Blog Round-Up!: January-February 2019

Tom Shillam

The beginning of 2019 has seen much commentary on authoritarianism, political violence and student activism across the academic blogosphere. Here, I summarise some pieces that draw on new research by promising scholars, which will hopefully offer food for thought and debate!

A fitting place to start might be Brexit and the political wrangling, factionalism and jingoistic posturing it continues to unleash. Not only are leading Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg becoming more strident; those who oppose Brexit in the major parties are splitting away to form an ‘Independent Group’ which straddles both.

This brings to mind Andrew Heath’s piece for History Matters, based at the University of Sheffield, on whether the American Civil War can teach us anything today. Heath proposes that the splits we are seeing in 2019 Britain resemble those wrought by the ‘slavery question’ in the 1850s United States – dominated similarly by two political parties – though he is careful not to elide today’s Europe question with slavery in scale or moral consequence.

What is clear is that domestic political discourse around Brexit is deeply imbued with authoritarian and violent undertones which speak to the importance of submerged, brutal histories. Karis Campion, observing the bitter hostility and ridicule meted out to Labour MP Diane Abbott on the BBC’s Question Time of 17 January – and the routine sexist and racist abuse directed at her on social media – employs the concept of  ‘misogynoir’ in considering how ‘both sexism and racism manifest in black women’s lives to create intersecting forms of oppression’.

The history of British colonialism explains this. Noting that lighter-skinned black women such as Meghan Markle receive comparably less abuse, Campion explores the histories of Caribbean plantation societies. Here, while black slave women were routinely raped, mixed-race women were used as an ‘intermediary between black and white’, sometimes becoming part of new managerial classes. Campion proposes that these ‘historical societal structures’ explain ‘misogynoir’, which ‘systematically devalues darker-skinned women’.

At the same time as history excludes some, it serves others. Kojo Koram focusses on the irony of Brexiteer MPs employing the language of national liberation in a country which historically understood itself to be too ‘civilised’ for ‘overt nationalism’. In the recent past, the language of national liberation was an anti-colonial one which paternalist British elites scorned; but Koram observes a parity of intent between today’s Brexiteer elite and certain postcolonial elites of the 20th-century, whose rhetoric sometimes concealed lust for newfound political and cultural power. Understanding where such political languages come from, Koram suggests, is one step to exposing dishonest latter-day adherents.

Other interesting pieces on the themes of race, resistance and authoritarianism in colonial history include Marlene Daut’s article on the Kingdom of Hayti, and Teju Cole’s article in the New York Times on the camera as an instrument of imperialism. Daut’s is a readable and informative piece on ex-slave Henry Christophe who became king of the first free black state in the Americas. Cole’s thorough and profound piece makes powerful arguments about how photography and photojournalism – which, when paired with a ‘political freedom of movement’, has often served to ‘aestheticize suffering’ – practiced more carefully can catalyse public action on key issues.

Ayona Datta, writing in The Conversation about how young women living on the outskirts of Delhi are using selfies to challenge standard orderings of public space, agrees with Cole that photography can be both a liberating and dangerous act. The locations where young women snap selfies, and their immediate surroundings, provide insights into control over women’s bodies in contested urban settings. Datta suggests the selfies express deeper yearnings and anxieties than ‘a simple rendition of a millennial trend’.

Indeed, studying the political arguments and expressions of the young matters to understanding contemporary politics on several continents. Dan Hodgkinson and Luke Melchiorre highlight the agency of radical students in 1960s and 1970s Africa in pushing alternate pan-Africanist and socialist decolonisation projects which authoritarian postcolonial states combatted.

Elsewhere, Associate Professor of History Elspeth Brown explores the history of Canada’s first gay student organisation, the ‘University of Toronto Homophile Association’, founded in 1969. The body prefigured today’s LGBT liberation movements in the region, and Brown includes audio clips from lead activist Jearld Moldenhauer which shine a light on the challenges – including unemployment – Moldenhauer faced for his agitation.

Finally, returning to the theme of the language and concepts employed to stigmatise disadvantaged groups and populations, Kate McAllister of the University of Sheffield writes about the history of mental health treatment in Britain. Charities like Mind are currently calling for ‘parity of esteem’ between mental and physical health conditions as politicians move painfully slowly – if at all – to recognise the country’s ongoing mental health crisis. McAllister investigates how in early 20th-century welfare legislation, the concept of the ‘unconscious’ was used to brand mental health problems imaginary. Again, the detailed study of history and its organising concepts and narratives offers crucial insights into today’s problems.

Tom Shillam is PhD student at the University of York who holds a Departmental Scholarship from the Department of History. His research considers how mid-20th century South Asian intellectuals synthesised anti-authoritarian ideas of their own with those of writers elsewhere to propose a different decolonising politics to the dominant developmentalist dogmas of the time. Catch him on Twitter @tomshillam.

Educating the ‘Uneducable’: Soviet Deaf-Blind Education and the New Soviet Person

By Charles Beacroft

In 1928, Lucy Wilson, an experienced educator and pedagogue, travelled from the United States to the Soviet Union to compile an accurate account of the advances of Soviet education for the Vanguard Studies of Soviet Russia. In her travels, she arrived to a school for the deaf-blind in the Ukraine and was stunned. She concluded that ‘in Kharkov… there is an experimental school for the scientific study of the deaf-blind which in its ideal, its equipment, its teachers and its results is far ahead of anything that I have chanced to see in any other country.’[1]

Three children being led by their teacher at the Kharkov School for the Deaf-Blind

Wilson’s amazement concerned the Kharkov Institute for the Deaf-Blind, a school-clinic that remained the focal point for surdotiflopedagogika (deaf-blind education) within the Soviet Union during the interwar period. The founder of the school, Professor Ivan Sokolyansky, who was considered the father of surdotiflopedagogika, had formulated a method that involved the use of self-care techniques, educational practices and mechanical prosthetics to educate previously ‘uneducable’ deaf-blind children.

This was representative of the transformative mind-set of social constructivism during the 1920s and 1930s, personified through the proliferation of the New Soviet Person myth. His system, termed ‘humanization’, ensured that deaf-blind children, despite their sensory deprivation, could lead productive, purposeful lives within Soviet society.

Congenital deafblindness is defined as the combination of both sight and hearing loss, often through the catching of tuberculosis, meningitis or Usher’s syndrome at an early age.[2] Children who have not developed language before the onset of their multi-sensory deprivation, face an enormous challenge in communicating with others. They are unable to form relationships or interact successfully with their environment, yet they have a perfectly functioning brain.

Sokolyansky retorted that ‘the child himself will never reach full mental development through his own efforts. Without special pedagogical help, a child is totally disabled for life.’[3] Sokolyansky wished to bring about an ‘awakening’, to create the means for the deaf-blind child to utilise their active mind and develop a method of communication with others.

Before the deaf-blind child could be taught how to speak, Sokolyansky wished to teach such children how to form their own independence. All of his pupils were reliant on others to feed, dress and take care of them before they entered the school. Sokolyansky’s method relied on the formation of their own self-care skills. One particular method,

A Deaf-Blind man using a ‘reading machine’

known as ‘direct installation’, had the teacher place their hands on the inside of the palms of a deaf-blind child.[4] Together, they would complete a series of activities, such as dressing, washing and eating, so that the child would passively learn how to complete such activities.

Over a period of time, the child would eventually take a dominant role and would learn how to successfully complete these actions themselves, independent of their teachers. Sokolyansky was concerned with the creating of useful, industrious children who could think for themselves, form their own opinions and make decisions. His method began the process of ‘humanization’ and lay the foundation for subsequent development.

Language was the next step in surdotiflopedagogika. The ‘oral method’ was shunned by Sokolyansky, and he promoted a teaching curriculum that involved gesticulation, the learning of the dactyl alphabet and Braille.[5] The development of their tactile sense was paramount to the creation of language within the mind of the deaf-blind child. Language would lead to the formation of independent thought and the advancement of their education. With such an education, they could learn to live within Soviet society, free of the confines of their pre-institutionalized selves.

Mechanical prosthetics also formed a significant part of Sokolyansky’s approach to
language development, specifically through his creation and development of both the ‘reading machine’ and the ‘teletaktor’. Both of these machines had developed to allow for the deaf, blind and deaf-blind to successfully have an artificial means of communication within Kharkov.

The ‘reading machine’[6] was developed in Kharkov to allow for the transfer of electronical oscillations that passed through the tips of fingers of a blind or a deaf-blind child, thus creating language through tactile means. Likewise, the ‘teletaktor’[7] served deaf or deaf-blind children and converted sounds into vibrations.

