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Page last updated at 23:44 GMT, Saturday, 11 July 2009 00:44 UK

Russian Roma face image problem

As part of a series on Roma Gypsies in Europe, Yuri Maloveriyan of BBC Russian examines how their reputation has changed in modern-day Russia.

Burned Roma house
"Houses started to burn": a Roma drug dealer's house

Russians have traditionally tended to think of Roma (Gypsies) in two ways: as horse-dealers and rustlers, or as rolling stones, wandering around the world in colourful costumes and singing romantic songs.

But in the new Russia this old image has been replaced by a different one - one generated by media reports from villages where Roma drug dealers sell heroin.

And although pro-Roma organisations try to argue that this picture does not apply to all Roma, their voice is drowned out by the media.

"All of a sudden, their houses started to burn because of some electrical problems, and entire clans would leave," remembers Yevgenii Malenkin from Russian non-governmental organisation City Without Drugs, pointing to a burned house not far from Yekaterinburg, in central Russia.

Mr Malenkin says that about seven years ago Roma people living in the house were openly selling heroin.

"Right here on the crossroads crowds gathered, waiting for drugs to arrive. Those who had received their dose were lying in the bushes nearby. And police cars would be there too, providing security for the Gypsies," he says.

There are no Roma engineers, no Roma doctors, they are all drug dealers
Yevgenii Malenkin

City Without Drugs started fighting drug addiction and drug dealing in Yekaterinburg 10 years ago.

But it seems Mr Malenkin's attitude towards Roma has been tainted by his experience.

"There are no Roma engineers, no Roma doctors, they are all drug dealers. There are five Roma villages in Yekaterinburg and all five trade drugs," he says.

Misrepresented

Nikolai Bessonov, one of the best known Russian specialists on Roma, believes that they are misrepresented in Russia.

"The real number of drug-dealers among Roma is exaggerated. The news only shows the drug-dealers. We never hear about Roma who study in universities, work on a farm, we don't see Roma engineers or Roma doctors," says Mr Bessonov, whose daughter and son-in-law are actors in a famous Moscow Roma theatre, the Roman.

Mr Bessonov lives in a village near Moscow where, he says, there are many Roma of "respectable" professions: a lawyer, a jeweller and a number of legitimate traders.

But the media tends to ignore them and this leads to misunderstanding.

A recent poll by the independent Levada Centre found that 52% of Russians think negatively of Roma.

According to Russia's 2002 census, there are 183,000 Roma in the country.

But Mr Bessonov estimates the number to be nearer 250,000.

Secret identity

Nikolai Bugai, foreign relations counsellor at the ministry of regional development, says that Roma are able to live in harmony with the rest of the community.

Traditional Roma
Can reviving traditions improve the image of the Roma?

He recently visited a village in the Krasnodar region in the south of Russia, where out of a population of 13,000, at least 5,000 were Roma.

"There is a farm there of 220 hectares, which is headed by a Roma and the workers are also Roma," says Mr Bugai.

Nikolai Bessonov believes that Roma people themselves are partly responsible for their negative image, in that they prefer to keep their identities secret.

"When I try to write about Roma who work, I ask a Roma doctor if I can talk about him, but he refuses, saying that he doesn't want his patients to find out who he really is because that might create work-related problems. I approach a teacher and she tells me the same thing," he says.

It has been said that those Roma who have assimilated into society have therefore partly lost their Roma identity.

But Mr Bessonov disagrees.

"When Russians stopped wearing beards and woven bast shoes, stopped farming and went to work at a factory or became, for instance, engineers, no one said that they 'assimilated'. So why when a Roma goes to work in a mine or study at a university, do people say that he has assimilated?" asks the historian.

Our women want to work, but they can't find anything because they are illiterate
Elza Mihai

He says it is important that Roma continue to respect their traditions, no matter what they do in life.

Many Roma are afraid to assimilate and so they don't send their children to school. And if they do, it's only for a year or two, so that children learn to read and write.

But the lack of a complete education makes it difficult for these children to find a job later on in life.

"Our women want to work, but they can't find anything because they are illiterate," says Elza Mihai, a teacher from a Roma village in the Leningrad region.

Myths and prejudices

Ms Mihai hopes that with such difficulty in finding employment, Roma people will eventually be convinced to send their children to school for longer than just a couple of years.

But better education alone will not improve the negative image of Roma in Russia.

After all, there are many myths and prejudices about other, well educated peoples.

Nikolai Bessonov hopes that revival of Roma folklore will help improve the image of Roma in Russia.

Together with his daughter and Roma son-in-law, Mr Bessonov has created a folklore group "Svenko", where artists in typical colourful Roma costumes dance and sing Roma romances.



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