As a child I remember my mother trying to shield
me from view as she was giving some old clothes to a woman who had just
knocked on the door. It was a Gypsy, I was told, one of those people I
was strictly prohibited from ever getting near to on the street. As those
mysterious creatures passed through my small, southern Russian town, the
"proper" inhabitants of the community enthusiastically whispered to each
other thrilling stories about stolen children.
No less enthusiastically did I and a bunch of other little girls prepare
Gypsy costumes for a New Year's party at my kindergarten and, sporting
our bright long skirts and shawls, shake our thin shoulders in what was
supposed to be a Gypsy dance. Later, as a teen-ager yearning for true love,
I shared the awe of women throughout the Soviet Union for the unforgettable
film Tabor ukhodit v nebo (A Gypsy Camp Leaves for the Sky)-a romantic
and, of course, tragic story of two beautiful and proud Romani lovers who
refused to compromise their freedom and chose to die to remain together.
Passionate songs sung in low, husky voices reached for the heart, stirring
up anguish, remorse, and longing for the ideal.
Those two extremes-fear of the alien-looking people to whom, rumor had
it, black magic and thievery were not unknown, and admiration for their
perceived free and proud spirit and disregard of human vanities-have dominated
attitudes toward Roma in Russia for centuries. While Roma have been simultaneously
disdained and romanticized by every European people with which they have
interacted, nowhere have those attitudes been more equally balanced than
Roma made profound impacts on the musical cultures of many European
nations, particularly in the form of Spanish flamenco and Hungarian instrumental
music. But nowhere was their contribution as integral to the national musical
tradition as in Russia, where a genre of Romani choral singing unique to
Russia dominated the development of what were called the "little musical
forms" in the late 18th century and 19th century. Spurred partly by the
fascination Russian writers had with Romani performers, the romantic Romani
theme became a regular feature in the classics of Russian literature.
To a great extent the Roma became hostages of their own music and to
the images that built up around them, which stemmed partly from the imagination
of Russian romantics and partly from the mystery in which Roma surrounded
themselves as a defense against persecution. The two popular stereotypes
of Roma-as passionate and proud freedom lovers, and as cunning and daring
thieves-reflected more on the Russian character than on that of the Roma,
who in fact lived in conservative tribal societies according to ancient
laws and customs. As Yefim Druts and Aleksei Gessler wrote in their 1990
book Tsygane (The Gypsies), Romani self-perceptions had little to
do with either of the two prevailing stereotypes.
The Aristocrat's Favorites
Roma entered the area that became the Russian empire
relatively late-in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, from Europe,
central Asia, and the Caucasus. Starting with a 1733 decree by Empress
Anna Ioannovna, Peter the Great's niece, Russian rulers tried to turn Roma
into humble subjects and obedient taxpayers by binding them to the land.
But anti-Roma legislation in Russia was not so harsh as elsewhere in Europe,
partly because of the difficulty of tracking down nomads in Russia's enormous
land mass, but perhaps more importantly because of the unique role of Romani
performing arts in Russian society.
The development of Romani choral singing is chronicled in Taisia Shcherbakova's
1984 book on Romani performing arts. As early as the reign of Peter the
Great, Roma were employed as entertainers at courtly masquerades. In the
late 18th century, Count Orlov organized the first Romani chorus from his
Romani serfs, headed by Ivan Sokolov. In 1807, Orlov freed the artists
and they became the first professional chorus in Russia. The group included
the famous Stepanida Soldatova, compared by her admirers to an Italian
diva of the time. Initially, the repertoire of the Romani choruses consisted
mainly of Russian folk songs, given new life by a Romani style of performance
that heightened the songs' tense, emotional tone.
The golden age of Romani choral music lasted until the 1850s and coincided
with the period of romanticism in Russian culture. In Shcherbakova's words,
the contemporaries of Aleksandr Pushkin and Mikhail Glinka dreamt of music
as the language of passion and freedom, and Romani songs, as well as the
Gypsy theme in literature, reflected the romantics' quest for new forms
of expression that would open the heavens. While Roma did their best as
performers, listeners heard what they wanted to hear.
As Romani choruses became part of Russian urban life, Roma featured
in many literary works, either in episodes of longer works, as in Leo Tolstoy's
and Peace, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, and Ivan
Shmelev's Puti nebesnye (Heavenly Ways), or as main characters,
such as in Pushkin's Tsygany (The Gypsies) or Tolstoy's Dva gusara
(Two Hussars). At the turn of the 19th century, before devoting himself
to socialist realism, Maxim Gorky paid tribute to romanticism with his
Chudra, a beautiful short novel later used as the foundation for the
film Tabor ukhodit v nebo.
A closer look at the lives of Romani choral singers
reveals that the stereotype of a Rom as a passionate, free individual was
somewhat irrelevant. A chorus, like any Romani camp, functioned according
to harsh tribal rules with their rigid hierarchies and conservative traditions.
All members were obliged to surrender their earnings to the community,
although all also shared in the profits according to their contributions.
Female Romani soloists often became victims of their own success. Numerous
affairs between Romani artists and Russian aristocrats created a stereotype
of those women as easygoing and free with their love. Pavel Nashchokin,
a close friend of Pushkin, married a Romani singer, as did Tolstoy's uncle,
brother, and son, and many other prominent men of high society. Yet the
popular stereotype was in stark contrast to the Romani women's strict upbringing
to be obedient and humble wives. Many of the unions could not withstand
the disapproval of both Russian and Romani conventional society. While
the Russian men were usually forgiven their eccentric affairs, their Romani
wives and mistresses were often left ostracized and abandoned to die in
By the early 20th century, the fame of Russian
Romani choruses became international, and a chorus led by Nikolai Shishkin
performed at the prestigious Trocadero Hall during the Paris Exhibition.
Yet the art of Romani choral singing was showing signs of decline. Following
the fashion, the folk songs in Romani repertoires gave way to a new form
of urban song: romances. Written by such leading Russian composers as Peter
Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rakhmaninov, to name but a few, and performed by
well-known Romani soloists such as Varvara Panina, they became extremely
popular. However, their success also encouraged numerous weaker imitations,
bringing to life yet another stereotype of Romani performing art as sentimental
Meanwhile, Russian peasants had built up an image of Roma as cunning
thieves and liars through their dealings with Romani horse traders and
craftsmen. But in many Russian folk tales, Romani characters are featured
as insolent, cunning, and resourceful, yet hardly evil individuals. Moreover,
while a Romani horse thief, if caught, would almost certainly be beaten
to death, a successful horse thief was traditionally held in awe. In the
popular mind, stealing a horse was not exactly a crime but an ultimate
expression of one's bravery and heroic recklessness-qualities traditionally
highly regarded by the Russians.
Displaced by the Soaps
The Bolshevik revolution dealt a powerful blow
to the traditional Romani way of life. As the entertainers of the "bourgeoisie,"
Romani choruses were dispersed and often became the subject of persecution
by the Proletkult, an organization whose activists aimed at liquidating
all pre-revolutionary culture as "useless." Many artists were swept up
by the powerful wave of emigration, and found themselves performing in
a handful of restaurants in Paris that catered mainly to former Russian
aristocrats and military men now holding such jobs as taxi driver or porter.
Together with Cossack dancers, the Romani performers helped foster the
stereotype of the "mysterious Russian soul" with sad songs, fiery dances,
heavy drinking, and smashing glasses in a frenzied, what-the-hell gesture.
Back in Soviet Russia, the surviving artists ended up in the Studio
of Old Gypsy Art, the Gypsy attraction at the State Circus, or the ethnographic
theater at the Russian Museum in Leningrad. A new professional Romani theater,
Romen, was established in Moscow in 1931 and has survived to this day.
In the 1960s and 1970s, members such as Nikolai Erdenko and Nikolai Slichenko
were among the most popular performers in the Soviet Union. In the 1930s,
in another attempt to bind nomadic Roma to land, the authorities tried
to organize them into collective farms. By 1941, 41 such collectives, uniting
less than 6 percent of the Roma, were established, mainly in the western
parts of the country. Most of those farms' members died in mass executions
during German occupation.
Under the Soviet regime, old Romani stereotypes
continued to be propagated through a new genre of cinematography. Among
the all-time favorites is a 1967 film Tsygan (Gypsy) by Yevgenii
Matveev, which tells the story of a Romani family during World War II.
While the father is away in the army, his wife is killed by a German tank,
and a surviving little boy is adopted by a Russian peasant woman. After
the war, the father comes home to his village and works as a smith but
does not reveal his identity in order not to disturb his son's new family.
True to the literary tradition, the main Romani character is passionate
and noble in nature.
In a 1970s romantic serial about four youngsters fighting for the "proletarian
cause" during the Russian civil war, Tsygan, a cool and adroit character,
commanded particular admiration from the young audience. Later came Tabor
and Eldar Ryazanov's brilliant 1986 film adaptation of Nikolai Ostrovskii's
play Bespridannitsa (A Girl Without a Dowry). In the film, titled
romans (Brutal Romance) after a popular genre of Romani songs, Romani
music and dance serve as the crucial foundation for a fluttering and permeating
narrative. Sadly, during the years of perestroika, the role of "Gypsy-style"
romantic tragedies in popular culture was taken over by American and Latin
American soap operas.
In contemporary Russia, the Gypsy theme does not
feature prominently in either the arts or in politics. While Central Europeans
heatedly debate the "Gypsy problem," in Russia the issue is marginal. Roma
are, of course, still subject to prejudice in Russia but not as severely
as in Central Europe, and even Russian ultranationalists are generally
far more worried about Caucasians than about Roma. The bad news is that
the traditional performing arts of the Russian Roma could soon be lost