Roma history beyond marginalization
20 July 2022

As Europe’s largest minority group, the Roma have lived through the continent’s history but often receive a marginal position in historical accounts. ERC grantee Elena Marushiakova is set to change this. Through detailed archival research in Central and Eastern Europe, she sheds new light on Roma civic emancipation in the interwar period. Rather than passive victims of deep-seated stigmatisation, many Roma were active architects of their own lives. 

Cover image of Roma history beyond marginalization

Amidst a tumultuous backdrop of economic hardship, the interbellum period saw a flourishing of nationalists’ ideas in Central and Eastern Europe. Feelings of hostility towards minority groups increased and fed into the rise of authoritarian parties. Much research exists on minority groups in this specific period and region. However, the Roma community seems absent in such historical inquiry.

“Even in the academic field, there is a strong tendency to assume that the Roma have always been a marginalized community, unable to produce their own vision, perspective, or ideology”, Elena Marushiakova says. “Studies mostly focus on the grim history of Roma suffering, and not the story of the active, successful and important Roma individuals. In addition, many researchers just assume that there are no sources written by Roma. We found that the opposite was true. In fact, their history is inseparable from European history”.

Untold stories

Marushiakova and her team uncovered untold stories, such as the life story of Atanas Dimitrov, who defended his PhD thesis on philosophical ethics at the Jena University in Germany, and then became a professor at Sofia University in Bulgaria. “Atanas Dimitrov had a significant impact on the fate of the Roma in Bulgaria at a critical moment”, she explains. “During the Second World War, Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany, which pursued a policy of genocide against “Gypsies” in occupied territories, and expected a similar policy from its allies. The idea of ‘racial hygiene’ reached Bulgaria too, but it failed to influence Bulgarian academia and society. Atanas Dimitrov’s academic career became an example that Roma can be equipollent and equal citizens of Bulgaria. Bulgarian public opinion influenced the state’s policy towards “Gypsies”. Despite a number of restrictive and discriminatory measures against them, no action for the annihilation of Roma was taken.”

Marushiakova and her team found a similar example in Romania, where Constantin S. Nicolăescu-Plopșor was an influential scholar. “His multi-faceted work in history, folklore, ethnology, and archaeology has had a well-known impact on the shaping of Romanian history, but his role in Roma activism in the interwar period has been less noticed. He published in Romani language, produced manuscripts of Roma folklore, and wrote poetry. His role in the Roma emancipation movement was not limited to his literary productivity. In fact, his idea of creating a Roma Museum, a Roma University and a Roma Library never fully materialised but were evocative aspects of his desire to create a Roma national legacy during the interwar period.”

Roaming the archives

Obtaining such historical material on Roma intellectual and cultural life has not been easy, Marushiakova says. “To work in the vast region of Central and Eastern Europe, one needs to be able to speak different local languages, including Romani, and search in archives in various countries to find a piece of Roma history.

“The former Soviet-Union offered a great amount of information. Separate nationalities, including Roma, received support from the early Soviet state, so they were able to develop their own literature and poetry, and leave traces of whatever they did. In the former Soviet-Union alone, we discovered around 270 books, many of which were primary sources from Romani authors. This is much more than I expected beforehand.”

“On other occasions”, Marushiakova continues, “we travelled to archives where we expected to find information, but this was in vain. Mineralnye Vody in the Caucasus, for example, was an important centre of Roma activism. However, we discovered that all the archives we looked for there were destroyed during WWII when the Nazi army occupied the Caucasus. Similarly, the archival materials about the activities of the so-called Gypsy Kings in Poland were destroyed during the Warsaw uprising in the summer of 1944. Nevertheless, we have found evidence about their activities in archives in neighbouring countries.”

Separate community

“I firmly believe that our research will help to overcome prejudices against the Roma, which leads to their stigmatization as a separate community, incomparable with other European nations”, Marushiakova says. “Until now, many authors believe that presenting the Roma as a constantly discriminated group will draw public attention to them and help to improve their position and life. However, it rather consolidates the negative perceptions of the whole community. Such an approach denies the possibility for the Roma to have their own social and cultural elite in past and present. With our rich, fact-based study of Roma history, we have demonstrated that such an elite has existed since the birth of the Roma civic emancipation movement. I hope that the results will empower the Roma community itself, and give Roma a base to reclaim their own history”.


Elena Marushiakova is a Research Professor at the School of History at the University of St. Andrews in the UK. As a historian and ethnographer, she started her professional career in the Ethnographic Institute at the Slovak Academy of Sciences, followed by work in the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies and Ethnographic Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Her major publications (in co-authorship with Vesselin Popov) include the first-ever monograph on Roma in Bulgaria (1997) and books on Gypsies in the Ottoman Empire (2000) and on Gypsies in Central Asia and Caucasus (2016). Marushiakova was for one decade the president of the Gypsy Lore Society, which was founded in Great Britain in 1888 and is active until now as the main international learned society for Romani Studies.

Project information

Roma Civic Emancipation Between The Two World Wars
Elena Marushiakova
Host institution:
University of St. Andrews
United Kingdom
Call details
ERC-2015-AdG, SH6
ERC Funding
2 433 985 €