A television documentary on speech therapy is visible on the screen. A logopedist (speech-defect expert) coaches a young man to overcome his stutter through hypnosis. “You will speak loudly and clearly, freely and easily, unafraid of your voice and your speech,” she instructs. The boy hesitates but finally musters the words: “I can speak.” Thus Andrei Tarkovsky begins Zerkalo [Mirror], his poetic film about personal memory and cultural trauma (conceived in 1964 and completed in 1974). The symbolism of this scene was impossible for Tarkovsky's Soviet intelligentsia audience to miss. The stutterer coming to speech allegorized the artist coming to free expression in Russia after Stalin, struggling to adapt to alternating intervals of liberating “thaw” and oppressive “freeze,” fluency and silence, in the period of de-Stalinization that Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech at the 20th Party Congress of 1956 set into motion. The crisis of the solo stutterer's speech in the film stood in for the larger emerging crisis of how to represent socialist reality, a world that once had been captured solely by socialist realism—that is, until Khrushchev deprived Stalinism of its status as real socialism and thus invalidated the basis of socialist realism.
Anastasia Kayiatos is a doctoral candidate in Slavic Literature with a designated emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of California, Berkeley. She is presently writing a dissertation on silence and alterity in Russian culture after Stalin, 1955–75.
Too few words have been written about Soviet silent theatre. I owe a special debt to Russia's premier mime, Il'ia Rutberg, for letting me record his reminiscences. In connection with Moscow's Deaf world, Susan Burch, Viktor Palennyi of the journal V edinom stroiu (formerly Zhizn’ glukhikh), and Michael Pursglove and Anna Komarova of the Moscow Bilingual School for Deaf Education.