Elena Marushiakova is a historian and ethnographer of Slovak and Russian descent, working in the fields of Roma studies, Eastern European ethnography, Slavic studies, as well as ethnic and minority themes, and nation-building. She works as a Research Professor in the School of History at the University of St Andrews, she is the winner of numerous awards and the author and co-author of numerous publications. With her associate and husband Veselin Popov, she conducted numerous ethnographic field researches on Roma, and for the last six years, they have been working on the topic of Roma civic emancipation in Central, South-Eastern, and Eastern Europe until the beginning of the Second World War. The outcome of their work can be seen in their book Roma Voices in History: A Source Book. Roma Civic Emancipation in Central, South-Eastern and Eastern Europe from 19th Century until the Second World War, which is freely available on the Internet, as well as in the book edited by members of their team Roma Writtings. Romani Literature and Press in Central, South-Eastern and Eastern Europe from the 19th Century until World War II. and the forthcoming book Roma Portraits in History. Roma Civic Emancipation Elite in Central, South-Eastern and Eastern Europe from the 19th Century until World War II.
I spoke with Elena Marushiakova, who together with Popov presented the results of her work at the international conference “Roma as the Indian Diaspora – Unbreakable Ties”, in which the Roma are presented as an integral part of the mainstream of history, and the Roma social-political visions as an integral part of modern political thought in Europe.
In your work, you look at Roma not only as passive recipients of policy measures but also as active architects of their own lives. Can you tell us briefly how the process of your research has gone over the last few years and share perhaps the most interesting finding you came across during your research process?
Unlike our previous research, most of which was ethnographic and included fieldwork with and among Roma, our current topic is historical. It means, above all, working in libraries and archives in the countries of the region, and in many cases, often with local collaborators. A particular focus of both of us is work in Russia. The special challenge here is an extremely big amount of materials that have hardly been worked on so far. Just one example. Two Roma journals were published in the USSR, Романи зоря (Romani zorya) and Нево дром (Nevo drom). These are a total of 28 journal numbers, 40-50 pages each, entirely in Romani language. In addition to this, more than 250 different types of books in the Romani language were published. So far no one has used seriously this wealth of information as a source base, mostly because of the lack of knowledge of the Romani language.
In general, it is an absurd situation, according to us, that many scholars involved in Roma research do not speak and read Romani. I can’t imagine having, for example, a German scholar who doesn’t speak German and doesn’t read sources in this language, in Italian studies who don’t speak Italian, etc.
In parentheses, the question of sources is particularly interesting. It is often said that there is not enough material on the history of the Roma in the archives available and what is there only represents the position of the majority towards the Roma and Roma voices are missing from written history. This is not true, it’s just because not enough research was done yet, and not even the known sources are used and no serious efforts have been made to search for unknown sources. And this is perhaps the most interesting finding we came across during our research process – there are an incredibly huge amount of sources, including different types of documents written by Roma themselves, including printed materials, that are preserved in different archives and which we were able to discover. In Romania, for example in the 1930s, 6 Roma newspapers were published, some reaching more than 70 issues. So far, they have not even been described as bibliographic data, let alone any more serious work with them as a source. So, there is enough historical material, but it is needed to motivate more and more people to work to discover, describe and analyze them.
In your research, did you come across data that speak to the idea of a Roma state? How did relations on the world political scene before World War II influence the civic emancipation of the Roma?
For us, the topic of creating a Roma state is also particularly interesting, and we have made great efforts to find materials in this direction.
- Austria-Hungary, Romania, North Macedonia
The beginnings of this idea date back to the 19th century, in Austria-Hungary, where several Roma raised the issue of creating a “Gypsy Vojvodina” as a Roma autonomous territory within the empire. Such is the case with the Roma leader Nikola Mihailo Mali from Banat during the 1848 revolution; some Roma in Neudörfl (today in Burgenland, Austria), who sent in 1850 a deputation to the Kaiser to deliver a Petition for National Equality; Roma leaders Janos Kaldaras and Sava Mihaly, from Bihor (now Romania), who applied to the Hungarian Royal Office for a separate territorial-administrative unit for Roma. During this period, Iliya Naumchev from Prilep (now in the Republic of Northern Macedonia) wrote a letter in 1867 to the editor of the Bulgarian newspaper Macedonia, published in Istanbul, a letter in which, along with demands for a Roma national Orthodox Church and Roma schools, hinted clearly enough for the desire of the Roma to create “their own society”, i.e. your country.
