Since the beginning of September, I – a Swedish woman with an inexplicable interest in Russia, its language and minorities – have been an intern at ‘Memorial’. I travel to schools, teach English, talk to children and translate at the office. When I am asked why I chose just this internship, I can identify only one reason – an instinctive feeling. However, it is possible to concretise: to understand a country and its culture, it is insufficient to familiarise oneself with only the life of the majority. In studying the situation of minorities and the relationships between different groups of people, one can learn more about the mentality and way of life of a whole nation. Moreover, the minority – its culture, history and people – is of course interesting in itself, and this by no means least of all concerns Roma. I find it very interesting to get to know people from different Romani groups, to talk to children in schools and find out what they think of the world and life.
I would not say that what I have so far seen has shocked me, but certainly, there have been some things which I had not expected. On the social level, I have been surprised at how naturally people in Russia talk about national minorities. In a certain sense, Sweden considers itself a mono-cultural country, which is of course far from the truth; yet the expression ‘national minorities’ is almost never used by ordinary people. Having come to Russia, I understood that there is a different tradition here: to consider one’s country diverse. Regardless of the fact that great problems exist (fascist violence, segregation, unemployment, discrimination etc.), I was pleasantly surprised that minorities are considered a natural part of society.
I also find it interesting to explore the Russian school and its distinctive features. What especially caught my eye was a portrait of the president on the wall. Seeming almost as unusual was a board with photographs of five students and the caption, ‘They are proud of the school’. But the most surprising (and sad) is the segregation of Romani children from the others. It is as though we were in the Republic of South Africa or the USA of thirty or forty years ago. Although the children themselves claim that segregation does not impede them, that all is well, and that they easily make friends with other children, I was convinced that integration is better, since to me this word means that the school is concerned with the needs of every pupil.
In the lives of the Roma themselves, there are also some things which I find difficult to understand, most of all the tradition in certain Roma groups of marrying children at a very young age (around fourteen years old). Of course, in every culture, there are traditions which limit people. Yet this tradition – forcing the children to begin family life so early – clearly limits their freedom, development and educational opportunities, and I find it especially difficult to understand that the parents do this with their own children. It shows what a strong influence tradition and the opinion of the group has on the individual.
Also among my unexpected impressions are other people’s perceptions of me and of the subject of my work. People’s reactions – both in Sweden and in Russia – are varied: from silence, surprise (‘are there Roma there?’) and scepticism, to interest, enthusiasm and even fascination.
I am fortunate to work at Memorial, since I meet many interesting people here: Roma, colleagues who work for human rights with such enthusiasm, and tutors of various schools. I hope that I will be able to be of use to these people in the course of my internship.