Crimean Gypsies, in: Christian Geißler, Malerische Darstellungen der Sitten und Gebräuche… unter Russen, Tataren, Mongolen und anderen Völkern des Russischen Reichs, Leipzig 1804
To distinguish the Gypsy ethnic subgroups living in various countries, which place each other at various points of the scale extending from relative to enemy, is an almost hopeless task for the outsider. This is especially true in the Crimea, where traditional divisions by crafts, dialects and lineage is duplicated by a further, essential criterion: whether the Gypsy in question is a Tatar Gypsy, or not.
After the late 18th-century Russian conquest, for virtually all the ethnic groups, be they Jews, Armenians or Gypsies, there were two classifications: Tatar and non-Tatar: “ours” and “newcomer”. As a result of five hundred years of Tatar rule, even the ethnic groups which, due to their religion or occupation, maintained their identity, adopted the Tatar language in place of their mother tongue. The Crimean Armenians and Karaim Jews, with the section of the Silk Road from the Crimea to Poland in their hands, spoke Tatar even in late 17th-century Lemberg, and used Armenian or Hebrew only as a liturgical language. The small group of the latter that survives in Galician Halich, which we will write about, even today carve their gravestones in Hebrew characters, but in the Tatar language. And both groups distinguish themselves from the Armenian-speaking Armenians and Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews who moved into the Crimea after the Russian conquest.
The first “Tatar” group of Crimean Gypsies, the Gurbets (who called themselves Turkmens) according to their own traditions arrived in the Crimea together with the Tatars as professional horse traders. They retained this profession until the revolution of 1917. They took their horses around to the fairs, not only in the peninsula, but in the whole steppe of Novorossiya, and the fortune of their wealthiest members was estimated at twenty thousand silver rubles. The other, more or less nomadic groups of the “Tatar” Gypsies were also organized primarily by crafts: the Demerdzhis were itinerant blacksmiths, the Elekchis sieve-makers and basket-weavers, the Dauldzhis the professional musicians of Tatar weddings and Ramadan celebrations. Although all of them declared themselves Sunni Muslims, the Tatars looked upon them with suspicion, because they also practiced a number of Shia customs, referring to their Iranian origins. Some of their groups allegedly used the confession “There is no god, but Allah, and Muhammad is His prophet” with the addition of “and Ali, the God-like”; and in the holy month of the Shiite martyrs they roamed the villages with flags and drums, mourning Hassan and Hussein.
After the Russian conquest, an influx of the non-Tatar Gypsies, called “Lakhins”, which is to say Poles, started from the other regions of the empire, primarily from Moldova and Bessarabia. By profession, they were primarily Ayudzhi, bear-leaders, wandering entertainers, who, in addition to the village circus, earned their meagre bread by cartomancy, chiromancy and other magic practices. They spoke Vlach, and declared themselves Muslims, but they did not go to mosque, celebrated their feasts according to pre-Islamic customs, and at the time of the 1835 census dictated their names in double, Muslim and non Muslim-form: “Mehmet, that is, Kili, Osman, that is, Arnaut, Hassan, who is also Murtaza…” Their nomadism was ended with the Tsar’s decree of 1809, which forced them to settle. After that time they learned the crafts of the earlier Gypsy groups, from which, however, they kept their distance until the very end.
In major cities the Gypsies settled down in Gypsy quarters, where the various subgroups maintained their separate identity. The largest colony was the Tsiganskaya Slobodka in Simferopol, on the outskirts of the Tatar old town. In the early 20th century, nearly three hundred Roma families were counted here, with eight to ten people each, who mostly practiced blacksmithing, charcoal burning and peddling, or prepared household goods. But by that time Russians and Tatars also lived in a fair number in the Slobodka, which was considered the slum of the city and an eternal nest of disease, and in spite of every attempt it remained so until the 1940s.
“This area”, writes N. A. Svyatsky in his On the Gypsies of Russia and the Crimea (Simferopol, 1888), “is not similar to our streets. With its primitive and disordered look it appears rather like an itinerant Gypsy camp. The tiny, poor cottages are built without any order, where they like it. Sometimes a few in a row, and then the area between them and the next houses is a large common courtyard, where the Gypsy families live their noisy, carefree and bustling everyday life. The Gypsy houses are mostly one single, three by three meter room, without kitchen, pantry or any other outbuilding. The room is mostly empty, often even without a stove. The common stove is in the courtyard, at a place called “chariot”, protected from the wind by one single clay wall.”
The question of who is Tatar and who not became really important in the 1940s. The occupying German army, which in the Crimea counted on the support of the Tatars, distinguished the Jews (Karaim and Krymchaks) and Gypsies considered to be of Tatar nationality from the “other” Jews and Gypsies destined for extermination. The Gypsies therefore allowed themselves to be enrolled as Tatars, with the support also of the Tatars. When on 9 December 1941 the men of Einsatzgruppe “D” surrounded the Tsiganskaya Slobodka, and started to put on trucks and carry away for execution those living here, the action was halted on the protest of the Tatar government. And in Bakhchisaray, where the local Gypsies had already been collected for execution, the head of the local Tatar government reported himself to the commander of the German unit, and asked him to select any three men from the Gypsies. Then, dropping down their pants in the presence of the commander, and pointing to their circumcised organ, announced that he resigns his position, because he cannot take responsibility for the co-operation of the population if the Germans massacre Muslims. The action was halted this time, too.
Usul-usul. Crimean Tatar folk song
On 18 May 1944 the Soviet authorities, on returning to the Crimea, also composed the trains of the Tatars to be deported based on the German lists, thus including the Gypsies listed as Tatars. On the protest of the Gypsies they replied: “The Germans exactly knew who was a Jew and who was a Gypsy. If they did not take you away, you are certainly Tatars.” Among the survivors of the deported Gypsies only a few undertook the ordeal which the Tatars, illegally returning to the Crimea from the 1960s, had to face. Most of them live in the Krasnodar region, where they still carry on their itinerant blacksmith and peddling crafts.
On the Tsiganskaya Slobodka there are no Tatar Gypsies any more, but the site as a social mold still constantly re-produces misery, pouring it out into the whole Tatar old town. The entrance to the district is next to the White Mosque, where we finished our previous walk in Simferopol. Here stands the former Gypsy mosque, since 1945 a house for Soviet officers, which the Tatar community has unsuccessfully tried to retake for the purpose of mosque. Next to it rises the palace of the Mother of the World, the Queen of the Fiery Throne, the Ruler of the Earth, Pharaoh, Sphinx and Messiah. The Queen receives you at the entrance of the quarter, and for a small vassal’s fee she provides you her benevolence and protection. You will definitely need it.
Although the poverty is unchanged, the “noisy, carefree and bustling everyday life” has gone. Run-down houses, locked doors – as if there were anything to steal from the one-story long courtyards. A small child and an old woman watch from behind the doors. On the streets, there are only the lonely dogs in search for food in the open sewers, and sometimes a passer-by who looks suspiciously at the stranger, not accepting his greeting. Any shop or pub, if it exists, is closed. In front of a waste recycling post they are selling three bags of potatoes and a few pieces of watermelon from the back of a truck.
The increasingly poor, narrow and steep streets dissipate onto a large, empty, rocky plateau. The plateau is dominated by a lazy band of crows, they allow people to approach quite near, skirring up only in the last minute. An empty car on the hilltop, its passagers are nowhere to be seen. On the hillside, the ruins of the bastion of the former Scythian fortress Neapolis Scythica, from here you can already see the industrial quarter of Simferopol. Two old people coming from the factories cut across the field, while a man looking like a former Soviet party functionary walks with his robust dog. They stop and stare at the stranger until he, having walked around the hill, disappears again into the labyrinth of the former old town.
An old Gypsy woman sitting in front of a long courtyard, watching the street. “What are you taking pictures of?” “On how life is, how you live here.” “There is nothing interesting in it. May it disappear without anyone remembering it. Take a picture of me instead, so you have some nice memories.”