As of the first chapter of Deaf in the USSR, we were in 1917, on the tail of a revolution from centuries of despotic rule by a series of tsars. Inclusion and unification were at the top of the revolutionary agenda, and the deaf were perfect mascots for the new Soviet ideal of human perfectibility through physical work. Their numbers were increasing in universities, trade schools, jobs in the government, and unions that they’d won the right to run themselves. Was the Soviet dream an exception to the rule of “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”? We learn in chapter two of Deaf in the USSR that the answer is an emphatic “No.”
The fine print of Communism was already dawning, and would seriously forestall social contracts both between the deaf and their nation and among the deaf themselves. The divergences it revealed invite questions about the construction of deaf culture that remain unanswered today.
Reading Claire Shaw’s Deaf in the USSR, Chapter 2: “Making the Deaf Soviet”
Following the 1917 revolution, physical labor was the route for deaf people to integrate into a society that was now working-class by design, and they championed the revolutionary narrative of overcoming physical defects by being excellent workers. But the Soviet dream had more than just physical conditions for true belonging: there was also a universal standard of social cultivation through the sciences, humanities, and traditional big-C culture. Lenin called to eliminate social stratification by making cultural forms through 1917 accessible and intelligible to the masses, and developing public institutions that would make a taste for these works widespread (Zvorykin, pp 9-15). So while some deaf workers would exceed their work production quotas by more than one hundred percent, it wasn’t enough; they also had to demonstrate their appreciation of cultural artifacts (Shaw, 65).
Statistics from that transitional period suggest that the deaf were being appropriately funneled up the cultural ladder, but a closer look at their internal conflicts and everyday experiences reveals that this progress was relatively superficial. Deaf literacy rates would rise by 15 percent between 1925 and 1933 (Shaw 68), however the literacy rates among the hearing doubled within the same time period. This relative lag, along with society’s low bar for deaf literacy (only basic reading levels were required for state factory work), made university coursework all the more daunting for the deaf first-generation college students who began to enroll. On one hand, following classes through readings was prohibitively slow; on the other, sign language interpreters were hardly more efficient, muddled instead by the spectrum of language modes in the classroom:
One [deaf student] reads lips and does not know fingerspelling or sign language. Another does not lipread but knows fingerspelling and sign language, a third knows only sign language. There are those who come from rural areas with their particularities, with their nonspeak. It is natural that in one and the same class they do not understand each other. (Shaw, pp 69-70)
If they hoped to accommodate the diversity of students relying on them, interpreters most likely had to reduce the complexity of their message, slowing down passages, repeating them, or completely glossing them over in an effort to at least approximate the content for everyone. So, sure, dozens of deaf students did register for higher education and advanced technical training in the 1930s– but myriad communication obstacles stood between them and the more abstract, theoretical content of their courses (Shaw, pp 62-69).
A Soviet society’s new distaste for differences was not entirely to blame for the systemic nature of these obstacles; internal political fragmentation over deaf identity and deaf goals also played their part. Membership in the All-Russian Association of Deaf-Mutes (VOG) rose from 5,143 in 1929 to 39,000 by 1937, thanks to the active outreach programs they had installed to recruit and educate rural members; but as their numbers grew, so did the divergence in their interpretations of Lenin’s acculturation objective. They divided into two general factions on this subject, one for assimilation via more traditional conceptions of culture (much of which had its origins in music or spoken Russian), and another which sought to develop a more characteristically deaf culture in dialogue and parallel with the former.
Struggles between the two different approaches played out clearly in a tug-of-war over deaf affairs, notably over whether or not “deaf affairs” should operate at all. Wouldn’t a separate governing body rely on discrimination in order to exist, and hadn’t the deaf been waiting for centuries to be regarded the same as everyone else? In the eyes of this assimilative faction, deaf unions like the VOG were mere transitional maneuvers, stepping stones towards deaf integration whose mark of success would be rendering themselves obsolete. They resisted VOG affiliation, sign language, and other marks of cultural identity beyond “Soviet.” What’s more, comments from members of this faction defy the idea of deaf culture altogether: “Special conditions do not imply a separate culture! We deaf people are divided among ourselves by nationality and are obliged to familiarize ourselves with the culture which exists in each nation, not to create our own culture” (83).
