‘They’ve disappeared into thin air’ A Russian town unleashes its rage against the Roma community, following a deadly brawl
On June 13, there was mass violence in the town of Chemodanovka, outside Penza. Allegations that members of the local Roma community raped a woman led to a brawl between more than 150 people. One man died, and another five were hospitalized with stab wounds, leaving a victim in intensive care. The next evening, hundreds of people in town blocked the M5 Ural Highway, demanding that state officials respond to the situation. Penza Governor Ivan Belozertsev came and addressed the “people’s gathering,” as police officers detained 170 demonstrators and later arrested 15 suspects in the brawl. Meduza correspondent Ekaterina Drankina traveled to Chemodanovka to learn more about what happened.
It’s the morning of Sunday, June 16, and all 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of the M5 Ural Highway between Penza and Chemodanovka are jam packed with police, with an especially large glut of patrol cars near town hall and on the road to the church, where there’s a funeral taking place.
Today in Chemodanovka, they’re burying 34-year-old Vladmir Grushin, a driver at a local transport company. He was killed on the evening of June 13, in a mass brawl between a large group of Roma community members and a small group of local residents. Grushin was actually a bystander; he was just standing against a nearby fence, when he was stabbed accidentally. In the same brawl, the same thing happened to Sergey Pugachev, who’s now in intensive care.
At least 300 people crowded around the church. There were many men, large and well-built, standing there in sweatpants and t-shirts. Some wore sailor’s striped shirts. There were no Roma visible in the crowd.
“Are you here to keep out the Roma?” I ask a young police officer perched on the hood on her patrol car.
“They’re not here. Don’t be afraid!” she says, perking up. “We searched the whole district for them, all the way to Shemysheyka [40 miles south]. There are no Gypsies anywhere. They’ve disappeared into thin air.”
“They’ll come back. They promised, after all,” grunts a large man standing nearby. “On Friday, my wife went to the store, and there was an old Gypsy there. He says to her, ‘Just you wait. There’s a whole convoy coming from Samara and from Astrakhan. We’re going to carve you up and kill you.’”
“C’mon why are you making this stuff up and scaring people. They’re going to say again that we’re inciting [violence]!” says a woman nearby, scolding the man. “Where are they going to show up? Look at all the police.”
“They’re going through the fields, on a detour!” the man argues with conviction. Others who overhear him start muttering with approval: “Through the fields … there’s a convoy coming … with axes and knives…”
* * *
A large and relatively affluent town, Chemodanovka is essentially a suburb of Penza. They used to manufacture felt boots here (there’s a museum in Penza dedicated to the town’s boots), and today many residents work at the local poultry farm and at a nearby chemical plant. You can find work in Chemodanovka, which is why the population more than doubled to 13,000 between 2010 and 2019. About 1,000 of these people are members of the Roma community (officially, the town says the Roma population is 700 people, “but it could be higher, since many [live here] without registration”). Most Roma are concentrated in the village of Lopatki, which is administratively subordinate to Chemodanovka.
On the morning of June 16, Lopatki was in fact empty. There are just two streets in the village: Svetlaya, which is home to Roma families only, and Pesochnaya, where Roma and ethnic Russian households mix. That morning, there were a few people still at home on Pesochnaya, but Svetlaya Street was now completely uninhabited.
* * *
Dressed in their uniforms and carrying flags, a group of border guards stands closest to the church in Chemodanovka. Vladmir Grushin did his military service in this branch, serving in Russia’s North Caucasus and fighting in Kabardino-Balkaria. To speak for them, the men choose their leader, a colonel they address as Viktor Vasilich. He refuses to tell me his surname.
“So you tell me: let’s say you have a child,” Viktor begins angrily. “And these savages harass the child … sexually. They’re also minors. Don’t you intervene? We’re being told that this was a conflict between children, that it’s just kids fighting. How can this have been children, when they killed Vovka [Vladmir Grushin]! And if the second [victim] dies, God forbid… He’s a paratrooper, actually, and if the paratroopers come here...”
When asked to explain everything that happened chronologically, one of the border guards sighs and starts to retell the story, clearly not for the first time, describing events that he didn’t witness firsthand. He's nevertheless completely confident.
“Two girls, age 13, were swimming in the pond. These guys started sexually harassing them. They were underage, too. They even swiped their underwear, or panties as they say. A pregnant woman stood up for the girls. And they told her: we’ll cut you to pieces and leave you here to rot! Does that sound like decent behavior to you? The Gypsies don’t work — they deal drugs. I’m paying taxes for them, and they’re getting bigger pensions than I am…”
The men in the group don’t know the names of the girls or the woman in their story, but they all repeat the same version of events.
“So then these girls’ parents and a few other people… they go to the Gypsies,” an elderly woman tells me, as the funeral procession starts to leave the church and head to the cemetery. “And it was like they were lying in wait! They’d called everyone in… And then it began! Cars drove up: a minibus and a bunch of cars. There were only 25 of us.
“Twenty,” says a man listening in carefully. “There were 20 of us. And there were easily more than 100 of them. Almost 200.”
“Yes, exactly!” the old woman agrees. “They practically flew down that street there with the church. Like a hurricane! They had sticks, pipes, chains. The cars that were on their way were driving around wildly, and they started beating up people. This Sergey [Pugachev] person, he’d come to visit his mother, and he was standing outside her apartment building having a cigarette. And they tore a board off the fence and went after him! And this Vovka [Vladmir Grushin] wasn’t far away, either. He was a really good man. He didn’t drink or smoke. His wife is pregnant with their second child. What are they supposed to do now?”
The funeral procession stretches across the highway. Drivers pull off to the shoulder and wait patiently for the group to pass. No one honks. Three days earlier, after the brawl, half the town was marching across this road for a different reason: to block traffic, trying to force state officials to respond to the violence that killed a man. The police were here, too, that day, when they arrested 170 demonstrators. Officers later announced that they’d also arrested those responsible for Grushin’s murder, but few people in Chemodanovka believe this.
“Who’d they grab? They grabbed our own boys, of course!” says an outraged man in a sailor’s striped shirt. “The Gypsies pack their women and children into the car and they’re off, in two hours flat. They say they arrested three Gypsies, and that they’re the perpetrators. And why are we supposed to believe this? It turns out you can kill us, and they’ll lock us up for it! And it means don’t you touch this lot. Do you have any idea what kind of pensions they get? And the drug dealing… I go to an ATM to withdraw my shitty 30,000 rubles [$468], and there’s a Gypsy in front of me, and it’s just the flutter of cash. You get tired of waiting, while all their money comes flying out. He cleaned out all the bills. I had to run across town to the second ATM, before they cleaned out that one, too.”
The idea that the Roma community receives massive pensions and earns millions selling narcotics comes up constantly in conversations with Chemodanovka locals.
“They’ve got a drug house there in Lopatki,” a retired woman named Tatiana Medvedeva says without a doubt in her mind. As we walk along the sun-baked asphalt toward the cemetery, we hear the drawn-out melancholic sounds of an orchestra of four elderly locals. The musicians are not in sync. “A friend’s son died. They found him in Lopatki, in a ditch. It was an overdose. In a fit of anger and grief, she went there and screamed at them, ‘What are you doing, you monsters?’ And they came at her with knives and axes. Do you know how much they get for retirement? And they collect benefits for their children. They’ve all got five to 10 kids, and they’re getting hundreds of thousands [of rubles]!”
On June 14, Penza Governor Ivan Belozertsev came to Chemodanovka. There was another large public gathering, and people chanted, “Evict them!” The governor made a speech about American intelligence agents and fake news, banned the sale of alcohol in town “until further notice,” and announced that federal investigators and the FSB would be working in Chemodanovka, which will also get its own police station.
Residents remain skeptical about their local officials, however.
“These guys? Are you kidding? What can they do?” says Tatiana Medvedeva. “The head of the administration came alone. He pocketed something and left. It was the same with the second one — he resigned right before the murder. And the governor? Please. He comes here and he can’t put two words together. Read a book already! An ignorant man! It’s just embarrassing.”
* * *
Russian society has been pitted against the Roma community since the 1990s, says Nadezhda Demetr, a professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology. She’s also the president of the Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of Russian Roma. Demetr’s thesis and dissertation work was devoted entirely to the Roma community. “The news media particularly relished the events in Tula, but it covered the story all wrong. [Boris] Sobolev’s film “Gypsy Burden” did a lot of damage. The traditional occupations [of the Roma living in the Penza region] are in trade, plus they’re artisans. They make things out of metal, they made fishing hooks…”
Demetr is deeply upset about what happened in Chemodanovka. Instead of her academic work, she’s had to spend the last several days explaining that Roma are not murderers and drug dealers, but “an ancient people comprising about 80 different groups with their own crafts and culture.”
Demetr spent a long time looking for a representative in Penza from the Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of Russian Roma who would speak to Meduza. She never found anyone, however. In a video published online, a man named Andrey Ogly, calling himself the “director of the Penza Region’s Public Assembly of Roma,” expresses the community’s condolences to the relatives of Vladimir Grushin, and says he hopes those responsible for his death will be brought to justice.
“He’s not their real baron,” a skeptical man in a gray jacket says on the way back from the cemetery, when asked about Andrey Ogly. “The real one died last year. That’s what Mikhai was. After him, they started going wild.”
Nadezhda Miryaeva, the deputy head of the Chemodanovka town council says she isn’t sure that Mikhai could have been considered the formal leader of the Roma living in Chemodanovka, but she says he was definitely an authority among them. “Vladimir Petrovich Mikhai was a wise, cunning, and intelligent man,” she says. “He served as a deputy in the town council. He used to say of himself, ‘I’m not a Gypsy — I’m a Basarabian.’”
According to Miryaeva, Roma have lived in Lopatki since the mid-1970s, when the Soviet authorities decided to “transfer” the community to a sedentary lifestyle. She says everyone always respected Vladimir Mikhai, but she also insists that there were no particular problems in town, following his death.
“There’s never been anything like this, and I’ve lived here for 35 years. There have been fights, but not like this… There’s a package waiting at town hall for one of the Roma women. The head of the administration brought it from the city. She’s on dialysis, and they supplied medicine from the hospital. And she was taken away without this medicine. They’re all on welfare — some for their children and some for themselves. They bought their homes on federal subsidies for multiple-child families. The fact that they lived in isolation… It’s a shared tragedy.
Miryaeva doesn’t know where Lopatki’s Roma went, but she says she’s sure they’ll be back, and life in Chemodanovka will return to the way it was before.
* * *
“Just let them come back!” a young man shouts vengefully, near a cafe where the memorial service is getting underway. As promised by the governor, there’s no alcohol on offer. The women take their seats, as the men step out to smoke. Once again, the conversations turn to knives and axes, convoys of Gypsies headed toward the town from all sides, and their lavish, unfair pensions.
“They didn’t go anywhere,” Tatiana Medvedeva tells me. “They went out there, to the forests and their tents. They’re in Sosnovka and Lopukhovka now. And our boys are going to get drunk at the memorial service and head out there.”
“But isn’t there nothing to drink?” I ask, surprised.
“Sure,” the elderly woman says, grinning, “We’re at a funeral, and there’s nothing.”
On June 17, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that Lopatki’s Roma population was forcibly removed from their homes. According to Sergey Fadeev, the head of the local village council, Roma were put on buses and sent to the Volgograd region, where “the local diaspora agreed to shelter them.” Officials in Chemodanovka have denied reports that Lopatki’s Roma were forcibly removed from the area.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock