Gypsies - History and Cultural Relations

Linguistic evidence suggests that Gypsies left India in the tenth or eleventh century AD., migrating west to Iran (Persia) and the Arabian Peninsula, with some splitting off to the north to Central Asia (although some argue that the Central Asian group arrived in an earlier migration). Some moved westward to Byzantium and the Transcaucasus, reaching Europe by around 1250. The Seljuk and Ottoman expansions caused mass migrations, and by the fifteenth century Roma lived throughout Europe.

Roma entered Russia in two main waves: from the Balkans, some moved to Moldavia and Wallachia, where they were enslaved until the nineteenth century, moving to Russia only after the abolition of slavery in the 1860s. From Europe, Roma first appeared in the Ukraine in 1501 and moved on into Russia and the north. By the mid-eighteenth century, special taxes were imposed on them to limit the occupations and trade they could undertake, and in 1759 the Empress Elizabeth forbade them to enter St. Petersburg. Within the century, however, they were allowed to live there and in Moscow, and many, particularly those who belonged to the famous tsyganskie khory (Gypsy choirs), thrived. Others settled in urban centers and in towns: today there are families who have been settled for generations. Others traveled, some extending their circuit from Moscow to Siberia. Most of these people lived with villagers in the wintertime, renting rooms from them, and traveled from April to October.

In the fifteen years after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Roma flourished. In 1925 the All-Russian Romani Union, led by Alexander V. Germano, was formed, and Gypsies acquired nationality status. In 1927 a Romani alphabet was devised by a group of Romani and Russian teachers. Four schools for Romani students were opened, and others offered some instruction in Romani. Texts, books, and collections of poetry and stories were published in Romany by Romany writers Ivan Rom-Lebedev, N. A. Pankov, Krustalev, N. Dudarova, and others. Two journals, Nevo Drom and Romani Zoria (New Road; Romani Dawn), were published in Romani from 1928 to 1937. In 1931 the Moscow Teatr "Romen" (Romani Theater) was created. For the first three years it performed in Romani; after that it played in Russian. For many years the theater was the center of a Romani cultural renaissance and drew Roma (and other Gypsies) to Moscow from all over the country.

In 1937, however, everything but the theater was "liquidated" (the Romani Union even earlier, in 1931), as Gypsies did not, according to Stalinist reasoning, have a territory or a "stable culture." In the late 1930s, thousands of Roma, under increased pressure to settle and collectivize, were sent en masse to Siberia or shot. Some all-Gypsy collectives were disbanded; the members were forced to integrate with other collectives. In the 1940s entire collectives were destroyed and at least 30,000-35,000 Soviet Roma were killed in the genocide during the Nazi occupation of 1941-1945. After the war, surviving collectives were disbanded by Stalin, and members were made to settle in mixed-nationality collectives. Even so, some Roma began to enter universities during this period, shifting from developing literacy in Romani to becoming educated in Russian. These intellectuals cut a path for some Roma to enter the Communist party and to build academic and professional careers.

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