Disability and the Russian Revolution

Part one of a two-part article.

Although there is scant available literature specifically addressing the topic of disability in the context of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, disability issues, nonetheless, figured quite prominently in it. As evidenced by the demands raised and literature produced by the revolutionary masses and parties in the years leading up to the revolution, disability seems to have been a significant contributing factor to the upheaval. Disability was an explicit component of the Bolshevik party program and propaganda between 1903 and 1917; after 1917, it was an area subject to much social and legislative reform on the part of the revolutionary government, which was in turn a product of the disability politics raised explicitly by the revolutionary soldiers, workers, and peasant masses.

Owing to the distortions of both Stalinist and Western capitalist ideologues, this history has largely been hidden or ignored. To be sure, the fate of people with disabilities in Russia after the turn toward forced

industrialization, capital accumulation, and exploitation of wage labor in the late 1920s, followed essentially the same oppressive historical trajectory as that of all newly industrialized and industrializing capitalist societies. Nevertheless, just as Stalinism represented the negation of the emancipatory and socialist character of the Russian Revolution in its first years, so too did the worsening conditions of people with disabilities under Stalinist Russia represent a negation of what had been obtained in revolutionary Russia. 

The 1917 Russian Revolution marked a turning point in the history of the world socialist movement and, indeed, the history of humanity. It was the first time that a revolutionary party founded on the principles of Marxism—that is, the Bolshevik Party—was able to lead the majority of the working class in rising up, defeating the political rule of the capitalists and landowners, and instituting a form of government organized around the democratic self-rule of the exploited and oppressed.1 

While the full scope of the changes that the Bolshevik revolution effected was necessarily limited by the overwhelmingly underdeveloped and internationally isolated nature of Russia’s economy and society, nonetheless what we find in revolutionary Russia is a society that proceeded as far, if not farther, down the road toward the overcoming of disability oppression than any other society before or since. Moreover, this history is arguably proof of the Marxist-derived principle that the liberation of people with disabilities is impossible without the liberation of the entire working class, and the liberation of the entire working class is impossible without the liberation of people with disabilities.2

Russia before the revolution

The Russian economy at the turn of the century was largely agrarian and impoverished, combined with small but growing advanced pockets of industrial capital. Roughly 80 percent of the population was rural and consisted of small farmers, or peasants, working for semi-feudal landowners, while urban wageworkers, or proletarians, comprised roughly 15 percent of the population. What existed was an incipient capitalism, overshadowed by pre-capitalist feudal relations, all under the autocratic hand of the tsarist monarchy. The peasants and workers had virtually no rights, either at work, at home, or in civil society, and there was no apparatus in place for the provision of such basic public services as health care, social security, or unemployment assistance.

It was in this context that mass struggle began to emerge between the years 1900 and 1905. This struggle ultimately set the revolutionary overthrow of the tsar as its central demand, but it also raised an entire range of social and economic demands in the process. Though the 1905 uprising was violently repressed by the tsarist state, it nonetheless had a profound and lasting impact on the whole of Russian society. The demands raised in 1905, as well as the revolutionary methods of organization and struggle—the soviet (council) and the mass strike—would be brought even more forcefully to bear in 1917. 

In relation to the issue of disability, a number of these demands and struggles were of particular note. These include a demand for the development of a national system of social security, and in particular, for comprehensive disability insurance; a demand for the reform and extension of the wholly inadequate health care system; and a demand for the liberation of psychiatry from the tight grip of the tsarist police state, as well as the decriminalization of mental illness. 

Finally, as an addendum of sorts, it is worth exploring briefly the issue of workplace democracy and control as it emerged in the lead up to 1917, and its relevance to certain vital questions pertaining to disability. 

The struggle for disability insurance

By the early 1900s, working-class anger over the barbaric conditions of industrial production in Russia had become widespread. Occupational illness and injury was an endemic feature of a nascent factory system that combined highly advanced machinery with little to no safety regulation. Compounding this was the fact that neither the tsarist state nor individual capitalists had any functional system whatsoever of disability insurance or social security. 

In response, the then-illegal trade union and socialist movement made the question of disability insurance and social security a central component of their activity. As these movements swelled, the tsarist state was compelled to make pretenses towards addressing the problem and in 1903 put forward a plan for a national disability insurance law. However, far from placating the workers’ movement, the tsar’s plan only further fueled workers’ anger and radicalism as it was transparently inadequate and unjust.

In an article written in 1903 for the newspaper Iskra, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin eviscerated the tsar’s proposed law which bound “the owners of enterprises to pay compensation to workers only for the loss of capacity for work ‘due to bodily injury caused by operations in the production of the enterprise’” yet absolved employers of liability in cases where disability resulted from “diseases caused by hazardous working conditions.” The law also stipulated that 

employers may prove not only ill intent on the part of the victim himself, but also “gross carelessness on his (victim’s) part, unwarranted by the dispatch of operations”. . . . “Gross carelessness” is something quite vague and indefinable. . . . The capitalists have always regarded and will always regard any “carelessness” on the worker’s part as gross and unwarranted, and will always be able to muster ten times more witnesses and “learned counsel” than the workers to prove their point (legal counsel are already being paid annual fees by the factories!). The writing of this whole point on gross carelessness into the law is a crass concession to the manufacturer’s profit urge: the workers never get caught in the machine by preference, but always by mishap, but the fact is that you can’t be careful when working ten or eleven hours a day among badly screened machines, in poorly lit shops, amid the din and roar, with your wits dulled by the work, and with your nerves on edge because of excessive tension. That being so, to deprive a disabled worker of compensation because of gross carelessness is to penalize him additionally for permitting the capitalists their unscrupulous exploitation. [emphasis in the original]3

