The King, the Cause of Calamity

The Russian Roma, like many residents of our country despairing of their inescapable situations and decades-old problems, are prone to put their hopes on their president. From a psychological standpoint, it is easier to think that the person on whom the entire country depends, who comes across on TV as either a beneficent sorcerer (resolving all matters in real time during live call-in shows) or the leader of a flock of birds, simply knows nothing of the unlawful acts and injustices arranged by careless officials and police officers here, “below,” “on earth.” You just have to get his attention so that he personally reads, figures out, helps. According to people living at the time, these kinds of attitudes were common during the Great and other terrors: they would say, Stalin “doesn’t know,” or, the atrocities of the NKVD-GPU are hidden from him. Many still believe in the ignorance of the leader.

But now no one can say that the picture of the catastrophes of the Roma people has been hidden from Putin: Nadezhda Demeter, chair of the Federal National and Cultural Autonomy of Russian Roma, was able to speak at the offsite session of the President’s Council on Interethnic Relations in Khanty-Mansiysk on October 26, 2018. Following multiple expressions of gratitude for concern, for the second “comprehensive plan for the socioeconomic and ethno-cultural development of the Roma people” (which is just as useless as the first) and assurances of loyalty, Demeter was still able to report to a high-level meeting that Roma settlements are being demolished throughout the country, hundreds of families with children are being thrown out onto the streets, and Roma are being attacked in the press.

How did the man in charge react? So, you’re telling me Roma homes, built illegally, are being destroyed across Russia? We know, we know, but that’s not the most important! The most important is that people don’t want to live next to them. After all, the Roma are “professionally” involved in criminal activities! But, Demeter objected, the people whose homes were razed weren’t criminals at all. And the response: Oh, alright, come on, we know exactly what happened. I was briefed on this. Not just from the governor, but from law enforcement too.

The question is: How does this “knowledge” of the president (who is “briefed”) differ from regular, average ignorance, from ill will and direct instigation, from “legal nihilism” (to use the expression of a former temporary deputy of Putin), when collective responsibility for unproven violations is laid at the feet of an entire people in a form that is not envisaged in any codes (demolition of homes)?

And this is nothing new. Previously both small- and big-time officials indulged in making unacceptable statements about Roma people. Let us recall Aleksander Donskoy, the mayor of Arkhangelsk, who “could not agree to this way of life on the city’s territory” and chased out a large Roma community in 2005, even creating a special bank account for this purpose. Let us recall Kaliningrad’s mayor Boos, whose anti-Roma activities resulted in the razing of an entire settlement in 2006 and, several years later, in the payment of many thousands in compensation to victims under of judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. Then there’s Sochi mayor Anatoly Pakhomov, the future hero of the Olympic Games, who, in the presence of journalists in 2009, made statements about “bums and gypsies” being unwanted elements that only spoil the overall serene appearance of the city. And, finally, we have Tula governor Aleksey Diumin, who received his position following military “successes” in Crimea and briefed Putin on the alleged criminal involvement of Roma from the village of Plekhanovo, where over 120 homes were razed.

Now we must think that, with Putin himself following his minions by coming out with statements about the “criminalism” of Roma people, he has given assorted public figures in localities the green light: any way you can! – raze, drive out, hunt down! The self-criticism-lite expressed by the president (society and law enforcement are also guilty of “criminalization,” this is our common failing) and his agreement with the fact that “we must act extremely carefully and observe citizens’ interests” in resolving the problem of Roma people will most likely not be taken into account. Naturally, Putin’s sympathizers on the Roma issue who are not vested with public authorities—“natives” who collect signatures to move the Roma out, marauders who rob abandoned homes, and criminal bosses—feel more uninhibited to act as they want, although they were never particularly hesitant to begin with.

Well, then, the Russian Roma have probably lost their last illusions of the president as the final defender of justice. But other masses of the people regularly show support for the president and warmly welcomed Putin’s “perfect knowledge” of the Roma people, first with words in commentary on this eerie speech and later with deeds. In fact, we have seen these deeds quite recently in Belgorod Oblast and Khakassia: they are called “pogroms.”

Russian citizens have now become accustomed not just to living “next to” crime, but to living inside of it, within it, as in a sticky cobweb.

In Khakassia, where Roma people were forced to flee their native settlement after a conflict with local residents and then returned to pillaged homes, the local administration resists the legalization of housing and applies pressure to anyone who is prepared to sell land plots to Roma. After their return, one home burned down, probably as a result of arson. A report was filed with the police, but will there be a proper investigation after the president’s words? After all, the police previously did nothing about pogroms and marauding. If we turn to history again, we will recall the words of the Nizhny Novgorod governor concerning a Jewish pogrom in 1884: “…The people have become convinced of their full impunity for the most serious crimes, if only these crimes are committed against Jews.”

Well, and a word or two about crime, next to which, according to Putin, no one wants to live. Here, as the saying goes, those who live in glass houses should not throw stones…. Arbitrary arrest, torture during investigations, fabrication of criminal cases (I’m referring to those same “law enforcement bodies” whose briefings are so trusted by Putin), torture in detention centers, falsification of elections, political killings within Russian and abroad, invasions of foreign countries—all of this is veritable crime for which Russian authorities are responsible, and Russian citizens have now become accustomed not just to living “next to” it, but to living inside of it, within it, as in a sticky cobweb.

History teaches us not to delude ourselves with the mock ignorance (or “perfect knowledge”) of the powers that be. In the presence of Louis XV, the bishop Jean de Beauvais once addressed the following words to him: the French people are wretched, but this truth is concealed from the king, because it is the king who is the cause of national calamity.

Olga Abramenko

Published on Radio Svoboda

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