General Introduction

Roma Culture :An Introduction

Roma Culture

A contemporary picture of Romani communities in Eastern Europa

Ethnic social structure and cultural characteristics of romani communities

The mosaic of romani communities in eastern europe

Roma Muslims in the Balkans

Specific features

The Roma Court

Roma groups

The Gábor in Transylvania / Romania

Servika Roma / Slovak Roma

Vlaxika Rom / Olaši

PDFs available in: flaggeEngland

A contemporary picture of Romani communities in Eastern Europa

Elena Marushiakova & Veselin Popov

Every nation around the world preserves its ethnographic and dialectal diversity as a valuable cultural heritage. This diversity is greater among the Roma due to historical events, the lack of a common territory, the dispersal of their communities in many different countries, life in different cultural environments, group endogamy, etc. At the same time, this diversity is better preserved than in other European nations, yet it is still insufficiently known and appreciated. The contemporary mosaic of Roma communities forms a significant part of the World Cultural Heritage of Mankind.





Ethnic Social Structure and Cultural Characteristics of Romani Communities


In order to be able to understand the ethnic social structure and cultural characteristics of Romani communities in Eastern Europe1, we have to take into consideration several important circumstances:

1. Across the whole region of Eastern Europe lives a clearly defined and distinctive ethnic community, similarly referred to in various countries as Cigáni, Cikáni, Cyganie, Čigonai, Čigāni, Cigányok, Ţigani, Çingeneler, Αθιγγανοι, Цигани, Цыгане, etc. Their ancestors migrated from the Indian subcontinent to Europe over a millennium ago. This external umbrella appellation is referred to by the English term Gypsies. This community can be considered (as any other nation in the region) as an “imagined community” (according to the terminology of Benedict Anderson), but unlike the rest of the nations, it has been “imagined” not by its own members, but by the remaining part of the population that has been living alongside them for centuries. Hence, somewhat paradoxically, the boundaries of this community are determined in fact not by its members, but by the surrounding population regardless of the Roma’s self-perception. It is not uncommon (not only in Eastern Europe but also elsewhere in the world) to have communities referred to as “Gypsies” by the surrounding population, while having chosen an identity “other” than Romani for themselves: They are bearers of the so-called phenomenon of “preferred ethnic identity”. This term describes a publicly declared or experienced, or nowadays even actively constructed, identity of communities of “Gypsies” whose mother tongues are not only various dialects of Romani, but also of Turkish, Tatar, Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, Albanian, Romanian, Hungarian, Ukrainian, etc. On the basis of this, we will refer to “Roma” as not only members of the communities which identify themselves as such, but a much wider circle of communities.

2. Everywhere in the world Roma have existed at least in “two dimensions”, or in two coordinate planes - both as a separate community and as a society (in particular as its ethnically-based integral part within the respective nation-state). The contemporary conditions of Romani communities depend on the past centuries of social, cultural and historical context in which they lived, as well as on the contemporary social, economic and political situation in their different home countries.

3. One of the key problems which Romani studies have always faced is the question regarding the internal structure of the Roma community. Roma are an inhomogeneous socio-cultural unit that is hierarchically structured on different taxonomical levels. A main scientific category, which is traditionally used by the Romani studies’ scholars, is “The Roma Group” (the notions “tribe”, “nation” or even “caste” are also used). There are many excellent descriptions of separate Roma groups and several attempts to draw a more or less comprehensive picture of the existing groups in various regions or countries in Europe. Less attention is paid to the question “what is a Roma group” (i.e. what is its essence, main characteristics, etc.), and on the processes of its historical and/or contemporary development.

