Images and Symbols of the Gypsies (Roma) in the Early USSR

Authors: Elena Marushiakova-Popova (University of St Andrews)
Veselin Popov (University of St Andrews)
Speaker: Elena Marushiakova-Popova
Topic: Language, Community, Ethnicity
The CALA 2021 General Session


The October Revolution and the subsequent creation of the USSR, located on a vast area in Eurasia, is a spectacular historical attempt to create a “new society”, characterised by radical changes in all social and cultural spheres, as well as the creation of new, Soviet symbols. This general historical context reflects on all spheres of life, including the state policy towards the Gypsies (labelled today as Roma), which was particularly active in the 1920s and 1930s. The name ‘Gypsies’, which was used at that time, is more appropriate in our case, because in this general category, in addition to Roma (living scattered throughout the USSR), were included also several other communities who either do not identify themselves as Roma or are not Roma by origin (Dom and Lom in the South Caucasus region, and the so-called Lyuli or Jugi in Central Asia) but all share their Indian origin.

Soviet policy towards the Gypsies had different dimensions, including codification of the Romani language, creation of Gypsy national literature and of a Gypsy national theater, Gypsy schools, Gypsy collective farms, and artisant’s artels, etc. Along with all this, a number of new public images and symbols related to the Gypsies were built, which were presented in various forms in the USSR itself and broadcast to the West for propaganda purposes. The new, Soviet Gypsy symbolics, was, using Stalin’s popular formulation of Soviet literature as an analogy, ‘national in form and socialist in content’. Based on this formulation, the two main directions in which these images and symbols were developed and popularised were determined –firstly, based on the ancient social and cultural traditions of the Gypsies, and, secondly, in the presentation of the new, socialist dimensions which were occurring in their life.

The presentation will display and analyse various examples of public images and symbols, distributed through various channels – photographs in the press (Gypsy and mainstream), layout and illustrations of books, posters, stage plays, movies, etc.- covering both indicated directions. At the same time,  it will be revealed how this new symbolism affected the Gypsy community and the Soviet society as a whole, as well as in a wider dimension, outside the USSR, including present-day. Part of this symbolism (of the first type) is presently used, in a modified form, in the digital space, mostly by various Roma organisations worldwide creating a new virtual world of Pan-Roma unity.

Keywords: Gypsies, Roma, symbolism, USSR, pubic images, propaganda