Monday, 24 November 2014

Analysis: Romantic Representations of the Roma Population through Movies in the Soviet Union: ‘The Gypsy Camp Goes to Heaven’


The media is a strong influence on the way the Roma are represented and treated.[1] In fictional portrayals in literature, theatre and film, the image of the Romani has been heavily romanticized over several epochs. This analysis illustrates this phenomenon in the context of the 1970s Soviet Union, using a classic movie example: ‘The Gypsy Camp Goes to Heaven’, released in 1975 by Mosfilm studio and directed by Emil Loteanu.

‘What exactly is the image of the Romani perpetuated through art in the Soviet Union and why was it popularized at the time?’ is the main question. ‘The Gypsy Camp Goes to Heaven’ is particularly relevant, since it was very well received and popular in its time. The numerous distinctions it was awarded prove just how successful these imageries were.[2]

Finally, this film successfully combines realistic aspects of those times with highly romanticized portrayals of the Roma population – a perspective very fashionable at the time, both in theatres and movies. The phenomenon has been highly criticized, and rightfully so, because such imageries are responsible for the development of stereotypes and what researchers in the field of social psychology often call ‘othering’ (a concept describing the process of discriminatory separation based on cultural differences). They are also partly responsible for the wrongful categorization of ‘the Roma’. Much too often, the Roma are being represented and described as ‘one people’, while the variations within this invented category are ignored. It is important to mention awareness about this wrong categorization as early as possible, as well as about its presence in art works, so the reader will not be confused about my perspective or believe that I am somehow subscribing to it.


The Gypsy Camp Goes to Heaven’ is a Soviet movie released in 1975. Moldovan director Emil Loteanu managed to turn several pieces of literature written by Maxim Gorky into a moving, eclectic and considerably expressive film appreciated all over Europe and more. This is said to be the highlight of Loteanu’s collaboration with the ‘Mosfilm’ studio.

The action seems to revolve mainly around the tragic love story between Zobar and Rada, both of them encompassing many of the stereotypes attributed to the Roma. Despite being well-traveled, experienced and constantly looking for wisdom, Zobar finds it difficult to evolve spiritually so he could be with Rada completely, body and soul. The difference between the two of them resides in the way they see the world and the loving union between two people. They do not share the same views on pride, ethics, sacrifice, and more importantly, freedom. Freedom seems to be the subject of their central disagreement, and this is very relevant for the stereotypes that dominate the romantic portrayal of ‘Gypsies’, as they are often being presented as freedom-loving.

What Rada sees as a spiritually growing ritual, Zobar interprets as humiliation. The attraction between them, a veritable fatidic faith, ends up with both of them dying – Rada, stabbed by Zobar who could not help himself from interpreting Rada’s need to put him through an initiating ritual (in order to help him evolve spiritually) as his loss of dignity, in an impulsive outburst that suggests everything but the wisdom he was looking to achieve, and Zobar, killed by Rada’s hurt father.[3]

I considered this film to be highly representative for the popular way in which the Roma nomadic population was portrayed in the Soviet Union through art. It is the very symbol of the trends perpetuated back then: canonized writers’ works (many of them dating from imperial times - Czarist Russia) brought to life on stage or on screen while made to fit current political trends (so-called ‘socialism’ in the context of the Soviet Union). In this case, the main inspiration was Maxim Gorky’s ‘Makar Chudra’ (‘Макар Чудра’), first published in 1892, in the context of what was still the Russian Czarist Empire. The story is only about 14 pages long and it is centered on the old Chudra, a ‘gipsy’ man who shares stories from his own experience with someone whose questions and lines are not recorded – this is exactly what brings originality to Gorky’s short story. At some point, he tells the story of Rada and Zobar, a story he witnessed when he was back in Bucovina with his camp.

