Countries & Regions


Kirill Kozhanov and Ilona Makhotina

Romani Literature in Russia and the Soviet Union from the Nineteenth Century to the Present

The emergence of Romani literature in Russia dates back to the nineteenth century, when the leaders of professional Romani choirs, such as Nikolai Shishkin, Rodion Kalabin and Mariya Gubkina, wrote numerous lyrical and romantic songs (Rus.: romans) in Russian and Romani (in this case, in the North Russian Romani variant).

These texts were widely used in choir repertoires until the beginning of the twentieth century.

After the 1917 revolution and the establishment of a new state – the Soviet Union – Romani literature took its first independent steps. Following the liberal policy of the early USSR towards ethnic minorities and their languages, Standard Romani was created in the mid-1920s. The new standard language based on the Russian variant of Romani was used prolifically. During the 1920s and 1930s more than 200 books and journals were published in Romani in the USSR. Apart from the original works of Romani writers and poets, the published books included translations of Russian and European classics, political texts and speeches and school textbooks on language, mathematics, geography etc.

Romani literature of this period was highly politicised and addressed such topics as the discrimination of the Romani people under the Tsarist regime and the creation of a ‘new Romani life and culture’ in the Soviet Union. Old Romani traditions such as an itinerant lifestyle, fortune-telling, begging and horse-dealing were portrayed pejoratively. A frequent subject of both fiction and non-fiction writing was the idea of a traditional Romani family who settle down in a kolkhoz (the Russian acronym for kollektivnoe khozyaistvo or collective farm) and start working for the common good. The stylistic and thematic variations of this literature were very limited even in comparison with other Soviet literature, which was generally rather homogeneous.

Many authors of Romani literature were also active in social work and education. For instance, Nikolai Pankov (1895–1959) not only authored several textbooks in Romani, translated many Russian classics and edited Romani journals and a Romani-Russian dictionary, but also taught at a Romani college.

A different group of Romani writers was associated with the traditional professional ensembles and the Teatr ‘Romen’ (‘Romen’ Theatre), the ‘Romen’ Theatre. Ivan Rom-Lebedev (1903–1991), who came from a family of professional Romani musicians, was a leading playwright of this period. Ivan Khrustalev-Timofeev (1901–1970) wrote mostly for this theatre, where he became a choreographer and one of the leading actors. Mikhail Ilyinsky (1882–1962), an experienced actor in the ‘Romen’ Theatre, was also an author of short stories notable for their rich and expressive language.

Soviet Romani literature also had a rather strong female voice. Authors such as Evdokiya Orlova (1889–19??), Mariya Polyakova (1904–1976) and Olga Pankova (1911–1991) published numerous collections of poems and short stories, where, among other things, they discussed the discrimination of Romani women in traditional families and the advantages of the new life offered to women in the Soviet Union.

In 1938, the USSR’s ethnic minorities policy rapidly changed towards increasing russification. For the next few decades Romani literature and culture were unofficially banned. The only active Romani cultural organisation remaining was the ‘Romen’ Theatre; its entire repertoire at that time was solely in Russian.

Only the softening of the USSR’s cultural policy in the 1960s allowed for a slow re-awakening of Romani literature. The publication in Moldova in 1970 of a collection of poems and folklore tales by Gheorghe Cantea (1940–2012) in Romani was hailed as a historic event. However, most of the literature written by Romani authors still appeared in Russian – for example, short stories and poems by Ivan Panchenko (1941–2017) or Nikolai Vasilevsky (b. 1949). The first attempt to bring together Romani writers of that generation was made by Nikolai Satkevich (1917–1991) in an anthology of Romani poetry ‘Kostry’ [‘Fires’] (1974). The 1970s were also the years when Mikha Kazimirenko (1938–2005), author of original poems and translator of Ukrainian classics, and Leksa Manush (pseudonym of Aleksandr Belugin, 1942–1997; see also the voice recording) a poet and scholar from Latvia, started their literary careers.

Leksa Manuš, Leksa Manuš, Mozes F. Heinschink | Leksa Manuš recites his poem "Ušten, Romale!" | Oral Literature | Serock | 1990 | lit_00082

Leksa Manush (Aleksandr Belugin) was born in Riga, Latvia on 7 February 1942. At that time, Latvia was occupied by the Nazis. He had Russian, …

During this time, Soviet Romani writers started publishing their works in Romani in European journals. The introduction of Soviet Romani literature to the European tradition not only encouraged the authors to write in Romani but also to create a universal standard language intelligible to the speakers of different dialects. A good example of such attempts can be found in the works of Dzhura Makhotin (1951–2004).

A new era for Romani literature began after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. More and more works by Romani writers appeared not only in Russian, but also in various dialects of Romani. An increasing number of authors from the former Soviet republics became active, such as Valdemar Kalinin (born 1946) from Belarus or Raisa Nabaranchuk (b. 1943) from Ukraine. New genres, notably (auto)biographies, were introduced into Romani literature. Professional actors and musicians were still the leading force in the development of Romani literature, a significant part of which comprised translations of world classics.

A new generation of ‘Romen’ Theatre actors, such as Georgy Tsvetkov (b. 1950), and Papusha Mikhai (Pitoch Mikhailova, b. 1930), started publishing their poems and short stories. A book published by the latter even included a screenplay telling the tragic story of massive deportations of Roma to Siberia in the 1930s.

Romani literature in Russia and the former USSR was always associated with professional musicians and consequently had a certain bias towards poetry. The tradition of writing popular Romani songs was preserved in the second half of the twentieth century by such authors as Aleksandr Pankov, Petr Demeter, Vladimir Goloshchanov, the Buzylev family and several others.

An important feature of Romani literature is its orientation to the folklore tradition. The increasing availability of the internet in the twenty-first century has significantly changed the situation regarding Romani literature in Russia. Old and new texts in various dialects of Romani are freely distributed in digital form various Romani forums and groups in social networks and are attracting more and more writers and readers.

Rights held by: Ilona Makhotina — Kirill Kozhanov | Licensed by: Ilona Makhotina — Kirill Kozhanov | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive