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.

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.  

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.