By Bobby Siebert The Russian-American Project for Children’s Literacy (RAP4CL) exchange project requires communication across four languages: American Sign Language, Russian Sign Language, English, and Russian. It is little wonder that the most commonly asked question about this project is something like ‘how does communication work?’ A fair question, especially when considering the complexity of our project’s topic content. It’s difficult enough to discuss the cognitive benefits of bilingual education and the backing research with someone fluent in your native language, let alone in a roundtable consisting of individuals natively fluent in four different languages. There is no doubt that we have faced communication challenges throughout the project. But, we would probably have had a far more difficult time if not for the incredible Deaf friends we’ve made throughout this project, especially Vera Shamaeva in St. Petersburg, and Genady Tikhenko of Moscow. Both bright and driven individuals, Vera and Gena have the extraordinary ability to pick up a new language effortlessly, as if their brains were sponges sopping up excess water. Attaining conversational language competency would take most people months, or even years, but Vera and Gena reached it in days. Their ability to switch from RSL to International Sign to ASL were instrumental in facilitating effective communication between our parties.
Beyond translation, Vera and Gena also took on the roles of proud ambassadors of their homeland. They shared their thoughts on the best and most challenging aspects of their country from the eyes of native Deaf Russians. As a Deaf American who has greatly benefitted from the Americans with Disabilities Act and access to interpreters and communication, it jarred me to the core to learn about the dearth of RSL interpreters in Russia. There used to be 5,000 RSL interpreters in Russia thirty years ago, Gena said; there are only an estimated 1,000 today. Despite lacking access to interpreters throughout their academic careers, both Vera and Gena received advanced degrees. I was amazed; they simply shrugged. They found ways to absorb educational content, relying heavily on reading materials and notetaking. If they were asked a question in class, a hearing student would write down the question for them to read. And then they would write their responses for the hearing student to relay it back to the professor and the rest of the class. Through persistence and determination, both remarkable individuals succeeded.
Through Vera and Gena, we were introduced to the All-Russia Society for the Deaf (VOG, as spelled in the Russian language), the equivalent to the United States’ National Association of the Deaf. Vera shared the history of the St. Petersburg VOG chapter, housed in a beautiful historic building facing the English Embankment that was once the residence of the brother of Nikolay II, the final tsar of the Romanovs, the famous lineage that concluded in 1918. Officially, the St. Petersburg VOG chapter has over 3,400 members. The most striking room in the building was the 150-seat theatre, a scene lifted out of the early 20th century, adorned with pillars and sculptures. The theater is still in use; only a few days before our visit, VOG had hosted a stage play and workshops. The national VOG office, overseeing 82 affiliations across Russia, is in the heart of Moscow. Their programs oversee a wide range of issues impacting the Deaf community: telecommunications, education, employment, as well as archive and media departments. Gennady introduced us to Dimitry Zhevzhikov, an artist of extraordinary talent sculpting stone and marble who also is an active leader of the Association of Deaf Russian Artists, a group of diversely-talented artists across different artistic disciplines from all corners of Russia. We also met Viktor Palenniy, a historian and documenter who leads VOG’s archive department. In the archive room, we observed a large bookshelf stocked with books, published by VOG, on the history of the Russian Deaf community—with some of the content even summarized and translated into English (which was immensely useful in gaining a better understanding of the Russian Deaf community’s history and for writing our blog articles). The value the Russian Deaf community places on the arts, culture, and history echoes that of the U.S. Deaf community. I participated and attended stage plays at my Deaf school and the local Deaf club. Growing up, I learned about the history of my Deaf community, from the story of how Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc gave birth to Deaf education in America to the famous Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet University. Chuck Baird and other artists of the Deaf View/Image Art (De’VIA) movement remain heroes and visionaries from my childhood. Art, culture, and history are critical components of any strong, proud, and flourishing community, and the Deaf community is no different. Though this exchange grew out of a common interest in bilingual education, I come away having learned so much more. There is an opportunity to transcend this exchange between our communities—one through which we share the best of our communities, in how we express our culture through art and storytelling, build stronger social cohesion through cultural events such as stage plays, and better preserve our communities’ storied histories. Together with our Russian friends, we can build a stronger community and culture for the global Deaf community.