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Italian diplomats stationed in Ukraine in the 1930s about the Famine of 1932–1933


Prof. Yury Shapoval, Ph.D., is taking part in preparing for publication a book, which will be called Lysty z Kharkova — Letters from Kharkiv. It will contain messages and reports of Italian diplomats stationed in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The book will concentrate on materials dealing with Holodomor — Famine in Ukraine of 1932– 1933.

In his article, Prof. SHAPOVAL presents some of his findings.


In the early nineteen-thirties, Italy had a number of diplomatic representations in the Soviet Union in addition to the embassy in Moscow — consulates in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Odesa, Tiflis (now Tbilisi), and vice-consulates in Kharkiv, Batumi and Novorosiysk. It is messages and reports of the three Italian vice-consulates and of the Italian embassy that mention Holodomor and the state of things in the Soviet Union at that time that will be included into the book Lysty z Kharkova. The vice-consulates in Kharkiv, Batumi and Novorosiysk were not headed by career diplomats but by former army officers who distinguished themselves during WWI. Most of the documents included in the book were compiled by Sergio Gradenigo (1886– 1966) who headed the vice-consulate (which eventually was promoted to the status of the Italian Royal Consulate) in Kharkiv, and later the newly created Italian General Consulate in Kyiv, when in 1934 the capital of Ukraine was moved from Kharkiv to Kyiv. Sergio Gradenigo stayed in Ukraine from 1931 to 1934. Upon returning to Italy, he volunteered to join the army in the ranks of the Tiber Division fought in the Italian-Ethiopian war in 1935–1936. In 1948, he immigrated to Argentina where Gradenigo did some teaching and literary work. He lived in Argentina to the end of his life.

The messages and reports that we are eager to publish were discovered by Professor Andrea Graziosi from Naples University in the archives of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Italy in 1987. “These documents that describe one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century were a revelation to me. They have completely changed my understanding of the history of the Soviet Union and of the ways we should view the events of the past century. I am happy that these documents will be published in Ukraine,” said Prof. Graziosi.

Before I describe in more detail these documents which deal with concrete facts, and which reveal thoughts and reflections of the people who wrote them, their attitudes to the life in the Soviet Union, sometimes compassionate and sometimes scathingly critical, their analysis and impressions, I’d like to make some general observations first.


Some historical facts

In the 1930s, Ukraine and the regions of Northern Caucasus produced half of the grain harvested in the Soviet Union. In 1931, speaking about Ukraine, Stalin admitted that “a number of grain-producing regions are on the verge of devastation and famine (italics are mine — Shapoval).” At the same time, the Kremlin believed Ukraine hoarded a great amount of grain which were kept in hiding by the collective farms and individual farmers. That is why the soviet authorities began to exercise increasing pressure on the Ukrainian farmers to make them give up that grain. But Ukraine was badly affected by shortages of food as early as 1931 when over 150,000 died of hunger. The situation continued to deteriorate and in the spring of 1932, many Ukrainian rural areas were affected by spreading hunger and in the cities children were abandoned by the parents who could not feed them. This alarming situation was getting out of control but it did not prevent the soviet authorities from insisting that the planned deliveries of grain must be fulfilled. The Central Committee of the Communist (Bolshevik) Party of the Soviet Union passed a resolution in July 1932 that demanded that the grain deliveries continue as planned.


Artificially created hunger

The Stalinist government faced de facto two “enemies” in Ukraine — farmers who did not want to work in the collective farms and die for the sake of “modernization”, and the communist party and soviet leadership in Ukraine who became “unreliable” because they conducted a policy of maneuvering between the demands of the Kremlin and the appallingly tragic food situation in many regions of Ukraine. Stalin sent to Ukraine his loyal henchmen “to set things straight” and applied “harsh measures” which escalated to genocide. “Hunger causes deaths among the population at such a scale that it is hard to understand how one can remain indifferent to such a catastrophe… By means of merciless confiscations (I have reported about such confiscations more than once), the Moscow government has caused not just hunger, to put it mildly, but a complete lack of any means of survival,” wrote from Kharkiv the stunned Sergio Gradenigo in his report of May 31 1933 to the Italian government.

Fifteen months earlier, in February 1932, he had sent a piece of bread of the kind that people ate in Kharkiv to the Italian ambassador in Moscow Bernardo Attolico. In his message to Rome, the ambassador wrote, “The quality of bread, which is a most important part of everyday diet in the Soviet Union, is bad beyond any imagination as can be judged by this piece of bread… The reason for such a situation lies in the sharp [economic] decline which has been caused by the collectivization [of agriculture]… The [soviet] agriculture is too patriarchal to be able to deal with injections of modernization through collectivization without dire consequences for itself.”

Many peasants tried to escape from the regions affected by famine but the soviet authorities either prevented them from doing so by force or seized those who had managed to escape and returned them back to the places where they had run away from. A report of January 20 1933 from the Italian consulate in Batumi describes the measures taken against the Ukrainian peasants who ran away from Ukraine to seek refuge in the Caucasus. This report said in part: “The refugees are kept at the customs house until a ship arrives to take them back. Those who cannot pay for their tickets are taken by the police to a local flee market where they are told to sell whatever they have on them to get money for the tickets. The police keep the curious away and allow only those who really want to buy something — coats, boots or anything else — to come closer. The poor refugees cannot bargain because of lack of time and sell their things as cheap as the buyers would offer to buy. All this is taking place in complete order and silence; for a couple of hours the place turns into a sort of a slave market.”

The soviet repression-and-punishment bodies were given the sole right to register deaths and suppress any leakage of information about the famine; they were also given a license to use any means to fulfill their task. On March 20 1933, the Italian ambassador in Moscow Bernardo Attolico wrote in his report to Rome, “It looks that the only strong link, the real backbone of the soviet regime is GPU (Glavnoye Politicheskoye Upravleniye — soviet secret police) which, by acting fast and using brutal methods, achieves what no propaganda, even the best of its kind, can achieve.”

The reports and messages of the Italian diplomats stationed in the Soviet Union in the nineteen-thirties contain references to soviet propaganda too. Leone Sircana, Italian vice-consul in Novorosiysk, wrote in his report of April 8 1933 to the Italian embassy in Moscow: “[Soviet] news item informing that the soviets have put into operation the most powerful radio transmitter which will transmit broadcasts to the enslaved nations of Europe and Asia — overwhelming almost all other voices in radio broadcasts — revelations from Moscow informing these nations about ‘greatest’ achievements of ‘the Bolshevik miracle’, sounds like a mocking disregard of the beastly state to which millions have been reduced… Or there is a piece of news published in a newspaper that says that workers of Novorosiysk give one percent of their meager wages (in paper rubles which are not convertible) to help ‘fight the fascist terror.’ Examples [of such propaganda] are galore. This revolutionary ecstasy can be seen in slogans, in newspaper headlines, in absurd and ridiculous phrases in newspaper articles and speeches which find no response in the people who read or hear them. These routine verbal attacks of soviet propaganda on capitalism, fascism and the rich, and no less bureaucratic vapid extolments of Bolshevik successes, are lost on the huge, patient, insensitive and indifferent masses of this wretched nation (or have these people become like cattle?) that listen, without hearing, and look without seeing; in the people’s minds, which are more dulled and stupefied than ever, not a thought stirs — except the only thought about a little piece of stale black bread, badly baked and made of unimaginable and unpalatable ingredients, for which some of these people have retained a right to have; their other thought is about having to share this piece of bread with numerous relatives, old and decrepit; but there are many of those who have been denied even that little piece of bread; they are filled with extremely painful and bitter despair caused by Moscow’s taking away everything the earth gives them, everything, these peasants think, evidently deceiving themselves with this thought, that should belong to them.”


Famine as an instrument of terror

Famine in Ukraine was used both as an instrument of terror and of conducting a “national policy.” It was what made the situation in Ukraine radically different from the situation in Russia or Kazakhstan, some regions of which were also affected by famine. In December 1932, Stalin and Molotov signed the decree of the Central Committee of the Communist (Bolshevik) Party of the Soviet Union that demanded that “Ukrainiazation in Ukraine and elsewhere [in the regions with compact Ukrainian enclaves] be properly conducted”. “Proper Ukrainiazation” meant “struggle with Petlyura followers and counterrevolutionary elements” on whom the famine was blamed. It also meant doing away with the Ukrainian potential that should never be revived. This “punishment by famine”, its aims and brutality are nothing short of genocide. Famine and lies about those who were blamed for it were used as another pretext for launching terrible repressive and terror campaigns of 1936–1938.

In his report of May 22 1933 to the Italian embassy in Moscow, Sergio Gradenigo wrote, “It is quite possible that in the nearest future there will be no reason to speak of Ukraine or Ukrainian people as entities simply because there will be no more ‘Ukrainian problem’ when Ukraine becomes an undistinguishable part of Russia.”

Thank God, Ukraine has not become “an undistinguishable part of Russia” and now it is a sovereign, independent state. The publication of Letters from Kharkiv would have been absolutely impossible in the Soviet Ukraine. This book is another reminder of what Ukraine lived through.


Photos have been provided by Stanislav Kulchytsky

(some of them were published in his book

Pochemu on nas unichtozhal?

(Why Were We Being Destroyed). Kyiv,2007.


A starving boy. A photo from the book
Famine — Genocide in Ukraine,
1932–1933; edited by W. Isajiw.
Toronto, 2003.


An illustration for a book of short stories
by Mykola Ponedilok, Hovoryt’ lyshe pole
(Only the Field Talks). Toronto, 1962.


Victims of the famine. This photo
was taken by Vinerberg, an engineer,
in Kharkiv in 1933.


Peasants and their dying horses.
This photo was taken in Ukraine in 1933
and published in the magazine Forum,
# 54, Canada, 1983.


A person who has died of starvation.
This photo was published in the book
Famine in Soviet Ukraine 1932–1933,
Harvard University, 1986.


An announcement published
in the newspaper Moloda hvardiya
about the village of Pisky being put
on the “black list” for failing to provide
the specified amount of grain (this page
from the copy of the newspaper, issued
on January 15, 1933, was scanned
by Yu. Shapoval).


A peasant family being deported
from their house in the village
of Udachne, Donbas, eastern
Ukraine. 1931. Photo from the Central
Archive of Cinema and Photo
Documents of Ukraine.


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