Institutional Theatre


Brigid O’Keeffe

‘Life on Wheels’ (1931) at Moscow’s State Gypsy Theatre Romen

Desolation and wretched poverty. A campsite in an isolated patch of Soviet forest. An old wagon, unhitched. The Roma who populate this camp are as wretched as the wagon that is the centrepiece of their ‘life on wheels’. Their clothes are as shabby as their patchwork tents. Beleaguered old women sing mournful tunes and occasionally erupt in fits of ‘wild’ dancing. A young orphan girl named Grina cries bitterly. She cannot muster the strength to dance around the campfire or even to sing a sad song. After all, the pitiful orphan is soon to be sold to a wealthy Rom from a nearby camp for an astonishing bride price of five thousand roubles.

Lording over this scene of misery, poverty, and despair is Vangar – a cruel and insatiably greedy kulak (exploiter). An exemplary counter-revolutionary, Vangar is insistent on preserving the ‘nomadic Gypsy way of life’ and rejecting the new Soviet culture and socialist economy. The camp’s youth can only dream of life in the bustling Soviet cities where not only factories, but also an entire new socialist civilization is being built by proud and happy Soviet workers. Vangar rules his camp with an iron fist and soullessly exploits all the poor Roma in the camp. It is Vangar who has schemed to sell Grina to the highest bidder. Vangar is aided and abetted by an entourage of lackeys ready to deploy their whips and beat any Roma who defy their boss’s orders. Vangar is well-fed and wears warm, attractive boots. The poor Roma whom he exploits go hungry and cold. They sing quiet songs about Vangar’s cunning, and they curse him as a tyrant no better than the ‘bloody tsar’ of the recent imperial Russian past.

In this way, the stage was set for the drama to unfold in Life on Wheels, a Romani-language play that debuted at Moscow’s State Gypsy Theatre Romen in 1931. Life on Wheels was written by A. V. Germano, the early Soviet Union’s most celebrated Romani author of poetry and prose on the theme of Roma’s emancipation under the red star of Bolshevism. Germano designed the fictional Romani camp featured in the play to bring to life for Soviet audiences the plight of contemporary Roma as the Bolsheviks understood it and wanted the Soviet people to understand it. Yet Germano’s play, written in the artistic style of socialist realism, was also to portray – for Romani audiences in particular – the trajectory through which ‘backward Gypsies’ would, with the generous aid of the Soviet state, integrate into the rapidly developing socialist society. Life on Wheels was written as an unambiguous Soviet morality play in which downtrodden Roma bravely overcome their dark past, overthrow their kulak exploiters and emerge transformed in the light of Soviet enlightenment as educated, productive citizens devoted to building socialism under Stalin’s wise leadership.

In Life on Wheels, the spirit of Bolshevism arrives in the miserable nomadic camp in the guise of a brave young Romani hero named Kalysh. Wrongfully imprisoned under Tsar Nicholas II, Kalysh has not seen his brethren of Vangar’s benighted camp in many years. In the glorious days of the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks had liberated Kalysh from prison and welcomed him into the ranks of the Red Army. As a Red Army soldier, Kalysh not only fought bravely for the new Bolshevik way of life, but also learned to read and to write. After the Russian Civil War, he was promoted by the Bolsheviks to help lead efforts to transition nomadic Roma to the Soviet way of life, whether in the factory or in the fields. Hearing of Vangar’s campsite location, Kalysh has arrived in a nearby town, ready to help liberate his kin from Vangar’s exploitative grip.

News of Kalysh’s rumoured return ignites Vangar’s violent anger, but it also gives the camp’s poor Roma reason to hope. As a chorus, they sing of a brilliant Soviet future within their reach:

‘The Gypsy’s life on wheels
Has for many years rolled on,
But the Land of the Soviets
Has offered us a new life.’

Kalysh has brought more than a mere promise of new life. He tells of tangible Soviet achievements. In Moscow, the poor Roma learn, a ‘Gypsy Theatre’ has been created as well as an All-Russian ‘Gypsy Union’. Soviet power offers land for nomadic Roma to settle and organize collective farms. Dignified work is available for Roma in Soviet factories. Romani children study in school.

In the land of the Soviets, Roma work side by side with their fellow citizens to build socialism. In this new world, exploiters like Vangar have no rightful place; they can no longer oppress the weak and the poor with impunity. In this new world, there is likewise no place for ‘unproductive’ and ‘backward’ pursuits like nomadism, fortune telling, begging or dancing on the streets for scraps of charity. In the Soviet Union Roma are equal citizens and, as such, they must study in schools and labour in the socialist economy. They must integrate fully into the modern, sedentary, Soviet way of life. Roma must emancipate themselves from their life on wheels, but they enjoy the assurance of the tutelage and material support Soviet power provides all its citizens.

