A Little Gypsy History


I am not an expert or historian when it comes to the complex history and relevance of the Gypsies who are part of several cultures around the world.  But I am posting what I found interesting for me, things I did not know and hope you will look into more complete information regarding Gypsies around the world. The Gypsy culture has added immeasurable wealth, awareness and import to our world.  And like so many tribal, collective peoples have been ruthlessly persecuted. So no, I am not a full blooded gypsy but my ancestors were Highland Travelers. So for this blog I am simply a Gypsy at heart, having chosen a lifestyle more like Highland Travelers, which is my heritage.  My posts will be about what I am learning from a nomadic life of choice, simplicity, community and creativity with passion.  These are traits of Gypsy cultures that have been meaningful to me.  Below is just a tiny bit of info that might be new to you as well.

Origins of Gypsies and Summer Travelers

Adapted from http://www.wikipedia.org

I think each of us might admit to being a bit jaded about what comes to mind when we think of a Gypsy.  Most images are not positive ones.  Mostly because the life of a Gypsy seems to fly in the face of our civilized notions about progress and success.  Yet the Gypsy, the Nomad and the Traveler may hold some keys to new or old ways of thinking about life that can be entirely relevant to the new demands in our 21st century.

As their name suggests, Gypsies were initially believed to have come from Egypt. The Gypsies’ true ancestors, however, were a group of people who left India between AD 800 and 950. The best estimates have dated their earliest official appearance in Europe, in modern-day Turkey, to around AD 855. However, it is always possible that there were Gypsies in Europe before they received this official recognition. By tracing the development of their dialect, a linguistic mix referred to as Anglo-Romany, scholars have been able to trace the movement of the Gypsies throughout the entire European continent. By the 1300’s, their migration had entered southeastern Europe; by the 1400’s, western Europe. Finally, in 1505, the Gypsies reached the British Isles. Here is where we pick up their story. Because of their itinerant lifestyle, the Gypsies of England played a unique role in both the economic sphere and the entertainment business of nineteenth-century society.

The Gypsies are a race of nomads. The Gypsies of nineteenth-century England travelled the countryside, carrying all their belongings in covered wagons and pitching tents wherever they stopped. For Gypsies, travelling is not a pastime or leisure activity, but a way of life. In fact, a common belief of the latter part of the nineteenth century suggested that the inclination to travel, called “wanderlust,” was a product of genetic determinants. This view was the basis for the claim that “it was as natural for Gypsies to move as it was for the majority of the population to stay in one place”. Another argument of this time period was that itinerancy resulted from socialization to a travelling way of life. Therefore, “being raised as a nomad and being accustomed to the rigors of travelling from an early age would undoubtedly have increased the likelihood of inter-generational itinerancy”. Whatever its source, the Gypsies’ itinerant lifestyle naturally made it necessary that their occupations involve mobility. It was in the economic sphere, then, that Gypsies interacted with settled society.

Both in the nineteenth century and today, Gypsies have played an important economic role in society. In nineteenth-century England, they made their living primarily by hawking (selling small homemade goods) and tinkering (repairing pots and pans). In this way, Gypsies filled the small-scale and irregular demands for goods and services in the non-Gypsy population. Gypsies also met the high demand for seasonal employment on farms. During the late summer and early fall, Gypsies harvested fruits and vegetables. This kind of employment was “plentiful, regular, and temporary” and thus perfectly suited to the Gypsy lifestyle. They also followed a diverse number of other trades, such as chair-bottoming, basket-making, rat-catching, wire-working, grinding, fiddling, selling fruit, fish, and earthenware, and mending bellows. However, the Gypsy lifestyle was not all work and no play.

Aside from these labor-oriented functions, another activity in which the Gypsies have participated is entertaining. They danced, sang, and played musical instruments. However, the form of entertainment for which the Gypsies are perhaps the best known is fortune-telling.  Gypsy women sold fortunes at fairs and made considerable profits. They read palms and tarot cards, and cast charms and spells. In nineteenth-century England, fortune-telling was the equivalent of the modern-day horoscope and taken as seriously by many. Fortune-telling was an important part of Gypsy tradition.

