Galina Lazarevna Zaitseva (died 6 August 2005)



It is with sadness that we report the death of Professor Galina Zaitseva, pioneer of sign language research in Russia.

Galina Lazarevna Zaitseva was born in Moscow in 1934, into a secular Jewish family. Her father, Lazar Abramovich, was originally from the Western Russian town of Vitebsk and came to Moscow with his friend and relative, the celebrated painter Marc Chagall. He was a civil engineer, working on bridges. This was a reserved occupation but in spite of this he volunteered for the front in 1941 and was killed in Lithuania in 1944. The whereabouts of his grave was unknown for thirty years. Galina’s mother, Sof’ia Efimovna, née Itskova, was a music graduate and a fine pianist. They lived on Solianka Street, in the heart of old Moscow until the 1970s, when they moved to a new apartment in Kon’kovo, in the south-western suburbs of Moscow. Galina was educated at a girls‚ school in Moscow and then entered the Faculty of Defectology of Moscow Pedagogical University. The reasons for this decision were complex. She had always wanted to study Arts and discovered she could do this in the Faculty of Defectology, which was a highly prestigious faculty, with a view to becoming a teacher of the Deaf. Furthermore teachers of the Deaf attracted higher salaries than ordinary teachers, which would help her widowed mother and younger brother Vova.

After graduation in 1956 she took a job at Liublino School for the Deaf, just outside Moscow, teaching mathematics, and Russian language and literature, mainly in the senior school. Here she first encountered Russian Sign Language. She always remembered her first sign: in pairs, to be used when rounding up her large and boisterous group and conducting them to the dining room. Thus began her passionate interest in sign language, which, even in later years, she never lost any opportunity to enhance and develop. Here too she was able to indulge her passion for long-distance trekking, which she had developed while a student (her fellow enthusiasts continue to meet as a group to this day). Now she involved her Deaf pupils, taking them on long expeditions into remote parts of Russia and getting them to participate in hiking rallies with hearing students, the first time this had ever happened in Russia. In later years her anecdotes about her adventures in rural Russia enlivened many a dinner-table conversation.

In 1966 she became a postgraduate student at the Institute of Defectology (now the Institute of Remedial Teaching). Here she was fortunate in her supervisors, Rachil Markovna Boskis and Nina Feodos’evna Slezina, who shared her interest in sign language and encouraged her to persevere with what was considered an ‘unpopular’ subject. In 1969 she was awarded her PhD for her dissertation on the subject The expression of spatial relationships in sign language. She worked for many years at the Institute, first on the teaching of hard-of-hearing children and later on the teaching and education of Deaf adults. In 1988 she was awarded a D.Litt for her thesis on The role of sign language in the teaching and education of Deaf adults.

From the 1980s onwards Galina was always in demand as a lecturer and contributor to conferences, both within Russia and the former Soviet Union and abroad. In 1990 her career took a new turn when, in a joint project with the Centre for Deaf Studies, University of Bristol, she established programmes to teach RSL to hearing people and to train Deaf people as teachers of RSL. This initiative had important results. In 1991 two groups of hearing Russians were trained in RSL; in 1992 the Moscow Bilingual School for the Deaf was opened and in 1993 the first cohort of Deaf RSL teachers completed their training. The Bilingual School was, and remains, the only such school in the whole of Russia, although Galina was able, through her indefatigable efforts, and often in the teeth of considerable opposition, to establish interest in both RSL and bilingualism in Belarus, Lithuania, Armenia, Georgia and Tadzhikistan.

When the Centre for Deaf Studies was established in Moscow in 1998 Galina became its academic director. She took a keen practical interest in Teacher Training College No 4, where many graduates of the Bilingual School went on to train as Deaf educators, and in Moscow City Pedagogical University (MGPU), which had introduced innovatory training programmes for teachers of the Deaf.

Galina was the author of over 80 works in her chosen field. In one article, published in 1992, she devised the now standard term for Russian Sign Language. Before the appearance of this article a multitude of terms had been used; now russkii zhestovyi iazyk came into general usage. She also drew the distinction between RSL and Signed Russian, the medium used to interpret the main news programme on Russian TV, and established the terminology for that too. She found a more general readership with her major book, published in 1991. Daktilologiia. Zhestovaia rech(Fingerspelling. Sign Language) was written in layman’s language, and included an important 200-sign glossary. So successful was it that it was republished and updated in 2000.

Galina took great delight in the fact that her surname derives from zaiats, the Russian word for hare‚ and that her sign name was the RSL sign for that animal. Over the years friends and admirers had given her hare-related products which she displayed with pride to the many people who enjoyed her generous hospitality and excellent cooking. One of her obituaries in Russia was headed: Farewell, Professor Zaiats. On 15 September, 40 days after her death, and in keeping with Russian Orthodox tradition, over 200 of her friends, pupils and colleagues gathered at Moscow’s Vostriakovo Cemetery to pay their last respects to a remarkable and inspirational woman. She is survived by her younger brother Vladimir (Vova).

— Anna Komarova (Moscow Centre for Deaf Studies) & Michael Pursglove (Moscow Bilingual Deaf School Association)

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