Why do Gypsies* choose segregation

Rita Bondar

Currently there has been much controversy in the post-Soviet countries over the correct use of the word ‘Gypsies’ concerning the Roma community. While if in Ukraine this word has a negative connotation, and the Gypsies in the media space are referred to as ‘Roma’, in Russia the word ‘Gypsies’ does not carry a negative connotation. Therefore, in this article, we will refer to this ethnic group as ‘Gypsies’. The author thinks that both names are correct, and the appropriateness of the use of a word depends only on whether specific representatives of communities like it or not. .

When we say ‘Ukraine’, we mean ‘a country inhabited by Ukrainians who speak the Ukrainian language’. When we say ‘Ukrainian’, we mean ‘the language that the Russian Empire and the USSR tried to remove for several centuries’. When we say ‘the USSR’, we mean the Empire that for many years humiliated the national dignity of Ukrainians. When we say "Holodomor", we mean the systematic genocide of Ukrainians by Russia-the-top of the ‘Empire-the USSR’. But when we say ‘West’, we say ‘bright future’. Rather, it is the only potential future of the country and the only acceptable turn in the history of the state. When the national elite says ‘West’, we vote for it. We vote slightly, with the hope of preserving the ghostly ‘traditional values’. For a long time, we fearfully apply rainbow paint to the arch of ‘Fraternity of peoples’, so that in a couple of weeks we can wash it off just as fearfully and for a long time. When the President or any other authorities say ‘the European Union’, it means that he wants to cause (or at least not lose) the trust of the public. When Petro Poroshenko felt that his ratings in the presidential race were rapidly flying down, the words ‘NATO’ and ‘the European Union’ sounded from the stands more often. When we say ‘Russia’, ‘Russian Empire’ or ‘USSR’, we mean a huge country — a colonial Empire in different conditions. When we say ‘West’, we do not feel the same. ‘The West’ for us is freedom of action, freedom of speech, movement, and thought. This is stability and development, a well-deserved reward for several centuries of suffering and humiliation. And even when we think about the deportation of Crimean Tatars, we often talk about it in the context of our nationality. We speak of this as ‘a crime against the Ukrainian people’, even if it is not really about Ukrainians. ‘Crimean Tatar’ in this case is considered as an ethnic group belonging to Ukraine. In any other — as an ethnic group that is not ‘Ukrainian’ in its essence. We can say that the person who talks about deportation removes the Crimean Tatars from their ethnic group, speaks of them only as a ‘part of the population of Ukraine that was selected’. As if this part of the population ‘belongs’ to Ukraine. Today's representation of the topic of the deportation of Crimean Tatars in Ukrainian society is seen as ‘another crime of the Soviet government’ rather than as a tragedy of a particular people living on the territory of Ukraine. Because Crimean Tatars are not Ukrainians. Crimean Tatars are people with a different religion, traditions, language, and social structure from the Ukrainian one. We can say that the Crimean Tatars have nothing ‘Ukrainian’ in addition to the territory in which they live. When discussing the Holodomor, we say ‘the tragedy of the Ukrainian people’, ‘the tragedy of Ukrainians’. We often ignore the fact that Jews, Gypsies, Germans, Bulgarians, Moldovans, Russians, and many other nationalities who lived on the territory of Ukraine at that time also suffered from the Holodomor. And if we don't even ignore it, then at least we don't express it. Thus, the sympathy for the tragedy of the Crimean Tatars causes to the Maidan and post-Maidan famous saying “памʼятай, чужинець, тут господар — українець” (remember, a stranger, a person of another nationality, here the owner is Ukrainian), applicable to all except Ukrainians. But it is best applied to the Gypsies, who have never had the opportunity to fit into the life of Ukrainian society, and still do not have it. And if something can't fit into the model that everyone has in common, it starts to live its own life. This is what happened to the Gypsy community.

Children with many children, bullying, and the Gypsy homeland

The 2001 census showed that  most Gypsies who live on the territory of Ukraine historically chose Transcarpathia. In addition, of all the regions, the Transcarpathia region is the most loyal to them. However, Ukrainians are relatively tolerant of such a neighborhood, but this attitude does not extend to problems of education and employment. For example, about 75% of Ukrainian Gypsies do not know how to read and write. Of all children sent to school by their parents, only 30% receive a secondary school certificate. It is difficult to say that only the local authorities are to blame for this: there are very strong stereotypes among the Gypsies, for example, that women do not need to get an education. Many girls give birth to their first (and far from last) children at the age of 13-14. Next, the household, family, husband, and authoritative relatives occupy the main (if not all) time in a woman's life. With boys, it is a little more difficult: from childhood, they are raised as future heads of families, children from the rich backgrounds are most often involved in the business of their fathers, from the lowest — they start families early and go to work in menial jobs. To the reasonable question ‘What prevents them from getting an education?’ Sergey Grigorichenko, the head of the civil organization ‘Terne Roma’, ellaborates:

...The main reason why Roma children do not go to school is xenophobia. Roma do

not go to school because they are bullied there. And not only children but also teachers are suffering from that... Roma children went to break like monkeys from a circus. Everyone began to bully them. Then we were forced to change the schedule a little so that lessons and breaks did not coincide with other children... With a teacher who taught Roma children in an experimental class, no one wanted to hang clothes in the same closet.

