Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Unplaced and Unwelcome: A Story of the Yiddish School in the Ukrainian Shtetl

Maryna Batsman

In 1917, the Russian Empire collapsed. The Bolsheviks began to reform nearly every aspect of pre-revolutionary life. The Jewish community received unprecedented support. The new state banned anti-Semitism and prosecuted its perpetrators criminally.

However, when it comes to Ukraine, the story was not that linear. The Soviet power came out of the Civil War. It substituted the UNR Government, which gave Jews the right of national personal autonomy in 1918. For that reason, the situation of Ukrainian Jews was unique. Having significant autonomy in political and cultural matters, they found it harder to negotiate with the Soviet power. Later, many of them became members of EVKOM, the Commissariat for Jewish National Affairs, and Evsektsiia, the Jewish Section of the Communist Party, with the goal of attaining national-personal autonomy.[1] The Jewish Section was an intermediary institution for Jewish Affairs. The higher power tried to take more control over it, whereas many Jews perceived it as a Soviet institution full of traitors who, for the sake of gaining power, abandoned the interests of their own community.

A similar fate befell the Yiddish-language Jewish school. There is still a debate as to what extent it was ‘Jewish’. Was it Jewish because the language in which it operated was Yiddish? Before modernity, this rotten ‘dialect’ was not a language of study for the Eastern European Jews. It was a dream project of Jewish socialists and Yiddishists, who perceived it as the national language of Jews. Soviet officials welcomed the idea of Yiddish language; Hebrew, in conjunction with Zionism, was rejected as bourgeois.

On the other hand, was the Yiddish school Jewish because of the religious subjects in its curricula? These did not last long; the hours devoted to studying old Hebrew language and the Bible were steadily shortened. After all, did such subjects make any sense if the children were told that they should be free of religious prejudices and celebrate the “Red” holidays instead of Jewish ones?

In the 1920s, the Yiddish school was a solution for poor Jewish children who attended it. It was a solution in an allegorical sense as well: it aimed to dissolve the high, sophisticated, and incomprehensible Soviet ideology to the level of understanding of ordinary people. Until the 1930s, when the screws were twisted too fast and the national school system centralized, the school tested the high ideology on the local population, waiting for its feedback. From then onwards, the pupil, a central figure of attention in the 1920s[2], lost its significance in promoting the ideology. It was the state who dictated its interests to all.

Nonetheless, the Yiddish school was a Jewish school because it was attended by Jewish children. Moreover, it was Jewish because it was still in the shtetl, together with Ukrainian and
very often Polish schools. Finally, it was Jewish because it was the realization of a dream of many Yiddish-Jewish-Soviet educators.

Many have heard about the experiment of Makarenko’s colony in Poltava, Ukraine, a colony designed to turn young robbers into respectable Soviet citizens. Only a few know about Malakhovker Jewish kinder-koloniye in the Moscow area, Makarenko’s predecessor, which was visited by Jewish artists like Marc Shagal and Solomon Mikhoels. However, few have ever heard about the childrens’ colonies in Pushcha-Voditsa, Kiev, or Albinovke near Zhytomir. Some of these institutions remained only as ghosts on a paper, while others were indeed realized.

The plan of Kitayevo children’s school with garden near Kiev.
Fond 166, inv. 1, file 246, TsDAVO Archive, Kiev, 1919.

The material situation in these schools was dire. As a temporary solution, some schools had to settle in old buildings, expropriated properties of merchants, or in Talmud-Torahs.[3] The schools lacked buildings, teachers, and money. Many teachers worked in dreadful conditions and had to take care of Jewish (and non-Jewish) orphans devastated by typhus.

“Let’s go to the garden, to the lake, let’s do physical exercises” – the new school called the Jewish child, famously known in Yiddish literature as a pale, sick, and unhealthy, very alien to nature (which was a goyish[4] thing). Pedagogues of a new Soviet school saw the child’s development not only as intellectual and moral, but also physical. Going to nature and introducing common physical activities broke old world of unhealthy religious learning. Soviet power was supportive to these novelties: to the extent they facilitated building up a new collective. Inspired by the newest pedagogical reforms, Yiddish (Jewish) teachers brought up the new generation of the Soviet Jewish men and women, or at least were supposed to do so.

