Roma in Ukraine: The Success of the Servitka Roma and Persisting Problems

It is estimated that Ukraine is home to over 400,000 Romani people, with the largest concentration being in Transcarpathia. The term ‘Roma’, however, is not even generally understood in Ukraine, and instead the more generic ‘Tsyhany’ is used. Whilst Ukraine has had the Islamic ‘Krimi’ or Crimean Romani, who migrated to Crimea from the Balkans, its most notable, and numerous, group is the Servitka (Серви) Romani.

The Servitka Romani are important in the context of Ukraine in that this particular subgroup of Roma people formed there. Whilst they had originally come from Serbia, they moved to Ukraine and now boast a high level of integration into general society. Even their language is distinct. Whilst they do speak Romani, it is an incomplete form, borrowing many words from Ukrainian and Russian instead. It is also interesting to note that they differ from other Roma in that they are Orthodox Christians, like traditional Ukrainians and Russians. Kyiv and Kyivan Rus’ were very important for the Orthodox faith, so it is no wonder that such a large cultural impact has carried over to Roma people residing there as well. There is also evidence to suggest that this group also served in Cossack armies, another traditional aspect of old Ukrainian society. The Servitka, then, are a group that has been part of Ukraine’s history for centuries, and over that time has come to be a part of society and Ukraine’s overall history.

Not only have they culturally integrated, they have made a name for themselves. One of the most prominent figures to come from a Servitka background is Nikolai Slichenko, a Russian singer and the present chief director of the Romen Theatre in Moscow, which is the oldest and most famous Roma theatres in the world. Slichenko has won multiple awards in his lifetime, such as the People’s Artist of the USSR and the Order of Merit for the Fatherland, marking him as a recognised force in Russian culture despite his Roma heritage.

A more worldwide example of famous Servitka is Eugene Hütz, frontman of Gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello. Contrary to the popular belief that Roma are condemned to the side lines of society and stuck with the menial jobs, such as working in fields or picking up rubbish on the streets, Hütz has been able to distinguish himself with a successful music career that has made waves globally. After fleeing his hometown with his family following the news of the Chernobyl crisis, Hütz travelled through Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Italy before finally making it to the US in 1992 as a political refugee. For Hütz, being Roma has opened up doors rather than closed them, as his prime inspiration for his lifestyle and music come from his heritage. This may not be a good thing, however. He is a polarising figure in that his ability to spread awareness of Roma people and culture is appreciated, yet perhaps the way that he stereotypes it is not. Despite this, he is a classic success story, with his band’s album Super Taranta! spurring music critic Robert Christgau to call Gogol Bordello “the world’s most visionary band”. They’ve played at Coachella, Glastonbury, and have even written a song for Coca Cola’s Euro 2012 ad campaign. In other words, they’ve made it big.

The wider picture is not just success stories, however. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) published a report in 2014 that diagnosed the situation of Roma in Ukraine as ‘problematic’. Roma in Ukraine are said to lack opportunities to enter quality education and employment, which in turn has resulted in them being confined to poor housing conditions. There are also some inset prejudices, with examples of police misconduct towards Roma. One of the prime difficulties in dealing with such issues is the fact that Roma are heterogenous people, meaning that there can never be an accurate representative, willing to campaign on their behalf, that will address all individual wants and needs. The Ukrainian government has not turned a blind eye, though. They have adopted the economically-named ‘Strategy on the Protection and Integration of the Roma national minority into Ukrainian Society up to 2020’ to address the present problems. Yet even this is a small step. No Roma were consulted on the policy, and there has not been strong implementation of the strategy.

We have seen, then, that even though there is the ability to be successful as a Roma, there are many extra hurdles that have to be jumped over. Slichenko and Hütz offer hope for the future, but there is still a very long way to go before Roma are given the same rights as other citizens. Whilst the Servitka are a rosier example of how Roma have integrated into society, there are many other groups that face persecution and daily challenges. What needs to be dealt with is engrained prejudices towards people based on crude stereotypes, and that’s a hard challenge to meet. The Roma need change, and hopefully that change will come soon.

Conor Hodges