Tula Officials Grapple With Gypsy Problem

Dear Readers:

There were several good stories to choose from this weekend, including a couple of Crimean-themed one:  News on the Russia-Crimea Bridge construction; and also Prosecutie Poklonskaya’s new dress.  Hopefully I can get to those stories later in the week.


Poklonskaya shows off her new red dress.

But for today I picked this one, about gypsies.  And no, not the Romantic or Operatic Gypsies, like Hugo’s Esméralda; or Azucena from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”.  No, these are real gypsies, and they live in Tula, Russia, in a town called Plekhanovo.

This piece is written by Petr Akopov.

The story begins with an incident of unrest among the Romani people of Plekhanovo.  Angry gypsies attacked the Administration Building, and also threw things at representatives of the gas company (газовщики).

Romani Unrest, the Back Story

The Romani people (fancy name for gypsies) first started settling in the Tula region back in the 1960’s, in Soviet times.  So, they have a long-established community here, but the numbers have grown in the last decade or so.  One of the reasons being, in the past 15 years, the gypsies started building nice houses with all the modern conveniences, including gas heating.  This sedentary lifestyle was found to be attractive, so more and more gypsies arrived to partake of it.

Problem:  We are talking something like 180 houses.  Of which, around 60 houses are completely legal.  And the other 120 houses are illegal.  They are built on land which the gypsies do not own.  The gypsy families simply seized communal land, to which they did not have any title, and then just up and built houses on it.  Since the houses are not legal, the gas cannot be officially turned on.  Hence, in order to get the gas, the gypsies illegally tapped into the pipes.  The gas company objected to this and tried to put a stop to this illegal syphoning.  The gypsies fought back, against the gas company, and against the municipal government.  One violent incident brought into full relief the status (mostly illegal) of the gypsy community in Tula; and the perennial question, what to do about these people?

The Tula government officials are to hold a hearing next week and decide whether or not to just demolish the 120 illegal houses.  However, if this demolition takes place, then more unrest, and possible violence, will ensue.

Mixed Signals

The Tula officials are putting out mixed signals, how they will proceed.  Last Thursday, the Mayor of Plekhanovo hinted that the city might just “legalize” the 120 houses in question.

But then, on Friday the press liaison of the regional administrative said just the opposite:  that the illegal 120 houses will be demolished.  But then this plan was said to be just a variant of the Mayor’s, and that both plans envisage a “compactly built” community within Plekhanovo, in which the gypsies can dwell.  Neither plan envisages actually expelling the gypsies from the town.  They are still going to live in the town, but how?  One way is to give them the rights they squatted for:  a patch of land, and the houses they built with their own hands.  The Romani themselves support this plan, and promise that if this can be done for them, then they will stop stealing gas from the pipes.  They say their biggest problem is that they cannot legally get hooked up to the pipes, since their houses are considered illegal.  Legalize the houses, legalize the gypsies, hook up the gas meter.

Why Gypsies Like Tula

There are something like 200,000 Romani living in Russia as a whole, of which fully one tenth of them live in the region of Tula, and around 3,000 dwell just in the town of Plekhanovo.  Making Plekhanovo probably the largest concentration of gypsies in all of Russia.  Known as a “wandering people”, these particular gypsies have adopted a sedentary (i.e., non-nomadic) lifestyle, and do not wander around.  Hence, the need to build permanent homes.  The main feature of the gypsy lifestyle is that they never engage in farming.  They do lots of other stuff, though.  The thing which attracted gypsies to Tula in the first place, is its great location:  It is near the capital, Moscow, and hence convenient for the types of businesses (mostly illegal or semi-legal) in which gypsies traditionally engage.  The gypsies live in a compact and yet mixed community:  Living among them also are around 6,000 ethnic Russians.  The two ethnic groups are not particularly friendly towards each other:  As always, the gypsies stick to themselves and are suspicious of outsiders.  However, the gypsies live mostly like the Russians, they have a “pass” (internal visa), and their children attend school.

An image of Russian gypsies. Not necessarily from Tula.

Gypsies have a reputation (sometimes deserved) for engaging in various scams, and robbery; and the like.  However, the greatest problem the gypsies pose to the Tula officials, is their alleged involvement in narco-trafficking.  According to Akopov, the Russian grapevine, or neighborhood word-of-mouth (he calls this “sarafan radio”) exagerrates the scale of this narco-traffic problem.  And yet, it is not made up either.  The problem is there, and it exists.  In Soviet times, there were multiple attempts to integrate gypsies into the “Soviet nation”, to socialize these people, and make them one with all the others.  And yet even Soviet officials, who were pretty good at ethnic integration, failed at this.  The gypsies are simply not socializable or integratable.  They are mavericks who abide by their own code, and do not accept “outside” laws as pertaining to them.  The European nations have not been able to tame them either.  Gypsies have always been their own people.  A state within a state.  They don’t like other people; and other people don’t like them.

But What Will the Russians Think?

Akopov goes on to say, that attempts to legalize the illegal homes and gas-tapping of the Romani, while one logical solution to the problem, might upset the ethnic Russians who have to live in the same community.

Traditional Russian folk costume from the Tula region

The land taken by the Romani was communal land.  Which was supposed to belong to all the residents of Plekhanovo, both Russian and Romani.  There is apprehension that ethnic Russians will resent, if gypsies can just come and take common land, build illegally on it, and then receive an amnesty.  These are questions of property, and of fairness, which cannot be brushed away with simple formulas, such as “Everybody needs to be tolerant.”  Because this is not the same as being tolerant towards another culture or set of beliefs, which Russians have already proved they are.  This is more a question of communal justice.

Furthermore, the argument goes, if the gypsies receive amnesty for these illegal acts, then they will just go on and keep doing the bad things that they have been rewarded for doing.  If these 120 houses are legalized, then where is the guarantee that a hundred more will not pop up tomorrow?

On the other hand, it is simply not an option to just demolish these 120 houses.  We are talking about the lives of 3000 people, who have been members of this community for over 50 years.

Something else must be done.  Some compromise must be found.

What Is To Be Done?

This is Akopov’s suggested plan:

  1. Formalize the concept of gypsy “self-rule”.  Grant them autonomy.  Deal with the people through their own leadership, their “barons”.  Give their communal leaders a guaranteed spot in the municipal government.  The gypsy leaders will speak for their people, and at the same time, will be held accountable for the misdeeds of their community.
  2. Principled struggle against corruption in the organs of power.  Corruption is a bad thing in relation to any ethnic community, but especially so when dealing with a diaspora such as the Romani.  And not just any diaspora, but, in the case of the gypsies, a diaspora which has a historic inclination to criminality.  Corruption and bribe-taking among local officials is one of the root causes of the current problem.  Otherwise, how could this illegal construction of homes go on for 15 years with nobody noticing it?
  3. In the harshest possible manner, the drug-trafficking within the gypsy criminal milieu must be dealt with, and put a stop to.  Most gypsies are not engaged in this; but some are; and most of the others know who is doing it.  The gypsy code forbids them to snitch on each other.  Therefore, it is up to law enforcement to put a stop to this.  It won’t be easy to separate the good gypsies from the law-breakers and their criminal businesses.  But it has to be done.  After all, gypsies are always going to be a part of Russian life, so what else can you do?


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6 Responses to Tula Officials Grapple With Gypsy Problem

  1. Fern says:

    I sympathise. We have similar issues in the UK with what are called ‘travelling’ communities whose chief defining characteristic is that they don’t actually travel. There are specific sites throughout the UK built to provide more-or-less permanent homes for this community but there still exists the problem of the seizure of public land. Many travellers are involved in criminal or quasi-criminal activities and relationships with, for want of a better expression, mainstream society are usually very tense. Environmentally, their presence often causes problems – a recent traveller visit in the borough I live in resulted in about two foot of top soil having to be removed from the area they’d occupied because it was so polluted with oils.chemicals and sewage that had been poured into it. Modern societies have a lot of difficulties coping with these clan-based or tribal societies – just no easy answers.


    • yalensis says:

      Yes, this is a good point, about the so-called “Travellers”. From what I understand, these people are not racially or genetically “gypsies” (Romany), they just practice a very similar culture and lifestyle. And they are never model citizens.
      I believe there are even some like this in the U.S., where they are referred to (or refer to themselves) as “Irish Travellers”, although I am not sure they are even Irish.

      Nobody really knows what to do with these people, although I like Akopov’s suggestion that they be treated as an autonomous community with their own “elders” accountable to the municipal government and enjoying an ethnic quota of government jobs. This could actually work in Russia, where there is such a tradition of ethnic-based autonomies.

      It would not work in UK or U.S. though, I think, because the concept of an ethnos-based political community or ethnic quotas is not acceptable.


      • Jen says:

        One alternative way as to how to deal with gypsy communities that have put down roots on communal land is to look at how some countries like Brazil deal with favela communities in cities like Rio. Favelas often occupy land illegally but the neighbourhoods have existed for so long that some legitimisation is necessary. Breaking them up means breaking up communities and families and where would authorities put them all? They can transport the people out somewhere faraway but they still need work and if the only place offering work is the city, they will return and establish another favela. So you would need to look at which cities are working most effectively with favelas, find out what they are doing that helps the favelas and how what is being done is having beneficial effects.

        On top of that favela communities have problems like drug gangs and their associated activities like turf wars.

        Also with gypsy communities, you somehow have to try to find out and understand why they are such self-contained communities. They have strict codes of hygiene which prevent them from mixing with outsiders (meaning intermarriage is usually not possible) and from accepting food and help from outsiders as well. Also you need to know who their leaders are, what their leadership structures are like and how to work with them on their terms (without compromising yourself). But if they’re secretive about their customs and traditions and don’t want to reveal too much about themselves, their etiquette and their laws, then there’s not much you can do except chip away at the secrecy, bit by bit.


        • yalensis says:

          Yes, from the little that I know about gypsies, they never intermarry with other groups. This is one of the things that makes them very different from typical Russians. Because Russians intermarry like crazy.


  2. et Al says:

    It would be a mistake to just legalize the homes. A grand bargain is the way to go with clear and enforceable rules (guidelines rather) that the Gypsies ascribe to in blood (figuratively).

    The homes should remain but the community would have to live by the law of the land. It is a mistake to give automatic and guaranteed places to the ‘Barons’ on the municipal council as they are feudal and rule by whatever means. It only entrenches corruption and any kind of reasonable change within the community. It is also simply dumb to try and force the gypsies to do what you want and impose a solution, whatever it may be. It doesn’t work.

    On the one hand there is slow osmosis to fixed abodes, on the other f/o to anyone trying to interfere, so even by that count they are adapting. As long as they stick to the guidelines and grand bargain, if Russian officials ask for coooperation, they should get it, but not at the cost of turning a blind eye to other activities. Otherwise they should be left alone.


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