Roma and war: how the cultural contexts of Roma communities in Ukraine have changed

During the Russia-Ukraine War, Ukrainians and Roma are increasingly responding to the challenges of not only the modern tragedy of the war, but also rethinking the memory of the Second World War and the modern Russia-Ukraine War, in particular through the cultural context of their people. Today, Roma youngsters are actively fighting for the existence of their own people on the territory of Ukraine, resisting the attack on freedom, civilizational values and humanity, which the Russian aggressors are trying to destroy. After all, the war affects various spheres of life of Ukrainian citizens: economic, historical, political, social and cultural. Let’s try to briefly understand how the cultural context of the Roma has changed.

If we go back to history, namely to the time of the Second World War, it is worth mentioning the tragedy of the genocide of the Roma population. It is known that during the Second World War, the Nazis took about 500,000 Roma from the occupied countries and killed them in concentration camps. They were also killed in forced labour camps, places of migration and parking lots during punitive operations. At least 20,000 Roma died within the borders of Ukraine due to the actions of the occupation regimes. In general, according to modern historians, the total number of victims of the Roma genocide reaches 1.5 million people.

In the current conditions of the Russian-Ukrainian war, it is still difficult to calculate the number of losses among the Roma population of Ukraine, because the interpretation of real figures will be done by historians a little later. However, we can already begin to rethink the established narratives that the Roma, supposedly as a people, were almost never patriots of one or another country in which they lived. In today’s realities, we can follow how the viewpoint of one’s own patriotism within the community is changing, and qualitatively new narratives and the image of conscious patriotic citizens of Ukraine are slowly beginning to take shape. And this entails changes in cultural codes and traditions.

This is exactly the opinion of the Roma historian and ethnographer who survived the Russian occupation in Nova Kakhovka – Yanush Panchenko.

“The Roma are apolitical and have never shown their patriotism towards the country where they lived. This applies not only to Ukraine, but to any place where they make a living,” comments Yanush Panchenko.

According to the researcher, for Roma, the main thing is their community and family. Therefore, the state system and everything related to political aspects fade into the background.

“The Roma didn’t care in which country to live, they didn’t care. Patriotism, the feeling of sentiments for one’s country was often seen as something not very good, so this practice was not welcomed among the Roma. Someone who was a patriot could be called “gadjo”. However, now everything has completely changed, namely in the system of values, or let’s call it “patriotism”, concern for one’s country. I conducted a survey and many respondents answered “Yes” to my question “Can a Rom be a patriot of his country?” It turns out that we were patriots,” comments Yanush Panchenko about the change in the cultural and patriotic element of the Roma community in Ukraine.

You can trace the change of trends in the formation of the public position of the Roma in the fact that today the Roma, like other citizens, aspire to Ukrainian power and they fight for it in every way. The majority of Roma do not support the Russian government; many of them joined the ranks of the Armed Forces. Even more are joining the volunteer movements of our country.

However, if we turn to the visual images of the Roma communities of Ukraine during the war, the most iconic image is the image where the Roma residents of Nova Kakhovka stole a tank from the Russian occupiers. Of course, stereotyping in this context regarding Roma is still present, but this leitmotif becomes a certain new challenge for reflection in the visual culture of Roma and Ukrainians in general. The event with the stolen Russian tank by the Roma definitely flows into the folklore of modern historical events, many memes and jokes appear with it, and later it may become a topic for artists and visual artists of the future.

The visual component of Roma media and the illustrative part of texts about Roma are also changing. A vivid example of this is the information and analytical media Roma. Ua, which covers the events of the war since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine War, and most of the illustrations are related to the new narratives of the war: a Rom, who is dressed in the uniform of the Armed Forces, again, the famous tank of the occupiers and the presence of elements of the military theme.

In the context of illustrations and posters on the Roma war theme, it is also worth mentioning the media platform “Zhyanes”, which in its illustrations for journalistic and reportage texts about Roma during the war, also mostly uses and creates illustrative materials related to the war and volunteering during the war. In the future, these illustrations will most likely become subjects for artists, designers, and futurists.

In addition to the visual component of Roma culture and history, the musical component is also being transformed. In short, Roma musicians and performers begin to sing and create music that relates to the patriotic mood of Ukrainians and Ukraine in general. Let’s just mention the famous “Oi, u luzi chervona kalyna” (“Oh, there’s a red viburnum in the meadow”), it was sung by dozens of different musicians, both Ukrainian and foreign.

The Roma musical component here also becomes an element of the worldwide patriotic brand: the Transcarpathian Roma jazz band Pap Jazz Quartet undertakes the arrangement of this song in its own unique way, thus presenting a completely new and high-quality sounding of Sich Riflemen anthem performed by Roma jazzmen. Or let’s recall the song “UKRAINA PEREMOZHE” (“UKRAINE WILL WIN”), performed by O. Ponomarov, M. Khoma, T. Topolia, Ye. Koshovyi, Yu. Tkach P. Chornyi.

Actually, one of them, as we know, is a singer of Roma origin Petro Chornyi. When his part of the musical work is played, Roma women appear in the frame, and in colourful flared dresses, scarves and with fiery dances, they become part of the clip.

As we can see, Roma patriotism is indeed becoming a part of modern Roma culture, changing its past narratives and viewpoints. Here we can once again return to the reasoning and opinion of the Roma historian Janush Panchenko, who spoke about the change in the patriotic and social order of the Roma. We trace the patriotic attitudes of the Roma, their inclusion in the patriotic and national movement of Ukraine for freedom and democracy. But the cultural context of the Roma, while preserving its authenticity, still acquires new elements – national, patriotic and military ones.

Read also a story by Roma activist and historian Yanush Panchenko about life under occupation

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