First Roma in the territory of Ukraine — a path of wandering and mastery

Almost from the very beginning of migration to the territory of modern Europe, the Roma people were subjected to wanderings, which only intensified over the years. While the Western governments created anti-Roma laws, the situation was partially different in the East. Researchers believe that the first Roma came to the territory of modern Ukraine in the 15th- and 16th centuries, hiding from slavery and persecution. It was this Eastern European branch that was able to partially adapt and begin to lead a semi-sedentary lifestyle already during the first centuries.

The complexity of the research lies in the fact that the territories of Ukraine at different times were annexed to other states: The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita), the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Principality of Moldavia, the Austrian, Turkish, and Russian Empires, the USSR and Ukrainian SSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and others. Of course, politics influenced the general mood of the migrants and population. Researchers note that Roma migrated to the territory of modern Ukraine mostly from present-day Slovakia, Romania, Moldova, and Poland. The common cause was persecution and anti-Roma sentiments which were approved at the legislative level. Nowadays it is difficult to say to what extent the wanderings of the 15th- and 19th centuries were the “call of blood”, and which were imposed by a society that wanted to conquer, tax, and sometimes even enslave. The authorities of various countries for a long time tried to implement a policy of banning migration and transferring Roma to a sedentary lifestyle. The attempts had varying degrees of success and were implemented primarily for the purpose of control. The situation was worsened by the fact that the leaders of European countries at that time transferred the rights to “jurisdiction” over the Roma to their “owners”. It made interaction with the government impossible and distanced the Roma from possible integration and worsened the standard of living.

Roma in the territories of Ukraine: The first mentions and lifestyle

The documents preserved to this day show that the first mentions of the resettlement of Roma in the territory of modern Ukrainian lands date back to the 15th century. Such data are recorded in the charters of Polish kings, Lithuanian statutes, and Lviv register books. The migration of Roma to the territory of present-day Ukraine began with those lands that were in the possession of Poland in the specified historical period. The first Roma migrants are mentioned in the Sanok register books of 1428 and 1436, as well as in the Lviv register books of 1428 and 1455.

Anti-Roma sentiments spread throughout Western Europe and quickly reached Polish lands. As early as 1557, the first resolution on the expulsion of Roma from the country was adopted at the Sejm in Poland, and then confirmed in 1565. It was the persecution that led to the migration of Roma to sparsely populated border areas, namely the southern territories of modern Ukraine. By the 16th century, Roma were already an integral part of Ukrainian society. Moreover, the local population began to hide migrants who provided various occupations, blacksmith services, entertained with dances, fortune-telling and domesticated animals. In the Lithuanian Statute of 1588, the inadmissibility of the stay of nomads on the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was recorded. A little later, the government began to legally restrict the population that took the side of the nomads and threatened with expulsion from the country. This was explained by the fact that they could be spies and pose a threat to the country. It was difficult to completely evict the Roma, and a “policy of control” began to be implemented on these lands. For this, the position of “Roma kings” was established, who were supposed to supervise their subordinates. It is likely that the position was supposed to be held by representatives of the community or close to it, but in fact it was held by low-rank Polish nobles, who meanwhile did not receive much tribute and were not distinguished by special privileges.

Although the position was hereditary, the kings changed almost every year. Researchers consider such a phenomenon to be logical only if officials were given a more privileged place for good work. Interestingly, to this day scholars have not found any decree or order issued by the kings. In other words, it is not known exactly how internal management was carried out, considering that the nomads did not obey the authorities very much.

The Roma people of Malorosiia / (Little Russia) were both nomadic, moving from place to place, and sedentary ones. Gradually, representatives from the Left-bank Ukraine moved to the territory of Slobozhanshchyna. The first mention of Roma in the Kharkiv province dates back to 1699 (the village of Zmiiev). At first, the settlement process was not going well and most of the Roma chose a nomadic lifestyle. Some researchers believe that the phenomenon is related to the lack of hard power in the territories, which constantly caused an influx of refugees from other countries. It is significant that in the middle of the 17th century the Roma of the Left Bank of Ukraine were not oppressed in terms of rights. Some representatives joined the Liberation Struggle, and there were mentions about Cossacks of Roma origin in the “Registers of the entire Zaporizhzhia Army”: Vasko Tsyhan, Fedir Tsyhanskyi, Stepan Tsyhanchuk and others.

Thus, the absence of anti-Roma laws and tough political decisions initially did not create conditions for Roma to refuse to travel. This can be traced through stored archive data. In the period of 1765, the Chernihiv Regimental Chancellery received information that there were no permanently resident Roma in the settlements, they were mostly engaged in trade and came to winter fairs. There were settlers who paid taxes, and some nomadic Roma were vouched for by their sedentary acquaintances. The mass resettlement of Roma in the mentioned territories dates back to the second half of the 17th century. It was at this time that settlements appeared: Tsyhanivka of Kamensk district (povit) of Chernihiv province, Tsyhany of Chervonohrad district in Halychyna, etc.

Zaporozhian Sich (semi-autonomous polity and proto-state of Cossacks) was finally annexed to the Russian Empire in the second quarter of the 18th century. The Roma (Servitka Roma and probably Vlachs) lived in this territory, and were engaged in blacksmithing, horse breeding, and also led bears.

According to the records of the researcher Barannykov, already in the 18th century, a significant part of the Roma lived in these territories. They formed the ethnographic group of the so-called “Ukrainian Roma” in the middle of the 20th century. Mostly 40-50 people settled in places with a steppe climate, which is more profitable for keeping horses. They left their homes for a short time for all kinds of fairs and earnings. Researchers note that this period was accompanied by crisis phenomena in Roma traditions. Settlers partly departed from customs and adapted to the surrounding circumstances, adopted the traditions of the local population. Probably, the fear of complete cultural assimilation became one of the reasons for refusing a settled lifestyle in some families.

In 1792, there were 1,000 Roma – state peasants – within the boundaries of the Katerynoslav province. In the 17th- and 18th centuries the usual dwellings for Roma were tents, let’s cite from the work of I. Markevich: “For example, in the lists provided by the Slobidska Sotnia (military unit), it is said that Kozorenko and his family live in one tent, Zolotorenko – in one, Andriy Bryzenko and his family – in one tent.”

According to the documents preserved in the Kharkiv Historical Archives, the Roma had a different material situation. “Vasyl Myna, a Rom from Baturyn, borrows 200 roubles and lives on bread”, “Pavlo Mashchenko gives his daughter a pair of horses, two large silver cups, a dress and other women’s clothing as a dowry” (2). Some documents have a detailed list. At the same time, mostly Roma owned horses and movable property worth a certain amount – some had 20-50 roubles, others from 100 roubles and more.

In the territory of Ukraine, Roma were forced to pay annual taxes (obroks) to the Military Treasury of Little Russia. The situation changed a little at the beginning of the 18th century, when the tax began to be collected once a year at an auction. In advance, information was disseminated in villages, cities and towns about the search for those willing to take the Roma collection at an auction. In this way, the government did not come into contact with the Roma population, but demanded that the attitude towards them be appropriate and that they are not taxed with excessive taxes. Since 1757, temporary otamans (chieftains) have been allowed to hold trials over the Roma population and ensure that they do not engage in obscenity. After 9 years, the Roma population was obliged to choose a permanent place of residence on an equal basis with others, in order to enter the departments of “sotni” (Cossack military units) and regimental governments. In terms of rights, during this period of time, Roma had a lower status than local peasants, for example, the sum charged for the murder of a Rom was half that of another peasant.

In the Right-bank Ukraine, further rights and responsibilities of the Roma were regulated by the universals of the Kyiv Civil-Military Commission, which made every effort to transfer the Roma to a settled lifestyle. In particular, the Roma were given one year to choose their place of residence and officially report it, after which they were defined as vagrants and began to be persecuted. The actions were successful and a mass transition took place in the middle of the 18th century.

Skillful grooms and blacksmiths

In most documents of the 18th- and 19th centuries it goes about the “special income of the Roma”, which is identical to the “ordinary Roma industry”. One of the main ones was horse trading, they treated it with all their hearts, it was a favourite business. Researchers believe that this is where the saying “trades horses like a Gypsy” came from. Constant activity related to animals had its consequences. Roma were almost the best grooms, had the skills of care and treatment. “We meet Roma grooms in Malorosiia, Ivan Bilousenko and Mykyta Romanovych live in Chernihiv, who have experience in horse breeding …”.

Another area of activity in which the Roma were skilled was blacksmithing. Romologists emphasize that among the common people the adjectives “Gypsy” and “blacksmith” were identical (2, 8). Four out of five Roma, who lived in Slabynska Sotnia in the 18th century, forged metal and bred bears.

When studying earnings, it is impossible to bypass other ways of obtaining daily funds – fortune-telling and conspiracies for various diseases, treatment for snake bites. There were people in the camps who knew folk methods of treatment and herbalism. The reason for this was constant displacement and poor access to medicine. When the camp arrived in new territories, local residents often turned to Roma healers for help. In an extremely impoverished situation, nomads resorted to begging or stealing. Fortune-tellers and healers often performed the function of psychologists, calming and instilling hope in the population. This fact became most noticeable during the Second World War; women were waiting for their loved ones and needed support. After arriving in new territories, the women went to the villagers and offered fortune-telling and asked something in return, selling things and products was also popular. Men worked, engaged in seasonal earnings, but money from this did not come immediately. In this way, women earned faster and for daily needs, often feeding entire camps.

It is worth noting separately the skill of the Roma in the manufacture of horseshoes, sewing needles, knives and buckles. Mastery in metalworking prompted the Roma to engage in boilermaking, tinsmithing, and a little later, the manufacture of silver and gold jewelry. Scientists emphasize that traditionally the Roma population was engaged in the domestication of animals, in particular the Carpathian bears. They were also engaged in the production of coal, earthy soap or the resale of old things. Of course, the musical art of the Roma, folk concerts and earning money with the help of their talents were not overlooked.

Since ancient times, Ukrainians have worked the land, and this has become an activity to which they tried to accustom the Roma population. However, before that, the Roma always felt alienated for reasons that were understandable to them. Government representatives, and later researchers, often explained unsuccessful attempts to attract Roma to work on the land – by the unwillingness of the latter, alienation. However, the trades and crafts that the Roma used to make a living involved frequent changes of location. The men did seasonal work, the women divined and healed whoever they could, and there were no more jobs to earn money. Learning to work on the land requires more than one month, during which it was also necessary to have means of subsistence. Therefore, the camp moved to another territory, once every 2-3 years they could return to the previous place. Those who were forced and forcefully trained to work on the land often began to starve and eventually, despite the ban, they left for other settlements. From the surviving documents (2, 5), it is clear that the Roma were never engaged in agriculture, but “amused themselves” with Roma crafts and horse-breeding.

The presence of the camp automatically meant that Roma could be involved in the household of local residents. So, men often had seasonal jobs, some of the peasants did not have horses, but everyone had to plow the field. Roma horses came in handy. They earned money by harvesting crops and making preparations for the winter. Moreover, they were engaged in this together with the Ukrainian population. As an example, the researcher cites the Yankovskyi family, which was sedentary, and its head paid his dues and worked, buying horses for the state factory. Historians note that the maintenance of the Roma people mostly rested on the shoulders of the local population.

The attitude of the local population

The relationship between the nomads and the local population was not always simple, but they had economic relationships. Interaction took place constantly despite isolated cases of mistrust and quarrels. However, historians note that locals were always impressed by the closeness of the Roma to the common people and the fact that the latter did not try to “get into” the wealthy strata. This made relations closer than with other foreigners. It is probably the ability to adapt to the conditions that allowed the Roma to find a common language with the local population more quickly. Food, costumes, religion were similar, and somewhere the same with the Roma – all this reconciled the Ukrainian population with new neighbours.

Over time, the peasants got used to the Roma who came to them. Ethnologists emphasize the interaction of the local population and the building of sometimes close, friendly ties. Most of the locals who hosted Roma families were either elderly and had no children around, or single widows. Roma liked to come to winter in the same place and tried to make it before the first frosts, and the local population often even waited for “their” nomads.

No matter which country the Roma migrated to, everywhere they found an opportunity to demonstrate that they accept the religion of the people among whom they are. Already in the 18th century, the Roma were Christians. This factor brought locals closer to nomads and settlers. The Roma of that period were deeply religious, but they also gravitated to their own traditions, which were often perceived by the locals as superstitions, but were not condemned.


1. ISTORIYA CYGAN – NOVYJ VZGLYAD. [History of the Gypsies. New look]. [Nikolaj Bessonov].

2. Tsyhany Malorosii [Gypsies of Little Russia].

3. Mirga A., Gheorghe N., Romowie w XXI wieku. Studium polityczne, Universitas,. Kraków 1997, s. 15.

4. Markevich. Obychai, pover’ya, kuxnya i napitki malorossiyan [Traditions, beliefs, cuisine and drinks of Ukrainians]. Kiev : v Tip. I. i A. Davidenko, 1860. 171 s.

5. Mihratsii tsyhanskykh hrup i formuvannia tsyhanskoho naselennia Rosiiskoi Imperii v XVII – pochatku XX v.

6. [Romani Groups Migrations and Formation of the Gypsy (Roma) Population in Russian Empire in the 17th – Early 20th Centuries].

Read also: The truth is n the word: gov a Roma pastor from Kharkiv glps displaced people

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *