Kotljary-Romani in the North-West

Problems in Kotljary-Romani communities have been the topic of articles published in our Bulletin on a number of occasions. Human rights activists at the Northwest Centre for the Social and Legal Protection of Roma have recently been focussing their attention on three such communities, usually called by their old-fashioned name, “tabor”. These are: the Romani settlement near the Peri station in Leningrad Oblast, the large Romani community on the outskirts of Chudovo in Novgorod Oblast, and the youngest compact Kotljary settlement in our region, located in Arkhangelsk.

In Northwest Russia, these are still the only three places where large groups of Kotljary Roma live according to their traditional customs. In other regions of our large country are scattered tens more of these distinctive settlements – in Volgograd and Perm, in Vladimir and Tambov, in Samara, Tula, Moskovskaja Oblast, and Uljanovsk. And in many other cities in Povolzh, the Urals, Siberia, and the Caucasus many thousands of colourful, distinctive Kotljary live according to their own unique lifestyle and social framework. To the outside world, they are known as “Moldavian Gypsies”.

And this designation is undoubtedly fair: the ancestors of modern Russian Kotljary lived in Moldavia and Romania. Kotljary are also well known in other countries, where they are called “Kelderash,” which has the same meaning in Romanian that “Kotljar” has in Russian — “coppersmith”. When Roma still moved from place to place and mended copper pots, their appearance caught the attention of everyone around, becoming a dramatic and distinctive part of the lives of city and village-dwellers. This is how the writer Yurii Dombrovskii describes the arrival of a tabor in a pre-Revolutionary provincial town:

“Sailing along the high street came narrow, winged wagons with tops made of waterproof grey tarpaulin; carts with chintz curtains and unbelievable silk roses blooming from the faded-pink fabric – about a half a pood on each; then came carts without curtains but thronging with the same roses, garlands, ribbons, and whole sheaves pouring down … And people went along the sides of this procession – first tall, black, sunburned men in beaked caps, shining boots and red, belted shirts. They held whips. Behind the men came women, swaying, smoking, spitting and talking amongst themselves. Their dresses were elaborate and impressive: with wide, flowing and clinging skirts gathered in countless pleats and cascades of colours, first soft rose hues, then bold crimson. The girls – nimble, quick, big-eyed — moved together in a clutch like young she-goats. They went merrily, swinging their arms, each with a flower behind her ear, scarves draped over her bare shoulders, necklaces, bugles, beads and coins on her neck. The whole procession shone, rang, shimmered…

And the carts went on and on… and suddenly everyone uttered a cry: a great, bright sun rose up and burned over the steppe, the high street and the tabor. It appeared, turned, gathered a burning bundle of white rays, blinded everyone, and then burned out. And then I understood: it was the tabor’s own trademark – “mending copper pots and basins”.

Surprisingly, Kotljary-Roma have changed little in the hundred years since the episode described by Dombrovskii. Anyone who has encountered a group of Romani women on the road would immediately recognise the Kotljary women in the author’s sketch.

And although Romani men rarely wear red shirts or carry whips nowadays, they have nonetheless preserved their own set of distinctive traditions — from earliest childhood, boys learn to mend things made of metal; nearly all men living in tabors earn their living by repairing pipes and stove parts and working with metal. The main change that has taken place in the lives of these unique people is that they have been forced to give up their travelling lifestyle. Today, in order to see the multicoloured fabrics, curtains, frills and other fancy decorations associated with Romani tabors, one must peek inside a spacious Romani home – since the 1956 order that forced Roma to adopt a settled lifestyle, Romani carts can no longer be seen on the roads.

After this order, many Romani families that had previously been travellers received permanent registration and state housing – usually rooms in barracks. But Kelderari Roma persisted in doing things their own way – they only settled in private houses built in accordance with their own ideas about what proper housing should be. First and foremost, Kotljary Roma chose and still choose to live compactly and, where possible, separately from the rest of the local population. Kotljary build their own houses, concerning themselves first of all with the spaciousness of their dwelling places. The southern traditions of this Romani group are evident in the architectural styles they employ. And although Kotljary have been living in Northern Russia for many generations, the thick walls and small windows characteristically used to conserve heat in the north have not been introduced to Kotljary tabors. Tall, wide houses are scattered through the tabor seemingly at random, like tents. Often, small, seemingly temporary shacks are found between the large houses, built for the grown children of the owners who have started their own families. The population of a tabor is generally unable to grow beyond its plot of land. As a result, communities grow denser and more crowded and houses become closer and closer to one another, often violating fire and sanitary regulations.