While so far it was only about ideas for a future Roma state (at least in the form of an autonomous region), in the early USSR real steps are already being taken to create such a state, inscribed in Soviet realities in the form of the “Gypsy Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic”. This idea was first proposed in 1926 by the leaders of the “All-Russian Union of Gypsies”, President Andrei Taranov and Secretary Ivan Lebedev (the future Rom-Lebedev, a famous artist at the famous Theater Romen and author of more than 10 theatrical plays performed there). In their letters to various Soviet institutions, they have repeatedly suggested that free territory be granted in the North Caucasus region to create compact settlements for Roma nomads. At first, the Soviet authorities did not pay much attention to the idea. Everything changed in the 1930s after the establishment of the Jewish autonomous oblast in 1934, which demonstrated that it is possible to create a national-territorial unit even for peoples who had not lived compactly before, as is the case with the Roma in the USSR).
The main driver of the idea of creating a Roma autonomous republic was the Rom Ivan Tokmakov, who worked as an instructor in the apparatus of the All-Union Central Executive Committee. At his initiative, in early 1936, a special meeting was held at the Council of Nationalities, attended by representatives of all central Soviet institutions working with the Roma, as well as Roma activists, including representatives of the so-called Gypsy national collective farms (kolkhozes) established in dozens of places in the country. The meeting decided to create a national region for the Roma (initially a region to grow into a district, and finally into a republic) and started working in this direction. In the process of work, however, contradictions arose between the various Soviet institutions over the location of the future Roma national unit. Roma activists and some institutions (primarily the All-Union Central Executive Committee) insisted that this be the North Caucasus (one of the richest regions in the USSR), where the so-called Gypsy National Village Council and the collective farm Труд Ромэн (Trud Romen – Labour of Roma) were already established and well functioned. Both were headed by Rom, Mikhail Bezlyudsky, who was specially sent there from Moscow, and he was actively involved in preparing for the future republic.
The work of the collective farm was widely covered in the press in the Soviet Union and also abroad; it was visited by Western journalists, new homes were built, and even two newspapers were published in the Romani language there – Пал о болшевистско колхозо (Pal o bolshevistsko kolkhozo, about the Bolshevik’s Kolkhoz) and Сталинцо(Stalintso – Stalinist). Other institutions, however, have proposed new regions for the Roma Republic, most notably in the West Siberian region, where local authorities have agreed to allocate vacant land in exchange for future investment. This preparatory activity was also stopped, this time by the radical turn in the national policy of the Soviet state in the late 1930s, after which the process of the so-called national construction ceased. Shortly after breaking out the World War II; Ivan Tokmakov died at the front (although he was discharged from military service due to his age he participated as a volunteer in the Red Army), and after the war, the question of a Roma territorial administrative unit was no longer raised.
The case in Poland in the 1930s with the so-called “Gypsy Kings” from the Kwiek family (from the Kelderari group) is widely known. During this period, for such “kings” were declared successively Michał the First Kwiek, Grzegorz the First Kwiek, Dymitr Kwiek, Michał the Second Kwiek, Wasyl Kwiek and Janusz Kwiek. In their public statements, widely disseminated through the media (both in Poland and around the world), the Roma Kings advocated the creation of an independent state for Roma from around the world, and claimed to have appealed to several international institutions and national governments of colonial states. to allocate a separate territory for such a state. For the place of the future state, they pointed to different regions across the world: Asia (in India), Africa (in Egypt, Abyssinia, Eritrea, Somalia, Uganda, Namibia) and South America. The main problem with the study of the activities of Roma kings is that during the Second World War the State Archives in Poland burned down, and about the activities of “Gypsy Kings” we can judge mainly by press releases that emphasize the sensational aspects of the case.
So there is no other historical evidence as if any other real action was really taken behind this mass public (self-) advertising, or whether all this media noise was not just to raise their public prestige and positions before local authorities.
When we talk about the idea of a Roma state, it should be noted that over the years, during our work among Roma from the countries that inherited the former Yugoslavia, as well as among migrants abroad, we have repeatedly heard different versions of stories about Marshal Tito’s intention to create a Roma republic within the SFRY. Unfortunately, not all archives in the former Yugoslavia are freely available, and at this stage, we cannot be certain whether this is only a folklore legend or whether these Roma narratives have any real basis.
Which part of Europe can we talk about as the first attempts at civic emancipation?
In general, it can be said that the ideas and activities in the direction of Roma civic emancipation originated and developеd in the region of Central, South-Eastern and Eastern Europe. This is quite logical because this is the region where the nationalism of the modern era was born and developed, in the conditions of the three great multinational empires at that time – the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian. The Roma are part of the population in this region, for the most part, they are at least to some extent socially integrated (unlike their counterparts in the West who stand on the fringes of society), and their history is part of the overall history of the region. In this situation, it is natural that the Roma elite (traditional or emerging) was influenced by the spirit of the era, by the ideas spread in the public space, which Roma leaders refracted and adapted according to the needs of their community.
