Between Two Fires: Gypsy Performance and Romani Memory from Pushkin to Post-Socialism / Edition 1

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Since tsarist times, Roma in Russia have been portrayed as both rebellious outlaws and free-spirited songbirds—in each case, as if isolated from society. In Soviet times, Russians continued to harbor these two, only seemingly opposed, views of “Gypsies,” exalting their songs on stage but scorning them on the streets as liars and cheats. Alaina Lemon’s Between Two Fires examines how Roma themselves have negotiated these dual images in everyday interactions and in stage performances.
Lemon’s ethnographic study is based on extensive fieldwork in 1990s Russia and focuses on Moscow Romani Theater actors as well as Romani traders and metalworkers. Drawing from interviews with Roma and Russians, observations of performances, and conversations, as well as archives, literary texts, and media, Lemon analyzes the role of theatricality and theatrical tropes in Romani life and the everyday linguistics of social relations and of memory. Historically, the way Romani stage performance has been culturally framed and positioned in Russia has served to typecast Gypsies as “natural” performers, she explains. Thus, while theatrical and musical performance may at times empower Roma, more often it has reinforced and rationalized racial and social stereotypes, excluding them from many Soviet and Russian economic and political arenas. Performance, therefore, defines what it means to be Romani in Russia differently than it does elsewhere, Lemon shows. Considering formal details of language as well as broader cultural and social structures, she also discusses how racial categories relate to post-Soviet economic changes, how gender categories and Euro-Soviet notions of civility are connected, and how ontological distinctions between “stage art” and “real life” contribute to the making of social types. This complex study thus serves as a corrective to romantic views of Roma as detached from political forces.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The highlight of Lemon’s book is her discussion of the archival record of a Lovari Rom’s trial and the interpretation of it by his descendants, to whom she read the material. . . . [S]he is imaginative and insightful in her analysis of Pushkin. . . . [A] valuable contribution. . . .” - Judith Okely, Times Literary Supplement

“Lemon has produced an innovative and path-breaking analysis of some of the representational challenges facing Muscovite Roma. . . . It is not possible in a short review to do justice to the range of interests and concerns Lemon covers.” - Michael Stewart, Slavic Review

"[A]n insightful, engaging monograph on the Russian Romani experience. . . . [I]nformative, illuminating, and a major contribution to the study of Romani culture. . . . Lemon presents a sensitive, informed portrait of the Romani Theatre and Romani communities in today’s Russia. Between Two Fires is a powerful, exquisitely researched monograph that contributed significantly to the study of Romani society, Russia, performance, ethnicity, and culture." - Margaret H. Beissinger, Slavic and East European Journal

"This is a ground-breaking work that engages with race and performance in the post-Soviet space. . . . Lemon's theoretical sophistication and political awareness, besides the obvious focus on performance, make this work appealing to performance/theatre studies readers." - Ioana Szeman, Theatre Research International

Between Two Fires addresses an important series of topics for anthropology in general and for the study of the Soviet Union and for postsocialist Russia in particular. Lemon weds current theoretical concerns to an understudied but significant community.”—Martha Lampland, author of The Object of Labor: Commodification in Socialist Hungary

“This is an extraordinarily insightful account of the performance of being ‘Gypsy’ in Russia. Theoretically sophisticated, it illuminates Russian as well as Romani culture, and delves into issues of naming, mobility, transgression, and authenticity. This book is a must for anyone interested in advances in anthropology as well as contemporary Russian culture.”—Caroline Humphrey, coauthor of The End of Nomadism? Society, State, and the Environment in Inner Asia

Michael Stewart
“Lemon has produced an innovative and path-breaking analysis of some of the representational challenges facing Muscovite Roma. . . . It is not possible in a short review to do justice to the range of interests and concerns Lemon covers.”
Judith Okely
“The highlight of Lemon’s book is her discussion of the archival record of a Lovari Rom’s trial and the interpretation of it by his descendants, to whom she read the material. . . . [S]he is imaginative and insightful in her analysis of Pushkin. . . . [A] valuable contribution. . . .”
Margaret H. Beissinger
"[A]n insightful, engaging monograph on the Russian Romani experience. . . . [I]nformative, illuminating, and a major contribution to the study of Romani culture. . . . Lemon presents a sensitive, informed portrait of the Romani Theatre and Romani communities in today’s Russia. Between Two Fires is a powerful, exquisitely researched monograph that contributed significantly to the study of Romani society, Russia, performance, ethnicity, and culture."
Ioana Szeman
"This is a ground-breaking work that engages with race and performance in the post-Soviet space. . . . Lemon's theoretical sophistication and political awareness, besides the obvious focus on performance, make this work appealing to performance/theatre studies readers."
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822324935
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 7/28/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Alaina Lemon is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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Read an Excerpt

Between Two Fires



Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2456-0

Chapter One

Pushkin, The Gypsies, and Russian Imperial Nostalgia

In Russia, media incarnations of the Soviet war hero Budulaj fanned the spark of exotic difference that set him apart from Russians and "closer to nature." That spark was signified by musicality: in the late 1970s TV series, Vozvrashchenije Budulaja (The Return of Budulaj), Budulaj loses his memory, but when he plays his harmonica he recalls, if not all the events of his life, at least his true Gypsy self. The ubiquity of similar depictions of "Gypsy song," the tautness of their intertextual links, loaned such moments in the TV show a forceful authenticity.

This chapter traces how forms of art, especially theatrical and musical art, attach to forms of identity in ways reinforcing national and racial ideologies. As one might expect in Herder's Europe, Soviet and Russian national ideology both subsumed the singing Gypsy and opposed itself to him. Crucial here is Pushkin's Byronic 1824 poem Tsygany (The Gypsies; Pushkin's spelling). Or rather, what is crucial are readers' receptions of it as a source of truth about Gypsies. Russian imperialism, Sovietinternationalism, and finally post-Soviet Russian nationalism have each embraced and excluded Gypsies by citing such "classics." In their deployment, these texts have performatively transfigured political and social life by naturalizing social relations between Roma and non-Roma, interpellating Roma as "the Gypsy"; that is, the repeated citation of poetic lines in particular contexts limits the terms of discursive interaction.

"Either Gypsy Art or Gypsies Themselves"

Fascination with the Gypsy saturates several European national imaginaries, such as those of Spain or Hungary, but the Russian romance with Gypsies has no equivalent force in most other countries, where Roma are a much larger, much more visibly impoverished minority, such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Romania. In Russia, the figure of the Gypsy is elaborated through Russian romantic literature from the nineteenth century onward (see Hamill 1943; Scherbakova 1984; Janicki 1989). In the 1980s and 1990s, late- and post-Soviets continued to invoke nineteenth-century authors (especially Pushkin) to underwrite first Soviet internationalism and then Russian nationalism.

Literary texts thus figure importantly as sources for both theatrical and real-time performative citations. The method I use in tracing these literary invocations recalls Said's strategic formation, "a way of analyzing [how] groups of texts, types of texts, even textual genres acquire mass, density, and referential power amongst themselves and thereafter in the culture at large" (1978:20). In theme the chapter departs from literary critic Katie Trumpener's perception that in Western European literature, images of Gypsies act "as figurative keys to an array of literary genres and to the relations between them" (1992:873). This was so in Russia as well; moreover, writings about Gypsies keyed slippages between categories of art and those of everyday cultural identity.

I met few Soviets who did not perform such slippages when quoting or even mentioning poetic "Gypsy" texts. For instance, in 1993 after I had been teaching English at the weekend class for children of Moscow Romani performers for nearly two years, we taped a case of such a conflation of Gypsies' art and identity, one keyed by familiar images and by allusion to Pushkin. The class was attended mostly by members of the troupe Gilorri, though a few Russian girls participated. While taping a class, we interviewed one of these Russian girls, a six-year-old named Katja, about two pictures of "Gypsy girls" that she had painted with tempera. The child was shy about speaking in front of the camera, and so her grandmother, in her sixties, whispered prompts. The end of the interview turned to questions of identity:

Author: And you yourself, who are you?

