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“In '41, we were hiding from the Germans in Russia. Now it's the other way round”: Roma people recount life under Russian occupation

Prior to the war, the Donbas region was officially home to over four thousand Roma people. However, following the Russian occupation, this community, which had frequently faced discrimination, found itself completely deprived of rights. Many Roma were forced to flee, yet even abroad, in European countries, they continue to endure persecution.

  • A home that failed its purpose

  • “We decided we should look up to Donetsk”

  • “Children were seldom segregated in schools”

  • “We stole a tank – let’s steal Putin!”

  • “Russians assumed that the Roma family had gold and drugs”

  • “We were afraid that Russian soldiers would kill us, just like the Germans did in 1941”

  • Those who stayed behind

  • “Germans don’t care if you're Roma or not.” Where refugees are heading

  • “We love Ukraine, but what will we do there?”

A home that failed its purpose

In early 2022, the Roma community in the city of Kakhovka, in the Kherson region, was preparing to inaugurate a cultural center for Romani youth.

“The city authorities provided us with a space, and we ourselves renovated it,” recalls Janusz Panchenko, a Ukrainian ethnographer of Roma origin, a specialist in Roma culture, history, and language, and an activist. “We Ukrainians and Roma people worked together on the repairs. We were dreaming about how we would spend time there, learning the Roma language. This place was intended to be an informal educational platform for Roma youth. We completed the renovations on February 22. Then, on February 24, our city was occupied.”

The Roma youth did the repairs in the Center themselves
The Roma youth did the repairs in the Center themselves
Janusz Panchenko’s archive

The Center remained empty until May 9, 2022, Victory Day, when Russian soldiers broke into the premises.

“They were checking if snipers or Ukrainian soldiers were hiding there, but they found no one. The only valuable things there were the doors and windows. We didn't even have time to bring anything inside,” Janusz adds.

Upon learning that the space belonged to the Roma community, the soldiers began to inquire about who was responsible for it and later started searching for Panchenko. A woman who worked nearby informed Janusz about this. That's when Janusz decided it was time to leave. With his family, he managed to leave Ukraine and reach Germany.

“We decided we should look up to Donetsk”

The Romani community in Ukraine is diverse, comprising various ethnic groups: Transcarpathian (Hungarian and Slovak) Roma, Servi (believed to have originated from Serbia, present in Ukraine since the 15th century, and also known as 'Ukrainian Roma'), Vlachs (originating from Romania, forming an ancient Roma population in Ukraine and southern Russia), and the Crimean Roma (who migrated from Bessarabia to Crimea when it became part of the Russian Empire in the late 18th century). Panchenko mentions that Donetsk was one of the centers of Romani culture before the war. It held significance not only for Eastern Ukraine but for all of Ukraine and even for Russian Romani communities.

Donetsk was one of the centers of Romani culture before the war

“If you've ever attended a Roma celebration or wedding in Donetsk, you can later talk about it as a significant event,” says Panchenko. “Or, you know... When discussing Roma issues, like whether Roma girls should pursue higher education, someone might say, 'In Donetsk, girls have been attending universities for a long time.' And that mattered! We decided we should look up to Donetsk.”

Even now, during the war and occupation, the Roma life in Donetsk remains vibrant. Romani is spoken here, Romani music fills the air, and there is even a Roma theater. However, it's no longer possible to describe the war-torn city as a cultural hub. Shells and bullets have changed a lot.

The Rada Theater, September 2023
The Rada Theater, September 2023

Two more interviewees of by The Insider, Maria and Yulia, both Romani mothers of sizeable families whom we met in Serpukhov, had fled from Luhansk. They shared that Lysychansk was home to many Roma families who enjoyed prosperity, possessing their own homes and multiple cars per household. Maria's relatives, for instance, had three cars before the onset of the war, while Yulia's had four. In the Luhansk region, the Roma community primarily engaged in commerce, with some running stalls in the local market, others owning their shops, and a few involved in car resale.

In the Kherson region, affluent and well-educated Roma also possessed private residences and operated their own businesses.

Conversely, Roma settlements in locations like the deserted mining town of Snizhne in the Donetsk region or Nakhalovka, a bleak and perilous district in Makiivka, presented a distinctly contrasting picture, resembling slums according to local residents. In Snizhne, Roma were occupied with recycling metals and salvageable construction materials from dilapidated structures. As for Nakhalovka, locals colloquially referred to it as a place where one could readily “stock up on weed,” alluding to its rough and unsavory reputation.

In the village of Snizhne, the Romani community settled in the abandoned houses left behind by the miners
In the village of Snizhne, the Romani community settled in the abandoned houses left behind by the miners

One of the most secluded Roma settlements can be found on the border of Donetsk and Makiivka, a place called Stroydetal, which is accompanied by a colorful Roma cemetery.

The tombstones of affluent Roma people often resemble genuine works of art. This cemetery is situated near the Stroydetal settlement
The tombstones of affluent Roma people often resemble genuine works of art. This cemetery is situated near the Stroydetal settlement

In Mariupol, there was a mix of both wealthy and less fortunate Roma residents. For example, Romani woman Zhanna and her son Arthur, who received assistance from the Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial, had their own farm and auto repair shop before the war. However, some Roma lived in extremely cramped conditions even prior to the conflict.

“Children were seldom segregated in schools”

The Romani population in Ukraine faced discrimination, exemplified by a Roma pogrom in Lviv in 2018. Panchenko notes that before the war, there were instances of attacks on Roma by radical groups. However, he emphasizes that “Roma in Ukraine encountered the same problems as Roma worldwide.”

The issue of how Roma were treated in Ukraine before 2014 was extensively studied by the Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial. “Unfortunately, discrimination against Roma is a pervasive phenomenon,” says Stefaniya Kulayeva, an expert from the Center. “But in several aspects, the situation in Ukraine was better than in Russia. For instance, children were seldom segregated in schools. I personally interviewed children who fled from the Donetsk region in 2014, and they all attended regular classes with other children in Ukraine.”

She explains that in Russia, “camp” children are segregated into separate Roma-only classes everywhere. In Ukraine, she only found “Romani classes” in Berehove (Zakarpattia) and in one village in the Odessa region.

Various foundations and human rights organizations, such as the Roma Women's Fund Chirikli, Romani Fellowship in the Donetsk Region, the International Fund Rebirth, which had a dedicated Roma program, and many others, undertook significant efforts to integrate Roma into Ukrainian society.

“We stole a tank – let’s steal Putin!”

On February 28, 2022, a video went viral on the internet, depicting a rural tractor towing a tank adorned with the letter 'Z.' Shortly thereafter, comments like “Roma stole the tank!” and information about the video's location in Lyubymivka, near Kakhovka in the Kherson region, began to circulate.

As Janusz Panchenko explains, the initial reports suggested that not only Roma but also Ukrainians were involved in commandeering the armored vehicle. It was even rumored that the tank was unoccupied as it had been abandoned by Russian soldiers. Nevertheless, the narrative swiftly accrued fanciful embellishments.

“The idea that Roma stole the tank resonated with the public,” Panchenko remarks. “People began to claim that Russians had been present, and Roma had somehow plied them with liquor. This narrative quickly evolved into a legend, blurring the lines between fact and fiction.”

The tale of the tractor and the tank triggered an information frenzy that, as Janusz explains, had a substantial influence on how Roma were perceived in Ukraine and the attitudes towards them:

“My colleagues and I conducted a later study, inquiring about what Ukrainians associated with Roma. Many responded, 'Roma stole a tank.'“
The painting “Roma Stole a Tank,” oil on canvas
The painting “Roma Stole a Tank,” oil on canvas

In 2022, Ukrainians strongly supported the participation of Roma in the war on Ukraine's side, as confirmed by Stefaniya Kulayeva, an expert from the Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial:

“The video of the Roma tractor became hugely popular. There was an idea of unity against aggression, which was heavily promoted in Ukraine, and there was a Romani volunteer patch in the army.”

Roma people themselves take pride in the actions of their compatriots. For instance, in April 2022, a video about the lives of Romani refugees was released, titled “We Stole a Tank, Let's Steal Putin!”

