Suddenly, the news came in of the untimely death of Nikolay Bessonov, a Russian artist, researcher of Russian Roma and a great friend of the Romani people.
The legacy of Bessonov is vast and varied, he worked very hard – writing, drawing, making research. Not being either a historian or an anthropologist by education, he nevertheless collected and analyzed many important materials, personal stories, biographies of Roma people. He published his work on his personal website, as well as on the website “Russian Roma”.
Bessonov was the only person who had systematically collected and published information about the participation of Soviet Roma in the Second World War and about the Roma victims of Stalinist repression. Some of the generalizations he made may seem not completely grounded, some of his arguments may seem naive, but Bessonov’s undeniable merit was the collection of information and an honest search for real facts and personal stories. It is impossible not to pay tribute to his conscientious work, which was completely selfless and which unfortunately was appreciated and supported by very few people. In order to discover the history of the Romani people who suffered from the great tragedies of the 20th century (genocide by the Nazis, the Second World War, the GULAG) Bessonov tirelessly traveled around the country, searched the archives, spoke with thousands of people, studied family histories. Much of what he has written down and publicized in the time that was left to him, now would be completely impossible to find.
Nikolay cared a great deal for the sufferings of the Roma in the past and present, and in his articles he wrote with pain about those who had not survived the repression:
“The camp of Nagorny near Norilsk. Cemetery “near Shmitikha”. The name of the murdered woman was Frosya. Rest in peace, an unknown daughter of nomadic people… There is not even a plaque on your grave. Your executioners grew old, they received good pension and died surrounded by grandchildren. And their spiritual heirs sit in the Russian parliament and teach us “not to denigrate the glorious past”.
He had also found convincing examples, which testified that the repressions of the Roma in the USSR were not accidental:
“The headman of the Roma cell was the chief of the Gypsy band Gogo Stanesco. He was the first to be sentenced to be shot, when in 1937, following Yezhov’s order, the camps were to be cleansed of “anti-Soviet elements” … Gogo Parfentievich was called “the elected king of the Moscow Gypsy camp” in the documents of Stalin’s executioners”.
We should especially note Bessonov’s many years of struggle with stereotypes in the media, with racism and prejudice against the ever persecuted Romani people. Here is what he wrote about the poor Roma from Transcarpathia, who dwelled in Russia:
“…they come from the region affected by the economic crisis. The author personally studied the life of these disadvantaged people, visited their homeland, a poor Transcarpathian village, and recently spent two weeks in their tents near the station of Obukhovo. The journalists, who suggested some fabulous wealth of those who ask here for alms, are either mistaken or deliberately lying.”
When we started human rights work on our first project “North-Western Center for the Protection of Roma”, we received a wealth of valuable information from Nikolay Bessonov.
Generously and unselfishly, he shared his knowledge, contacts and stories, he cooperated with “30 Oktyabrya”, the newspaper published by “Memorial”, as well as with other publications, such as “Mnogonatsionalny Peterburg” (“Multiethnic Petersburg”) or the Ukrainian Roma newspaper “Romani Yag”.
There is no doubt that materials collected by Bessonov will continue to serve also to the future generations of researchers.
The picture from the http://bessonov-art.narod.ru