On the other side of the aisle, the deaf-cultural-development faction resented the dream-like nature of the Soviet dream. “[Another deaf member] believes that deaf-mutes are not disabled, they they are equal to physically healthy people,” said Romanchuk, a VOG member. “Is that really so? I believe that deaf-muteness is the most negative type of disability” (Shaw, 85). One representative from this faction employed Soviet rhetoric to argue for a form of deaf separatism, accusing the opposite faction of neglecting “the call of the masses” (i.e., the deaf) to chase a pipe dream of conformity which was hardly attainable for the early-deafened, genetically deaf, and those who had reached later decades of life without ever being offered speech therapy. Indeed, representatives of this faction couldn’t fathom how the deaf with residual hearing, or who were skilled in speech and lipreading, expected more visually-dependent or illiterate deaf individuals to simply catch up:
“[the other faction’s representative]’s point is that ‘the difference between deaf-mutes and speaking workers should be erased.’ How are we to understand this?… perhaps he is implying the abolition of differences in communication. Then he needs to say so. To erase the difference in communication is very hard, because you hear and I do not” (Shaw, 80).
Meanwhile, deaf cultural developments would face tight regulation regardless, as the government distrusted affiliations that might compromise the unity of the proletariat. Lenin had demanded the redistribution of culture, and stated that “the task of raising the cultural level is one of the most urgent confronting us,” but would curtail some of the most progressive turn-of-the-century works–even musical scores without lyrics–on the grounds that they were anti-Soviet for being too esoteric (Zvorykin, pp 9-16). To a leader appraising culture in terms of its reach rather than its breadth or inventiveness, deaf culture was going to be a hard sell. It didn’t matter “what art gives to hundreds, or even thousands,” Lenin said of cultural works that appeal to small groups, “out of a total population numbering millions” (Horton).
Though we don’t yet know the outcome between these two factions, the deaf-cultural-development faction stood at a serious disadvantage. Relatively immature, Soviet deaf culture was going through puberty at a time of major social transition: “[deaf culture] was not yet an established culture transplanted into the city but a culture in the making” (Shaw, 82). The moment was opportune to capitalize on the revolutionary hope of a better life, and deaf individuals with speaking ability had to weigh their priorities: a straight Soviet identity, which represented a safe form of normalcy, or a Soviet deaf identity, whose founders were scrambling to define the logistics and scope of its makeup. Sign language development wasn’t faring much better, as exchanges among newly converging Soviet deaf peoples sent it into an evolutionary whirl that was slippery to pin down for educational or standardization purposes (Shaw, pp 78- 80).
Some deaf sought to refine deaf interests; other deaf failed to conceive of what those interests would even be; but almost all agreed on one goal that would chafe the modern deaf studies scholar: to do away with deafness. Studies estimate that up to half of the deaf population had lost hearing only later in life by accident, illness, or heavy industrial noise pollution. The VOG (if you recall, a deaf association) formed a coalition called “Take Care of Your Hearing!” (beregi slukh!) which campaigned to reduce the rates of non-genetic deafness over time by improving hygiene and factory conditions (Shaw, 73). “We lose our hearing as a result of our ignorance and unculturedness,” one slogan read; “sanitary education through the explanation of causes and cures of deaf-muteness is on the agenda of VOG work” (74).
If even deaf-cultural-development activists were willing to subscribe to the ideology behind beregi slukh, the reader can admit that Soviet politics, either through intimidation, successful collectivist propaganda, or both, had significant influence on the contours of the deaf self. If we begin to compare the histories of American and Soviet deaf communities, a key difference in their respective conditions is the temptation of the Soviet promise. Is Soviet belonging not more promising than freedom, when freedom is the mark of an isolated man? In an article published in the 1936 paper The Young Stalinist, reporters interview deaf worker Petr Spiridonov, who attributes his technical skills, literacy, and livelihood to the effectiveness and benevolence of Soviet leaders. “And in conclusion,” they reported, “[Petr], with special expressiveness, gesticulated: ‘Life has become better, life has become more joyous.’ Having made sure that we understood him, he headed for his brigade in the depths of workshop, from where the clatter and clang of metal could be heard” (Shaw, 67).
Stay tuned for chapter III, “War and Reconstruction.”
Horton, Andrew: “The Forgotten Avant Garde: Soviet Composers Crushed by Stalin.” From The Central Europe Review, Vol. 1, Issue 1, June 1999.
Zvorykin, A.A.: “Cultural Policy in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” From Studies and Documents on Cultural Policies, UNESCO, 1970.
Photo downloaded from Sean’s Russia Blog, which features transcript from an interview with Claire Shaw, author of Deaf in the USSR.