The Moscow Times: ‘Like Pre-Revolutionary Pogroms’: Ethnic Conflicts on the Rise in Russia

For the second time in 13 months, Roma have fled a Russian village for fear of attacks.

Olga Abramenko, an expert on the Roma with the St. Petersburg-based Memorial Anti-Discrimination Center, said that tensions between Roma people and ethnic Russians are long-standing and flare up occasionally. Last year, the independent Levada Center pollster found that xenophobia in Russia was growing, and that the largest portion of it was directed toward the Roma. Of those polled, 43 percent said they wouldn’t let Roma people into the country.

Since a law was passed in 1956 banning the Roma’s nomadic lifestyle, they have had trouble integrating into Russian society, Abramenko said. While a recent census numbered Roma in Russia at some 200,000, Abramenko said the actual figures range between 400,000-500,000, because many are scared to identify as Roma and because the government didn’t allocate land to all of them after 1956. As a result, Roma people built houses without proper land ownership documents and, as a consequence, many aren’t registered.

This state of affairs also makes it difficult for Roma to attend school. And even if they are able to, they often face discrimination and drop out early. In 2017, Memorial specifically included the local school for Chemodanovka and Lopatka in a report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. At the time, the school had separate classes for Roma.

“We have real apartheid with Roma people in Russian schools,” Abramenko said. “Because of this, parents take kids out of school early, thinking, ‘What’s the point?’ So the kids are handed the traditional Roma fate — early pregnancies and poverty. This cycle needs to be broken, but the authorities don’t care and deal with the problem in the language of repression.”

She highlighted an October 2018 Kremlin round table on a government drive to evict dozens of Roma from the Tula region south of Moscow. “You and I both know well that they professionally deal drugs there and people just don’t want to live near that — that’s the problem,” Putin told Demeter during the discussion.

“When you hear that from a regular person, you can let it slide,” Abramenko said. “But from the president?”

As an example of a commonly propagated scare story, she noted that Russian parents sometimes tell their children that “gypsies” will kidnap them if they misbehave. Dmitry also referenced the folktale as prevalent in Penza.

Days before Putin’s inauguration last year, a similar conflict to the one in Chemodanovka took place in the Ust-Abakan settlement in the remote Siberian Republic of Khakassia. During an argument that turned into a fight between a Roma person and an ethnic Russian, the Russian fell backward and hit his head, resulting in his death.

Almost immediately, around 500 local Roma fled because of threats from Russians, leaving their homes behind to be ransacked. Sergei Mikheyev, a colleague of Abramenko’s at Memorial, wrote after a visit to the settlement last summer that what he saw reminded him of pictures of the Jewish pogroms of the last century.

By September, some of the families who had left had begun to return, but local officials said 11 of their homes would be razed. The families sued, with the local court ruling in their favor. But after officials appealed, Khakassia’s Supreme Court stood with officials in a decision at the end of May. The families’ lawyer Valery Zaytsev told The Moscow Times that they will have 30 days to vacate their homes once officials announce eviction proceedings in the coming days.

Read more in The Moscow Times