With these promises of Soviet emancipation and transformation, Kalysh leads the camp’s poor Roma in overthrowing Vangar. They abandon their life on wheels and happily begin new Soviet lives of civic integration. Their bitter tears of exploitation are exchanged for the joy of taking Soviet power into their own hands – of learning ‘to live like people, not like wolves’. They reclaim the camp’s horses from Vangar before he flees, disempowered. Before the curtain falls at the play’s end, young Grina is seen at centre stage, dancing joyfully – an orphan still, but now she is the master of her own happy fate in the Land of the Soviets.

The founding of the Theatre Romen in 1931 came on the heels of a long and complex history of Romani artistic performance in both imperial and revolutionary Russia.

Germano, the play’s author, would later self-consciously admit to the mechanistic portrayal of revolutionary transformation in this, the State Gypsy Theatre Romen’s first premiere of a full-length play. Yet the fact that Life on Wheels was commissioned by the Soviet state at all, no less than that it was staged at the newly created Theatre Romen, was in 1931 an astonishing victory for the Romani activists and artists who had for years lobbied the Soviet state to invest in the development of Soviet-style Romani art. The founding of the Theatre Romen in 1931 came on the heels of a long and complex history of Romani artistic performance in both imperial and revolutionary Russia. That Romani artists and performers successfully launched the Theatre Romen (a theatre still in operation in Moscow today) in 1931 is due to their persistent struggle to claim the legitimacy of Romani art in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Long before the Bolsheviks seized power in the October Revolution of 1917, Romani music and dance had occupied a special place in imperial Russian culture. By the late nineteenth century, a so-called ‘Gypsy mania’ had consumed elite Russian society. It was the height of fashion for Russian elites to frequent expensive restaurants where Romani choirs were employed to entertain audiences with dancing and singing. For the Roma artists who performed in these choirs, this was a lucrative business that potentially afforded them the advantages of wealth – not least among them the ability to send their children to prestigious schools. In the twilight of the tsarist empire, the popularity of Gypsy choirs was unrivalled, and many Romani families in the business of artistic performance integrated themselves into elite Russian society.

In the wake of Russia’s revolutions in 1917 and the traumatic Civil War that followed, Roma struggled at first to stake a claim in the emerging Bolshevik society for the music and dance traditions that had been so wildly popular in tsarist times. The Bolsheviks associated so-called ‘Gypsy music’ with bourgeois decadence. They decried the performances of Romani choirs as ethnographically inauthentic and accused Romani performers of pornography and petit-bourgeois counter-revolution.

More broadly, the Bolsheviks viewed the Romani population of the Soviet Union with dread. Through the prism of stereotypes, the Bolsheviks regarded Roma as the antithesis of the ‘New Soviet Men and Women’ whom they sought to create. When they declared their intention to ‘refashion life on earth’, the Bolsheviks envisioned a modern society of engaged citizens who laboured productively in the socialist economy and who prized education, hygiene and culture. Assuming that all ‘Gypsies’ (tsygane, the official nationality they were known as in the Soviet Union) were extremely ‘backward’, the Bolsheviks imagined Roma as stuck at the primitive stages of human development on the Marxist evolutionary timeline. Roma, the Bolsheviks assumed, were aimless nomads, filthy illiterates and cunning parasites dangerously alienated from the socialist economy and culture that they hoped to create.

Yet Roma were but one of many ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union whom the Bolsheviks considered ‘backward’ and for whom they designed their nationality policy. The historian Terry Martin has described this nationality policy as a Soviet ‘affirmative action’ programme. The Bolsheviks promised to ‘uplift’ and ‘advance’ the Soviet Union’s ethnic minorities via a range of nation-building projects that would liberate them from the ‘backwardness’ to which tsarist rule had ostensibly condemned them. Roma and their fellow ‘backward’ ethnic minorities in the early Soviet Union were promised preferential access to jobs and education, but also the creation of national languages, alphabets, literatures, theatres, native-language schools and territories (within the USSR). In the Bolsheviks’ famous slogan, these were all to be ‘national in form, socialist in content’. In other words, this nationality policy was designed to integrate the Soviet Union’s ethnic minorities into the modern socialist economy and new Soviet culture by means of institutionalized ethnic particularism.

Bolshevik nationality policy thus provided a framework through which Roma and their fellow minority citizens of the Soviet Union could (and very creatively did) make ethnic-based claims for themselves and their nationality. In so doing, they fulfilled the ‘national in form, socialist in content’ logic that was intended by the Soviet state. In using the framework of this ethnic-based Soviet affirmative action, they also integrated themselves into the Soviet economy and culture. Roma were no exception. Indeed, the Theatre Romen and Germano’s play Life on Wheels were inconceivable without the Soviet nationality policy that made them both possible in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

In the 1920s, Romani activists and artists had energetically campaigned for the establishment of a national theatre. Using the Bolsheviks’ logic, they argued that the creation of a Soviet Gypsy theatre would ‘rescue’ Romani art from the degradations of the capitalist past and help accelerate Roma’s transition to a Soviet way of life. On stage at this new theatre, they argued, Romani artists would sing new songs of Soviet socialism for Romani audiences in the Romani language. The theatre would serve a crucial didactic function and accustom ‘backward Gypsy’ audiences to the values of Soviet socialism. In October 1930, the Commissariat of Enlightenment approved the creation of the Theatre Romen, the first theatre of its kind in the world.

Life on Wheels premiered at the Theatre Romen in 1931. Colourful tapestries and a shabby wagon decorated the stage. Romen’s female performers wore brightly patterned dresses. The men sported unruly beards, lined their eyes with kohl, and carried horsewhips. One theatre critic decried what he considered the staging’s crude exotica, but Soviet officials and theatre critics generally hailed the play as a success for the young theatre.

Life on Wheels launched what for the Theatre Romen and its artists would prove to be a stressful decade of trying to adroitly navigate evolving Stalinist policy regarding the arts, nationality policy and the ‘socialist content’ of broad Soviet culture. Several times in the 1930s, the Theatre Romen was threatened with closure by Soviet authorities. Behind the scenes, Romani activists and the theatre’s Romani performers struggled to assert their own authority over the development of this Soviet-style Romani art, as well as to meet the mercurial demands of Stalinist policy and culture.

In the Theatre Romen’s early years, Romani-language plays written by Romani authors dominated its repertoire. These plays, like Life on Wheels, faithfully wedded socialist realism and the logic of Soviet nationality policy; they were straightforward tales of ‘backward Gypsies’ becoming ‘new Soviet Gypsies’. Romen’s troupe performed these plays on stage in Moscow, but also regularly travelled in the summer season to Romani collective farms throughout the Soviet Union to perform for their rural brethren.

Already by 1933, however, calls were coming from within and outside the theatre’s administration to change course and adopt a more ‘classical’ repertoire. In 1934, it premiered its staging of Prosper Merimée’s Carmen and received disappointing reviews in the Soviet press. Doubts also emerged early on – again, from both within and outside the theatre – about the viability of performing Romen’s plays in the Romani language, rather than in Russian. Most of the Theatre’s Romen’s audience members in Moscow could not understand a word of the Romani spoken on stage. Many of its actors and actresses were themselves not fluent in the Romani language and wanted to perform in Russian. Some of Romen’s artists quickly grew tired of what they felt was the disrespect of non-Romani theatre administrators and disinvested Soviet officials. By mid-decade, the Theatre Romen was palpably in crisis.

In 1937, a serious of fateful decisions transformed the Theatre Romen. M. M. Ianshin, a star at the prestigious Moscow Art Theatre, was hired as its new artistic director. A Russian, Ianshin was selected by the Commissariat of Enlightenment to elevate the Theatre Romen’s repertoire and artistry. Ianshin’s approach was straightforward. The Theatre Romen would now perform in the Russian language, not in Romani. And while plays written by Romani artists (I. I. Rom-Lebedev, in particular) would still feature in its repertoire, greater priority would be given to staging classical plays from the heights of Soviet and world culture.

Under Ianshin’s lead, in 1938 the Theatre Romen premiered a new adaptation of A. S. Pushkin’s poem The Gypsies. The play was performed in the Russian language – the language of Pushkin and of the Soviet Union’s ‘First Among Equals’, the Russian nation. Soviet audiences were invited to delight in a play that portrayed the very same images of ‘Gypsies’ that had earlier so filled Bolsheviks with dread. Pushkin’s ‘Gypsies’ were hot-tempered and carefree. They were beguiling lovers of liberty who shunned society and wandered aimlessly. Pushkin’s character Zemfira, a fiery ‘Gypsy’ beauty, enchanted her Russian lover, Aleko, and tempted him to escape modernity and follow her into the wild steppes. Soviet theatre critics celebrated this production as the triumph, at long last, of ‘authentic’ Romani art at the Theatre Romen.

The theatre’s performances were to be ‘national in form, socialist in content.’

There is irony, of course, in the Theatre Romen’s route from Germano’s Life on Wheels in 1931 to the triumphant production of Pushkin’s The Gypsies under Ianshin’s lead in 1938. But there is much more than irony. This route mirrors in stark and telling ways the evolution of Stalinist culture and nationality policy in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. Both productions, in their own ways and their own times, reflect the Bolshevik logic that justified the Theatre Romen’s founding in 1931: the theatre’s performances were to be ‘national in form, socialist in content’. By the close of the 1930s, the Theatre Romen, its actors, and its audiences were already to have graduated to a mastery of Soviet and world culture, an embrace of Stalinist kul’turnost’ (culturedness). Life on Wheels in 1931 paved the way for the Theatre Romen’s triumph with its production of The Gypsies under the changed Soviet circumstances of 1938. Likewise, both plays helped to secure the Theatre Romen’s legacy in Soviet and Russian history as well as in the global history of Roma.

Rights held by: Brigid O’Keeffe | Licensed by: Brigid O’Keeffe | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive