The spatial politics of disability in late Soviet Estonia

By Ingrid Ruudi


The spatial politics of disability in late Soviet Estonia

By Ingrid Ruudi

A healthy and capable body was one of the pillars of Soviet ideology, glorified in the images of victorious military heroes, muscular factory workers and outstanding sportsmen. However, generating a new Soviet body as one of the aims of the Socialist utopia necessarily involved segregating and displacing the deviant bodies that did not comply with this heroic image. In the public discourse, people with disabilities were invisible. According to an oft-cited anecdotal situation, when Western journalists were asking at the 1980 Moscow Olympics if disabled Soviet sportsmen, or ‘invalid sportsmen’ as they were called at the time, also planned to attend the first Paralympics to be held later that year, they received a shockingly blunt answer: “There are no invalids in the Soviet Union!”Fefelov, V. 1986. V SSSR invalidov net! (There are no invalids in the USSR!). London: Overseas Publications Interchange Ltd., cited in Sarah D. Phillips. 2009. There Are No Invalids in the USSR!: A Missing Soviet Chapter in the New Disability History, Disability Studies Quarterly, Vol 29, No 3. Available at: Indeed, the daily issues of disabled people, their living conditions or specific spatial needs were addressed neither in the professional magazines of architecture and the construction industry nor in the mainstream media. Yet those people did exist, were housed and taken care of somewhere. The following article will try to offer a glimpse into the spaces designated for disabled bodies in late Soviet Estonia, asking how the spaces planned, designed and built for them contributed to their marginalisation in society, what role did these spatial strategies have in the construction of their identity, and how did the specific qualities of those buildings affect their everyday experience.

Disabled Soviet Second World War veteran, 1970s

There are different models defining disability – the Soviet understanding of the concept was unambiguously medical. A disabled person was someone who had been diagnosed as such, and hence was subject to medical examination and experimentation. Although due to the shortage of facilities, many disabled people also certainly remained in the care of their own families, the Soviet system primarily focused on institutionalisation – mothers that gave birth to disabled children were emphatically persuaded to give up their child, and the overall attitude, aimed at the most rational organisation and treatment, saw professional care as the primary solution for dealing with the disabled. The bodies of disabled people were therefore not sovereign, but rather objects for correction and manipulation by managers and doctors.Iarskaia-Smirnova, E., Romanov, P. 2014. Heroes and spongers. The iconography of disability in Soviet posters and film. Michael Rasell and Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova (eds). Disability in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, 81. The decisions concerning their location, living environment and medical treatment lay within the realm of experts.Galley, M. 2019. Builders of Communism, ‘Defective’ Children, and Social Orphans: Soviet Children in Care after 1953. PhD dissertation, University of Sheffield, 20. Furthermore, the central determinant in the Soviet discourse was work, with the ability to work forming the basis of an individual’s identity as well as their social value. Accordingly, disabilities were categorised based on an individual’s ability to work. Every individual not able to work was regarded as ‘workforce in reserve’ or ‘tomorrow’s labour’, expected to contribute once the disability had been treated or compensated.Iarskaia-Smirnova, E., and Romanov, P. 2013. Heroes and spongers: the iconography of disability in Soviet posters and film, e-Book ISBN 9781315866932. Certain semi-official hierarchies were also in place: veterans of war and labourVeteran of labour was a honorary title for long time civil labour service in the Soviet Union. Since 1974, veterans of labour were honoured with the medal of Veteran of Labour. Up until the fall of the Soviet Union, the nearly 40 million such medals were given. received more state attention that people with congenital disabilitiesAlthough there was a law already from 1918 promising state support for those unable to work, disability benefits did not apply to those born with congenital disabilities until 1967. (see Sarah D. Phillips, 2009., and people with hearing and sight impairment were regarded as ‘more valuable’ than those with mobility impairments, and the mentally disabled even less so.Aitsam, M. 2012. Eesti invaspordi ajalugu [History of Estonian Parasports]. Sinuga, 2012 winter issue, 36.

Adjusting Koluvere episcopal castle (14th-16th century) for the use of a nursing home for the mentally disabled, 1968. 

The primary spatial segregation of disabled people was achieved through their displacement from larger cities. Across the Soviet Union, the laws against social parasitism enabled, among other things, relocating disabled veterans of the Second World War from the cities to remote kolkhozes and even labour camps.Fitzpatrick, S. 2006. Social Parasites: How Tramps, Idle Youth, and Busy Entrepreneurs Impeded the Soviet March to Communism. Cahiers du Monde russe , Jan. – Jun., Vol. 47, No. 1/2; Repenser le Dégel: Versions du socialisme, influences internationales et société soviétique, pp. 377–408, and Sarah D. Phillips. 2009. Similarly, specially designated institutions – boarding homes for the invalid – were established in remote rural settlements. This was a standard practice across the Eastern blocVann, B. H., Šiška, J. 2006. From ‘cage beds’ to inclusion: the long road for individuals with intellectual disability in the Czech Republic. Disability & Society Vol. 21 No. 5, 425–439., but in Estonia the institutional network also made use of the legacy of the small pre-war nursing homes that had often found premises in the historical manor houses that were left unused with the emigration of the former upper class, the Baltic Germans from 1919 onwards. With the rise of institutionalisation in the 1960s–1970s, those manor houses were expanded with new modernist wings that were more often than not out of proportion to and insensitive towards the historical buildings as well as unimaginative in their architecture and barely minimal in their spatial options. Some of the most vivid examples include the nursing homes for the mentally disabled at Võisiku (architect Paul Kangur, 1958; 1970s annex architect unknown) and Aa (architect Ülar Saar, 1975) and the Imastu boarding home for disabled children (architect Burchuladze, 1965). Their low status in the hierarchy of building typologies in late Soviet Estonia and constant lack of funds resulted in architecture that mostly employed the most rational floor plans with a long corridor in the middle and wards to either side, administrative, medical and personnel spaces grouped together, and one multipurpose hall as the only accent (unless the latter function was fulfilled within the historical building).

Dormitory in Imastu boarding home for the mentally disabled children. Still from documentary Lepatriinutalv (Ladybug's Winter, Hagi Šein 1989). 
Building of Imastu boarding school for the mentally disabled children, 1965.
Võisiku nursing home annex (1970s).
Võisiku nursing home. Manor house (1750-60s with 19th century porch) with annex (1970s) in the background.

The architecture and spatial layout of the boarding homes also contributed to disciplining the disabled bodies and marginalising their subjectivities. In the Soviet medical system, assignment to a boarding home was usually a finite decision, resulting in the spatial environment of the particular setting having a tremendous influence over the life experience of its inhabitants.Research has shown that the spatial setting has a more definitive influence upon the everyday experience of the inhabitants than fellow inhabitants or caregivers (see Davies K. 2007. A small corner that’s for myself”. Space, place, and patients’ experiences of mental health care, 1948–1998. In Topp L., Moran J.E., Andrews J. (eds), Madness, Architecture and the Built Environment: Psychiatric Spaces in Historical Context. New York: Routledge, 307. To a large extent, the architecture, spatial conditions and social practices combined to produce settings that may be identified as total institutionsSee Goffman, E. 1961. Asylums. New York: Doubleday., characterised by compressing all aspects of life into a single spatial setting, restricted contact with the outside world, collectively organised activities with little personal agency, a bureaucratic top-down organisation of daily life, imbalanced power hierarchies for the inhabitants and the caregivers, and as a result, the development of an inmate identity. The rural boarding homes combined living, studying (in the case of disabled children) and working within a single spatial locale. For the sake of self-sustainability, the institutions often included agricultural facilities and sewing and shoemaking workshops – especially in the context of mental problems, work therapy was seen as the main cure in Soviet medicine. The caregiving personnel also mostly lived on site or nearby. This combination made the boarding home an isolated complex, effectively restricting contact with the surrounding community.

Still from documentary Ratastoolitants (Wheelchair Dance, Hagi Šein 1986) showing DIY adjustment of a prefabricated dwelling. 

Collectively organised life meant that institutional wards were densely inhabited – in the historical buildings, Baroque enfilade halls were simply filled with up to 20 beds per room. For the modernist annexes the norms approved up to six inhabitants per room but in reality, the number was often higher.Lall, L. 2020. Sovetiseerimise mõju Eesti erihoolekande arengule [The Effects of Sovetisation Upon the Developments of Special Care in Estonia]. Master’s thesis, University of Tartu, 39–40. In addition, a complex of spatio-temporal regulations micromanaged all activities throughout the day. Daily schedules were meticulously followed, and everything from the morning cleansing routines to eating, studying, gardening, outdoor walks and newspaper reading occurred together at a designated time. The schedules allowed minimal unregulated time, just as the space practically did not enable any non-collective habitation.

In the 1980s, the first signs of disability activism emerged, with sports events like rallies for hand-operated cars and wheelchair races having a major effect on reducing the social stigma and helping to form a community.Aitsam, M. Eesti Invaspordi ajalugu. A documentary Wheelchair Dance made by Hagi Šein in 1986 was the first time in the Soviet Union that the problems faced by people with mobility impairment, including their special spatial needs, were discussed in the public sphere. At the same time, a design for a nursing home for the blind and the deaf by Saima Truupõld and Tõnu Hilep (1986) was the first attempt at an institution that would take care not only of its inhabitants’ medical needs but also, to an extent, their emotional and intellectual needs, with double and even single rooms, a hall for movies and theatre, a library, hairdresser, occupational therapy and visitor areas. The design process also involved consultations with the Estonian Association of the Blind – the first instance of letting the users have a say in the process and design solutions.ERA.T-18.4-3.5179 . Regrettably, due to the slowness of the Soviet construction industry and the constant lack of funds, the facility remained unbuilt.
The segregation, displacement and neglect of disabled bodies has of course not been an exclusively Soviet phenomenon but rather something that has characterised modernity in general. In the USA, from the 19th century to the 1970s, the ugly laws curbed the public appearance of people with “diseased, deformed, mutilated or otherwise unsightly” bodiesSchweik, S.M. 2009. The Ugly Laws. Disability in Public. New York and London: New York University Press, 1., and similar practices of segregation have been followed in European countries. However, the Soviet combination of undisputed authority and bureaucracy in the medical system, the drive towards maximum rationalisation, and deficit of means enabled those tendencies to be applied in practice in a more extreme manner. In spite of the rhetoric of commitment to care for all members of society, and the architects’ attempts at designing better facilities, the schism between the idealist rhetoric and practical reality remained large. The disabled population was heavily marginalised, and deliberate as well as under acknowledged spatial strategies played a major role in this.

Ingrid Ruudi is senior researcher and visiting associate of the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture, Estonian Academy of Arts. Her PhD dissertation was titled Spaces of the Interregnum: Transformations in Estonian Architecture and Art 1986 – 1994, and her current research focuses on the potential of intersectional feminist methodologies for analysing the built environment, including spaces of care in Late Soviet and post-Soviet Estonia.  She has also been active as a curator, including for the Estonian pavilion at the Venice biennial and research exhibitions at the Estonian Museum of Architecture, and is editor-in-chief of the Estonian bilingual art history journal Kunstiteaduslikke Uurimusi / Studies in Art and Architecture.