Ultimately, the tsar withdrew his unpopular insurance bill amidst the tumult of the 1905 uprising. However, another version enjoying even broader capitalist support surfaced in 1912. In response, the Bolsheviks explicitly addressed the issue in a revised and updated version of their party program. In contrast to the ruling class’s “unworthy bill,” the Bolsheviks demanded that any such law must include a radically different and far more expansive set of principles: First, it should provide assistance in all cases of incapacity, including old age, accidents, illness, death of the breadwinner, as well as maternity and birth benefits. Second, it should cover all wage earners and their families. Third, the benefits should equal full earnings and all costs should be borne by the employers and the state. Finally, the insurance organizations should be placed under the full democratic management of the insured workers themselves.4 

The final version of the 1912 disability law enacted by the tsarist government did not include any of the foregoing principles. The issue remained unresolved in the minds of the workers, and in 1917 it reemerged once more as a major component of the revolution. 

Health care

The second major issue fueling the anger of the workers in the lead up to both 1905 and 1917 was the abysmal state of health care in tsarist Russia. What little medical infrastructure existed was almost exclusively available to the wealthy and upper classes. The measly medical budget of the tsarist state was focused wholly on the delivery of individual fee-for-service treatment rather than publicly financed social prevention, such as ensuring sanitary conditions for the mass of the population in the arenas of housing, labor, food, and water. As a result, Russia experienced recurrent epidemics of cholera and typhoid, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. These epidemics only worsened during the course of World War I. 

Among workers and professionals within the existing health care system, it was generally the lower-rank medical workers and nurses who tended to be the most politically radical and sympathetic to the Bolshevik program of free, universal, and democratically organized health care; physicians, on the other hand, tended to be much more conservative and hostile to the Bolsheviks. Yet even this, too, would begin to change during and after the 1905 uprising. The question of health care had become unavoidably politicized. For instance, at a 1905 physician-organized cholera congress, resolutions were passed in support of the revolution specifically calling for universal suffrage, representative government, and basic civil liberties. Increasing numbers of physicians also began to join the radical Union of All-Russian Medical Personnel formed at the end of 1905, in which Russia’s small coterie of Marxist physicians gained an ever-larger hearing.5 

Both affected and inspired by the mass, democratic movement of workers and peasants, a growing number of medical professionals were now espousing much more socially egalitarian views. The 1905 revolution

had come to symbolize the role which preventive medicine and social reform could play if only Russia’s future could be wrested from the paralyzing hand of the Tsarist regime. . . . Marxist physicians emerged from the 1905 revolution with their analytical tools not only intact but sharpened. Writing under his pen-name “E. M.,” the Bolshevik physician E. G. Munblit argued that the crisis of medicine was only a part of the larger crisis of a Russia ruled by “black hundred” [i.e., reactionary, pro-tsarist] landlords. Meanwhile, a Menshevik factory physician, L. B. Granovskii, went to great lengths to demonstrate that advancing capitalism was responsible for the prevalence of tuberculosis, alcoholism, and venereal disease in Russia.6

By 1917, a significant number of leading physicians had become Bolshevik adherents. 

[T]he problems of public health for the impoverished population—the solution of which lay beyond medicine—made physicians one of the most radical groups of the intelligentsia. Having become critical of the government’s policy toward public health, many of them became critical of the regime as such. During the . . . revolutionary events, physicians blamed the repressive regime for destroying the population’s health.7 

If the upper ranks of the medical profession were undergoing their own process of radicalization, this was doubly the case for medical workers in the hospitals and in the villages. This latter group took the physicians’ increasingly vocal support for democracy in the political sphere one step further by calling for democracy within the facilities and institutions of the health system as well. They demanded that health care be taken out of the hands of unelected administrators, and instead placed under the control of workers and patients. 

A 1910 editorial in a Bolshevik newspaper summed up this mood quite well: “True health care (and with it also the realization of the idea of self­government) will come only when it is transferred into the hands of those for whom it is literally a matter of life and death.”8

Psychiatry and mental disability

Another major area of struggle that fueled, and was fueled by, the revolutionary movement was that of psychiatry and mental disability. Before 1905, the trajectory of psychiatry in Russia was nearly identical to that of the rest of capitalist Europe; namely, the massive growth of carceral asylums and other mental institutions, which were far more likely to be sites of repression and torture than anything else. The tsarist police exerted despotic control over these mental institutions and used them as veritable dumping grounds for any and all “undesirable elements”  they wanted to keep segregated both from society at large as well as from the general prison population. This included political prisoners, vagrants, and petty thieves, in addition to those with mental illnesses and disabilities. Psychiatrists inside these institutions were expected by the police to act more like auxiliary prison wardens than healers.9 

Such abominable turn-of-the-century conditions were captured and analyzed quite well by one of the few early Marxist psychiatrists in Russia, Pavel Iakobi. In 1900, Iakobi wrote a 700-page diatribe against the state of psychiatry in Russia and the corrupting influence that the rise of capitalism was having on it. He argued that with the elevation in importance of bourgeois property relations, the predominant conception of Russia’s “insane” changed from seeing them as more or less neutral idiosyncrasies, into seeing them as representing a direct threat to the normal (read: profitable) functioning of society and the economy. The asylum and the madhouse, Iakobi argued, thus had nothing to do with helping or protecting its occupants and everything to do with helping and protecting society from them. 