Based on materials mainly from Eastern Europe we have developed a general theoretical “ideal” model of the Roma group, with its main characteristics and its key place in the whole internal hierarchy of the Romani community. We can purely schematically present the following characteristics that make up the typical “ideal” Roma group: presence of group consciousness; only a person who is born into the group can be a member of it; strict observance of group endogamy; use of a common language – either Romani or another language in communities who have lost their mother tongue; a common traditional lifestyle (sedentary or nomadic); common means of subsistence (group profession or traditional occupations); existence of a potestary structure and internal self-government; strict observance of group rules and norms; common life perceptions (including religion); common value and behavioural patterns, common opinions and moral principles; large and strong families regarded as the highest value; restriction of friendly contacts outside the boundaries of the group; mutual solidarity and obligation to lend support; maintenance of group authenticity and isolation (the rule of non-interference in other groups’ affairs); observance of group prohibitions (e.g. mahrime, magerdo, muxros, etc.). This list of the main characteristics of the “ideal” Roma group is a theoretical construction which could be extended or restructured. Either way, it is definitely needed for the characterisation of separate Roma groups and for distinguishing one group from another. Based on these main characteristics, in the process of comparing and confronting with the “others” (including “other” Roma), group identity is created. Group identity is ultimately the essential expression of the existence of a given group (a Roma group cannot exist without group consciousness, which is different from e.g. a dialectal group). The construction of this ideal model is not an end in itself. It merely helps to obtain a sufficiently clear notion of what the Roma group is. Following a thorough analysis that takes into account the presence or the absence of certain elements of the ideal group model, we can gain some insight into the set-up of a contemporary Roma group. Using this model as a yardstick we can easily recognise and distinguish one Roma group from another. It should be noted that the presence or absence of certain elements of the ideal group model in separate Roma groups does not mean that one group is more real than the other. It only signifies the change in group borders and flowing process of segmentation or consolidation that leads to the creation and development of new Roma groups (on the same or higher taxonomical level).Generally it can be said that Roma form a specific type of community, “the intergroup ethnic community” which is divided into a number of separate (and sometimes even opposed) endogamic groups, subgroups and metagroup units with their own ethnic and cultural features. On the basis of the “Roma group” it is possible to reveal the different levels of existence of the Romani community - group, subgroup divisions and metagroup units on different levels. These communities are on different hierarchical levels, and depending on various factors, one or another of these levels could be the main, leading or determining factor of the identity of any given Roma community, including the consciousness of affiliations to a civic nation-state.



The Mosaic of Romani Communities in Eastern Europe


The Roma groups are not static and unchangeable social and cultural units. Processes in different directions, velocity and frequency that flow constantly among them can be reduced to two main contradictory and correlated tendencies - segmentation and consolidation. On one hand we find a process of segmentation of the group into separate subgroup divisions formed according to family and/or territorial factors. On the other hand, the separate subgroup divisions are consolidating gradually into one group, or separate groups are consolidating into one metagroup community. In both cases, the newly formed communities are gradually accepting the dimensions of a new, unique group. There are many reasons for these processes to be considered characteristic for the Roma in the earlier historical periods as well. These processes explain even the contemporary picture of the mosaic of the Roma groups in the world to a great extent     and predict that after some generations the general picture of the Romanies around the world will not be the same.

Eastern Europe is the historical region where the most numerous subdivision of the the Roma community, is concentrated (other Roma communities living in different places all over the world are contemporary migrants or descendants of the migrants who left this region from about 150 years ago). Sinti in this region are too few in number, as they comprise only a few families in the Russian Federation, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia which are nowadays mostly mixed with Roma. From the point of view of borders of the Roma subdivision presence, the territory of contemporary Turkey has a unique place in the world. It is the current location of the heirs of the three big waves, into which the Romani migration was divided during their long journey from India to Europe (the division “Rom / Lom / Dom”).    



