The Roma in Ukraine in word and fact

15 July 1997

by Claude Cahn

“Two decades of joint efforts by European governments have made possible the development and implementation of a wide legal basis for a real program for the renaissance of the Gypsy nation. First of alt, special status for Gypsies as a supranational ethnic community has been established at an international level. The United Nations has adopted strict measures to combat instances of discrimination against Gypsies. Forty international agreements have been concluded to address the specific problems of Gypsies. Literature published in the Gypsy language, training for Gypsy teachers, and school programs are financed by government budgets. The European Parliament has called upon governments of alt member states to oversee the implementation of Gypsy-related directives. [...] And what about us? In Ukraine, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the state of affairs in the arena of the cultural revival of the Gypsy nation is a disaster...”

Such is the assessment of one Ukrainian journalist, Gleb Gorodni Schenko, of the current status of Roma related issues in Europe and in Ukraine. While Gorodnichenko’s view of the state of Roma politics in the rest of Europe romanticises, his article, entitled “Gypsies of Ukraine: Back to the Caravan or Forward into the Political Struggle”, which appeared in the Kiev daily Kievski Viedomosti in June 1996, constitutes part of a growing movement in the Ukrainian press to critically assess the treatment of Roma in Ukraine by the state, the media, and the wider non-Romani populace. The arrival of glasnost to the issue of Roma in Ukraine is welcome. And while many articles continue to portray Roma only in the context of crime, there are indications that more sympathetic approaches may be on the way.

An article appearing recently in the Ukrainian daily newspaper Visnik Periaslavshini describes the lives of Roma in the town of Periaslavl, in northern Ukraine. Noting that “...documented information on Gypsies can not be found in either the historical cultural society, nor in the city archives,” reporter Aleksandr Pomoinitski sought history from the Roma themselves. He met with 74-year-old Grigory Vasylyovich Kirichenko, one of the elders of the forty-family Periaslavl Roma community and asked him to recall some of the important events of his life. Among other things, Kirichenko told him the following:

I was born in 1923 in the Chernigov region. Our family was travelling in a caravan at that time and had halted there. My father was a blacksmith, and he had a portable smithy. Including me, there were five children in the family. All of us were boys, and we became good helpers to our father as we grew. I also mastered the art of blacksmithing.

In 1939 our caravan settled near Little Karatula and one day the police came. After a very thorough search of our belongings, the police arrested my mother and sent her to jail. What for? Officially it was for speculation in the sale of fabric. In reality, they had only found ten meters of cloth. At that time, the government had started to persecute migrant Gypsies and send them to jail for no reason.

To escape this persecution, we fled to Donbas. Eventually I moved to Dniepropetrovsk where I entered a vocational school to learn the profession of boiler technician. At that time I also joined the Young Communist League. When the war started, I volunteered for the army. First I was sent to an artillery division, and then I became a paratrooper. Eventually I was transferred to the troops in charge of land mines where I was an assistant to the platoon commander. As a reward for my valiant service and at my request, the commander wrote to union leader Kalinin, requesting the release of my mother from the Ural concentration camp. And indeed, in 1943, my mother was released.

During the war I was wounded and then awarded the Order of the Red Star and another medal for bravery. I have kept alt the documents to confirm this, just as I have proudly kept my membership cards in the Young Communist League and the Red Army. On Victory Day I was by the river Oder, not far from Berlin.

After demobilization, I found my family near Yerkovetz where our caravan had settled at that time. I found them with the help of my Uncle Vasyl in Kiev. He lived in Podol, and was a tram driver on the number 13 line. Our migrating relatives used to keep in touch through him.

After meeting my family, I began trying to convince my father to leave the caravan and settle in Periaslavl, since after the war the persecution of migrants did not stop. My father considered my advice and then bought a house in Piedvarky.

I graduated from a driving course and went to Kazakhstan to develop virgin land by mandate of the Young Communist League. I didn’t earn a lot of money, but I saved enough to buy a simple house in Periaslavl. The house was a simple clay hut and it was not too far from my father’s place.

Around that time I married a girl called Galya, also a Gypsy, with whom I have lived happily ever since. Soon we began to have children, first a daughter Valya, and then our sons Vasyl and Sashko. Everything would have been fine, except the house was cold and damp. The roof leaked and the children became ill very often. I wanted to build a new house, but I did not have the chance to get good building materials. At that time I worked in a Periaslavel garage and was considered a good worker, but neither the administration nor the local government wanted to help me.

Since I could not get the things I needed from the local administration, I went to first Secretary Osadchyi and told him about the problems I was having with my house. He looked at me and said, ‘I’ve got better things to do than to help Gypsies’ and then he turned his back to me to look out of the window.”

The use of memoir and personal history is a powerful way to bring the voice of Roma to the ear of the public. Other articles have used different strategies. One notable style has been that of Gleb Gorodnichenko, quoted at the out set, which highlights the victimisation of Roma as a group. Gorodnichenko dwells at length on 20th century history to show that, like Ukrainians, Roma have suffered a series of catastrophes, although ones particular to Roma. This demonstration of symmetry between Roma history and Ukrainian history can help create a space of legitimacy for Roma in the present nationalist atmosphere. Much of the narrative force behind the drive for independence in Ukraine was derived from traumas of persecution such as the famines artificially created by Stalin in the 1930s. Presentations of Romani history in Ukraine which highlight the persecution of Roma by Nazi Germany and by the Soviet state can therefore be effective in opening a meaningful debate about the place of Roma in Ukraine:

“The repressive Stalinist regime did not bypass this people. Their right to a linguistic and cultural identity, established during the first years of Soviet power, was completely eradicated. Thousands of Gypsies were exiled to Siberia. Gypsy-run co-operatives and collective farms were closed down. The elimination of this ethnic minority was also one of the principal program items of fascist governments in Europe during World War II. The old and the young were shot on sight. There are still no statistics on how many Gypsy lives were lost to this meat grinder [...] But the Gypsies took up arms. It is known that in the Chernigov region more than fifteen hundred Gypsies were part of small guerilla bands — these were people who were too late to join the regular army in 1941.

The tragedy continued with the 1956 deportations of Gypsies. In the same year, the decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR sanctioned the `exile and forced community labour for up to five years’ for Gypsies ‘who would have [otherwise] evaded useful community work.’ The anti-Gypsy campaign, initiated by Kliment Voroshilov, lasted for five years. Courts issued numerous sentences. Trainloads of exiled Gypsies were sent beyond the Urals. Families were torn apart. In the name of the law, children were taken to orphanages while parents were Bent to the camps and exiled dwellings. Many families fled to other countries — Romania, Poland, Hungary, and even China! But even after cancellation of the decree, the life of this nation of wanderers did not improve. Older Gypsies still recall how the police used to come to their dwellings and take able-bodied men to harvest crops. Everything was arranged very simply: ‘fifteen days of rehabilitation work!’ The people’s memory holds numerous examples of such discrimination and oppression.

Gorodnichenko presents not only the legacy for Roma of the brutal 20th century, but he also accurately describes the present situation of Roma in Ukraine:

Illiteracy and legal defencelessness exacerbate discrimination against Gypsies by the local authorities and the police. According to many Gypsies, arbitrary arrest by the police has acquired a purely ritualistic character: ‘Gypsy?’ ‘Gypsy.’ ‘Come with us.’ A demand for “ransom” follows. It is very easy to attribute an unsolved crime to a man who is illiterate. This improves the police’s record in the fight against crime.

A Gypsy must pay for everything when he is dealing with a low-level official: for information, for a driver’s license, for a residence permit. Years of this type of treatment mean that there is no trust in the official structures.

All attempts by activists to conceive of projects for the rehabilitation of Gypsy cultural self determination collide, at very best, with the empty smiles of the Ministry of Nationalities. Tasks of primary importance, such as the organisation of Gypsy kindergartens and schools, disintegrate before references to “empty budgets”. [...] The project of an orphanage for Gypsy children has been halted. Promising projects have not been implemented due to a lack of physical space. Gypsy communities are ready to purchase a suitable building — spare nothing for the sake of children — but the government in the capital does not want to deal with the problem: ‘You have a theatre. Why do you need an educational establishment?’ The Kiev Gypsies were even refused permission to hire the building for community cultural events.

Yet despite the new sympathetic treatment of Roma by some Ukrainian journalists, the treatment of Roma in the Ukrainian press has tended to retain the classic duality: crime on the one hand and culture and music on the other. Roma leader Aladar Adam, surveying the press in the pages of the Journal Rio Inform, writes:

The largest number of articles [to address the theme of Roma directly] is devoted to various festivals of Gypsy folklore, concerts, etc. [...] The next group of publications contains real descriptions of how Roma live, but without any sort of deep socio-economic analysis. [...] We note and decry the media’s habit of emphasising cases in which Gypsies are suspects, as well as of emphasising the ethnic origin of Gypsy suspects.

