This article explores an enduring Soviet myth, the myth of Valaam. According to this widely believed story in 1946 or 1947 vagrant disabled veterans were forcibly cleared from the streets of Soviet cities and deported to Valaam, an isolated archipelago of fifty islands, approximately 250 kilometres north of Leningrad. These myths continue to be repeated by both historians and the general public, but little evidence has been provided to support them. This article provides original archival evidence about the myth’s two main components: the clearance of disabled veterans from the streets and their subsequent exile to Valaam. For the first time it demonstrates the existence of an invalid’s home on Valaam, but which challenges the “facts” of the myth. Attempts were made to clear the disabled vagrants from Leningrad’s streets, but these did not occur in 1946 or 1947, and were neither successful nor systematic. Although a residential institution for the elderly and disabled was established on Valaam, which had its own unedifying history, it was not a dumping ground for thousands of disabled veterans cleared from urban areas. The Valaam myth is a classic example of a “false myth”; a story with only a flimsy basis in reality, but which reveals wider truths about the circumstances in which the myth was generated, and the mentalities of the individuals and society which accepted it. Having established the reality behind the myth, this article uses the Valaam myth as a lens for examining the plight of Leningrad’s war disabled and the mentalities of those who believed and transmitted the myth. The article argues that these stories thrived because they were plausible, and it offers a number of explanations why Soviet citizens, and Leningraders in particular, believed this myth. Imperial and Soviet Russia had a long history of forced clearance of “socially marginal elements” and precedents of exiling them to isolated islands. Most importantly, Leningraders believed in the existence of a mythical dumping ground for disabled veterans because it accorded with their knowledge of the state’s coercive practices and their experiences of the treatment of disabled veterans.
Journal Article – R. Dale, “The Valaam Myth and the Fate of Leningrad’s Disabled Veterans”, April 2013
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