KRYTYKA needs your support:
Subscribing or donating to our journal, you support the best in quality intellectual discourse and in-depth social, cultural, and political analysis that Ukraine has to offer!
Your subscription or donation will help us remain truly independent!
A twelve-year-old boy in homemade armor, Roman Saveliev fought, ate, and slept alongside protestors during the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution on Kyiv’s Independence Square. Hailed by the international media as the “Child of the Maidan,” Roman became an image of a new Ukraine, a hopeful utopia of transparency and equality; his Romani identity served as a framing narrative for the media coverage.1 A member of one of the most marginalized and discriminated-against minorities in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the boy both captured the imaginations and personified the fears of the Other through his mere presence at the center of such a pivotal political event. While international readers praised him, his gadje (non-Roma) neighbors in Yagotyn on the outskirts of Kyiv spoke negatively about the boy. Referring to him as a tsyhan, a Gypsy, a term with negative connotations, they suggested that his mother, not having the economic means to support her large family, did not care about the boy’s whereabouts. Such statements alluded to common stereotypes about Roma as an impoverished people who do not have the financial means to support their large families and therefore send their children out to beg on the streets. The neighbors also alleged that a member of the family was in jail, engaging yet another derogatory stereotype of thievery and immorality long-associated with Roma. Such media reporting elucidates the disjunctures that Roma in Ukraine face: supported by international networks in efforts to self-mobilize, they are essentialized locally in terms of centuries-old stereotypes used to justify systematic modes of exclusion.
Such narratives have very real — and often very violent — repercussions. On June 23, 2018, ultranationalists attacked an encampment of Romani laborers near Lviv in western Ukraine, killing one person and injuring several others. This attack was the sixth in a series of attacks on Roma.2 Violence against Roma has been common in Ukraine since independence in 1991. To date, attacks have, for the most part, occurred in retaliation for problems blamed, often without justification, on the Roma, who have long been scapegoats for village problems. Often without clear cause or conviction, Roma houses are burned and Roma violently beaten. Such events, referred to as pogroms by Roma political activists in Ukraine, are motivated by deeply-rooted prejudices against Roma, despite the promise that the Euromaidan held. The presence of the “Child of the Maidan” had seemed a nascent promise of Roma inclusion, rooted in new-found mutual respect and understanding. What then, is causing the increase in violence and discrimination against Roma in Ukraine? And what more can be done towards incorporating Roma in the workings of the post-Soviet state?
Drawing attention to the positive steps taken by local activists in Roma communities, as well as by Roma non-governmental organizations that have worked in Ukraine since the early 1990s, this article analyzes the racialization of post-Soviet class identities to shed light on Roma realities in a context in which the Roma poor are villainized. Viewing poverty through the lens of morality fosters a rhetoric of victim-blaming that casts life choices into categories of right and wrong, good and bad. Roma, historically stereotyped as wrongdoers throughout centuries of impoverished existence based on economic exclusion, are inherently denied opportunities to advance within a cycle of discrimination that excludes them because they are poor. In other words, Roma, perpetually chided by non-Roma for smelling different, looking different, not studying, not mobilizing economically, not caring for their families, and not living, acting, working the “right” way, have significantly fewer options for altering aspects of their realities because of rhetoric that prevents the establishment of a Roma middle class. Readers may point to the existence of a handful of very wealthy Roma whose materialist gains in the post-Soviet era have been featured in English-language magazines like National Geographic.3 This opulence, however, is exoticized and stigmatized as much as Roma poverty; racist rhetoric casts doubt on the legality of the manner in which such wealth was amassed. Thus, as this article argues, the roots of anti-Roma discrimination lie, in part, in economic exchanges between non-Roma and Roma. Historically, economic exchanges between Roma and non-Roma are fraught with anxiety, distrust, and allegations of deceit to such a degree that the concept has spawned words for cheating: like unto its English counterpart is the Ukrainian word vytsyhanyty, meaning “to gyp” (to fleece, swindle, or hoodwink, especially out of money), itself derived from the derogatory connotations of the term “Gypsy.”
Taras Shevchenko’s 1841 watercolor Tsyhanka-Vorozhka, (Gypsy Fortune-Teller) depicts, first and foremost, an economic exchange and also serves to highlight that the Roma are outsiders who are not fully-welcome to participate in local life. In this painting, a young Ukrainian peasant woman shows the palm of her hand to an older Roma woman, asking the Tsyhanka to foretell the future. Shevchenko depicts the economic difference between the women by not representing the two figures as equals. The Roma woman stands on the outside of the property, separated from the young peasant woman by a gate. Indeed, the Ukrainian term za parkanom, meaning “beyond the fence,” is both literally and figuratively illustrated. The Ukrainian woman turns her very face away from the fortune-teller; her upright stance contrasts with the hunched figure of the Tsyhanka-Vorozhka who leans down to read the palm of the peasant woman who, despite her youth, outranks her in the social hierarchy. The Ukrainian woman is clearly at home, as indicated by her bare feet and bunched apron, both of which suggest that she might have been working in the house or garden and that the visit from the Tsyhanka-Vorozhka is unexpected. In contrast, Shevchenko depicts the Tsyhanka with a walking stick, the symbol of a nomad and an outsider who has no permanent home; she is, quite literally “on the outside looking in” on the more privileged life of the Ukrainian woman. The child she carries on her back is symbolic of her burdens, and suggests that she is telling fortunes as a way to earn money to support herself and her family. She is not invited into the home and it is clear, through her appearance, that she does not have the opportunities to participate in village life as framed by agricultural, religious, and kinship-based social activities.
Fortune-telling places the Tsyhanka-Vorozhka outside the realm of religious mores but, nevertheless, offers her a symbolic voice. She is imbued with powers that derive from local superstitions and fears of the Other. She can shape realities and curse the receiver or can offer hope in exchange for financial compensation. Thus, her very existence embodies an emotional association with money. Poignantly, however, Shevchenko depicts the woman with a closed mouth. He reminds us that Roma have historically been a silenced minority and that their future is largely determined by non-Roma attitudes toward them. As this article elucidates, such historical representations, while central to the formation of Ukrainian sensibilities of nationhood and belonging, continue to work against the inclusion of Roma in contemporary Ukrainian society. It further seeks to analyze how problems of wealth, money, employment, and poverty shape Roma realities in Ukraine today. As the Euromaidan, a Revolution of Dignity, was fought against corruption relating to greed, this analysis sheds light on post-Euromaidan realities of a minority historically judged for alleged improprieties of economic exchange.
Numbering 350,000 in the territories of independent Ukraine, Roma, like many minorities who had benefited from Soviet interventions in cultural policy and affirmative action plans, lost their economic footing in the aftermath of post-communist economic collapse. Livelihoods that had depended on a historically cultivated status as entertainers slipped away as restaurants that had employed musicians closed, unable to afford to offer luxuries like live performers (“zhyvyi zvuk,” literally “live sound”). Economic insecurities also led to fewer wedding celebrations altogether, and fewer still lavish ones, once a guaranteed income for Roma musicians as well. State-funded cultural initiatives like Moscow’s Teatr Romen, established in 1931 to increase Roma visibility and to foster relationships between Roma and the Soviet state, struggled to keep alive the elaborate performances (spektakli) that once graced its stage. Aesthetics from Teatr Romen had shaped public identities for Roma throughout the Soviet Union (Lemon 2000, O’Keeffe 2013), whether in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, Lviv, or Uzhhorod. Images of Roma women in colorful outfits dancing to music performed by Roma men on seven-stringed guitars (semi-strunnaya) were both ubiquitous and largely positive. They performed many songs popularized by Soviet-era Roma-themed films: musical hits from blockbusters like Tabor Ukhodit v Nebo (The Camp Ascends to the Heavens, Mosfilm 1975), based on a novel by Maxim Gorky about the strong-willed Rada and Zobar the horse thief, constituted much of the repertoire of Roma artists in the USSR. Financial rewards from performing Tsyhanshchyna, or “Gypsiness,” began to dwindle as audiences who had one supported such performances in large numbers found themselves unable to afford the luxury of entertainment.
