Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Guest Post: Deaf Space in Moscow

My friend, Claire Shaw, approached me a while ago with some interesting data: the addresses of deaf people in organizations based on archival documents from the Khrushchev period. After she put the addresses in a technologically condusive format, I made a couple maps for her. But these maps were not mere charity. In exchange Claire offered to make a couple thoughts based on these maps for this blog. In the end, she did way more than that and I'm happy to host her guest post "Deaf Space in Moscow."

Deaf Space in Moscow

A couple of years ago, digging through the local files of the All-Russian Society of the Deaf in Moscow’s Central City Archive (TsGA Moskvy, formerly TsAGM), I came across records of a rather heated debate about the place of deaf people in the urban spaces of the Soviet capital. In late 1959, members of the society had been discussing the local subtitled cinema night, lamenting the poor behaviour of deaf people before and after the screenings: audience members would mingle in the streets, sign "loudly" to each other, obstruct traffic and generally make a nuisance of themselves. This discussion sparked off a furious debate about the visibility of deaf people in urban space and the communal policing of deaf behaviour. As one activist put it, "Why are deaf people crowding the streets? For five minutes they run around like mad people. Can that be allowed?"

This small discovery, part a much bigger research project into the history of the Soviet deaf community, represented a jumping-off point for an exploration of the politics and practices of Soviet deaf space, which has culminated in an article forthcoming in Slavic Review in Spring 2015. This guest blogpost, then, is both a shameless plug for my own research, and the opportunity to introduce two brilliant digital maps that have been instrumental in helping me to understand deaf space in the Soviet context. The notion of deaf space has been growing in prominence in recent years, as part of a conceptual arsenal used by deaf studies scholars to explore issues of identity and belonging in deaf communities. Mike Gulliver, whose work has been particularly influential in this field, argues that deaf space is ‘produced’, in the Lefebvrian sense, as a distinct reality, as deaf people gather together as a community and author their "being in the world" through interactions in sign languages. As such, "deaf" spaces are qualitatively different from "hearing" spaces, defined predominantly by the visual experience of the world.

The late Soviet context is a particularly intriguing one through which to explore this concept of deaf space, as it represented the moment in which the Soviet deaf community became more physically – and institutionally – prominent in the Moscow cityscape. In the context of the housing campaigns of the Khrushchev era, the All Russian Society of the Deaf (VOG) began a huge building programme, funded by profits from deaf society workshops, to build industrial, social and living spaces for its members. Thousands of square metres of deaf spaces were built across the country, creating new institutional buildings in which members of VOG could come together to work, relax, learn and live. When you take into account the fact that, by 1949, 96% of all deaf people in the capital were VOG members, then it is possible to view Soviet deaf space as a much more institutionalised and totalizing phenomenon than that found in other historical contexts.

From existing archive sources and cultural artefacts, I had formulated a few hypotheses about the way in which this Soviet deaf space was experienced, both by the deaf and the hearing. On the one hand, the creation of institutionalised deaf spaces enabled the development of a strong deaf community identity, built around particular "hubs" such as the VOG House of Culture on Sretenskii Tupik, the nearby Theatre of Sign and Gesture, or VOG Industrial Workshop No. 1 in Tekstil’shchiki. On the other, the gathering of deaf people together in these locations made them more visible in the eyes of the hearing, and created concerns on the part of both hearing and deaf people about the behaviour and identity of deaf people. Since the revolution, deaf people had been working to transform themselves into New Soviet (Deaf) People, becoming Stakhanovites and shock workers in industry, learning political literacy and demonstrating their kul’turnost’ through theatre and art. Yet the disruptive visibility of deaf people in urban space, particularly their visible use of sign language, threatened this fa├žade of Soviet socialisation, a particularly problematic issue in the context of new models of the self and the communal policing of behaviour in the Khrushchev era.

Full Map Here [update 6/2021: I migrated the map to ArcGIS Online from the defunct Google Fusion Tables]

Such hypotheses, of course, rested on the assumption that there was such a thing as Soviet deaf space, and that its locations could be mapped and studied. The two maps here show us that this was indeed the case, making use of archival data to map the locations of deaf space in Khrushchev-era Moscow. One of the files located in the Moscow City Archive contained handwritten records from 1963 of the location and membership of all VOG primary organisations, Red Corners and clubs in the city; the social spaces, often located in workplaces, which became a "home from home" for Soviet deaf citizens. These records have become two maps. The first, a point map, records the locations and membership figures for these local primary organisations. The second, a heat map, is more exciting for my purposes, showing the concentrations of deaf people within the Moscow cityscape. It highlights particularly populous deaf spaces, including the regions around Moscow Special Schools No. 101 (for the deaf) and 30 (for the hard of hearing), the deaf industrial workshops of the south east, the deaf cultural locations around the VOG Moscow House of Culture in the Sretenskii region, and the concentration of deaf pensioners in the north east—a phenomenon I have found difficult to demonstrate until now.  

Full Map Here [6/2021: also migrated from Fusion Tables]

In my research, I try to use this conception of deaf space to ask bigger questions about marginality and inclusion within the Soviet body politic, and to complicate some of the existing narratives about top-down, exclusionary practices in the late Soviet era. These maps show us that deaf communities and spaces were far from ghettoized, and that they were mostly to be found in symbolically "Soviet"locations, such as the school, the factory, the club and the theatre. Yet as I trace in my work, the insistence of deaf people that they must remain together in institutionalised deaf spaces in order to "achieve" Sovietness and "live" socialism could not help but mark them out as a community apart. The ramifications of this exclusion are still being felt today.

Claire Shaw
University of Bristol, UK.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Representing the War: Controversial Photos on the RuNet

This is the first post in a while and possibly the last post for a while. I have some other long-term digital projects in the works and probably more important, a book manuscript. In the meantime will use this space for smaller pieces as they come up. Case in point, a look at the site WarAlbum, a great resource for photographs of World War II but also an interesting case for analysis of contemporary memory. The site allows users to upload and comment on photos related to the war. Additionally, users can vote up or down comments. I scraped the site in Python (on June 4, 2014) and created a database with the cumulative totals for the negative and positive votes on comments. What we can do with this source is get a rough picture of what photos are more or less popular and controversial based on the number of comments they get and the cumulative positive or negative vote.

(I should add that some of these photos are quite graphic.)

Here are top five photos by the highest cumulative positive and negative vote counts in the comments.

While the first comment--which received a net negative rating--commented on Stalin's buttons, the most rancorous comments deal with the place of Stalin in Soviet history. One user calls Stalin "the greatest enemy of the Russian people," receiving a high negative vote count, while another responds that Stalin is "the greatest enemy of enemies of the Russian people" receiving a positive vote count. Stalin is a polarizing figure. While those who see Stalin as a positive figure seem to outweigh those who see Stalin as a negative figure on this site, both types of comments received large numbers of positive and negative votes.

This photo is less contentious than it is sensational for its depiction of German soldiers smiling with hanged bodies in the background. Comments that received high numbers of positive votes expressed outrage at the soldiers' seeming happiness over the hanging. Comments with high negative vote counts suggested that the hanging could be justified by wartime conditions. 

This photo is controversial because it represents the material losses that were part of broader Red Army atrocities in Germany. The user who posted this photo apparently did so to undermine the notion that the Red Army committed atrocities - and atrocities is hinting at mass rape - in Germany. I'll translate the poster's description:

"The favorite photograph of Western authors about 'atrocities," that the Red Army supposed committed in Berlin...

What appears in the photograph raises suspicions [about the atrocity interpretation]. For example, the soldier is holding the bicycle by the wheel - to pull a bicycle that way is very uncomfortable. Therefore, it is clear that the soldier isn't pulling it but is simply holding it: he is only leaning back a bit. And the woman, who is holding the bicycle, is pulling it with all her strength.

At the same time, the looks on the face of the woman and the surrounding people clearly do not show any horror at 'arbitrariness': on the contrary, they are rather calm...

Even if we agree that here we are seeing the theft of the bicycle, the stories of Western historians about the 'atrocities' of Soviet soldiers here do not find confirmation. The soldier is not threatening the woman with a weapon, no one is running away from the beastly occupying soldiers. If a Soviet citizen had tried to defend their property that way under German occupation... his fate would have been very sad."

The comments section on this photo is also interesting. In the long (but not especially controversial) comment discussion, users try to establish not only if the soldier is trying to steal the bike but whether he is even Soviet!

This is a weird photo to generate a lot of comments with up and down votes. One user suggested that Giza was a "slob" because he had dirty gloves while others defended. Even though this "controversy" may seem a little trivial, it does fit into a broad fastidiousness with clothing in the former Soviet Union.

This photo sparked uncomfortable discussions in the comments. The photo necessarily evokes the Nazi regime's targeting of Jews as its primary enemy - an aspect of the history of World War II that Soviet official memory neglected in favor of a view of the Soviet people as the primary victims of German aggression. Thus, the photo makes viewers engage with the Holocaust as part of the war's history. However, it also allows some users to suggest that Jews were also traitors to their people, in implicit contrast to Soviet civilians under occupation.

In addition to the individual photos, I compiled a list of the hundred tags whose comments were most voted upon. Each photo is tagged with a half-dozen or so keywords - by year, subject, place, etc. Of these, the top ten are unsurprising and seem to represent the most common tags. However, what is revealing is that tags with German subjects (e.g., "Life of German soldiers") had more negatively rated comments than photos with Soviet subjects (e.g., "Civilians"), suggesting that photos of the enemy are drawing more acrimonious comments overall.

I'll make a final comment before linking the spreadsheets of the photos with the most ranked comments and tags. The circle of people commenting on these photos may seem small - a group of 20-50 year hold Russian men who tend to hold nationalist views. Many of the same users appear multiple times in the comments. In spite of this limitation, I would argue that these comments and the controversy over them represent the broader contours of mainstream contemporary war memory. It seeks to defend the Soviet role in the war from supposed Western denigration at the same time that it has to engage with uncomfortable evidence that the internet allows unfettered access to.