The situation in the region of Central, South-Eastern and Eastern Europe changed radically after the end of the First World War. In place of multinational empires, new (or not so new, but significantly expanding their territories) existing ethnonational states emerged. The Roma did not create their own nation-state; moreover, they have not included anywhere among the national minorities defined by the so-called Versailles system of international relations. During the period between the two world wars, the leading aim of the movement for Roma civic emancipation was no longer the development of the community in the direction of its construction as a separate nation; in the frames of nation-states, this goal was already the equality of the community within the civic nation to which the Roma in the individual state belonged (i.e. the development of the Roma as an integral part of society). That is why a new type of civil society organization started to be established in the countries of the whole region, which became the main drivers of the movement for Roma civic emancipation.
It is not uncommon in the history of political and civic movements to often neglect the role of women and that their contributions and active role are often invisible. What can you tell us about the role of Roma women in the civic emancipation movement?
Roma women did not take a direct part in the early stages of the movement (until the First World War), which was entirely dominated and led by Roma men. This is understandable, in the Roma patriarchal tradition, men are the ones who publicly express themselves as leaders of the family and the community. This situation began to change in the period between the two world wars and Roma women gradually entered the field of Roma civic emancipation.
The first breakthrough in this direction was made in the early 20th century, in Finland, at that time a vassal principality of the Russian Empire. In the city of Vyborg in 1905, Roma woman Anna Sofia Schwartz opened the first Roma School, where she became a teacher. Another Roma woman, Ida Blomerus (called Chingardy-Ora), established a Roma educational children’s home in 1913 in Sortavala.
Along with the formation of Finland as an independent state at the end of 1917, a national Roma organization, the Finnish Roma Civilization Society, headed by Roma woman, Ida Blomerus, was established, which was in fact the first Roma civic organization of a new type in the interwar period.
There is also evidence of the participation of women in the leadership and activities of the national Roma civil society organizations in Romania. A clear example of this was Florica Constantinescu, who in 1933 was elected head of the Women’s Section within the General Union of Roma in Romania. In this position, she is active in various fields related to the education of Roma children and the social support of poor Roma families. Also Roma woman activist was Marta Lăzurică, wife of Gheorghe A. Lazărescu-Lăzurică, head of the General Union of Roma Association, who was General Secretary of the Women’s Section of the Association. In an interview in 1938, she described herself as a “Czechoslovak Roma, who speaks five languages”.
An interesting phenomenon in Bulgaria was the development of the evangelical movement among the Roma, who created their own, the so-called Gypsy Baptist Church in the 1920s in the village of Golintsi (near Lom), as well as the Gypsy Woman Christian Association ‘Romni’ in 1927.
In the USSR, in 1925 an “All Russian Union of Gypsies” was created, headed by Andrei Taranov and Ivan Rom-Lebedev. Nina Dudarova, Roma woman from Leningrad, a graduate of the Institute for Teacher Training, was in the leadership of the union. She was among the organizers of the establishment of the Commission, which developed the first standardized and officially adopted alphabet in the Romani language (based on the Cyrillic alphabet) in 1927 and together with Nikolay Pankov, she represented Roma in this commission. For more than 10 years she has been teaching Romani in the so-called The first the so-called Gypsy School in Moscow and is the author of more than several textbooks and teaching aids for learning the Romani language. Another prominent Roma activist during this period was Olga Pankova, who was not only a talented poet who has published several collections of poetry in the Romani language but also the author of a number of materials on the problems of the Romani woman. From her published texts we can see, that she considered one of the main tasks of Roma’s activism the fight against double discrimination against Roma women (in the society and the family) – a topic that continues to be relevant today.
We always, and with good reason, mention the first World Romani Congress. Finally, how do you describe this first in a series of congressional sessions marked by the need for international unity and self-definition?
The topic of the first World Romani Congress is extremely important. This congress is the starting point for a new stage in the development of the movement for Roma civic emancipation, and it marks its transition to a new level, namely the breaking of its limitations within national borders, and the formation of the international Roma movement. This topic, as well as the topic of contemporary dimensions (and problems) of Roma civic activism, requires more time, and it is better to leave them for another conversation in the future. I would just like to say at the end of this interview that the history of Roma civic emancipation is not a continuous process, there are periods of prosperity and certain successes, but there are also periods of stagnation and even bans by the authorities on any activities in this direction. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why often every generation of Roma activists thinks that history starts with them. In this sense, the history of the Roma civic emancipation before the Second World War could be the basis for a critical rethinking of permanent ongoing debates within contemporary Romani activism because, as a famous aphorism stated: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.