Pure Magic

 The story of a deaf street cleaner who is the only deaf magician in Siberia  01/4/2014, 13:25
Pure Magic
Photography by Vera Salnitskaya

Oleg Aleynikov is very neat and quiet for a street cleaner. He works in the Solnechny residential district in Tomsk. It takes him four hours to attend to four shops. If it snows — a little longer. Oleg is deaf-mute, which is why he doesn’t tell anyone that he’s a magician — the best deaf illusionist in Russia and the only one in Siberia. Sib.fm’s correspondent saw how slight of hand can make the world a better and cleaner place.

A clown figurine — Oleg’s first and only award as a magician — looks down from the shelf of an old wall unit in the small apartment. Before Oleg demonstrates his dexterity, we’ll have to perform an equally complex trick — have a chat with a man who can’t speak.

Silent conversation is possible because today Oleg has his «voice», Viktor Andreyev, with him. Tomsk media have called him Oleg’s concert director, while some really believe that he took the deaf-mute magician’s passport and forces him to perform. In fact, Viktor is one of Oleg’s relatives, who promotes him and serves as a link between the realm of the deaf and the outside world.

Oleg is 38 years old, though he looks much younger. Maybe it’s all because of his open and somewhat childish smile. He was unable to hear or speak from birth. At the age of 7, Oleg left the small town of Yashkino, well-known throughout Russia for its wafer biscuits, to study at a specialised boarding school in Tomsk. He didn’t continue his studies after school: it’s impossible for a deaf mute to get even vocational education in Tomsk, never mind tertiary. Dedicated university groups are only available in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Chelyabinsk.

thousand — the rough quantity of deaf-mute people in Russia

«I wanted to go at first, but then I realised that I’d finish my studies, come back with higher education and no one would need me,» says Oleg.

Instead, he moved to Novosibirsk and started selling clothes there. Street sweeping, market trading, car repair and decorating are practically the entire list of «honest» jobs that a deaf-mute person can do. «Dishonest» work flourished in the 90s, when the deaf sold adult calendars on trains and used confidence tricks with thimbles to make money. Oleg also played a game of chance, but says that there was no trickery

After Novosibirsk, he worked as a sales clerk in Moscow, then decided to go to France. There, he rented a hotel room with magician Hayim, who was also deaf.

Hayim spent five months initiating his roommate in the tricks of the trade.

«Then I decided that magic would be my profession. I couldn’t find work in France and I went to Spain, got some good feedback and realised that there was potential in this area,» says Oleg. «After all, if you’ve been on stage once, you never forget the feeling.»

However, he didn’t manage to make a living with tricks alone. Oleg moved from France to the town of Puerto del Rosario in the Canary Islands, trained as a waiter and found a job as a hotel chef. By day, he prepared meat and in the evening showed off his magic in the same hotel.

Argentina has the largest per capita deaf population in the world — 380 per 100,000 inhabitants

Working as a cook proved difficult for a man who can’t hear or speak. There were other deaf chefs at the hotel, but the language barrier came between them. Russian and Spanish sign languages are no more alike than ordinary Russian and Spanish. The attitude to disabled people is better in Europe than in Russia, but it only applies to locals. It’s good to go to Europe on holiday, says Oleg, but you have to live in Russia. After 12 years abroad, he returned to his native Tomsk.


Oleg’s ticket to the world of professional magicians was a trip to Tver for a national deaf magician competition. The question arises — why divide magicians into conventional and deaf categories? At the end of the day, talking is optional when you’re doing tricks.

«Normal magicians are better and more professional than deaf ones,» says Oleg. «A deaf magician has almost no chance of being the best. We have less financial capacity to travel, perform and study.»

In Siberia, our hero is no worse than ordinary magicians and is the only one of his kind in Tomsk, where he plans to reach the same level as conventional artists, adds Viktor.

Oleg prepared a micromagic programme — tricks with balls, cards and bank notes that are designed for a small audience — for his performance at the national competition. And he won.

«They already knew the other magicians, but he was there for the first time. The other ones are old... They go every year,» says Viktor. «I was standing near the jury before Oleg’s performance and heard them say, ’He’s going to win.’ I didn’t tell Oleg then though.»

Besides a winner’s certificate and the clown figurine, the victory in Tver brought no material benefits.

41 thousand people are members of the International Magicians Society, founded in 1968

But it did bring Oleg moral satisfaction and give him the chance to go to Chicago and represent Russia in an international deaf magician competition. The cheapest ticket to get there costs 70 thousand roubles ($2100). That’s three and a half months’ wages for Oleg.

«Our task now is to work as much as possible, because asking the state for money is the last thing we want to do,» says Viktor.


Oleg has almost a year before the trip to Chicago, but practices his tricks on a daily basis, so as not to lose the knack. Magic takes up about 2-3 hours a day. Oleg trains alone, in front of a mirror: he doesn’t like it when people see him making mistakes. There’s a training plan on the coffee table with a list of all the tricks Oleg needs to master. The handwriting is smooth and round, like a top-of-the-class schoolgirl’s.

