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Sketching out a Soviet chapter in the new disability history is a first step in contextualizing experiences of, attitudes toward, and the governmentality of disability in contemporary Ukraine and Russia.I begin with a discussion of disability in the pre-Soviet Russian Empire (circa 1700-1917), where relatively few efforts were made by state authorities to regulate or support the lives of people with disabilities.We do know that, in traditional Ukrainian and Russian cultures, those with physical and intellectual disabilities were not socially isolated.Traditional life was village-based and centered on the Orthodox Church (Vovk 192), and individuals with physical and mental disabilities presumably were integrated into their communities.5 They worked alongside others to the extent possible, for example making baskets and fishing nets, sewing, and embroidering (Bondarenko 2005).Peter made unsuccessful attempts to exclude the Church from responsibility for caring for persons thought to be mentally ill — in 1723 he decreed that such individuals no longer be sent to monasteries, and several secular institutions were organized in Saint Petersburg — but these efforts were abandoned by Peter's successors.Catherine II, the Great (1762-96) did, in 1775, establish regional Departments of Public Welfare as part of her reforms of local government.
The material presented here offers an important backdrop for understanding the barriers to social inclusion and full citizenship rights that persons with disabilities living in former socialist states continue to face.
As in many Western societies, this was the "era of madhouses," and these Departments were responsible for building asylums to accommodate the "insane." Julie Brown (19) notes that through the next century, the asylums were viewed with dread and suspicion and for the most part the mentally disabled were supported and cared for by their families.
The position of people with disabilities in pre-Soviet society changed further with urbanization and industrialization in the Russian Empire during the 19th Century.
I then examine key moments and figures in the struggle for disability rights in the Soviet Union.
In line with my primary research interests, particular emphasis is placed on issues related to mobility disability.4 Little is known about the lives of people with disabilities during pre-modern (pre-18th century) and modern history in the territory that encompassed what is today Ukraine and Russia, since historians and ethnologists have not systematically studied this question.
Discussions of Soviet-era state policy are interwoven with descriptions of people's personal experiences to emphasize the ways that people with disabilities in the former Soviet Union have been active agents — if not organized advocates — across the 20th century.