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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Italians Repressed by Stalin Honored

APRobert Barbetti and Luciana De Marchi, whose fathers were killed during Stalin's purges, unveiling a memorial to Italian victims at the Levashov cemetery.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Luciana De Marchi was 13 when her father, an Italian filmmaker and communist living in Moscow, was arrested by the Soviet secret police and disappeared without a trace.

That was in 1937.

On Friday, she closed a chapter on that painful part of her past at the unveiling of a monument to the hundreds of Italians who died during Stalin's purges.

The monument -- a chunk of dark granite engraved with dedications and an olive branch -- stands in the Levashov memorial cemetery in northwest St. Petersburg. The cemetery, formerly a secret burial site for victims of political repressions during the Stalin era, was discovered by the human rights group Memorial in 1989. More than 20,000 bodies are thought to be buried on its 11 hectares.

"This land holds people of many nationalities. Like my father, they were innocent victims," De Marchi told an audience of fellow relatives of victims and Italian politicians. "It exudes one message, a call to confront terror and embrace love -- not in the egoistic but the humane sense of the word."

When De Marchi finished the speech in Italian, the Russians in the audience gestured to the interpreter that her words needed no translation.

No one knows why her father, Gino De Marchi, was killed and whether he is buried in the cemetery. Photographs of victims of Stalin's purges are attached to trees in the area, hung by relatives who have no idea about the location of their loved ones' remains.

"The first trucks containing victims arrived here in the summer of 1937, and for nearly 50 years nobody -- not even residents of nearby villages -- knew what was happening behind its high fences," said Anatoly Razumov, head of the St. Petersburg-based Center for the Recovered Names. "Sometimes up to 800 people were shot in a single night."

People were killed because they disagreed with the ruling elite, believed in ideals other than communism, challenged the purges, or simply were not born Russian, he said.

More than 1,020 Italians are known to have perished from 1919 to 1951, roughly one-quarter of the Italian community in the Soviet Union at that time. Among them were amateur theater director Robert Barbetti, electrician Anton Lonzar, legal adviser Jan Maletti and Victor Marchesetti, a researcher with the Russian National Library.

The fate of many victims still remains obscure even to their closest relatives.

"There were many decades of lies. We were told that Gino was sent into exile, then that he died of peritonitis," De Marchi said. "It was not until several years ago that I discovered he was shot by the NKVD [secret police]."

Italian politician Piero Fassino said the dedication of the memorial lifted a thick cloud of hypocrisy that for decades had covered shameful parts of Russian history.

"Stalin's repressions were the most brutal manifestation of the communist regime, with its deeply flawed dictatorial philosophy of creating a just and equal society without liberty," he said. "Equality and justice can exist only in a free society."

Fassino's words echoed criticism that liberal politicians and human rights advocates have directed toward President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin. City Hall officials were conspicuously absent from the ceremony. Deputy Governor Lyudmila Kostkina, who had been scheduled to attend, did not turn up but sent a wreath.

Fassino said that among those persecuted in Russia were 300 Italian communists -- including Gino De Marchi -- who fled fascism in their native land in hopes of better lives under Soviet communism.

"What was especially tragic is that the Italian communists suffered much more from comrades who betrayed them or did not have enough courage to fight for them than from the Soviet secret police," he said. "Gino De Marchi was arrested after a report containing false accusations from someone he once regarded as his close ally.

"We are here to say we will remember the bitter lesson," Fassino said.

Italy's ambassador to Russia, Vittorio Claudio Surdo, urged Russia to follow Italy's lead and learn from its past. "Acknowledging the crimes of the regime is not a humiliation for a nation, but a sign of commitment to democracy and political maturity," he said. "We have done so in Italy when we condemned the hostilities of the Mussolini regime. Every year, on Jan. 27, on Holocaust Memorial Day, we hold lectures about the persecution of the regime in all Italian schools."

The memorial was installed with the support of the Italian Culture Institute in St. Petersburg and the Italian nongovernmental organization Garden of the Righteous.