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Disability in the Socialist World

Historians of disability in the West have, over the past few decades, identified some of the key moments in the development of 20th century disability rights activism, including the shift from the medical model to the social model, the growth of civil rights frameworks of emancipation, and the increasing influence of identity politics. But what did this development look like in the socialist world, where – as historians increasingly argue – modernity had its own, particular trajectory? This seminar explores the place of disability and of disabled people in the Soviet Union and socialist Eastern Europe. These societies emphasised humaneness – ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’ – and the desire to break the chains of the downtrodden and marginalised in the service of a brighter, and fairer, future; attitudes that paved the way for a burgeoning of disability rights activism after 1917. Yet the utopian, socialist desire to create a perfect future (and a perfect body) often complicated and frustrated this activism. We will trace the trajectory of disability rights activism, and of attitudes to disability, in revolutionary Russia and the early Soviet Union, and examine what happened when these practices and narratives were imported into Eastern Europe after 1945, and when they came into contact with newly established narratives of disability rights in the West.


Seminar Questions

  1. How did Soviet theorists and state officials understand disability, and the place of disabled people in society?
  2. What kinds of activism were open to disabled people, and what were the limits of that activism?
  3. How did technologies of the body, such as prosthetics, impact the ways in which disability was treated?
  4. What happened when socialist ideologies of disability came into conversation with Eastern European traditions, and Western innovations, in approaches to disability and disabled people?


Essential Reading:

Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova and Pavel Romanov, ‘Heroes and Spongers: The Iconography of Disability in Soviet Posters and Films’, in Michael Rasell and Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova, eds., Disability in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union: History, Policy and Everyday Life (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), pp. 67-96.

Frances Bernstein, “Prosthetic Manhood in the Soviet Union at the End of World War II”, Osiris, vol. 30, no. 1 (2015) pp. 113–33.

Katerina Kolářová and Martina Winkler, ‘Introduction: Visions, Promises, Frustrations: Disability and the Socialist Project’ in Katerina Kolářová and Martina Winkler, eds. Re/imaginations of Disability in State Socialism: Vision, Promises, Frustrations (Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag, 2021), pp. 7-26.

Claire Shaw, ‘“Just Like It Is at Home!” Soviet Deafness and Socialist Internationalism during the Cold War’, in Katerina Kolářová and Martina Winkler, eds. Re/imaginations of Disability in State Socialism: Vision, Promises, Frustrations (Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag, 2021), pp. 27-62.


Further Reading

William McCagg and Lewis Siegelbaum, eds. The Disabled in the Soviet Union: Past and Present, Theory and Practice (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989).

Robert Dale, “The Valaam Myth and the Fate of Leningrad’s Disabled Veterans,” Russian Review 72, no. 2 (April 2013).

Mark Edele, Soviet Veterans of the Second World War: A Popular Movement in an Authoritarian Society (Oxford, 2008).

Beate Fieseler, “The Bitter Legacy of the ‘Great Patriotic War’: Red Army Disabled Soldiers under Late Stalinism,” in Juliane Fürst, ed., Late Stalinist Russia: Society between Reconstruction and Reinvention (London: Routledge, 2006).

Maria Cristina Galmarini-Kabala, The Right to be Helped: Deviance, Entitlement, and the Soviet Moral Order (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2016).

Dan Healey, “Lives in the Balance: Weak and Disabled Prisoners and the Biopolitics of the Gulag,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 16 (Summer 2015).

Lilya Kaganovsky, How the Soviet Man Was Unmade: Cultural Fantasy and Male Subjectivity under Stalin, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008. 

Sarah D. Phillips, ““There Are No Invalids in the USSR!”: A Missing Soviet Chapter in the New Disability History,” Disability Studies Quarterly 29, no. 3 (2009). See also her book Disability and Mobile Citizenship in Postsocialist Ukraine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011).

Claire Shaw, Deaf in the USSR: Marginality, Community and Soviet Identity, 1917-1991 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017).

Teodor Mladenov, Disability and Postsocialism (London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2017).