For the Roma minority in the Romanian territories situated East and South of the Carpathian Mountains, in Moldavia and Wallachia, the social situation at the beginning of the 19th century was almost the same as five centuries before, when they started to be enslaved. They were owned mostly by the boyars (noblemen) and the Orthodox Church, as well as by the state. The only right that the owners didn’t have over them was that of life and death, even though in real life, killing or mutilating a Roma slave remained often without any punishment.

In Transylvania, the Roma minority was freed from slavery in 1767, when Empress Maria Theresa placed them under the normal administrative jurisdiction, outside that of private ownership. With Bukovina becoming part of the Habsburg Empire in 1775, the Roma from this former part of Moldavia were freed in 1783, when Emperor Joseph II abolished slavery. The Roma minority from Bessarabia upgraded its social status in 1812, when the territory was annexed by the Russian Empire and they became serfs, working the land of their masters, but without formally being slaves as in Moldavia. From the perspective of their freedom, the Roma in Dobrudja historically had the most favorable situation. In a region that was hardly a Romanian territorial heritage until its incorporation into the modern Romanian state after the Berlin Congress of 1878, the Roma situation was that of free people, but under the fiscal burden of non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire.

This was roughly the situation of the Roma minority in the Romanian territories when political and economic modernity started to be felt across Wallachia and Moldavia, pressuring the authorities in Bucharest and Iași to tackle the situation of these people. The problem was quite important, as the number of the Roma in the two principalities around 1837-1838 was estimated between 200.000 and 250.000, out of an almost 4 million people population. So, approximately 6% – 7% of the population. When we refer to political and economic modernity, we mean a context fueled partly by the ideas of human rights and capitalism. To be more specific, the modern ideas of human rights forced the educated elites and the rulers in Bucharest and Iași to start seeing the slavery of the Roma as an abnormality, while the market forces drove the boyars to exploit even harder the Roma that they owned. In this pre-revolutionary atmosphere of the middle of the 19th century, marked by various individual initiatives of freeing the Roma slaves and a strengthened interest around the often barbaric treatment that they were subject to, we can register the decisive steps made in freeing the Roma also in Wallachia and Moldavia, the only Romanian territories where they were still formally slaves.

In March 1843, Wallachia freed its state owned Roma slaves; then, in February 1847 it also freed the church owned slaves. Meanwhile, in January 1844, Moldavia also freed its state owned Roma slaves, while those that belonged to the Church were freed later that year. A powerful message for the boyars and theirs slaves situation came with the liberal and national Revolution of 1848. The 14th article of the Islaz Proclamation, the programmatic document of the Revolution, asked for the “emancipation of the gypsies, with compensation.” It was the decisive moment when society understood that the Roma slavery could not continue for long, the more that the Roma minority, even though only informally, was coopted in the general struggle for creating the modern Romanian nation. Some influential voices brought into the discussion the possible Roma roots of some prominent figures of the national narrative, like Petru Maior and Ion-Budai Deleanu. One of those figures, Anton Pann, was even credited with creating the music of the new Romanian anthem, which is also the present day anthem of Romania.

In this context, with the two principalities still separate countries, on the 10th December 1855, in Moldavia the Roma slavery was formally abolished by the prince Grigore Alexandru Ghica. Two months later, on the 8th of February 1856, Wallachia also abolished Roma slavery by the signature of prince Barbu Știrbei. Today, the Roma community in Romania is celebrating 8th/20th February (according to the new calendar) as the Day of Roma Emancipation.

Escaping from slavery didn’t mean that the Roma’s social hardships ended, they were only transformed. In fact, beyond freeing them from slavery, the emancipation laws and the subsequent measures of the authorities have to be seen as means of transforming them from nomad to sedentary people, with the purpose to better integrate them into the ethnic Romanian society and thus taxing their revenues . Besides, the Roma, who after 1855-1856 choose to remain with the status of peasants working on the boyars’ lands received their own land in 1864 through the general Land reform of Alexandru Ioan Cuza. Around the same period, the Roma people of Bessarabia acquired the same status of small land owners, first in 1861 when they became land owners conditioned by some work they had to do for the boyars, and then, in 1868, as full owners.

Generally, in the second part of the 19th century, the Roma had to cope with their new status as taxpayers, which was not an easy one after their previous condition of being outside of society as slaves and receiving no compensation for this or any other type of significant help. As a consequence, many of them didn’t remain in agriculture and fled the estates to which they belonged, with more cases in Wallachia from this perspective. Others remained or turned into nomads, traveling from place to place according to their lifestyle, while another significant part of them settled in towns and small boroughs, in what later became known as Roma slums. It is the period in which the Romanian state introduces the legal term of vagabond for these people trying to escape the hardship of taxes, including by moving often. In these conditions, parts of the former Roma slaves were assimilated by the Romanian ethnic majority, while other part chose to leave the country mostly travelling to Western Europe and the United States, with the percent of the Roma minority dropping to 4%-5% in the new Kingdom of Romania at the beginning of the 20th century.

The First World War, with its consequences for Romania, seemed to have brought a favorable period for the Roma minority. In a more ethnically diverse country, which evolved democratically through the electoral reform and economically through the general land reform, the Roma started on more positive terms with the Romanian majority. For example, on the 27th of April 1919, the National Roma Assembly in Ibașfalău (today Dumbrăveni-Sibiu) voted in support of the union between Transylvania and Romania. But less than 25 years later, in June-August 1942, the bulk of undesirable Roma started to be deported in Transnistria as part of Ion Antonescu regime’s plan of creating an ethnically homogenous Romanian society. What happened between these two dates is an evolution that saw on the one hand the establishment of the first Roma political organizations, but also brought the ethnic radicalization of the Romanian majority.

In the general census of 1930, 262.501 people declared themselves to be of Roma origin, roughly 1.5% of the population, with 84.5% of them living in the rural areas. At the same time, some observers of the period considered there were as many as 600.000 Roma people. In any case, they were better involved in the Romanian society. Various Roma organizations were created, with the biggest and most influential of them being the General Union of Roma in Romania, established in 1933 by George A. Lăzărescu-Lăzurică, a journalist of Roma descent. Active until 1949, when it was abolished by the communist regime, the Union was presided shortly after Lăzurică by Gheorghe Niculescu, a flower seller. In 1939, during king Carol’ II regime, the Union was active in 40 counties and claimed to represent almost 800.000 members. The Union even became a political actor by supporting various parties in the second part of the 1930s.

But this period of relevance for the Roma minority was short lived. Although there were no deliberate policies of racial discrimination against the Roma before the extreme right came to power in Romania in 1940, the Roma minority, although unrecognized as such, nevertheless had a lower position than the Romanian majority and was racist viewed. After September 1940, the culmination of racial policies was the Holocaust of the Roma, or Porajmos as it is known, implemented by the Antonescu regime since 1942. During the Porajmos, around 25.000 Roma were deported in Transnistria by Romanian authorities. Only 14.000 of them returned home in 1944 and 1945, 11.000 being killed or dying because of the very poor conditions in the deportation camps.

One might think that the communist regime, with its claimed progressive approach for the lower social categories, represented a favorable period for the Roma. It might be true that some Roma look back today with nostalgia for communism because they had a more stable situation and the regime kept anti-Roma racism under control, but this didn’t solve the real problems of a community with its particular culture. The fact is that communism, with its egalitarian approach, tried to assimilate the Roma within the Romanian majority. In the beginning, after they were repressed during the Second World War, the Roma were anyhow reluctant and afraid to identify themselves with this ethnicity, to the point that at the census of 1948 only 53.425 of them declared Romani as their mother tongue. Later on, during the 1970s and the 1980s, with national-communism as the official doctrine of Ceaușescu’s regime, the assimilation process was even more widespread and manifested itself by forcing the Roma to adopt the way of life specific to the majority.

The situation and the events after the 1989 Revolution proved that the communist approach managed only to keep suppressed and postpone the differences and misunderstandings between the majority and the minority. Events like the brief, but tragic interethnic conflict from Hădăreni-Mureș in September 1993, when 4 people died, abruptly signaled that education, inclusive policies and a continuous activity of fighting against stereotypes cannot be replaced by short term and forced palliative solutions.

 

Sources:

Viorel Achim, The Roma in Romanian History, CEU Press, 2004.

Delia Grigore, Gheorghe Sarău, Istorie și tradiții rome [Roma History and Traditions], Salvați Copiii România, f.a.

Irina Năstasă-Matei, Ligia Livadă-Cadeschi, Dan Drăghia, Alexandra Iancu, Caterina Preda, Romii din România: identitate și alteritate [Roma in Romania: History and Alterity], Textbook, 2016.

Mariana Sandu, Romii din România – Repere din istorie [Roma in Romania – Benchmarks from History], Centrul Romilor pentru Intervenție Socială și Studii, Editura Vanemonde, 2005.