Grandmother [prompting]: I'm Russian.

Katja: I'm Russian [pause].

G [prompting]: But I really love Gypsy-

K: But I really love Gypsy ...

G [prompting]: Art.

K: Art.

G: Louder.

A: Why?

K: Because there [tam] there is much joy, because there [tam] there is always merrymaking ... there [tam] it is very nice.

A: Would you like to be a Gypsy?

K: Yes.

(Lemon and Nakamura 1994, videotape transcript, translated from Russian)

The girl's projection of wishful identity onto a painted world "there" (tam, "over there") had itself been projected into her speech. Just after this interview, the grandmother admitted to the camera that, regarding love of Gypsies, "It's as if I've transferred my own inner feelings to my granddaughter." Whence was such a projection launched into a six-year-old's consciousness, or for that matter, into her grandmother's? Certainly not from immediate contextual surroundings at the school, where the Romani children wore jeans and wrote English words into notebooks, but from textual memory, memory of past performances and citations. Earlier in the interview, the grandmother phrased her prompts as if they referred to the girl's paintings, but in fact they described things not visible within that imaginary frame: "Say that she is dancing and that the moon is shining on her," she said, though the girl had painted no moon. Such utterances evoked familiar imagery from film, literature, and the stage.

There is nothing necessarily sinister in such ventrilocution-in many speech communities such orchestrations are seen as caring ways for elders to involve children in talk (Briggs 1984). More important to note here is not the mere transmission of images, but the particular, repeated intersections among categories: culture with ethnicity, ethnicity with place, culture and ethnicity with art. For instance, the grandmother fills in a pause after Katja has claimed Russian identity ("I'm Russian") by opposing Russianness to love for Gypsy art ("But I love Gypsy ...). The grandmother then expected her granddaughter to fill in the blank, but again intercedes to provide the object of love ("art"). Later, however, Katja required no prompting; she moved by herself from the abstraction "art" to describe a place, a mythic "there" (tam), where "there is always merrymaking." She had already learned that "art" encapsulates Gypsy sociality as a separate place, another world free of cares.

This slippage was pervasive and general. When I first began to tell Muscovites that I study "Gypsy culture" they would assume that by kul'tura I meant "art." I had in mind everyday practices and categories and the patterned understandings people have of them. The gaps between our understandings of culture were not so different from those across which American anthropologists face both thinkers from some other disciplines and the public, for whom "culture" often means "high culture," "national cultural," or "culturedness," or more rarely, "custom." The potential sense of "culture" as "civilization," as a complex of manners and hygienic practices (see Elias 1978), thus made sense to them, but not in this context, Gypsies being, by definition "wild" and nekul 'turnyje.

It was culture as art that defined Gypsies; it was manifest in Gypsy song and dance because Russian literature found it there. Thus Soviets would advise me to go to Bessarabia to do my project, not only because many Roma lived there, but because Pushkin had been inspired to write about them there. And thus the Russian grandmother, a few minutes after we had interviewed her granddaughter, likewise fused the objects of her admiration, or rather, admitted that she confused them-"Gypsy art" with "the people themselves" with Pushkin:

I lived in Western Ukraine where we had a lot of Gypsies. This memory from childhood ... that is, to this day, the presence of Gypsies in my childhood has never been blotted out. That is, I always-well, where there are Gypsies, there it's good, there it is merry. Well, you know, well, Gypsies, they are a very tempestuous people, very merry people. Especially, of course, their art is unique! Can't compare it with anything! They are so liberated! Songs, unforgettable songs! Of course, what can I say, except that we, well, if even the great poet Pushkin, he was crazy about Gypsies, then of course! Therefore, either it's Gypsy art or the people, Gypsies themselves. (Lemon and Nakamura 1994, emphasis added)

The grandmother's shift, from personal memory to citation of Pushkin and general stereotype, pivots on the same phrase that occurred (without prompting) in her granddaughter's speech, evoking a vague sense of place ("there it's merry"). This topic and voice shift accompanies a shift in style; dislocated, relatively inarticulate phrases shift to fluent cliché. The final deferral to Pushkin and his poem Tsygany (1824) disclaims personal knowledge, as though really knowing Gypsies were beyond the reach of ordinary persons in ordinary society, such knowledge accessible only to transcendent genius such as Pushkin's. Simultaneously, reference to the poet dramatized personal fantasy and experience, but in a broadly familiar way. Pushkin thus serves as a discursive hook, one that anchors the logic of attraction and difference: "Therefore, either it's Gypsy art or the people, Gypsies themselves."

Turning Gypsy: Volja and Imperial Nostalgia

The plot of Pushkin's famous poem is this: A non-Gypsy outlaw (Aleko) falls in love with a Gypsy woman (Zemfira), who brings him home to her camp. They live happily until she tires of him, favoring then a Gypsy like herself. Her father understands this as natural, asserting to Aleko that women love only fleetingly, "like the moon visiting clouds." Aleko cannot accept this and kills both Zemfira and her new lover. The Gypsies decline to punish him with violence but leave him sitting alone on a rock, telling him, "You want volja [free will/freedom] only for yourself." Volja is that ideal inherent to Gypsies that Aleko cannot grasp, and is also a potential source of tragedy.

Critics have debated to what extent Pushkin qualified approval of the Gypsies, to what extent was Aleko a self-portrait, and so on, but what matters here are not Pushkin's intentions but the ways in which the poem resonates through late-twentieth century public culture. For instance, some literary critics argue that Zemfira is not the real heroine, that the male characters are pivotal (Andrew 1990). This may be so, but it is Zemfira who captures the fancy of twentieth-century Soviets, and it is Zemfira, not her father, whom they most regard as the "Gypsy type."

Pushkin is significant because of the way he was canonized: he is described by many as able to transcend and bridge cultures by means of his art, able to understand "everyone." Through Pushkin's mediation, art brings cultures together. But as a corollary to that, Pushkin, liberal exile though he may have been, also came to stand for empire and expansion, both tsarist and later. As a Stalin-era issue of Pravda read, "Pushkin is equally dear to the hearts of Russians and Ukranians, Georgians and Kalmyks.... Hundreds of millions of people began to speak for the first time through Pushkin's lips" (Pravda, February 10, 1937, quoted in Sinjavskij 1975:36).

Pushkin reigns as authority on the "Gypsy soul" because he was lauded, both under Stalin and under the tsars, as the titan of imperial poetry, a creator of "Russian soul." Though his cult irritated Futurist poets, dissident writers, and cynical university students, his lyrical, light verse graced every Soviet literature textbook, and his monument stood on the most central Moscow avenue leading to Red Square.

Dostoevsky, in an 1880 speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin monument, first lionized the national genius: Pushkin would not only unite the Russian people, he would unite the Russian people with the imperial subjects. "There has never been a poet with such a universal responsiveness as Pushkin. It is not only a matter of his responsiveness but of its amazing depth, the reincarnation in his spirit of the spirit of foreign peoples." Key to Dostoevsky's argument was Pushkin's The Gypsies, and in developing that argument, he located art within the Gypsy soul-or rather, relocated the traces of "Russian genius" found in Pushkin's lines about Gypsies within Gypsies themselves. (Pushkin himself treats Gypsies as a conduit for art's transcendent genius; his Gypsies remember sheltering an exiled Ovid, inheriting his songs and tales.) Dostoevsky grounded Russian national destiny in the way the poem implicitly opposed elemental free will, volja, to mere svoboda, which implied a more structured liberty from social law. Citified, especially aristocratic Russians could only rebel, could only clamor against imposed order, while Gypsies, already in nature, already apart from society, knew authentic volja.

As social allegory, the poem extended Pushkin's earlier political themes on liberty. In it, authentic volja unfurls as art when Gypsy characters sing; Zemfira defies Aleko and hints that she loves another through song, for instance. However, the depiction of Gypsy volja was born not in Moldova at all, but in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where Romani choirs had become enormously fashionable among the aristocracy. Pushkin amplified this fashion, and after him came scores of poets and writers on the same theme.

