From the moment we are born, we are perpetually told to aspire to greatness - we are infected with the idea in fact. But the little man, who used to represent the core of literature, he is now unsung, nearly unheard of. Reluctant to recognize beauty in simple things, we are turning our eyes away from what may look like “normal” and “ordinary”, in search of the shiny idea of nonexistent human perfection. However, the purpose of simple humans is greater, it is in the density of those simple men, where little bricks which served to create layers of history, in which we recognize ourselves.
Giovanni Minisini was only 9 when he was taken to Russia. His father, Giuseppe, born in Italian Udine, was faced with a very difficult choice, not so uncommon of his time: leave Italy and start a new life elsewhere. Having no clear prospect for establishing life in his own country, Guiseppe took his chance and accepted the offer to move to the wilderness of the Russian Siberia; lake Baikal to be more precise.
Unrivaled as stonecutters, with a beautiful compulsion to bring everything they do to perfection, Italians were widely respected as skilled crafts people in Russia. In 1896, a large group of dark-skinned buoyant young men is invited to participate in a new and exciting adventure, the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The longest railway ever built, it connects Russia’s capital, Moscow, with the most distant parts of the country in the Far East.
Among many other keen Italians, Giovanni's father works on the Circum-Baikal Railway stretch. Once the construction is completed, most of his co-nationals decide to stay on the Russian land. The fascination with its nature and life is so overpowering that most of the Italians start families with Russian natives. Some of them continue living there as fishermen, others open their own little trade shops. Little by little they learn the language which upon their arrival seemed impossible to master.
The Italian community is settling into a simple routine and starting to expand all over the coastline of the majestic Lake Baikal. Russia’s largest source of natural drinking water, Lake Baikal is the kind of place that makes cutting the world out compulsory. Separated from the world beyond, they are reminded of the transcendent beauty of Italian lakes. They plunge into the beautiful simplicity of life. Here amid immense Russian forests and crystal clean waters stretching to the horizon, these gifted stonecutters carve out a pocket of happiness for themselves.
Giuseppe Minisini (at left) is one of them. Once the Trans-Sib works are complete, Giuseppe starts what at the time was a highly competitive business – the silk trade. With bordering China, Giuseppe's instincts tell him that the silk trade will ensure his family’s financial stability. His son Giovanni, following the deeply embedded Italian tradition, is supposed to serve as his father’s right hand, to later inherit the business together with the responsibility for the whole family.
But like most young men, Giovanni is dreaming of something bigger. Living in Irkutsk, the city that at the time is already considered progressive and not at all alien to new trends and innovations, Giovanni’s eye falls on the new and exciting fashion of the time – photography. He engages himself in the work of a photographic association and participates in photographic shows. Having a natural sense of beauty and a very easy-going vivacious character, Giovanni soon establishes his own photo studio, striking every visitor with its impeccably styled interiors as the perfect representation of Italian-ness.
Here by Lake Baikal, in 1916, following the example of his sister Theresa, Giovanni becomes truly Russian by marrying a Siberian native, Evdokia Konovakhina. Both siblings establish families and have children. And both of them believe that with nothing visibly threatening them, their unhurried family life in the heart of Siberia can last forever.
Coming as lightning out of clear sky, the Russian Revolution will divide their “forever” into before and after. At first the Soviet regime does not express any particular interest in Italian citizens living in Russia, especially those who, like Giovanni, are involved in the photographic business. Photography is seen as a harmless trade, where the possibility of exploiting others is completely excluded.
But things change rather quickly. The new exorbitant tax on entrepreneurial activity has Giovanni thinking that maybe it is the time to set off and go back to the country of his blood. Having made up his mind, Giovanni plans the inevitable escape by trying to save as much money as he possibly can. But that plan is doomed as well.
Recent records, as demonstrated in the book called “In search of Minisini” written by an enthusiast interested in the history of the region, Elvira Kamenshikova, prove that Giovanni, together with his Siberian wife, did manage to flee, but money-less. Having arrived in Italy, the family settles in Giovanni’s father's hometown in the province of Udine at the bottom of the Alps. As to the aforementioned writer, this article quotes Kamenshikova as saying: "Nobody in my city knew that the railroad had been built by the Italians," which accentuates how obscure our human talents and endeavors can be.
Little to nothing do we know about the destiny of other Italians who contributed to the construction of one of Russia’s main landmarks. Some of them were arrested under invented pretexts, others were suspected of betrayal and espionage, tortured and even executed during the 1930s. Those who were more fortunate, like Giovanni Minisini, managed to escape the horrors of the Soviet regime and travel back to Italy.
Now, almost a century after those tragic events, it is hard if not impossible to say whether the Italian community dissolved completely with the course of time, or whether we may still encounter dark-skinned vivacious people living in the heart of the Russian land. We may not know the history behind each one of them, but we Russians can be grateful and proud that each one of them served as a little brick in the construction of what used to be the Russian Empire. They are the unsung "little men" who with their lives create greatness.