Education for the Romani people: Failed by both empires

Romani festival in Tyumen, Image by  RG72 from Wikimedia Commons. Used under a  CC BY-SA 4.0  license

The overwhelming majority of Romani people in the Russian Empire at the end of the 19th century were illiterate: only 2–4 percent of their total population could read and write in Russian. Romani musicians represented a special group living in bigger cities. But even this community remained “semi-literate.” The policy regarding the Romani language during this period was part of the general policy towards small peoples and their languages in the Russian, and later Soviet Empire. The lack of their own territory was the reason why the status of the Romani population, and the possibilities of meeting their educational needs, were always significantly lower than those of other peoples, even those much smaller in number than the Romani.

Roma children dance in the streets of Moscow,1925. Photographer unknown. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

However, in the 1920s and 1930s, over approximately 15 years, the leadership of the USSR pursued a policy of democratic development for minorities, which extended to the Romani people. Romani public associations and the (still existing) “Romen” theatre were established. Romani musical ensembles, a Romani section within the Union of Proletarian Writers, and the All-Russian Union of the Romani were created. 

From 1917 until the early 1930s, as part of the policy of “going back to the roots” (коренизация in Russian,  support of ethnic languages and cultures), the Soviet authorities supported the expansion of the native languages of the peoples of the USSR. Alphabets based on the Latin or Cyrillic script and literary standards were created for them, and the state developed culture and mass education in these languages.

As part of the national school program, the world's first special educational program for the Romani was implemented. A number of Romani classes and schools were opened where primary school subjects were taught in the Romani language, and a teacher training college for Romani was established. Because the policy at that time was directed towards the eradication of illiteracy, a written language for Romani was created based on the language of one of the diasporas, the Russian Romani. From 1928 to 1938, about 300 publications in the Russian Romani language were published, including textbooks, original works by Romani authors (about 30), and translations of Russian classics. 

As the educational project Arzamas writes, Stalin's speeches were also published in the newly created Romani language. In the 1920s and 1930s, teaching materials for the Romani language were also published, including the “Primer for Romani Schools,” a guide to Romani language grammar and orthography, and textbooks for the Romani language up to the 4th grade. In total, by 1938, 13 textbooks in the Romani language had been published, in addition to books for literary reading in Romani and anthologies of Romani literature.

But, in 1938, due to a sharp change in the internal national policy, this process was halted; Romani schools and classes were disbanded and merged with Russian-language ones. Most Romani students were expelled. The Romani written language became one of the scripts abolished in 1938. All national cultural and educational programs were terminated, and all  educational structures for the Romani were labeled as harmful, isolating children from Soviet life. Most of the Romani, who continued to have a nomadic way of life, were not reached by education during this brief period, although it helped creating a thin layer of Romani intelligentsia, mostly among urban groups of musicians. 

Deportations of social groups and entire peoples were a constant practice of the Bolshevik regime. These processes intensified from the beginning of the 1930s until the mid-1950s; 15 peoples and more than 40 ethnic groups were subjected to deportations. About 3.5 million people were expelled from their native places, many of whom died during the deportation. Over 800 thousand deported ended up in Siberia. Some Romani people were among those deported.  

On October 5, 1956, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR issued a decree “On the Engagement in Labor of Romani Engaged in Vagrancy” (known among the Romani as the Decree on Settlement). Under the threat of imprisonment, the Romani were ordered to live in houses. They were given a loan to build housing, and for the first few years, strict control was maintained over their movements. They were required to find employment. Some of the men started working in collective farms (as stablemen, guards, agronomists, etc.) or at nearby enterprises. Women mostly did not work, with some engaged in fortune-telling. 

The transition of the Roma to permanent settlement was accompanied by the establishment of control by local administrations over any movements of Roma families (which continued for about ten years). As a result, the average level of education among Roma children increased, although mainly within the scope of primary education, less frequently up to the 5th–6th grade.

This situation with education is visible even now: sociological data show that about 80 percent of Roma children after the age of 11 do not attend school. Thus, after attracting children to schools, in the 1960s–1980s, the majority of the Roma developed a model of education acquisition that is comparable with the model characteristic of peasant families in pre-industrial, pre-revolutionary Russia, where children primarily learned literacy, and 90 percent of them did not attend school after the age of 12.

This model continues because it keeps the traditional way Romani people fit into society and share their culture. At the same time, Russian schools are not meeting the needs of Romani students, especially when it comes to their language and the way they speak. Without teaching methods and teachers who know how to help Romani children learn their language, their educational problems are often considered by teachers as medical problems, which has absolutely nothing to do with the reality.

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