Romani diasporas are now more marginalised in Russia than in the late USSR

Romani people from Kineshma (Ivanovo Oblast, Central Russia): Ruska Roma or Vlach Romaю Nikolay Omonov, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

According to the Russia's last credible census in 2010, Romani diasporas (among Russian speakers, the word цыгане—gypsies—is still widely used, including in the media and among academics) comprised around 220,000 people. The total population of Russia, according to the same census, was around 143 million. Representatives of Romani diasporas claimed the number was closer to one million people, but researchers believe the number is somewhere in between. 

The history of Romani diasporas in Russia goes back to the 17th century. Like many other ethnic groups, they experienced deportation during the 1930s and 1940s, and repressive legislative acts that prohibited their traditional nomadic way of life (e.g. the 1956 settlement act). Nevertheless, the Romani population was relatively well adapted to the USSR economy, where they found a niche as traders within the economy where consumer goods were scarce. Some Roma were employed by state farms connected to animal production, or worked in industrial metal production.

When the USSR broke up and liberal market reforms were introduced, the diasporas lost these niches. Researchers called the situation a “deferred crisis”, because of the absence of culturally appropriate educational and social programs for Romani people in the USSR, and later in Russia.

Today, with the Russian regime turning into a personal autocracy and a large portion of the national budget going towards the unprovoked war with Ukraine, there is little hope that any programs to support Roma people would be introduced in the nearest future. Meanwhile, districts where Romani people live in Russian cities are marginalised, and people are discriminated against. 

Low-rise dwellings occupied by Romani people live are often removed by the authorities or byconstruction companies. For example, in the Perm region in the Urals, as has reported, the land where Romani people have built their houses does not belong to them. And because they are not aware of their rights and cannot represent themselves in court, there are cases when Romani houses are destroyed and the land is given to other people. As regional journalists have reported, some Romani people leave the roofs of their houses unfinished because the house might be destroyed at any time, and they would have to  move quickly to another plot of land and build a new one. 

Another example is from the Siberian city of Tjumen, where a construction company destroyed Romani houses in the city's central district, and moved the people to a village where they supposedly built “better” houses for them in 2013. However, as regional media reported in February 2024, the houses still do not have water or gas heating, the roads are practically destroyed, and there is no school in the village. 

Frequently, there are fights and conflicts between the Romani people and Russian population. Mass fights have taken place in the Novosibirsk and Penza regions in recent years.  

In addition, because of widespread corruption and criminalization by the state, there are cases when the police support and even impose criminal activities on Romani diasporas.  As researchers highlight, long-term criminal activity by people who have a permanent home is impossible without the patronage of law enforcement agencies. There are known cases of law enforcement officers patronizing the local drug trade and attempts to implicate citizens of Roma ethnicity in these activities. One example is the Romani district in Yekaterinburg, which had been rumoured to be a place for the drug trade and other illegal activities in the city. It thus attracted numerous attacks by “citizens groups” that were never punished and, in fact, even supported by law enforcement.

In recent years, the police in Yekaterinburg also regularly perform searches and checks on all inhabitants of Romani districts for no reason other than the ethnicity of their inhabitants. 

One of the latest cases reported by the regional Russian media involved Neo-Nazis claiming responsibility for setting fire to a deserted Romani house in the city of Volgograd. According to anonymous social media users who posted a video, this way their way “solve the ethnic problem.” The police denied that the video was genuine, and explained the fire as an accident.

In February 2024, the police searched Romani settlements in the Saint Petersburg region. They gave military draft notices to 35 men, who would be forced to “give up their nomadic way of life and go participate in the Special Operation [the war with Ukraine],” as the police representative proudly reported

Before the Russian regime's repression started in the late 2010s, there were human rights groups that spoke out for the rights of Romani people in Russia. The Russian human rights organisation Memorial published a documentary about Romani districts in Russia, highlighting that Romani people in Russia:

“Live a very hard life, without receiving a decent education, without work, not knowing what will happen tomorrow—demolition, expulsion or a special operation. The documentary  is about the problem of unregistered houses in settlements, about the impossibility of properly registering ownership of houses and land, and gaining access to heating, water, light, education, and work. The basis of everything is racism, widespread discrimination and persecution of Romani people in Russia”

 Memorial Center was declared a foreign agent and liquidated as an entity by a Russian court decision in 2021. Its director, the well-known human rights defender Oleg OIrlov, who is 71 years old, had just received 5 years of jail sentence for his anti-war stance.  

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