The high level of poverty of the region encourages labor migration, migration encourages xenophobia and ethnic violence, and violence causes fear and even greater isolation of people within their ethnic group. To understand the way Gypsies live during migration and ‘at home’, I observed the life of several groups during the spring-summer of 2018.

The Rusanovsky gardens

Kyiv, spring

I usually wait a long time for the bus at noon. There are many people, and there are two more live queues at the bus stop with me. One queue ends right at the place where the first door of the bus should stop, while the second one stands at a distance. Brown women and children, crowd with large bouquets of tulips and daffodils, they smoke, make noise, and laugh. Small children hold their mothers’ hands, hang around their necks, play catch-up, and pester passers-by. Their settlement is now raging with measles, so today there are half as many of them as usual.

People take their seats. A brown old woman sits down by the window, with an empty seat next to her, but no one wants to sit next to the Gypsy. I sit down next to her, and we move.

Every day there people move between the metro station “Levoberezhnaya” and the nearest bus stop to it. Gypsy women sell flowers at stalls with fruit and cigarettes, one saleswoman replaces another, tulips are replaced by daffodils, from seven in the morning until late at night.

These people and I live next door, and I see them every day in this cramped, single bus that goes where we need to go. A week later, I am completely charmed, take the camera and go to meet them. The Rusanovsky Gardens are just coming to life after a long winter, country roads, dug by car wheels, all in huge puddles and snowmelt. The mud sticks to my shoes, and I don't know where I'm going, but I know I'm going to ask questions of the first person I meet.

I meet a woman, but she doesn't want to talk to me. Crowds of children scream and hide when they see a man with a camera on the horizon. A boy sits on the roof of a tumble-down house, sees me, shouts "mom, mom!" and disappears. I see his mother — she's probably the same age as me or a few years older. The girl shouts at me to leave and hides the children. I am moving on.

Rusanovsky Gardens consists of one main street (Sadovaya) and 34 more lines crossing it. On lines 25-26, there are country houses whose residents were evicted in 2011 for the construction of the Podolsk-Voskresensk bridge — it was planned that the bridge piles would run along these two lines. By their own will or under pressure, gradually these lines were completely settled, and new residents came to replace the old ones — from Transcarpathia, Gypsy families began to come here. Empty houses were quickly occupied, and former owners agreed to rent them out to new residents for a small fee. Life on the 25th and 26th lines continued.

Light, water, and gas were cut off in the areas.

In 2018, people find themselves without sewage. Water for washing dishes and showering is taken from nearby lakes. When you need clean water for cooking, it is purchased in a bulck. A toilet is on the street, showers too, everything is built from found materials. The kitchen in most houses is located right outside the house, including a large table, a table with dishes, and a place to light a fire. When it is necessary to bathe small children, of which there are many in the settlement, the women pour water into large basins and wash them right there.

Child care, laundry, cleaning, as well as most of the paid work fell on the shoulders of women. Women here do everything that concerns the organization of life in the settlement and a particular family. Early in the morning they go to the flower base in large companies, purchase wholesale tulips and other seasonal flowers, return, make up bouquets, load them into buckets of water and go to sell to the metro. This goes on from early morning until late at night — strings of flower girls fill the buses, elderly Gypsies, girls with babies, girls of thirteen years old. During the day, the houses become empty. Most of the families living here are close and distant relatives, people actively communicate, ask each other for help, watch children together, and prepare food. Women replace each other at the selling spot, sometimes men come to them with heavy buckets, closely packed with tulips.

Gypsy pogroms

On April 23, 2018, at about one o’clock in the afternoon, the Gypsy Angela with her children is sitting at home. Her daughter has measles, and Angela doesn't leave her side. Molotov cocktails fly through the window, and the house instantly lights up. Angela grabs the children and runs out into the street.

