Gypsies - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Despite the official atheism in the former USSR, many Gypsies have maintained religious traditions and beliefs. Gypsies customarily observe the religion of the people among whom they live. Those in Russia and Ukraine are usually Russian Orthodox; in Estonia and Latvia, Lutheran; in Lithuania and Belarus, Catholic; and in the Crimea and Central Asia, Muslim (Sunni). Religious holidays are very important. In Orthodox families, Christmas ( kriguno ) and Easter ( patradi ) are specially observed. Tales and rituals enhance Romani interpretation of religious teaching.

Arts. Since the eighteenth century, Russian and Romani cultures have been extensively interrelated. (This type of relationship exists in other countries as well.) Numerous Russian, Ukrainian, and Soviet writers have been inspired by an image of Gypsies that symbolizes Russian longings for "freedom." Two Russian authors deeply influenced were Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) and the symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921). In Pushkin's poem "Gypsies," the hero, Aleko, joins a Gypsy band in Bessarabia but ultimately murders his Gypsy wife Zemphira, who has rejected him, a Gazho (outsider), for a Gypsy lover. This story inspired Blok, who used some of the lines from the Pushkin poem: "the Gypsy camp was moving, the stars shine above."

Much of Romani lore reflects the boundary between Rom and Gazho, although not so romantically, of course, because these reflect the more mundane trials of surviving day to day in a Gazho world. More fantastic tales tell of sons who save the family from giant snakes; of clever boys who steal the Gazho king's horse; of children born at the same hour, their fates intertwined. Much is oral, improvized, and embellished by the best storytellers, who may add a humorous twist. Romani authors have published in the former USSR. In the 1930s Germano, Pankov, and Dudarova published scholarly works and political pamphlets, along with prose, translations from Russian, and textbooks. Ivan Rom-Lebedev and Krustalev wrote plays for the Romani theater, as well as stories. After 1937 nothing was printed in Romani until the 1980s, when there appeared a collection of tales and songs by the sons of storyteller Ishvan Demeter, R. S. and P. S. Demeter. Mateo Maximoff, a Gypsy author writing in Paris, was born in Russia.

A particular musical style known as the "Gypsy Romance" was formalized by the urban Gypsy choral groups in the nineteenth century. Singers perform Russian folk and urban love songs with a vibrato and a semitone decoration that draws from Romani singing. Some songs in Romani are also performed. Violins and guitars back the usually female singers. The style is considered by Russians to be melodramatic and romantic but is still quite popular. Other styles of Romani music are less well known.

It is in the Moscow Romani Teatr "Romen" that many Soviets have come to know Romani music and dance. The original repertoire of the theater was didactic and was designed by Gypsies for Gypsies. After a few years the theater concentrated on non-Gypsy audiences. The repertoire includes plays written by Gypsies, such as We Are Gypsies, 1 Was Born in a Gypsy Camp, and A Girl Who Brought Happiness, as well as Russian and European works such as Pushkin's Gypsies and Federico García Lorca's Blood Wedding. The most famous singer to emerge from the theater is Nikolae Slichenko, from Ukraine. The songs of the theater are known all over the former Soviet Union, as the theater has traveled and made films that have a wide distribution.

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