Jewish Yiddish School in Zhytomir, 1938. Source: YadVashem

However, in the 1920s, Jewish kids continued to attend old schools and study with private teachers to learn Hebrew, celebrate Pesakh, and eat kosher.[5] Although the Soviet Yiddish school did not become the most desirable and popular place to get an education, its story resembles the sad fate of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union. Being declaratively accepted and appropriated as part of the official policy of the state (korenizatsiia), it was nonetheless short-lived. Besides, being part of the state policy, it did not remain Jewish anymore. Nor was it a fully-fledged part of Soviet culture. The Yiddish school failed to create the new Soviet man and it was canceled in 1937.[6] The state took its power back by promoting violence, repressions, and anti-Semitism.

Maryna Batsman is a 2nd year Researcher at the European University Institute in Florence. Her dissertation is dedicated to forming the Soviet Jewish identity in and beyond the state-sponsored interwar Yiddish school. In her MA Thesis, “Crafting a Jewish School System for Soviet Ukraine: Interwar Nationality Policies and Yiddish Pedagogical Writing”, she explored the ambivalent figure of a Jewish cultural activist, who was at the same time Jewish educator and Bolshevik propagandist, and his role in formation of the secular Yiddish school system from 1918 to 1923. Her fields of interests include: Yiddish literature, modern architecture, innovative pedagogy.



[1] Gitelman, Zvi. 2010. Evsektsiia. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Evsektsiia (accessed April 21, 2017).
[2] The Jewish orphan who lost the parents in pogroms was an ideal model for creating the new Soviet man. In the 1920s, the pedagogues often discussed the children’s individuality and autonomy of making decisions.
[3] Jewish religious communal schools for poor children.
[4] Non-Jewish.
[5] See Shternshis, Anna. 2006. Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939. Indiana University Press.
[6] As a part of the official policy. Some schools were closed later. See Schulman, Elias. 1971. A History of Jewish Education in the Soviet Union. Ktav Pub. House.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Russian, Little Russian, Hardly Russian: Cossack Colonists and the Ambiguities of Belonging in the North Caucasus

Oleksandr Polianichev 

Since the mid-1990s, the reconceptualization and re-examination of the Russian imperial experience, often referred to as the “imperial turn in the Russian historiography, has led to the emergence of the burgeoning body of scholarship focused on imperial borderlands. Taken from the margins of historiography to the center of historical debates, the study of imperial rule at the edges of the Romanov monarchy has substantially de-peripheralized many imperial peripheral territories in terms of their relevance for the Russian imperial enterprise.

The history of the Russian imperial expansion in the North Caucasus, the field of research that for a long time remained predominantly a domain of military historians, has also been studied through the new lenses. Many scholars lay stress on the commonalities between the Russian imperial behavior in the North Caucasus and colonial practices of the Western European empires in their overseas possessions. Orientalism and numerous techniques of the typical colonial toolkit were characteristic of the Russian rule over these territories during much of the nineteenth century. However, what these studies often tend to neglect while referring to the “Russian” imperial presence or "Russian" colonizers is that the notion of “Russian here itself requires a nuanced reconsideration and cannot be taken at face value even if the discourse of the day might suggest otherwise. 


The map of the Caucasus with the territories of the Black Sea and the Caucasus Line Cossack hosts colored blue and red respectively (1858). Source: Wikimedia Commons

The westernmost part of the North Caucasus provides a particularly challenging problem. From the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, this region was colonized almost exclusively by people of Cossack estate and of Ukrainian/Little Russian origin. Although those Cossack Ukrainian speakers persistently figured in the official parlance as “Russians,” a closer look at sources reveals a fascinating entanglement of allegiances and loyalties of this community, which institutionally existed as the Black Sea Cossack host (after 1860 renamed the Kuban Cossack host). As the Cossacks settler colony was interwoven into a web of various cross-cultural engagements with indigenous Adyghe people, Great Russian-speaking CaucasuLine Cossacks, and career Russian militaries, the Black Sea Cossacks identifications and the sense of belonging were constantly re-negotiated. Furthermore, after the late 1860s, hundreds of thousands of peasants from central regions of the empire were allowed to move to and settle in this region, eventually outnumbering the Cossacks themselves. This created yet another long-lasting encounter, in which both the Cossacks and the newcomers formulated their understandings of self vis-à-vis each other. Contrary to what the authorities expected, many Cossack communities did not feel much affinity with those who they saw as aliens, making the idea of welding of the Cossacks and peasants infeasible in the short run. 

In the early 1860s, the military administration of the Caucasus launched a plan of the mass expulsion of the Adyghe highlanders from their territories and the simultaneous colonization of the vacant lands by the “Russian element.” The “element,” largely comprised of the Cossack Ukrainian speakers, proved to be reluctant colonizers who strongly objected to leave their households. This dramatically affected the perception of them on the part of enraged authorities. In the eyes of the latter, Little Russian Cossacks appeared as an extraneous, malignant, and contagious part of the healthy “Russian body, which could only be cured by vigorous Russification. Effectively, the Black Sea Cossacks emerged from this colonial situation as non- or, rather, not-yet-Russians. 

The Kuban Cossacks in Ekaterinodar, the administrative center of the host (1868). Source. 

Starting from the 1880s, however, the partial reversal of the governmental policies and priorities and the new accent on the restoration of the primordial, unadulterated Cossack way of life led to the reinvention of the Black Sea Cossack particularism. Their Little Russian specificity came to be seen as a vital source of the conservative traditions and the inherently Cossack virtues, as opposed to the corrupting influence of non-Cossack settlers. For the local elites, laying stress on the particularity of their community’s past also meant securing estate and regional privileges and, most importantly, rights to land. Their particularism was not framed in national terms and was essentially indifferent to the purposes of either Ukrainian or Russian nation-building. Clearly, Cossack elites tended to associate themselves with Russianness, broadly understood, but only as long as it was beneficial and as long as the imperial framework existed. 



The imperial past of the North Caucasus shows us that cultural, social, political, and military developments at the margins of the empire were instrumental for shaping the content of Russianness and defining its boundaries. In this and many other ways, the periphery and the center mutually constructed each other. The case of the North Caucasus also challenges the efficacy of some established tools of historical analysis. The notions of “colonized” and “colonizers intermingled and coalesced, familiar hierarchies took bizarre twistsideas of “ethnos” or “nation” did not take root. Here and elsewhere, however, studying the periphery does not have to entail seeing it as a mere space of exceptions, curiosities, and provincial exoticism. Rather, it may invite us to reflect upon what we are used to thinking of as “normal” in the Russian history.


Dr. Oleksandr Polianichev is a former PhD candidate at the European University Institute in Florence and a research fellow at the New Europe College in Bucharest. His dissertation,  entitled “Rediscovering Zaporozhians: Memory, Loyalties, and Politics in Late Imperial Kuban, 1880-1914,” examines how the idea of the Kuban Cossacks as the vestige and the heir of the Zaporozhian host affected the relationship between this region and the imperial center.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Refraining from ‘periphery’: The first German handbook of Polish history, the concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ and its transfer to 19th-century Polish historiography

Elżbieta Kwiecińska
The idea of the ‘civilizing mission’ has been most frequently considered within the framework of Western colonialism. For instance, it was used by British Empire in India to legitimize political power. Nevertheless, it also appeared in East-Central Europe as a transfer from Western Europe: from German to Polish national thought. The same concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ used by German authors to orientalize Poles was then reinterpreted by Poles and adapted to orientalize Ukrainians.
In German national thought, the concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ appeared for the first time in Richard Roepell’s book Geschichte Polens (‘A history of Poland’), published in 1840. It was the first national history of Poland written by a German-speaking author for the German public. Unlike earlier German authors such as Leopold von Ranke, Roepell considered Poland to be a part of Europe. According to Roepell, Poland joined Europe as a result of adopting Christianity in 966 BC. After that, however, it was the Germans who ‘civilized’ Poles. Roepell adopted the Kultutaurträgertheorie (‘the theory of carrying a culture’), whereby Germans were considered a superior Kulturvolk (‘cultural nation’) and Poles were regarded as an inferior Naturvolk (‘nation in the state of nature’). As a result, Poles needed a German ‘civilizing mission’ because, according to Roepell, they were of a lower culture. [1]

The title page of the first Polish national history written in German.
Richard Roepell, Geschichte Polens (Friedrich Perth: Hamburg, 1840).

The meaning of the German ‘civilizing mission’ to Poland was strictly connected to other neighboring concepts, including colonization, culture, and Bildung (‘enlightenment’, ‘education’). Roepell described ‘German colonization’ as the result of the fact that German ‘culture’ stood ‘higher’ than the Polish one. By ‘German culture’ he meant German language, customs, law, and legal acts. Roepell claimed that the ‘German culture’ carried by ‘German colonization’, together with Western Christianity, formed ‘the Western culture’, which Germany brought to Poland. The main result of the ‘German mission’, he indicated, was the increase in the Bildung of the Polish people. [2]
The concept of the ‘German civilizing mission to Poland’ was borrowed by Karol Szajnocha and reinterpreted as a ‘Polish civilizing mission to Ukraine’. Regarding Roepell’s Geschichte Polens, the Polish historian Karol Szajnocha wrote to his friend Eustachy Rylski that it is ‘very necessary’ for teaching Polish history (he did not describe the other mentioned Polish handbooks in this way [3]) and offered to lend Rylski Geschichte Polens. [4] Szajnocha’s admiration for Roepells’s book might have been the reason why he borrowed and appropriated some of his concepts. The same way in which Poland was ‘the East’ for Germany in Roepell’s Geschichte Polens, Prussia, Lithuania, and Ruthenia/Ukraine were ‘the East’ for Poland in Szajnocha’s works. In his first article, ‘View on the general history of Poland’ (Pol. ‘Pogląd na ogół dziejów Polski’) published in 1847, he used the term ‘civilizing mission’ for the first time in Polish thought. According to Szajnocha, Poland, the same as Germany in Geschichte Polens, carried in its ‘enlightenment’ mission (Pol. oświata; German Bildung) to the East. [5] Szajnocha placed Poland in the ‘universal history of an enlightened humankind’ between the ‘main team of the nations of Western Europe’ and the ‘hordes of Eastern barbarians’. He called that position the ‘double face of Polish history’. [6] Unlike Poland, which was an integral part of the West, the author insisted that Prussia, Lithuania, and Ruthenia needed to join the Polish state to enjoy ‘enlightenment’. [7]


Karol Szajnocha's first article, 'View on the general history of Poland' (1847)
Both Szajnocha and Roepell used the concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ to ‘the East’ in order to show their nation’s value and contribution to the history of ‘the West’. Edward Said famously stated that the Occident needs an Orient as a complementary concept. Following Said, both Polish and German authors created Orients of their nations in order to prove their nation’s ‘Westerness’. Examining the concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ also provides us with an insight into the intellectual history of Poland and Ukraine as European ‘peripheries’.

Elżbieta Kwiecińska is a PhD Researcher in History at the European University Institute. The working title of her PhD project is: ‘The concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ as a cultural transfer: German, Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish intelligentsia in Prussia and Habsburg Galicia and orientalism (1840-1918)’.



[1] Roepell, Richard, Geschichte Polens (Bei Friedrich Perth: Hamburg 1840), Polish translation: Roepell, Richard, Dzieje Polski do XIV stulecia (Wydawnictwo ‘Poznańskie Towarzystwo Przyjaciól Nauk’, Poznań 2005), p. 333.

[2] Roepell, p. 334.

[3] Those other three were the following handbooks of Polish historians: Joachim Lelewel’s Dzieje Polski synowcom opowiedziane (English: “The history of Poland told to the offspring“), Jędrzej Moraczewski’s Dzieje rzeczypospolitej Polskiej (English: “The history of the Polish Republic“), Adam Naruszewicz Historia narodu polskiego (English: “The history of Polish nation”).

[4] Klemens Kantecki, Żywot Karola Szajnochy., in: Dzieła Karola Szajnochy (Józef Unger: 1878), pp. 299-300.

[5] Karol Szajnocha, Pogląd na ogół dziejów Polski, ‘Biblioteka Narodowa Zakładu Ossolińskich’, v. 1, 1847, p. 2

[6] Karol Szajnocha, pp. 9-10.

[7] Ciągłe to odbijanie jest oraz środkiem dopełnienia innej misji przeznaczenia dziejów naszego narodu, to jest środkiem bronienia Europy od barbarzyństwa wschodu, do którego i wszystkie pomniejsze w około dawnej Polski mieszkające, a przez długi czas pogańskie lub różnowierne narody, jakoto: Prusy, Ruś, Litwę policzyć także wypada. Odbijając bowiem w sobie oświatę zachodniej Europy, oświeca Polska nią także owe pomniejsze wschodnie narody, przywodzi je do przyjęcia tejże samej oświaty, rozprzestrzenia tak coraz dalej granice europejskiej cywilizacyi, usuwa przeto coraz dalej od Europy granice i niebezpieczeństwa wschodniego barbarzyństwa, i nadstawiając wreszcie pierś swoją dalszym azyjskim ludom, na których podobnegoż jak na swoich najbliższych sąsiadach dzieła ucywilizowania ich dokonać nie jest w stanie, dopełnia tak za pomocą owego ciągłego odbijajia w sobie oświaty europejskiej, przeznaczonego sobie obowiązku bronienia Europy.
in: Karol Szajnocha, pp. 24-25 

Friday, 12 May 2017

Two documented attempts at creating Italian agricultural colonies in Novorossiia


Heloisa Rojas Gomez


At the southern peripheries of the expanding Russian Empire in the late 18th century, a mixed population of foreigners began to settle. During the reign of Catherine II, internal and external colonizers made a considerable effort to ‘tame the wild field’, as Willard Sunderland put it, by forcing the land and its native people into sedentarism and agricultural management.[1] The first steps in this colonial venture were about a perceived enlightened transformation and civilizing action, which the very name of the new province of Novorossiia (New Russia), created in 1764 from military frontier regions, strongly evoked. As Sunderland writes: “The old steppe was Asian and stateless; the current one was state determined and claimed for European-Russian civilization.”[2]


Map of Novorossiia Governatorate, 1800. Source

Among the Slavic military communities, peasants, Asiatic nomads, Old Believers and runaway serfs, foreigners played an important role within the initial colonial plan as they (explicitly Europeans) were considered “a model for backward Russian peasants.”[3] Through foreigners, among others, the Russian Empire appropriated the area of the Pontic-Caspian steppe, which stretched from the shores of the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. That area included today’s southern Ukraine, the focus of my research on the Italian immigration and informal colonization of the Black Sea Russian imperial region between the 1870s and 1920s. The antecedents to this phenomenon are nonetheless essential to understand where and how it began.

During the Catherinian period, half a million people moved to the steppe and about one thousand foreign migrants were invited to settle in Novorossiia, as well as in the environ of Saratov and the Lower Volga.[4] Among them, settlers from Germany formed the majority, followed by (in alphabetical order), Albanians, Corsicans, French, Greeks, Moldovans, Poles, Polish Jews, Swedes, Serbs, Scots, Walachians.[5] The principal occupation of the foreign settlers was agriculture. Italians do not appear in this list, just as they usually do not appear in the historiographic accounts on the topic. Nevertheless, they also participated in Novorossiia’s colonization, in part as agricultural workers, as I will discuss in the following paragraphs.

