The Gypsies of the City on the Neva


A Cultural Survey

The Gypsies of the City on the Neva

On 29 April 2004 a photographic exhibition entitled ‘The Gypsies of the City on the Neva’, organised by a local voluntary organisation, the V. N. Cherepovsky Saint Petersburg Centre for Gypsy Culture, opened in the House of Folk Arts. The people staging the exhibition attempted to show how the past and future of gypsies in Saint Petersburg are inseparably linked with the history and culture of Saint Petersburg and Russia. Unique photographs and other materials –from pre-Revolutionary shots of gypsy choirs to posters of famous groups– tell us about famous creative dynasties in Saint Petersburg (the Ilyinskies, Martsinkeviches, Abaurovs, Masalskies and Pankovs). Despite what is commonly thought, however, gypsies are not just famous as musicians: the exhibitions also illustrates their role in the Great Patriotic War [i.e., World War Two from when the USSR joined –A. G.], and their work in manufacturing.

The opening of the exhibition was a great event for Saint Petersburg’s gypsy community. The ensemble Russka Roma entertained the guests with gypsy songs. And anyone who wanted could take part in the improvised concert that concluded the festival –here young gypsies showed their talents and veterans of the stage ‘relived the good old days’.

The well-known artist, gypsy scholar and writer Nikolay Bessonov, who has done much for the preservation and development of gypsy culture, took part in organising the exhibition. Recently, in collaboration with the late Yan Reshetnikov (a. k. a. Sergunin), a lawyer and President of Tolerantnost [‘Tolerance’ –A. G.], a foundation supporting small towns, he has created a new website, ‘The Gypsies of Russia’ (www.zigane.pp.ru). This resource is devoted to various aspects of gypsy history and to the life of gypsy communities in Russia today. It provides information on many issues, including legal assistance, cultural news and the history of the gypsy people, as well as a photo gallery. The authors invite ‘all who hold folk traditions dear and who are not indifferent to the present complexities in inter-ethnic relations’ to work with them.

We hope that the exhibition ‘The Gypsies of the City on the Neva’ and the website ‘The Gypsies of Russia’ will be the first steps in the creation of an archive and, possible a museum of gypsy history in Saint Petersburg. Such examples exist –for instance, a permanent exhibition devoted to gypsy history and ethnography was opened in 1990 in the ethnographic museum in the Polish city of Tarnow. This was the first exhibition of its type in Poland. Exhibits have been being collected since 1979, and they give information about Polish gypsies in the context of European history as a whole. The exhibition is located in an 18th-century residence, and in the summer a traditional gypsy settlement, with wagons, tents and a camp fire, is reconstructed next to the museum.

Today one may come across gypsies of various groups in Poland. There are Carpathian gypsies, who live in the south of the country, Polish Roma, who live in small towns, and Kalderari [boilermakers –A. G.] and Lovari [horse dealers –A. G.], who live, by contrast, in large towns. One may see small settlements of Russian gypsies (Xaladitka Roma) in Western1 Poland and of German gypsies (Sasitka Roma) in Western Poland. The Roma Socio-Cultural Association has been active in Tarnow since 1963, and in 1985 a cultural educational association was set up. Several years ago a Gypsy Cultural Centre was opened. Since 1996, these organisations, supported by the Tarnow museum, have organised annual activities called ‘Gypsy Caravans of Memory’. Gypsies in traditional wagons ride from Tarnow to the village of Szczurowa. Here, 93 of their fellow gypsies, including children and the elderly, who fell victim to the Nazis, are buried in the cemetery. At the cemetery a church service is held and a list of those killed read out. Then there is a concert of gypsy music for the local residents. The director of the Tarnow museum, the ethnologist and historian Adam Bartosz, considers the caravans of memory very important events for Tarnow’s cultural and social life: they help the gypsies get a sense of belonging to their nation and give the local population a positive impression of them.

1 Eastern, surely? A.G.

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