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Poverty among Roma in Northwestern Russia

7 May 2002

Stephania Koulajeva1

One of the most frequent stereotypes one hears when talking to non-Roma in Russia is that "Gypsies" are always doing well and that they everywhere and always know how to get along economically. A "progressive" journalist once asked me: "Why defend the rights of Roma? Those guys always know how to defend themselves." In my experience, non-Roma notice only the conspicuously large houses, which sometimes can be the size of a palace. Usually, there are one or two such wealthy-looking houses in a Romani neighbourhood, which is otherwise full of shabby huts. If you talk to an average taxi-driver or an average bus-driver who goes to such an area every day, they will point at this rich-looking house and say: "Look how well Gypsies live here," remaining blind to the situation of most of the Roma living there. The majority of non-Roma would notice a Romani woman dressed in beautiful traditional clothes as a "Gypsy woman", but would overlook another Romani woman with bare feet and with a half-naked baby walking in the snow, as if these people did not exist. Some Romani leaders support this stereotype and prefer to sustain an image that Roma are generally rich, even though this is not the case. Fortunately, there has emerged in Russia a new type of Romani activist, who is willing to state openly that extreme poverty is a serious problem among Roma in Russia.

Travelling around northwestern Russia, I witnessed an economic situation among Roma much worse than I had expected. Unfortunately, their problematic economic situation in Russia is not exceptional or unique, but when we compare the situation of Russian Roma with the situation of Roma in Bulgaria or Greece, we should not forget the climatic differences, the fact that winter in Russia is so much colder and so much more severe. It is much harder to live in a house without electricity and heating if the daylight lasts only between four and five hours in winter and the temperatures might range between minus 20 and 30 degrees Celsius. I saw such houses in the summer of 2001 in Pushkinskye Gory, a town in Pskovskaya Oblast, and even then, in July, they did not seem fit for human habitation. For Ms Elena Ivanova, a mother of three children, the youngest of whom was 3 years old then, such a house serves as a home all year round. Their only income comes from begging. Everyday survival for Ms Ivanova and her family does not include proper medical care or decent education. It only means having a piece of bread every day, but even this is not guaranteed. Like many Roma in this district, she says: "Some days we eat, some days we don't."

The Russian state fails to take care of people who suffer from extreme poverty. The financial support that should be provided by the state – 50-60 roubles (approximately 2 euros) per month per child – is obviously very little, but even this money had reportedly not been paid to Ms Ivanova and other similarly poor Romani families in the Pskovskaya Oblast for years. In the case of several families in the area, the state debt to individuals amounted to 8,000-10,000 roubles (approximately 300-375 euros). Roma always seem to be the last to receive compensation.

Another basic reason for growing poverty is unemployment. Roma in Russia have never had untroubled access to state employment. Following a 1956 government decree, Roma were forced to settle in one place and to start working on Soviet collective farms under police control. Most of them became skilled collective farm workers. Although it was a hard life, it ensured a stable income. In the 1990s, the collective farm system collapsed in post-Soviet Russia and the majority of Romani workers on such farms were fired. Attempts by Roma to earn money by trading have largely failed because of enormous competition: Following the transition, a considerable part of Russia's population started business in trade and the Russian Mafia has allegedly robbed individuals and unprotected businessmen. Many Roma ended up with large debts and had to sell their houses. Most of the Roma living in Pushkinskye Gory became beggars. Some of them started to travel around, begging for bread.

In Ostrov, another town in the Pskov Province of northwestern Russia, I met Ms Antonina Verbitskaya, a Romani woman who left Pushkins-kye Gory with her three children and her mentally ill brother. Ms Verbitskaya told me: "I wanted to take my son to the local school, but they refused to accept him, saying that without clothes and books they cannot take him. As I can't afford these things, his only chance to study is to be taken to a school in an orphanage." The majority of Romani children do not attend school at all, or attend only for limited periods of time.

Ms Antonina Verbitskaya with her children, her mother, Ms Elvira Dmitrijeva, and her mentally ill brother, in Ostrov in the Pskov Province of northwestern Russia, July 29, 2001.
Photo: ERRC

In the village of Vasyugino, near the town of Novorzhev, Pskov Province, I visited the extremely poor family of Mr Graf Samulevich. His two children, Vadim and Albina, attend school, but in winter they have to walk three kilometres to the school and three kilometres back without winter shoes. In the wet and cold house, the children have to sleep on the floor. Mr Samulevich's aunt Olga had to give two of her children to a state orphanage as she could not afford to feed them and send them to school. Her youngest child still lives with her, sharing one bed.

Along with numerous examples of extreme poverty among Roma in northwestern Russia, there are positive examples as well, though not many. For instance, the family of Evgenia and Michail Kozlov, living in Pushkinskye Gory with their adopted son Roman. "We used to be beggars, but now we manage," Ms Kozlova stated. Using his natural skills, Mr Kozlov assembled a car using spare parts from old or wrecked cars. With this car, Mr Kozlov drives to distant places where he collects empty bottles that people cannot sell because there are no shops in the vicinity. He buys these dirty bottles for 20 kopecks each and brings them home, where his wife works hard washing them in the yard with cold water in any weather conditions. A shop in Pushkinskye Gory buys the bottles for 60 kopecks a piece, and thus the Kozlovs manage to survive in difficult times.

Ms Olga Samulevich and the one remaining child of hers in her care (left), in the village of Vasyugino, Pskov Province, July 31, 2001. Her other two children were taken into state care because she was too poor to care for them. The boy standing behind her is her nephew.
Photo: ERRC

Pskovskaya Oblast is one of the poorest parts of Russia. Not only Roma, but also non-Roma live in extremely poor conditions in this area. But it is shocking to find incredible poverty in the village of Gorelovo, bordering on Saint Petersburg. In Gorelovo, which is a 20 minutes ride by bus from a Saint Petersburg metro station, the housing conditions look even more miserable than elsewhere. Mr Piotr Martsinkevitch, an elderly Romani man, has lived in his house his whole life with his wife, Alexandra Stepanov-na, now a blind elderly woman. Two grandchildren – 9-year-old Misha and 3-year-old Roksana – also live with them. There is no real floor in the house, and Mr Martsinkevitch, who suffers from tuberculosis, sleeps on the bare ground, as there are not enough beds in their only room. At the time of my visit, his wife needed an operation to remove cataracts from her eyes, but the operation cost more than they were able to afford. Their only income was two state pensions of 400 rubles each (approximately 15 euros) – the lowest existing pension. This category of pension is generally only for persons who have never worked, though Mr Martsinkevitch told us that he used to work in the large rubber factory called Krasni Triugolnik in Saint Petersburg. He lost all his documents and cannot prove his right to a higher pension.

The list of examples of extremely poor Romani families could go on endlessly. From what I have seen, poverty among Russian Roma is widespread, it is growing, it is not remedied by the state, and the public seems to be unaware of it.

Endnotes:

  1. Stephania Koulajeva is a Russian human rights activist and has been a local monitor for the European Roma Rights Center since June 2001.

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