Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
Held in Kiev in May, this year’s Eurovision Song Contest is an international incident waiting to happen. From selecting the Russian and Ukrainian entrants to calibrating the crowd’s response to their performances — the whole event is the kind of thing best missed by observers who fear for their blood pressure.
Yulia Samoilova is Russia’s choice. Ukrainian officials say that her selection is a deliberate provocation, because she performed in Crimea in 2015, breaking a Ukrainian law that forbids direct entry to the territory from Russia. They might ban her from participating, or they might permit her to perform and thereby expose her to a hostile reception from the crowd. Samoilova has used a wheelchair from childhood. She’s a natural fit for this year’s Eurovision slogan, ‘Celebrate diversity’. Tuesday’s Times reports another well-known Russian singer on the matter: ‘God forbid that an invalid is insulted — that would be a grievous outrage.’
Disability has preoccupied the Russian media for another reason in the last week. A disabled participant in the blockbuster TV talent show, Moment of Glory, recently performed an astonishing dance routine. Two of the judges made crass comments, suggesting — in the elaborately kind and thoughtful language of the intelligentsia, with its references to justice and conscience, because in Russia intellectuals are among those who sit on this kind of jury — that his participation put them in an awkward position. Should they give him a free pass because he only has one leg, one judge mused aloud? A deeply uncomfortable silence settled on the auditorium. Social media lit up with outrage. A TV executive carried the can and was dismissed. The dancer was invited back to listen to half-baked apologies from the judges. His composure was amazing to watch.
The status of disabled people in Russia stems partly from Soviet legacies. Disabled people had little choice but to take their part in the workers’ state. Especially from the 1950s, local government was required to place disabled workers in appropriate jobs and to train them accordingly. In 1958, for example, the Moscow city soviet claimed that it had fulfilled its targets for placing disabled workers by 112.8 per cent and its targets for training them by 129.8 per cent. There were factories that were largely staffed by the blind, such as one in Gorky Province that manufactured medical brushes. Other disabled workers were given the chance to work from home, sometimes working on craft-based production. A characteristic figure in Brezhnev-era sanatoria was the blind masseur.
Meanwhile, there was a complicated and through system of categorizing the disabled for welfare benefits. Disability was a fact of life when it came to the public presentation of wartime veterans. But in some other contexts, the severely disabled were neither seen nor heard, to their lasting disadvantage and their families’ great suffering. Some of those prejudices have leaked into contemporary Russian life.
Russia’s economy is no longer centrally planned, and so the treatment of the disabled is completely different today: for worse and sometimes better. Cash benefits might be higher but networks of community support might be weaker. Is Russia behind international norms? Take Britain. Recent cuts to public spending have disproportionately affected the disabled, while many of the more obvious strides in their social citizenship have only been a very recent phenomenon, thanks not least to the Disability Rights Commission that was founded in 1999. Whichever message you seek to find — diplomatic, comparative, historical — there’s no easy way to decode the meaning of the Russian singer in the wheelchair.