Confusion about repertoire arose within Roma communities in the furthest reaches of the former Soviet Union like Transcarpathia, Ukraine’s westernmost oblast, home to the majority of Ukraine’s Roma. Living only a few kilometers from the suddenly accessible Slovak, Hungarian, and Romanian borders, questions emerged regarding their aesthetic relationships with Ruska Roma, long-assimilated urban Roma who had shaped the traditions of the Roma stage. The Ruska trace their lineage to ancestors who once performed in Roma choirs for Russian nobility, and the traditions popularized by these performers inherently differed from the those of nomadic Roma, as well as from those of Roma living in the territories of Ukraine, now faced with anxieties brought forth by the consequent re-orienting of self within a turbulent post-colonial space.
Roma in Ukraine comprise culturally and linguistically diverse groups such as Servy, Servitka, Ungrika, Vlach, and others. Servy, the largest in number in the Ukrainian territories, were migrants from Wallachia and Moldova and settled in eastern and southern Ukraine in the middle of the 16th century. Servitka (Slovak) Roma in western regions of Ukraine, such as Transcarpathia, differ from Servy in that they speak Carpathian dialects of Romani. Ungrika Roma or Rumungri living in Transcarpathia often identify themselves as Hungarians. Vlach Roma represent a 19th century wave of migrants from Wallachia and Moldova. Roma in Ukraine had only limited contact with each other because of the difficulty of communication and travel in the early years of independence. They were, however, offered a helping hand from an unlikely source—assistance which ultimately facilitated their communication with one another and, therefore, a new ability to set and strive toward common goals across the whole of the disparate Roma communities.
The Soros Foundation had begun to focus its efforts on helping impoverished Roma in Western and Central Europe, and the former Soviet bloc was high on its list of priorities. Roma organizations applying for funds from the Soros Foundation did so through the framework of what they once knew best: performance. Cultural projects with a goal of saving Roma cultural traditions, often with a specific focus on language, became the norm and were funded. While it may seem strange that at the height of economic struggle, Roma once again began to put on large-scale music and dance events, festivals, and theater productions, although this time on stage with a Roma flag, the performances fostered and developed the embryonic connections between Roma in Ukraine and across the European Union.
The politicization of Romani culture and identity began to happen in Ukraine only after independence, much later than in Western Europe where the Roma flag was adopted at the first World Romani Congress in London in 1971. Western-based Roma networks, working alongside development organizations that fund Roma-related endeavors, offered models for Roma in Ukraine to organize politically and to engage in efforts to alleviate the traumas of post-Soviet transition (Helbig 2009, 2010). Although they initially drew on what worked during Soviet times, namely activism through cultural expression, the well-established networks are now led by a second generation of Roma activists (many of whom took over the running of Roma non-governmental organizations established in Ukraine by their parents in the 1990s) and have shifted focus from the arts to law, education, and healthcare.
The Roma flag is divided into the blue heavens and the green earth. The red sixteen-spoked chakra in the center recognizes the origins of Roma in India and symbolizes movement and the burst of fire from which life emerged.
When Transcarpathian Roma who had set up camp in the outskirts of Lviv were attacked in 2018, Kyiv-based Roma leaders reached out to international media outlets via watchdog organizations like the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) that has, since the 1990s, been monitoring and publishing reports on Roma living conditions, unemployment, and attitudes among non-Roma towards Roma. The ERRC, comprising a global network of activists and lawyers, and connected with a myriad of Roma rights organizations, helped to bring information about the situation to an international readership. That the story went viral on social media attests to the ways in which Roma activists in Ukraine now work; social media networks that crystalized during Euromaidan now help Roma bring to light stories that were once relegated to the shadows, dismissed, and simply not reported.
