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  • Deaf in the USSR: Marginality, Community, and Soviet Identity, 1917–1991 by Claire L. Shaw
  • Tricia Starks, PhD

Russia, Soviet-era Medicine, Disability Studies, Sensory History, Patient Activism

Claire L. Shaw. Deaf in the USSR: Marginality, Community, and Soviet Identity, 1917–1991. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 2017. xvi, 292 pp., illus. $49.95.

Speech, and the companionate ability to hear it, featured prominently in the campaigns of Soviet officials to inculcate a new, revolutionary ideology into their largely illiterate population following the revolution of 1917. In this engaging, well-written, and clearly-structured volume, Claire L. Shaw asks where that left the deaf-mute – a group of about nine percent of the population in 1917 and rising in number after the effects of war and bombardment in World War II – and how the story of their interaction with the Soviet project to build a new man, a new society, and a new world might challenge the “orality” of the revolution, provide different images of the new citizen, and show alternative paths to inclusion in the revolutionary project. Shaw’s research illuminates new visions of revolution and challenges established narratives for many fields, joining a number of new works on disability and the senses in Russia and the Soviet Union but contributes in its own unique ways. Historians of the deaf will confront the idea of a universal deaf experience and the supremacy of western [End Page 232] narratives that have deaf agency emerge in the 1960s. Sensory historians will engage the absence of a sense and its impact on conventional narratives of either oral or visual supremacy in the modern era. Disability historians will encounter a vision of inclusion based on collectivist labor ideals rather than private liberal ideology, and Russian and Soviet historians will question standard periodization, the parameters of Stalinist oppression, and the limits of post-Stalinist relaxation.

Shaw draws much of her research from the institutional records of the All-Russian Association of Deaf-Mutes, known under the acronym VOG (Vserossiiskoe Ob”edinenie Glukhonemykh and maintaining under different names but the same acronym from its foundation in 1926 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union). VOG shepherded the deaf community of Russia through intense changes. The group mediated between grass-roots activism and state-sponsored programs, advocated for deaf people, and provided many services including social, cultural, and educational assistance. Like most of the west, the tsarist state depicted the deaf-mute as savage and incapable of political participation or integration into society. The provisional government, similarly captive to models of orality for civic life, did not allow the deaf to vote. The Soviet state, however, emphasizing the social, not private, origin of the self, envisioned a different pathway to citizenship – labor and integration into the worker collective – and allowed the inclusion of deaf people, along with all disabled, in the vote and in civic life following the revolution. Through the 1920s, into the Stalin era, and on into the period of massive institution and facility building in the 1950s and 1960s, deaf people worked to create an inclusive vision of the Soviet self where deafness was not an insurmountable barrier but an obstacle that could be overcome with productive labor which would allow eventual inclusion in the collective.

While the Soviet state gave paths to inclusion, Shaw shows that it was not without its repressive actions. Soviet officials closed independent institutions in the 1920s and pushed orality in deaf education in later decades. An antipathy to sign language, expressed in the prerevolutionary era as a prejudice against the ability of gesture to convey higher thought, and later articulated by Stalin as antipathy to its “primitive” nature, created a conflict within the deaf community. Speech was needed for access to labor and educational attainment but sign was important for inclusion and participation in the deaf collective. Shaw explores these tensions regarding sign as well as societal pressures that transformed the Soviet deaf theater from a venue for the deaf into an entertainment for the hearing and the enduring social prejudices against the deaf for their perceived criminal tendencies. Shaw concludes her story with the post-1991 triumph of medical understandings of deafness, the...


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pp. 232-234
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