Kolja, or: how deaf people can be super spies

by Corrie Tijsseling

The Dutch novelist Arthur Japin recently wrote a book with the title Kolja. “Kolja” was the pet name of Nikolaj Konradi (1868-1922), a Russian child who is said to have been born deaf and trained to speak. Or, as the author writes himself: “who was deaf-mute and who miraculously learned to speak”. Kolja was the pupil of Modest Tsjaikovski (1850-1916), the brother of the musician Pjotr Tsjaikovski (1840-1893). Modest was hired by the wealthy parents of Kolja as a guardian and supervised him during his education at the French school of doctor Jacques Hugentobler (1844-1924) in Lyon.

Book cover: Kolja by Arthur Japin.
Book cover: "Kolja" by Arthur Japin.

Arthur Japin is a renowned author and again managed to write a story that kept my attention till the last page. However, as a deaf historian who specializes in deaf education, I had my doubts when I started to read; would a hearing novelist be able to write an historically and politically correct story about a deaf person? This initial reserve grew after the author and I had an intense debate over the word ‘deaf-mute’. At that moment, I did not know that the author elaborates in his book on the meaning and effects of this word, in which he was advised by a deaf person who gave feedback on the manuscript and had explained that deaf people consider this word as offensive comparable to the effect that the N-word has to black people. The publisher however, had used the word ‘deaf-mute’ in the promotion of the book and this prompted me to post a tweet to both the publisher and the author in which I requested to remove that word.

The author contacted me through the Direct Message-section of Twitter, where one can send private notes to contacts, telling me that he did respect the wish of deaf people but insisted that he needed a word that described a person who is not able to speak, as in ‘mute’. I tried to explain him that ‘mute’ is correct but that a word that connects ‘not being able to hear’ to ‘not being able to speak’ is redundant to deaf people, and even ableist as it expresses what the dominant group considers as ‘normal’. After all, I am convinced that deaf people do communicate, though their language has been denied for many centuries by the phonocentric Western societies that only consider spoken languages as true and meaningful languages, resulting in excluding words like ‘deaf-mute’ and horrific speech training methods such as the method Hugentobler which Japin describes so vividly in his book.

In the end Arthur Japin and I agreed to disagree and the word ‘deaf-mute’ was removed from all communication by the publisher. But damage had been done already: the emphasis on the magnificent speech skills of Kolja resulted in the frequent use of the word ‘deaf-mute’ in all of the book reviews that I have read.

Super spy
Japin’s story starts with the death of Pjotr Tsjaikovski. By that time, Kolja was already an adult and had ended his relationship with Modest, apparently over financial matters. The death of Pjotr turns out to be a suspicious death and it is here that super spy Kolja is introduced. He reads the speech, and the emotions and thoughts of every person that approaches him, even persons he has never met before, with hardly any effort. Or as Japin himself describes it on the cover of the book, Kolja is: “… als geen ander in getraind het ongehoorde te doorgronden” (… who like no one else was trained to fathom what cannot be heard).

In order to fully understand the fictitious nature of this sentence you probably must be deaf. Just as you have to be deaf to understand that the author needs this myth of deaf people’s supernatural speech reading skills and powers of emotion reading and vibe feeling, for developing the story plot. In real life, deaf people have to ask other people continuously to repeat what they said as well as do hearing people often complain that deaf people are rude, ignorant, and cold (though, the same is said about hearing people by deaf people). This I would say is the first myth that is being used by Japin in order to seduce his readership.

It took a while before I was able to identify myth #2, but eventually it popped up halfway through the book: this time the author turned towards the supposedly extraordinary sexual experiences of deaf people. The idea that deaf people experience sexuality in an extraordinary way then is explained by referring to the fact that they miss one sense and that the other senses compensate for the loss. So, someone who cannot hear is considered to have extraordinary visual and tactile experiences. A myth that especially hearing adolescents are eager to test for themselves with deaf adolescents, in a way that can be described as sexual harassment. Apart from these two myths, the author must be applauded for his eminent descriptions of the experiences of being deaf, in which I fully recognize my own experiences. For example on page 138, where it is described that being deaf means that one has to register, interpret, conclude, deduce all kinds of elements of information in order to make sense of it all. And: to be persistent as each withdrawal or failure puts yourself offside. As Japin writes: “Ons hele begrip hangt af van op te lossen raadsels” (Our complete understanding depends on riddles to be solved).

The different meanings of “deaf”
How about the historical aspects of the book? Regarding the lives and times of the brothers Tsjaikovski, I dare not to give my opinion as I lack knowledge on this matter. Regarding the history of deaf people and their education, however, there are several things that can be mentioned. First of all, there is the question of what “deaf” actually means? And secondly, related to the previous comment, what is understood by “education”? According to the author, Kolja was born deaf and learned to speak. I would like to reframe this as “Kolja, the boy of whom it is thought that he was born deaf, and who was trained to speak”.

