Letter from Velichka: an unlikely Eden for Russia’s Roma community

15 February 2022

The Roma are one of Russia’s most stigmatised communities. Stranded amid prejudice, they are usually excluded from education and lack official documents. Without this essential paperwork, many Roma struggle to access healthcare or employment. But it also stops families from buying or renting homes. Many are forced to take over abandoned houses on the outskirts of Russian or multi-ethnic villages, or simply to try and build their own.

Velichka, an area of farmland in Russia’s western Bryansk region is different. Currently, it is the country’s only settlement populated almost entirely by Roma families. Documentary photographer Stanislava Novgorodtseva found herself in the village by chance, after volunteering at a summer camp for local kids. She would sneak away to the house closest to the camp to smoke, but soon became friends with the 16-member Roma family that lived there.

After the summer camp ended, Novgorodtseva started visiting the family every other month, while capturing the village in her photographs. Soon she had taken the community, with its unique lifestyle and rituals, to heart.

“Roma people live, quite literally, as if there was no tomorrow,” Novgorodtseva says. “Adadyves, meaning ‘today’ or ‘now’ is an important word in Romani. Meanwhile, the words ‘tomorrow’ and ‘yesterday’ are non-distinguishing, and are both referred to with the same word — tasya — meaning ‘anything which is not today’,” the photographer explained.

Vika, the mother of the family that took Novgorodtseva in, agrees. “I look at Russians and see them work hard, have dreams, but Roma people are happy to simply live through the day, and that’s it. It’s in our nature,” she adds.

But if long-term planning is not seen as Romani tradition, their lifestyle can hardly be described as idle. ”Every time I came, I’d bring chicken and a bag of pasta, a two-day supply for the whole family. Then we’d go fishing in the pond nearby, making sure we got enough fish [to keep the family going] before the family’s child support payments arrived,” Novgorodtseva says. The family would hunt for their main delicacy: hedgehog. “[Hedgehog] is very good for the immune system,” says Radzh, the family’s father. Once you try it, you’ll never want any other meat again. Throw it into the fire to make the needles to fall off, then boil, clean, and fry with the onions. Sheer delicacy!”

But no matter how generous the countryside, it is challenging to keep a family of 16 people full. Refused official employment — job opportunities in Bryansk are scarce, and anti-Roma prejudice remains — Vika and Radzh have spent years getting by on casual work. Often they will track down abandoned houses in order to dismantle them and sell on the bricks, hard work that leaves their hands bleeding and сallous.

Today, having worked at the local garbage plant for months, Radzh and his sons rely on scavenging metal as their main source of income. Otherwise, they are pinning hopes on education to secure job opportunities in the nearest big city, Bryansk.

Grandfather Kolya, aged 60, is the oldest member of the family. Unlike many Roma children in the USSR, he attended a public school, giving him an education afforded to few others in Velichka. He grew up hoping to become a truck driver, the “institutionalised nomads of our time”.

Vika never went to school, and Radzh was expelled in the first grade after being involved in a fight. “I might not be able to read, but at least I have my own signature and I know how to write it.” Radzh says. All of their nine children are enrolled in a local correctional school. These institutions are primarily focused on children with special needs, but Russian law requires that Roma children attend these schools irregardless of their needs.

Nevertheless, the children’s hopes and dreams are as diverse as the community that nurtured them. Fifteen-year-old Zulfiya hopes to be a lawyer, while her sister, 13-year-old Khristina, dreams of becoming a confectioner. Their niece Snezhana wants to be a housekeeper; Dima, also 13, is hoping to play football or join a taxi service. Eight-year-old Salim aims to become no less than a billionaire, with plans to plant the trees and build new houses.

No matter what, two things remain sacred in Romani homes: horses and childhood. Both are seen as nomadic versions of home: fragile and in movement. Despite a never-ending lack of private space or money, children especially are treated as a blessing. Growing up in big groups, mingling with their extended family, the kids whom Novgorodtseva met had a strong sense of community. “Kids and family are everything. Money comes, money goes, but family stays on,” says Radzh. “I’m grateful I can spend my time with my kids in the courtyard, just talking, laughing, sharing. Boys, girls – I love them all.” At dusk, the family sweeps cigarette butts, teabags and candy wrappers off the floor, before laying out mattresses. Then, the entire family beds down to watch a Bollywood melodrama before sleep.