According to the census of 1939, 88,242 ‘Gypsies’ lived in the Soviet Union, 61,262 of them in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), at that time. Although the Roma were one of the smallest minorities, they were included in the Soviet affirmative action programme for ‘backward nationalities’ of the 1920s and 1930s: Romani activists founded the ‘All-Russian Gypsy Union’ (1925–1928), created a Romanes alphabet in order to publish journals and books, founded the famous ‘Moscow State Gypsy Theatre “Romen”’ (1931) and propagated the establishment of a ‘national Gypsy kolkhoz movement’. However, only in a few regions of the RSFSR, such as Smolensk and the Northern Caucasus, were such kolkhozes actually established.
Occupation: between Forced Labour and Murder
In the course of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which began on 22 June 1941, only part of the RSFSR fell under occupation, but this part also included a Romani population. On the Soviet side, thousands of young Roma joined the Red Army, some of them even earning high decorations.
Owing to the nearby front, the occupied parts of the RSFSR remained under German military administration. The Wehrmacht divided the huge territory into three army zones: North, Centre and South. In most of their official orders, Wehrmacht commanders distinguished between sedentary and ‘roaming Gypsies’. While it ordered the former to be observed and used for work, the latter were to be arrested and handed over to the Security Police for ‘further treatment’ (i.e. murder).
Systematic Mass Murder
During the early months of the occupation, Wehrmacht units and Security Police already committed isolated atrocities against Russian Roma, but only in the spring of 1942 did the mass murders become systematic: in all three army zones the number of ‘Gypsy operations’ grew rapidly and without any differentiation between ‘sedentary’ and ‘itinerant’ Roma. In ethnically mixed kolkhozes, Roma were weeded out and shot; these executions are best recorded for the Smolensk area.
An exception was the very south of the RSFSR, where ‘Task Force D’ (Einsatzgruppe D) of the Security Police and SD began to murder the Romani population indiscriminately in autumn 1941. In December 1941, its mobile killing units reached the Crimea, where they perpetrated the mass extermination of Roma and Jews almost in parallel.
An investigation into the approximate number of Romani victims in Russia is still a work in progress, but present estimates range from 4,000 to 20,000.
Extraordinary State Commission
After the war, the Extraordinary State Commission of the RSFSR concluded in its investigational reports that the German invaders had tried to annihilate Jews and ‘Gypsies’ completely. However, this conclusion had no influence on the official commemorative culture of the Soviet Union in which the different victim groups were referred to collectively under the general term ‘peaceful Soviet citizens’.
The Romen theatre tried to commemorate the Romani victims and war heroes with several plays and supported the erection of a memorial in Aleksandrovka near Smolensk in the 1980s. Unfortunately, the inscription on this monument was in typical Soviet style and completely omitted to mention the ethnic identity of the 176 Roma murdered there by SS forces in April 1942.