Gorky’s vision is a lot simpler than Loteanu’s – the two of them love each other, but they simply can not give up their pride, which ends up throwing them into a competition where each of them wants to make the other submit to him/her, in order to hide their weaknesses from each other. Besides the story of Antal, the nobleman (a Hungarian landowner called Antal falls in love with Rada), director Emil Loteanu only borrows a few more lines from this story. He gives new meanings to all aspects of the film, also leaving many options for viewers’ interpretations.


The study of the Roma populations became a branch of ethnology in the 19th century, at a time when there was said to be a need for an inner exoticism, influenced by Romanticism, when the image of the ‘noble savage’ dominated the stage in the eyes of people.[1] Throughout European history, the Romani played a central part in constructing images of foreigners. The process of representing ‘the other’ was mainly characterized by oscillation between ‘positive’[2] and negative stereotyping. Ethnic representations of the Roma are extremely contradictory – there are demonizing portrayals (habit of criminality, disease-spreading because of a certain lack of familiarity with personal hygiene standards, possessors of mystical powers used either for good or bad purposes, definitely not trustworthy with a strong habit of lying, uneducated, backwards, violent, lazy, immoral) and romantic ones (passionate temperament, love of freedom and veritable symbols of freedom, ‘romantic wanderers’).[3]

In European 19th century literature this portrayal of ‘Gypsies’ was very common – not only in the Eastern part of the continent. Many analogies could support this statement – for example, the portrayal of Esmeralda in Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. There, the presence of the ‘bohemian Gypsy’ is particularly strong (the very word bohemian was coined with reference to Romani from Bohemia[4]), and Esmeralda is the very image of the traditional ‘bohemian’ European ‘Gypsy’: a nomad, a racially ‘other’ figure, an outsider, reflecting the exoticism and connection to the Orient that were so fashionable at the time.[5] The idea of the quintessential ethnic ‘other’ represented by ‘Gypsies’ (even clearly suggesting the wish for preservation) is made clear in the film when, after a scene in the horse market where a fight between ‘Gypsies’ begins, one of them stops the others, convincing them with the following words: ‘Romale, what are we killing each other for? There are few of us left anyway!’.[6]

Canonized Russian writers, such as Maxim Gorky, were highly popularized on screen[7] in the 20th century. Nineteenth-century European writers often romanticized Gypsies, mainly because of their perceived ‘non-bourgeois’ and ‘non-Western’ ways that characterized their way of life.[8] This is one of the main reasons why Gorky’s work and the short story ‘Makar Chudra’ were so convenient to be placed on screen in the context of the Soviet Union. In the USSR, the image of Roma people that had to be perpetuated was definitely not the negative one, but the highly romanticized one, given that the discourse popular in the Soviet Union at that time had a lot to do with respect for diversity, identity policies, even autonomy.

There is also a strongly emphasized class dimension in the film. The imagery of nomadism was attractive, as it was often interpreted as a sort of refuge from the stagnancy associated with the bourgeois lifestyle. This was also the reason why the Romantic generation could somehow identify with this portrayal of ‘Gypsies’ – always outsiders, interested in cultures viewed as untouched and uncorrupted by modern ways of life. Interclass contact (in this case, the aristocracy and the ‘lower class’) happened only through spectacle[9] - as an example, we have at least two illustrative scenes. 

First, when a Hungarian nobleman called Antal falls in love with Rada as a consequence of a street spectacle – on a narrow street in a Hungarian small town, Antal was in a carriage, leading his horses forward, when suddenly he noticed the group of ‘gipsy’ women blocking the way and displaying eccentric behaviour. He aggressively (using a whip) tried to make them move out of the way. At that very moment, Rada becomes angry at him and intentionally puts herself in his way, forcing him to stop and fall in love with her (it is suggested in the film that she does this using the power of her eyes, with a persistent stare). The second powerful inter-class contact takes place when a very representative scene shows the people in the camp ridiculing a picture of the Austro-Hungarian emperor, Franz Josef, chanting sarcastically, as a military official attempts at taking it away from them, in a display of violence and spite: ‘Don’t touch His Majesty, Emperor Franz Josef the Second. Please, Your Honor, do not take him away from me! Long live Emperor Franz Josef!’. [10]

These traits can be fairly easily spotted in ‘The Gypsy Camp Goes to Heaven’. They are presented as immoral (Zobar saying: You should know that everything that is sweet is shameless, the horse-stealing episode), freedom-loving (Do not love gold, it will betray you. Do not love women, they will betray you. Freedom is the headiest wine of all – Chudra giving advice to Zobar), possessing mystical powers (Rada’s healing capacities and the old ‘gipsy’ woman’s palm-reading in the horse market), strongly connected to nature (as we can conclude from Zobar’s sister, Rosalina’s way of describing ‘her people’: We have drunk the moon dew. Bullets can’t stop us, the forest gives us shelter, the night saves us), liars (trying to sell people old horses for high prices) even among themselves (the scene where one of them painted a horse black in order to sell it to his friend). However, the aim of the film is far from stigmatizing the Romani. Even if almost all common elements used in this kind of portrayals are present here, this movie deserves to be granted a deeper understanding. It does not aim at stereotyping – it uses stereotypes to achieve a higher symbolical value. When the Roma are being represented in the arts, they are often being sacrificed, along with their culture, to the needs of the artist portraying them as ‘the quintessential Other’. Interpreters of this imagery are often explaining the same works in different, even contradictory terms, but the Romani themselves are almost absent from the debate.[11]

It is impossible to leave out the film’s soundtrack when talking about the representation of the Roma population in this particular context. David Malvinni states in his book, The Gypsy Caravan: From Real Roma to Imaginary Gypsies in Western Music that, ‘as signifiers, ‘Gipsy’ and ‘music’ function in ways that approximate one another. The fictional mysterious, dreamlike realities in which they are being presented in ‘The Gypsy Camp Goes to Heaven’ (and not only – it was rather a trend) escape Enlightenment rationality. ‘Gypsies’ and ‘music’ in literature regarding the Roma seem graspable through literary conventions, and nevertheless, their illusory status remains outside that convention which is meant to mark uniqueness. There is almost always a world of magic, nature – ‘the psychological territory of dream’, strongly linked with an atmosphere charged with raw emotion and passion. For nineteenth-century commentators, the illusion, the dream, imparted the force of ‘Gipsy’ music performance and confirmed its closeness to nature.[12]

None of the songs played in the soundtrack suggests denigration of the ‘Gypsies’ – the quality and the authenticity of the music are undeniable. In the opening scene, one can hear male and female voices harmoniously brought together, and the sound definitely gives the impression of timelessness, suggesting a limitless environment in time and place. It seems that there are no other goals for them instead of the eternal movement, as with nature and its cycles. It expresses a powerful nostalgia and it contributes to the constitution of the main image – the symbolic image of the earthiness of human nature and its inescapable destiny, its impossibility to eternalize and its ephemeral realizations; also, its impossibility to fixate itself – thus, the eternal movement that characterizes nomad Roma populations.

Representations of the Romani in popular images contrasted strongly with social and cultural perceptions of the self throughout European history. The gaje (non-Gypsies) often defined themselves in opposition to the Roma population, embracing thus the ‘wild – civilized’ antagonism which is deeply embedded in what is often called ‘European culture’. This opposition comprises deeply symbolic elements, is very powerful and has a strong potential of becoming instrumental. Even so-called ‘positive literature’ about the Romani, that tries to correct stereotypes apparently, often implies the element of ‘the other’.[13]

The Romani have fascinated artists for a long time and their presence in literature and film is prominent through the ages. Images focusing on their physical appearance, their nomadic and rural lifestyle and their distinctive character, often in its romantic aspects, can be found repeated in poetry, travelling theatre productions, children’s fiction and music lyrics. In this case, where the film is inspired by a short story, ‘the written image finds its close counterpart in visual representations’.[1] Much like in Pushkin’s ‘Tsygany’, stereotypes concerning the natural freedom (volja) and the organic naturalness of the Bessarabian Roma are being highly perpetuated in ‘The Gypsy Camp Goes to Heaven’. The peculiarities of their sexual and moral behaviours which make them incompatible with others are being pointed at, and thus their labeling as the quintessential ‘other’. [2] In Europe, ‘Gypsies’ symbolized for a long time the connection with the exotic element, for which people did not have to travel, because they were to be found nearby. This is one of the aspects that enables charging ideas and views of the Roma with such stereotypes.[3] The inter-group contact experience was a novelty. It was different, which caused it to be perceived as repulsive, but it was also interesting, mysterious, intriguing.

In the context of the Soviet Union, there are two main elements that favored both the creation and the success of this film: first, bringing back and emphasizing the artistic and cultural value of local canonized writers, and second, the perpetuation of an image of a Soviet Union that has respect for diversity – even more, that preserves it and protects it within its boundaries.

[1] David Mayall, Gypsy Identities 1500-2000: From Egipcyans and Moon-Men to the Ethnic Romany (London: Routledge, 2004).
[2] Mihaela Moscaliuc, “Killing with Metaphors. Romani in the Literary Imagination of East-Central Europe,” in History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe: Types and Stereotypes, ed. Marcel Cornis-Pope, John Neubauer, n.d.
[3] Manfred Beller, Joseph Theodoor Leerssen, ed., Imagology: The Cultural Construction and Literary Representation of National (The Netherlands: Rodopi, 2007).

[1] Jean-Paul Clébert, “The Gypsies,” American Anthropologist 72, no. 3 (1970): 640–41.

[2] Under no circumstances does my use of the term ‘positive’ here intend to give a positive connotation to stereotyping.

[3] Manfred Beller, Joseph Theodoor Leerssen, ed., Imagology: The Cultural Construction and Literary Representation of National (The Netherlands: Rodopi, 2007).

[4] Manfred Beller, Joseph Theodoor Leerssen, ed., Imagology: The Cultural Construction and Literary Representation of National (The Netherlands: Rodopi, 2007).

[5] Valentina Glajar, Domnica Radulescu, ed., “Gypsies” in European Literature and Culture (London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 217-218.

[6] Emil Loteanu, “The Gypsy Camp Goes to Heaven,” drama (Sovexportfilm, 1975),

[7] Richard Stites, Passion and Perception: Essays on Russian Culture (Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing, 2010), p. 297.

[8] Valentina Glajar, Domnica Radulescu, ed., “Gypsies” in European Literature and Culture (London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 217-218.

[9] Valentina Glajar, Domnica Radulescu, ed., “Gypsies” in European Literature and Culture (London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 219.

[10] Emil Loteanu, “The Gypsy Camp Goes to Heaven,” drama (Sovexportfilm, 1975),

[11] David Malvinni, The Gypsy Caravan: From Real Roma to Imaginary Gypsies in Western Music (London, UK: Routledge, 2004).

[12] David Malvinni, The Gypsy Caravan: From Real Roma to Imaginary Gypsies in Western Music (London, UK: Routledge, 2004).

[13] Manfred Beller, Joseph Theodoor Leerssen, ed., Imagology: The Cultural Construction and Literary Representation of National (The Netherlands: Rodopi, 2007).

[3] Emil Loteanu, “The Gypsy Camp Goes to Heaven,” drama (Sovexportfilm, 1975),

[1] Peter Kabachnik, “The Place of the Nomad: Situating Gypsy and Traveler Mobility in Contemporary England” (University of California, 2007).

[2] The film was distinguished with several awards, such as ‘The Golden Shell for Best Movie’ at the San Sebastian movie festival (1976), ‘Best Director’ at the ‘Fest-77’ International Film Festival in Belgrade (1977), ‘Best Movie’ at the International Film Festival in Prague (1977), ‘The Honor Diploma’ at the Movie Making Technique Contest at the UNIATEK Congress in Paris (1979), ‘Best actress’ for Svetlana Toma at the International Movie Festival in Panama (1977), and ‘Best Female Actress’ at the Prague International Film Festival (1977).


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