A training seminar was held on 9th of April in the offices of “Memorial”, dedicated to the protection of the rights of the Roma. Representatives of the Romani community in St. Petersburg and the North-West region were invited to the event. There were many young people present, including representatives of the Romani-Kotlyar community from Peri in the Leningrad region. Their presence gave the event a sharpness and often resulted in unexpected changes of direction.
The presentation of the employees of the North-Western Center for Social and Legal Protection of the Roma opened the event. M. N. Nosova, the center’s lawyer, spoke about the problems she frequently comes across. On the one hand, the representatives of power are sometimes biased and have very crude attitudes towards the Roma, as in the Leskolovksii police department, where police have taken advantage of the Roma’s illiteracy and legal vulnerability to illegally deny them the chance to apply for official documents.
On the other hand, the Roma themselves sometimes do not understand that it is possible to solve their problems, and that it is necessary to try to do this with all their strength. For example, Romani parents are reluctant to register their children (and so do not receive benefits), marriages often go unregistered and it is thought that it is forbidden to register children born outside of wedlock. There are also several instances where children had been registered under false names and the maternal parentage had to be established using expensive genetic tests. M. Nosova also spoke about the results of her legal work and gave examples of when various problems had been solved using legal means. Marina Nosova and Stephania Kulaeva took questions from the audience and spoke about their methods of working to protect rights. Video material showing the monitoring of the rights of the Roma in the North-West region of Russia was also shown.
Zalina Slanova, the medical coordinator of Memorial’s project of medical assistance, spoke about that project and about the problems that workers at the center come across. She called on the young people present to help the elderly Roma – their relatives and neighbors – so that those who were entitled to additional medical help would complete the required paperwork.
Then the guests from Finland took the floor, writer Cecilia Rinne and photographer Joachim Eskildsen. They showed photos depicting the lives of Gypsies in various countries to the assembled guests and recounted their experiences of the Roma.
“We know the Roma very well. When we first met them we were astonished by their energy and their closeness to nature. We could learn a lot from them. The situation with the Roma differs from country to country, because the Romani communities themselves are very different in every European country. Very often there is discrimination against the Roma, but it is always connected to the State’s attitude towards this problem. People learn about the Roma from the media, and this information is often distorted or simply false. We think that you have to see everything with your own eyes. The images of the Roma, that we had before were based on stereotypes, and not one of those stereotypes turned out to be true. Traveling around the Romani settlements, we encountered incredible warmth and more respect than in many other encounters with non-Roma.
As is well known, the Roma arrived in Europe from India, and to this day there are many groups of Gypsies there. Some of them are occupied in traditional circus arts – they are acrobats or magicians, having studied this craft from childhood. Other groups are musicians that play at festivals and celebrations. One of the groups used to trade, but under the British Empire they were outlawed and now they are notorious thieves. It is these Gypsies who are discriminated against and not admitted to villages. But, as we see, it was not their original occupation, they were forced into this. The customs and rituals of Indian Roma are similar to those that exist in Europe: for example there is a Roma court.
Approximately 300 thousand Roma live in Greece, the majority in inhuman conditions – without water and electricity. There have been incidences when Gypsy communities close to Athens were demolished by bulldozers. However, human rights groups interfered and taught the Roma to fight for their rights. Very often the Roma are totally assimilated, they receive education and are reluctant to say that they are Roma and so they hide this fact. In Greece, as in many other countries, there is a problem with the distribution of truthful information about the Roma – it simply would not occur to most Greeks that people with good jobs and a responsible life could be of Gypsy origin.
This also happens with famous musicians. Often people don’t have the opportunity to live well and at the same time preserve their national identity.
Romania has the largest Roma population in Europe, and their culture is very interesting. Romanian Gypsies divide themselves into 16 groups and speak 4 different dialects. After the overthrow of the Communist regime they found themselves in a very difficult situation as interethnic tensions intensified. Interestingly, those groups who had not abandoned their traditional cottage industries weathered the transition better than those who had worked in factories and industries did. For example, the Kaldarari, who prepare traditional goods from metal, and then sell them in villages where they and their necessary goods are waited for impatiently. One of the groups trades in traditional Indian goods, like saris and they go on short trade trips. People have very good relations with them because they sell useful things. Representatives of yet another group, who used to deal in tame bears, are now metal workers and produce axes, horse, barrel rings and horse shoes, which are much in demand as there are more horses than cars in Romania. The Roma work in forges using bellows and beat the metal with hammers, just like 500 years ago. In Romania there are many activities organized for Romani children to enable them to receive an education. The majority of families speak Romani at home and the children have difficulty understanding Romanian. A standardized form of Romani based on the Kaldarari dialect is used for their education, but a lot of attention is paid to learning Romanian.
In France the situation is completely different – the countries of Western Europe are, of course, very different from those in Eastern Europe. Here you can meet three basic groups of Gypsies. The first group – the Manush – travel in cars with trailers, in which they have everything that they need to live: stoves, a kitchen, a washing machine, a dryer etc. These Roma are like cleanliness, and tidy up and wash three times a day. Traditionally, they travel from city to city, from market to market, buying and selling things. However, things are difficult for them now because they can only park in special halting sites which are not very widespread. They speak their own distinct dialect of Romani, which has borrowed a lot from French and German. The second group – Gitanes – arrived in France from Spain. They are famous for their musical skills, for example, the members of the famous group “Gypsy Kings” are Gitane by origin.
The third group of Roma in France are the immigrants from Eastern Europe, mainly from the former Yugoslavia, who appeared around 20 years ago. They arrive for three months, and either beg or repair old cars on the street, and then go home. In Paris two such Roma gave us an excursion around the Champs Elysee. There are very poor, but very intelligent and dignified people. Many of them speak two or three European languages.
In Finland Gypsies observe ancient customs. They wear traditional dress: the women wear long skirts and are forbidden to wear trousers, and the men have to wear dark trouser, usually with waistcoats or jackets. Men and women sit at different tables. They have great respect for elderly men and there are taboo subjects like health or personal problems, which they don’t discuss. When a child is born only the mother and several close female relatives can see the child for the first two months. It is forbidden to put dishes on the floor, it is considered dirty and they have to be thrown out. The worst thing is to wash the floor with the sponge that washed the dishes. If this happens no elderly person will enter the house and if it is a tent it will be burnt. There is no marriage ceremony – young people just run away for three days and then phone their parents to say that they are husband and wife. All relatives must attend funerals and see the deceased before he or she is buried. Mourning lasts from two weeks to three months and during this time there is no dancing or singing.
Even in Finland, where the situation of the Roma is relatively good, social opinion is nonetheless guarded, as people know little about the Roma. It’s a pity that the wider public doesn’t know much about their culture as it is very rich. It’s very important that the Roma and ordinary people meet and talk to each other more often so that they can understand each other better. Those people who have Romani friends can say many good things about them, while those who only receive their information from the newspapers are scared of the Roma. Both sides need to get to know each other, and here enormous effort is needed from both sides.”
N. V. Bessonov spoke about the possibilities of changing social opinion and attitudes towards the Roma. “Today I would like to talk about a theme that stems from our general conversation. Often Gypsies ask themselves “Why do people relate to us so badly?” Despite the efforts of Romani activists, society’s opinion of the Roma has worsened. The results of the last sociological survey show that on the so-called ‘scale of hatred, the Roma are already at the top. This is a very worrying symptom as such attitudes result in discrimination, police arbitrariness and unprovoked conflicts on the streets. Some may say: it’s your own fault. You deal drugs. But isn’t this convenient a way to explain this feeling? We all know that not every Romani family deals drugs. How many families work and trade honestly?! But television programs aren’t interested in such Roma. Only Romani criminals make it onto our screens. We see how masked men burst into a house and turn it upside down. The commentator tells us that it is a raid against drug dealers. At the end – a hurried admission “Today the search yielded no results, but the battle continues.”