On the same day, in the evening, the far-right organization ‘Nemesis’ writes on its Telegram channel:

Join the ‘flashmob’ to fight against Gypsy parasites in Kyiv. The other day, our activists visited a Gypsy camp that is located in Rusanovsky Gardens in houses from which a few years ago residents were evicted for the construction of a strategic bridge, funds for the project were stolen and construction was suspended. Compensation to people wasn't paid, but instead, in the middle of the village, Gypsy pests have dug in and terrorized the local population for several years. To facilitate their speedy eviction from Rusanov Gardens, we set fire to several houses inhabited by Gypsies. During the sortie, we were forced to ‘treat’ one of the Gypsies with pepper spray. But this is not the end, and we will visit again.

A video clip of the arson is attached.

The next day, another house catches fire. Gypsy guy Sasha rented it and was going to live there with his future family. Sasha’s neighbors are sure that it was arson, because the burned house had no electricity, and at the time of the fire, no one was inside.

A little later, another house catches fire. And another. And more.

People are panicking and say that they are going to return to Transcarpathia. Talking to the police leads to nothing. After sunset, men guard the camp.

By the end of summer, the lines are almost empty, and people return to Transcarpathia.


Heat, July.

My friend, who is a journalist from the Central European University, offers to travel together to the cities of Transcarpathia, where there are places of a compact settlement of Gypsies. A few weeks later, we take a local Roma activist with us and go to Beregovo.

The community of Beregovo was founded in 1860 and it is a small village surrounded by a high stone wall. The approximate population is 5000 people, absolutely all the inhabitants of the village are people of the Gypsy nationality. There is no sewerage system in the settlement, electricity exists only in a few houses, and the roads of the settlement are not paved. The lack of sewerage for the villagers means that after each downpour, the roads flood so much that it becomes impossible to walk on them. The sodden ground is pitted with ditches with mud and debris scattered evenly about everywhere. There is no separate collection of garbage or at least public garbage containers, so no one will blame you for throwing an empty pack of cigarettes right on the road. The majority of complaints received from inhabitants of the settlement are about the lack of sewerage.

Many houses in the village can hardly be called houses, they are more like temporary settlements like shelters, because people use old doors, damp boards, window frames, and cinder blocks for construction. There is no heating, electricity, or sewerage in such buildings.

Large families often live in single-room houses, the number of people living on the territory of about sixty-five feet by sixty-five feet can reach 10 (including the elderly and children).

The village is centralized, in the center is the house of the head of the tabor, a shop, and a café. The only non-Gypsy people who can be seen  here are the store’s service staff, that is, people who bring food and do minor repairs.

People in the local café look very poor. Children run around half-naked and barefoot, adults — in old, worn-out clothes. The store’s assortment includes alcohol, hygiene products, canned food, semi-finished products, ice cream, and hair dye.

On the wall of the store, there is a TV that broadcasts video from surveillance cameras installed on the territory of the camp. These cameras, together with a spontaneous night ‘guard’ consisting of several strong guys patrolling the village at night, create the appearance of security of the settlement.

There is a school in the village. The peculiarity of the school is that it accepts children without documents and certificates of vaccination, 100% of students are Roma. There are only two non-segregated schools in Beregovo.

The main activity of Transcarpathian Roma is the collection and processing of scrap metal, plastic, and paper. They pay more for collecting metal, so they go to work mainly for scrap metal. The “women’s” part of work during labor migration is selling clothes and flowers. Women are engaged in buying and reselling second-hand clothes, as well as Chinese and Turkish-made clothes in the markets.

According to the inhabitants of the settlement, their main problems are total poverty, lack of sewerage and asphalt, low level of education in local schools, and indifference of the city authorities to the problems of the Roma community. After the pogroms that took place in Kyiv and Lviv, labor migration became almost impossible, and in Transcarpathia itself, work is paid very low. 100% of the respondents said that they are afraid to go to the capital to work because of the increasing problem of ethnic violence. Now the main countries for labor migration are Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland. This can be regarded as the displacement of the Roma community from the territory of Ukraine since there is no work in the conditional ‘homeland’ of the Roma — in Transcarpathia — and it has become dangerous to travel to major cities.

The leader of the settlement shortly described the current employment situation

After the pogroms, people don't know how to make ends meet. Many people work in the vineyards that are close to the village, but this can't last forever.

After the initiation of the visa-free regime in Ukraine, people have an intention to issue documents for themselves and their children — in conditions of labor and social discrimination, it is easier to go to neighboring European countries to earn money than to look for a "labor shelter" at home. Moreover, for Gypsies, any homeland is conditional.


The largest compact settlement of Transcarpathian Roma is located in the city of Mukachevo, Transcarpathian region. This camp has a population of up to 120000 people.