Hence, the child would be able to ‘hear’ their own voices, the voices of others and from what direction the noises came from through the feeling of the vibrations. It was an example of mechanical social engineering and utilised the availability of modern contemporary technology to overcome the sensory impairments of the deaf-blind child.

Ivan Sokolyansky (left) helps transcribe Olga Skorokhodova’s (right) memoirs

Sokolyansky’s revolutionary methods bore fruit, with every single child within the Kharkov school being able to read, write and communicate (through various mediums) with each other and their peers. Wilson also reiterated how ‘none of the pupils hear, none of them see, but all of them have acquired the necessary basic habits, meaning that they can take care of themselves efficiently, making their own beds, eating like refined human beings, playing and working together happily.’ [8]

One student, named Olga Skorokhodova, became the triumph of surdotiflopedagogika after eventually writing her own autobiography in 1947, entitled How I Perceive the World, and defending her PhD thesis in 1961.[9] She succeeded in becoming a productive, useful member of Soviet society and her achievements paved the way for others to follow in her footsteps in the late Soviet period.

Charles Beacroft is a second year CHASE funded PhD student within the University of East Anglia’s History Department. His doctoral research deals exclusively with the education of deaf-blind children in the early Soviet period. His research interests revolve around the history of disability, social history, and marginalised groups, specifically homeless children and orphans.


[1] Lucy Wilson, The New Schools of New Russia (Vanguard Press, New York, 1928), p. 86

[2] David Bakhurst and Carol Padden, The Meshcheryakov Experiment: Soviet Work on the Education of Deaf-Blind Children, Learning and Instruction (1991) Vol. 1, Issue 1, pp. 201 – 215

[3] GARF, f. 10049, op. 2, d. 389, l. 3

[4] Tatiana A. Basilova, Istoriya Obucheniya Slepogluhih Detei v Rossii (Eskmo Punlishers, Moscow, 2015), pp. 88 – 89

[5] Tatiana A. Basilova, ‘About Sokolyansky and his Method of Teaching Deaf-Blind Children’, Cultural Historical Psychology Journal (2006), Issue 3, p. 12; Irina Sandomirskaya, ‘Skin to Skin: Language in the Soviet Education of Deaf-Blind Children, the 1920s and 1930s’ (2008), Studies in East European Thought, Vol. 60, pp. 332 – 333

[6] S-FPS, f. 1, op. 3.2, d. 51, l. 43

[7] S-FPS, f. 1, op. 3.2, d. 49, l. 62

[8] Wilson, New Schools, p. 86

[9] O. I. Skorokhodova, How I Perceive and Imagine my World (Pedagogy Publishers, Moscow, 1972)

Image Attributions

Image 1: S-FPS, f. 8, op. 189, d. 14, l. 1

Image 2: S-FPS, f. 8, op. 190, d. 21, l. 1

Image 3: S-FPS, f. 8, op. 191, d. 30, l. 1

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.

“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

“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.   


[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.

Letters to a dictator: ‘speaking Francoist’ in 1940s Spain


by Stephanie Wright

Those who have never had the (dis)pleasure of working with the remnants of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s monstrous state bureaucracy will be unfamiliar with the relentlessly formulaic nature of its documentation.

On my first encounter with Francoist bureaucracy while researching the experiences of disabled veterans of the Spanish Civil War, I had hoped to find reams of letters detailing the personal experiences of wounded soldiers. Unfortunately, the longed-for letters seemed, initially, pretty dull. Confined to a bureaucratic straitjacket of rigid sentence constructions and set phrases, they appeared to tell me nothing at all about the individuality of my subjects.

It was, in fact, in the Francoist state’s interests to prescribe the way in which citizens communicated with it. By adopting the language of Francoism, letter writers acknowledged the regime’s legitimacy and values, and manifested their awareness of their place within the new order. Letters to Franco typically began with ‘His Excellency Generalísimo Franco’ and more often than not signed off with a ‘May God protect you many years’.

In his new compilation of letters written to Franco by ‘ordinary’ citizens, Antonio Sanchez Cazorla offers numerous examples of citizens ‘speaking Francoist’.[1] Ambrosio A., a soldier who accidentally shot his mother while cleaning his rifle, wrote to the

Francisco Franco ruled Spain until his death of natural causes in 1975

Caudillo in November 1938 asking to be sent back to work in his hometown in order to be close to his sister. In doing so, he took care to address Franco as ‘Generalísimo and saviour of our National Spain’ and to sign off with a ‘raised arm and an Arriba España.’[2]

Such highly politicised formulations were very common in letters to Franco and the state more generally, and the readiness with which individuals adopted these phrases is perhaps unsurprising given the repressive climate of Francoist Spain, particularly in its early years.[3]

However, such letters raise questions about the nature of the relationship between the state and its subjects. Although Ambrosio A. clearly adhered to the linguistic expectations of the regime, his insistence that his request be dealt with as quickly as possible, which was repeated in a follow-up letter (in which he also asked for a recommendation letter to include in his appeal to the Ministry of Defence), demonstrated the soldier’s underlying assertiveness.

Assertiveness was not uncommon in the letters sent to Franco or other representatives of the bureaucratic administration. One of the most striking examples of this I have encountered so far is the case of A.C., an ex-soldier whose duties during the war involved relaying messages between different military authorities on his motorbike.[4] In 1938, A.C. sustained an injury to his foot, which led him to apply to join the disabled veterans’ Corps, the succinctly-named ‘Honourable Corps of the Mutilated in the War for the Fatherland’.

The Francoist regime’s policy towards injured veterans aimed to reward those wounded heroically in battle. Therefore, veterans who had sustained wounds in other ways during their period of active service were placed in an uncertain position. This was particularly the case before 1940, after which a decree recognised those injured through accidents during the war (although the nominal distinction between them and the battle wounded was maintained).

The precise origins of A.C.’s foot injury in 1938 are unclear: according to his own testimony in his application to join the Honourable Corps, A.C. had been wounded by ‘enemy shrapnel’, while his superior officer insisted that the injury had in fact occurred as a result of a motorcycle accident.


There are clear motives as to why a soldier might try to obfuscate the true origins of his injury; entry into the Honourable Corps could guarantee the survival of a wounded veteran and his family in the difficult Francoist post-war years. The fact, however, that A.C. was willing to do so in writing is indicative of his awareness of both the state’s expectations of its citizens – most notably, bravery in battle –, and also his confidence in the space for negotiation within the regime’s bureaucratic processes, as long as one understood how to play the game.

In this sense, the dry, bureaucratic language of most citizens’ letters to the state are by no means evidence of a robotic obedience to the Francoist regime. Rather, such letters tell us of the pragmatism of many Spaniards who learnt how to engage with the system in order to meet their own individual needs.

Correspondences such as these also offer an insight into the practical realities of running a state based on rigid understandings of the ideal Francoist male. Both A.C.’s roadside wounding and Ambrosio A.’s tragically incompetent shooting of his own mother contravened the Francoist regime’s rhetorical emphasis on honour and brave sacrifice in battle. Yet that the state dealt with their cases regardless is indicative of a certain flexibility on the part of the regime to incorporate those who perhaps did not fully conform to its propagandistic ideals.

Indeed, from 1940 soldiers who had been injured through accidents during their time in the army were also granted entry into the Honourable Corps. In this way, although one must not forget the regime’s brutal repression of its Republican enemies, its somewhat flexible approach to its own supporters can perhaps offer a helpful perspective on the long-term survival of Francoism until the 1970s.

Stephanie Wright is currently in her second year of a WRoCAH-funded PhD looking at ‘Nationalist’ disabled veterans of the Spanish Civil War and perceptions of masculinity in Franco’s Spain. Find her on twitter @Estefwright.

[1] Stephen Kotkin coined the term ‘Speaking Bolshevik’ in his work on the Soviet Union in the 1930s. This concept referred to the process by which Russian citizens learnt what the state expected of them as individuals, and suggested that it was the population’s willingness to meet such expectations that enabled the Soviet regime to maintain a degree of stability. See Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (London, 1995).

[2] Antonio Sanchez Cazorla, Cartas a Franco de los españoles de a pie (1936-1945) (Barcelona, 2016), p. 38.

[3] Michael Richards’ offers a valuable insight into the dark post-war years in Francoist Spain in his book A Time of Silence (Cambridge, 1998).

[4] Archivo General Militar de Guadalajara, 162-3758, A.C.

The header image is the author’s own.

Image of Franco:

Image of sign: