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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).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.As a cultural and medical anthropologist, since 1995 I have conducted ethnographic research in Ukraine, which gained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
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.Since 2002, my research has focused primarily on movements for disability rights in post-Soviet Ukraine.This research centers mainly on people with spinal injuries and others with mobility disabilities.3 Using anthropological research methods, I have undertaken participant observation and interviews with leaders and members of 26 disability-related non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Ukraine, some of which I have been following for the past six years.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.
This article presents an overview of disability rights issues in the context of state socialism in the former Soviet Union, especially the Russian and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics.