, very distinct community in which an awful lot of stuff is going on, really outside of the control of the state.
VOG is an organ of the state, and we can’t ignore that. So, a lot of what it does is it translates the state’s dictates for the benefit of the deaf people within it. It’s the hub through which socialism reaches the deaf community. But at the same time, it’s also a way in which the deaf community are able to lobby and to push back and to do so in really extraordinary ways.
I think probably one of the most interesting examples of this is the case of Nikolai Buslaev, who I write about. He’s one of these characters that pops up all the way through the book. He lived pretty much for the whole of the 20th century, so he’s just there in the background of a lot of things. He was a late-deafened trade union activist who was part of VOG since pretty much the beginning.
And he got into a bit of a ding dong with Stalin about something Stalin had said about sign language on the pages of Pravda in 1950. Stalin was publishing his book Marxism and Questions of Linguistics. And in this article he said that, “deaf-mutes, having no language” were “abnormal people.” He said that language was a “sign of progress,” and that, “sign was to speech what a wooden hoe was to the modern Caterpillar tractor.” So, sign was essentially “backward.”
And Buslaev responds to this by writing directly to Stalin and telling him off. It’s this very long, extraordinary letter. It’s very polite and respectful, but he’s quite forceful. He points out only deaf people can know what issues face other deaf people, and Stalin has got it wrong. And when I first read this I thought, oh dear. This can only end badly.
Especially considering the time period. The early 1950s is the point in which Stalin is lashing out left and right against people who he perceives as wronging him. But what happens as a result is that Stalin tasks his right-hand man Malenkov to conduct studies into the position of deaf people in the USSR. This then leads to sweeping new legislation on social and cultural services for deaf people.
And there are many of these moments where deaf people, through VOG, are insisting on their unique right to speak truth to power in the name of their own community. I don’t know how we can see this as anything but civil society.
You mention briefly throughout that VOG continues to exist in some form today. What are the legacies of the Soviet experience of deafness in Russia today?
It’s problematic legacy, I think. I mean, VOG is still in existence, but it’s a very different organization to the one that existed in the Soviet Union. This is partly because of what happens in 1991. With the collapse of the Soviet economy, we see the collapse of VOG as a money-making organization. It loses a lot of its factories and its social spaces, and it no longer has the capacity to provide the sort of sweeping social services that were part of its remit before.
But what we also see is the fact that the deaf community was so much a Soviet creation, and it was imbued with Soviet ethics and practices. This really doesn’t translate well into the new Russia. There’s a lack of experience of integration for one. Most deaf people had worked in VOG workshops or in deaf brigades in factories. It’s now very difficult for them to get jobs because there aren’t that many hearing enterprises that have any experience of working with deaf people.
Then it’s made worse by this sort of extraordinary thing that happens in the 1990s, which starts with Yeltsin’s attempt to provide additional funding and social support for disabled groups. Because all of this social support has disappeared and the welfare net has disappeared, he decides to support disabled people by exempting any enterprises that were staffed by disabled people from export and import taxes. Which then makes them a prime target for the various mafia organizations that are functioning in Russia at the time.
And in the mid-1990s there are several high ranking VOG members gunned down in mafia hits on their doorsteps. This then hits the newspapers, and this juicy story of the deaf mafia gets fictionalized in 1998 in a film called Land of the Deaf by Valery Todorovsky, which features a deaf mafia boss called the Pig who is pitiful and terrifying in equal measure. Unfortunately, this is actually what many people still think about when you ask them about the deaf community in Russia today. They think about the deaf mafia. It’s one of the first things that they’ll say.
Things are starting to change. There’s been something of a transformation in education. There are a number of bilingual sign/speech schools that have opened up and are producing very educated deaf graduates.
Lots of cochlear implant technology has been brought into Russia more recently. This is again, slightly problematic. There’s a sense amongst various deaf activists now that cochlear implants are being seen as a kind of magical cure and a reason why there doesn’t need to be any social support for deaf people these days, so it’s a double-edged sword.
But things are starting to change a little bit. There is a change in cultural vision of deafness too. One of the most interesting things that happened this decade was that Sergei Loban, in his 2011 film Dust, included a deaf actor, Aleksei Znamenskii doing a sign song version of Kino’s rock anthem Change at the end of his film, which then turned into a YouTube clip that everyone was watching.
The power of sign language culture is starting to seep back into the mainstream as it did in the 1960s. Again, it’s not always in a good way. To offset this, we have Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s 2014 Ukrainian film, The Tribe, which was filmed entirely in sign language with no dubbing or subtitles. And it features drug dealing and violence and rape and illegal abortion and murder, so there is this sense that there’s a stereotype of deafness that is not going away.
And the fact that there is so very little money and the crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs has made it very difficult for a lot of deaf organizations to function in Russia.
Is there a continued memory of this Soviet experience in which deaf people in Russia today draw upon?
Well, that’s what’s been very interesting. I think around the collapse of the USSR there was very much a sense that VOG had ceased to be useful to deaf people. This was partly because in the 1970s and 1980s various hearing members of the Soviet government had realized how much money there was in VOG and wanted a piece of it. So, they were dropping a lot of hearing bureaucrats into the VOG structures, and over time, it becomes less and less of a deaf-run organization. It becomes more and more an arm of the government that is not very useful for deaf people.
There’s a sense when you get to the Glasnost period that there’s a very strong desire to reject VOG and everything it stands for. But what happens in the 1990s and since the millennium is that there’s been a rediscovery of deaf history in Russia. This is almost entirely due to a very small team of deaf historians who are working to put together the history of VOG and the history of the revolutionary experience.
One of them, Victor Palennyi, I’ve worked with a lot. He’s creating these huge volumes of Russian deaf history. And there’s a sense that it’s all coming out now and being seen as this incredibly new and exciting thing that there was this deaf revolution, and there was this moment where deaf people were demanding their rights and demanding their agency and achieving it.
There’s a nostalgia for that too, and there’s a sense that there is something unique that needs to come back in a way. There is a unique Soviet deaf experience that should be able to inform the Russian deaf future. It’s trying to find ways to make that happen, if you like.
Mark Steinberg on the symbolism of angels, wings, and flight in the Russian Revolution.