In the village of Rubilovo in the Pskov region, four Romani families have lived for twenty years. In the past, the adults from these families worked in the kolkhoz, but now their only income is from child and incapacity benefits. Occasionally they manage to earn extra income from working on their neighbours’ plots, or from collecting scrap-iron.
I came to the village with the aim of supporting one of these Roma families in court, since they are semi-literate and it was difficult for them to take on a role unfamiliar to a Rom – that of plaintiff. The case was that one of the residents of this village had beaten up a Romani girl, inflicting on her grievous bodily harm. Her family had taken the case to court. After the first sitting of the court, I decided to visit Rubilovo and talk with neighbours to find out their opinion of the Ivanov family. In spite of the attacker’s statement that the people of this Roma family were idlers and thieves, I heard nothing bad said about them in the village. On the contrary, the neighbours said that they gave help to everyone who asked them for it: they helped the elderly or sick to collect the harvest, plough the earth, build houses, work on their vegetable gardens, and so on.
The Ivanov family is large, with eight members. According to the neighbours, the family is friendly and hard-working. I am a Rom myself, but do not often hear good words said about my people. Yet, despite the positive reports about the family, not one of their fellow villagers supported them morally after the incident in question. The mother of the victim was in despair and decided no longer to attend the court. ‘We are Roma, and semi-literate – how are we to compete with a man who has worked for his whole life in the kolkhoz? He even has some kind of medal,’ she said. Nevertheless, I tried to support her in every way possible and convinced her not to be afraid to stand up for her rights, and to make a complaint to the court without question. It turned out that I was right. The court judged the case in favour of the Romani family. The defendant offered a public apology and paid a fine for infliction of bodily harm. Perhaps this was the first time that the Roma had felt that they were people defended by the law, the first time that they understood that their rights can and need to be stood up for in a civilised way, through reference to the court.
In the Rubilovo village I met another family about whom I want to tell without fail. It is a Russian family. Their surname is also Ivanov. I would like to describe the mother of the family, Tatiana Mikhailovna, who works for a very small salary as manager of a village club.
The previous manager of the club did not allow Romani children to visit the club, was hostile and treated them with disgust. She knew well that Romani homes have no electricity, but picked on the children because their clothes were not ironed. Moreover, the tickets were often too expensive for the children to afford. Everything changed with Tatiana Mikhailovna’s arrival at the club.
Discos at the Rubilovo club always go well, the atmosphere is peaceful and friendly, and there are no fights or conflicts. Young people even come from as far as the town of Ostrov. Since the arrival of Tatiana Mikhailovna, Romani children have actively started to visit the discos. They no longer have the sense of being excluded, no longer dance in the corner among themselves. Tatiana even encouraged the Romani boy Arsen to be a DJ.
Watching the children, Tatiana noticed the remarkable musicality of the Romani children, their striking sense of rhythm. She also noticed that the children always sing along to the songs that they hear at the disco. She organised a Romani vocal ensemble, ‘Roma’, which began to perform regularly at their club, even taking part in regional competitions. During these performances, even the villagers the most hostile towards Roma applauded warmly and shouted ‘Brilliant!’ One spectator even shouted to the lead singer, ‘Well done, Stepan, now I’ve started to admire you!’ Tatiana Mikhailovna knows well how important for the Romani children this success is: it awakens in them a feeling of national pride, self-respect and dignity.
Tatiana Ivanovna tries to nurture this feeling in the Romani children in every way she can. In all her behaviour, she shows that she trusts them: she does not lock the door to the classroom where she leaves her bag, and she leaves open the desk with the ticket money inside. The children have tried to justify her trust, showing her great respect and love.
When working with children, all kinds of situations arise. They need to be organised and to adapt to the discipline of work. This is especially the case with Romani children. Tatiana Mikhailovna says, ‘this is a people who are too free-willed’, as it is sometimes necessary to raise her voice or stamp her foot. However, her relationship with the children always remains warm and trusting.
While Tatiana Mikhailovna and I were talking and drinking tea, Stepan, the Romani boy, arrived to visit her son and work on the computer. I found out that Tatiana and her son Seryozha help Stepan with reading and writing completely unconditionally. Before he met the Ivanovs, Stepan, at sixteen, did not know a single letter, but now he already reads fluently and has successfully learnt to write. Tatiana says that if Stepashka (as she affectionately calls the boy) continues to progress this well, she will start to teach him the basics of mathematics. During our conversation, Tatiana’s younger son, Vova, ran into the room. He said that Roma, Stepan’s brother, had arrived and was asking to be allowed to watch his older brother study. ‘Perhaps Roma will like it and will also want to study?’ suggested the boy. Of course, Mama gave her permission. Tatiana’s husband is nothing but welcoming of her ‘extra lessons’ with the Romani children, and supports and tries to help her when difficulties arise. The atmosphere in their home is very warm and friendly. The Romani children like to come here very much, because they know that they will always receive a warm welcome and that someone will always listen to their problems, help them, give good advice and even give them all the tea that they can drink.
It was late, but I did not feel like leaving this house. It is such a pity that in our country it is unusual to meet people who are so unconditionally kind and attentive to children who are not their own. If only there were more such people in Russia, and if only there were not hatred based on race and nationality. Russia is our shared house, and every person is worthy of their place in this house. It is important to everyone, especially children, to know that they are loved and cared for, that people have an attitude of goodwill towards them, that people will always help them.