And while representations of Roma in the media may be beginning to lose some of the mythic Gypsy stereotyping, the real situation of Roma in Ukraine remains troubling: since the end of the Soviet Union, Roma have been subjected to regular and debilitating abuse, most grotesquely by the police. Independent research conducted by the ERRC in the Transcarpathian region in south-western Ukraine documented serious human rights abuses: Roma in Transcarpathia are subjected to police beatings in public and in custody, as well as to a series of invasive “prophylactic” measures by the police which violate international law. Individual police officers have also committed Bross excesses, both in and out of uniform. Further, Roma in Transcarpathia have been subjected to a wide array of discriminatory administrative procedures, as well as to physical attack by non-Roma. Finally, the Ukrainian legal system has, in Transcarpathia, almost completely failed to provide redress when the rights of Roma have been violated. Frustration at the inactivity of the Ukrainian judicial system prompted the Uzhorod Roma association Romani Yag to lodge formal protest with the Transcarpathian regional prosecutor in May of this year. Their complaint reads as follows:

Since the beginning of 1997, Uzhorod’s and the Uzhorod region’s residents of Gypsy nationality have repeatedly brought complaints to the Transcarpathian cultural and educational association Romani Yag concerning illegal actions and cases of physical violence by the police, some times causing bodily injury. In addition, we have received many reports of illegal arrests and other violations of the constitutional rights of citizens.

Because of such complaints, the association has submitted many requests for official investigation of these abuses. These complaints, however, have been sent from the office of the public prosecutor of the Uzhorod region to the Ministry of Internal Affairs where nobody has dealt with them thoroughly. The only result has been the writing of formal letters to the complainant. No measures (disciplinary or of any other character) have yet been taken. Perpetrators specified by name in a particular complaint have not yet been brought to justice.

For example, on April 2, 1997, we filed a complaint on behalf of 19-year-old Mr. U.I.F. This com plaint described the circumstances under which Mr. U.LF. was beaten by the director of the Dobron collective farm administration and by three other people whom he is able to identify. Afterwards, he was unlawfully detained by the Uzhorod police, who failed to complete the nec essary formalities.

We presumed that because such a complaint has been submitted, the office of the public prosecutor should have opened a criminal case according to Paragraph 102 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine. Alternately, the prosecution should have asked Uzhorod’s executive committee of the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs to open a criminal case. This complaint has, however, evidently never been considered.

In another instance, we lodged a formal complaint concerning the case of Mr. B.Y.L. of the village of Kontsovo, Uzhorod District, who came to us for help on April 2. Mr. B.Y.L.1 reported that at the beginning of February and in March of 1997 he was stopped and beaten without any reason by the police. He also reported that the police carried out a search in his house without presenting a proper warrant. During this search, the police confiscated a tape recorder, a bag of nails, a few electrical sockets and Mr. B.Y.L.’s passport. The passport has not yet been returned. Among the policemen who questioned Mr. B.Y.L. was Officer S.M. Nothing has been done about this complaint apart from a formal response from the administration of the Transcarpathian division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, issued on April 23, 1997.

There are, in fact, many cases in which the police unjustly detain people of Gypsy nationality for suspicion of having committed a crime. Such detentions are generally not properly registered and the formalities specified by Paragraphs 106 and 115 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine are usually not followed. After questioning, during which violence is extremely likely, suspects are usually released.

For instance, Mr. I.IG., born on January 18, 1960, a current resident of Uzhorod, is presently a suspect in the criminal case N1202197. He has been accused of committing a crime under Section 3 of Paragraph 81 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine in February 1997. Mr. I.I.G. reported to Romani Yag that he was stopped and detained by the Uzhorod police for five days with out completing necessary formalities. After being beaten by the police, Mr. I.I.G. confessed to committing a crime. In court, however, Mr. I.I.G. denied his involvement in the crime arguing that his confession was physically forced. These circumstances were not taken into consideration by the court.

These are only a few of the cases we are aware of in which the Uzhorod police have acted illegally and violated the rights of citizens who are Gypies by nationality.

Romani Yag has since reported that on May 1, 1997, at around 2:00 p.m., a 17-year-old Romani girl named R.D. was detained by police officers on suspicion of the theft of gold earrings. She was allegedly brought to department N3 of Uzhorod municipal police, where she was questioned with neither her parents nor legal counsel present or even notified of her detention. According to her testimony, the officer who questioned her, whose name is known to the ERRC, beat her repeatedly on the head with his hands and hit her once on the back. He insulted her and called her derogatory names. After wards, she was reportedly brought to the municipal police station on Gagarin Street, where she was kept until approximately 7 p.m. She was released without being charged. Upon release she had to be hospitalised and was diagnosed as having a concussion. The family of the victim obtained a medical protocol certifying her injuries on May 4. On May 14, 1997, Romani Yag filed a complaint at the Uzhorod Prosecutor’s Office requesting investigation of police ill-treatment of Ms. R.D.

For a long time after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal, its free-fall economy and unresolved issues with Russia diverted international attention from almost all other issues in the country. More recently, Ukraine has come under criticism from international bodies such as the Council of Europe for continuing to apply the death penalty. Recent reports by the ERRC and Amnesty International describe many of the problems faced by Roma in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the plight of Roma in Ukraine has yet to attain wide international recognition.


  1. The ERRC witholds the names of the victims. Full names are, however, specified on the document originally sent to the Ministry by Romani Yag.


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