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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gypsy Rites, Gypsy Riches

At last -- a story that's really worth writing home about. Last Saturday I attended an authentic Gypsy wedding.

Gypsies have been a part of life here forever, but what does the average Russian really know about them? There are famous Gypsy ballads, of course, and the groups of guitarists and fiddlers that enchant late-night restaurant crowds. There are fortune tellers in flamboyant dresses, and more recently there have cropped up gangs of small, dirty children who beg and occasionally mug tourists and other helpless-looking foreigners.

Most Russians are probably prejudiced against Gypsies. They find them weird, threatening and utterly different from themselves. Apart from Valentina Pomareva, a famous Gypsy singer who is very russified and elegant, I never knew any Gypsies and had no idea of how they actually live, until last Saturday.

The biggest permanent Gypsy community in the Moscow region is in the town of Maloyaroslavets, about 120 kilometers southwest of the city. Their village is separated from the rest of the town by a stretch of industrial wasteland and brick factories. When you get there, it's a different world altogether.

This particular community has its roots in Hungary. During World War II, pursued by the German army, it made its way to Russia, settling in Maloyaroslavets in 1955. Since then the group has grown to about 800 mostly young people, and more than 100 houses have been built in the village. Life there is full of contrasts. On the one hand, there's a pervasive sense of backwardness: They've got electricity, but no gas, heating, drainpipes or asphalt. It was raining while we were there and the roads and paths were like rivers of mud. On the other hand, about a dozen of the village houses could have made typical nomenklatura dachas in a town like Zhukovka look like Uncle Tom's cabin. The interiors of these brick palaces were reminiscent of "1001 Nights," with crystal, oriental paintings and small marble swimming pools.

Traditionally, the men of the community worked with metals, originally as smiths and tinsmen, and now, more often, as import-export dealers. The women don't work -- their job is take care of the numerous children, but from time to time they go to Moscow and practice their fortune-telling. "I give my wife all the money she needs and ask her not to do all this card-reading and palmistry," Lev Grigorievich, one of the village's leading businessmen, told me. "But they really love the work. They're bored without it."

Later I asked him how his village, which seemed fairly prosperous, handled the problem of organized crime and racketeers. "Oh, they don't bother us," he said. "Every one of their groups has 50 men, maximum. Here in the village we can call together 300 or so men in five minutes." And what about those Gypsy kids roaming the streets of Moscow, I asked. "Unfortunately, that happens, but they're not our children. Those are Moldovan Gypsies," he said, "and they're no friends of ours. For our kids, begging would be a disgrace."

The Gypsies of Maloyaroslavets do indeed seem to be busy and very well-off. As I was wandering through the village, aimlessly looking around, somebody said, "Hey, mister -- are you looking for a job?" "No," I said. "I'm just here for the wedding."

Now, the wedding was quite unlike any wedding I've ever been to. (Highlights will be televised on NTV's "Namedni" at 10 P.M. Saturday, incidentally.) Men and women are kept totally separate: The men, about 100 of them, sat around a long table under a tent drinking and eating, while the women and children enjoyed themselves dancing and changing into dresses inside the groom's house. I must say that some of the Gypsy girls were incredibly beautiful -- there's no chance that modeling agencies will get at them, though.

Pyotr Movza -- the "Gypsy Baron" of Maloyaroslavets -- explained his community's policy on gender roles: "A Gypsy man can marry a Russian woman and bring her to the village, although that happens rarely," he said. "But under no circumstances whatsoever do we let our girls leave the community to marry Russian men. It may sound strict, but this is a law of our nation, and without such laws we'd be destroyed." Fresh blood comes to the village through matchmaking with other Gypsy communities, in nearby Tula and beyond.

When the time came to leave the wedding, the 15-year-old groom was still nowhere to be seen. Unlike his 14-year-old bride, who was wearing a gorgeous white dress and collecting money, rings and other presents from the guests, he was out with the boys, only to return for an appearance late that night.