A short history of the society of the deaf in Russia

A short history of the society of the deaf in Russia

Viktor Palennyy—teacher, historian, and journalist

Over the course of many centuries, the deaf made up a "demeaned and insulted" minority that had no place on the pages of history. In books on sign language teaching, deaf people were left outside the margins, along with their stories and everyday lives: authors were more interested in the methods of teaching and "great teachers" of deaf children, even though the "silent minority" had something to say.

In studying the past and present situation for deaf people, we are primarily interested in the freedom of choice and problems of self-realization and identity for the individual. Historians of deaf culture are looking for answers to questions about the nature of deafness in different eras, as well as the status of and career opportunities for members of the deaf community.

Below is a brief overview of the main milestones in the history of the deaf in Russia, which we hope will help readers better understand deaf people's position in society in different eras.


In Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich's “Cathedral Code,” there is a section that defends the rights of the deaf to receive inheritances.


  • The first special schools for the deaf and mute are founded in Europe: in Paris (the Abbé de l’Épée), Edinburgh (Thomas Braidwood), in Leipzig (Samuel Heinecke), and others. Information about these educational institutions makes its way to Russia.

  • Catherine the Great corresponds with the Abbé de l’Épée.


  • Founding of the first school for the deaf and mute in Russia in Pavlovsk, in Marienthal Castle (also known as Bip, Bibs).
  • Empress Maria Feodorovna meets Alexander Meller, a deaf-mute boy, on a walk in Pavlovsky park. Two sons and a daughter in the family were born unable to hear. 


A student in the Saint Petersburg School for the Deaf and Mute, the artist N. Ivashentsov makes a lithograph of the “Manual Alphabet of the Deaf and Mute,” the first dactyl alphabet in Russia.


  • Literate deaf people are given the same right to manage and organize their property as other adults.

  • “Plainly speaking, a deaf and mute person is neither better nor worse than other people; he carries with him the same passions and possesses the same potential for self-improvement. The entirety of the difference which can be noted in him can be ascribed to circumstance.” (Fleury, V., 1835. Glukhonemye… [The Deaf and Mute…]).


  • Foundation of a school in Moscow, which would later be called the Arnold-Tretyakov School for the Deaf and Mute.
  • The school's founder, a deaf man named Ivan Arnold, is educated overseas. Before returning to Russia, he studies methods of teaching the deaf in Germany. Pavel Tretyakov, the founder of the Tretyakov Gallery, serves as the patron of the school.


  • Charity of the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna for the Deaf and Mute. The charity opens studios, halfway houses, schools, educational workshops and refuges.

  • According to the 1897 census, the total number of deaf and mute in the Russian Empire amounts to 124,513 people, of whom 40,000 are deaf school-aged children.


The Saint Petersburg Society of the Deaf and Mute is created, led by Nikolai Deibner. In the course of its first year, the society's management organize 11 events, and the society numbers 72 members by the end of the year.


  • Protests by the deaf in Moscow and Petrograd lead to the organization of the 1st All-Russian Congress of the Deaf and Mute. Thirty-six delegates from various cities in Russia participate. The All-Russian Union of the Deaf and Mute is created.

  • The first issue of the Petrograd newspaper Zhizn glukhonemykh [The Life of the Deaf and Mute] is published with a mission: “The world of the deaf and mute is connected with the world of the speaking, yet is fairly great and individual at the same time.” (1916).

  • A member of the Petrograd Committee of the Deaf and Mute, the actress Evgenia Minasova proposes that the term “deaf and mute” be eliminated: “A person who calls himself 'deaf and mute' is something of an idiot to the hearing. Such a prejudiced and negative opinion is attached to all of our attempts to prove the opposite, like a label; serves as a barrier to all of our endeavors; leads to the alienation from the company of other people… We should only be called ‘deaf.’” None of the delegates support her; some even refer to the Gospel, where the word “deaf-mute” is uttered by Christ himself. 


  • The Moscow Club of the Deaf and Mute is registered. In 1919, a theatre of the deaf and mute is organized under the Theatre Department of the People’s Commissariat for Education. In 1920, the House of the Deaf and Mute opens on Pyatnitskaya Ulitsa, with workshops, dormitories, a bathhouse, and a literacy school.

  • In 1919, the Social Security Department in Petrograd designates a space for the House of Work and Education for the Deaf and Mute, featuring a dormitory, dining hall, club, literacy school, and workshops.


  • In 1920, the 2nd All-Russian Congress of the Deaf and Mute is held with 32 delegates from 15 organizations participating. The Bolshevik authorities do not wish to tolerate the “arbitrary” exercise of power by the deaf and demand that the deaf and mute division of the Russian Communist Party, organized in August 1920, liquidate the All-Russian Union of the Deaf and Mute.

  • The liquidation of the Union outraged the deaf: “…we protest against the application of the remnants of gendarme ideology to our Union, according to which the free association of citizens is dangerous and unnecessary to the government, as the law supposedly provides such well enough.”
  • In Moscow and Leningrad, Communist Party cells conduct political education in clubs, found discussion groups, and hold lectures and reports.

  • In 1924, the first issue of Zhizn glukhonemykh [The Life of the Deaf and Mute] is published.


  • The All-Russian Meeting of the Deaf and Mute is attended by 29 delegates. A decision is made to organize a network of educational trade workshops. The All-Russian Association of the Deaf and Mute is organized.

  • A year after the meeting, 32 local divisions and 68 teams of the Association has been established in the RSFSR.

  • Pavel Savelyev becomes the first chairman of the All-Russian Association of the Deaf and Mute.


  • The country is industrialized, and the deaf become the “giants of the five-year plans.”

  • Just 2% of the working-age population of deaf people are without employment. The All-Russian Association of the Deaf and Mute works in close partnership with workers’ unions.

  • In 1931, the first class is admitted into a factory school.

  • In 1933, more than 4,000 deaf people are working as part of more than 200 groups in factories. “Red corners” (recreation and reading rooms) for the deaf are opened at factories.

  • At the Moscow Electrical Factory, the first trade union committee of the deaf and mute in the country is organized in 1933.

  • In June 1933, the All-Russian Association for the Deaf and Mute’s newspaper, The Life of the Deaf and Mute, is reorganized into a journal.

  • In 1931, the People’s Commissariat for Education releases an Order on the introduction of compulsory education for “physically defective children.”

  • The number of schools and orphanages for deaf and mute children increases from 93 to 170 in a year.

  • In 1932, a new teaching plan and curriculum for schools for the deaf and mute are developed.

  • In 1932, the first All-Russian Deaf and Mute Olympiad is held.


  • In the 1930s, the deaf receive access to higher education. Literacy work expands further.

  • The first deaf students graduate from the workers’ department at the Moscow Institute of Chemical Engineering. A group of deaf students is admitted to the future N.E. Bauman Moscow State Technical University.

  • Over the course of 1934, the management of the All-Russian Association for the Deaf and Mute prepares 97 literacy workers, 31 culture workers, and 25 translators. From 1933 to 1935, the Association teaches more than 2,900 people in literacy schools


“The Leningrad Deaf and Mute Group Affair”: the deaf are accused of creating a fascist terrorist organization connected with the German consulate. A large group of deaf people are arrested; 35 are shot (among them are the 64-year-old Nikolai Deibner, Erik Totmyanin, director of the Pantomime Theatre Mikhail Tager-Karyelli, and others), and 19 are sent to camps for ten years. The case begins when Totmyanin, chairman of the Leningrad Region Division of the All-Russian Association for the Deaf and Mute, sends a letter to the NKVD asking them to put “parasites” who blemish the name of the Association to justice. By this, he means “postcarders”: deaf people who sell amateurish postcards with the manual alphabet or “various vistas” at train stations. A search of A. Stadnikov’s apartment reveals 1,400 postcards, including several German ones with images of Hitler that have come into his possession thanks to a German political emigré, A. Blum (these were standard inserts in the packs of the German cigarettes which Blum smoked).


Deaf factory workers work for the front, and among workers at the Ural factories are numerous individuals evacuated from the western part of the country. More than 4,300 deaf people are awarded orders and medals for their work during the war.


Resolution of the Council of Ministers of the USSR “on measures to combat deafness and deaf-muteness and improve services for the deaf and mute.” The Council of Ministers orders all industrial ministries to guarantee unhindered employment of qualified deaf citizens and to create all the necessary industrial, housing, cultural, and living conditions for them, including the employment of senior instructors and interpreters at factories. Active development of the All-Russian Association of the Deaf and Mute's system of educational and production enterprises, which allows the Association (under the leadership of Pavel Sutyagin) to become financially independent from the state.


  • In 1952, the RSFSR’s Council of Ministers provide the All-Russian Association for the Deaf and Mute with the right to begin building ten clubs with 250-seat auditoriums. The auditoriums are built with Association funds in a series of regional centers.

  • In 1955, the Association joins the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD). In 1956, the deaf are officially designed handicapped from birth and qualify for pension funds.

  • Starting in 1957, The Life of the Deaf is once again published (starting in 1972, V edinom stroyu [In One Formation]). Deaf athletes successfully make their debut at the International Games for the Deaf.


  • In 1965, the Mayak (Lighthouse) leisure complex, with a maximum occupancy of 140 people, opens in Sochi-Lazarevskoe. The same year, the Polytechnicum of the Leningrad Rehabilitation Centre in Pavlovsk opens, where artists, decorators, and culture workers for the clubs of the All-Russian Society of the Deaf are trained. Starting in the mid-1970s, sign language teachers are also trained. The Society supervises the construction of numerous residential buildings.

  • In 1969, the Republic Palace of Culture on Pervomayskaya opens, where the Theatre of Mime and Gesture (in operation since 1962) is based to this day. By 2018, ten actors from the theatre have been named Distinguished Artists of the Russian Federation.


On the ‘Vremya’ [Time] news program on Central Television of the USSR Gosteleradio’s Channel 2, sign language interpreters appear for the first time.


  • All-Russian Society of the Deaf funds are used to build residential buildings in Tver, Magnitogorsk, Perm, and Bryansk. With the transition to the market economy, the support system for the deaf begins to experience problems.

  • Due to a lack of funds, clubs begin to close, employees are laid off, and the Society’s large-scale cultural work is significantly reduced.
  • The Society is forced to transfer residential buildings to municipal control.
  • With participation from the All-Russian Society of the Deaf, the Russian Association of Deaf Artists and the Russian Deaf Sports Union are created in 1991 and 1992, respectively. The Bilingual Gymnasium is opened where a group of Russian sign language researchers operates (later, the G.L. Zaitseva Centre for the Education of the Deaf and Sign Language is founded as part of this institution).

  • On October 16, 1992, on the initiative of and with the participation of Association specialists, an experimental closed captioning program is conducted on air for the first time.


  • In 1993, the All-Russian Society of the Deaf's budgetary financing is reduced, after which the government finds a clever way out: extra-budgetary financing through foreign economic benefits. According to this scheme, goods transported across the Russian customs border by all-Russian public organizations of disabled people will not be subject to customs payments. In 1994, the amount of the state grant provided to the Association in the form of customs exemptions amounts to $160 million. Organizations of disabled people cannot organize their own commodity-export businesses, however. This is done by various firms, which transfer minimal dividends to the Society out of their massive profits.

  • The chairman of the Moscow City Organisation of the Society, Igor Abramov, and Association President Valery Korablinov are murdered.


Society President Viktor Smaltser participates in the development of the “Social Support for Disabled People 2000–2005” Federal Target Program. However, it is of little use to deaf citizens, as major enterprises are closed, and the large groups of deaf people who work there are suddenly unemployed. Meanwhile, at other surviving companies, deaf employees are laid off.


Valery Rukhledev (Society President since 2003) takes part in the UN Special Committee to develop the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as part of the Russian State Delegation. He speaks at the UN in defense of points that are important for deaf people.


  • Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signs a federal law ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a law raising the status of Russian Sign Language, initiated by the All-Russian Society of the Deaf.

  • The first class of sign language interpreters graduates from the Moscow State Linguistic University.


  • Russian athletes win in the unofficial team evaluation of the summer Deaflympic Games in 2013 and 2017.

  • In 2015, Russia hosts the Winter Deaflympics for the first time. The All-Russian Society of the Deaf participates actively in the Abilympics and Deaf Skills movements.

  • Inclusive programs are developed at museums.


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