(Research and Translation by Adrian Chan-Wyles)
The Roma (often referred to as ‘Gypsies’ due to a false belief they originated in Egypt), have lived a nomadic lifestyle for centuries, migrating across Europe from Asia. As they have kept their distinctive language and culture, many Roma communities have remained outside of the civic society within which they entered. As they remained ‘unknown’ by the host communities they entered, the Roma were often misrepresented as ‘evil’, ‘pagan’, ‘disruptive’ and ‘criminal’. This has led to many Roma being permanently ostracized from the mainstream society of the countries they roamed about within. The host communities have generally acted with disdain toward the Roma (a name that appears to have originated from the fact that these originally Asian people once migrated into Europe through Romania), inflicting all kinds of punishment against them. Over the centuries, this persecution has taken on the dimensions of a deliberate pogrom inflicted by the settled (Christian) populations of Europe against the nomadic populations that comprise the Roma. As these people are essentially powerless, they respond with all kinds of disruptive behaviour designed to unsettle and upset the host communities they travel through.
Within Czarist Russia, the Roma were generally despised by the Russian Orthodox Church, and of by the peasantry and the aristocracy, although in the case of the peasants, this was not always the case. Sometimes local communities had very good ongoing relations with the Roma throughout the year, a positive relationship that survived the tumultuous changes ushered in by the Russian October Revolution of 1917. With the Roma declared ‘equal’ and ‘free’, many were encouraged to join special Roma collectivized farms, or settled down in special areas that catered to handicraft manufacture. Some other Roma continued to migrate, and this was tolerated by the Soviet State, with the caveat that it was thought that Roma children should receive a State education (like all Soviet children), free of charge. This is similar to the Evenk nomads living in the North of Russia – the raindeer herders who nomadically traversed the land despite the Soviet State building special towns especially for the use of the Evenk. Of course, anti-Soviet propaganda (from the West) has falsely suggested that hundreds of Roma were ‘ethnically cleansed’ from Moscow and Leningrad (in 1933) and exiled to Siberia, but there is no evidence of this within Soviet historical records. It also does not make any dialectical sense. On the one hand we are told the Soviet State would rather the Roma ‘settle’ in towns and cities, whilst simultaneously suggesting that the Soviet State was so corrupt that it also ‘punished’ any Roma that ‘settled’ in towns and cities!
As matters transpired, the Soviet reforms proved very popular amongst the Roma populations across the USSR, which saw many thousands volunteer to serve in the Soviet Red Army, Red Airforce, Red Artillery, frontline medicine, reconnaissance and even the Red Cavalry. This activity was motivated by the fact that Hitler having come to power in Germany in 1933, began an immediate policy of persecution of the ‘lower races’. Along with the Jews, the Roma were also persecuted. Since the mid-1930s, they were sterilized, later placed in Concentration Camps, and in the territories occupied by the fascists they simply destroyed. When the German troops invaded the territory of the USSR, the Soviet Roma did not hesitate to consider whether they should take up arms. Settled Roma attached to military registration and enlistment offices, among others, went to the front. Representatives of nomadic camps also heeded the call. Many Roma came to the assembly points as volunteers, and also went to the front line. They not only loved their Soviet homeland, but also understood that if Hitler won, their lives would be over.
Of vital importance was the (Roma) Soviet sniper – Victor Belyakov (Виктора Белякова) – who fought on the Western Front, who killed many fascists with well-aimed shots. Indeed, the Commander of his Regiment reported to General Andrey Stuchenko (in the summer of 1942): “ThIS month he did not leave the frontline, on account that he had only killed 50 Nazi Germans. He does not want to leave until he reaches 100 confirmed kills. He does not have a father; and his mother works at the ‘Roman’ Theatre.” The Roman Theatre put on performances not only in Moscow, but also on the frontline, keeping the morale of the Red Army, and when touring raising funnds for the war effort. Indeed, so much money was raised (75,000 rubles) that Joseph Stalin sent a telegram thanking the Staff for their efforts (whilst they were performing in Vladivosto)! The money was used to construct a bomber aircraft. The Roma Theatre went on to raise 500,000 more rubles for the war effort!
At the initiative of General he was awarded the Order of the Red Star. By July 1943, according to Victor’s personal log, there were 206 exterminated fascists. At the sniper’s training lectures, Belyakov told his colleagues how to entice the enemy out from behind cover. Noticing the congestion of the Germans, Victor asked the Command to open mortar fire along the trenches of the enemy. The Nazis in fright jumped out of the trenches and fell into the sight of a sniper.
