From Genoa to Kerch
Genoese fortress Chembalo in Balaklava

From Genoa to Kerch


Crimean national diversity has been formed for centuries. In the list of peoples who have passed through the peninsula, leaving a more or less distinct mark, the Italians occupy a special place. Genoese, warriors and merchants, sailors and builders, left the most glorious memories of themselves in the history of the Crimean Middle Ages.

From Genoa to Kerch
Genoese fortress Chembalo in Balaklava

But not only in history: strangely, the mythical creature griffin is present both on the coats of arms of modern Crimea and its city of Kerch – and on the ancient coat of arms of Genoa.

The Italians declared themselves on the peninsula almost 800 years ago. Italy was not yet a single state, so it was the colonists of the republics of Venice, Pisa and Genoa. The era of the Crusades was coming to an end, and the weakened Byzantine Empire was bargaining for some preferences through permission to rule in its recently controlled territories. The Pisans failed to cling to any of the Crimean capes, the Venetians resisted – Soldaia was their last stronghold here, but the winner had to be alone. And it was – Genoa.

They owned the Crimean coast for almost 300 years, until the High Porte – the Ottoman Empire – put an end to this project. Those who remained were evicted by the Turks to the mountain villages, where they remained as a separate people for several generations, until they dissolved into the local language and culture. Numerous fortresses on the headlands left the Crimean displaced Italians in memory.

From Genoa to Kerch
Marco Polo

The history of the world and Europe has preserved a number of their names. Most of them are carved on stone slabs built into the towers of fortresses, and are heard mainly from the mouths of guides: Cristoforo di Negro, Guarco Rumbaldo, Corrado Chigala, Antonio di Cabela… But there is at least one world famous: Marco Polo.

The famous Venetian is famous for a book he wrote about his travels to the East, to China, which was incredibly far from Europe at the time. And the journey began in the Crimean Soldia. This is modern Sudak, where Matteo Polo, Marco’s uncle, a local merchant, lived at the time.

It took another 300 years before the Italians reappeared on the Taurida shores. They no longer represented the history of Italian trading republics, but modern Italian principalities and kingdoms: Sardinia, Naples, The coast was already owned by the Russian Empire, inviting to rule not only Russian landowners, but also Ukrainian peasants, Germans, Germans artisans, Greek military settlers, were visited in the Crimea by Armenians from Galicia, seekers of land and better fortune from the Czechs and Poles, and even Estonian peasants. Of course, among them were the Italians, who traded widely through the ports of the northern Black Sea Taurian bread.
But “not the only bread”: people from that sunny peninsula went to our people of creative crafts: artists and architects, musicians, as well as doctors, teachers… Their contribution also left material evidence. Thus, the center of Kerch, its plan, the construction of prominent public and religious buildings, which still dominate, as well as the Mithridates stairs, in the old town – the work of architect Alessandro Digby. And connoisseurs Italian street in Feodosia reminds the ancient city of Pisa…

From Genoa to Kerch
Giuseppe Garibaldi

Among the names known to the whole world, there is another – also Italian and Crimean. This is Garibaldi. One and a half hundred years ago, this name was so, as they say, “by ear” that you can safely compare its popularity with another, no less well-known name: Ernesto Che Guevara. Giuseppe Garibaldi was also a revolutionary and a warrior, and, incidentally, also distinguished himself in South America – but Garibaldi’s fame is as a unifier of Italy… History – a capricious lady: Garibaldi’s family – Ligurian. And the capital of the Italian region, Liguria, is like this: it is Genoa! And again, as the hero’s uncle Marco Polo Matteo was a Sudanese merchant, and the hero’s uncle Garibaldi Ambrose traded in Feodosia, Taganrog, Kerch, he was also a consul from the Italian kingdoms. The future hero of Italy, as a sailor of the merchant navy, visiting those ports, of course, visited relatives.There is a probable assumption that the oath to unite Italy was taken by the hero in 1833 in the Ukrainian city of Taganrog.
The Crimean branch of the Garibaldi family took root in the Crimean land, grew, and had and maintained influence in society even at the time when the peninsula became Soviet. They did not miss it – but that’s a different story.

Of the Italians in the multinational Crimea, the Soviet government also united, as, for example, the Germans and the Czechs, the Estonians and the Jews, the national collective farm. He was “named after Sacco and Vanzetti” – two world-famous people, Italian workers, executed on false charges by a US court… From the profits of the collective farm were kept Italian cultural institutions in Kerch. Unlike the communities of some other Crimean nationalities, the Italians did not have national village councils, despite the practice at the time. Mostly residents of Kerch and Feodosia, the Italians were still not so numerous: according to various estimates, there were from three to five thousand – and this was 2% of the population of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. It is really difficult to determine more precisely, because, for example, the same Crimean Garibaldi through cross-international marriages, keeping the surname,by culture and blood they were rather Crimean Germans, and this was clearly no exception, given the predominantly religious and cultural, social and other contexts.

From Genoa to Kerch
Italian Street in Feodosia

But they were not “like everyone else”, which attracted the attention of the relevant “authorities” with the corresponding consequences. Due to Chekist repressions, only 1.3% of Italians remained in Crimea before the Second World War; due to the threat of being declared “foreign spies”, many people left for their ancestral homeland in the early 1930s. With the beginning of the war, the Italians, as well as the Germans, were planned to be deported from the Crimea. They didn’t have time. But in early February 1942, almost immediately after the famous Kerch-Feodosia landing operation, the Italians were deported from the “liberated territory” to Kazakhstan. Two months of wandering along the way, famine and other deportation “companions” killed half of the deportees. The Italians were allowed to return almost immediately after Stalin’s death, but only half of the survivors in exile returned, a little over 300.Of course, their property was not returned…

In 1992, the Crimean Italians founded a community called the Italian name Kerch: Cherkio. Through this association, they send requests to local authorities for help in preserving their religious, cultural and historical identity. However, of the 200 people who were originally, there are less than fifty left. An ancient Latin phrase comes to mind: “Sic transit gloria mundi” – “Thus passes the glory…”.

Photos from open sources

Fedor Chuzhansky, “Crimean Room” № 8, 2018

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The project was implemented with the support of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation

Fedir Chuzhansky

Author of cultural materials

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