Classroom scene
Classroom scene.

Kolja was born in 1868 and in that time, it was not possible to measure hearing loss. The profession of audiology only started hesitatingly in 1920 with the first audiometers (Sente, 2004). It was only after WWII when audiometers could reliably measure hearing loss in magnitude (dB) and frequency (Hz). And it is then that the categories of mild, moderate, severe and profound hearing loss were created. This means that, before WWII, anyone with any amount of hearing loss which formed an obstacle for informally perceiving and learning a spoken language, was labeled ‘deaf’. In fact, there are very few people who hear nothing at all as most deaf people have some hearing residues - though most are not aware of it. However, these residues do help in learning a spoken language.

Another aspect is that we only know since the start of audiology that it matters when the deafness started. The first three years of life are known as the prelingual period, in which the fundaments of language acquisition are laid. It does not matter if this is a sign language or a spoken language, but it does make a difference if there is a rich language input. As mentioned, we do not know if Kolja had a mild, moderate, severe or profound hearing loss but we also do not know when this hearing loss had started: at birth, in his early years or later in his childhood? The story suggests that Kolja has been able to hear for some time, and had an awareness of sound, as he clung to people and pianos, and searched for rhythms and patterns.

Post card view of the Hugentobler Institute
Post card view of the Hugentobler Institute.

Education, or modeling?
As Kolja’s parents were very wealthy, they were able to send him to the Hugentobler Institute in Lyon, where he was trained in the oralist method in which the use of signing was strictly prohibited. The method controversy in the education of deaf people reached its climax in 1880, when the International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) decided that the pure oral method was preferred over the combined method in which speech was combined with signing (Brill, 1984; Beelaert, Bruyneel & Leeman, 2009). The oral method was at its best a training method, but definitely not an education method. One of the goals of education is individuation in which a child becomes a free, independent and autonomous person. In the time of Kolja, this process was known as ‘Bildung’ but this word was not used in deaf education. Here, a different kind of ‘forming a person’ took place, that is: ‘modelling’, to shape deaf children in the form of hearing people (Tijsseling, 2014). Many books on deaf education describe how to train deaf children to sit and stand without moving (instead of waving arms and hands and move heads), to communicate only with the mouth (instead of using your hands and facial mimics), and to walk correctly (instead of shambling and pounding).

Rigid measures and strict discipline were used to make deaf children speak. Japin describes the method of Hugentobler very well but this is just one of the many oral methods of that time. The psychologist Vygotsky (1896-1934) valued the oral method as it made it possible for deaf people to communicate with hearing people (and not only to communicate among each other, as they did and do) but it could not be regarded as social education as it was so hard to learn deaf children to speak that it turned out as a form of disciplining and conditioning (Tijsseling, 2014). Vygotsky also gives a horrific image of this “education”: “When forcing a pupil to master a difficult sound, the teacher could knock out his tooth and, having wiped the blood from the hand, he would proceed to the next sound.

To conclude, “Kolja” offers an insight in the life and education of a deaf son of wealthy Russian parents at the end of the 19th century but it is recommended to read the book for the suspense story about the Tsjaikovski brothers while ignoring the extraordinary supernatural talents of Kolja, that are necessary to reveal the truth.

Corrie Tijsseling is a research coordinator at GGMD - a Dutch non-profit organisation for Deaf people. In 2014 she defended her PhD on the history of education for the Deaf in the Netherlands.

Beelaert, B., Bruyneel, C. & en Leeman, K. (2009) Vive la parole? Milaan 1880 als scharniermoment in het dovenonderwijs. Gent: Fevlado-Diversus.

Brill, R.G. (1984). International Congresses on Education of the Deaf. An Analytical History, 1878-1980. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

Sente, M. (2004). The history of audiology. Medicinski Pregled 57(11), 611-616. Doi: https://doi.org/10.2298/MPNS0412611S

Tijsseling, C. (2014). “School, waar?” Een onderzoek naar de betekenis van het Nederlandse dovenonderwijs voor de Nederlandse dovengemeenschap, 1790-1990. Utrecht: Universiteit Utrecht.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1925). “Principles of social education for the deaf-mute child”, in: Bieber, R.W. & Carton, A.S., (Eds). The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky. Volume 2 The Fundamentals of Defectology (Abnormal Psychology and Learning Disabilities), ed. R.W. Bieber & A.S. Carton. New York/London: Plenum Press, 1993, 69.

Recommended citation:
Corrie Tijsseling (2019): Kolja, or: how deaf people can be super spies. In: Public Disability History 4 (2019) 3.