Indigenous Highland Travelers

In Scottish Gaelic they are known as the Ceàrdannan (“the Craftsmen”).The English term ‘travelling people’ has been adopted into contemporary Gaelic as luchd siubhail (people of travel) but this is a wider term covering other groups of travellers too and it still has to gain full currency and comprehension amongst ordinary Gaelic speakers. Poetically known as the Summer Walkers, Highland Travellers are a distinct ethnic group and may be referred to as traivellerstraivellin fowk, in Scotstinkers, originating from the Gaelic tinceard or (tinsmith) or “Black Tinkers”. Mistakenly the settled Scottish population may call all travelling and Romani groups tinkers, which is usually regarded as pejorative, and contemptuously as tinks or tinkies.

Highland Travellers are closely tied to the native Highlands, and many traveller families carry clan names like MacfieStewartMacDonaldCameronWilliamson and Macmillan. They follow a nomadic or settled lifestyle; passing from village to village and are more strongly identified with the native Gaelic speaking population. Continuing their nomadic life, they would pitch their bow-tents on rough ground on the edge of the village and earn money there as tinsmithshawkershorse dealers or pearlfishermen. Many found seasonal employment on farms, e.g. at the berry picking or during harvest. Since the 1950s, however, the majority of Highland Travellers have settled down into organized campsites or regular houses.

Origins and customs

The Highland Traveller community has a long history in Scotland going back, at least in record, to the 12th century, and share a similar heritage, although are distinct from the Irish Travellers. As with their Irish counterparts, there are several theories regarding the origin of Scottish Highland travellers, one being they are descended from the Picts, excommunicated clergy,[28] to families fleeing the Highland potato famine, or the pre-Norman-Invasion, have been claimed at different times. Highland travellers are distinct both culturally and linguistically from other Gypsy groups like the Romani, including the Romanichal, Lowland Scottish Travellers, Eastern European Roma and Welsh Kale groups. Several other European groups are related to the Scottish Highland Travellers, and share similarities to other non-Romany groups across Europe, namely the YenichesWoonwagonbewoners in Holland, and Landfahrer in Germany. As with Norwegian and Swedish Travellers, Highland travellers origins may be more complex and difficult to ascertain and left no written records of their own.

As an indigenous group Highland Travellers have played an essential role in the preservation of traditional Gaelic culture. Travellers’ outstanding contribution to Highland life has been as custodians of an ancient and vital singing, storytelling and folklore tradition of great importance. It is estimated that only 2,000 Scottish travellers continue to lead their traditional lifestyle on the roads.

Roma/ Gypsies

The Roma originally came from the Indian subcontinent, which they left about a thousand years ago. They entered Europe in the 13th Century. When they arrived in Europe they were thought to be from Egypt and were called Egyptians, which is where the word “Gypsy” comes from.

The wheel-shaped, sixteen-spoked chakra, was adopted as the international Romani symbol at the first Romani conference in 1971 held in London.

There are now substantial Roma/Gypsy populations across the world.

Romani culture is diverse with many traditions and all groups have their own individual beliefs and customs. There is no universal culture, but there are attributes common to all Roma, including: loyalty to family; standards and rules; and adaptability to changing conditions.

In April 2005 the European Parliament adopted a ‘Resolution on the Situation of Roma in the European Union’, which is a milestone in the recognition of Roma rights concerns as a matter of the highest political concern in Europe. The resolution notes a range of concerns regarding their fundamental human rights and calls on all agencies to act without delay to correct the ongoing Roma rights crisis.

There have been many famous Roma/Gypsies that have a great impact in all areas of human endeavour. Find out more on this website dedicated to highlighting these achievements.

Roma Characteristics

The following characteristics apply to the many Roma groups and communities around the world:

  • Roma may be nomadic, semi-sedentary, or sedentary
  • Roma may live in trailers (caravans), horse-drawn wagons (vardos), or housing
  • Roma speak Romanes though fluency and knowledge varies according to usage
  • Roma may live in rural or urban areas
  • Some Roma have not historically accessed formal education and are non-literate, while others have and achieved a great deal
  • Most Roma have always referred to themselves as Rom or Roma, meaning “Man” or “People.” Many UK Roma, who have been here for many centuries would call themselves Gypsy or Traveller.

The Romani language has many spoken dialects, but is of Indo-Aryan origin. The root language of Romani is ancient Punjabi with loan words borrowed from the many countries the migrations of the Roma have taken them. The spoken Romani language is varied, but all dialects contain some common words in use by all Roma.


There have been many large-scale, state-sponsored persecutions, or pogroms, against the Roma throughout European history. The Nazi terror of World War II is the most infamous and is responsible for the deaths of up to 1 million Roma in the Porrajmos (in Romani meaning the Devouring).

See the History Section of this website to read more on persecution throughout time.


Roma Today

Many Roma have recently arrived in the UK as refugees or asylum seekers from Eastern Europe, fleeing violence following the collapse of communist governments. Many have faced extreme prejudice and hostility here and many have been imprisoned and deported.

Throughout Europe Roma have been marginalised and their basic human rights have been abused. The Romani people remain the least integrated and the most persecuted people of Europe.

There is an attempt to re-dress the balance and raise awareness through A Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005 – 2015, which 10 countries have agreed to participate in. Unfortunately no Western European country is presently involved and it would be a great step for the UK to take this positive initiative and join with its European partners in this vital work.

The First World Romani Congress was held in London in 1971. There were important decisions taken:

  • The wheel-shaped, sixteen-spoked chakra, was adopted as the international Romani symbol.
  • The green and blue flag with a red chakra in the centre was adopted as the Romani flag, as well as the motto “Opré Roma” (Roma Arise).
  • The song “Gelem, gelem” was selected as the Romani anthem;
  • April 8 was proclaimed International Romani Day

Thank you to a great website Gypsy Roma Traveller Leeds which can be found at http://www.grtleeds.co.uk/Culture/romaGypsies.html

blk and white gypsy

Some General Gypsy Information


ETHNONYMS: Self-designations: Lorn, Roma; Russian: Tsygane

Identification. Gypsies of the former USSR can be divided into more than ten groups distinguished by language or dialect, culture, and way of life. Included among these are the Vlach Roma: Kelderari and Lovari; the non-Vlach Roma: Servi, Russkie (Khaladytko Roma), and Sinti (German); Krymskie Tsygane (Khorokhaia), Lorn (Armenian), and Bosha (Zakavkaz); and Liuli [Jugi] and Mazang Mugat (Central Asian). They live scattered unevenly across European Russia and Ukraine, the Caucasas, southernSiberia, and Central Asia. Groups of Kelderash, Lovari, and Sinti are the only ones who live in great numbers beyond the borders of the former USSR: these Roma have settled in almost every country of the world. Many emigrated to America from Moldavia and Russia at the end of the last century. This article concerns mostly the Roma, or western Gypsies of the former USSR.

Demography. The 1979 census enumerated 209,000 Tsygane in the former USSR. Experts in the West and in the former USSR estimate that there are two to three times that number. The undercount may be because being recorded as a “Tsygan” bears a stigma that many prefer to avoid by registering as a different nationality. At any rate, according to the 1970 census, which reported a total population of 175,335 Gypsies in the Soviet Union, there were 97,955 Gypsies in Russia, 30,091 in Ukraine (34,500 in 1979), 6,843 in Byelorussia, 5,427 in Latvia, and 1,880 in Lithuania. Turning to Central Asia, there were 11,362 in Uzbekistan and 7,775 in Kazakhstan. These figures are based on the number of people holding passports. The number of Central Asian Gypsies may be as high as 156,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Roma speak various dialects of Romani, which is an Indic language related today most closely to modern Hindi. Some dialects of Romani are Rushi (Baltic), Sinti (European), Ungrike (Hungarian), Keldarari and Lovari (Wallachian or Vlach), and Lomari (Armenian). These are in turn influenced by borrowings from the languages of surrounding nationalities: for instance, Kelderari living in Russia borrow from Russian. Recent studies show an increase in Soviet Roma who admit to speaking Romani (59.3 percent in 1959; 74 percent in 1970). Central Asian Gypsies speak Lavzi-Mugat as well as Tajik and Uzbek. Many Moldovan Gypsies speak Romanian as their mother tongue.

History and Cultural Relations

Linguistic evidence suggests that Gypsies left India in the tenth or eleventh century AD., migrating west toIran (Persia) and the Arabian Peninsula, with some splitting off to the north to Central Asia (although some argue that the Central Asian group arrived in an earlier migration). Some moved westward to Byzantium and the Transcaucasus, reaching Europe by around 1250. The Seljuk and Ottoman expansions caused mass migrations, and by the fifteenth century Roma lived throughout Europe.

Roma entered Russia in two main waves: from the Balkans, some moved to Moldavia and Wallachia, where they were enslaved until the nineteenth century, moving to Russia only after the abolition of slavery in the 1860s. From Europe, Roma first appeared in the Ukraine in 1501 and moved on into Russia and the north. By the mid-eighteenth century, special taxes were imposed on them to limit the occupations and trade they could undertake, and in 1759 the Empress Elizabeth forbade them to enter St. Petersburg. Within the century, however, they were allowed to live there and in Moscow, and many, particularly those who belonged to the famous tsyganskie khory (Gypsy choirs), thrived. Others settled in urban centers and in towns: today there are families who have been settled for generations. Others traveled, some extending their circuit from Moscow to Siberia. Most of these people lived with villagers in the wintertime, renting rooms from them, and traveled from April to October.

In the fifteen years after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Roma flourished. In 1925 the All-Russian Romani Union, led by Alexander V. Germano, was formed, and Gypsies acquired nationality status. In 1927 a Romani alphabet was devised by a group of Romani and Russian teachers. Four schools for Romani students were opened, and others offered some instruction in Romani. Texts, books, and collections of poetry and stories were published in Romany by Romany writers Ivan Rom-Lebedev, N. A. Pankov, Krustalev, N. Dudarova, and others. Two journals, Nevo Drom and Romani Zoria (New Road; Romani Dawn), were published in Romani from 1928 to 1937. In 1931 the Moscow Teatr “Romen” (Romani Theater) was created. For the first three years it performed in Romani; after that it played in Russian. For many years the theater was the center of a Romani cultural renaissance and drew Roma (and other Gypsies) to Moscow from all over the country.

In 1937, however, everything but the theater was “liquidated” (the Romani Union even earlier, in 1931), as Gypsies did not, according to Stalinist reasoning, have a territory or a “stable culture.” In the late 1930s, thousands of Roma, under increased pressure to settle and collectivize, were sent en masse to Siberia or shot. Some all-Gypsy collectives were disbanded; the members were forced to integrate with other collectives. In the 1940s entire collectives were destroyed and at least 30,000-35,000 Soviet Roma were killed in the genocide during the Nazi occupation of 1941-1945. After the war, surviving collectives were disbanded by Stalin, and members were made to settle in mixed-nationality collectives. Even so, some Roma began to enter universities during this period, shifting from developing literacy in Romani to becoming educated in Russian. These intellectuals cut a path for some Roma to enter the Communist party and to build academic and professional careers.


During the reign of the czars, Gypsies, in the areas where they were allowed to settle, stayed in camps at the edges of rural village communes, in some places renting rooms or houses in the towns in the winter in exchange for the use of their horses, veterinarians, and metal repair and other services. Traveling was seasonal, in kumpaniia (groups) made up of several extended families. Many Gypsies were already settled in villages of their own, however, before the 1920s, and it was often these people who responded most readily to the government’s offer of land for farming. Those who resisted settlement continued to travel, which led to the 1956 decree of the Supreme Soviet, “On Reconciliation of the Vagrant Gypsies to Labor.” Rural Roma in many parts of the former USSR still travel seasonally, however, as drovers, farm workers, livestock traders, and street merchants, especially in remote areas of Siberia and Central Asia.

In the big cities, choral groups were among the first to settle. Groups who moved to urban centers after the Revolution preferred to occupy an entire apartment block together rather than be dispersed. In those early years of settlement, some families preferred to carry out most work and daily activity in the courtyard rather than remain inside, separate from each other. Many still live compactly, maintaining community and family ties, language, and Romani identity.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Gypsies were known for their skill as metalworkers, tinsmiths, woodworkers, carpenters, blacksmiths, horse traders and trainers, and in associated occupations. Many Gypsies, especially in Central Asia, work as drovers for collective herds. Many Kalderari still work as tinsmiths, bringing work home to the small settlements near the cities where they live. Work is usually contracted for an entire group (vortachi ) and the profits shared.

During the Russian civil war (1918-1921) Gypsies supplied the Red Army with cavalry horses and in the spring of 1925 formed the first Gypsy collective farm, Khutor Krikunovo, near Rostov. In 1926 the party decreed that the Union republics should set aside land for Gypsies who wanted to farm. Numerous collectives were set up all around the country over the next decade. In addition, many small Gypsy artels, or manufacturing collectives, were set up in the cities; an example of these collectives are the Tsygpishcheprom (Gypsy food industries) in Moscow. Most of these were eliminated as national cartels in the late 1930s, and there are now no all-Gypsy collective farms. There are, however, Gypsy cooperatives that make and sell shirts and jewelry. Some women work as fortune-tellers or as street merchants.

