Old habits die hard – especially if one is not even aware of them. Research has shown again and again that the Roma remain the most discriminated minority in Europe. A historian does not find this surprising. The exclusion of the diverse Roma and Traveller groups has a centuries-old history, connected to the deep structures of the European societies. From late medieval times onwards, the Romani people have been marginalised and persecuted, whether in the context of vagrancy laws, nationalism, racial doctrines, border control, or of European integration.
The exclusion of the Roma is a deep-seated habit, but also a blind spot. In this limited sense, Europeans might do well to take a lesson from my recent country of residence, the United States, where even the most conservative people admit that the country has “a race issue” that is significant to the whole society.
Of course, discrimination and violence are just one part of the rich and little known history of the European Roma, Sinti and Travellers. In Finland, this history is made easier to approach by “the History of the Roma in Finland” (Suomen romanien historia), published last October. The publishing year 2012 marked the quincentennial of the written record of the Roma in Nordic countries: in 1512, a group of ‘tatars’ was told to have arrived to the Kingdom of Sweden (of which Finland was a part at the time). I have had the honour of working on this book together with numerous people with a deep understanding – and living experience – of the history of the Roma.
The Kaale Roma
The Kaale Roma have been living in Finland for almost half a millennium, but have been largely invisible in historical research. Yet, the history of the Roma is also Finnish history, and offers an interesting perspective into all key events of the country. The Roma have worked in innumerable occupations, from soldiers, artisans, horse traders, musicians, cobblers, blacksmiths to factory workers and farmers. Their fortunes have been intertwined with local village communities and the Finnish society more broadly. The history of the Roma is one reminder that Finland has actually never been the monoculture which it is often portrayed as.
In our research, we wanted to go beyond romantic and racist preconceptions, and to study the centuries-long history of interaction. Our shared history is so long that all Finns would benefit from knowing something about it. Indeed, the history of the Roma should be included in school curricula, and this teaching should make clear the inadequacy of old stereotypes. History makes clear is the Roma are no more cut from the same cloth than are the other Finns. There have been identifiable subgroups in different regions, with their own customs and characteristics. Moreover, family histories reveal for example Hungarian, Danish and Russian forefathers and –mothers, as well as occupations such as as a clocksmith, a pilot, a violin maker or a revolutionary.
The relationship between the Roma and the other Finns has not been such a battleground as has been commonly thought, either. The mere fact of survival of the Roma in cold and traditionally poor Finland points to something else than isolation and hostility. The Roma held an established position in rural communities, and the same Roma families could be given shelter in the same “familiar houses” from one generation to the next. The peasants benefitted from exchange, and for the Roma, good relationships were a question of life and death.
About the project
The aim of our project was not to write the definitive history of the Roma in Finland. Our tight schedule meant that many questions remained unasked and many elderly people with priceless information were not interviewed. Our limited aim was to write a multi-voiced book, also to help the future researchers – among whom we hope to see more Roma themselves.
In the end, history writing is just history writing. Today’s Europe needs to wake up to the fact that it treats its biggest minority as second-class citizens. Although the situation of the Roma in Finland is relatively good, we cannot afford complacency either. We need high-profile initiatives and concrete resources to achieve real equality. With the enlargement of the EU, it is also too late to think that the “Roma issue” concerns only Eastern Europe. We need to join forces to put a stop to the centuries-long continuum of discrimination. Otherwise, we in Finland, too, have to start getting used to the shadow society formed by Europe’s displaced Roma, struggling for survival on our streets and backyards.