Sunday, May 7, 2017

When the Russians came

The monument to the Russian sailors who helped the inhabitants of the Italian city of Messina after the great earthquake of 1908. Maybe it is not a great monument in itself, but it celebrates a gratitude still felt after more than a century. 

"The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!" is the title of a wonderful 1966 US movie that tells the story of a Soviet submarine which runs aground off New England during the cold war. Some sailors are sent inland for help and the result is a series of misunderstandings nearly leading to a bloody fight. Eventually, however, all ends well with the Russians and the Americans cooperating to save a little boy who falls from the bell tower of the island.

The story of the movie is eerily suggestive of a historical episode that saw Russian sailors really landing to help a population in distress. It was after the great Earthquake of Messina, in Sicily, which struck the town on Dec 28th, 1908 and caused maybe 200,000 victims. It was probably the most disastrous earthquake in modern history.

The scale of the destruction caused by the Earthquake was so large that the contacts of the mainland with the city of Messina were lost for a few days and the Italian government was slow in sending a relief force. For at least a couple of days, the survivors of the earthquake were helped only by an international force, mainly composed of the sailors of four Russian military ships that happened to be cruising nearby.

British and German ships also provided help and, subsequently, the Italian navy took over with a large relief effort. Still, it seems that the Russians did a lot and with great good will. We have little detail of the events of those confused first days, but some surviving documents of the time tell us much about the gratitude of the survivors. One note sent to the Russian consulate by the Pira family says, "Jesus is with Russia, thank you!"

The Russian intervention was so much appreciated by the inhabitants of Messina that, shortly after the earthquake, the city enacted a decree that dedicated a square of the town to the Russian sailor and planned to build a monument to them.

It took more than a hundred years to build the promised monument. It is hard to say exactly why it took so long but, eventually, it was done in 2012. Today, it stands, little known outside Messina, but a reminder of a story of human solidarity and friendship.

A curious angle of this story is that my wife's family is from Messina and her relatives told me several times how difficult it was for their grandparents to survive the great quake of 1908. I don't know if they were directly helped by Russian sailors, but it may very well be that my life would have been different if they hadn't been there.

Thank you for having come, Russians!

1 comment:

  1. Amazing story, Ugo and a reminder of what makes humanity human. A good antidote for our times and a big thank you for sharing it!