Roma have been settled in the Balkans for centuries (at least since the 11th to 12th century and, according to some authors, even from as early as the 9th century). The first Romani settlers in the Balkans were the Roma communities who spoke the Romani dialects of the Balkan dialect group. Subsequently, they were joined by Romanies who spoke the dialects of the southern Vlax dialectal group, and who are the descendants of a big wave of migration from Wallachia and Moldova who scattered en masse all over the Balkan Peninsula in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Balkans have a relatively well-preserved variety of the different groups and metagroup communities who practice Islam or Christianity. Some of them converted from one religion to the other in different periods of history and their beliefs are often characterised by a high degree of syncretism. The most general distinction between these communities is the distinction between Muslims (Xoroxan, Xoraxane or Khorane Roma) and Orthodox Christians (Dasikane Roma), who are divided into more or less autonomous groups within each community. The groups are differentiated at various hierarchical levels (i.e. the lead in Roma identity structure can be on the level of the two major subdivisions or on the level of separate groups, or on the level of subgroups and/or regional subdivisions) Examples of such internal subdivisions of the main metagroup communities are groups belonging to the Balkan dialectal community: Arlia, Kovači (Bugurdži, Arabadži), etc. in the countries of the former Yugoslavia; Erlii, Burgudži, Futadži, Fičiri, Drindari, Kalajdži, Košničari, Demirdži, etc. in Bulgaria; Arlia, Mečkara, Sepetdži in Albania; Arlija, Sevljarja in Greece; Erlides, Sepedži, Kalajdži, Boxčadžı in Turkey. The Vlax I dialectal community comprises for instance the Gurbeti, Džambazi, Bosnian Čergarja, Montenegrian Čergarja, Kaloperi, etc. in the countries of the former Yugoslavia; Vlaxoria (Vlaxički, Laxo), Thracian Kalajdži, Džambazi, Pârčori, etc. in Bulgaria; Kaburdži, Kurtofi, Čergara in Albania; Kalpazaja, Xandurja, Filipidži in Greece; Vlaxos (Laxoja) in Turkey. This list of Romani groups in the Balkans is by no means exhaustive as the boundaries of the groups are not always clearly defined and often given group names which arose as professionyms (e.g. Kalajdži, Košničari, etc.) refer to two or more very different groups (in one or more countries). The processes of “preferred ethnic identity” are strongly expressed mainly among the Muslim Roma in the Balkans. A significant number of them are Turkish-speaking (or have Turkish and Romani as mother tongues) and often prefer to declare (or perceive) themselves as Turks. This is the case most often in Bulgaria, Eastern Macedonia and Aegean Thrace (Greece). In other cases, the preferred community is Albanian. The processes of adopting the identity of the surrounding population, such as in the groups of the so-called Džorevci in Bulgaria or Gjorgjovci in Serbia, are similar in content. A relatively small number of Roma belong to the groups who settled in this region during the large Roma migrations in the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century and who belong to the Vlax II dialectal group. In the countries of the former Yugoslavia (mostly in Serbia) they are known by the general umbrella term Laješi and in Bulgaria Kardaraši / Kaldaraši, in some places also as Laješi or Katunari (i.e. Nomads). In Bulgaria their popular self-appellation is Rom Ciganjak ‘true Gypsie’). There are several subgroup subdivisions within this group, according to family or regional lines (such as the Zlatari, Niculeš, Tasmanari, Žapleš, Dudulani, Lâjneš, Njamcurja in Bulgaria). The numerous Romanian-speaking communities inhabit the whole Balkan Peninsula (except for Albania, Kosovo and Turkey). Their self-appellation in Bulgaria and eastern Serbia is Rudari / Ludari; Bejaši in Croatia and in some places in eastern Serbia; Baňjaši in Vojvodina, Karavlasi in Bosnia, etc.  In some instances, as e.g. among Rudari in Bulgaria a certain extent of intergroup subdivisions is preserved based on professional features (such as Lingurari [spoon-makers], Ursari or Mečkari [bear-trainers]), and on regional features (e.g. Monteni, Intreni, Kamčieni, Dobrudženi, Tracieni, etc.). Among these communities we can observe the phenomenon of  “preferred ethnic identity” (i.e. they prefer to be identified as Vlaxs / Romanians, and recently in some places (Croatia, Serbia) sometimes also as Roma; in Bulgaria some of them are undergoing a process of searching for their own (non-Romanian and non-Romani) identity, connected with attempts at construction of their own quasi-history). Processes of searching and attempts at constructing a new, non-Romani identity are observed also among other communities in the Balkans, e.g. among the Turkish-speaking community of the Milliet ‘people’, as a neutral ethnic category) in Bulgaria or among Albanian-speaking Aškali in Kosovo. The processes in this direction acquire qualitatively new shapes for the Balkan Egyptians in Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Serbia, who for centuries were perceived by their surrounding population as Gypsies (Gjupti / Gjupci in Macedonia, Jevgi in Albania, etc.). They are not only actively constructing their own comprehensive national history, but have also received official recognition as a detached community in Kosovo, where they are part of the RAE (Roma, Egyptiand, Aškali) communities.  In Romania the mosaic of Roma groups is also diverse. To a great extent this mosaic is determined by the division of the Roma into different categories during the period of their enslavement in the Danubian principalities (Wallachia and Moldova). With time the ancestors of the Vatraši category (from‘vatr’ - fireplace, i.e. settled, domestic slaves), also called Kherutne Rom (i.e. those who live in houses) have lost their group distinctions and have become a large metagroup community with partially preserved regional or professional features. Most of them are only Romanian-speaking and many of them demonstrate a preference for a Romanian identity. Only a small number of them also speaks Romani. The Romanian-speaking Rudari (in Wallachia), Lingurari (in Moldova), Bâeši / Beaši in Transylvania) are a large community who also used to have a special status during the time of slavery. The descendants of the Lâeši slaves, who used to be nomads and paid an annual tax to their masters (the prince, boyars, or monasteries), are today a detached metagroup community, known under the generalised name Lâeši and/or Pletoši and Kortorari. Within this metagroup community, the relatively well-preserved groups and subgroups are e.g. Kălderari, Zlatari, Čurari, Gabori, Kazandži, Aržentari, Korbeni, Modorani, Tismanari or Čori, who belong to the Vlax II dialectal group. In Romania there are also groups linguistically classified as part of the Balkan dialect group (Ursari, Spoitoari), and in Dobrudzha there are Turkish- or Tatar-speaking Muslim Roma with their respective preferred identity. Transylvania home to a significant number of Romani-speaking Rumungri (Roma Ungrika), part of them are Hungarian-speaking Rumungri, often with a preferred Hungarian identity. In central Europe the variety of Roma groups is smaller relative to the one in the Balkans and in Romania. In Slovakia, a large Roma population has been settled for centuries, divided most generally into the Slovenska (Slovak) Roma (also called by some scholars Servika Roma) speaking Central or Carpathian dialects of Romanes, and Ungrika Roma or Rumungri, many of whom are only Hungarian-speaking and some of whom have a preferred Hungarian identity. This is also the home of Vlašika or Olah (Wallachian) Roma (their number there is smaller) from different subdivisions - Lovari, Bougešti, Drizdari, etc., who are former nomads, speaking northern Vlax dialects. Moreover, we find small communities of Romanian-speaking Bajaši or Korytari.



The situation in the Czech Republic mirrors the situation in Slovakia because during the Second World War the local Roma and Sinti were almost entirely annihilated in Nazi concentration camps (only a few families survived). After World War II, the country was repopulated by Roma who came from Slovakia (primarily from the region of eastern Slovakia). In Hungary the settled Rumungri (Ungrika Roma) and/or Ciganyok are predominant. Most of them are Hungarian-speaking, many of them also with a preferred Hungarian identity. One may also encounter Romani-speaking groups of Rumungri, although they are less numerous (mostly in Eastern Hungary), as well as a minor presence of Slovenska Roma. The second most numerous community are the Vlašika Roma or Olah Roma with internal subdivisions into Lovari, Kelderari, Čurari, Drizari, Posotari, Kherari, Čerhari, Khangliari, Colari, Mašari, and others. The third community is the Romanian-speaking Bojaši, with internal subdivisions into Ardelan, Muntjan, Titjan, etc.). Among some of them there is an on-going process of developing a Roma identity. Poland is a country with a relatively small number of Roma. In the regions which used to be part of the former Russian Empire live the Polska (Polish) Roma, former nomads who are now scattered all over Poland. Their community also includes the so-called Xaladitka (or Ruska) Roma who live in areas bordering the former Soviet Union, as well as their relatives Sasitka (German) Roma near the border with the former Prussia. Bergitka Roma, who have been sedentary for centuries, live along the northern slopes of the Carpathian mountains. Small communities of Kelderari and Lovari, who are relatively new migrants (from the beginning of the 20th century) are scattered across the country. The biggest Roma community in the countries of the former Russian Empire and USSR is the community of Ruska (Russian) Roma, known also as Xaladitka Roma. These are the descendants of the first Roma who settled within the Russian Empire in the 16th to 17th century, coming from Germany through Poland and Lithuania. They are former nomads, mainly Orthodox Christians, who speak a different dialect to the Baltic (or Nordic) groups of Romanes dialects. Ruska Roma have more or less detached subdivisions which are not endogamically closed. These subdivisions are detached according to the territories of residence (nowadays or in the past), e.g. Polska Roma, also called Xaladitka Roma in the past, and nowadays Litovska Roma, in Lithuania and Belarus; Lotfika (Latvian) Roma living in Latvia and partly also in Estonia; Sibirjaki, who are nowadays dispersed across the whole of Russia and Ukraine. Ruska Roma, with all their more or less separate divisions currently live in different countries of the former USSR (including individual families in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), without interrupting their ties. Next in numbers is the Roma community of the so-called Ukrainian Roma with the self-appellation Servi, with their internal subdivisions into Xandžari, Kalmyši, Gimpeni, Kahanci, Korči, etc. Some of the subdivisions of the Servi have lost their language and are Ukrainian-speaking. They settled in eastern Ukraine and the southern parts of Russia as early as the middle of the 16th century, migrating from Poland. Nowadays they are scattered all over Russia and also in Kazakhstan. In eastern Ukraine and southern Russia we find a small group of Plaščuni, former nomads speaking a Central or rather Carpathian dialect of Romanes. Dialects from the same dialectal group are spoken also by some of the Slovenska (Slovak) Roma and Rumungri, who settled in Transcarpathian Ukraine, others are Hungarian-speaking, many with a preferred Hungarian identity. Significant numbers of Rumungri are nowadays migrating towards large Russian cities where they are referred to as Madjari. The Roma communities who are representatives of the Balkan dialect groups who migrated from the Balkan Peninsula through Wallachia and Moldavia in the 17th to 18th century are relatively numerous. These are the Ursara in Moldova and southern Ukraine and Krimurja or Kırımlıtika Roma (from Kırım – the Tatar name for Crimea). Krimurja, who are Muslim by tradition, used to live in Crimea and in modern times resettled in Ukraine, southern Russia, Moscow and Povolzhie (along the Volga river). Some of them had lived in Transcaucasia and central Asia until recently, but migrated from there to various cities in the Russian Federation and Ukraine. A special case is the community of Dajfa / Tajfa (old self-appellation Urumčel or Urmačel) in Crimea, who are today Tatar-speaking and have a preferred Tatar self-identity. Their ancestors came to these territories probably also from the Balkans and Asia Minor during the Ottoman Empire, probably in the 16th to 17th century.

A considerable number of representatives of the Vlax II dialect groups live in these regions too, such as Vlaxi / Vlaxurja who arrived from Wallachia and Moldavia, most probably in the 17th to 18th centuries and who are today settled mostly in eastern Ukraine, southern Russia and Povolzhie (along the Volga river). Other groups belonging to the same dialectal group are Kišinjovcurja or Kišinjovci. The group is currently undergoing a process of consolidation, as it includes descendants of the so-called Laeši who used to live in the regions between the rivers Dniester and Prut, joined the Russian Empire in the early 19th century. Today this group is settled in various cities in the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Significant numbers of Laeši continued to live in the Republic of Moldova (divided into two parts – Katunarja living in the south and the more detached Čokenarja in the north) and in Bessarabia (Ukraine). The time of the Large Romani Migrations at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century saw the arrival of the communities of Kelderari and Lovari in Russian Empire. They migrated via the territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and are nowadays found in different regions of the Russian Federation (including Siberia), Ukraine, Byelorussia, Lithuania and Latvia. These two groups are divided into internal subdivisions: among Lovari these are Ungri, Čokešti and Bundaša; among Kelderara - Serbaja, Moldovaja, Grekurja, Bugari, Dobrožaja, Mačvaja, Mihaešti, Ionešti, Bidoni, etc. The trend (in most cases still ongoing) among Kelderari is towards segmentation of separate subgroups into new groups. Currently, the furthest developments in this direction are to be observed in the case of the so-called Šanxajci or Kitajcurja or Kitajako Řom who live in Odessa. In the countries of the former USSR there are also Romanian-speaking Roma, such as Lingurari, living in the contemporary Republic of Moldova and Bessarabia; a significant part of them migrated also to Ukraine and the Russian Federation. The Vlaxija in the Republic of Moldova are also Romanian-speaking. Both groups have a preferred Moldavian/Romanian identity.





The internal subdivision of the Roma is reflected in their group, subgroup, metagroup and preferred identity. Parallel to this, most of the Roma in Eastern Europe have established a qualitatively different new level in the complex structure of their community identity. This is the feeling of belonging to each respective country’s nationality. The presence of such a level in the structure of their identity is the result of attaining a certain level in the development of their civic awareness and their integration into the respective states. This fact is easily explained in the light of the turns of their history and their belonging in the social life of the countries and regions where they have been settled for centuries.

With the onset of the 21st century a series of considerable changes became palpable that were related above all to the finalisation of the processes of European integration in the majority of the Eastern European countries. The migration floods and labour mobility became a common factor not only for the newly acceded countries, but to a certain degree for the entire Eastern European region. These processes encompass the Roma from the region, too, which leave their impact on the development of the Roma identities and grants them new, common European dimensions. In the new European reality the development of the Romani community acquires new and wider spatial dimensions that transcend the existing state borders. Large portions of the existing Roma groups migrate from Eastern Europe to various countries in Western Europe to permanently settle there (or at least with the intent to settle). At this stage the relations (including through marriage) among the members of the groups remain, but it is not difficult to forecast that the development of the processes of segmentation and consolidation of the groups will certainly acquire new dimensions that will find their expression in group (and subgroup and metagroup) identities. This means that finally, after several decades, we will find a totally different overall tableau of the Roma presence in a united Europe.


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1The region of Eastern Europe, as referred to in this text, encompasses the countries east of the so-called „Iron Curtain“ that divided Europe after World War II : Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, as well as the countries of former Yugoslavia (Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia) and the European part of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Russian Federation, Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova) which used to belong to the so-called “socialist system”, and Greece and Turkey, which were not part of it.