Sensory Disability and the New Soviet Woman

by Hannah Parker

Considerable chunks of my PhD so far have been spent trawling the archives for letters written by women in the Soviet Union to newspapers, organs and officials in order to grasp how women reproduced ideological language in their letters, and what this tells me about their understandings of themselves as reconstructed ‘New Soviet Women’ in the early years of the Soviet state.

KruglikovaLikbez
“Woman! Learn literacy! Daughter: ‘Eh, mama! If you were literate, you could help me!'” (1923): Literacy was an essential skill for the New Soviet Woman.

I’d initially expected to find an unremittingly uniform collection of correspondence, the analysis of which would be a chore. However, the sheer variety, vitality and honesty in the experiences relayed to officials was captivating and challenged my preconceptions in a number of ways. On one such trip to the archives last year, I stumbled upon a letter from 1939 written by a young woman who would become a “distinguished woman of letters”: Olga Skorokhodova.[1]

Olga, a deaf-blind woman educated in Kharkov, Ukraine, is known to many as a stunning success story of Sokoliansky, the influential surdotiflopedagog (educator of the blind and deaf).[2] Her impassioned and critical letter to the Procurator General, Andrey Vyshinsky, was striking to me in its boldness, so early in her career:[3]

“From year to year it is improving [elsewhere]: for [seeing and hearing children] a new school. New Productions. And here: deaf-blind – invalids, and ‘idiots’! When will this mockery of us end?… I know that you and comrade Molotov are preoccupied with important issues, but, I hope you will not reject children in care.”[4]

This was not the only letter Olga sent on this occasion: her letter to Vyshinsky was accompanied by another to the secretariat of the Sovnarkom (Council of People’s Commissioners), asking them to ensure that her letter was forwarded to Vyshinsky personally: “He is already familiar with the matter about which I write.”[5] Olga’s self-assurance led me to interrogate the conclusions I had drawn so far in my research into the reception of ‘New Soviet Woman’ by women themselves.

Claire Shaw’s fascinating doctoral study on deafness and the New Soviet Person notes that gender was not an issue in the Russian Deaf community, which was notably distinct from its international counterparts in its cultural identity and cohesion. [6] However, the identities of Deaf women as women, as well as (as) Deaf people, are worthy of exploration. Though gender may not have been an issue of contention, it was certainly a crucial facet of one’s individual identity: people tend to identify as more than one ‘thing’.

So, although access to employment outside the home and the value of labour have been well documented as key tenets of the New Soviet Woman, the letters from hearing women that I had found until then conceptualized labour as a right: the right to the means for survival, and to social legitimacy.

Exclaiming: “we are the children of workers and farmers!” Olga reflected another

Soviet_Poster_2
“The illiterate man is the blind man: Pitfalls and misfortune await him at every turn” (1921): citizens with sensory disabilities contradicted the ideological portrayal of their experiences.

dimension of meaning to this aspect of the New Soviet Woman which I had not fully considered before: labour and employment as part of a collective memory of emancipation by the revolution.[7] Labour and education evidently meant something beyond social legitimacy in the Soviet state to those women with sensory disabilities. As with the hearing women emancipated by the state after the Revolution, we can perceive echoes of the memory of liberation in the way that non-hearing women fiercely defended education and labour, and their right to ‘sameness’, and social equality with men.

However, as Shaw notes, we shouldn’t argue that “Deaf-Soviet selfhood unconsciously mirrored that of the ‘hearing’ population”. Rather, the revolution had been liberating for the Deaf, the collective memory of which informed their relationship with Soviet ideology.[8] Similarly, we shouldn’t view Deaf women as unconsciously mirroring hearing women in their engagement with Soviet ideology.

Though obviously facing distinct obstacles and discrimination in their daily lives, it is possible to contend that the Deaf community represented a particular form of emancipatory politics. That they were relatively unlikely to face severe reproach or criticism from the Soviet state allowed a greater degree of personal agency in the formulation of a critical world view. I’d argue that this is evident in the sharpness of the criticisms contained in letters to officials and newspapers.

Olga begins her letter with the assertion: “I want to remind you about the catastrophic position of the deaf-blind school in Kharkov, about which I have already written to you.” The confidence with which she introduced her complaint expressed a fearlessness absent in letters from the hearing community, whose requests and complaints were made uniform with the introduction: “I am very sorry to bother you, but…”[9]

I am, therefore, keen to explore further the ways in which the identities of Deaf and Deaf-blind girls and women were informed by the Soviet value system, and how we can situate their performative texts amongst women’s texts, as well as the texts of the Russian Deaf and Deaf-blind communities.

In doing so, I would contend that it is important to assess the texts of Deaf women against the values of the New Soviet Woman in particular: collectivism, initiative, consciousness and labour – but also maternalism, social equality and transcendence.

Moreover, broadening Shaw’s conceptualisation of the mutual engagement between Deaf and Soviet social identities as “not unconscious”, I would define it as both conscious and unconscious at different times; in line with the navigation of Soviet discourse apparent in the body of sources utilized for my thesis as a whole.[10]

However, most importantly, by examining the public letters of Deaf and Deaf-blind women in this way, we can begin to locate their social histories amongst a broader social history both of women and of the Deaf community in the early Soviet Union.

Hannah Parker is in the third year of an AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on receptions of the concept of the ‘New Soviet Woman’ by ordinary women in the Soviet Union, through their letters to the state. Reach her on Twitter @_hnnhprkr.   

References:

[1] I. Sandomirskaia, ‘Skin to skin: language in the Soviet education of deaf-blind children, the 1920s and 1930s’, Studies in East European Though, (2008), 60:4, p. 321

[2] Ibid., p. 324.

[3] Olga’s career as an educator and author would begin proper in 1955, when she was approximately 45 (Sandomirskaia, 2008: 321)

[4] GARF, f.5446 op.81a d.22 ll.145-6

[5] Ibid.

[6] C.L. Shaw, Deaf in the USSR: ‘defect’ and the New Soviet Person, 1917-1991, Doctoral Thesis, UCL, p. 25.

[7] GARF, f.5446 op.81a d.22 ll.145-6; C.L. Shaw, Deaf in the USSR: ‘defect’ and the New Soviet Person, 1917-1991, p. 31.

[8] C.L. Shaw, Deaf in the USSR: ‘defect’ and the New Soviet Person, 1917-1991, p. 31.

[9] GARF, f.5446 op.81a d.22 ll.145-6

[10] C.L. Shaw, Deaf in the USSR: ‘defect’ and the New Soviet Person, 1917-1991, p. 29.

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