While the terrible unrest in eastern Ukraine continues to claim many victims and afflict thousands of people, the grief of Ukrainians who are living in Italy loudly resounds across the nation. This expatriate community is doing what it can from a distance, raising money and sending it back home to Ukraine. Some individuals are even training and organizing themselves to help in the event of war with Russia. With approximately 225,000 people living and working all over the peninsula, from Lombardy in the North to Campania in the South, Ukrainians form in Italy their largest foreign community than in any other European Union country, according to Eurostat data.
The origins of historical ties between the two populations can be traced back to the first century BC, during the expansion of Roman Empire toward the Black Sea regions. Thenceforth, centuries of links and synergies paved the way for a smooth integration of the Ukrainian community into Italian society. As reported by data from IDOS, a migration research center based in Rome, not only do Ukrainians in Italy have a lower rate of unemployment compared to other foreign communities, but also the younger generation is gradually increasing its presence in educational institutions.
The immigration flow began in the 1990s, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was mostly composed of women (79,8%) caring for Italy’s aging population, terminally ill, children or entire families; they are also known as “the crowd of the caregivers”. Antonio Ricci, a senior researcher at IDOS, affirms that Ukrainians have been an asset in filling gaps in the Italian welfare system.
From an economic perspective, data reveals that Rome and Kyiv are even closer. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, Italy ranks first among European Union countries as a destination for Ukraine’s exports with a volume of 5.8 percent, and third in the world, after Russia and Turkey. In terms of direct foreign investment Italy appears among the top 10 investors in Ukraine with a share of 2.2 percent. Finally, the energy sector also plays a crucial role: in 2013, as reported by the Milan-based ISPI research center, 43 percent of Italy’s imported gas supply came from Russia via Ukraine.
In addition, an osmotic flow has characterized the cultural pattern between Italy and Ukraine throughout their history. Several famous Ukrainian personalities developed a strong bond with Italy, especially in the field of music. For instance, Maksym Berezovsky, the first Ukrainian composer to be recognized throughout Europe and the first to compose an opera, symphony, and violin sonata, whose masterpieces have been recently discovered in the Vatican archives, graduated from the Bologna Philharmonic Academy. Later, in 1773, his opera Demofonte to the Italian libretto by Pietro Metastasio was staged in Leghorn, Italy. Another shining example of Ukraine’s cultural contribution to Italy was Solomea Krushelnytska, Ukraine’s finest opera singer who sang with the famous Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, to whom she was a mentor. She also performed with Arturo Toscanini as well as with many other Italian conductors. However, what makes her an emblematic example was her courage to perform Puccini’s Madama Butterfly after the opening had been widely considered an absolute fiasco. In the moment of Puccini’s deepest anguish, Krushelnytska was prepared to risk her successful career. Her outstanding performance finally won Puccini’s reputation back.
Consistent with this long-lasting tradition, today many Ukrainian musicians work in Italian orchestras, operas and also teach in Italy. Among them is Vladimir Zubitsky, President of the Ukrainian Accordion Association and a well-known composer who was awarded the UNESCO Prize in 1985.
Bearing that in mind, Ukraine represents for Italy much more than a national security issue or a spat over energy. Italy’s commitment to Ukraine in this time of crisis should be greater not only in view of protecting its economic interests, but also for the sake of a relationship built over centuries, which has been contributing to its heritage, progress and success.
Giuseppe Di Luccia for Ukraine Crisis Media Center