Gypsies are known as dancers, singers, and musicians. Gypsy choruses were extremely popular in the nineteenth century, and today many ensembles, which are usually built around a family, make a living playing at urban restaurants and for weddings. Some of these groups tour Europe. The Moscow Teatr “Romen” employs only about seventy Gypsies full-time. Russia’s popular cireuses employ many Gypsies as performers and as animal keepers and trainers.

Many Gypsies work at the same kinds of jobs as do other people—in offices, factories, and construction and as store managers and gardeners. There are also several doctors, at least one surgeon, several teachers, and lawyers and academics.

Industrial Arts. Many Roma have found applications in construction and industry for their skills as metal workers, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, and woodworkers.

Trade. In pre-Soviet times, nomadic Russian Gypsies, living on the edges of Russian villages and towns, carried on small-scale barter of skilled labor for food and clothing or for payment in money. Today some work as street vendors, selling jewelry, chocolate, cosmetics, cigarettes, and other hard-to-come-by goods at the main bazaars. Such trade—na levo (“on the left”: the black market)—was illegal until recently.

Division of Labor. In urban, rural, and nomadic families there are clear-cut work roles for males and females. In the city, men carry out industrial and craft labor, whereas women work as merchants and occasionally as fortune-tellers. Rural and nomadic men are more likely to work with livestock. In urban, assimilated families, women often work outside the home—in industry, construction, medicine, and occasionally as teachers and academics. Like other women in the former Soviet Union, Gypsy women work a second shift at home, doing the cleaning, cooking, laundry, and child care. When a daughter-in-law moves in, she takes on many of the tasks of her husband’s mother, allowing the older woman some leisure. Men do much of the shopping.

Land Tenure. Well-defined Gypsy land-tenure patterns are difficult to discern since they were not encouraged to settle or acquire land in czarist times, although there are instances of Gypsy settlement in Ukraine in the nineteenth century. In the first two decades of Soviet power, some Gypsies acquired farms and formed collectives and agricultural ventures.


Roma place great value on the extended family. Even in urban areas and among highly assimilated Romani families, the extended family, or tsigni vitsa, is strong. Although they may live in separate homes, family members keep constant contact by telephone and daily visits. The extended family is an important economic unit and the base of a network of economic ties. Kinship for any individual may be reckoned bilaterally, although patriliny is usually the basis of membership in the larger vitsa (clan). A son may decide, however, to retain membership in his mother’s vitsa, whereas a wife may take on her husband’s. This flexibility is perhaps aided by the fact that Romani kinship terminology is cognatic (i.e., kinship links are not distinguished by gender)—father’s sister and mother’s sister are both called bibi, for example. Kinship terms may be used by younger people as forms of address for older people, and the converse is also true. Phral and pey (brother and sister) can be used as terms of friendship and greeting. Cousins (worof ward ) are not distinguished by degree. Roma often use or are influenced by Russian terms, collapsing terms in usage (e.g., “second-line brother” for “cousin”).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Rom (man) and romni (woman) also mean “husband” and “wife.” Roma avoid Soviet ceremonies and have their own interesting wedding ceremonies, which are strictly observed, even in big cities. These ceremonies blend Orthodox wedding ritual and Gypsy custom. Weddings generally take three days. The first day is set aside for the church wedding. On this day there is a mock negotiation of bride-price, or sometimes a mock abduction: the groom’s friends and family storm the bride’s home, which is barricaded by the bride’s family. The bride and groom arrive separately at the church; after they have been “crowned,” they travel together to the reception. There they kneel, holding icons while elders bless them with bread and salt. In some weddings, a procession circles the bride, who carries a staff. Dancing and singing are as important as tables bending under the weight of the food. After it is established that the bride is a virgin, guests don red armbands. (In some weddings the sheet is shown.) Guests offer gifts of money to the couple, placing the bills in a carved-out loaf of bread or announcing the amount with words such as, “from me a little, from God much more.”

Marriages are customarily arranged by the parents, with the matchmaking usually initiated by the parents of the groom. Many couples marry in their mid-teens. Unmarried young men and women are not allowed to socialize alone together, as great value is placed on female chastity.

Domestic Unit. Young marrieds live with the parents of the husband. The bride is called bori, which means “one that my vitsa has acquired through marriage.” The bori takes on most household tasks, giving up all outside activities for some time. For a couple to have only one or two children is rare; usually there are three or four. It is obligatory to live a year or two with the parents, at least before the first child is born. This pattern is reinforced by the urban housing shortage. Among rural and nomadic groups, extended families may stay together, living in adjoining houses. Among drovers, herdsmen travel together on seasonal cattle drives, whereas the women continue their chores in the home area.

Men command deference from women and are served by them in the home. Women may be considered potentially unclean (marime ); in the past a woman had to take care not to brush the man accidentally with her skirts, which could pollute him. This was, however, also a source of female power, for a woman could avenge herself on a man by lifting her skirts before or over him. This could lead to his ostracization for up to a year. Although men make many family decisions and only male elders can judge in the kris (court), women are respected for their skill at bringing in daily provisions. The physical deference of women and the separation of the sexes does not always mean that women are silent, especially once they become elders in their own household.

Inheritance. With state control of most private property the rule in the former USSR until the Gorbachev era, inheritance usually included only personal items. In some cases, among entrepreneurial Gypsies, this can mean significant family treasures. Gold, especially, is prized as a gift between generations.

Socialization. Gypsy families prefer not to turn their children over to day-care centers, although urban women, like other Soviet women who work outside the home, may do so. Women are responsible for most child care, but often they do not care for the children alone; in the country relatives are always nearby, and in the city visits are frequent. Children are often included in adult company, and small ones may be passed from one to another: they receive kisses, are asked to speak, and often are held out to face the rest of the company. Men are also affectionate with children, male and female.

Romani is learned at home, Russian outside the home. There may be conflicts between Romani and Russian (and formerly, Soviet) values, especially for those who receive more schooling. The prime loyalty is to the family: Roma may consider other nationalities to be insufficiently family-oriented. Training in skills begins quite early, and children help their parents in whatever is the family occupation, be it dancing, carpentry, or something else. Girls become skilled at household tasks and may have experience with other kinds of work by the time they marry in their mid-teens. They also learn modestly deferent deportment.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Even today the social organization of Roma is very strong. It is different from the organization of Russian society or Soviet hierarchies. Gypsies are perceived by outsiders as being of low status. Roma themselves have a complex sociopolitical structure. Within, for instance, the group Roma, there are subgroups, “nations,” or natsiia, such as the Servi, Kelderari, and so on. Within the natsiia there are bare vitsi and tsigne vitsi (large and small clans), which are often named for a founder. The family is the smallest permanent unit. There are also temporary groupings, called kumpaniia or vortachiia, which work or travel together or are settled in the same place.

Political Organization. The choice of the leader of the kumpaniia is as much a matter of social organization as one of political organization. Although leaders emerge as bare roma (big men), their position is not a fixed office. Different leaders may be chosen for different purposes as well. Certain people who are skilled at communicating with outsiders may take up the title of leader, though sometimes this is only for convenience. Gypsies around the world are organizing the Romani Union, in which educated Gypsies are being elected to offices that correspond to those in the governments of other nations.

Important decisions on the community level are made by the kris, or council of elders. Disputes between families or even entire vitsa are also settled there. Women are usually not allowed to speak during the kris, although they may lobby and brief their male relatives beforehand. Women generally gain influence after they are older, especially after they have acquired wives for their sons.

Social Control. Social control is strict regarding matters of hygiene, modesty, hospitality, marriage, and so on. Breaches may result in ostracism for up to a year, longer in extreme cases. The offending party may be labeled marime and shunned. In some cases, rules are different concerning outsiders: for the sake of the group, one must be more careful in contact with them.

Conflict. Strong societal prejudice has always existed in Russia toward Gypsies, although it may have been tempered in the past, when their skills and trading were more essential to a preindustriai society. Soviet laws designed to stop Gypsy traveling were intended to halt what was considered the source of Gypsy social misbehavior. Many Gypsies, however, do not see traveling as a crime but as a means of livelihood. From the other point of view, Gypsies, who have other notions of proper behavior, often consider other groups to be less clean, hospitable, and so on, than they are. Cultural differences have also contributed to mutual misunderstandings.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Despite the official atheism in the former USSR, many Gypsies have maintained religious traditions and beliefs. Gypsies customarily observe the religion of the people among whom they live. Those in Russia and Ukraine are usually Russian Orthodox; in Estonia and Latvia, Lutheran; in Lithuania and Belarus, Catholic; and in the Crimea and Central Asia, Muslim (Sunni). Religious holidays are very important. In Orthodox families, Christmas (kriguno ) and Easter (patradi ) are specially observed. Tales and rituals enhance Romani interpretation of religious teaching.

Arts. Since the eighteenth century, Russian and Romani cultures have been extensively interrelated. (This type of relationship exists in other countries as well.) Numerous Russian, Ukrainian, and Soviet writers have been inspired by an image of Gypsies that symbolizes Russian longings for “freedom.” Two Russian authors deeply influenced were Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) and the symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921). In Pushkin’s poem “Gypsies,” the hero, Aleko, joins a Gypsy band in Bessarabia but ultimately murders his Gypsy wife Zemphira, who has rejected him, a Gazho (outsider), for a Gypsy lover. This story inspired Blok, who used some of the lines from the Pushkin poem: “the Gypsy camp was moving, the stars shine above.”

Much of Romani lore reflects the boundary between Rom and Gazho, although not so romantically, of course, because these reflect the more mundane trials of surviving day to day in a Gazho world. More fantastic tales tell of sons who save the family from giant snakes; of clever boys who steal the Gazho king’s horse; of children born at the same hour, their fates intertwined. Much is oral, improvized, and embellished by the best storytellers, who may add a humorous twist. Romani authors have published in the former USSR. In the 1930s Germano, Pankov, and Dudarova published scholarly works and political pamphlets, along with prose, translations from Russian, and textbooks. Ivan Rom-Lebedev and Krustalev wrote plays for the Romani theater, as well as stories. After 1937 nothing was printed in Romani until the 1980s, when there appeared a collection of tales and songs by the sons of storyteller Ishvan Demeter, R. S. and P. S. Demeter. Mateo Maximoff, a Gypsy author writing in Paris, was born in Russia.

A particular musical style known as the “Gypsy Romance” was formalized by the urban Gypsy choral groups in the nineteenth century. Singers perform Russian folk and urban love songs with a vibrato and a semitone decoration that draws from Romani singing. Some songs in Romani are also performed. Violins and guitars back the usually female singers. The style is considered by Russians to be melodramatic and romantic but is still quite popular. Other styles of Romani music are less well known.

It is in the Moscow Romani Teatr “Romen” that many Soviets have come to know Romani music and dance. The original repertoire of the theater was didactic and was designed by Gypsies for Gypsies. After a few years the theater concentrated on non-Gypsy audiences. The repertoire includes plays written by Gypsies, such as We Are Gypsies, 1 Was Born in a Gypsy Camp, and A Girl Who Brought Happiness, as well as Russian and European works such as Pushkin’s Gypsies and Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding. The most famous singer to emerge from the theater is Nikolae Slichenko, from Ukraine. The songs of the theater are known all over the former Soviet Union, as the theater has traveled and made films that have a wide distribution.


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Barannikov, A. P. (1931). Tsygane SSSR: Krathii istorikoetnograficheskii ocherk (Gypsies of the USSR: Ethnohistorical studies). Moscow: Tsentrizdat.
Barannikov, A. P. (1934). The Ukrainian and South Russian Gypsy Dialects. Leningrad: Publishing Office of the Academy.
Demeter, N. G. (1987). “Semeinaiai obriadnost’ tsigan v kontse XIX-XX VV. (na primere etnicheskoi gruppy kelderari) ” (Household ceremonies of Gysies from the end of the 19th through the end of the 20th centuries [with the Kalderash ethnic group as an example]). Dissertation, ANSSSR Institute of Ethnography, Moscow.
Demeter, R. S., and P. S. Demeter (1981). Obraztsy fol’klora Kelderarei (Forms of Kalderash folklore). Moscow: Nauka.
Demeter, R. S., and P. S. Demeter (1990). Tsygansko-Russki i Russko-Tsyganski slovar’ (Kelderarskii Dialekt ) (Gypsy-Russian and Russian-Gypsy dictionary [Kalderash dialect]). Moscow: Russkii Iazik.
Germano, A. (1928). “Tsygane” (Gypsies). Bezbozhnik 1:11-13.
“Gypsies,” “Gypsy Literature,” “Gypsy Music,” and “Gypsy Romance.” In The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. 3rd ed. Vol. 28, 197-198, 437-438.
Janicki, Joel (1989). “Gypsies.” In The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet Literatures, edited by George J. Gutsche. Vol. 9, 186-189. Gulf Breeze, Fla.: Academic International Press.
Rom-Lebedev, I. I. (1990). Ot tsyganskovo khora k teatruRomen ” (Concerning the Gypsy chorus in the “Rom” theater). Moscow: Isskustvo.


gypsy girls

13 comments on “A Little Gypsy History

  1. tabitha says:

    this is an awesome artical

  2. Anthony Du Varene says:

    Most informative; however, for me I had already read most of this in the history of Gypsy;s – I now live a New Age Gypsy way of life near Epping Forest UK on a small-holding – well-done for your effort with the children m8 x

  3. It is so interesting to read about how the Gypsies lives was and maybe is till today.I’am from South Africa and my forefathers all traveled over the mountains with there wagons from 300 years ago. Maybe not like the gypsies but also in wagons with there cattle and families.Then there was the war with the blacks those days as well.I admired the people in there wagons,and I admired the way they all lived.Thank you to listen to me

  4. tom shaw says:

    There is a lovely gypsy story on amz kindle in a book called MADE A GYPSY SMILE If you are part of all this you will feel the breeze blow on your face when yo read. little Mama Nening

  5. tom shaw says:

    There is a painting by Sir Alfred Cummings of gypsies in a paddock running after a horse drawn cart circa 1935. As soon as I see it my modern life is all wrong. I want to be there. It is as though the English Countryside consumes me. And this is just a painting.

  6. I hate to say this..but using generalizations , stereotypes and anecdotal references and present them as fact when discussing a group of people is actually racist behaviour. We are getting sick and tired of all these so called “experts on Gypsy life”, who think they know about the Romani. First of all..our “nomadic livestyles” where forced upon the Romani people..because the Europeans burned our houses down everytime we tried to settle.So hence the nomadic lifestyle. And not all of us read hands or use tarot, or play music or live in wagons. And we prefer to be called Roma (Romanichel in England) or Sinti.Travellers, although they also face discriminatory attitudes, are not the same as Romani people. Europeans just lump everyone who lives as a nomad under the banner of Gypsies. Also, the Romani people are not charmed by those who call themselfes New age gypsies. You cannot choose to become a Gypsy..just like you cannot become an Aboriginal because you choose so. The real Gypsies,thus Roma and Sinti, are an ethnic group and not a lifestyle you can choose to be. So to those who call themselfes new age gypsies..call yourself new age wanderers or whatever and leave the Romani people out of it please.

    • Somehow I just saw your posted comment. I apologize that you took my use of the word Gypsy in any other way than being a Traveler… from Scotland. I have no claim to be related by blood or culture to Romani Gypsies and meant no offense whatsoever. In fact your point is so well stated that maybe you could write a piece for me to publish on the blog that help people hear what you are saying. I appreciate your candor and honesty and would like to hear more of what you are sharing. I apologize for the generalizations that offended you. It was never intended. Please write more. Maya

  7. E. Reid Gilbert says:

    Ever since Mamma warned me that Gypsies kidnapped little children, I think I’ve been following them. When she told me that, I said, “What would they do with me ?” “Oh they’d take you way off yonder.” “Really?” The books I have already written reflect the beginning of the nomadic life. The last part of my memoirs will probably mention Gypsies somewhere in the title, having lived, played and worked in many parts of the Us as well as India, Thailand and England.
    E. Reid Gilbert

    • This idea that Gypsies steal children is a way to get people to be afraid of that which is not them. We live in a world where anyone other than being just like your or me is suspect. The real child abductors are not aliens or Gypsies but our own government who in fact run an elite operation of sexual trafficking and are untouchable. That would be the real issue to research. Watch “Whistleblower”. Lets just bust all the myths that make us live in fear of one another.

  8. Jan says:

    When I was very young, the Gypsies would travel the road in front of my house. I remember quite vividly of them coming down the road and my grandmother and grandfather hid me under the bed thinking that they stole little children. Could this be true? Did they steal children that weren’t being watched?

    • I think that is a myth that may have only circumstantial truth but just like ALL black people are ignorant the idea that all Gypsies steal children is just as preposterous. Good question though. Maya

  9. Mariann Kaye says:

    UT in Austin has the largest and only Romani library in the world. John made contact and was given time in the library. Th following books were highly recommended. Bury Me Standing, The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca; The Gypsies, Jan Yoors; The Peoples of Europe, The Gypsies, Angus Fraser; We are the Romani people, Jan Hancock. John was asked to call his heroine in Triptych a Romani or Rom. Have a fabulous time in Costa Rica, I know you will! Sending love, M

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