Anyone who travels on the metro as regularly as I do can’t have failed to notice some people communicating in sign language. Russia’s population is around 146.5 million, and 90,000 are deaf and dumb. I often wondered how they cope with Moscow’s frenetic lifestyle, and indeed how they’re integrated into society here. A chance meeting at one of Moscow’s many social events on offer went a long way to answering my curiosity.
Meeting the softly-spoken, attractive, and demure Irina, I wasn’t the least surprised to learn she’s a successful Operations Manager in the logistics department of an e.commerce company. Dig a little deeper and an altogether different picture emerges, transporting her from an ordinary to a rather extraordinary person, for Irina, despite being a totally normal person as you and I would know it, was in fact born to a deaf and dumb mother, had a deaf and dumb step-father as well as a deaf and dumb sister: a massive encumbrance to most people but not Irina – no shrinking violet she!

Irina was born to her 23-year mother here in Moscow. The would be father had absconded when mother became pregnant (not an uncommon occurrence), resulting in a blank birth certificate where his name should have been, and the mother steadfastly refusing to discuss his identity to anyone. Irina’s aunt took them in, assisted by the grandparents, but as she already had two children of her own, this soon resulted in a precarious fiscal situation. It’s worth mentioning that when she was born, doctors and “the authorities” deemed it better to move her swiftly to an orphanage, but this was declined in no uncertain terms.
Irina and her mother subsequently moved to a small village in the Tambov region where the locals viewed them with disdain as she was not only born out of wedlock, but they were also seen as ‘different.’ After initially learning the deaf and dumb language, Irina began talking aged one, so was put into kindergarten at the earliest opportunity where she excelled at singing, dancing and poetry. Meanwhile mother married when Irina was four to a man with the same affliction, whom Irina has always had affection for and even today still calls him papa. A year later and twins were born- one normal (Inna), the other also deaf and dumb (Rita).

When Irina was seven her mother and stepfather made the painful decision to send Irina to live with her aunt despite Irina’s protestations. Overnight she went from a loving atmosphere to an aunt who was austere, totally undemonstrative of any form of affection, and as a final coup de gras, had an alcoholic husband who was prone to physical and verbal abuse. I observe her looking a touch lachrymose at this juncture, but she regains her composure as she compares the tempestuous atmosphere at home to the encouragement received at school, culminating in her being talent spotted by music scouts and offered a position at a top music school to study piano and flute despite having neither instrument available at home.
Fast forward to today and it finds Irina living happily with Rita, and having regular visits to her mother and grandmother. Rita hopes to get married one day and have a family of her own. She’s extremely active and gregarious, and has a close group of friends as well as securing a job at Auchan who are sympathetic to these people’s plight- kudos to them. Rita recently went to France with her aforementioned friends, and they had a rendezvous with their French counterparts. Incredibly, they could all communicate with complete understanding despite any potential language barriers. As for Irina, who is in her mid-thirties, I ask whether she would like to settle down and have children and if so, what the risk would be of bearing a child who is also deaf and dumb. It’s totally random, she says, no one knows for sure, but there’s a 50-50 chance of that happening.

One thing is abundantly clear: these people, despite their difficulties, are courageous and determined to make the most of what little they have, and are an inspiration. Whilst they might not be able to hear and speak, they can still see and are able to bring happiness to all around them with skilful communication among those in their close-knit world. As Ludwig van Beethoven declared: Music is like a dream- one that I cannot hear.