The living conditions of the Mukachevo camp are slightly better than the Beregovo camp, but the problems are the same. The main one is the sewerage system, which does not exist. Most of all, the problem of lack of water drainage in the streets hits the inhabitants of the camp when the snow melts. People complain that during the thaw floods not only the streets but also houses.

I managed to talk to Ruslan who is one of the inhabitants of the Mukachevo camp. There are 12 people in Ruslan's family, and they all live in small houses built around one courtyard. We've been getting to know each other for a long time, and it took me half an hour to get into their confidence. As a result of long negotiations and explanations of what I was doing here, Ruslan agreed to give an interview. He spoke about how life flows inside the camp and how the Roma build relationships with the “outside world”.

Sometimes I'm afraid to say that I'm a Roma. I have registration in my passport on Franka street, where the largest Roma camp is located in Mukachevo. People, when they see the registration, immediately understand that I am a Gypsy. They immediately understand that I have a second-rate status. I am afraid and ashamed sometimes to say that I am a Gypsy.

People often believe that we are all stealing and guessing. This is not true. We are mainly engaged in the collection and processing of metal, plastic, and paper. Yes, some people steal. But I can understand them if a person stole something inexpensive to feed their family.

Many more people are engaged in trade. On Sundays, we organize Gypsy markets — we sell Chinese and Turkish clothes, new ones. We also earn money this way.

There are a lot of poor people here, most of them can’t read or write. Many more people do not know Ukrainian — only Hungarian.

Education in schools is very poor, of course, we have our own Roma school and kindergarten, but I try to send my children to Ukrainian schools as much as possible — they teach better, but they don't like Gypsies. They think that even children steal.

When I am called ‘Gypsy’ — I do not take offense. Of course, most people do not associate this word with anything good. But the word ‘Rom’ in 50 years can also become offensive.

As for the state — it does not help us in any way. Only child allowances are paid to those who have documents. They come before elections, promise a lot, but they do nothing.

My next respondent was an elderly woman named Mariana. Mariana works as a saleswoman in a local shop, sometimes going out on the terrace to her friends. She told mostly about the living conditions of the camp and relations with the state.

We have one well for 12000 people. The authorities have been promising to carry out sewerage for 10 years, but they do nothing. As a result, people from the Protestant Church dug a well, and the whole village now goes there. The majority of believers here are Protestants. Even they have the church.

Another respondent is Ivan, who looks 35-40 years old. Ivan was a little luckier than the rest of the inhabitants of the camp. His parents gave him a good education, he speaks three languages and knows a little about politics. Ivan has a small tattoo of his name in Hungarian on his shoulder. I must say that most people in the settlement have tattoos — men, women, and even children. The boy I met in Beregovo proudly showed me his tattoo. All inflamed, very poorly stuffed, but — the first. Horizontal eight, which symbolizes eternity, on the wrist.

Ivan has a large family — parents, sons, daughters, grandchildren, nephews, and nephews of nephews. An eighteen-year-old daughter has a baby.

We would very much like the local authorities to carry out at least a sewer system in Tabor. You see, when it rains here, the road gets wet, mud everywhere, puddles, garbage rots, water flows into the houses. In winter, it is impossible to go out at all when the snowfalls. And when it begins to thaw, the house faces flood risk. Not only me, but my neighbor, and almost the entire village. We need sewerage, asphalt. The rubble that was laid out has long gone underground.

There are no garbage containers, we take out all the garbage ourselves. Because of this, it is constantly dirty here. Tell me, is this the case in all the villages, or only in our Gypsy villages?

Children of Gypsies in Ukrainian schools do not like, so we give them to our own. And there, you know, if they teach you to read and write, it's already good. Physics or mathematics are completely out of conversation.

We have only been hired for menial work: cleaners, builders, movers, and so on. It is very difficult to get a job as a cashier or security guard — they do not want to take it when they see Gypsies in front of them. They think we steal everything. Discriminate. We don't have a normal life anywhere.

I remember one time some people from the authorities came and suggested that the street be renamed in honor of a Ukrainian hero. This is, of course, the most important thing they can do for us.

The picture of the life of the Gypsies in this country gives the impression that their homeland for them is only a convention, and it is this “convention of the homeland” that makes them vulnerable to the policies of the nation-state. Here you can draw an analogy with the vulnerability of homeless or prostituted women — no one will notice if one of them disappears from the streets, because society categorically refuses to recognize these people as full citizens of their country.

I look along the main street and feel weird. This ghetto resembles the way villages are drawn

There are also horses, many horses. Horses are harnessed to carts and driven to the city.

Just like 1000 years ago.

Translation into English done by Angela Sileva