Panchenko recalls that this story received enthusiastic reactions, even from some Roma in Russia, for instance in Rostov:

“People said, 'That tank might have killed someone or destroyed someone's home, but now it's been stolen, and it won't harm anyone!'“

Merchandise dedicated to the Roma feat began to appear all over Ukraine, including T-shirts, mugs, and even board games. Panchenko shares an anecdote: “One guy made a video in front of the tank, posted it online, claimed it was the same tank stolen by the Roma, and said he was involved in it. Later, it turned out that the guy was actually from Moldova and was just trying to create hype. But it also illustrates the popularity of this topic.”

Janusz adds that during World War II, there was a similar legend in Ukraine about Roma who stole a tank from the Germans. “Roma culture has the unique feature of anonymous heroes,” he says. “There's no specific Roma who stole something from the Germans or the Russians. It's always 'the people' who do it.”

Roma culture has the unique feature of anonymous heroes. There's no specific Roma who stole something from the Germans or the Russians. It's always the people who do it

Later, Panchenko came across mentions online that someone among the Roma had stolen shells and a tank battery from the Russians. However, there was no information frenzy like the one following the tractor and tank story.

According to the Chirikli Foundation's estimate, there are over a thousand Roma serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Panchenko considers this a somewhat vague figure, which could mean anywhere between 1,100 and 5,000 people. Nevertheless, he notes that he personally knows many Roma who are fighting for Ukraine, including his third cousin.

“Russians assumed that the Roma family had gold and drugs”

While Russia has not conducted large-scale ethnic purges against Roma, according to the Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial, crimes against Roma victims have been occurring since the early days of the occupation.

The most notorious case was the murder of an eight-member Roma family in Makiivka in late 2022. Russian media put forth various versions of what happened, from alcohol-related accident to simple theft. Janusz Panchenko recalls another incident:

“Russian soldiers entered one of the houses and realized that a Romani family lived there. They assumed they had gold and drugs. They demanded that the family hand over everything. The family had neither. So the soldiers beat the head of the family, tore apart the paneling, and conducted a search. They put a sack over one woman's head, and she started suffocating. She had a Russian passport and told them she was Russian, asking them to stop, but they said they didn't care. They didn't kill her but terrified the whole family immensely.”

In another Roma house, the Russians stole the gates – large iron ones featuring images of horses. Janusz suggests that the gates might have subsequently been used for military purposes.

The frequent robberies of Roma homes by Russian soldiers are confirmed by a 35-year-old Romani woman from Luhansk named Maria:

“We have a tradition of investing money in gold, in jewelry and items made of this metal. Not just putting it in the bank or buying shares, but actually storing wealth in gold. That's why our homes in Luhansk and Lysychansk were broken into and robbed first. They took everything that wasn't nailed down and even stole cars.”

When Maria and her relatives were leaving for Russia, they didn't have gasoline. They had to trade their remaining family gold for it:

“We gave four handfuls of gold jewelry for a jerrycan of gasoline. To whom? To 'LNR' troops, I think. I'm not sure; they had no identifiable markings on their uniforms.”
Maria’s family had to trade their remaining family gold for gasoline to get to Russia

Janusz recalls how in the early months of the war, the Russians brought humanitarian aid and food to the Kherson region. However, the Roma often received nothing. Soldiers openly stated that they believed the Roma wouldn't participate in the referendum, wouldn't “carry flags,” and thus, there was no need to feed them.

The Roma asked Janusz to talk to the Russian soldiers, but he refused to negotiate with the occupiers.

Stefania Kulaeva notes that the war not only deprived the Roma of their material possessions but also denied their children access to education:

“Even during peacetime, ensuring access to education for Roma children in small, remote communities with limited numbers of educated adults was a challenging task. Progress had just started in this endeavor when it was abruptly curtailed. It's probable that we'll witness another generation of undereducated young people, with girls from traditional Romani communities likely not returning to school.”

“We were afraid that Russian soldiers would kill us, just like the Germans did in 1941”

There have been many rumors circulating about the fate of the Roma during the war. In July 2023, a Telegram channel belonging to the Omsk Civil Association posted information claiming that the Roma were being evicted from the occupied territory and transported to Russia, as they were considered inferior and unstable. A document was attached, indicating the deportation of Roma to Omsk and other Siberian cities.

“The document we posted was sent to us by a longstanding source, and their messages have never been disproven,” said Nikolai Rodkin, the head of the Omsk Civil Association, in a conversation with The Insider’s correspondent. “We sent a request to the authorities of the Omsk region to confirm or refute this document. Our request was ignored.”

However, neither activists, human rights organizations, nor the Roma from Eastern Ukraine confirm this information. “There are no verified sources of information about the deportation of Roma to Siberia,” says Stefania Kulaeva. “While some people are traveling to Russia and even to Siberia, I do not believe that it's an ethnically targeted deportation.”

Janusz Panchenko has not encountered such cases either but suggests where these rumors may have originated. Many Roma families in Ukraine carry the memory of the genocide committed by the Germans during World War II. When the invasion began, many panicked and feared a repeat of history.

“In one of the refugee camps in Germany, Roma explained their decision to leave Ukraine this way: 'We were afraid that Russian soldiers would kill and exterminate us, just like the Germans did in 1941,'“ Kulaeva acknowledges.

Those who stayed behind

In the midst of the ongoing conflict and occupation, it's impossible to determine the exact number of Roma who were forced to become refugees. It's also hard to ascertain how many Roma remain in the territories forcibly annexed by Russia. Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly those who stayed.

In the Kherson region, prior to the war, there were 22 Roma who had survived the genocide during World War II. Over time, some of them have passed away due to old age, others have chosen to leave, but a few have stayed. However, the fate of some of those who stayed is shrouded in uncertainty. Take, for instance, the situation in Novotroitske, where the Crimean Roma Vladimir Demukhin and Svetlana Oglo resided. Janusz Panchenko had the opportunity to interview them. “They didn't have mobile phones, so I used to communicate with them through another guy,” says Janusz. “With the beginning of the war, that guy left. I don't know what's happened to these Roma; the connection has been lost.”

One Romani woman who survived the Holocaust can't go anywhere; she barely leaves her home.

“In Germany, I met a Roma who said, 'It's so strange... back then, I was hiding from the Germans in Russia. And now, I'm hiding from the Russians in Germany,'“ Panchenko says.

Roma genocide survivors
Roma genocide survivors
Janusz Panchenko’s archive

Roma are often reluctant to move due to extreme poverty. Many Roma from Mariupol, Nakhalovka, and Snizhne, for example, haven't left. Frequently, these Roma are involved in criminal activities, including selling drugs to Russian soldiers.

Various people sometimes adopt a pro-Russian stance, particularly those who are poorly versed in or don't understand the Ukrainian language and listen to Russian TV. However, this situation is changing, with fewer people holding such views, including among the Roma community, according to Kulaeva.

“Germans don’t care if you're Roma or not.” Where refugees are heading

Roma fleeing the war and seeking refuge in different regions of Ukraine encountered various challenges, especially at checkpoints.

“On several occasions, the Russians subjected us to prolonged interrogations due to their disapproval of our Roma ethnicity,” recounts Zhanna from Mariupol, whose story, along with her family's, was documented by Memorial. “They harbored suspicions without specifying them. They pressed for money, which we lacked, and probed us about our origins, occupations, and destination. They questioned why we were heading to Ukraine and not to Russia or Crimea. This process repeated at nearly 17 checkpoints, taking between 30 minutes to an hour each time.”

Yulia, a Roma who traveled to Russia, didn't encounter such treatment. She describes her journey: “We were a group of only 14 children, two women, and one man driving. We wrote 'CHILDREN' on our car, and they didn't hassle us; we were allowed to pass without waiting in line. You can't complain about anything here.”

According to Julia and Maria, finding suitable housing in Russia was exceptionally difficult, as landlords were reluctant to rent to Roma people. They had to turn to volunteers who assist refugees. Even some of these volunteers hesitated when they learned they would be helping Roma. Ultimately, it took the determination of courageous women from Serpukhov to find accommodation for these Roma and provide them with essential supplies, including food and household appliances.

Julia emphasized that both she and other Roma from Ukraine were often unfairly accused of theft in Russia.

“I haven't had any conflicts with the police here, but with ordinary people, it's a constant thing. I remember going into a store – they would immediately shadow us, watch as if we might steal something. Now, they've gotten used to me in the neighborhood where I live, but in the past, they were always keeping an eye on me, as if I might steal something.”

The experience of Roma in the Czech Republic and Poland has also been far from easy. Arthur, the 12-year-old son of Zhanna from Mariupol, shared his feelings that Roma were not treated as favorably as Ukrainians in the Czech Republic.

“At some point, they denied my mother the allowance, even though they continued to provide it to other Ukrainian refugees. In the Czech school, almost no one befriended me, although they treated other Ukrainian children normally. Because of all these difficulties and because I missed my father terribly, we decided to return to Kyiv.”

When the massive missile strikes on Ukrainian cities began, and Kyiv was also being bombed, Zhanna and Arthur left again, this time to Norway. “We were accommodated in a small hotel along with other Ukrainians and were assigned rooms. In our family, for instance, there are five people, and they provided us with a five-room suite. Here, we receive some assistance from local residents, mostly Arabs and migrants from other countries,” Arthur says.

Panchenko also says that his sister faced discrimination in the Czech Republic. One of the local nail technicians refused to serve her upon learning her nationality. Later, the technician acknowledged her mistake and even invited the Romani woman for an appointment, but she declined.

According to activists, Germany is the country where Roma are most readily accepted, and it is the destination of choice for many Roma seeking refuge.

According to activists, Germany is the country where Roma are most readily accepted, and it is the destination of choice for many Roma seeking refuge.

“Germans don't care if you're Roma or not,” says Panchenko, who currently lives in Germany. “There are many migrants here, and people have grown accustomed to diversity. There might be some groups that dislike migrants or Roma, but it doesn't feel like something widespread.”

Janusz knows of one case of racism in Germany: someone drew a swastika on a Romani pastor's car. The police came, but the culprits were not found.

“The most complaints about discrimination came from Poland, Romania, and Hungary, but it also happened in Germany,” says Kulaeva. “Some people were evicted from refugee camps, and some were not accepted there, partly because Roma families are very large, and they couldn't provide 35 spots right away, and Roma didn't want to split up.”

In Russia, it is certainly more challenging for Roma than in Europe, notes Kulaeva. There is not much solidarity within Roma communities; refugees go to relatives and acquaintances but do not stay for long. “In 2014-2015, many Roma went to Russia,” says Stefania. “They listened to Russian TV, thought they would be helped, and were very disappointed that there was no real assistance, and difficulties with immigration status lasted for years. In 2022-2023, many more Roma left for the EU, including through Russia.”

While official Roma foundations and associations exist in Ukraine, there are fewer activists in Russia, and they often work alone. They help Romani refugees to the best of their ability, with document processing, finding housing, employment, and adaptation. They have strongly requested not to mention their names or provide detailed information about their activities, fearing actions by the Russian authorities.

“We love Ukraine, but what will we do there?”

When asked about how he and his family are living in Germany, activist Panchenko responds that they are doing well. His family receives support, attends language courses, and he is pursuing his research. In this country, there are many programs and opportunities for young scientists, including specific support programs for Ukrainian refugees.

However, Janush is still concerned about the home he left behind in Ukraine, which could be hit by a shell any day.

“But against the backdrop of people dying there, these are all trivial matters. Recently, a shell hit a house in the Donetsk region. The entire family was in the basement, and only one Romani girl was in the garage. She didn't survive. Complaining in the face of this tragedy is inappropriate,” he says.

When asked if they want to return to Ukraine after the war, Romani women Yulia and Maria respond similarly:

“We have nowhere to return to now—our home is destroyed, nothing is left. But there are those who still have property, those who worked hard for it. They want to return. We love Ukraine, but what will we do there?”

Even in their refugee situation, the Romani people try to find positive aspects in everything that has happened.

“Our community activities have come to a halt,” says Janush. “All our youth have left Kakhovka. I haven't seen anyone for a long time. But everyone wants to come back. They all miss our Center. They are upset that the doors were broken. And I tell them— not every community organization attracts the attention of soldiers. So, we built that place very well. And we will definitely return there.”

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