Roma intellectuals working within a network of internationally-sponsored non-governmental organizations in Ukraine draw on the stereotypical association of Tsyhany with movement to forge new understandings of Roma in Ukraine as members of a transnational Roma diaspora. The road and movement along that road are important unifying tropes in this construction. Similarly, the exodus from India represents the collective emotional and physical hardships all Roma groups have endured throughout their history. However, India, together with common tropes like movement, migration, and diaspora utilized within the Roma rights movement, invokes discourses of not only belonging, but of exclusion, thus making Roma integration into non-Roma society an even more daunting prospect than it already is in Ukraine today.
By the late 1800s, Russian scholars were aware that Roma history had its roots in India. However, Ukrainian peasants referred to Roma as xvaraony or “the Pharaoh’s people,” indicating a false belief among the local population that Roma came from Egypt. In 1836 tsarist ministers established two villages named Faraonivka (Pharaoh’s) and Kair (Cairo) in Bassarabia, the newly acquired Moldovan territory (today’s Odessa region) to which many Roma groups were resettled. Tales that Roma came from Egypt inspired the names of the villages. Faraonivka and Kair are unusual names for the region, but neighboring villages have equally unusual names, including Negrovo (derived from Negro); they continue to have large populations identified by locals as Tsyhany.
The Roma exodus from India was a theory proposed in the 18th century by German linguists and continues to be supported in large part by linguistic comparative studies of Hindi and Romani. German scholar and ethnographer Heinrich Moritz Gottlieb Grellman discovered a strong affinity between the Romani language and the Hindustani languages (Grellman 1783). Looking toward India, Grellman further supported this claim of Roma heritage from popular travelers’ journals that informed about the existence of a caste of Pariahs, whose color, build, character, morals, and customs showed many similarities with the image he had of Roma and their way of life. In his study, Grellman assigned a common basis and common roots to all Roma. He presented them as a unified race of people who shared one language and a distant homeland. These notions of race and country coincided with the political and nationalist climate in Germany at that time and his theories became very popular and convincing. History serves as a powerful legitimizing factor of ethnic identity. By establishing a point of origin for Roma, Grellman simultaneously and coincidentally constructed roots for a Roma identity. This rhetoric was promoted by Soviet scholars, including linguist Alexey Barranikov (1890-1952) founder and head of a Soviet school of specialists on Indian philology who researched Romani dialects in the territories of Russia and Ukraine (Barranikov 1934).
The political rhetoric of “India as homeland” propagated within the Roma rights movement plays out in the context of everyday Roma/non-Roma interaction. The Roma neighborhood in Lviv is in a section of town called Briukhovychi. Most non-Roma, however, refer to the area and all of its Roma inhabitants as “India” and “Indians” respectively. The use of the signifier “India” has racial undertones that imply, fairly overtly, the notion of Roma as Other. Ukrainians often point to the alleged cultural and physical similarities between dark-skinned Tsyhany and Indiǐtsi (Indians). Numerous Ukrainian newspaper articles have compared Tsyhany to India’s caste (formerly called) the Untouchables. Such associations among non-Roma categorize Roma as inherently displaced and belonging to some place other than “here.” The Roma rights movement stresses Indic origins to promote a sense of pan-Roma unity on national and international levels in the hope of gaining a broader support base with which to fight against anti-Roma discrimination, and the related and resulting issues of unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, and socio-political marginalization. While effective to an extent, the emphasis on Indic origins simultaneously reinforces the trope of diaspora and makes it difficult for Roma in Ukraine to claim territorial legitimacy and public recognition on the local level. Existing cultural stereotypes of Tsyhany as nomads and as people who are presumed to feel no connection to land, and therefore to the nation-state, reinforce the still all-too-common view among non-Roma that Roma do not require and/or do not deserve equal citizenship rights in Ukraine.
For Roma in Lviv, the classifications of “India” and “Indian” function as derogatory markers of social and class distinction deployed by the group who had led a settled lifestyle prior to World War II. They use this label to differentiate themselves from those Roma who settled only when Nikita Khrushchev issued an anti-wandering decree in 1956. Roma settlement policy was enforced locally and oftentimes haphazardly, contributing much to contemporary anti-Roma discrimination. Thus, “India,” as utilized by longer-settled Servy Roma in Lviv, refers to formerly-nomadic Servy Roma who were forced to settle in Lviv by Soviet authorities. The longer-settled Servy Roma families had migrated voluntarily to Lviv during World War II from eastern Ukrainian regions like Zaporizhia, Luhansk, and Dnipro. In eastern Ukraine, most Roma lived as nomads or led a semi-nomadic lifestyle as well. They sought permanent dwellings during the winter months with peasants or camped at the edge of villages, traveling from village to village during the summer months as entertainers, metalworkers, and horse traders. To this day, both longer and more recently-settled Roma groups in Lviv mark the beginning of the historical migration season in early May. Traditionally, men and women celebrated this day separately – men repaired wagons, cleaned rifles, and cooked kasha, a celebratory meal of buckwheat and chicken; women sewed tent flaps, mended clothes, and prepared items necessary for the road. Despite this celebration of a nomadic past, the continued use of the signifier “India” towards the more recently settled Servy points to the fact that a self-assigned higher social status is granted to families within the Roma community who have led a settled lifestyle for a longer period.
The attacks in 2018 are, unfortunately, part of a long history of anti-Roma discrimination in the territories of Ukraine. Allegations of stealing, squatting on public lands, and creating a social nuisance through begging in public have dominated the ways in which non-Roma, gadje, speak about Roma. Lauded on stage, but despised as neighbors, Roma have been subjected to centuries of policies in the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Soviet Union that attempted to integrate Roma through forced assimilation. In the Habsburg Monarchy, Empress Maria Theresa (1740-1780) signed into effect four decrees aimed at assimilation; the decrees rescinded Roma rights to horse and wagon ownership (1754), renamed the Roma as "New Citizens" and recruited Romani boys for military service (1761), ordered Roma to register with authorities (1767), and prohibited marriage between Roma (1773). Her successor Josef II outlawed traditional Romani clothing and the use of the Romani language. In the Russian Empire, Roma were serfs of the Russian crown. Those who lived on estates of Russian nobles formed choirs for the entertainment of the nobility and many used their popularity to gain freedom. Descendants of these Roma choir performers are the aforementioned who established Moscow’s Teatr Romen and subsequently became representatives of the Roma intellectual and political elite in post-Soviet Russia. These urban-based Roma made distinctions between themselves and nomadic, or taborni, (literally, camp) Tsyhany (Gypsies). Soviet policies of propyska, official address registrations, played an important part in forcefully settling any Roma still leading a nomadic lifestyle in the aftermath of WWII. Moved into block housing on the outskirts of towns and villages, nomadic Roma were forced to abandon kinship ties and traditional occupations and crafts (such as horse-trading, blacksmithing, woodworking, and metalworking). In some cases, nomadic Roma, having never lived in apartments, built campfires in their living rooms and brought their horses (animals central to Roma cultural identity, business interests, and nomadic way of life) inside their homes, much to the horror — and amusement — of their gadje neighbors. These Roma, because of the changes they were forced to make, ultimately became dependent on the state.