Such is the case in large Romani communities in Leningrad Oblast (Vsevolozhskii Region) and in Novgorod Oblast (Chudovo). Thousands of people live in these Romani villages in such overcrowded conditions that in the trampled down spaces between homes, not even grass can grow, much less trees. Here there are no vegetable gardens, usually abundant in rural areas, no children’s playgrounds, no places for adults to relax or children to play. On the streets and paths between houses, washing is hung out to dry, children play, a few cars are parked, and young people, along with all the tabor’s other residents, celebrate weddings and other holidays. Beyond the borders of these villages, unsettled forests and hills can often be seen.

The problems facing Romani communities are, as a rule, very complex and cannot be solved by the residents of the villages or local authorities alone. Too many agreements have gone unfulfilled for decades; laws on the use of land and housing underwent radical changes at the dawning of this new century. As a result, the Romani citizens in our region and the authorities who must make decisions and take adequate measures in these difficult circumstances have both become hostages in this situation. Unfortunately, although authorities in various, far-flung regions of Russia have encountered identical problems, each much solve them on its own. As a rule, governors and heads of local administrations don’t even know that analogous problems exist in neighbouring regions.

Meanwhile, there are no federal or regional programmes that take these communities into account or offer universal solutions for the problems facing them. Local authorities are forced to find their own ways of coping. In Leskolovskaja Oblast (Vsevolozhskii Region) it was proposed that the tabor put forward its own candidate for local office and vote for him at the election. “We have an interest in this matter and so do they,” said the head of the Leskolovskaja administration L. A. Gnatovskii. “The Roma would then have their own deputy — it’s only natural that they should since they have a large community here. The deputy would be able to protect their interests and solve problems. For the first time, we would have a colleague from their community and we would inform him about all decisions and circumstances. By being present at meetings, he would always be up to date on all matters and would serve as a link between the authorities and the tabor.” It’s possible that this approach, in which tabor matters would be solved alongside the problems of other groups in Leskolovskaja Volost, could prove to be the most integrated.

The project of establishing a dialogue between Roma and the authorities in Chudovo (Novgorod Oblast) began a bit differently. The new head of the city administration V. Ja. Zuev and his advisers and deputies decided to propose that the Romani community (which consists of more than one hundred homes, of which only two are officially registered) break off from the town to form a separate, self-governing administrative unit. That is, the Roma wouldn’t just elect one deputy to the local council – they would elect all of them, including the chairman, from their own community. This would grant legal status to the tabor’s existing practice of electing a baron and deputy barons responsible for making all decisions on matters affecting the tabor. Some kind of status is indeed essential for any leader of a Romani community, inasmuch as the institution of baronhood is in no way recognised on the legislative level. That is, a baron who actually represents a large community of people is, in a legal sense, just another private individual without any real authority. This issue has come up repeatedly during the round table discussions held by Memorial to address problems facing compact Kotljary communities.

Memorial’s staff members and lawyer M.N. Nosova have proposed other ways of legalising the barons’ status – from registering them as social organisations representing the interests of the tabors’ residents to establishing national-cultural autonomy for individual Romani groups. The initiative started by Chudovo’s administration differs from similar suggestions in that it puts the future Romani leader in a much tougher position than if he were simply chairman of a social or national organisation. If he were to become the head of a local government, the tabor’s representative would be responsible for a budget and for the debts of those living in his region or village. On the other hand, with his help, such a village could officially obtain government grants and subsidies, secure benefits for large families and handicapped people, rebuild damaged roads, and build municipal and social facilities that that tabor lacks (baths, child care facilities and kindergartens, schools). After all, it is not only the tabor residents’ duties to state institutions and city services that sometimes go unfulfilled (as the local authorities and companies responsible for providing energy, water, etc. so often complain). We mustn’t forget about the state’s unfulfilled duties to its citizens, who are deprived of nearly all social welfare and benefits. The Chudovo administration’s proposal is problematic, but it is also tempting.

New mayor of Arkhangelsk A. V. Donskoi has proved to be the least able to find a way out of this difficult situation and arrive at a logical, acceptable solution. We have written before about the tense situation facing a group of Kotljary in this city. The hundred people who arrived there from Volgograd signed a land-rental agreement for a plot in Varavino-Faktorija in 2004. They began building their homes, and some received official registration at their new address.

After moving in, they began living in their difficult but familiar manner – their children started school, a few people got married, several young families had children, and one family even had twins. But an anti-Roma campaign that began in the press and spread to the city government threatened the happy family life of this small tabor. While still a mayoral candidate, A.V. Donskoi spoke out harshly against the existence of the new Romani community in the city. The arguments the candidate made in his dash to power cannot be called anything but racist and slanderous. Despite the results of checks and statements made by police officers, which proved the absence of criminal elements in the tabor, Donskoi and his team continued to make proclamations about the “criminal ethnicity,” drugs and child thieves. Tabor residents, living in cold and half-constructed temporary houses, came under threat of having their homes demolished and being evicted. The newcomers had to live through their first winter in Arkhangelsk without light or heating. Many had small and even newborn children.

Despite drawn-out court cases in which city hall has tried to make legal its intention to deprive the Roma of their lifeblood, and the Roma have tried to demonstrate the illegality and inconsistency of city hall’s actions, hope remains that it will still be possible to reach an agreement with the authorities. It seemed unbelievable that, having become mayor, the head of a city as large and important as Arkhangelsk, Donskoi would decide to repeat his unfounded accusations against the Roma. Such behaviour during an election campaign, when accusations and even name-calling are a common part of the fight for power, is one thing. It is quite another thing when such behaviour comes from the mayor. And so the fact that the mayor and several of his deputies appeared at a round table discussion dedicated to the problems facing the Romani population in Varavino-Faktorija gave hope to the other participants in the discussion. Alas! Donskoi’s decisiveness did not waver when he took his new role as mayor. Before several video cameras and dozens of journalists’ microphones, he insisted that he had made clear “his positions,” that is that the Roma, as a dangerous and undesirable group, would be forced to leave the city.

At an earlier meeting with colleagues, he formulated his position in the following way: “Roma do not know how to do anything good. If the case regarding their eviction becomes too drawn out, a police officer should be sent to lean on them. We have to make problems for them or else they’ll make problems for us…” (A. Kuleshov, “The Question of the Roma Still Hasn’t Been Answered by the Mayor,” Inter-regional Internet newspaper “Nashe Slovo”). Comments made by the mayor’s deputies about social welfare issues and education left us with strange and inconsistent impressions. They began by making excuses, explaining that the Roma had been provided with all necessary services – medical care, schooling, and so on. It is unclear why city hall officials took such a defensive position on certain issues when they had made clear their inability to discuss the main issue at hand. As if it were of importance whether children were allowed to attend school in a city where they were not permitted even to live.

The positions of local human rights activists were also contradictory. The Arkhangelsk human rights representative N. P. Akhamenko wrote a letter to the mayor calling on him to observe the rights of Romani citizens, reminding him of the Russian constitution and the Law on National-Cultural Autonomy, and also proposing to discuss what compensation city hall could offer the Roma if they voluntarily left Arkhangelsk. Her colleague N. Ditjateva’s comments were in a completely different vein: “Today I give my support to Aleksandr Viktorovich (Donskoi). I believe that not just any compromise will get us out of this situation. Suppose we decide to give the land to the Roma and let them stay in the city. Then we will have to provide security for them — Special Forces officers.” The idea of putting such officers outside the tabor is nearly identical to the mayor’s suggestion of “leaning a police officer” on the tabor. It is impossible to believe that the one suggesting it is an advocate of human rights, whose professional duty is to protect people and their rights from this sort of authority.

Thankfully, there exist more independent human rights organizations. Many of these have turned their attention to the problems in Arkhangelsk, and if the authorities there continue to discriminate openly against people on the basis of their ethnicity, they will find that the case before them concerns not the rent of one and a half hectares of swampy land on the edge of the city but moral detriment and offence to the national dignity of Russian citizens.

The relationships between local authorities and Romani communities are at times strained and are different in each case that we have observed. The most important thing is that members of Romani communities themselves and more and more local officials have begun to understand that without coordinated action and mutual support, the problems facing Kotljary communities will not be solved in the foreseeable future.

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