Once the issue has been formulated in terms of the defense of society from attack by the insane, two belligerents are distinguishable: society and the insane. We psychiatrists constitute the advanced detachment of society, the vanguard, trackers of the enemy, skirmishers. We psychiatrists open fire against the insane. We search them out like medieval lepers and instruct the administration that it take steps, but not to help them. Oh no! We ask that it protect us from them, and preferably that it “lock them up.” Like medieval Dominicans we track down the heresy of intellectual processes and without delay we turn these secular heretic-criminals over to the authorities.10

The phenomenon of psychiatry-as-policing was further compounded in Russia by the fact that the tsarist legal code effectively criminalized mental illness and disability. For instance, attempted suicide was a criminal offense for which a survivor could be imprisoned.11 Similarly, any person with a mental illness or psycho-social disorder of any sort, who happened to have been charged with committing any crime, could be legally imprisoned indefinitely in one of the tsar’s asylums.12

For years, psychiatric professionals in Russia had played the role of silent accomplices to these atrocities. But this began to radically change amidst the revolutionary upsurge of 1905–1917. Suddenly, under the influence of the transformative events taking place around them, a substantial number of psychiatric professionals had begun for the first time to openly express their outrage at the situation. They refused to continue acting merely as appendages to the tsarist police. They declared that they wanted to help people, not repress them. 

Many psychiatrists had begun to adhere to Iakobi’s thesis that the fundamental problem did not reside with those inside the asylums, but rather with society itself on the outside. They proclaimed that it was precisely tsarist despotism and repression—alongside of poverty, inequality, and unending war—which was the single greatest factor contributing to the degradation of the population’s mental health and psychological disposition. They therefore called for the revolutionary overthrow of existing society in order to, literally, free the minds of the people.

As one historian explains:

The revolution of 1905 was the event that sharply changed the orientations of many Russian psychiatrists. Faced with the very real challenge to political and economic stability, psychiatrists found themselves devoting increasing attention to exogenous causes for what they believed were rising rates of neurasthenia, hysteria, and other forms of mental illness. . . . [I]t is clear from the annual congresses and the medical journals that psychiatrists, whether they were liberal or conservative, were more willing to accept the linkages between sociopolitical upheaval and mental pathology than they had been before 1905. . . . The profession as a whole spoke with an increasingly united voice on social and political issues. At the heart of their critique . . . was a firm conviction that “prevention of the physical and psychological degeneration of the population was dependent upon fundamental political and economic reform of Russian life.”13

The ongoing radicalization of the profession was further catalyzed by and reflected in its clear opposition to the imperial wars which the tsarist state was casting the nation into—first the war with Japan in 1905 and then World War I in 1914. Unlike their European and American counterparts, Russian psychiatry overwhelmingly resisted government attempts to press them into the service of empire. Internationally, the epidemic of “shell shock” or “war neurosis” among soldiers had become increasingly acknowledged. However, many, if not most, European psychiatrists asserted that the phenomenon had little to do with the actual war, but was rather “a war-time parallel to the so-called pension neurosis among work-shy laborers”; in other words, “psychological—or hysterical—reactions in terrified, weak-willed, or lazy men.”14

In contrast, the majority of Russian psychiatrists—already infected with the germ of revolutionary disdain for the government that was waging the war—rejected this argument. Instead, they maintained that “besides wounding the soldier’s body, shells distort his feelings and mutilate his soul,” and that the singular role of the psychiatrist should be to compassionately heal the latter. Suffering soldiers who exhibited either an unwillingness or inability to fight were not “defective,” but victims of the government which had unjustly sent them to the front.15

Hostilities between the tsarist regime and the psychiatric profession became increasingly overt and repressive. For instance, at the 1911 inaugural meeting of the Russian Union of Psychiatrists and Neuropathologists the majority of speeches contained such harsh criticism of the government that it was shut down by the police after only its first session.16 In 1917, the same as in 1905, the regime carefully monitored the explosive situation in the country’s mental asylums: reports indicated asylums were being spontaneously taken over by the workers and patients, who proceeded to kick out administrators and police.17 By the eve of the revolution, “much of the profession was openly hostile to the tsarist government. Many psychiatric hospitals had become centers of underground left-wing political activity. Psychiatrists in ever increasing numbers were fired, imprisoned, exiled, or they resigned in protest against governmental policies.”18

Workplace democracy and control

The final arena of prerevolutionary mass struggle this article will examine is that of the movement for workplace democracy and control. In particular, this question will be addressed in relation to the issue of employment and accommodation of workers with disabilities. 

In modern capitalist societies, the integration (and retention) of people with disabilities into the productive economy has proven intractably elusive. Even much-hailed legislative reforms such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which purportedly aimed to increase disability employment by asking employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for workers with disabilities, has led to virtually no improvement in the relevant unemployment figures.19 

In reality, the very nature of the relations of production under capitalism renders this problem unsolvable within the confines of the capitalist system. Put simply, what matters most to the capitalist class is not accommodating the working class but maximizing profit through the intensification of production. This is doubly the case when it concerns workers with disabilities that make them less productive (and thus, less profitable) than their nondisabled counterparts (or competitors) from the standpoint of the labor market.

It is for this reason that the question of workers’ power and control over the production process is intimately linked to the fight for disability rights. Throughout the history of capitalism, those accommodations introduced into the workplace that have tended to place the needs of the human laborer above abstract considerations of profitability and productivity are those that have been introduced as a result of the class struggle of the workers themselves against the capitalists. 

During the course of the Russian Revolution, this phenomenon expressed itself in perhaps a more developed form than anywhere else in the world before or since. In 1905 and again in 1917 the increasingly combative and confident working class put forward ever more radical demands aimed at uprooting the sources of workers’ powerlessness in the workplace. However, it was only after the revolution in February 1917—in which the tsar was deposed and replaced by a capitalist-dominated provisional government alongside worker-created soviets in the cities and towns—that the movement for workers’ control of production blossomed into a truly nationwide mass phenomenon. In his book, Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories, 1917–1918, S. A. Smith describes the dynamic in the capital city: 

By 3 March it was all over: the Tsar had abdicated and Russia was free! The toppling of the Romanov dynasty inspired workers with euphoria. They returned to their factories determined that the ancien regime would be swept aside in the workplaces, just as it had been swept aside in society at large. They set to work at once by tearing up the old contracts of hire, the old rule books, and the vicious blacklists. . . . Throughout the factories of Petrograd workers clamored for the removal of all members of the management hierarchy who had made their lives miserable.20

As the year progressed, forms of workers control and the demands of the workers thereof became widespread and ever more expansive. A look at some of the demands issued to management by the three thousand workers of a Moscow metal factory in June 1917 serve as a typical representation:

■    Create a permanent space for the workers’ committee and for general factory meetings, lectures, and other cultural-educational activities.

■    Bring in air ventilation for all enclosed places where there is production work.

■    Baths and steam rooms for both sexes.

■    Sufficient temperature in all shops and washstands during the winter.

■    In all shops there should be a cafeteria or an enclosed warm place.

■    Make toilets as close as possible to the shops.

■    In all shops make a closet for workers’ clothes.

■    In the sheet metal shop and construction area, bring in hot water because now it is too far away and inaccessible because of the continuous nature of work.

■    Medicine prescribed by private doctors should be distributed from our local clinic, and if the clinic does not have it, the factory should buy it from another pharmacist.21

Disputes over labor productivity, which as previously discussed have particular bearing on workers with disabilities, also intensified during the inter-revolution months. Workers demanded and increasingly implemented by force the abolition of the widespread management practice of dismissing any worker whose productivity fell below their level of the previous year. They also almost universally supported the implementation of far more egalitarian pay scales across various skill levels, a reform of particular relevance to workers with disabilities who are often among the most marginalized, lowest paid, and lowest skilled sectors of the workforce. 

Among other things, such measures had the effect of separating wages and employment from productivity, in other words, striking at the very root of capitalist economic norms and with it the economic disenfranchisement of people with disabilities. The struggle between workers and management in the Guzhon Metalworks Company in Moscow during the course of 1917 clearly expresses this phenomenon. As Kevin Murphy notes: 

Throughout 1917, workers’ demands became more inclusive and were distinguished by their support for previously marginalized sections of the workforce. Wage complaints focused on the gap in pay between skilled and unskilled laborers. A 23 April factory general meeting unanimously voted that skilled workers should refuse excessive wage rates and demanded that these funds be given to non-skilled employees. . . . For sixteen days in April, the bolt department produced 12,000 puds of goods; for the entire month of May, 10,200 puds. The shop manager became indignant about this and demanded that they work, but workers made him leave under the threat of violence.22 

The response by the factory owner, Iulii Guzhon, is illuminating for its transparently capitalist class-consciousness. Murphy writes: “Guzhon insisted on maintaining pay stratification, arguing that raising the wages of unskilled workers undermined the very foundations of productivity, [and] that ‘the level of pay must directly and inseparably correspond to the productivity of the worker’. . . . Workers, however, were more concerned with economic equality than with the logistics of running a profitable enterprise. . . . [They were] united behind proposals for a more egalitarian wage scale that gave ‘the possibility of subsistence not only for skilled workers, but also for all ranks of workers.’”23

Disability and self-emancipation

In summing up the question of disability as it pertained to the 1917 revolution, it is worth emphasizing that people with disabilities everywhere were involved in, helped shape, and played a leading role in all of the changes and upheavals taking place. It was workers with disabilities and elderly workers and their families who were behind the national push around workplace safety, disability insurance, and social security. It was sick and disabled Russians who played a key role in the popular struggle for universal and free health care. It was those with (and without) mental illnesses inside the asylums who so radically affected the psychiatric profession overall.

After the onset of World War I, it was disabled soldiers and veterans who would ultimately come to play a crucial role in the revolutionary process. In History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky describes a scene in early 1917 that demonstrates the way in which the brewing class conflict was reaching into all quarters of society, including the military:

In Moscow, in one of the amphitheatres, a meeting of invalids24 was called, soldiers and officers together. An orator-cripple began to cast aspersions on the officers. A noise of protest arose, a stamping of shoes, canes, crutches. “And how long ago were you, Mr. Officer, insulting the soldiers with lashes and fists?” These wounded, shell-shocked, mutilated people stood like two walls, one facing the other. Crippled soldiers against crippled officers, the majority against the minority, crutches against crutches.25

By August 1917 this conflict had crystallized into organized opposing camps amongst disabled military personnel. At an official state conference hosted by the provisional government, most of the military officers present spoke in favor of the soon-to-be leader of a right-wing coup attempt, General Kornilov. However, Trotsky notes that this latter group was vociferously opposed at the conference by representatives of the “All-Russian League of Crippled Warriors,” comprised of peasants and workers, who spoke decisively in favor of the authority of the as-yet unofficial Soviet government which in the months since February had increasingly become the vehicle through which the Russian masses were contending for power against the ruling class of capitalists and landlords.26

On a more general level, the simple fact is that any movement of the working, oppressed, and lower classes will tend to include much higher numbers of people with disabilities as participants precisely because capitalist inequality causes these social groups to experience disability at much higher rates than the upper and ruling classes of society (and inversely, causes those with disabilities to disproportionately fall into the lower classes owing to restricted access to jobs, housing, support services, etc).27 Disability politics are therefore an inextricable component of workers’ struggle, and even more so when those struggles assume revolutionary proportions.

Moreover, as recent scholarship in the burgeoning field of disability studies has demonstrated, every oppressed group fighting for liberation in the modern era has had to confront the question of disability in some form or another. Whether in the case of women, Black people, immigrants, or the poor, ruling classes have challenged the legitimacy of these groups’ historical claims for equality by making recourse to the supposed inability and unfitness of the former to take part in self-government. In other words, they were subjected to a form of disability in relation to the ruling racial, gender, and class, norms.28 

This phenomenon proved to be no less the case as regards the class of oppressed and exploited workers and peasants in revolutionary Russia. The ruling classes of Russia—first the tsarist autocracy, and then the capitalists and landowners—in turn justified their dominance over the workers, soldiers, and peasants, by claiming that the latter were too stupid, too illiterate, too “crippled” in mind and body—whether by ancestry or accident—to run society. 

During the crucial hour in 1917, it was the Bolsheviks whose viewpoint most resonated with the oppressed masses in rejecting such bigotry. By taking as a starting point the advanced wealth and technology which capitalism had hitherto developed (albeit one-sidedly and at great human cost), the Bolsheviks sought to liberate precisely that repressed species-trait which makes us most human—the ability to work together to accomplish on a vast scale and scope that which far exceeds our individual capacities.

“We are not utopians,” wrote Lenin in October 1917, on the eve of the second revolution that dispersed the provisional government and placed all power in the hands of the soviets. 

We know that an unskilled laborer or a cook cannot immediately get on with the job of state administration. In this we agree with [our detractors]. We differ, however, from these citizens in that we demand an immediate break with the prejudiced view that only the rich, or officials chosen from rich families, are capable of administering the state, of performing the ordinary, everyday work of administration. We demand that training in the work of state administration be conducted by class-conscious workers and soldiers and that this training be begun at once, i.e., that a beginning be made at once in training all the working people, all the poor, for this work.29

Writing sixteen years later, Trotsky put this in even starker terms: 

“Who will believe,” wrote a Tsarist general with indignation shortly after the upheaval, “that a porter or a watchman suddenly becomes a chief justice, a hospital attendant the director of the hospital, a barber an office-holder, a corporal a commander-in-chief, a day-worker a mayor, a locksmith the director of a factory?” “Who will believe it?” But it had to be believed. They could do nothing else but believe it, when the corporals defeated the generals, when the mayor—the former day-worker—broke the resistance of the old bureaucracy, the wagon greaser put the transportation system into order, the locksmith as director put the industrial equipment into working condition. “Who will believe it?” Let anyone only try not to believe it.30

From revolution to counterrevolution: Disability and the Soviet Union from 1917–1927

By the end of October 1917, the Bolshevik Party had won a clear majority of workers and peasants within the nationwide network of soviets to their program of the overthrow of the provisional government. Almost immediately after carrying out the revolution, the Bolsheviks began reshaping all of Russia. To be sure, their ambitions in these first optimistic years far outstripped the limited means that Russia’s backward economy put at their disposal. Yet, hopeful as they were in the spread of the revolution to the advanced capitalist countries of Europe—bringing with it the promise of direct international aid and an end to the economic siege organized by those same capitalist countries—the Bolsheviks began reordering society in a truly revolutionary direction.

Three major areas in which the revolution affected significant change regarding disability were: law and policy, labor and the economy, and health and education. (Editor’s note: The present article will address the first of these, while the latter two will be taken up in the second part of this article, which will appear in a subsequent issue of this publication).

Law and policy

Within the first four years of the revolution, the Bolsheviks enacted a flurry of legislation that codified virtually every major disability-related demand emanating from the mass movements during the preceding two decades. These included the following provisions:

■    Shortening the maximum legal workday to eight hours for most forms of labor, six to seven hours for others, and four to six hours for the most dangerous industries 

■    Maternity leave with full pay and free childcare for all women workers, two months before and two months after childbirth

■    Full social insurance coverage for all workers covering all forms of disablement, regardless of whether the origin of the disability was work-related or not; all insurance institutions to be administered directly and entirely by the insured themselves; temporary disability insurance to cover all incapacities at full wage

■    Full social-security coverage for all, with government pensions available to those either temporarily or permanently outside the workforce due to disability, old age, illness, etc., social-security pensions to be solely determined by the prevailing wage in a given region, rather than an individual’s past pay, past employment status or length, or the nature of the disabling condition

■    Free and universal medical care for all, including free prescription medicines, prostheses, and other assistive devices; all medicinal aid to be placed under the control of self-governing sick benefit societies, the management of which bodies to be elected directly by the workers and patients 

■    Establishment of labor inspectorates in every workplace to be elected by the workers, with the aim of prohibiting and remedying all dangerous and unsafe aspects of production

■    Legalization of the mass peasant takeover and redistribution of the former feudal estates, with the following stipulation written into the relevant decree on land: “In the event of the temporary disability of any member of a village commune for a period of up to two years, the village commune shall be obliged to assist him for this period by collectively cultivating his land until he is again able to work. . . . Peasants who, owing to old age or ill-health, are permanently disabled and unable to cultivate the land personally, shall receive a pension from the state.”31

Perhaps most interesting, if not surprising, the All-Russia Congress of Soviets—the highest legislative body in Russia at that time—unceremoniously passed into the annals of history in 1918 as the first government in the world (and only one of a mere handful up to the present day) to ratify a federal constitution that explicitly mentions and recognizes the civil rights of people with disabilities as an integral component of society.32 

On the juridical plane, the Soviet government abolished the entire edifice of the former tsarist penal code and judicial system, and replaced it with one in which all judges were elected and recallable.33 A further measure served to strip the judges of their semi-monarchical position in the courtroom by granting increased weight in the deliberative process to teachers, social workers, psychologists, and the like.34 

Moreover, under the new legal system, judges had absolutely no authority over cases involving children under the age of eighteen, who were instead dealt with exclusively through either the commissariat for education or for public health. Nor could children be incarcerated either in prisons or “juvenile detention centers,” as they are euphemistically called in many countries today (including the United States).35 

In terms of the penal code, suicide and insanity were no longer criminalized, becoming instead matters that at most occasioned therapeutic social and/or psychological intervention. 36 Furthermore, whereas previously the tsarist courts had commonly considered the psychological status of the accused as reason for the dispensation of harsher punishments, the new juridical system displayed a widespread tendency to grant markedly greater leniency to those with mental or psychological impairments or disorders.37 

Another important penal reform pertained to the decriminalization of matters relating to addiction and sexual health. Having alcoholism, or contracting a sexually-transmitted disease, for instance, were no longer officially viewed as personal, moral, or criminal failings of the individual, but rather considered social maladies necessitating treatment at a social and public level.38 Such a standpoint contrasted starkly with that obtaining in the United States, for instance, which in 1920 had not only effectively criminalized the consumption of alcohol, but also continued the practice of jailing medical professionals and activists for the “crime” of publicly distributing educational pamphlets containing information on contraception and sexual hygiene.39

The foregoing reforms in the penal code reflected a more general trend taking hold within revolutionary Russia of avoiding carceral solutions to an array of social phenomena. For instance, if people were no longer being thrown in prison solely because they had a psychological disorder or impairment, then neither were such individuals simply consigned to languish en masse in mental asylums or psychiatric institutions (as was the common practice in the advanced capitalist societies of contemporary Europe and America). Rather, a sizeable and growing number of Russian psychiatrists were now rejecting the practice of total institutionalization as both ineffective and dehumanizing. Instead, treatments and therapies were to take place in village-based programs in the rural countryside and in a variety of outpatient settings in the cities.40 Although there were admittedly a number of factors contributing to de-institutionalization in Russia (some of which were quite macabre, e.g., civil war and famine wiping out hospital staff and patients), it is estimated that by 1923 the number of people in mental institutions in Russia had declined by 75 percent as compared to the pre-revolution numbers.41 

Appendix: A note on the Russian revolutionary movement and eugenics

From the beginning of the twentieth century through the end of World War II, the eugenics movement exerted a profoundly widespread influence on the political and intellectual representatives of the ruling circles of Europe and the United States. As a philosophy which posited the notion of racial and biological engineering as a means to “cleanse” the human gene pool of supposedly undesirable elements (i.e., people with disabilities, “inferior” ethnic groups, etc.), eugenics provided a convenient form of scapegoating to the rulers of a capitalist system wracked by seemingly insoluble crises of war, revolution, poverty, and economic collapse.

Most people today are familiar with eugenics only insofar as it connects to the horrors carried out by the fascist Nazi regime that ruled Germany from 1933–1945. However, far fewer people know that during the 1920s and 1930s leading Nazis explicitly saw their aim as emulating what they considered the more innovative and groundbreaking eugenics practices taking hold inside the United States.

As early as 1907 the state of Indiana enacted a law legalizing the forced sterilization of “criminals, idiots, [and] imbeciles.” Before long, the practice had spread nationwide, reaching its apex in 1927 when the Supreme Court affirmed the legality of forced sterilization. Hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities, poor people, African Americans, and other racially oppressed minority groups ultimately became the victims of eugenicist practices carried out by legal entities in at least thirty states and also by the federal government.42

In contrast, such eugenic measures and philosophies were conspicuously absent and marginalized within revolutionary Russia. One stark example of this contrast can be seen in the comparative immigration laws of Russia and the United States at the end of 1917. In addition to abolishing the former tsarist domestic penal code, the Soviet government did away with all existing immigration restrictions, including those pertaining to disability. The sole basis upon which entry was now to be decided was a commitment by the immigrant to support and participate in the development of the new revolutionary society.43 Such a policy is remarkable when compared to US federal immigration protocols at that time, which explicitly listed the following diseases and disabilities as potential grounds for summary exclusion: epilepsy, feeble-mindedness, a history of at least one attack of insanity, deafness, blindness, physical deformity, spinal curvature, heart disease, asthma; in a word, anyone judged “mentally or physically defective, such mental or physical defect being of a nature which may affect the ability of such alien to earn a living.”44

This is not to say that there were no eugenics advocates within Russia at this time. A Russian Eugenics Society existed in Russia in the 1920s, comprising a smattering of scientists, geneticists, academics, and zoologists. It even received money from the state to conduct certain theoretical studies. However, it is important to note that at least until 1928–32, freedom of the academy, the sciences, and philosophy was held sacrosanct by the revolutionary government and populace. And since the state now held a virtual monopoly on public funds, any and all academic endeavors would in some way be tied to the state. It was not until later that the state rigidly controlled and censored the scope of the material that could be discussed in the universities and periodicals of civil society. Thus, as long as it stopped short of openly supporting violent counterrevolution, such self-organized intellectual groups as the Russian Eugenics Society could relatively easily secure government funds.45

The Russian variant of eugenics, moreover, appears positively tepid when compared to that which was ascendant in Europe and the United States at this time. The leading Russian figures and journals overwhelmingly rejected the “negative” eugenics associated with the “Indiana Idea,” i.e., compulsory sterilization. Historian Mark Adams provides an anecdote to this effect involving a number of lectures and articles published in 1923 by one M. V. Volotskoi, urging that a “sterilization program be undertaken in Russia”:

He argued that vasectomy was not castration; that it was working well in America; that it could be put to immediate use; and that the success of the U.S. program would undoubtedly improve the biological quality of the American population in the near future. Volotskoi’s championing of eugenic sterilization met with considerable opposition: the reviews of his book by Filipchenko [Yuri Filipchenko, the founder of the Russian eugenics movement] and others were hardly enthusiastic, and the discussions of sterilization in eugenic society meetings from Leningrad to Saratov were almost uniformly hostile.46  

While “negative” eugenics failed to find purchase within the Russian eugenics movement at large, the so-called “positive” eugenics advocated by the Russian eugenics movement (i.e., the selective, controlled mating of those with “desirable” traits) failed just as much to find firm purchase within revolutionary Russian society at large. According to some historians, the reason why eugenics remained of so little import within revolutionary Russia was exclusively a consequence of Russia’s “population implosion.” Historian Mark Adams writes, for example, “In the years between 1917 and 1920, Moscow had lost 49.6 percent of its population, Petrograd a staggering 71 percent. . . . Sterilization was simply out of the question: given the social realities, the common perception was that Russia needed not fewer births, but many, many more.”47

The main flaw of such a determinist analysis, however, is that it cannot explain other phenomena that directly contradict its premise. If the population implosion was the sole driving factor behind the official unpopularity of eugenics (i.e., put crudely, that there were simply not enough babies being made), what then accounts for the official popularity of legal abortion within revolutionary Russia, which in 1920 was decriminalized and made freely available to all women under all circumstances? Indeed, a primary campaign of the Russian Eugenics Society that it unsuccessfully championed during the 1920s was the repeal of abortion legalization.48

A more convincing explanation of the decline of eugenics in revolutionary Russia might rest on some of the following alternative factors. First, insofar as a large portion of the Russian population had come to adopt the tenets of Marxism, such an ideology is largely incompatible with the premises of eugenics. As evidenced by the character of the overwhelming number of arguments leveled against eugenics within academic journals and conferences throughout 1920s Russia, the main contention appears to be a rejection of the very notion that biologically-inherited genes—as opposed to socioeconomic and historical conditions—are a primary determinant in the formation of human behavior. In other words, the key to the wellbeing and betterment of the human race lies not in restructuring the existing gene pool but in fundamentally changing the existing social circumstances.

Secondly, as discussed earlier, insofar as the revolution maintained its mass, democratic, working-class character, the population that was “in the saddle,” so to speak, had no interest in theories positing the inherent (and inherited) supremacy of a supposed genetic aristocracy. The working and peasant masses had been told from infancy onwards by the ruling class that they were at the bottom because they were simply made of inferior stuff. Yet having now definitively proven their power and self-worth by collectively overturning the prevailing order, such a revolutionary class of people—disproportionately comprising the disabled, the sick, the so-called “wretched of the earth”—clearly would have ample reason to ultimately reject the elitist panacea of artificial genetic selection being advocated by their class enemy the world over.

Part two will appear in the upcoming issue of the International Socialist Review.


  1. For more on the Russian Revolution, see Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (1932); John Reed, Ten Days That Shook The World (1919); Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2004). 
  2. Karl Marx makes this argument over the course of sections 3, 4, and 5 of chapter 25, “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation,” in the first volume of Capital. Also see Marta Russell, “Disablement, Oppression, and the Political Economy,” Journal of Disability Policy Studies 12.2 (2001), and Roddy Slorach, A Very Capitalist Condition: A History and Politics of Disability (London: Bookmarks, 2015).
  3. V. I. Lenin, “The Law on Compensation Payable to Workers Injured in Accidents,” Iskra, September 1, 1903, at Marxists Internet Archive, www.marxists.org. Also in Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 41 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), 99–100. The article was published about three weeks after the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) split into Bolshevik and Menshevik factions at the party’s August 1903 Congress.
  4. Vicente Navarro, Social Security and Medicine in the USSR: A Marxist Critique (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1977), 7–8. The text of the party’s position can be found in Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 17 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), 475–77.
  5. John F. Hutchinson, “‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ An Inquiry into the Death of Zemstvo Medicine,” in Susan Gross Solomon and John F. Hutchinson, eds., Health and Society in Revolutionary Russia (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990), 6–8.
  6. Ibid., 8.
  7. Irina Sirotkina, “The Politics of Etiology: Shell Shock in the Russian Army, 1914–1918,” in Angela Brintlinger and Ilya Vinitsky, eds., Madness and the Mad in Russian Culture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 125.
  8. Quoted in Neil B. Weissman, “Origins of Soviet Health Administration,” in Health and Society in Revolutionary Russia, 99.
  9. Julie V. Brown, “Social Influences on Psychiatric Theory and Practice in Late Imperial Russia,” in Health and Society in Revolutionary Russia, 32.
  10. Quoted in Julie V. Brown, “Psychiatrists and the State in Tsarist Russia,” in Stanley Cohen and Andrew Scull, eds., Social Control and the State: Historical and Comparative Essays (Oxford: M. Robertson, 1983), 278–279.
  11. Kenneth Pinnow, “Lives Out of Balance: The ‘Possible World’ of Soviet Suicide during the 1920s,” in Madness and the Mad in Russian Culture, 130.
  12. Brown, “Psychiatrists and the State,” 277.
  13. Brown, “Social Influences,” 36, 42.
  14. Sirotkina, 121.
  15. Ibid., 118–119, 127.
  16. Brown, “Psychiatrists and the State,” 279–283.
  17. Brown, “Social Influences,” 38–39.
  18. Ibid., 283.
  19. Marta Russell and Ravi Malhotra, “Capitalism and Disability,” Socialist Register 38 (2002), 221.
  20. S. A. Smith, Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories, 1917–1918 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 54.
  21. Kevin Murphy, Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2007), 50–51.
  22. Murphy, 47–48.
  23. Ibid., 51.
  24. “Invalid” was the official term used across Europe and the US at the time for the purpose of categorizing disabled soldiers.
  25. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 187.
  26. Ibid., 485.
  27. Roddy Slorach, A Very Capitalist Condition: A History and Politics of Disability (London: Bookmarks, 2015), 150, 165–166.
  28. Douglas C. Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” in Lennard J. Davis, ed., The Disability Studies Reader 4th ed. (New York: Routledge, 2013), 16–33.
  29. Lenin, “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?” Prosveshcheniye No. 1–2, October 14, 1917, Marxists Internet Archive.
  30. Trotsky, “In Defense of October,” The Militant , vol. 6, no. 3, January 21, 1933,  Marxists Internet Archive.
  31. Arthur Newsholme and John Adams Kingsbury, Red Medicine: Socialized Health in Soviet Russia (New York: Doubleday, 1933), 107; Arthur Ransome, Six Weeks in Russia in 1919 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1919), 112–117; Navarro, 17–18; Health and Society in Revolutionary Russia, xi, 73, 93; Lenin, Materials Relating to the Revision of the Party Programme (Petrograd: Priboi Publishers, 1917), Marxists Internet Archive; William McCagg and Lewis Siegelbaum, eds, The Disabled in the Soviet Union: Past and Present, Theory and Practice (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989), 78–79, 169; Lenin, “Report on Land; Decree on Land,” Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, Rabochy i Soldat, no. 9 & 10, October 26–27, 1917, Marxists Internet Archive.
  32. Constitution of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, ratified by the Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets, July 10, 1918, Marxists Internet Archive.
  33. The relevant governmental decree of December 7, 1917 abolished all existing general legal institutions. Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (London: Merlin Press, 1980), 326.
  34. Madness and the Mad in Russian Culture, 13.
  35. The Council of People’s Commissars, “Cases of Juveniles Accused of Socially Dangerous Acts,” Izvestia no. 51, March 6, 1920, cited in Lenin, “The Prosecution of Minors: Notes And Amendments to the Draft Decree,” March 4, 1920, Marxists Internet Archive; N. Semashko, “The Work of the People’s Commissariat of Health,” Soviet Russia vol. 3 no. 2 (September 18, 1920), 276–279.
  36. It should be noted, however, that the revised Soviet legal code of 1922 made it illegal to “instigate” or coerce someone else into committing suicide (i.e., by placing them under conditions of persistent psychological duress, etc). Pinnow, 130–146.
  37. Dan Healey, “Early Soviet Forensic Psychiatric Approaches to Sex Crime, 1917–1934,” Madness and the Mad in Russian Culture, 150-168.
  38. Susan Gross Solomon, “Social Hygiene and Soviet Public Health, 1921-1930,” Health and Society in Revolutionary Russia, 175–189; Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1986), 175–176.
  39. The eighteenth amendment to the US constitution concerned the prohibition of alcohol. On the criminalization of reproductive health, see Jennifer Latson, “Why Birth Control Pioneer Margaret Sanger Kept Getting Arrested,” TIME, October 16, 2015.
  40. Madness and the Mad in Russian Culture, 287.
  41. Ibid., 13.
  42. Kim Nielsen, A Disability History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), 100–130.
  43. Yuri Felshtinsky, “The Legal Foundations of the Immigration and Emigration Policy of the USSR, 1917–27,” Soviet Studies vol. 34, no. 3 (July, 1982), 327–348.
  44. Baynton, 25–28.
  45. Mark Adams, “Eugenics as Social Medicine in Revolutionary Russia: Prophets, Patrons, and the Dialectics of Discipline-Building,” Health and Society in Revolutionary Russia, 200–220.
  46. Adams, 211–212. 
  47. Adams, 212.
  48. Ibid.

Issue #72

July 2010

¡Todos Somos Arizona!

Issue contents

Top story

Editorials

Features

Interviews

Critical Thinking

Reviews

  • Getting slaves to market

    Greg Love reviews The Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Rediker and Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora by Stephanie Smallwood
  • Lenin’s Marxism

    Paul D'Amato reviews Lenin’s Political Thought: Theory and Practice in the Democratic and Socialist Movement by Neil Harding
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