There is no exaggeration in what I have just written. In the last year I have seen several such reports, which inflame interethnic hatred. This is why I am certain that the explosion of xenophobia that we are witnessing in recent years can be explained not by the behavior of the Roma, but by the racist position of the media. It is no coincidence that the crime statistics are hidden from us, because if you compare the number of Roma (which according to the latest census is 183 000 persons) with the number of court trials involving them, then journalists would soon have to apologize.
I notice another aspect of this problem. Besides the press and the electronic media there is another powerful instrument that influences our society. This is art, and cinema and television especially. Let’s look at the way that Gypsies are represented by film directors. Even in the best films the “criminality” of the Roma is emphasized. In E. Lotyan’s masterpiece “The tabor goes into the sky” nobody works or trades honestly. Loiko Zobar and his friends are horse thieves and Romani women shoplift. For you see, in real life the Roma in Transcarpathia follow trades – they are ironmongers and tin workers etc. And what an honest blacksmith has to suffer in the films – thieves, swindlers even murderers! And these films were made in Soviet times, when there was some limit to the “”rubbish” put out about ethnic minorities. What can we say about the muddy wave that appeared with perestroika – the films “I’m guilty” and its sequel, “Black Pearl” and the TV serial “Poor Nastya.” Romani women are depicted as being sexually available, and Romani customs seen to support a cult of force. The national character is misrepresented. Just one scene from the popular film “Sisters” is more capable of inflaming hatred towards the Roma than ten news reports.
Two vulnerable girls find themselves in a Romani house and the Roma want to sell them to a den. The Roma live in palaces and they send their children to beg on the trains. I won’t even waste time showing how this is all a lie from start to finish, people here know the real situation.
But the viewers watch this harmful show and believe it. The question arises – what is to be done? We have to actively acquaint society with the positive facts of the life of the Roma. People should know that among the Roma are doctors, teachers, workers, livestock breeders and academics. We should work towards a media that represents the Roma as a part of society and not as a nation of outcasts. Can it really not impress an ethnic Russian that the Romani Y. A. Reshetnikov founded a court system in Chechnya, at risk to his own life, and is an advisor to the State on judicial matters?
There are many strands to the work that we are doing at the moment. One of them is the creation of a book to the memory of those Romani men and women who died during the Second World War. During Soviet times the memory of the victims of the war was commemorated almost religiously, however the Romani victims were overlooked. As a result Russian society formed the opinion that the Romani who were killed were an unimportant criminal layer of society. And now you can even hear the announcement in the media “It’s a pity that they weren’t finished off then.”
Such an opinion is not the fault of Russian society, it is its problem. For you see, nobody has ever told them what the real place of the Roma in Russia is. People don’t know anything about the powerful pre-revolutionary Gypsy merchant class or about the Roma intelligentsia. Who knows that after the revolution the Roma were hired to work the land, toil in factories and cooperatives or dig the Moscow metro? The fact that even after enduring the Stalinist deportations and executions for political reasons, the Roma were not spiteful and still played their part in the fight against fascism is also not fully recognized and valued. We hope to publish the commemorative book for the 60th anniversary of the Victory, in 2005. Then Russians will finally learn the names of the Romani soldiers who fought the fascists in the Red Army and in partisan outfits. We will have a solid foundation of which to speak of the Roma as a part of Russian society. This book will be our contribution to the strengthening of tolerance.
The chapter of the book devoted to Leningrad is almost ready. The Roma from St. Petersburg helped us and offered photographs from family archives. Here there are people who died from hunger, and those who served in the various military outfits. There are noble defenders of the city, for example officer Abaurov, who volunteered to go to the front in the 8th month of the war, the brothers Kozlov, Bogdanov and Martsinkevich. Let people know that the descendents of the renowned choral dynasties shared the fates of the people of Leningrad. Unfortunately, even the Roma themselves are not fully aware of the degree of their participation in the Second World War. I’m certain with the publication of the book many of them will be amazed by the abundance of facts.
I call on everybody to provide all assistance possible and to share memories and offer any war letters or documents that they may have preserved. In this way we can compile a list of the victims and heroes of the war. The commemorative book doesn’t resolve the immediate problems, but it is one way to redress the historical neglect of the place of the Roma in Russian society.