Soviet Attitudes toward Disability and the Lasting Effect on Nagorno Karabakh

15 May 2020


There is a now famous anecdote which has found its way into the historical canon. It goes like this: in the run up to the first Paralympic games in 1980, a representative of the Soviet Union was asked if the USSR would participate in the games in Great Britain. The reply was roughly translated as, “there are no invalids in the USSR.”

This outright denial of disability in the Soviet Union may very well be anecdotal but it is nevertheless an apt summary of the attitudes of Soviet society and politics towards disability. Historically, disabled peoples have been stigmatised, hidden and dehumanised by the Soviet regime. Little is known of the individual treatment of disabled people who lived under the iron curtain. Records are scarce and combined with the social and political attempts to hide and discount the disabled, they have become a historically unknown people.

Under early Soviet rule, the word most generally used to describe disabled people translates to ‘invalid’. The meaning of the word (after the establishment of the Soviet State) changed slightly to categorise those who were unfit or unable to work. This coincided with the societal changes that the Bolshevik revolution brought on, where a person’s place in society became ever more interwoven with their potential role in production and labour. As a person’s “usefulness to society” came to define them, so too did their perceived lack of utility which brought further detriment to disabled people in an already difficult society.

A system was soon put in place to rank levels of disability and associated usefulness. Those who were classified “useful” were given compulsory, often menial work at the lower ends of society. Those who did not qualify were often discarded and exiled from society.

The increased numbers of disabled people after World War Two brought some change to the Soviet Union without softening attitudes. Those psychologically afflicted by the horrors of war were caught up in the historic negative and misunderstood attitudes towards mental health.

Moreover, those with visible wounds (amputations and lost appendages) were treated not as heroes but as unsightly reminders of the horrors of war and loss. In an attempt to provide for but also hide those injured in the war, those who had been previously employed and categorised as somewhat ‘useful’ were pushed aside in favour of the returning soldiers. Though providing relief and stability for the victims of war, another layer of taboo was created, relegating those previously useful to unwanted status.

This early and post-War Soviet Union attitude towards the disabled continues in some places to this very day. Russia and Ukraine still use the categories of the USSR era to administrate and separate disabled peoples.

In former USSR controlled states and regions, these pervasive and ingrained ideas towards disability remain. Nagorno Karabakh is no exception. Many disabled people in the region continue to be shunned and overlooked by their communities. Moreover, a significant number of people were injured and disabled during the war with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. Many returned to Nagorno Karabakh injured and in need of assistance, only to find little help and almost no formal infrastructure for rehabilitation, support or reintegration.

Thankfully, in the last 20 years, some progress has been made to provide this infrastructure and shatter the oppressive taboos and stigmas that have afflicted disabled people in the area for decades.

HART is proud to have supported disability rehabilitation for 22 years and is still supporting the Lady Cox Rehabilitation Centre in Stepanakert. Over the years, the staff, led by Vardan Tadevosyan, have provided rehabilitation services and a place for disabled people to be heard, seen and provided for. The centre offers physiotherapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy with high quality tuition for patients such as sport, music, painting, ceramics, wood carving and pottery. The Centre also has a state-of-the-art hydrotherapy pool and qualified staff to ensure effective use. Moreover, Vardan’s nursery embraces children with or without disabilities in order to bridge the segregation which has become ingrained into society.

There is however, still much work to be done. In 2010, 92% of disabled people in Armenia were unemployed. Furthermore, on one of our visits to see the Centre, Vardan told us that, “only 5% of what needs to be done for disability rights has been accomplished.”

The efforts of Vardan and his team at the Lady Cox Rehabilitation Centre have been incredible so far, changing the lives of those who had previously been voiceless. Their tireless work has removed the muzzle of oppression and invisibility for disabled people in the region but for their voices to truly be heard, many more must be helped and empowered.

To find out more about Vardan and HART’s work in Nagorno Karabakh and how you can help, follow the links below.


By Max Elgot

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