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Ethnic Minority: The Roma In Russia


Ethnic minority: The Roma in Russia


The starting point of the Roma has never been fixed in written text, but is assumed to be no later than the VI century. This is the approximate time when the Roma left India for the first time to travel. Their destination was random, but the group usually remained in areas around 300-500 km² from their starting point [1]. Their migration is certainly not without reason, neither is it just based on a romantic urge for liberty. The root for this is the satisfaction of basic human needs; the group needs money to survive, craftsmen need new requests, musicians need a changing public, and fortune tellers need people looking for answers. The larger the family, the greater the urge for at least some of them to migrate in search of new opportunities to earn money. One cannot speak of the Roma since they are comprised of at least 50 different groups. These groups differ by language, religion, traditions, clothing and location. Many of them do not accept other existing groups as belonging to the same ethnicity, thus creating conflicts. Examples of different large groups are: The Ukrainian Roma, whose roots go back to Romania; Vlahi, the Christian Servi; the Krimi originating from Moldova; the Kelderari, etc.[2]

The Roma that is now considered to be Russian migrated at the beginning of the XVIII century mostly from Poland. Their occupations have historically been professions that are associated with the trade of horses, very small-scale metal industries, music and fortune telling. The Roma are considered to be the largest ethnic minority group in Russia, but exact official statistics are difficult to obtain. In 2002, officials counted 183,000 Roma in Russia. However, those are only the ones that could have been tracked through official registries. Other specialists, like Nikolai Bessonov who is a leading ethnographer, think the actual number must be over 250,000.[3] Precise data is difficult to obtain because the Roma are considered to be nomadic people who have no permanent abode and many may be in hiding because of criminal activities or a reluctance to get involved with other people outside their group. The gypsies are known to have great difficulties with integrating into existing communities and often cause serious conflicts in the countries they end up in.

Associated Problems

The Roma in Russia have never been legally discriminated against and are considered to have the same legal rights and protection by the state as other citizens. However, the situation of the gypsies has significantly deteriorated in the past years. This is because they are often associated with incidents in Chechnya, robbery and being accused of massive heroin transfers, thus causing millions of new addicts and deaths. Gypsies usually inhabit areas close to large cities and establish separate villages defined by the boundaries of their ethnic group. They interact closely with their groups all around the world, thus establishing a hyper-sensitive network, which has proved to be useful for drug transfers. The media is covering those incidents and presenting the misery and inequalities within the families and showing dozens of used syringes on the floor just outside their homes. Apart from using drugs within the families, they are often the source of heroin for surrounding villages. However, where the gypsies actually get the drugs remains unknown. Officials call for an urgent change because the Roma are probably not the root of such problems, but only intermediaries that simply have no choice. The education of the Roma continues to be very low, thus preventing them from seeking stable employment. A substantial effort has been made to integrate the Roma, but unfortunately the effects have been very low in Russia as well as in many other countries. Most of the cases go back to the traditions and rules of the Roma that block this possibility and do not express the wish to extend their boundaries [4].

Own Legislation

The Roma have lived with their own legislation for many decades which initially was not written down or acknowledged by the official government where they lived. This legislation deals with issues like freedom, the right to be born, pride of the Roma and punishment. It also deals with the tradition of marriage, which is taken very seriously. A girl is not allowed to marry someone from outside their ethnic group. To preserve the language and the traditions, many are promised to someone from the very beginning of their lives. At the age of 12, girls are still considered to be children, but at 14-15 they usually get married and are assumed to be perfectly suitable to look after their children at the age of 15-16.[5] Thus, they never complete their middle school education and grow completely dependent on their husbands or on begging and stealing. The boys usually drop out of school as early as the girls in order to earn money for their young family. Thus, education is not regarded to be important, but this encloses them in a vicious cycle [6].

A future wife has to show respect and subordination to her husband, his parents and siblings. The women of the non-Christian Roma have to cover their heads with two shawls, one of which she is not allowed to be taken off in front of her husband. A gesture of showing respect is to wash the feet of the husbands' father. Based on their legislation, a woman is always under the wardship of the husband. After his death, the eldest son takes care of the whole family. Widows, who live beyond their sons, are treated with greater respect than other wives and their opinion is ranked close to the men's. To mitigate problems for the family, when a family is accused of the possession and selling of drugs, the wife takes all the blame and goes to jail instead of her husband. If the wife is already in jail, the sisters are next, followed by the mother, leaving the household and children to the men. On the one hand, this is a horrid experience for the children that are considered to be the norm, but on the other hand, the women that are in jail, sometimes start to learn how to read and write for the first time. Thus, strict traditions prohibit integration and worsen the situation especially for women leading to a viscious cycle of poor education, poverty, crime and no freedom of choice.

The Future

At the moment, there is a contrast between negative images that blame the Roma for drug use and transfer and positive images showing gypsies that have an interesting culture and love their passionate dances. There have been positive experiences with educating the gypsies, such as the Roma School in St. Petersburg, and authorities are getting engaged in new projects with the hope of motivating and explaining the importance of education to the gypsies. Previously famous and existing dance groups have inspired the formation of new dance programs as well as the establishment of NGOs comprised of gypsies that are taking a stance against social problems such as drug use. There are also incentives for empowering women while not breaking traditions. Still, more change and governmental activity is needed in the future. Debates are raised in prime time television to make people aware of existing problems and to search for solutions within the general public, the gypsies and the government.


1. [Bessonov, N. Demetr, N. "History of the Russian Roma." Private Life. Konodyuk Olga, 08/03/2008. Web. 28 Jun 2011. <>.]

2. Bessonov, N. The History of the Roma- A new view. Voronesh: Rossijskaya Akademiya Nauk, 2000. eBook.

3. Bessonov, N.W. "The Roma." Art SPB, 2002. Web. 26 Jul 2011. <>.

4. Maloveryan, Jurij. "Why Russians stopped sympathising the Roma." BBC Russia 06/07/2009: n. pag. Web. 26 Jul 2011

5. Bessonov, N. The History of the Roma- A new view. Voronesh: Rossijskaya Akademiya Nauk, 2000. eBook.

6. Maloveryan, Jurij. "Why Russians stopped sympathising the Roma." BBC Russia 06/07/2009: n. pag. Web. 26 Jul 2011

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