The Roma sniper went through the war and stayed alive. He was awarded medals for ‘Courage’ and for ‘Military Merit”. In 1968, after the publication of the book of memoirs by General Stuchenko, the employees of the theatre ‘Roman’ found Victor Belyakov in the Moscow region, and invited him to a meeting with the theatre troupe.
It is difficult to calculate how many Roma were awarded with orders and medals in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), because many of them in the lists of military units (premised upon passports) were listed as Tatars, Ukrainians, Moldovans or Russians. Only one Hero of the Soviet Union was listed specially as ‘Roma’ in documents – a Red Marine named Timothy Prokofiev (Тимофей Прокофьев), who received the title posthumously.
Despite having a reserved occupation in the workplace, Timothy volunteered in 1942 for the front after the death of his brother. As part of the Black Sea Fleet’s troops, he defended Lesser Land, seized the Kerch Bridgehead, was twice seriously wounded, but refused to leave his unit and go to the hospital.
During the Odessa Operation on March 26, 1944, a Soviet landing was made in Nikolaev. Prokofiev with 67 other fighters, repelled 18 enemy attacks over two days. The landing force destroyed about 700 fascists. Prokofiev shot at the enemies with the machine gun. He was mortally wounded in the head by a sniper. When two fascists approached him, the dying sailor gathered his strength and shot them with the last of his energy (and the last rounds of his ammunition). Other brave Roma returned from the fronts of the Great Patriotic War with orders: Pilot Murachkovsky (Мурачковские), Artilleryman Massalsky (Массальский), and Tankman Menshikov (Меньшиков).
The Hitlerites ruthlessly destroyed the Roma in the occupied territories. Up to 80% of the Roma population were killed in German-occupied areas of the Soviet Union. Those who managed to hide from the fascists went to the partisans.
Roma Polya Morazevskaya (Поля Моразевская) fought in a partisan detachment in the Smolensk forests. As a young girl, shewalked the roads and villages with a baby in her arms – the image of a young mother should have attracted little attention from the Nazi Germans, but as she walked she collected information on the number and movements of Nazi German troops. After she was captured by the Nazis, she and her child were burned alive in a factory furnace.
Roma also fought against the Nazis outside the territory of the USSR. The French Roma Arman Stenger commanded a partisan detachment, and after the D-Day Landings, he joined the Allies in Normandy. He was not only awarded Orders of France and Britain, but also headed the Association of Roma after the war.
Many Roma in Croatia and Serbia joined the partisan movement of the People’s Liberation Front. Albanian Roma-underground Hazani Brahim conducted a successful sabotage campaign, having destroyed a German warehouse with large reserves of fuel and military vehicles. Tomas Farkas also gathered a partisan detachment of Roma and Slovaks and successfully commanded them.
Resistance did not abate in captivity either. In the German Concentration Camp – Plachchow – near Krakow, four Roma prisoners from the USSR were hanged by the fascists for the murder of camp staff. Lisa Papas (Лиза Папас), Anyuta Tsekhovich (Анюта Цехович), Rosa Timofei (Роза Тимофей) and Klasha Ivanova (Клаша Иванова) had dealt with three sadistic Nazi guards.
Surprisingly, on the side of the Third Reich, Roma sometimes fought. German boxing champion Johann Trolmann was sterilized in 1938, and then drafted into the Nazi German Army. After being wounded in 1941, Trolmann was sent to the Concentration Camp, where he was killed by the SS sometime during February 1943. The Hungarian Roma Gyorgy Tsifra was drafted in 1942 and sent to the German front – first to the infantry, then as a tankmen. The Roma did not want to fight for those who destroyed his fellow tribesmen, and soon deserted. After the war, Tsifra became a famous pianist.
Every year on April 8th, Roma come to the Moscow River – on International Roma Day- and they remember their relatives who died during World War II, throwing fresh flowers into the water. According to various estimates, the Nazis Germans killed from 500 thousand to a million Roma, including 200 to 500 thousand Roma from the Soviet Union. The only monument in the world for the loss of the nomadic people is in Berlin. With special respect, the Roma of Russia remember those brothers who fell with their weapons in the fight against Nazism. Their names are forever inscribed in the Memory Books along with hundreds of thousands of Russians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs and other citizens of the USSR.
Original Russian Language Reference: