Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Silent Minority

If you travel the Moscow metro regularly, you will have seen them many times, groups of the deaf signing to each other in a mesmerizing, silent cacophony -- because in Russia, as much as 10 percent of the population is deaf.

Official statistics put the number of deaf people in this country at around 12 million, out of a total population of 150 million. And according to Vladimir Bazoyev, who heads the Moscow Association for the Deaf, that is probably an underestimate because many older people with hearing loss do not register their disability.

"Russian figures are at the top end of the range," said Andrew Smith, head of the World Health Organization's deafness prevention program.

In the absence of international standards to measure deafness, it is difficult to compare Russia's statistics to other countries, but Smith pointed out that in developing countries hearing loss affects 6 percent to 8 percent of the population, and in the West the figures tend to be lower. In Britain, for example, some 5 percent of the population have moderate to profound hearing loss.

In spite of their vast numbers, Russia's deaf population remains isolated from society -- on a fringe reserved for invalids and second-class citizens. They are often excluded from educational and professional opportunities, and, with nowhere else to turn, many resort to crime.

According to Moscow police and prosecutors, deaf dealers account for a growing proportion of the drug trade in Moscow.

"They look for work, but work is impossible. Drugs are their only means of making money," said Vera Preskapova, a prosecutor in Moscow's Tverskoi regional court, adding that many of the deaf dealers in town are not Muscovites at all, but people who come in from the provinces.

"Many are recruited right at the train station," she said.

Sadly, for the vast majority of Russia's deaf population, their loss of hearing was quite avoidable.

Bazoyev, like most of the deaf people in Moscow, was born with perfect hearing. But when he was still a baby, he fell ill and his doctor treated him with a strong antibiotic that cured his sickness but left him deaf. He estimates that of the association's 12,000 members, more than 90 percent lost their hearing in this way.

While international experts say acquired hearing loss is quite common, Russia's 90 percent statistic is considerably higher than in other countries. According to a recent survey conducted by the Institute of Hearing Research in Nottingham, England, approximately one-third of the people in Britain with moderate to profound hearing loss were born with the disability.

While Russian health officials have known for decades that certain antibiotics may cause damage to the auditory nerve, they have continued to administer the drugs in situations they deem to be life-threatening.

"For certain illnesses, these may be the only effective antibiotics," said Smith, adding that people vary in their sensitivity to the drug. "It is a bit unpredictable if using the drug will result in hearing loss."

Indeed, hearing loss may result only after the concentration of the drug in the bloodstream exceeds certain levels. In countries with sophisticated medical equipment this level can be monitored, but in cases when this equipment is unavailable -- as in Russia -- the drug may still be used to save the life.

"If a child has very serious infection -- for example meningitis -- and these are only antibiotics available, doctors feel it is worth taking the risk," said Smith. "It is a question of balancing risks."

In the case of Alexei Klochkov, a computer science student who lost his hearing as a baby, the drug proved to be too toxic.

"I wasn't born like this, the doctors made me this way," said the third-year student at Moscow's Bauman State Technical University, which has a special educational center for deaf students.

While Klochkov may have reason to be bitter, he is lucky to be studying at a university that will not only give him a profession, but a chance at becoming an integrated member of society. The deaf educational center drags even the most reluctant speakers and lip readers into hearing society to such a degree that the deaf students often don't bother to sign amongst themselves; instead they speak.

Klochkov not only benefits from Bauman's prestigious technical education, but from the special services granted to all deaf students -- such as courses on etiquette and social graces.

Take their lesson on dating, which involves a young man and a young woman at the movies. When the moment comes for the cavalier to express his desire and slip his hand on her knee -- his palms are sweaty. The moral to the story? Wipe your hand off before you grab her knee.

As invalids, deaf citizens are entitled to certain benefits under Russia's social welfare system -- educational or vocational training, a hearing aid and a monthly stipend. In Soviet times that pension was hard enough to live on, but now the 150,000 rubles ($31) deaf citizens receive condemns them to a life of poverty if they have no other means of income.

Even if they are eager to work, deaf people come up against fierce discrimination when looking for a job. According to one disabled activist, less than 15 percent of disabled adults who want to work actually hold jobs, and many of those who do work find jobs in special factories started by disabled associations.

"Before it was easier to find work," said Bazoyev, adding that deaf people who wished to work under the Soviet system were guaranteed a job -- however menial -- through the Labor Ministry. "Now employers have the choice to reject them."

It is the loss of this safety net that has forced many deaf people to turn to crime to survive.

According to Preskapova, the incidence of drug trading among the deaf has skyrocketed.

"Ten years ago a few cases for the whole year would be considered a lot. Now we might try 30 a year," the prosecutor said.

But Vladimir Charikov, a Moscow police narcotics specialist, said the number of actual arrests disguises the full extent of the problem .

"The statistics don't reflect the real situation among the deaf drug trade," said Charikov. Since no one on the force can sign, he explained, Moscow police have to hire a translator in order to arrest a deaf suspect, and there is not always money to pay for such services.

"Because we can't communicate with the deaf it is more difficult to arrest them," said Charikov. "That is why they are not arrested as often as they should be."

Preskapova is sympathetic to the problems deaf people face. With limited opportunities for legal employment, they have nowhere else to turn.

In one recent case a 20-year-old deaf man came to Moscow from a smaller city to try to find work to support his invalid parents and siblings. His brother, the only one who was not classified as an invalid and the family's sole source of support, had been killed in Afghanistan, and they had reached the point where they could no longer survive on their combined stipends.

"The army had no right to take that boy -- not if he was the only source of support," said Preskapova, who argued for a reduction in the man's sentence for burglary from four years in prison to a misdemeanor. He does not have to go to jail, and if in the next two years he does not commit a crime his record will be clean.

Reacting to this growing criminalization of the deaf community, the deaf association has struggled to offer its members jobs as an alternative. It advocates the creation of a number of firms -- mostly small manufacturers -- specifically to employ deaf workers.

Three years ago, Bazoyev persuaded entrepreneur Vera Vinogradova to set up Contact, a knitware manufacturer that employs 20 deaf people making anywhere from 400,000 to 800,000 rubles a month.

"I felt sorry for these people. They have to make a living too," said Vinogradova.

Unfortunately, Vinogradova's views are not shared by most of those who work in the textile factory where she rents space. Even in its isolated corridor, Contact's deaf collective is shunned by the other workers.

"Many people don't like working with invalids," said Vinogradova. "They consider them to be inferior."

And with all of her good intentions, Vinogradova admits that the deaf can make difficult workmates.

"Their inability to communicate is reflected in everything they do," she said. "They may be able to communicate on a basic level, but they do not understand the words."

"They are, after all, sick people," said Vinogradova, whose attitude, although sympathetic, reflects the more commonly held belief that deaf people are still inferior.

And walking down the firm's narrow corridor, it becomes sadly clear that the workers themselves have grown used to the idea that they are unworthy. Most try to avoid making eye contact, and those who do only smile apologetically and wave visitors off to Vinogradova's office. Only a few members of the deaf staff can manage more than a grunt.

Along with the difficulties, however, there are also advantages to hiring workers classified as invalids. Contact is legally entitled to a 50 percent reduction in rent because more than half of its workforce is deaf.

The Moscow Association for the Deaf itself, like other charitable organizations, also enjoys substantial tax breaks and is exempt from import and export duties. Commercial operations may be established under the charity's rubric to help support its activities, and any profits from such operations are tax-free -- presumably to provide funding for the charity's social welfare programs.

However, while such privileges are welcome, they have also attracted gangsters looking for easy money who see the organization as a convenient target for money laundering.

Police suspect it was the association's entrepreneurial activities that led to the murder of Igor Abramov, the former director of the Moscow Association for the Deaf who was found with two bullets in the back of his head last September. While the crime remains unsolved, police believe Abramov was the subject of a contract killing.

Bazoyev also believes that Abramov -- who drove around in a new Jeep Cherokee and carried a stack of credit cards -- was killed by a disgruntled business partner and is wary of the dangerous activities that claimed the life of his old school friend.

"Abramov handled all of that," Bazoyev said when asked about the commercial activities of the association and, whether out of fear or self-defense, he steers clear of any discussion of the association's business dealings.

Instead, Bazoyev is looking to the future and focusing on the association's ability to defend the rights of its members. He pins his hopes on a new law "in defense of invalids" which was passed in November by the Duma.

Given the government's dismal record in enforcing social welfare laws, Bazoyev's confidence may be somewhat naive. But, if nothing else, the new legislation is a basis upon which to work.

One of the most promising elements of the law, Bazoyev says, is that it guarantees invalids the same rights to education and employment as every other citizen.

"Until this we didn't have the right to work. Now we have some defense," said Bazoyev. In theory, the legislation will also resolve what Bazoyev refers to as "the educational question," opening the doors to institutes and universities that were previously closed to the hearing impaired.

The Bauman State Technical University is the current leader in deaf education in Russia. It has been accepting deaf students since 1934 and, three years ago, set up an educational center to respond to their special needs.

Paradoxically, the center's director, Alexander Stanevsky, insists on the benefits of treating the deaf just like other students.

"There are no deaf students," he tells his class repeatedly, facing his pupils directly so that they can read his lips. "Only good and bad students."

"We live in a hearing world. The path to freedom is through speech," said Stanevsky, who is preparing his students for a market where, according to his logic, there are no deaf engineers -- only good and bad ones. If they are to succeed, they have to learn to stand on their own.

`For the first few years the hard-of-hearing study in separate classes -- both technical and rehabilitative courses that prepare them to study in an integrated environment with other students.

Only in the fourth year do deaf students join the hearing in regular classrooms. Translators are available to sign for all lectures, but the main thrust of the first year is to force the students to speak and read lips.

"The best translator is one who makes herself unnecessary as quickly as possible," said Stanevsky.

Stanevsky even conducted an experiment last semester by taking away the translators altogether. A harsh move? Perhaps, Stanevsky agrees, but the results were astounding. By the end of the semester several of his students had made the honor roll, and one of them earned a prestigious scholarship set up by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin for exceptional students.

"What's the point in coddling them?" said Stanevsky. "We give them such a schedule that they have no time to remember they are deaf."

Since the center was founded, the university has expanded its deaf education program, taking in 25 students per year instead of 10. Those who do enter the program also tend to stay longer, Stanevsky says, adding that more than 90 percent make it to graduation. More recently the Bauman model has been duplicated in three other cities, and Stanevsky hopes the trend toward integrated education will continue.

"In special schools deaf children are treated like defects," said Stanevsky, whose own daughter, born deaf, always attended schools for normal students.

"My daughter never had any trouble in school," Stanevsky said, listing her accomplishments with fatherly pride. Aside from graduating from university with honors, she speaks English fluently, sings in a choir -- and has never learned to sign.

However, Stanevsky's daughter may be the exception to the rule. Some of his students were quick to disagree over the benefits of integrated education, saying that deaf students who went to normal schools were more isolated and alone. "Those who come from special schools are more social and sure of themselves," one student added.

But due to financial constraints, standards of education at specialized schools have dropped, and Klochkov is bitter that the government has allowed the social safety net to disintegrate.

Before enrolling in the university's computer engineering program, Klochkov studied at a special school for the deaf in Moscow. "This school was supposed to have the best of everything -- the best equipment, the best preparation, the best teachers. It was the dream of all parents to send their children there," said Klochkov. "But now there is no money for equipment, and the teachers could care less. Standards of education have sunk."

While the students at Bauman may debate the advantages and disadvantages of specialized schools, all agree on one issue -- deaf students have special needs. If these needs are met within the main educational system, so much the better from an educational as well as a social point of view.

From an educational viewpoint, students in the mainstream earn a degree that carries more weight in the outside world than a degree from a school for the deaf. Equally important, Stanevsky adds, are the social advantages to integrated education, which allow hearing students to accept the deaf as normal.

"Deaf students have been studying here at Bauman for 60 years, and no one so much as points a finger at them," Stanevsky said.

But integration is a two-way street, and one of the fundamental aspects of the deaf education center's educational program is its "social psychology" element -- teaching students how to behave in mainstream society.

Always on the fringes of society, deaf people in many cases have never been taught the niceties of life, such as how to greet one's elders, how to tell a joke, or how to behave in mixed company. Now Bauman students learn everything from the latest in Russian humor to the birds and the bees.

"Teaching math and physics is the easy part," said Stanevsky. The tough part, he says, is teaching them to shrug off that feeling of helplessness. Layer by layer Stanevsky and his team try to peel away such complexes to make deaf people realize they are not a burden, but an asset to society.

This is not an easy task. After years of being treated as invalids, the hard-of-hearing are often used to expecting handouts.

"One of their biggest problems -- after the system itself -- is that they do not understand the joy of giving," said Stanevsky. "They have grown used to the idea that they are owed something."