In the summer of 2019, a Russian border policeman died when mass fighting broke out in the town of Chemodanovka outside Penza. Twenty-eight people have been charged in the deadly brawl — all members of Roma families who have lived in the town for decades. Ekaterina Malysheva has been covering the court hearings and has studied the case files. She explains why the Roma are being tried, and why their relatives, lawyers, and representatives of the local community are all avoiding the press.
…Experts from the human rights group Memorial have been monitoring violations of the rights of Roma residents in the Penza region for several years. They believe that the Roma, including those in Chemodanovka, do not want to speak with journalists because of a variety of fears, including prejudice against them from the police, the courts, and the media, as well as negative public opinion generally.
Nikolai Ivanov, the late leader of Chemodanovka’s Roma community, told human rights activists that the authorities visited him after he first granted an interview to reporters about the fight. He claimed that his phone was tapped and that he was asked not to release information about the conflict. When representatives of Memorial came to Penza in the aftermath of the brawl, they said they encountered pressure from the local Center for Counteracting Extremism. The message was unambiguous, they said: “Do not go to the Roma, do not meet their baron.”
“If the Center said such a thing to visiting human rights defenders, imagine how they intimidated local Roma to sit quietly and keep their heads down,” says Stefania Kulaeva, an expert at Memorial. “This isn’t just the Chemodanovka Roma’s tragedy; terrible bias and structural discrimination against them are evident at all levels.”
Starting in childhood, most people are told that Roma are “dangerous,” Kulaeva says. The media are not immune to this prejudice: Often journalists consider them “dodgy,” portray them as savages, or photograph innocent people to illustrate the most horrendous articles about crime and drugs,” she said. “That makes for a more impactful story, doesn’t it?”
Besides fearing journalists, the Roma worry they will face long prison sentences if they don’t keep silent as police or investigators have instructed them to do. They also fear eviction, arson, and further harassment.
“These guys go away and do hard time,” says Kulaeva. “But some of these Roma now behind bars were only trying to break up the fight. No one tried to understand the extent to which each of them was involved. The simple fact that they were there was enough.”
She recalled that the indictment barely mentioned the injuries sustained by Roma during the fight, even though some of them were subsequently hospitalized.
“The criminal case’s very wording is racism in disguise,” Kulaeva said. “It’s reminiscent of an incident in Astrakhan, where we defended a Roma man accused of robbery, about a decade ago. Although he had an alibi, the judges did not believe dozens of Roma witnesses who backed him up. The young man was sentenced to 12 years in prison because the victim, who saw him on a dark road, claimed to recognize him by his eyebrows,” she recalled.
Kulaeva says the case file contained enough evidence of discrimination on ethnic grounds to warrant a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights. With the trial underway, however, lawyers for the Roma are reluctant to take that step, which would mean entering into a conflict with the Russian Federation.
“Without excusing those who decide to use violence, I believe that accusing only the Roma in a fight where there were dozens, if not hundreds of other participants — this is racism,” Kulaeva contends. “In the end, it doesn’t even matter who attacked whom first: Sooner or later, Chemodanovka was going to blow up. There has long been marginalization. When we were there, 10 years ago [in 2012], it was very bad in terms of the exclusion of the Roma population. The other Roma settlement in Penza, by contrast, was a model for us. Roma children there went to school together with Russian children and even had a Russian-Roma soccer team.”
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