‘The Russians were just passing by’ In Penza, 28 members of a Roma community are on trial for a mass brawl in a nearby town
In the summer of 2019, a Russian border policeman died when mass fighting broke out in the town of Chemodanovka outside Penza. Twenty-eight people have been charged in the deadly brawl — all members of Roma families who have lived in the town for decades. Ekaterina Malysheva has been covering the court hearings and has studied the case files. She explains why the Roma are being tried, and why their relatives, lawyers, and representatives of the local community are all avoiding the press.
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The town of Chemodanovka, home to roughly 6,000 people, lies along the federal M5 “Ural” highway, some 650 kilometers (400 miles) southeast of Moscow. A year and a half ago, local residents blocked the highway, demanding punishment of those responsible for the death of a 33-year-old border policeman, Vladimir Grushin, in a mass fight between ethnic Russians and Roma.
Immediately afterward, Roma families fled their homes in Chemodanovka and in the neighboring town of Lopatki, leaving behind almost all their belongings and livestock. Some began to return after two months, while others are still staying with relatives outside the area.
An investigation into the brawl, in which Grushin died and another resident was seriously injured, lasted nine months. Twenty-eight men were charged, all from Roma families.
The regional authorities in Penza attributed the fight solely to personal disagreements, but locals say that the conflict was inter-ethnic and had been brewing for years; they blamed the police for ignoring the situation.
The fight began on June 13, 2019. Residents give varying accounts of the chronology and the number of participants, but all agree on the reason: a rumor circulating in town that day that Roma teenagers were bothering girls swimming in a pond. The girls complained to their parents, who in turn told their neighbors.
“The Roma molested Russian girls, stripping them of their underwear underwater,” witness Vladimir Sopov testified at the trial. “We have reported [this kind of behavior] to the police before, but no one has reacted. There was another case, where a Russian working in a poultry plant, made a remark about Roma children drinking beer on a merry-go-round. He was beaten. And nothing happened to [his attackers] for that. So [this time] we decided to take action ourselves.” At about 8 p.m., Sopov and his buddies decided to drive to the homes of the Roma and “peacefully restrain them,” he said.
“When we arrived at the house [of Roma resident Oleg] Yurchenko, there were already 15-20 Roma and about as many Russians, 40 people in all,” Sopov testified. “While we were talking to [the elected Roma leader Baron Nikolai] Ivanov, bricks started flying at us from behind the trees. I was hit in the left leg and shoulder. One of the Roma took a knife, and then an even bigger knife, and threatened to stab us,” Sopov recalled.
The Roma told investigators that about 100 Russians and 30 Roma were involved in the fight. Others put the number of Russians at between 50 and 200, while some claimed there were no more than 10 Roma. The Russians, however, said they had been greatly outnumbered.
Some people tried to prevent the fight. One Russian resident of the town, Dmitry Mikhailin, testified that two Roma — a young man and a “grandmother” — begged forgiveness for the entire Roma community and asked everyone to stop the quarrel. Mikhailin testified that the young man made this request while on his knees. But the young man (one of the suspects in the case) testified that he had not kneeled, but had only bowed his head.
On the question of how the melee began, Russian witnesses said “the Roma attacked and threw stones;” “there was a fistfight, and the Roma began to throw stones;” and “the Roma captured Grushin.” The Roma, however, asserted that “the Russians started the fight,” and that the Roma had only “grabbed wooden beams and stones” to protect themselves.
“I didn’t see the Russians throw stones, and the Roma had pipes, bricks, sticks, cement shingles — everybody had something,” Sopov testified. “I heard shots coming from their side. I remember Grushin was squatting and holding his head, all bloody. I’ve really tried to forget this horror.”
Another witness, Yevgeny Kosoykin, said that he and his friends in the past had “normal” relations with Roma who lived nearby and sometimes played soccer with them. “We found out from our guys that we needed to go see the Roma, there were some kids quarreling, Roma and Russian children,” he said.
Arriving outside Oleg Yurchenko’s house, Kosoykin said he saw about 45 people. Tempers were running high.
“We were talking, the conversation was a little heated, there was a noise, and everybody was yelling. Someone shouted: ‘Stones are coming from the forest!’ next to the Roma house. I got hit in the shoulder and in the head with a rock,” Kosoykin testified.
Kosoykin saw neither the beginning nor the end of the fight. “After being hit on the head, I went to my car and drove across the road,” he said. “While hiding there, I saw more cars arriving, and Roma running with sticks in their hands.”
Pavel Yanenko, who is accused of seriously injuring Chemodanovka resident Sergey Pugachev, gave a different account of how the conflict developed. “Three drunk ‘warriors’ [bogatyrs] rolled up in a white Jeep [at Yurchenko’s house]. I showed them my kids, and they said, ’No, these aren’t the ones [who were bothering the girls]. If you don’t find the kid [who did it], you’re finished.” According to Yanenko, “it was the Russians who attacked the Roma.” They were the first to hit him in the face and beat him, after which Yanenko ran and hid, he says.
Nikolai Yurchenko, who is accused of murdering Grushin, says that the Russians “started to beat the Roma, who pulled back and started to throw stones at the Russians.”
More people arrived at the scene, some joining the fray and others watching from the sidelines. Eleven-year-old Sergey Boyarov told the court that he went with his parents to see the fight out of curiosity. He said that when the Roma started throwing stones at the Russians, he and his father ran home, and his mother hid with a neighbor in the garage. He recalled hearing the Roma shouting, “You’re screwed!” although he told the court he couldn’t remember the exact words. The boy’s father remembered that he heard shouting, “End of the road for Chemodanovka. We’ll torch the Russians!”
Two Roma witnesses told the court that the drunken Russians had gone on the offensive, hitting Ivanov and Yanenko. “As long as there are only a few of them, what are we waiting for? Let’s kill them all,” one witness remembered the Russians saying.
Elena Pugacheva, the wife of the injured Sergey Pugachev, told investigators that the Roma “arrived in cars and attacked en masse.” She said their son heard shouts, “Let’s kill them!” The Roma, in turn, told investigators that they heard shouts of, “Beat the gypsies!”
Pugacheva said the fight started when Oleg Yurchenko grabbed a board of wood and rushed toward the crowd. The children dragged him away, but he went back. Then the children “dragged bricks over to him,” she said.
“It all started with him, with Oleg,” Pugacheva said. “He started it. He said we would cut everybody. At first, Baron Nikolai Ivanov spoke to the Russians and said, ‘Let’s deal with this.’ But he couldn’t stop the Roma, and then he and the all the others started running with pitchforks.”
Pugacheva also told the court that the Roma had offered 5,000 rubles (about $68) to compensate for the abuse of the girls in the pond, but the crowd replied, “What, we are going to sell our children?”
Participants in the brawl told investigators that the fighting was “hand-to-hand” and “wall-on-wall.” In addition to knives, shovels, axes, hoes, and wooden beams found at the scene by investigators, there were rakes, nail-pullers, a chisel, a hammer, an ice pick, a metal rod, a piece of slate tile, a fuel can, a gas cylinder, and pieces of brick. Later, the trajectory of these bricks and the force of the blows that the Roma could have inflicted with these objects would be discussed in court.
The day after the fight, investigators removed baseball bats, pitchforks, knives, metal pipes, axes, crowbars, shovels, wooden blocks, chisels, hoes, metal chains, and whips from the Romas’ cars.
The fight broke up only after the police arrived in Chemodanovka. Several dozen residents were hospitalized. Twenty-one people, all Russians, were later identified by investigators as victims. Injuries to Roma, according to the case file, “caused no harm to their health.”
Most of the Russians admitted to the hospital were not seriously injured. An exception was Sergey Pugachev, who was in a coma for several weeks after being hit in the head with a shovel. Grushin died a day after being hospitalized in Penza for a head injury that caused brain swelling.
The day after the brawl, ethnic Russians living in Chemodanovka blocked the federal highway through the town and demanded that the Roma be punished and evicted for instigating the fight. Riot officers dispersed the protest. More than 170 locals were brought to the police station, including protesters and Roma who were arrested for taking part in the fight.
The governor of the Penza region, Ivan Belozertsev, called a public meeting where he accused “American agents” of spreading fake news about the incident and assured the locals that he would take control of the case.
After the brawl, Roma residents started leaving Chemodanovka and the neighboring town of Lopatki, leaving behind their belongings and cattle. Neighbors said they didn’t know where they went or how they left. The head of the local town council, Sergey Fadeev, said the Roma were forcibly removed. But Vyacheslav Fomichev, the head of the Bessonovsky district that includes the town, denied these allegations, arguing that the Roma left voluntarily while waiting in safety for the conflict’s resolution.
During trial testimony on January 13, two Roma witnesses said they had been forced by the police to leave Lopatki the day after the fight, allegedly because the authorities could not stop the crowd of several thousand Russians who had blocked the highway. But when several cars with Roma families left for the Saratov region that night, they were stopped halfway and asked to return to the Penza region.
The investigation lasted nine months, until March 2, 2020, and led to an indictment comprising six volumes.
Officials indicted 28 men from Chemodanovka’s Roma community. The suspects ranged in age from 22 to 63. None was formally employed. One-third of the defendants had never attended school, while the rest had completed only a few years. Several of the men were fathers to five or six children.
Most of the accused have been held in a Penza detention center since their arrest, while a few have been imprisoned at a nearby penitentiary. Half the defendants have the same surname, Yurchenko, which causes confusion in court. Three defendants share the same first name, patronymic (middle name), and surname. The judges, prosecutors, and lawyers have to distinguish them by date of birth.
According to investigators, a group of local Russian residents arrived on the evening of the brawl at the house of Oleg Yurchenko, who was considered the Roma’s “informal leader” “for the resolution of domestic conflicts concerning unacceptable behavior” by members of the community.
“In the course of the conversation, regarding claims on both sides, a conflict arose between the Roma and non-Roma residents of Chemodanovka,” the indictment states. Oleg Yurchenko took the Russians’ claims “as a personal insult, detracting from his authority,” the indictment continues, and started the fight “out of dislike for local residents of non-Roma nationality.”
According to investigators, Oleg Yurchenko also wanted to “destabilize the public life of the town of Chemodanovka, endanger public security, and demonstrate his permissiveness and impunity” to non-Roma residents.
Yurchenko asked his relatives to arm themselves and come to his home, according to the case file. The investigators concluded that the Roma, “due to their social situation,” were able to arm themselves quickly and “use physical violence en masse against the town’s non-Roma inhabitants.” They “needed to attack [and] cause injury” to the maximum number of people and damage to their property, the case file says. Stones and other objects were used to intimidate the Russians and “suppress their will to resist.” The investigators said the Roma outnumbered the Russians and were better-armed and “demonstrated physical and psychological superiority with threats of violence, death, and seizure of the town of Chemodanovka.”
Oleg Yurchenko told investigators that he had summoned other Roma for a conversation with the Russians, after which “the entire camp arrived.” During interrogations, he confirmed that he held a kitchen knife with a long blade “for self-defense” during the conflict and that he “threatened to kill” his adversaries.
Nikolai Yurchenko, charged with Grushin’s murder, is accused of giving the border guard at least three blows to the head with a block of wood “because he had complained about the provocative behavior of the Roma.” According to witnesses, he held a knife to Grushin’s neck. On the wooden block, experts found genetic traces belonging to Grushin and “several persons of Roma nationality,” says the case file.
Some of the accused told investigators that they had been present at the fight but had not taken part. Russian locals disputed this, saying they recognized them as participants. Another criminal case against unidentified participants has been severed from the proceeding.
The trial of the Chemodanovka mass brawl began in Penza on May 19, 2020. Viktor Khovrin and a panel of two other federal judges are hearing the case. The state prosecutor is Malik Ataev, and not one of the defendants has pled guilty.
In the beginning, journalists couldn’t attend the proceedings in person. Due to coronavirus restrictions, only the trial’s participants had access to the courtroom. Even without spectators, there were about 100 people in the room: defendants, their lawyers, judges, prosecutors, and guards. In December, members of the press could finally join them.
The judges did permit several of the defendants’ relatives into the courtroom to listen to the proceedings, but neither they nor their lawyers have spoken on the record to journalists. Nikolai Ivanov, the local Roma leader, was in contact with reporters immediately after the brawl, but subsequently died. The Chemodanovka Roma recently elected a new leader, but he has declined to speak to the press.
In conversations in the courthouse lobby, the defendants’ relatives complain: “They’ve been illegally locked up for almost two years, it’s an outrage! Why are there only Roma? The Russians are also to blame.” But they refuse to give their names.
The president of the Federal Autonomous Ethnic Cultural Organization of the Russian Roma, Nadezhda Demeter, speaks with caution:
“Our position now is that the attention of the press could really damage the investigation, given the way the Chemodanovka fight and the Roma were covered by many media outlets. Nowhere has it been written that the Russians started the conflict, that it was they who went to the Roma houses, threatened to set fire to them and fired shots in the air. Nor was it reported that the Roma called the police, and that the Roma weren’t the ones who closed the highway. But for some reason only Roma are in jail — it seems that only they participated in the fight, and those 60 Russians who came [to the house of Yurchenko] — were ‘just passing by.’ On the contrary, some of the Roma now in jail were passersby and did not even participate in the fight.”
Demeter said the judges in Penza must “carefully study the characteristics” of the defendants and “should not ignore their lawyers’ requests.” She also pointed out that the Presidential Human Rights Council is providing assistance.
The suspects recently retained a new lawyer from Yaroslavl, Alexander Molchanov, with the help of Demeter’s organization. He asks many questions in court, and addresses the prosecution’s witnesses as “Russian gentlemen.” At a hearing on January 13, the judges twice warned him about arguing with the court.
During the preliminary investigation, Roma lawyers complained about the absence of an interpreter, arguing that those supplied by the state (according to the case file they were paid 60,000 rubles — about $813) did not understand their Roma dialect. Nevertheless, both the district court and an appeals court rejected the requests for another interpreter. The Attorney General’s Office also investigated complaints of discrimination on the basis of language but concluded that the Roma had not misunderstood the Russian language and that they had lawyers to explain the proceedings.
The defendants’ lawyers, meanwhile, say are convinced that their clients don’t understand Russian fluently. During the hearings, they often repeat questions and fail to respond to the judges and the prosecutor. One of them approached the side of the cage where the defendants sit in the courtroom, wished the judges well, and swore that what Russian witnesses said was untrue.
Some Roma witnesses not only speak Russian poorly but also cannot read.
Konstantin Yurchenko, a witness and a suspect’s relative, told the judges that he had been arrested and held for 10 days after the fight. He was asked to sign a record of his interrogation in order to be released. Yurchenko said he didn’t know what he signed because he is illiterate. It turned out that his statement said that the 12-year-old grandson of Baron Nikolai Ivanov took off the panties of a Russian girl underwater and that this provoked the subsequent fight.
Konstantin Yurchenko testified that he was not involved in the fight. “By the time I got there, there was no fight,” he said. “The police had dispersed everyone. I bought a bottle of vodka and went home to bed. I drink every day. I can’t live without [vodka], esteemed judges. When I woke up in the morning there was a commotion: police, riot police. I asked where everybody was. They were driving across the fields to Saratov — and I was already drunk.”
The judges have expressed doubt that a quarrel between teenagers could have caused a conflict of this magnitude, and have asked witnesses if there had been trouble between Russians and Roma before. Defense witnesses have said there was none, while many Russians said that discontent had long been growing over the Roma community’s allegedly brazen behavior.
The court’s presiding officer has often reprimanded the defendants and threatened to remove them from the courtroom. “It’s not necessary to call on God, there’s a trial going on here,” he has told suspects, who often invoke God’s name when swearing to tell the truth.
The victims of the brawl (namely, Grushin’s widow and the badly injured Sergey Pugachev) gave their version of the events at one of the first hearings last June. Since then, they have refused to participate and are awaiting the verdict.
Pugachev was asked if he recognized among the Roma in the courtroom the man who had hit him in the head with a shovel. He was not feeling well, walked past their cage several times, and had difficulty remembering the events of the previous year. Eventually, he asked that his testimony be based on his statements during the investigation (when he identified Pavel Yanenko from photographs). Other witnesses later confirmed this.
Pugachev told the investigators and judges that he was hit in the head with a shovel after asking the Roma, “What are you doing here?” Investigators concluded that Yanenko hit him because of “hostile personal relations.” Yanenko, who is charged with attempted murder, denied this in court.
Elena Grushina, the border guard’s widow, has filed two lawsuits against the defendants, seeking 3 million rubles ($40,700) in compensation for emotional distress and 45,000 ($600) for material damages, including the cost of a memorial dinner held for her husband. She said that no Roma had offered her help or compensate her in the 18 months since the fight.
Sergey Pugachev is demanding 2 million rubles ($27,100) in compensation from the Roma for emotional distress and 113,000 rubles ($1,530) for his medical expenses.
Chemodanovka is peaceful now. After the conflict, the community “became noticeably quieter,” local residents say. The authorities have started paying far more attention to the town: they laid a newly paved road, improved street lighting and well-water supplies, and renovated the hospital. Immediately after the brawl, they reopened a police station that had been closed in 2012 due to budget cuts.
Grushin’s mother, sister, and grandson still live in Chemodanovka. The family does not communicate with his widow, though they remain in touch with their seven-year-old daughter. A year after Grushin’s death, his blind father died. The family’s house is dilapidated, and the women have taken out a loan to pay for repairs. So far, the authorities have helped them only once (by paying off a previous loan to the family).
In the autumn of 2019, Chemodanovka selected Zhanna Nikolaenkova to serve as the new head of its town council. The locals speak about her carefully, saying only that “she’s fine.” Nikolaenkova promises that she will continue to “search for points of contact” between Russians and Roma.
“The Roma live here, and are going to live here,” Nikolaenkova told the local website Penza Online on the day of her appointment. “We have a big country, but for some reason, they chose us and don’t want to leave. But we have to deepen our relationship, in as much as our ethnic Russian population is more than accepting of them.”
Experts from the human rights group Memorial have been monitoring violations of the rights of Roma residents in the Penza region for several years. They believe that the Roma, including those in Chemodanovka, do not want to speak with journalists because of a variety of fears, including prejudice against them from the police, the courts, and the media, as well as negative public opinion generally.
Nikolai Ivanov, the late leader of Chemodanovka’s Roma community, told human rights activists that the authorities visited him after he first granted an interview to reporters about the fight. He claimed that his phone was tapped and that he was asked not to release information about the conflict. When representatives of Memorial came to Penza in the aftermath of the brawl, they said they encountered pressure from the local Center for Counteracting Extremism. The message was unambiguous, they said: “Do not go to the Roma, do not meet their baron.”
“If the Center said such a thing to visiting human rights defenders, imagine how they intimidated local Roma to sit quietly and keep their heads down,” says Stefania Kulaeva, an expert at Memorial. “This isn’t just the Chemodanovka Roma’s tragedy; terrible bias and structural discrimination against them are evident at all levels.”
Starting in childhood, most people are told that Roma are “dangerous,” Kulaeva says. The media are not immune to this prejudice: Often journalists consider them “dodgy,” portray them as savages, or photograph innocent people to illustrate the most horrendous articles about crime and drugs,” she said. “That makes for a more impactful story, doesn’t it?”
Besides fearing journalists, the Roma worry they will face long prison sentences if they don’t keep silent as police or investigators have instructed them to do. They also fear eviction, arson, and further harassment.
“These guys go away and do hard time,” says Kulaeva. “But some of these Roma now behind bars were only trying to break up the fight. No one tried to understand the extent to which each of them was involved. The simple fact that they were there was enough.”
She recalled that the indictment barely mentioned the injuries sustained by Roma during the fight, even though some of them were subsequently hospitalized.
“The criminal case’s very wording is racism in disguise,” Kulaeva said. “It’s reminiscent of an incident in Astrakhan, where we defended a Roma man accused of robbery, about a decade ago. Although he had an alibi, the judges did not believe dozens of Roma witnesses who backed him up. The young man was sentenced to 12 years in prison because the victim, who saw him on a dark road, claimed to recognize him by his eyebrows,” she recalled.
Kulaeva says the case file contained enough evidence of discrimination on ethnic grounds to warrant a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights. With the trial underway, however, lawyers for the Roma are reluctant to take that step, which would mean entering into a conflict with the Russian Federation.
“Without excusing those who decide to use violence, I believe that accusing only the Roma in a fight where there were dozens, if not hundreds of other participants — this is racism,” Kulaeva contends. “In the end, it doesn’t even matter who attacked whom first: Sooner or later, Chemodanovka was going to blow up. There has long been marginalization. When we were there, 10 years ago [in 2012], it was very bad in terms of the exclusion of the Roma population. The other Roma settlement in Penza, by contrast, was a model for us. Roma children there went to school together with Russian children and even had a Russian-Roma soccer team.”
Translation by Carol Matlack