Before the occupation, Roma of the Kherson region were apolitical. Now they are donating to the Ukrainian army and joining it. Researcher Janush Panchenko explains why this happened and why Roma are now proud to be Ukrainian

Oksana Rasulova
Tetyana Lohvynenko, Yuliana Skibitska
Before the occupation, Roma of the Kherson region were apolitical. Now they are donating to the Ukrainian army and joining it. Researcher Janush Panchenko explains why this happened and why Roma are now proud to be Ukrainian

Janush Panchenko


Before the full-scale invasion of Russia, the Kherson region was one of the centers of Ukrainian Roma. How many of them left the region after February 24 is unknown. According to Janush Panchenko, approximately 80%. For several years, Janush developed the youth movements of the Kherson region, translated books into the Romani language, was an expert of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, did research for international organizations, and worked as a social teacher at the Kakhovka school. In July, he left the occupation via Crimea to Germany, where he now lives. Roma is a closed community with its own characteristics, it doesnʼt tell “strangers” about its experiences. “Itʼs a country within a country,” says Janush. He is one of the few Roma who speaks openly about how the war and occupation affects this nation. “Babel” journalist Oksana Rasulova spoke with Janush about how the war forced Roma to pay attention to politics, their own Ukrainianness and changed their attitude towards the authorities and the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

What was the Roma community of the Kherson region before the invasion?

In 2016-2017, I researched how many Roma there actually are in the region. I knew that there were more than 1,700 — thatʼs the figure in the official 2001 census. Since Soviet times, Roma have been hiding their nationality, calling themselves Moldovans or Romanians, even in official documents. I didnʼt visit all districts of the Kherson region and counted at least 3,500 Roma. Almost 90% are Servitka and Crimean Roma. These ethnic groups are closed and rarely communicate with each other.

Roma are also activists within their own groups. There were 5-6 activists in Kakhovka, the same number in Kherson. Since 2017, our youth organization Romano Than in Kakhovka has been working only for Servitka Roma. But I became interested in doing something for the rest of the Roma, so I went to work at a school in a district where there were many Crimean Roma children — about 20% of all pupils. In a year and a half, I established communication with their families, and together with the Crimean Roma, we created a youth center. On February 23, we just had to put the linoleum and arrange the furniture, but the invasion began, the Russians occupied the city and the premises.

Children in the Roma community of the Kherson region.

Children in the Roma community of the Kherson region.

Ксенія Чикунова / «Бабель»

In the first days of the invasion, almost 15% of Roma left. Mostly to Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, where they used to go to earn money. But the less there were food, money and medicine on the occupied territories, more people left them. The majority of Roma in the region buy goods in Odesa and trade in the Kakhovka or Nova Kakhovka markets, also they live off seasonal jobs. That is, they have money on the day they earned it. So they sold the remaining goods and left. In addition, the end of winter is usually a transition period when supplies run out. Families who previously had income began to turn to me for help. People with savings had it easier, of course.

Roma communities are mostly isolated, so a lot of information about what is happening did not reach them. Or there were distorted stories — for example, someone said that Roma were shot somewhere, but this was not the case. But everyone was talking about it. Especially older people compared it to the genocide of the Roma during the Second World War or the deportations to Siberia. They were afraid of a new extermination of the Roma and were even more self-indulgent.

Russians have many stereotypes about other peoples, about Roma itʼs probably standard — “they are thieves and fortune tellers with horses and gold”. Do they have a specific attitude towards Roma because of this?

I donʼt know what the Russians are thinking. It seems that they donʼt specifically choose Roma houses for robberies, but when they see that the owners are Roma, they look for gold and drugs. This is what the occupiers did in the Donetsk region back in 2014-2015.

In April, many new people turned to me for volunteer help in a few days. It turned out that the Russians stopped giving the Roma a “humanitarianaid ” — they took it reluctantly, but there was a lack of food. Roma said that the Russians told them not to come because they would be shot, as Russians said that Roma would not vote in the “referendum” [as they often have no passports] and would not go to pro-Russian “rallies” anyway. So they are of no use [for the occupiers].

There is also a stereotype that Roma easily collect all their belongings and move, because they are nomads. Did it work during evacuation?

The specificity of Roma culture is that the whole family refuses to leave if someone is left alone. The community has high mobility: in peacetime, they can be away for half a year or a spend year earning monay, but it does not work during wartime. Roma people worry too much about property and houses.

There was no evacuation organized by the local community — families left or joined the general convoy. Roma people called me and asked how to leave, because they didnʼt always know what was happening due to their closedness. Two non-Kherson Roma organizations worked with the evacuation — Voice of Romni and Arka.

Janush Panchenko.

Ксенія Чикунова / «Бабель»

During the occupation, you volunteered to help other Roma with food and medicine. How did it work?

Even before the beginning of the invasion, we worked with a German foundation that has a program to help victims of genocide during the Second World War, that is, those born before 1945. After February 24, they gave us money for food and medicine for these people. But the funds came on the bank card, it was not always possible to pay with these money or withdraw cash, besides, we could not help the younger people. I delivered aid in Kakhovka, Nova Kakhovka and Lyubymivka, but I did not involve teenage activists in this, so as not to expose them to danger.

After the posts on Facebook, benefactors started writing to me — this is how money appeared for another budget for Roma born after 1945. The Roma in the occupation themselves gave to others the products they had in excess. We helped several Ukrainian families, but we worked more with the Roma, because they already knew about us — itʼs a closed circle.

At first I didnʼt want to do anything at all, just watch the news. But the organization gave money, people started applying [for help]. Before the invasion, I started translating the Bible and continued during the occupation, it helped me to thaw out, to get involved in other work. So I started volunteering. We helped until July, while there was a more or less stable mobile connection.

You mentioned the dangers of publicity on the occupied territories for volunteers. Did you have any problems because of it? And in general, were Roma kidnapped or robbed?

I had no problems, but there were kidnappings of Roma. For example, an 18-year-old boy was kidnapped in April at a checkpoint between Kakhovka and Nova Kakhovka. He was riding a bicycle and had no documents. He was first held in Nova Kakhovka, and then in Kherson. The boy has mental health problems and becomes overly active in stressful situations, so when the occupiers beat him, they thought he was mocking them or under drugs. Only later did they find out what was the matter, and they stopped beating him, but they still pressured him morally, forced to dig trenches, graves, and bury the remains of the Russiansʼ bodies.

Houses of Roma people were destroyed and looted, their cars were stolen. Russians came to one of the students at my school, because someone said that her father was telling information about their positions to the Ukrainian army. He was not in town then, so they detained his relatives. In the end, they were released, but I donʼt know what happened next: the girl unfollowed me on social networks. I think itʼs for security reasons.

And they detained my [distant] brother at a checkpoint because of correspondence on Instagram, where he speaks disparagingly about Russians. The occupiers called someone, but in 5 hours no one came and took him away. So he was held at the checkpoint and released — a lucky guy.

A Roma family in the Kherson region.

Ксенія Чикунова / «Бабель»

Roma generally have a negative attitude towards the army and donʼt support the very idea of fighting for something. Where do these beliefs come from and did the Russian attack change them?

Roma are a country within a country, anywhere. In their worldview, the authorities or law enforcement officers are a potential danger from which one must distance themselves as far as possible. The army is part of the government. In addition, historically, the Roma have almost never fought — nomadic herding is far from weapons.

The military profession wasnʼt prestigious, because it was associated with the police, which used to organize raids on Roma settlements. Therefore, military Roma were treated with suspicion. That started to change in March. At first, the Roma had a positive attitude towards the Territorial Defense — because this is how they protected their family and their village or city. On the other hand, the Roma in the Ukrainian Armed Forces were still perceived with wariness. Because why go to fight in another region? And in April-May, the occupation gained momentum, and being a soldier in any Ukrainian structure became prestigious for the Roma, they are proud of it. This is a turning point for the Roma worldview.

You wrote a very short story on Facebook. Roma said: “I didnʼt think I would react like that, Iʼm a gypsy, I shouldnʼt care what state governs here. But now I watch Russian channels and understand how disgusting it is.” Do Roma now associate themselves more with Ukraine?

Now itʼs prestigious to be a Ukrainian, respectively, to be a Ukrainian Roma — too. It was certainly influenced by the Russian invasion. On the other hand, it is possible that some changes happened earlier, but we didnʼt pay attention to them.

Even at the beginning of the invasion, my Roma acquaintances said that they did not care about politics, but already in 3-4 months they changed their minds and donated to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. At the simplest level, it works like this: Russians rob and kidnap Roma — Ukrainians donʼt do that. Yes, Roma, who used to be indifferent to Ukraine, now feel patriotism.

Little was said about the fact that the Roma were also xenophobic towards Ukrainians. And the war affected that too. A Roma acquaintance of mine said that now ethnic origin isnʼt important — he would rather communicate with a Ukrainian who understands him than with someone else.

Ксенія Чикунова / «Бабель»

Are there Roma people who collaborate with the Russians?

I donʼt know about such cases. This is unlikely at all. Itʼs connected with the perception of the authorities as a danger — the Roma wonʼt contact the representatives of the occupying authorities. If some Roma have sympathy for Russia, itʼs connected with their earnings there.

In December 2021, I received a phone call from a Roma who lives in “Luhansk Peopleʼs Republic”. He said that Kherson will become Russia, and he is looking for Roma people who will contribute to this — they would be paid for voting in the “referendum” or for statements that Ukraine is “oppressed by the Nazis”. I laughed and forgot about it. When Kherson was occupied, I thought: how far in advance the Russians planned the invasion, that they even reached Roma. That Roma wrote me again and offered to become a “deputy” in the council set by the occupiers. I said that for no money I will do this. I spoke quite openly, spoke a lot against the occupation on social networks, he saw these publications, so I was afraid that he would hand me over to the Russians. But nothing bad happened. In the end, I left the occupied territories via Crimea. But as for that guy, I donʼt even know if he is really in the Roma community of the Luhansk region or came from Russia.

In February, there was news that Roma stole a tank. It sounds pretty stereotypical — that Roma steal everything. Do you see harm in this message? And was that case part of the Roma resistance movement, does it exist in the occupation?

There is no organized Roma resistance movement specifically in the occupation, but in general there is a network of Roma activists [who oppose the Russian Federation] in Ukraine. And I thought a lot about the news about the “tank theft”. And in general, I think that this is a positive presentation, it has become a meme. Some mass media illustrated the news with a picture of caricatured Roma, but this is the only such case. In general, Roma donʼt say that this news exposes them as thieves. They were often thanked for this later, but it was not the case in the tank — people thanked those Roma who were not involved in the tank case for their position [which this incident showed]. But from Russian Roma I heard praise specifically for stealing the tank.

A mock-up of a stamp with the theft of a tank — in addition to Roma, Russiansʼ equipment was stolen by Ukrainian farmers on tractors.

By the way, what does communication with the Russian Roma look like now?

There are Roma organizations that support the war. For example, the annual Roma concert in Russia was timed to the annexation of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions. Of course, communication with them is terminated. But I know Roma from Russia who oppose the invasion of Ukraine — because their Roma identity is more important than civil identity. In this case, we donʼt cut contacts off. And in general, the Roma in Russia are often not interested in the war — they know little about it and are more occupied with their own problems. For example, with police raids.

What is happening now with the Roma community in Kakhovka and the Kherson region in general?

Mostly elderly people with their families stayed there. Almost 80% of the Roma have left, but with time it became increasingly difficult to do so. People are not allowed to enter the territory controlled by Ukraine, and itʼs expensive to go through Crimea. The situation is getting worse: the occupiers are becoming more aggressive, they rob more often. But I donʼt have much information about it, because the people I talked to left the occupied territories.

You said that older people drew parallels between the current war and the Roma genocide during World War II. Why is known so little about it?

The Genocide of the Roma was discussed only in the 1990s. One of the reasons is the closedness of the community. Roma donʼt like to tell others for fear that it will harm them. For research, I conduct many interviews with witnesses of the genocide, and they are still afraid to speak. But this memory is preserved in Roma families — children and grandchildren know the stories about the genocide well. Itʼs because of it the topic of the Second World War is very close to the Roma — the feeling as if it happened recently for them. I know several Roma women who now automatically call Russians Germans, others still find it painful to hear German, and a Roma survivor of the genocide who has now evacuated to Germany says he could never have imagined that he would be hiding from Russians with Germans.

The situation is slowly changing, but now the Roma are just as afraid to talk about their experiences. For example, about the fact that they were beaten or robbed by Russian soldiers. Will they want to talk about what happened yesterday if they donʼt want to talk about what happened 80 years ago?

Roma taken to a concentration camp during the genocide.


Ghanna Mamonova contributed to the text. The piece was translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko and Dmytro Raievskyi.

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