The Gypsy choirs were mythologized as much for their intoxicating music as for the spectacle of seeing men extravagantly toss fistfuls of cash at the feet of Gypsy divas, in the hope of thus transcending mundane concerns. Such extravagance shows up in many tales, as in Leskov's The Enchanted Wanderer, for instance, and the Romani Theater's adaptation Grushenka. "One will shoot himself (or hang or drown himself) from unhappy love, one will squander a million, having thrown it all at the feet of his Gypsy beloved, another will make a present of his palace, another a glass of diamonds" (Druts and Gessler 1990:183). Some accounts render the singer as a sort of prostitute, or geisha, although 1990s Roma contest this view, pointing out that choirs were run by families and that while individual singers were paid for songs by request (Rom-Lebedev 1990: 41), they were not allowed to go o alone with clients.

All the same, Gypsy musical performance offered Russian spectators a way to imagine themselves unfettered by civil order through controlled, emotional "surrender" to a social inferior. This was not the favored explanation in Soviet Russia: "The admiration of Russian aristocrats for Gypsy singers and dancers could be explained by a general rapture for their art. In the end, it even became fashionable to up and marry a Gypsy woman" (Druts and Gessler 1990:183). Such marriages became the topic of countless stories; even into the 1990s, texts about the fascination of aristocrats or poets with Gypsy singers remained immensely more plentiful than any sorts of detailed accounts of everyday Romani life.

Gypsies represent the unpredictable forces of authentic desire-not an ordered liberty from rule (svoboda) but the free exercise of will and caprice, volja. Literary Gypsy women, "fiery and temperamental," personified volja more forcefully than their male counterparts (though their veins, too, flowed with "hot blood"). Volja is linked explicitly in Gypsy narratives with female, foreign sexuality. Of course, such allegations are not unique to Russian views of Gypsies-Europeans have long imagined women of other cultures (and classes) as excessively lusty (see Levy 1991; Gilman 1993). The passionate, dark Gypsy woman is a trans-European motif, à la Carmen, in Mérimée's 1845 novella of the same name (influenced by Pushkin's Tsygany), but the Russian obsession with her takes on particular colors. Not only the repetition of a set of character relations (an aristocrat vainly courts the lowest of outcasts and everyone dies) but also their intertextual configuration give the genre its particular force.

The literary Gypsy woman defies possession; it is a tragic mistake to cage her. If she allows herself to be kept, she withers and dies, like Leskov's Grushenka in The Enchanted Wanderer (1873). In this tale, a noble purchases Grushenka from her Gypsy kin and keeps her on his estate, forcing her to sing over and over until he breaks her will. Just as she falls in love with him, he tires of her. The obvious resemblance is to Lermontov's Hero of Our Time (1840). The jaded, post-Byronic hero of that novel, a Russian noble on military tour in the Caucasus, steals a Chechen girl, Bela. Bela miraculously learns Russian very quickly and falls in love with her captor. But the Russian wearies of her apparent simplicity, and when she steps outside the Russian fort to soothe herself of his neglect, cooling her legs in a nearby stream, one of her own "hot-blooded" countrymen takes his vengeance on her honor by killing her.


Excerpted from Between Two Fires by ALAINA LEMON Copyright © 2000 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Note on Orthography and Transcripts
Introduction 1
1 Pushkin, The Gypsies, and Russian Imperial Nostalgia 31
2 Roma, Race, and Post-Soviet Markets 56
3 "What Is Your Nation?" Performing Romani Distinctions 80
4 The Gypsy Stage, Socialism, and Authenticity 124
5 The Hidden Nail: Memory, Loyalty, and Models of Revelation 166
6 "Roma" and "Gazhje": Shifting Terms 194
7 Conclusion: At Home in Russia 226
App. A Roma and Other Tsygane in the Commonwealth of Independent States 237
App. B Dialect Differences 239
App. C Vlax-Lovari Romani Glossary 241
Notes 247
Bibliography 271
Index 293
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