Book Review of The Right to be Helped: Deviance, Entitlement, and the Soviet Moral Order

The Right to be Helped: Deviance, Entitlement, and the Soviet Moral Order Soviet WWII veterans training with rudimentary prostheses at a vocational training facility in Moscow in the 1940s.

Maria Cristina Galmarini-Kabala. The Right to be Helped: Deviance, Entitlement, and the Soviet Moral Order. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2016. 316 pp., $25.99 E-Book Edition. ISBN 978-1-60909-196-5


In her 2016 book, The Right to be Helped: Deviance, Entitlement, and the Soviet Moral Order, Maria Cristina Galmarini-Kabala tackles the complex and contradictory field of Soviet welfare – with a central focus on disability benefits – between the years of 1917 and 1950. She shows that the development of this welfare system was joined in many ways to the greater European welfare movement and yet was informed by distinctly Marxist ethics.

These ethics were initially torn between, on one hand, the ideal that all citizens should be part of a labor force contributing to construction of a new economy and society, and, on the other hand, a reality that some citizens might be prevented from participating in this labor ideal. Both the system and its ethics evolved over time, primarily due to the fusion and friction between top-down administration and bottom-up grassroots activism. That evolution culminated, in the late 1940s, with the adoption of “Marxist Humanism” as a new “moral order” and “conception of human value.”

The author, Galmarini-Kabala, is a specialist in the history of disability and has previously won the Disability History Association’s award for Best Published Article in the Field (2018). She is an Associate Professor of History and Global Studies at the College of William and Mary.

In what might seem, at first, to be problematic terminology, Galmarini-Kabala uses the terms “deviant” and “deviance” to describe disabled and dependent members of Soviet society.[1] She makes it clear, however, that the term is consciously engineered to reflect popular understandings of these populations at the time. Firstly, it is a reminder that these groups (behaviorally problematic children, blind and deaf adults, struggling single mothers) were perceived as “abnormal.” Secondly, it imparts the contemporary assumption that these groups “would engage in aberrant behaviors unless restrained or provided with proper assistance,” because of their “abnormality.” (4) Those who did not, or could not, engage with the ideal contributory way of life must, it was thought, by their very separation from the means of production and the community, possess some dangerous antisocial tendencies. For clarity and consistency’s sake, I shall echo the term she uses.

The Right to be Helped is divided into two sections. Section I, entitled “Ideas of Rights and Agents of Help,” contains Chapters 1-3. The dense prologue can be thought of as belonging to this portion as well. In Chapter 1, Galmarini-Kabala argues that welfare is a development of the modern state. “Welfare,” as she defines it in the prologue, is a social arrangement wherein “in the context of market exchanges, economically vulnerable groups could use the political sphere to favor their position.” (22) It is her opinion that Bismarckian disability insurance was the first real instance of modern, public welfare policy in Europe. She ties the policy and its rationale to the identity and essential socio-scientific inclination of the modern nation. Comparing the Soviet Union’s welfare policy to other European policies, situating it within the continuum of variants that arose between Bismarck’s time and the revolution, she demonstrates that the Soviet approach did not substantially differ in form or function.

The primary system of welfare in the Soviet Union in the first decades of the USSR was the Workers’ Insurance Program. Alongside it was the Commissariat of Social Assistance – critical for those whose situations precluded them from traditional work – and which was often maligned for its similarities with capitalist philanthropy. Assistance from the commissariat’s programs was paradoxically tied to past or potential labor productivity. As proving these was often impossible or very difficult, accessing its various programs became a complex occupation of its own. The diverse avenues by which people acquired assistance are explored by Galmarini-Kabala throughout the book.

In this section, Galmarini-Kabala’s core argumentative thesis on the evolution of Soviet ethics is developed. She contrasts the USSR with its European contemporaries in that the USSR rejected the notion of inherent human value and instead calculated an individual’s worth based on the individual’s contributions toward the collective. Inviolable human rights were considered a manipulative bourgeois construct; prerevolutionary Russian theorists deemed social legislation in capitalist countries to be a measure “to reduce the reproduction costs of the labor force; it helped them preserve a labor force that otherwise would be destroyed by the tendency of single entrepreneurs to intensify exploitation.” (35) Exemplifying the Soviet philosophy, she cites the 1936 Soviet Constitution, which contained the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his work,” a somewhat ironic reworking of a quote from Marx that used the word “work” in place of Marx’s original “need.” (7) Though these words are intended to apply to the pragmatic necessities of socialist transition, and not to a fully communist Soviet Union of the future, their harshness in peoples’ immediate, everyday reality is not diminished by that fact.

Galmarini-Kabala claims that Marxist Humanist beliefs, and their associations with Leninism, began to spring up among the “deviant” populations and their analogous activist groups who faced this reality. She quotes a portion of the 1952 edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia’s entry for “socialist humanism,” which defines the term as “the care for the satisfaction of all the spiritual and physical needs of the working man, his freedom, dignity, and honor.” This “authentic humaneness” of “socialist humanism” is contrasted to the bourgeoise capitalist “illusions and abstract dreams of human happiness” – apparitions which had been replaced in the Soviet Union, the encyclopedia argues, with concrete rights “about which many generations of people have dreamed: the right to work, education, and rest.” (221) This new, broader conception of what protections the average Soviet citizen ought to be afforded stands in remarkable contrast to the earlier, utilitarian approach described in the previous paragraph.

In Chapter 2, Galmarini-Kabala reveals the process by which citizens accessed, or in many cases failed to access, the welfare programs that corresponded to their unique situations. The relatively low number of people with full insurance coverage or eligible for a survivable degree of social assistance reflected a chaotically expanded and poorly organized welfare system.

Galmarini-Kabala cites Dorena Caroli’s research, which finds that “by the end of the first Five-Year Plan, the provision of social insurance touched 87 percent of the Soviet working population, thus leaving a good 13 percent of workers uncovered.” (48) However, being insured often did not equate to meaningful coverage in practice. A mere 30 percent of industrial workers were considered fully protected in 1932. (48) Further, even full coverage was inadequate to meet basic needs in the event a claim was needed. Coverage was also opaque, as local bureaucrats were left largely autonomous and favored their own personal notions of how, where, and when to distribute resources. This could be to the advantage or disadvantage of potential beneficiaries.

Chapter 3 explores activists’ organization and practices. In addition to the difficulties laid out above, beneficiaries were often treated as undeserving recipients of the fruits of socialism rather than as participants in the great socialist project. This was true even in the most progressive and integration-oriented of small social programs, e.g., factory workshops designed for the deaf and blind, “Homes for Mother and Child,” “defectological”[2] institutions, etc. Analyses of such experiments make up most of this chapter. Citizens were oftentimes subjected to thorough surveillance or even compelled to engage in programs of “reeducation” and “constructive labor.” Reeducation certainly had its place in a largely illiterate nation with high infant mortality and an excess of suffering caused by preventable, hygiene-related disease; constructive labor also had the potential to provide individuals with a sense of purpose and integration with the collective. However, reality often did not align with expectation. In the Homes for Mother and Child, for example,

Several reports written by the inspectors of the Mother and Infant Department throughout the 1920s drew pictures of disastrous sanitary and economic conditions in which the Homes could offer neither real rest nor significant education. The directors of these facilities strove to exploit women as providers of milk in exchange for a miserable shelter, and women dragged their feet and made all possible efforts to offset the social controls envisioned by the Soviet state. (142-43)

Galmarini-Kabala also claims that compulsive controls coexisted with altruistic compassion. In fact, the former was often a direct, if misguided, result of the latter. Through intervention, “deviants” could be saved from their presumed path of antisocial decadence and forcefully positioned within a complementary, albeit segregated, section of the socialist project. Children’s “defectological” institutions embodied this benevolent side (though many of their subjects still ran away, unhappy):

[Children] played games, participated in storytelling and reading activities, went out for excursions, watched performances, attended art and music classes, took singing lessons, and did physical exercises … Rest and sleep were essential: after lunch the children took a nap and the duration of the night sleep was longer than that of “normal” children of the same age group. The relative proportion of work time and free time was measured precisely, and strict control was applied to the balance between intellectual and muscular activities. Prolonged sleep, the alternation of work and rest, open-air play for four to five hours a day, sufficient space in the lodgings, extracaloric nutrition (by the standards of the time)—all this was part of what the defectologists called “physical and psychic hygiene.” (127-28)

Section II of The Right to be Helped is entitled “The Practice of Help.” It consists of Chapters 4-6 and takes a more temporal approach, addressing how policies developed through three phases that occurred during the book’s 1917-1950 timeframe. Each phase corresponds to a chapter, and to a stage along the developmental path of “Marxist Humanism.”

Chapter 4 is devoted to the immediate post-Civil War era and its time of rehabilitative measures. In the vacuum left by the rejection of capitalist philanthropy, the church, and liberal humanist values, various activists and experts rushed to develop theories that would fill the ethical void. Punitive approaches toward “deviant” children, unemployed and disabled adults, and unemployed and “orphan” or “lonely” women (usually single mothers) were largely rejected. Embracing their untapped socialist potential, various mid-level bureaucrats worked toward realizing greater productivity among these groups. This typically was meant to be achieved by means of “normalization” – the integration of the “deviant” individual through the technocratic erasure of differences in ability and temperament.

Chapter 5 takes us into Stalinism, when the antisocial scars wrought on individual psyches by the pains of tsarism and civil war faded – becoming, it was argued, a less valid excuse for anti-collectivist behavior. The rehabilitative approach largely reverted to a punitive one:

As much as “the enemy” was a broad category that underwent constant redefinition, so “the deviant” was an unfixed and elastic concept … the terms “labor-incapacitated invalid,” “morally defective child,” and “helpless orphan-mother” [had previously] encompassed subjects who were perceived as deviating, but also suffering and still striving, and therefore having the right to be helped. After 1928 these terms still indicated “needy” individuals, but they increasingly moved toward a model that implied culpability for need. They began to denote irreversible criminal personalities, suspicious and sinister elements, and demonized “others” whose anti-Sovietness necessitated policing, disciplinary punishment, and excision from the body social. (149)

In parallel, the drive toward labor integration of “deviant” groups became so forceful and pragmatic as to lose its earlier moralizing element.

…new legislation encouraged the doctors of the medical expert commissions to focus their examinations no longer on the applicants’ lack of labor capacity, but rather on their remaining ability to perform duties and their potential for retraining and learning alternative forms of employment … the Soviet disability classification was officially reduced from six to three categories, and the medical expert commissions were moved from the Commissariat of Health to that of Labor … The new diagnosis of a person’s physical impairments as degrees in the capacity to work represented a judgment of employability that, in the productivist ethos of the 1930s, was morally laden. (148)

Assistance policy under Stalin resembled something closer to peonage than support.

Chapter 6 describes the wake of the human destruction of The Great Patriotic War, and the influx of disabled male veterans – endowed with a heroic value (to the collective) and a unique, hypermasculine privilege. This led to a resurgence in efforts to build humane forms of welfare. After decades of prolific expression by disabled individuals, who believed that the socialist system, and the morals intertwined with it, afforded them a right to have their needs met regardless of the particulars of their contribution, welfare began to reincorporate the grassroots ethical outlook that had been tamped down in the onset of Stalinism. A “socialist humanism,” one that mirrored motions in greater Europe, but that retained the promises of Marxism-Leninism at the core of its identity, became an accepted, publicly expounded goal and justification for welfare policy. This trend accelerated even further after Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s rise, as is explored briefly in the epilogue.

Throughout her book, Galmarini-Kabala focuses on the paternalistic nature of Soviet policies, both in the sense of systemic intrusiveness and patriarchy. Despite its emancipatory rhetoric, the Soviet Union consistently reduced women’s productive potential to that of motherhood. “Deviant” men are written of as possessing varied forms of constructive potential and being able to forge their own path to some extent through these forms. Single mothers, on the other hand, have their labor potential presupposed as purely reproductive, and are never trusted to handle the associated responsibility. In the short term, the reproductive value of women’s bodies (and the infantilizing perceptions of their abilities as parents) could be utilized, by petitioners, as an advantage in acquiring aid. Those whose “breadwinners” died could claim the assistance status of “dependent” (izhdiventsy). “Pregnant women and nursing mothers were granted priority for medical help and protected from job layoffs.” (61) In the long run, however, the erosion of female autonomy had a detrimental impact on their social status and self-determination.

Soviet law identified single women’s legal issues as questions related to abortion, child abandonment, sexual infection, rape, alimony, and the establishment of paternity. Underpinning this list was a patriarchal view of women that made help revolve almost exclusively around the medical campaign against child mortality and sickness. While men remained unmarked as ordinary workers, essentialist notions of women’s nature were institutionalized through legislation that protected women mainly as mothers. (60)

Galmarini-Kabala contextualizes her findings with a quote by Lisa Granik, Professor of Law – “Soviet legislation was so engendered that it institutionalized, rather than eradicated, gender inequality.”

One weakness of the book is the lack of a robust look at the multistage exchanges between assistance petitioners and social workers that would give us a better understanding of the relevant parties’ subjective conceptions of Soviet welfare, socialist ethics, and their places within. She reveals that this is mostly due to the available records being vastly skewed toward social workers’ menial, day-to-day operations; there are few memoir-style sources. The records focus mostly on petitions for aid with the claimants’ initial inquiries and not any resultant action or dialogue. Additionally, she also relies on case studies from Moscow, Perm, and Omsk, meaning that the focus is largely on three majority-Russian jurisdictions; we are not introduced to what happened in the minority-dominated titular republics, for instance. These limitations are present, but Galmarini-Kabala acknowledges them early on and bears them in mind.

Given such obstacles, one wonders how Galmarini-Kabala can make such strong claims about the impact of petitioners’ subjectivities when the historical record in this dynamic is so sketchy. This is especially striking when considering that, while the organs of local policy execution possessed some degree of autonomy, it mainly consisted of determination as to who was to receive fiscal compensation and how much, not control over the fundamental organization of rehabilitative institutions whose construction was directed by a centralized state. One of the book’s core theses is that the overbearing state, which routinely and easily (baring logistical difficulties) imposed its will upon the “deviant” population, particularly during the first half of the Stalin era, ultimately bent to accommodate their input. The intricacies of the mechanism behind this bottom-up influence are not given a great deal of time or thought, though the supposed fact of their operation is reiterated throughout the book. As early as the second page she says, “I argue that the dialogue over marginalized individuals’ right to be helped was pivotal to defining the moral order of Soviet socialism.”

Despite these leaps of logic, I believe that Galmarini-Kabala does succeed in advancing the “theoretical tools” that she sets out early on as a goal of her book. She does this by essentially advocating for the amalgamation of two schools of Soviet historiography. She sees multitudinous groups as competing for influence (as emphasized by Revisionist scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s); however, she defines them not by their shared or competing institutional interests, but by their differing subjective interpretations of Leninism (as emphasized by Soviet Subjectivity studies in the late nineties and early-to-mid 2000s), and how theory relates to tangible state policy. Her approach fuses these two styles, with a systemic analysis built around overlapping and conflicting groups, often themselves in conflict with the centralized state in Moscow, struggling to solve concrete, everyday problems, but within an illiberal and thoroughly Leninist context. She merges self-interested behavior with collectivism-oriented subjectivities by claiming that Soviet subjects integrated Western European humanism into their perceptions of Marxist-Leninist theory, allowing them to justify self-interested behavior on the basis of human rights (even were those behaviors at odds with policy from on high).

In the abstract, it’s a profound historiographical step to take. And, despite the lack of historical evidence, I’m inclined to praise it. Finding ways to integrate behaviors and policies that appear liberal on the surface with an illiberal ideology, in a way that makes historical sense, is incredibly difficult. Galmarini-Kabala’s is one of the best attempts I’ve encountered. Furthermore, the necessary assumptions around “deviant” peoples’ thought processes aren’t really all that assuming. If Russian socialism aimed to bring the world closer to a Marxian endpoint (or beginning) of history, and all citizens must eventually have their immediate needs met (through whatever means necessary), it is a perfectly reasonable conclusion to think that some people would’ve liked this step to come earlier in the process of Marxian historical progression. Essentially, self-interest, where it overlapped with human rights, was not anti-collectivist, since the enforcement of human rights was inherently beneficial to the collective.

The Right to be Helped, despite its certain weaknesses, is a steppingstone (no more and no less) toward a new understanding of a minority population’s impact on greater Soviet subjectivity, and how that subjectivity impacted policy. Though Galmarini-Kabala’s work sports missed opportunities, logical leaps, historical gaps, and monotonously academic prose, it is also one of the most demographically comprehensive and historiographically robust monographs on early Soviet welfare published since the late 1970s and early 1980s. It presents a novel position on how the sentiments and theories of a minority impacted the ethical backbone of an entire society. It illuminates a part of the human experience in the Soviet Union that is woefully underappreciated and often misunderstood. It is well deserving of a read.


[1] The analogous Russian terms given by Galmarini-Kabala are otkloniaiushchiesia, meaning “deviate” (as in from the imagined norm), and ukloniaiushchiesia, meaning “refrain” (as in from contributing).

[2] “Defectology,” like “deviant,” is a problematic term – but refers to a genuinely well-meaning medico-scientific effort at rehabilitating and advancing the interests of children with special needs.

About the Author

Kai Andersson

Kai Andersson, at the time he wrote for this site, was an undergraduate student at Oberlin College in Ohio. He intended to triple major in History, Computer Science, and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Upon graduating, he foresaw himself merging these disciplines through the development of historically instructive, real-time, digital applications.

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