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Gypsymania took both literary and musical forms during the early nineteenth century. The gypsy themeimagined scenes from their life and customscaptivated Russian poets. Alexander Pushkin's contributions gained popularity and immediately entered the literary canon. Gypsymania in music (tsyganshchina ) outlasted the literary genres. Its sourceschoirs comprising free, serf, and state peasant ethnic gypsies (Roma) and Russian composers who adapted gypsy motifs to popular romanceswere blended by star performers such as Stesha (Stepanida Sidorovna Soldatova, 17841822) and her successors. Tsyganshchina's attraction rested on lyrics, music, and performance style. Song lyrics represented gypsies as hot-blooded, wild in love, cruel in hatred, and enamored of freedom and the open road. The music was marked by sharp contrasts and sudden changes of tempo. The critic Apollon Grigorev wrote in 1847: "If you seek sounds, if you seek expression for those undefined, incomprehensible, sorrowful 'blues' (khandra ), you make off to the Gypsies, immerse yourself in the hurricane of these wild, passionate, oppressively passionate songs." An English visitor to a Moscow cafe during the 1850s described the performance of a gypsy choir wearing expensive and gaudy garments. They sat or lay on the floor; the soloist was joined by the company who drank and smoked as they strolled from table to table, stamping their feet. As cafes, restaurants, and phonograph records proliferated during the early twentieth century, gypsymania launched the careers of a half dozen superstars of the era who often emulated in life the emotional turbulence of their songs. Most Russians found them irresistible.

Critics accepted both the traditional music of the Roma, because it bore a folkish spirit, and the stylizations of composers at play like Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms. The middle range, by far the most popular, invited rancor: the local vernacular adorned with gypsy devices of rhythm, sonority, instrumentation, and phrasing. In Russia, songs composed in the gypsy manner, such as "Two Guitars" and "Dark Eyes," evoked repugnance among some critics. Ironically, genuine gypsies when playing Roma music also borrowed from local styles, and this habit accounts for the huge variety among the various authentic gypsy styles from Spain to Finland. Under Bolshevism, hostility to tsyganshchina took on a political edge. During the 1920s, classical musicians lamented its vulgarity, and proletarian composers charged the music with inciting decadence, bourgeois values, and miscreant sexuality. The gypsy genre disappeared during the Cultural Revolution (19281931), and a form of gypsy music was partially revived, in a sanitized form, with the founding of the Teatr Romen in 1931 where something like genuine Roma performances were mounted. Recordings by other Soviet singers of selected gypsy songs were released under the watchful eye of the censors. With the coming of glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev, every kind of previously taboo gypsy songs resurfaced, only to be drowned out soon by Western rock and hip-hop.

See also: folk music; gypsy; pushkin, alexander sergeyevich


Stites, Richard. (1992). Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society since 1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Richard Stites

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