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

Author Information

Elena Marushiakova,
Institute of Ethnology and Social Anthropology, Slovak Academy of Sciences, Slovakia

Vesselin Popov,
Institute of Ethnology and Social Anthropology, Slovak Academy of Sciences, Slovakia

DOI: 10.47298/cala2022.6-2
The GLOCAL Proceedings:  The GLOCAL Conference in Asia 2022


The October Revolution and the subsequent creation of the USSR, located on a vast area in Eurasia, was 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 symbolisms. This general historical context reflected 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), several other communities either did not identify as Roma or were not Roma by origin (Dom and Lom in the South Caucasus region, and the Lyuli or Jugi in Central Asia), but all shared Indian origin.

Soviet policy towards the Gypsies had various dimensions, including codification of the Romani language, creation of Gypsy national literature and of a Gypsy national theater, Gypsy schools, Gypsy collective farms, and artisan’s artels. Along with this, new public images and symbolisms related to the Gypsies were created, and were presented in various forms in the USSR itself and broadcast to the West for propaganda. The new Soviet Gypsy symbolisms, were, 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 lives.

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

Keywords: Gypsies, Roma, symbolism, USSR, public images, propaganda, linguistic anthropology

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