Gypsy Riots in Suitcase Town – Part I

Dear Readers:

Penza in the scheme of things: The red dot below Moscow and near Kazan.

Today I have a breaking news story (well, the incident actually started a few days back, on June 13) from the Russian village of Chemodanovka.  Which sounds funny, because Russian “chemodan” means suitcase!  Ultimately a borrowing from the Persian word jâme-dân, “suitcase”.

While the name is funny, the story is not, because some people got hurt, and one even dead, if I am not mistaken.  My sources are two stories from the Russian press, this one, by reporter Alexei Nechaev, and this one by reporter Sergei Guryanov.  So, let us dive in with the classic reporters questions, Who, Where, Why, etc.  Let us begin with

Where?

The village of Chemodanovka is situated in the Penza Oblast of the Russian Federation.  The village is located 15 km from the regional center of Bessonovka.  In Russian “Bessonovka” means sleepless, and one can almost guarantee that the residents have not gotten much sleep over the last couple of days!  Trying to deal with these gypsy riots and anti-gypsy riots, and what-not.

An old-fashioned house in Chemodanovka

The town was founded in 1685 by a man named Fedor Ivanovich Chemodanov, hence the name.  Chemodanov went on to occupy the post of “voevoda” (Military Governor) of the Penza Province.  After his death in the Azov war, which I believe was against the Turks, Chemodanov’s widow was granted the land.  Three years later the town was renamed to Vvedenskoe, which is still its official name, but apparently the locals still refer to it as Chemodanovka.

In 1785 the town was registered as the property of Pavel Ivanovich Chemodanov, who owned 846 souls.  In the 19th century the town expounded its economy by accruing a horse farm and a cloth factory.  Bootmaking also became a major business, as Penza was well known as one of the muddiest regions of Russia.  Just before the abolishment of serfdom, Chemodanovka boasted a major landowner name of Leonid Alexandrovich Mikhailovsky-Danilovsky, who owned a total of 1437 souls, 30 of them house servants, and the rest field peasants.  In 1861 there were massive peasant revolts in the region.  Russia abolished serfdom (which was very similar to American slavery) two years before Lincoln freed the American slaves.  From 1930 onward Chemodanovka became the center of the Soviet of the Penza region, encompassing 587 households.  From 1955 onward it became the center of the massive kolkhoz named after Lenin.  Since the 1990’s the town boasts a big railroad repair factory, producing asphalt.  And is also known as a major poultry center, producing 102 million eggs per year, plus 1600 tons of chicken meat.

The other major asset in this area is the Federal Highway M-5, otherwise known as the “Ural”, which runs parallel to the river.  The highway will play a role in the story later, as we shall see…

Who?

We shall begin with a couple of people who have some influence in this story.  There is the beleaguered Governor of the Penza Oblast, his name is Ivan Belozertsev.  He was appointed to this post (Russian regional Governors are appointed by the President, not elected) in 2015.  He is actually perfectly suited to run such a forested area, as his father worked in a kolkhoz, and his mom was a forester.  Belozertsev is an impressive politician in his own right, he is a Colonel in the National Reserves, and also holds a Doctoral Degree in Pedagogy.  This degree should hold him in good stead, as he attempts to negotiate between the two warring factions, both of which probably are acting like children!

Governor Ivan Belozertsev

Another player in this story is a woman named Nadezhda Demeter, who is the leader of all the Russian gypsies.  I didn’t even know that gypsies have a leader, but there you have it:  Her official title is President of the National-Cultural Autonomy of Russian Gypsies.

Nadezhda wasn’t in Penza herself, but reassured reporter Alexei Nechaev:  “A large number of government representatives are on the scene in Chemodanovka.  The local authorities have the situation under control.  What we saw there was an attempt at street justice, on the part of the local residents.  They started it, they attacked the gypsies, started the fight, but now, of course, they claim that it was the gypsies who are responsible for everything.  Street justice is wrong, it is necessary to act within the bounds of the law.”

Nadezhda Demeter: Queen of the Russian Gypsies

Strange as it is to hear gypsies calling for law and order, Demeter continued her plea:  “We have seen similar circumstances in the past, which usually settled down after 2 or 3 days.  But the situation in Chemodanovka is different:  This is a very serious and horrible situation.  The most surprising thing is that the fight just came out of nowhere:  some children were quarreling among themselves.”

Demeter sees an opportunity here for the government to get more involved and do something for the gypsies.  In the past she has been known for various proposals to socialize and integrate gypsies into the mainstream.  For example, by legalizing some of their lands that they squat on, etc.  “We have a program of measures for the social-economic and ethno-cultural development of gypsy society.  This program is being carried out, and is controlled by the government.  We give an accounting twice a year.  Everything is normal and going well on that front.”

And then this happened.

Comments to Nechaev’s article show that there is very little sympathy for the gypsies among ordinary Russians.  “Wherever there are gypsies, there is crime,” notes one commenter.

[to be continued]

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