The Bezgan family, German colonists in Crimea, 1910s. Archive of the Ethnographic Museum of the Crimea. Source 

The “failure” of southern European colonization of Novorossiia

The historian Grigorii Pisarevskii in the early 20th century suggested that the first input to “southern European” colonization (referring to the recruitments carried out in the Italian peninsula) was casual and presented an opportunity promptly seized by Catherine II. This episode’s detailed account is relevant for my research, because so far it is the only information we have about a recruitment of Italians to Novorossiia. It also depicts very vividly the reasoning behind and the ways the recruitment of foreign settlement took place. The historical context of this particular “Italian event” is the North American war for independence, which absorbed Great Britain enough to let the Spanish re-conquer the island of Menorca. Duke de Crillon, the commander in chief of the Spanish army on Menorca, decided to expel all the Greeks and the Corsicans from the island, who worked in the service of the English. The Russian emissary in Portugal, Count Nesselrode, immediately informed his Empress about the event. Catherine II thought that it was a great opportunity for her plan to populate Russia’s southern regions, especially since it was in line with hers and Grigorii Potemkin’s “Greek Project”.[6] For this reason, she decided to take advantage of the situation and opportunity to help the exiled Greeks to move to Russia.[7]

The task of organizing and leading the mission was given to a Venetian count from Zakynthos, Dmitrii Mocenigo, who was a Russian general maritime commissar and commanded a Russian squadron stationed in the port of Livorno at that time. He was allocated 3000 rubles for that purpose.[8] Meanwhile, in Florentine newspapers, Catherine II’s invitation to settle Novorossiia was published, without specifying that its addressees were the exiled Greeks. On 13 January 1782, Count Mocenigo received the first seventeen Greeks refugees willing to move to Russia and, only few months later, Italian Corsicans arrived with the same request. They wished to move to Kherson, according to Catherine II’s suggestion. The Empress instructed the Governor General of Novorossiia , Prince Potemkin, to organize all the necessary arrangements for the arrival of the new colonists.

The demand for settlement kept rising: a citizen of Lucca, Fradiano (Frediano) Quillici, expressed his desire to count Mocenigo to move with his family to Kherson, as “due to the adversities of life, I became unable to maintain myself and live honorably in my fatherland”.[9] Quillici also proposed to take five or six other families skilled in the manufacture of cotton to Russia. In exchange, he asked the Russian authorities to provide him and his fellows with houses, lands, a travel allowance and all the necessary equipment and instruments for the manufacture of cotton. Catherine II agreed.[10] Only in 1788, following other requests from Livorno and the Slavonic region of Dalmatia, did she decide to stop receiving colonists as part of Mocenigo’s mission. That is why 120 Corsicans from Gibraltar were refused,[11] as well as a group of Jews also escaping from Menorca under the guidance of Joseph Villa de Benedetti.[12]

Between 1782 and 1783, five Russian vessels sailed from Livorno to the Black Sea, transporting 1,056 colonists overall, among whom the majority were not Greeks, but in fact Italians, from both Corsica and Sardinia, as the Soviet philologist and ethnographer Vladimir Shyshmarev has shown.[13] Not all of them reached the port of destination however. The frigate Borisfen fell victim to a mutiny by its passengers during a layover in the Ionic island of Tenedos. Some of those on board were suddenly caught by the fear of becoming slaves once in Russia and therefore seized the ship, murdered he captain Vlas’ev, and attempted to escape to Northern Africa. From a report submitted by the ship’s pilot Kuz’ma Liubimov,[14] it emerges that many of the rioters had Italian names like Borio, Perazzoni, Dominicis, Ciovattino Feroni, Papa, including their instigator’s, the Sardinian doctor Nicola Tealdi.[15] These people were finally arrested, transported to Kherson and Krementchuk and sentenced to death. Few of them though managed to flee, apparently without leaving a trace.

Pisarevskii partially discloses the destiny of those who safely arrived in Novorossiia and settled in the region of Kherson or further east in the area of Pavlograd. They were grouped and distributed according to profession and place of origin. The logic behind their distribution was outlined in a so-called ‘Convention’ – supposedly the result of projects and plans made by local authorities to organize the Italian colony-to-be. From several points drafted in this document, it emerges that the imperial administration was striving to form settlements or associations of grain farmers. Because of various structural problems, however, such settlements could not be shaped according to the strict division and categorizations proposed by the state authorities. The Italians would often change their profession and of the majority allocated to grain farming, many of them subsequently moved elsewhere as artisans, artists or manufacturers. Therefore, Pisarevskii comments, “so pitifully did the planned colonization of southern Russia with Italians ended, having costed much effort and work of many people, large expenditures of money and even human victims.”[16] He concludes by asserting that the agricultural colony of Italians did not survive, and that “the Italians in the end scattered and disappeared without leaving trace. […] After this fiasco with the Southerners, the government once again appealed to the more balanced and fit for agricultural colonization German element, as Danzig colonists and Mennonites.”[17]

With the alleged shift from “unfit Southerners” to Germans, Pisarevskii closes the chapter on Italian immigration in New Russia, alluding to its total extinction. Such a conclusion though does not reflect the reality, whereby in the 19th century there was an intense influx of migrants from the various Italian states to Novorossiia. That is why the Corsican episode, in Shyshmarev’s work Romanskie poselenia na iuge Rossii (Romanic Settlement in the South of Russia), acquires a different function: it does not represent the end but the beginning of a period of unregulated Italian migration to the shores of the Black Sea.


A hundred ‘souls’ from Apulia to Novorossiia


Before that evolution of unregulated Italian migration, state-sponsored settlement was the primary engine for collective migration from Italy to southern Russia. Catherine II’s manifestoes of 1762 -63[18] likely played a key role. In the available literature, there is one piece of evidence suggesting that in Catherine II’s plan for colonizing Novorossiia, Italians were also contemplated, even if the manifestoes were never directed specifically towards the Italian states. This episode took place in 1765[19] when a certain Mr. Cicolini, a Roman subject, arrived from St. Petersburg to Barletta, in the province of Bari (Kingdom of Naples), in order to persuade about a hundred sailors and rural workers to participate in the repopulation of Novorossiia.[20] From the archival documents, it emerges that the recruited people were supposed to sail to Trieste, where an Italian doctor was in charge of accompanying them overland to southern Russia – which made it a much longer, more costly and impervious journey. Mr. Cicolini belonged to a category of recruiting agents (vyzyvateli) hired by the Russian Imperial Chancellery of Foreign Affairs, representatives of an ambiguous profession where personal ambition and fraud were salient. Recruiting agents had a poor reputation abroad, as well as in Russia. As Roger Bartlett writes, “Almost all vyzyvateli had in common the qualities of greed, enterprise, imagination and a more or less total lack of scruples.”[21] Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, hero of Gogol’s most famous novel, is perhaps the best example of a vyzyvatel’ type, even though he did not recruit foreigners but dead souls.

Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov by P. Boklevskij, 1895. Source 

The recruitment in Barletta took place in parallel to the recruitment of German colonists during the period of 1762-1763, twenty-three years before the signature of a commercial treaty with the Kingdom of Naples, and nine years before Russia gained free access to the Black Sea. We do not have, for the time being, further information about the actual arrival and settlement of the mentioned colonists, but there is evidence to believe that they did settle and prosper. I formulate the hypothesis that they eventually moved southwards, to the Crimea, once Russia annexed it in 1783. In fact, in the port of Kerch, a community of “Italians” (Apulians) took shape in the 1870s. Vladimir Shyshmarev, who studied the community in the 1930s, identified them as biscegliesi and tranesi, orcharders and seamen from the Apulian port towns of Bisceglie and Trani in Barletta district – the same place where Mr. Cicolini one century earlier recruited his colony. And here my research project begins.


View of the port of Trani by Louis Ducros (1748 – 1810). Source 

Heloisa Rojas Gomez is a doctoral student at the Department of History and Civilization of the European University Institute (Florence, Italy). She holds a Master of Arts in Russian and Eastern European Studies from the Jagiellonian University (Krakow, Poland), where she has worked on cultural semiotics and urban studies in late Russian Imperial and Soviet contexts. Her current research adopts a microhistorical approach and focuses on the Italian migration to the Russian Imperial Black Sea region, looking for the intersection among regimes of subjecthood, citizenship and the empire, within a provincial urban setting. She is also active in public history as coordinator of a research project on Italian war prisoners in Soviet Gulags, which aims at shading light on new documents, memory and the prisoners’ family stories. 



[1] Willard Sunderland, Taming the Wild Field. Colonization and Empire on the Russian Steppe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).

[2] Ibid, 71.

[3] Ibid, 75.

[4] Roger Bartlett and Bruce Mitchell, “State-Sponsored Immigration into Eastern Europe in the Eighteen and Nineteen Centuries,” in Roger Bartlett and Karen Schönwӓlder (eds.), The German Lands and Eastern Europe: Essays on Their Social, Cultural and Political Relations (Basingstoke: 1999), 98.

[5] Sunderland, Taming the Wild Field, 74.

[6] A geopolitical project, which consisted of the disintegration and division of the Ottoman Empire among Russia, The Holy Roman Empire and the Venetian Republic. Russia was to acquire Constantinople as its new Christian Orthodox capital which the Greeks had to join. In this way, the Empire would have also become a Mediterranean power.

[7] Grigorii Pisarevskii, Izbrannye proizvedeniia po istorii inostrannoi kolonizatsii v Rossii (Moscow: ZAO ‘MSNK-press’, 2011), 90.

[8] Ibid, 91.

[9] Shyshmarev, Romanskie poseleniia na iuge Rossii, (St. Petersburg: Nauka, 1975), 148.

[10] Pisarevskii, Izbrannye proizvedeniia, 93.

[11] Shyshmarev, Romanskie poseleniia, 149.

[12] Pisarevskii, Izbrannye proizvedeniia, 96.

[13] In detail: On 25 August 1782, the polacca ‘Madona de Megaspilis’ of the captain Dmitrii Valsamakhi transported 87 emigrants to Kherson, among whom there were Greeks, Corsicans, Luccheses and other Italians. Lieutenant Agostino Paciola was placed in charge of this group. On 11 March 1783, on the ship ‘La Tres Sains Annonciation’ 229 people sailed, mainly Italians; Greeks were not present in this group. The following ship, ‘St. Nicholas and Spiridonii’, sailed on the 20th of March transporting 300 colonists, among whom Italians were the majority. The fourth transfer took place with the ‘Alexander the Great’, property of the Russian merchant Mikhail Faleev, with 212 people, once again principally transporting Italians. The fifth and last group sailed on the frigate ‘Borisfen’, on 15 July, with 228 people on board, including Corsicans and a small numbers of Greeks. See Shyshmarev, Romanskie poseleniia, 152. 

[14] Liubimov’s report to the Russian emissary in Constantinople Ia. I. Bulgakov on 1 November 1783, admiral Mackenzie’s letter to Bulgakov and the written testimony of an eye-witness, the pilot of “Borisfen”, Venetian subject Pavel/Paolo Disemenos, were kept (in 1975) in the Moscow Department of the Main Staff’s Archive, in G. Potemkin’s files, nr. 539, in Shyshmarev, Romanskie Poseleniia, 152.

[15] Shyshmarev, Romanskie poseleniia, 153.

[16] Pisarevskii, Izbrannye Proizvedeniia, 123.

[17] Pisarevskii, Iz Istorii Inostrannoj Kolonizatsii (Moskva: 1909), 261.

[18] Imperial Manifestoes inviting foreigners to settle as colonists in the newly acquired Russian territories. The first manifesto was printed in Russian, German, French, English, Polish, Czech, and Arabic, but had a less detailed scope. With the second, the Empress focused more on German potential settlers.

[19] Maria Luisa Cavalcanti, Alle origini del Risorgimento. Le relazioni commerciali tra il Regno di Napoli e la Russia 1777-1815. Fatti e teorie (Genève: Librérie Droz, 1979).

[20] Cavalcanti, 84 in Naples State Archive/Ministry of Foreign Affairs, fund 1668, letter by Vicomte De La Herreira to Marquis Tanucci.

[21] Roger Bartlett, Human Capital: The Settlement of Foreigners in Russia 1762-1804 (Cambridge, N. Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 64.