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Maria Cristina Galmarini : “Life had brought me to Russia and the experiences I had there, especially the personal connection, kept me tied to it”

19.07.2023


Harrison Ruffin Tyler Department of History in the College of William&Mary in Virginia. E-mail: mgalmarinikaba@wm.edu. Authored books:


The Right to Be Helped: Entitlement, Deviance, and the Soviet Moral Order. Northern Illinois University Press, 2016.


Ambassadors of Social Progress. A History of International Blind Activism in the Cold War. Cornell University Press; Northern Illinois University Press, 2024.


1) Dear Cristina, the specialisation of our journal is memory studies. In interviews we are testing the hypothesis of Jan Assmann stating that the usual span of communicative (family) memory of modern people includes three generations (80-100 years). How deep is your family memory?


Family memory, in my opinion, is determined by factors such as class, location (urban versus rural), education, and gender. I come from a family of Northern Italian farms hands. This is a part of Italy where mandatory elementary education was implemented only in the post-WWII years and even then in scattered ways, at best. In that context, literacy was not a prime value as people struggled with everyday issues of material nature. It was a culture of scarcity and, while everybody in the village recognized each other and knew each other’s families, nobody seemed to have the time and the energy to remember the past. My personal memory does not go farther back than my grandmother and grandfather on my mother side. As for my family memory, I would say it extends back 2 generations and is constantly subjected to change because it does not rely on any written documentation.


2) The family memory of most modern people includes the tragic events of the Second World War. How is this reflected in your family memory?


There is a story that circulates in my family about my grandfather Giuseppe, my mother’s father. According to this story, nonno Giuseppe was made prisoner in Austria and saved from labor camp life by a local family of butchers who needed help with their business. Since the couple of butchers did not have children, they went to the POWs’ camp in search for free labor. My grandfather knew how to slaughter animals and was therefore chosen for the task. As I told you before, we do not have any documentation about this, but only my mother’s and aunts’ vague memories of their father cursing in German when he was angry and of parcels with sausages arriving to their address every Christmas for the first years after the war.


3) Slavic studies are not very popular among Western academics. Why are you involved in that field? Do you have East European ancestors?


I do not have East European ancestry. I studied Russian language in college, in Milan. In 1998 I visited Saint Petersburg for the first time and in 2001 I spent some time in Moscow. I felt a strong attraction to Russian language, culture, and society, and wanted to learn more about the country’s history. Mine was a young woman’s fascination for complex and seemingly paradoxical historical processes. Of course, I could have directed my intellectual curiosity at other historical subjects (which country in the end does not have a complex and paradoxical history?), but life had brought me to Russia and the experiences I had there, especially the personal connection, kept me tied to it.


4) You speak Russian fluently and I noticed that your pronunciation is close to Russian people. How did you achieve that?


The Italian phonetic system is not so distant from the Russian one. My language has a different melody and, after over 20 years, I still largely speak Russian with Italian melody. The years spent living in Russia, the frequent visits, the daily interactions that I have with Russian speaking friends – all this helped with acquiring fluency.


5) Your books and papers are focused on the history of disabled people in the Soviet Union. Why did you choose that subject?


The subject came to me while I was doing research for my first book The Right to Be Helped. For that project I was interested in the question of how the concept of “help” and having rights to it evolved in the post-revolutionary and Stalinist Soviet Union. To address this question, I had decided to select groups of people that needed help more than others in Soviet society. It is in this way that I came across VOS and VOG, the All-Russian Societies of the Blind and the Deaf. Since then, I spent many years researching the activities of these organizations, especially VOS, and expanded the scope of my research to other socialist countries. I became interesting in understanding if there was any space for blind advocacy in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe and, after discovering there was, I wanted to see how different their disability activism was from the protest-centered one that American society is used to.


6) In the Soviet Union and even now in Russia to be disabled person is a kind of stigma. Maybe there are some prejudices in our society based on superstition. Ablebodied people not only avoid communicating with disabled people but even acknowledging their existence. Therefore, in our public space, the number of wheelchair ramps and other devices to help the disabled is very limited. How do you explain that lack of compassion? Is it really an “archaic heritage” resulting from the forceful and fast modernizing that the Soviet people underwent, or are there other reasons?


I would not say that disability stigma comes from lack of compassion, and I would disagree that this is exclusively a Soviet phenomenon. There are multiple reasons why people with disabilities are stigmatized and the nature of this stigma has changed over the centuries and across the geographies. Focusing on Russia today, I have to say that societal attitudes have become increasingly more accepting of human diversity, including differences in bodily abilities (the stigma is still huge when it comes to disabilities of the mind). There is a lot to do, of course, but I when I look at initiatives such as those promoted by the museum Garage in Moscow, I see the seeds of positive change at least at the level of culture and representation. A different matter is that of accessibility: here we should ask why the government does not want to invest funds in changing infrastructure or, when it does, why the changes are always implemented poorly and ineffectively. Who are the engineers who plan ramps that lead into walls? This is not a joke but a reality that anybody can see in Russian cities if they start paying attention to issues of accessibility.


7) Could you talk about your new project, the publication of correspondence between the former Italian prisoner of war, who was captured on the Eastern front in 1942 and the Russian nurse?


I am currently working on two projects related to the story of an Italian POW who spent 3 years in a Soviet military hospital in Mordovia and was then repatriated to his native country in the Fall of 1945. One project is the transcription and annotated publication of the correspondence he held with a Russian woman, former employee of the military hospital, 50 years the war. The two found each other by a stroke of luck in February 1992 and immediately began an intense correspondence that lasted until 1999. In their letters they straddled the line between memory of the past and reflections on the present. The complete set of letters has immense value to understand not only issues of memory and nostalgia but also understandings of old age, health, and family relations in two such different countries as Russia and Italy in the 1990s. The second project, instead, is a reconstruction of the life of the Italian POW, from his youth as a young Fascist man to his troubled adaption to peaceful life in postwar Italy. This project is based on the unpublished memoirs left by the protagonist, and I will write it in English for an American audience of students and scholars interested in European history.


Thank you very much for the interview!

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