Interview with Alexander Suvorov, a Participant of the Zagorsk Experiment
Interview with Alexander Suvorov, a Participant of the Zagorsk Experiment
Alexander Suvorov

Alexander Suvorov

Deafblind psychologist and poet. Born in 1953 in Frunze (Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic). Graduate of the faculty of psychology of Lomonosov Moscow State University. Ph.D. in psychology, Professor. Honorary international doctor of Humanities, Susquehanna University (Pennsylvania, USA), a full member of the International Academy of Informatization (the Associated Member of the United Nations). Awarded the commemorative medal dedicated to the international year of volunteers, established by the UN General Assembly (2002). Lives in Moscow.

Interview with Alexander Suvorov, a Participant of the Zagorsk Experiment

Alexander Suvorov has often said that he lacks live communication most of all. The reason is that he is almost totally deafblind, however, he still teaches, though quite a bit. And he is so happy to have guests.

His life worth writing books and making films. Suvorov is probably the most famous living deafblind person in Russia. He is a participant of the famous «Zagorsk experiment», during which four deafblind people (Suvorov, Sergey Sirotkin, Natalia Korneeva and Yuri Lerner) mastered the full course of MSU, and two — he and Sirotkin — received scientific degrees.

We met with Alexander Vasilyevich in February 2020 in his apartment in the North of Moscow. The door was opened by Oleg Gurov, Suvorov’s caregiver, and friend. I could not imagine that the conversation would last for three hours, and there would be as much said as not every life can hold… Suvorov turned out to be an incredibly interesting conversationalist. I sent questions to his Braille display via a flashcard, and he read them aloud and answered them immediately…

— Alexander Vasilyevich, you lost sight at the turn of childhood, when a person is not always aware of what is happening to him… Do you remember the «sighted» world?

— Whether it’s a sighted world or a blind one, it’s hard for me to judge. First,  I still had light perception. Second , I don’t know if I’ve ever fully seen it. I have a hereditary disease Friedreich’s syndrome. Vision, as well as hearing, gradually went down. For a while, my parents didn’t notice it. And then they found that I was looking for things with my hands and dragged me to the doctors.

— What do you remember from the colored and sighted world?

— Nothing. Colored — definitely not. Only light and dark. I remember my mother, but only by touch. I had no visual images of my mother, only tactile ones. Dad — even more so. I wasn’t that close to him.

Generally, visual episodes are hard for me to remember. Well, here it is. My mother is taking me from kindergarten. I was crying about something. There are tears in my eyes. Evening. For a long time, I could distinguish the road, its right and left sides, the edges. This is not the case now.

— How did you learn to navigate in space? How were you able to overcome blindness in the everyday life?

— The blindness was not total. Light perception remained. It was better in my childhood, but now it’s almost gone. At the weekend, I wandered down the street. I saw the road: sidewalks, trees, bushes, not in color, of course, but in contrasting light perception.

Up to university life, I did without a cane. And when I fell down the stairs there (fortunately, there were no injuries), I realized that I couldn’t go on like this, and the next day I went to get a cane.

— You lost your hearing at the age of nine — as a child, too. The sound didn’t disappear immediately?

— My hearing has been worsening since I was born due to the same Friedreich’s disease. Its peculiarity is that it affects the spinal cord, disrupts the work of the back and side pillars. This leads to complications in the brain-on the auditory and visual nerves. Their atrophy occurs. Since the disease is obviously hereditary, I was born sick. It develops over a lifetime, but very slowly. First, they noticed progressive blindness. Then deafness. Just as with my vision, my problems with hearing were established when they noticed that I started asking questions or not hearing words at all.

I remember my father asking a question. He asked once. Asked twice. Asked five times. And I still couldn’t figure it out. He freaked out and was going to physically abuse me. But mom realized what was happening and stopped him. The doctors warned her about my future hearing loss.

For a long time, I understood the spoken language of a person standing or sitting next to me. Up to 14 years old. Then I stopped understanding spoken language completely. Noise hearing persisted for a long time, especially high-frequency one. Now I have sensorineural hearing loss — I can only hear the noise directly in my ear. And if someone is talking nearby, I don’t hear.

— Were you afraid?

— There was no fear that I was blind and deaf. It’s not about childish fearlessness. It’s about the gradual process. I hardly noticed it… but there were other fears. Like many children, I was afraid of the night. I saw sparks and snow dots, and I was afraid. And I hid under the covers.

— Another stereotype. It is said that the deaf often hear a hum (phantom sound) in their ears. Have you ever had one?

— I hear this all the time. And it’s not a phantom noise. It is the sound of blood pressure. I’m hypertonic. The philosopher Felix Mikhailov became almost deafblind at the end of his life. He wore a hearing aid and strong glasses. He told me that he heard songs in his ears. He joked: «Well sing these devils!». He also had heart disease and suffered from several heart attacks.

— Tell us, please, how do you get visitors? Before, when someone rang the doorbell, the light in the room began to blink brightly? And now?

— There’s a fan now. So, I ask everybody to call for a long time and continually, then I can feel the movement of the air. Previously, on the contrary, I asked them to click often many times, and then the light sparkled with bright flashes. But now I can hardly see it.

My light perception had been changed from childhood to old age. It was not a constant, but a variable. I have half a percent of my vision left. This condition is called almost complete blindness.

— How well can you hear now? Can you hear your voice through the headset?

— I can’t hear the voice, but there is such a possibility with the help of special speakers. But it will depend not on me, but on the device.

I have sensorineural hearing loss. The peculiarity of my hearing is that it is high-pitched. People who are Deaf often retain low-frequency hearing, but I have the opposite. So I could hear the high-pitched sounds, but not the low-pitched ones. And a gap in the speech range — from 1000 to 3000 Hz.

I don’t like modern hearing AIDS — they are somehow foolishly configured. Back in the ‘ 80 s, I had hearing AIDS with wheels that let me adjust the volume. If it was too loud, I turned it down. So I could hear music in a concert hall or a park. I really love wind orchestras!

And the new devices are made so that when the battery starts to run out, the volume is saved. And it can’t be regulated! As a result, I might hear a voice, but I don’t understand a damn thing. And the concert hall will be full of howls.

— What music do you like best?

— I have been in love with wind orchestras since childhood. Getting to know the first one was very funny. I was a very little kid. On The Railroad Worker’s Day, my mother took me to a solemn meeting (she worked on the railway) and a festive concert in the summer cinema. And the Frunze branch of the railway had its own brass band. I was very interested. We sat down right in front of it. And when the orchestra started playing the anthem of the Soviet Union, and you know how it starts (sings. — V. K.). This is the first «AAAAAAA» when the orchestra thunders and rumbles (hits the arm of the chair. — V. K.) and when I heard that first long sound, I screamed: «There’s going to be a thunderstorm!» and dragged my mother under the roof. Mistook the first note for the thunder! I was forced to calm down, explained that this is not a thunderstorm, but an orchestra. After that, I started to listen carefully. And since then, wind music is my favorite.

I have a lot of marches and waltzes in my music library. There are also funeral marches. And dance ballroom music. Johann Strauss is my favorite.

I also love symphonic music. For example, Shostakovich’s symphonies. But they are difficult to hear — a very large range of volume.

— In 1964, you were sent to the Zagorsk boarding school for deafblind children (then it was called the orphanage for the deafblind). At the age of 11, on September 13. How did you meet the world of the boarding school and its students?

— It was difficult. I was an outsider at school for the blind. And I set my mind on continuing this story. With adults, it was immediately well. I noted their kindness. And I was afraid of the young guys in advance.

Since I arrived without medical papers, I had to spend the first night in an isolation ward. Other guys — Sirotkin and Lerner-found out about the new guy. We went to the isolation ward to get acquainted. At first, we communicated through a Braille display. I took a long time to master fingerspelling. Slowly memorized the handshapes, slowly perceived. And I began to communicate freely only in the summer of 1965 .

So the guys wrote through the display, and I read. And answered through the display. In the first days, there was a conflict. I was even boycotted! «We don’t want you,» they wrote on the Braille display.

I missed home, my mother. Cried at night. My whimpering made it difficult to sleep for the nanny. The bedroom doors were open. And the nanny’s place on the couch was not far away. She had no right to use force against me. She woke up Sirotkin and Lerner. Sirotkin put his hands on my chest. As if strangling. When crying, the breath is choppy. And the chest rises and falls. And so he «calmed» me with blows to the chest, until I began to breathe in a smooth flowing manner with a great effort.

Yes, the torture continued.

This is how I spent my first months in Zagorsk. But there is a silver lining. I read around the clock. This was also fought. At night, as you know, you are supposed to sleep, not read. They tried to take my books away. God knows what tenth sense I felt the approach of the «night guards» — the paramedic and nurses. I can feel the breeze — and I hid the book between the beds or the bed and the wall if I slept against the wall. Hid «standing». And the guards didn’t like to go under the bed, they couldn’t reach the books. As they leave, I go back to the book.

I read under the cover for a while. But they quickly figured it out. They find something solid and take it away. So I began to read openly, and if I feel a little breeze, I use the described method. But in general, I admitted the orphanage well. Like a good place.

— Professor Ivan Sokolyansky was one of the first in the USSR to start teaching deafblind children. In 1923, in Kharkiv, he created a school-clinic for them. Among his eight pupils was Olga Skorokhodova…

— Correct you. In parallel, there were two groups: in Kharkiv — with Sokolyansky, and in In St. Petersburg — with Augustina Yarmolenko (she also had eight children). Sokolyansky was not famous for being the first to start, but for the fact that he achieved the greatest success, revolutionized the training of the deafblind , and became Skorokhodova’s teacher. And she is the first deafblind woman who received higher education and defended her Ph.D. in the USSR. Her book «How I perceive, imagine, and understand the world around me» is psychological. And my book «Meeting of the Universes, or deafblind aliens in the world of individuals without sensory challenges», in fact, is its continuation.

— Did you communicate with Olga Ivanovna?

— Yes, of course. She came to our orphanage — she was one of its founders together with Meshcheryakov. He brought her. She lived in sickbay for several days. And was «occupied» by the older guys. Natasha Korneeva was especially close to her. But Sirotkin and Lerner, too. It was almost impossible for me to break through this cordon.

— Can you remember any episode related to it?

— When we were already students, Korneeva went away on some business. And she asked me to sit with the old lady. And then says: «I want to pee.» I was confused. What is «pee»?

Then she began to examine me more closely with her hands. «Sasha?» — «Yes». We laughed a lot about it. Especially Natasha, a person with a great sense of humor. Olga Ivanovna grumbled at her: «Why didn’t you warn him»? And she was laughing.

— There is a lot of talk about the conditions that were created for the «four» at Moscow State University. And textbooks on all subjects in Braille, and each has a supervisor…

— How else? We are blind! However, Sirotkin and I had one supervisor (the so-called secretary, interpreter) for two. It was more convenient that way. But the course was not adapted. We were only released from some subjects — mathematics, statistics, a foreign language.

The University allocated money: 2000 rubles a year for reprinting textbooks and special literature. Some of the books were published in Braille to us. For example, Gorsky’s textbook on mathematical logic. Or on the history of the CPSU-there was such an exotic subject. On scientific communism, on the history of philosophy, on all these «super necessary» subjects. But I had to reprint Rubinstein’s «Fundamentals of General psychology». «Problems of mental development» by Leontiev, too.

But there was enough money. One Braille sheet cost 20 kopecks. The ruble — five worksheets. 2000 rubles — 10 thousand sheets. And the sheets are like this (shows-more than A4. — V. K.). We even ordered books for ourselves! I, for example, ordered «Vasily Terkin», «Notes of the gray wolf», «Smile of fortune»…

How were the classes? The teacher or the guest is sitting with a keyboard, typing on it. And deafblind people with so-called «tactors», everyone has their own. How many tactors, so many of us — or vice versa. Each device has a Braille keyboard. And we understand what they want to tell us.

Then the teacher calls someone to answer, he or she turns on the fan standing near one of us, like saying  «To the blackboard, please». We spoke with our voices and simultaneously typed on a Braille keyboard. The rest of us had the text of our answers on the keyboard. Yes, the conditions were perfect. They did everything they could.

— Why did you decide to continue your education?

— We didn’t decide — it was decided for us. This was a continuation of the «Zagorsk experiment». The Psychology Department was interested in our education. That’s where we were gathered. When people ask me why I chose psychology, I usually laugh. It was the opposite. Psychology chose me.

— Was it your desire or Alexander Ivanovich Meshcheryakov’s (teacher of A. Suvorov) to get a degree?

— He and Ilyenkov dreamed, of course. But Meshcheryakov died in 1974. And we graduated from the university in 1977. Ilyenkov died soon after. Sirotkin was «made» by his wife. I made myself — with the help of the laboratory of academician Alexey Bodalev. I was interested in it and worked hard.

I wasn’t particularly interested in degrees! It was more important to communicate the experience and knowledge, to continue the «Zagorsk experiment». And then the Soviet Union collapsed, and there was nothing to live on. In the 1980s, I had enough for 130  rubles a month. I lived alone, without a family. I could help my mother. I used my own money to fly to visit her in Frunze.

In 1986 , my mother and children moved closer to Desnogorsk. This is the Smolensk region. My father was dead by then. Gradually, I moved everyone to Moscow. First, my brother, a year before my mother died. And then my sister. All three of them are in the cinerarium now…

In general, after the collapse of the USSR, I needed urgent career growth, and for this thesis defense. So I asked the Bodalev group for help. By that time, I had already formulated a topic — «Self-development of the individual in an extreme situation of deafblindness». By December 1993 , I had passed the qualifying examinations for the Candidate’s degree. That’s when they joined: Vilen Chudnovsky, Natalia Karpova, Bodalev himself. Irina Salomatina re-typed literature for me. Generally, my defense is a collective victory. Not just my personal one.

I defended my Ph.D. on March 31, 1994. From Junior Fellow, I became a research associate. In September of 1994, I was offered to prepare for my doctorate wasting no time.

The offer came in handy. I had a huge manuscript that I finished in March 1993. It was called «Problems of concrete humanity». 20 printed pages, 500 typescript pages! They helped me reproduce it and made photocopies. The manuscript became both of my dissertations. Ph.D. was 180 pages. The rest became a doctorate thesis. I defended them as a scientific report. With the support of the battalion (smiles). I became a doctor of psychology on May 21, 1996.

My mother was not on the candidate’s defense, she was in the hospital. But in the doctorate’s defense, she was and was the main character. The scientific public came up and congratulated her on a son that she could be proud of. My mother told me: I sit, they say, I don’t know anyone, and everyone hugs and kisses me.

Naturally, both of my dissertations are devoted to her. She died in February 1997, on February 4  (with sadness).

— How light and touching it sounds! And tell me how did you start teaching? Did you want it or did someone else suggest it?

— They suggested and I wanted to. I have been working with children for almost 15 years, since 1981. That’s when I fell in love with them. Was proud of them. Liked to chat. And to teach! I wanted to be useful to them in some way. When I got my Ph.D. I started to work at the Faculty of Defectology of Moscow State Pedagogical University in the South-West of Moscow. The bad thing was that I was given a group of hard-of-hearing students, and this is just what they call «hard-of-hearing», in fact, they were Deaf. And I don’t know signs. How can I teach? I started writing lectures and printing them. I brought two copies of the printout to each class. Still, cartridges are expensive. I did everything at my own expense. And two semesters was this way.

Before the second semester, my mother died. But I didn’t stop working. Then came the draft of my forthcoming book — the lectures on collaborative pedagogy, which was published in another university, Boris Bim-Bud.

At MSPPU, I started lecturing as an hourly employee. And in general, wherever offered, I did not refuse! Now I am quite an experienced educator. Spitting from a top on all the standard methods, I do everything in my own way. I dump the course literature on a flash drive for students.

At first, I took exams like this: I talked to each student for a long time. I had a whole day of tests. And now everything is fast. They don’t give it to me, I give it to them. They ask questions, and I answer them. That is, in fact, it is a consultation. And then Oleg (a caregiver and a friend of A. S. Suvorov. — V. K.) home free: everything is fine, all credit!

That’s what an educator I became. My reasoning is simple: students are confused, overwhelmed with courses. It’s impossible to learn everything in each course. What they would learn within my short classes? It is better to communicate like a human being.

— For a person who is not familiar with the life of an individual having vision and hearing loss:  how, as a deafblind person who is practically totally…

— I live worse than totally deafblind! I am in a wheelchair too!

— Excuse me. How do you live alone?

— Eat, sleep. Eat, sleep. That’s how I spend my days (laughs)! And in the interval, an iPhone or this device (shows on the Braille display. — V. K.), or music. Friedreich’s syndrome has completed the whole list until my anility. There is the list: injured spine, deaf years, blind eyes, and ophthalmic nerve atrophy. Backaches are very strong now. I stuck in a wheelchair because of Friedreich’s syndrome. Also, I’m weather-sensitive, I suffer a lot.

— When did you focus on art for the first time?

— When I was 3. At first, there were «imagination» games. Then reading joined them. Also, I loved to play with geographical maps, every time thought up something new! The first attempt to write a poem happened when I was 8 or 9. Next was in April 1967. Since that time I’ve been writing continuously.

I’m a bookish person! More than any other. This is how I make sense of myself. I’m worried about some problem, I can’t solve it — so at least I’ll think about it! This is easier to do in the text. But there is a downside — I’m a terrible chatterbox and can’t keep secrets inside. So, I write about everything.

— What, in your opinion, is the most important thing in a literary text?

—  Accuracy. I resolved this issue for myself as a teenager, at the age of 16-17. Everywhere, in any text, the most important thing is accuracy. And in science, too. But the accuracy varies. In a scientific text, it is the exact wording, and in a literary text, it is images that accurately convey what the author wanted to say.

— What is poetry for you?

— No, poems do not bleed. They are that proper blood. Effusion of blood.

— Could you mention several national and foreign poets you like most?

— Among Russian authors from adolescence and for the entire life — Tvardovsky. It’s even a shame to call Pushkin — one cannot live without Pushkin. He is beyond comparison. In the second place — Nekrasov. I love him so much! Also Kedrin. Foreign? Goethe’s «Faust», I suppose. And Béranger with his «Songs». And, of course, «The Song of Hiawatha» by Longfellow in the translation by Bunin.

Translated by Lera Dushkina

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