When absolute beauty turned into absolute horror

Suzdal is a wonderful little town in Vladimir Oblast. It is one of the oldest Russian towns, and it is the smallest of the Russian Golden Ring towns with population of less than 10,000, but a major tourist attraction. Several of its monuments are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Wikipedia lists 17 notable monuments in the city and there are even more churches that didn’t make the list but are well worth a visit. In other words going to Suzdal today is an absolute joy, like it has almost always been since the 11th century.

75 years ago, though, this very town was forcibly made ready to become host to ignobile horror and endless death, in a way that “hits very close to home” especially for me.

So let’s step back in time and see what happened in 1942 that so deeply transformed this place (luckily, not forever).

Over 60,000 Italian prisoners of war (POWs) were taken captive by the Red Army in the Second World War. Almost all of them were captured during the decisive Soviet “Operation Little Saturn” offensive in December 1942 which annihilated the Italian Army in Russia (Armata Italiana in Russia – ARMIR). At its height, the ARMIR was about 235,000 strong, and operated between December 1942 and February 1943 in support of the German forces engaged in and around Stalingrad (today’s Volgograd). In this period the total figure of missing Italian soldiers amounted to 84,830. According to the Soviet archives, 54,400 Italian prisoners of war reached the Soviet prisoner camps alive; 44,315 prisoners died in captivity inside the camps, most of them in the winter of 1943. 10,085 prisoners were repatriated between 1945 and 1954. The individual fate of 30,430 soldiers, who died during the fighting and the withdrawal or after capture, is less well known. It is roughly estimated that about 20,000 men lost their lives due to the fighting and 10,000 men died between the time they became prisoners to the time they registered inside the camps.

These camps became known worldwide as “Gulags” (especially after the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, a book by the Russian novelist and winner of the 1970 Nobel prize in literature Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who spent 11 long years as a recluse and forced labourer there. Gulag is actually an acronym that stands for Glavnoye Upravleniye LAGerej, “Main Camps’ Administration” or “Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps”).

Italian POWs were mostly interned in the camps of Tambov, Oranki 74, Krinovoje, Michurinsk, and especially Suzdal 160. The beautiful churches of Suzdal had been confiscated by the Soviet regime and turned into prisons. The transformation had taken place and what once were “gateways to heaven” for churchgoers turned into doors to hell for the prisoners.

The Suzdal 160 gulag is mostly known for having been the camp where German field marshal Paulus was interned after having been captured on the morning of 31 January 1943 when the German Sixth Army capitulated at Stalingrad. But Paulus is actually one of the few that survived the gulags. Of the 91,000 German prisoners taken at Stalingrad, only about 6,000 survived and returned home.

The Italians didn’t fare much better, as we already saw, and the same goes for the Italian officers interned at Suzdal 160. Out of more than 7,000 Italian officers captured only 650 (less than 1 in 10) ever returned to Italy. Out of those captured in the first year of the war only 4 ever made it back.

The prisoners reached the Vladimir railway station in cattle or freight wagons and then had to walk the over 35 Km (22 miles) to Suzdal, often in the middle of the night, in the hearth of winter when the temperature plummeted to 20 or 25 below zero and having fought in the South of the country they had no shoes, hats or coats appropriate for that kind of weather. Until may 1943 the food consisted almost exclusively of sour cabbage or nettle soup, without any protein, and a piece of black bread “given out almost every day” (as one prisoner later recalled in his memoirs). Starvation, freezing and especially illness (typhus most of all) killed in excess of 90% of the prisoners.

In may 1943 (that is the generally accepted historical reconstruction) Stalin realized that the USSR and the Allies were certainly going to win the war and after the conflict other nations would ask about the faith of hundred of thousands of soldiers that the USSR took prisoner. Soon after, on September 8th of the same year, Italy “switched sides” in the war and thanks to the partisans and the strong anti-fascist movement would not be considered part of the Axis any longer. The Italian Lieutenant Giuseppe Bassi wrote after his liberation:

In mid-May 1943, from Moscow came the “pricas“, “the order” that no one (of the prisoners) was to die anymore. We were so few! But it was necessary that someone returned home after the war. Food rations and Soviet treatment improved considerably. The food ration, for a couple of months came to include 300 grams of white bread with a few grams of butter or lard, hot tea with 10 grams of sugar in the morning and, divided between lunch and dinner, another 300 grams of black bread, a peas or cabbage and potato soup and some buckwheat (kasha). Those who had overcome the diseases, or the most acute phase of physical exhaustion, got better soon. Many sick people also started to get better. Many still died in May, June and even July. Then the mortality rate dropped to almost zero.

Another Italian POW remembers that the prisoners were divided into the various church basements. The solitary cells of the monks, where one friar had live, now housed 18, 20 or more detainees. The Holy Cross Church of St. Nicholas had been transformed into a “field kitchen” and the prisoners still strong enough to carry a big bucket would transport the soup to the other buildings, including the Suzdal Kremlin, also turned into part of the Gulag. This, to me, is significant because, as you can see from Google Maps, the church right in the middle of the Suzdal village, without any possibility of hiding what was going on from the local population!

As I wrote at the beginning, the story of Suzdal 160 feels very “close to home” for me, both for the nationality of the prisoners and for the love I know feel for the town of Suzdal. But it must be said that (especially after may 1943, but also before), Suzdal 160 was not the worse of the lagers. In spite of the unimaginable horrors of death from starvation and from typhus in horrendous hygienic conditions and without any medicine available, some people survived here. When gold was discovered in the far North-East of Russia, labour camps were started in that region and in the Stalin terror years of the 1930 an endless number of intellectuals, common criminals and innocent people “just needed to fill the required quota of conviction were sent there”. The names of Magadan and Kolyma still evoke death, and for good reason.

Out of the 11,000 (eleven thousand) prisoners sent to Kolyma for the first time in november 1932, not one survived the first winter. Everyone died, including all the guards and even all the dogs.

 

 

 

 

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