Aging, Disability and Health in Socialist Europe and Beyond

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March 26 & April 2, 2021

The history of old age is a growing field of inquiry, yet scholars have mostly examined aging in the context of Western capitalist societies. This workshop hopes to bring together a number of early career academics and graduate students to discuss their research on old age under socialism. There has been a great deal of interest, in recent years, in how socialist societies imagined gender, healthcare, and the family. This is granting us a much fuller picture of these societies than was possible during the Cold War itself, when analysis focused squarely on themes of political oppression and resistance. Some of these societies, for instance in Eastern and Central Europe, were, demographically, quite old, often because many young people had been killed in war or had fled to the West. Others, such as China and Vietnam, were a demographic transition that entailed lower birth rates and higher life expectancy. And yet we know next to nothing about the socialist style of aging: the imagination of age, and the policy apparatus. This seems like an especially important research field, just now, given that societies all over the world will be tasked with reimagining old age in the twenty-first century.


Friday, April 2, 2021
2:00 p.m. (EDT)

Disability Under Socialism: To Be Seen, Helped, and Heard

Disability activism developed in the second half of the twentieth century in a world divided by the Cold War. While the history of how Western activists learned to speak in the language of civil rights is well documented and publicly celebrated, the legacies of activists from the socialist countries have been largely erased after the collapse of the communist governments in 1989-1991. In conversation with Sean Guillory, Maria Cristina Galmarini will offer a more complete and nuanced history of the international disability movement than existing Western-oriented narratives, thus stimulating a re-evaluation of the role of socialist-style, state-supported activism in the development of disability advocacy and social movements more broadly. By focusing on blind activists from the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic, she reveals that philosophies and practices from the socialist side shaped the historical course of global disability advocacy and provided a viable alternative to the approaches used in liberal democracies. Her critical evaluation of blind advocacy under socialism introduces debates over disability paradigms as a key issue in the history of Cold War Europe. It also changes the historiography of cultural diplomacy by complicating the able-bodied imagery on which we assume states relied during the Cold War.

Maria Cristina Galmarini, Associate Professor of History and Global Studies, William & Mary
Sean Guillory, Host, Sean’s Russia Blog, Digital Scholarship Curator, REEES

*Attendance restricted to workshop presenters and discussants


Friday, March 26, 2021

11:00 - 11:20 am


Opening Remarks
Alissa Klots, University of Pittsburgh
James Chappel, Duke University

11:30 am - 12:30 pm

Living and Dying for Communism: Soviet Activists Cope with Aging, Illness and Death


Maria Romashova, Perm State University
Alissa Klots, University of Pittsburgh

Lynn Botelho, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

12:30 - 12:45 pm


12:45 - 1:45 pm

A Long Life Will Be the Soviet Victory: The Turn to a Socialist Old Age and Development of Gerontology, 1928-1944


Danielle Leavitt-Quist, Harvard University

Wendy Goldman, Carnegie Mellon University

2:00-3:30 pm

Keynote Interview: Disability under Socialism: To be Seen, Helped, and Heard


Maria Cristina GalmariniCollege of William and Mary

Sean Guillory, University of Pittsburgh


Friday, April 2, 2021

11:00 am - 12:00 pm

Learning, Contributing, and Proving Capacity: The Meaning of International Work for the East German Union of the Blind


Maria Cristina Galmarini, College of William and Mary

Gregor Thum, University of Pittsburgh

12:00 - 12:15 pm


12:15 - 1:15 pm

Connecting Three Worlds: Socialism, Medicine and Global Health After World War II


Dora Vargha, University of Exeter

Mari Webel, University of Pittsburgh

1:20 - 2:00 pm

Concluding Remarks and Discussion