The word «magic» is often used in a figurative sense — for example, literary critics are fond of expressions like «the magic of Pushkin»

Oleg shows us some micromagical miracles in his old apartment. Standing between an ironing board and cabinet, wearing a casual T-shirt, he looks no less of a magician than the illusionists in colourful costumes at the circus. Oleg «swallows» balls with his hand, pulls a handkerchief out of an empty pocket and brings a toy ferret to life.

Watching the furry toy grabbing the magician’s hand, we roar with laughter, astonished by Oleg’s acting talent.

«Previously, the program was called ’Oleg Aleinikov’s Micromagic’, now it’s simply called ’Magic’. Because it’s not just tricks. When Oleg goes on stage and smiles, he could have any girl he wants. But he knows his worth and is very cautious. Attention flatters him, but no more than that.»

Despite his constant performances at corporate functions, weddings and anniversary celebrations, Oleg still earns more as a street cleaner than as a magician.

By the way, it turns out that street cleaners earn quite a bit of money.

«Oleg works for 4 shops. There are some who work for 10-20 and get up to 100 thousand roubles ($3000) a month. There are a lot of deaf street cleaners, especially girls,» says Oleg.

Viktor found himself in the world of deaf people for the first time in Tver. He isn’t a qualified interpreter and doesn’t know sign language at a professional level.

«I learned 20 words to begin with. Now, I have an elementary set and Oleg ’speaks’ to me in a way that I understand. But when I was plunged into the land of the deaf in Tver, I realised that my vocabulary is minuscule. When a person has a small vocabulary, it seems to be an expression of his intellectual level.»

«The deaf draw a very clear line between themselves and the rest of the world. If you’re not familiar with sign language, a deaf-mute person won’t communicate with you.»

«This is the letter ’i’ and the letter ’n’ in their language,» Viktor shows us two fast and, in my opinion, identical gestures. «Oleg corrects me every time I confuse them.»

Viktor shows us how to say «Novosibirsk», «Tomsk» and «thank you» in sign language. We try to repeat the words, make mistakes and laugh.

Viktor stops us. «The deaf react very badly when people laugh at their signs.»

It’s also considered bad form not to translate remarks if you’re in a normal conversation that involves a deaf man. That’s why Oleg doesn’t communicate with people who can speak — it’s boring, he can’t understand.

In August 2013, developers from Novosibirsk’s Akademgorodok created a mobile sign language interpreter


«The deaf mute are a closed club that you can only get into through careful study of their language. But the language is only worth learning if you want to make it your profession. It’s limited and there’s little demand for it. A normal deaf person has no need for a sign language interpreter. It’s just that Oleg is pushing the envelope. As a rule, the deaf are self-contained. Oleg broke out and he needed a connecting link. I promised him that I would help.»

Contrary to popular belief, most deaf people can speak, and Oleg is no exception.

His speech organs aren’t damaged. However, deaf people prefer not to break the silence around them.

«I have a friend who had an operation to restore her hearing when she was already an adult,» says Viktor. «Now, she’s suffering because the brain perceives all sound as noise. It can’t divide it into speech, background noise and so on. She dreams of having another operation to put everything back the way it was.»

In fact, even with the best will in the world it’s virtually impossible to make contact with the deaf. The state provides them with free sign language interpreters — 40 hours per year, or six minutes a day, if you divide the time up. Paid interpretation services cost 300-400 roubles ($9-12) an hour, but such professionals are few and far between in Tomsk and they’re not always available.

In addition to interpreters, the All-Russian Deaf Society provides deaf-mute people with a few other things. For example, a TV that shows programmes on the federal channels with subtitles or an alarm clock that vibrates instead of making a sound.

When you ask Oleg a question, you expect that the easiest thing would be to get a written answer, but that’s not the case.

«Deaf people’s proficiency in written Russian is at the level of a poor foreign language. He wrote ’Let’s go tour’ to me today,» says Viktor.

Oleg doesn’t write very well and, accordingly, doesn’t read much (few of us are able to get through a book even in a foreign language that we know quite well). His favourite pastimes include football and volleyball. Oleg occasionally goes to the cinema. He understands about 50% of what is going on, sometimes less. That’s why he prefers fantasy to complex, psychological films.

The magic show comes to an end. The ferret and wand are put back in their box. In all the time that Oleg was showing us his tricks, he used Viktor as a translator only once.

Magic requires no words.

Read this story
in Russian

«Oleg’s tricks are a distinctive sort of contact with the world. Non-verbal communication is very strongly developed in deaf people. Oleg might not even look at you, but if you think that he doesn’t notice anything, you’re wrong. In fact, he notices everything,» says Viktor. «He probably picks up on more than you’d want him to.»

The ambition of the street cleaning magician from Tomsk is to perform on stage as much as possible in different cities. Oleg is single too. But he hasn’t started seriously thinking about a family yet: tricks alone aren’t enough at the moment, so he’ll have to continue training his shovel.

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