Ilya Zaslavskiy was sitting on the Senate floor with Ted Kennedy and Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa last month, tensely watching a Senate roll call vote on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which expands federal antidiscrimination law. When the bill passed, 76-8, Ilya let out a whoop and hugged his wife, Alevtina Nikitina. “Someday,” vowed Ilya, a recently elected representative to the U.S.S.R.’s new Congress of People’s Deputies, “the Soviet Union will have such a bill. I will make sure of that.”
Zaslavskiy, 29, a textile research scientist, has a stake in such legislation. One of the first seriously disabled people to hold high political office in the Soviet Union, he was born with a circulatory problem in his legs that caused the deterioration of his joints and muscles, leaving him unable to walk without a cane. His wife is also disabled, one of her legs withered by polio, which she contracted as a child from a contaminated injection. They came to the U.S. last month for a 24-day cross-country fact-finding tour and were clearly inspired by the degree to which the disabled are integrated into the mainstream of American life. “We are way behind [in the U.S.S.R.],” says Zaslavskiy.
Disabled activists there have long fought to improve conditions for the handicapped, but without success. “Our disabled people’s movement has existed at least since World War II,” Ilya explains, “but until Gorbachev came to power it had always been suppressed. The powers that be had always wanted to give the impression to the world that everything was perfect in their country.”
In fact the disabled were among the most oppressed of Soviet citizens. “There was no chance for a disabled person even to go to a movie theater or park, because there was nothing accessible to us,” says Ilya. “I felt that somebody needed to do something about this and if I did not become involved, no one else would.”
The Disabled People’s Society, of which Zaslavskiy was vice-chairman, decided last fall to put him up for election in Moscow’s Oktyabrskaya district (pop. 400,000). Ilya hoped his campaign might draw attention to disability issues. “For decades we, the invalids, had been invisible. That had to end,” he says, but adds, “I didn’t think I had a chance to win.”
Little wonder. His opponents included the renowned human-rights activist Andrei Sakharov, maverick former Politburo member Boris Yeltsin, famed historian Yuri Afanasyev, and a national hero, cosmonaut Georgi Grechko. Yet the eloquent, impassioned Ilya demonstrated an extraordinary power to move the voters with his simple campaign theme: “Why not defend and help the weak?”
His more famous rivals were so impressed by the novice politician that, one by one, they bowed out of the race—all but Grechko running, and winning, in other districts. At a candidates’ forum, Grechko dramatically withdrew, announcing to a jammed auditorium, “Of all of us, there is only one candidate who absolutely has to be in the Congress of Deputies, and that is Ilya Zaslavskiy.”
In the end Ilya had to face one formidable foe, TV personality Alexander Krutov, host of two of the Soviet Union’s most popular programs, 120 Minutes and Spotlight on Perestroika. Krutov was better financed and apparently better connected; during the campaign Zaslavskiy’s employer suddenly took away Ilya’s parking space, forcing him to hobble half a mile to work on icy roads. And Ilya’s supporters received anonymous phone calls threatening them with violence if they didn’t get their man to quit the race. As if all that weren’t enough, Vladimir Posner, the popular TV commentator (familiar to American audiences from his many Nightline appearances), relentlessly touted Krutov on the air.
Ilya and Alevtina countered with photocopied fliers, which they and their supporters distributed door-to-door. Zaslavskiy promised to back Gorbachev’s political and economic reforms, but also stressed the disabled-rights issues of inadequate pensions and psychiatric care, and the lack of handicapped access to public places. While Alevtina was steadfastly supportive of her husband, she too considered his prospects dubious. “I thought I had a better chance of getting a star from the sky than of Ilya winning,” she says. But Ilya scored an apparent victory over his media-savvy opponent in a TV debate and went on to win with 55 percent of the vote.
Now deputy chairman of the congress’s Veterans and Disabled People’s Committee, Ilya has already helped pass a law providing that handicapped people who find a job will not lose their government disability payments. His efforts caught the attention of the Washington-based National Organization on Disability, which brought him and Alevtina to America. They visited Old Faithful (“I’ve read about Yellowstone National Park since I was a child,” said Ilya) and toured social programs, including a full-service community for the homeless in Brooklyn, and such facilities for the handicapped as a Goodwill Industries workshop in Oakland, Calif., and the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in Greenville, S.C. There Ilya watched children in wheelchairs play basketball. “This is wonderful!” he exclaimed. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Ilya helped an 8-year-old spina bifida patient named Joey, who was lying on his back on a gurney, toss the ball. On their fifth try, Joey’s shot made a perfect swish. He and Ilya hugged, and Zaslavskiy stayed a long time playing with the kids. “I hope they have a future with no limit to their opportunities,” he said. “That is my wish for children here, in the Soviet Union, and everywhere.”