FORGOTTEN ITALIANS

Alessandro Vincenzi

From 1830 to the end of the 19th Century an Italian migratory flux, mainly from Puglia, reached Crimea, which was then part of the Russian Empire. Two waves of Italian migrants arrived in Kerch, Crimea in 1830 and 1870, and they were followed later by relatives and friends. They were mainly farmers, seamen and shipyard workers from Puglia, attracted by dreams of a better future in unexploited and fertile lands This migration from Italy was encouraged by Russian Imperial authorities who wanted to develop agricultural activities mainly in grape cultivation and wine production. By 1921 the Italians of Crimea accounted for 2 percent of the population in the province of Kerch and occupied well respected social positions. Italians were mainly captains and ship owners or the owners of farms and factories able to produce high quality products which were in great demand. Italian architects also designed and built many of the region’s homes and monuments. For these people and other minorities the 1930’s brought heavy-handed oppression due to the follies of Stalin’s dictatorship. Repression, persecution, hard labour and arrests forced many of the local Italians to flee back to Italy. Many who stayed suffered a tragic fate and by 1933 the percentage of Italians in Kerch had dropped to 1.3 percent. The Catholic church that had been built by the Italians was closed in 1940 and its priest was sent back to Italy. Communist policies expropriated privately-held land to create a collective farm called “Sacco e Vanzetti” in which initially only a few families of the community took part. The Stalinist Purges of 1935-38 were devastating and by 1940 only 1100 Italians were still living in Kerch, representing less than 1 percent of the population. Many of the Italians were accused of being spies and arrested, tortured and executed. Some were sent to Russian gulags, never to return. Following the Russian Army’s liberation of Crimea from the Germans all minorities, including the Italians, were deported to different areas of Central Asia and Siberia. On January 28, 1942 the Italian families still living in the Kerch province were given two hours’ notice to pack a maximum of 8 kg of their belongings before being deported to Kazakhstan. The agony of the journey, mainly in wagon trains, lasted two months. Many died on the way from hunger, cold and other hardships; survivors recall that the dead were abandoned at train stations along the way. After the death of Stalin in 1953, some Italians moved back to Kerch while other Italian families are still living in Kazakhstan. When they returned to Kerch their belongings, homes and farms had all been confiscated by the Russians; no one managed to regain them. Discrimination was so strong that even talking about their origins was unwise. Even today, in Kerch, you can find many Italian family names: Giachetti, Maffioni, Fabiano, Porcelli, Petringa, Di Martino, De Lerno. Some names have changed over the years, with the name De Lerno, for instance, believed to have originally been Di Lernia. Today in Kerch there is a community of about 350 people known to have Italian origins. Unfortunately there are very few documents proving their backgrounds as they were seized during deportation and destroyed or replaced by Russian identity papers. Some do possess copies of old certificates proving that their ancestors were Italian citizens and were born on Italian soil. Fourth and fifth generation descendants are now demanding to be recognised as a deported minority, a status that until now has been denied by Ukraine authorities. A plaque has been placed in the square facing the train station in Kerch to commemorate the deported minorities and in honour of those who died during that ordeal. The plaque makes no mention of the Italians as one of those minorities. The minority is also demanding that the Italian government should formally recognise their origins, a move they believe would allow them to restore their relationship with their Italian language, culture and motherland.

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