Moscow, 29. 7. 2005 (by Mara Vladimirova for Antifa-Net in Moscow)
Nobody knows exactly how many Gypsies live in the Russian Federation. Some estimates say 150,000 people while others other give an approximate figure of one million (Russia's population as a whole is 144 million). In both cases, the count is probably inaccurate because, traditionally, Gypsies are nomadic tribes that do not have a permanent place of residence and do not pay much attention to state census demands.
Although, the Gypsies are nominally citizens of the Russian Federation, they remain social "outlaws" as in the past and opt not to conform to a society that oppresses them and discriminates against them. Russian Gypsies can be divided into two big groups, the Roma and Luli. Historically, the Roma first appeared in Russia in the 16th century but it was only at the beginning of the 19th century that they came to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Classic Russian literature of the 19th century painted a romantic image of Roma people as vivacious musicians, dancers and actors very popular with Russian aristocrats. This abstract idealised image still exists in heads of countless people but the sight of real Gypsies in the streets seems to provoke feelings of hostility, anger and fear of being robbed. The Roma are often regarded as "home Gypsies" with a more regular and fixed way of life but few have higher education and few are integrated in contemporary society. During the Soviet era, considerable energy was spent on spreading Communist ideas among the Gypsies to try to restrict their nomadic life and to involve them more in the process of collectivisation of society. During the Second World War, of course, Gypsies fought against Hitler fascism as soldiers of the Red Army. After the collapse of the USSR, however, the Gypsies returned to their traditional way of live as outsiders.
Though the economic and social situation of the Gypsies in Russia in general is poor, the worst situation is faced by the Luli. Luli is a common name for numerous groups of Gypsies from Tajikistan, or those associated with them, who came to Russia en masse after the economic crises and civil wars in the Asian Republics during the period from 1992 to 1997. Now, they are frequently seen, mothers with several children, sitting in the streets of the big cities and begging at the same time as enduring the rigours of the rainy Russian autumn and cold Russian winter. Many Russians mistake them for Tajiks because the Luli dress more like Asians and have an Asian appearance. Every facet of social, political and economic difficulty accompanies the life of Gypsies in Russia. According to research by the European Centre for the Rights of Roma People, Roma communities all over Russia live in deep poverty, deprived of the possibility of obtaining education, jobs, housing and medical help. In practice, this means, for example, that ordinary schools try to find ways not to accept Gypsy children. Even if they are accepted, their attendance is rarely encouraged or enforced. Prejudice is so widespread that Russian pupils refuse to share tables with Gypsy children and that a school textbook could contain a warning not to touch Gypsies because they "spread maladies". The educational problems are compounded by the fact that most Roma, and especially Luli, do not speak Russian. Nevertheless, there are no special classes, schools or textbooks for them in their own languages. Discrimination in the health sector is rampant. In one case a Gypsy woman had to give birth to a child in a field after being rejected by a hospital's emergency department.
Oleg Gusev, a candidate for major of Yekaterinburg, proposed to close down Roma settlements and recently, in the Archangel region, Gypsies were forced to take to court a city government that wanted to drive them out of the region. Gypsies have even threatened to burn themselves with their houses if the authorities try to destroy their buildings. The mass media plays a big part in inciting hostility to gypsies. A TV documentary about beggars in Moscow, for instance, stated that "it is Roma and Luli who control the begging business in the Russian capital and get much more money from this than those who run the petroleum business" before adding that, for the purpose of this business, "Gypsies steal children, buy people as slaves, mutilate them and kill them when they cannot work any more". One Russian person on the programme even suggested using napalm against Gypsy settlements The mass media also claims that Gypsies are heavily involved in drug trafficking. As a result, the words "Gypsy" and "drug dealer" have become virtually synonymous. The police can - and do - make round-the clock drugs raids on Roma and Luli settlements. If they are unable to find drugs, policemen demand money or arrest them on trumped-up charges for several days. When arrested, a Gypsy is generally detained longer than others arrested for the same crime. Arrested Gypsies are often badly beaten, and sometimes even killed, by the police. For example, in 2001 a Gypsy was killed in the police station at Khimki in the Moscow region. The resulting court case has been delayed six times.
In the list of those to whom Russians show xenophobic feelings, Gypsies come second place only to Caucasians but for Gypsies, and those who help them, it is quite difficult to defend their rights against the state. Many Gypsies are illiterate and have little legal knowledge. The easiest way for them deal with police is to give them cash. When extremists like nazi skinheads attack them or other discrimination occurs, the Gypsies rarely go to the court because they know they will not win and can easily be turned into the accused. According to official figures, Gypsies commit 3% of all crimes in Russia. Many Gypsies do not deny being involved in the drugs business as couriers nor that they practice thieving. However, so-called "civilized" society leaves them with few options. Without proper papers, Gypsies who want to start working conventionally and legally seldom get jobs. It is claimed that police officers are reluctant to provide proper papers because they might lose their "pocket money". Even with valid documents, Gypsies can hardly ever find jobs because prejudice against them is so strong. There are other forms of discrimination. Regional governments, for example, refuse to sell land or apartments to Gypsies who want a settled existence. More and more often, the newspapers and observers of human rights organisations publish information about pogroms at Gypsy settlements, like the one that happened in Iskitim in the Novosibirsk region in April. Several organizations, including the Union of Roma Social Organizations and the International Romani Union, monitor the situation of the Roma people in Russia and try to help them preserve their specific culture and language and to resist discrimination. The state envisages only two possibilities for the Gypsies: integrate into society and, effectively, stop being Gypsies or be constantly put into circumstances that are almost impossible to survive and, thus, disappear as an ethnic group. Faced with this arbitrary choice, Gypsies invariably choose to keep their freedom from the state and willingly take the risk of remaining outsiders. This leaves them in the position of outlaws… a large nation without a country of the their own, the last such nation in Europe.