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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

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 “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.

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