At the time of post-Soviet transition, such dependence was transferred onto non-governmental organizations, contributing to the odd situation whereby the high levels of Roma unemployment, illiteracy, and health insecurities are still predominantly viewed as the “problem” of Roma non-governmental organizations. The presence of foreign aid has allowed the Ukrainian government to wash its hands of responsibility with regard to various challenges that minority communities face. Official statements issued by the Ukrainian government with regard to Roma in particular reveal a great lack of awareness and care for the problems at hand. According to the official report provided to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2001 by the government of Ukraine, “racial discrimination in all its forms has been eliminated in Ukraine and the equality of every person before the law has been secured, without distinction based on race, skin color or national or ethnic origin” (ERRC 2006). Rather than take responsibility, the government blames the Roma themselves for the substandard conditions in which many live, as well as for their “inability” to advance economically, socially, and politically. “In many cases,” the Government report states, “we face outrageous facts of non-observation by the Roma of the basic rules of conduct, and violations of community life’s laws” (ibid.). However, according to Volodymyra Kravchenko, director of Terni Zor (“Youth Power”), a Romani organization in Brovary (Kyiv oblast), “The government never helped and they won’t help. The difference is that now they can just take credit for it. The government thinks ‘why should we help them if they are helped by foreigners?’”4
The moral framework within which Roma poverty is discussed shapes public opinion of Roma as undeserving of help because they either choose to live this way or are biologically pre-conditioned to live in squalor. They are infantalized, their choices assumed to be predicated based on an inherent lack of morals. Once again, this dangerous rhetoric dehumanizes the Roma poor. Non-Roma media crews and photographers often arrive in Roma communities unannounced and document living conditions with little explanation or care about what life is like in impoverished settlements, often with no running water, heat, or electricity. Locals who have been featured in such segments have expressed anger at being treated as if they are zoo animals, on display to look at but not to interact with.
Roma from Transcarpathia have, perhaps, received the greatest amount of negative backlash in politics and in social standing. Living in over 170 tabory (camps), they make ends meet through petty trade, collecting scrap metal, cleaning the streets, and other menial jobs. Many also travel abroad to work in the forestry industry in Russia’s Far East. The majority who travel for work head to Central, Eastern, and Southern Ukraine to work as seasonal laborers in agriculture. They camp by the side of the road or in the woods and are most visible to passers-by. The images of Roma encampments evoke historical images of tabory and bring forth the historical wrath against nomads and people who seemingly “do nothing.”
As the economy of Ukraine improves, and the country undergoes yet another process of modernization, Roma once again are being pushed to the sidelines. It behooves non-Roma to understand inherent gadje biases and to recognize that Roma realities of today are the results of centuries of misguided interventions rooted in rhetoric that places Roma outside the economic circles that could improve the situation for all. Following the 2018 attacks near Lviv, a Ukrainian businessman hired a Roma family to guard his work in his metal supply factory.5 He was criticized by his neighbors who felt he was risking his livelihood by trusting Tsyhany to work, not steal. That the story even made the news attests to the level of distrust towards Roma. And yet, the Roma family completed the tasks and additional work beyond expectation. In the Soviet Union, poverty was blamed on the Soviet state. In the early years of transition, poverty was blamed on the corrupt. In post-Euromaidan Ukraine, poverty is increasingly being blamed on the lack of self-mobilization. Moving forward, it behooves us not to fall into the trap of blaming the poor for their poverty, but rather to identify and work through the biases that lead us to think that we understand situations of such complexity, when in reality we have only just begun to scrape their surfaces.
Barranikov, Alexey Petrovich. 1934. The Ukrainian and South Russian Gypsy Dialects. Leningrad: Publication Office of the Academy.
European Roma Rights Center. 2006. Proceedings Discontinued: The Inertia of Roma Rights Change in Ukraine. Budapest, Hungary.
Grellmann, Heinrich Moritz Gottlieb. 1783 . Dissertation on the Gipsies, Being an Historical Enquiry, Concerning the Manner of Life, Economy, Customs and Conditions of These People in Europe, and Their Origin. Adamant Media Corporation.
Helbig, Adriana. 2010. “The Dialogics of Development: NGOs, Ethnopolitics, and Roma in Ukraine” In Orange Revolution and Aftermath: Mobilization, Apathy, and the State in Ukraine. Edited by Paul D’Anieri, 254-273. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars/ John Hopkins University Press.
2009. “Representation and Intracultural Dynamics: Romani Musicians and Cultural Rights Discourse in Ukraine.” In Music and Cultural Rights. Edited by Andrew Weintraub and Bell Yung, 269-295. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Lemon, Alaina. 2000. Between Two Fires: Gypsy Performance and Romani Memory from Pushkin to Post-Socialism. Durham: Duke University Press.
O’Keeffe, Brigid. 2013. New Soviet Gypsies: Nationality, Performance, and Selfhood in the Early Soviet Union. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.