Otello Gaggi, An Exemplary Case (an Italian anti-fascist in Russia)

Summer 1944. The Italian communist Togliatti, minister without portfolio in the new Bonomi government (which has recently taken over from Marsahal Badoglio) receives an expected and lengthy missive from Mexico City. The signature at the foot of the letter cannot but have startled the one-time conspirator known as ‘Ercoli’, now comfortably ensconced in a ministerial chair in Rome. Victor Serge, one-time leading Bolshevik, leader of the international Trotskyist Opposition, a writer and historian of world repute, had decided to write to the Italian communist leader with a query that, given the times and the war then raging in Europe, must have struck the letter’s recipient , busy as he was, as absurd and bizarre. What had become of anarchist working man Otello Gaggi from San Giorgio Valdarno (in the province of Arezzo) who had fled to the USSR as a political refugee? Here are a few extracts from Serge’s letter:



Since 1926 you have been the Communist Party of Italy’s representative in Moscow. A member of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, secretary of that executive for the Latin countries, charged with confidential missions in Spain, you enjoyed the complete trust of the Russian government. As required you collaborated with the Commissariat of the Interior, to wit, that government’s political police. It was to you that Italian refugees harassed by the GPU would address their appeals from prison, without any effect (…) Whatever became of the Italian antifascists who fled to the USSR at a time when the Russian revolution was generously offering a haven to the persecuted the world over? (…) What has become of the Tuscan syndicalist Otello Gaggi, sentenced to a thirty year prison term by the Arezzo Court in 1921 for having defended his village against the fascist gangsters; arriving in the USSR in 1923, he was arrested on grounds unknown in 1935 and the following year applied in vain to be allowed to go to Spain to fight? Joaquin Ascaso, delegate of the Caspe militias, Emilienne Morin, the Durruti Column delegate and Alfonso De Miguel, press delegate of the CNT, telegraphed Stalin in support of Gaggi’s application. The Italian antifascists never received any answer and Gaggi has disappeared.

What has become of Luigi Calligaris ?… What has become of Francesco Ghezzi (…)?

They have vanished without trial. And were not defended. Have they been executed? When? Why? (…)

Victor Serge

Gaggi was one of the many. He was born on 6 May 1896, the son of a steelworker. He was not a leader and not an intellectual around whom public opinion might be mobilised. He was an ordinary working man, a real social fighter. His native Valdarno is generous territory with solid libertarian roots, a land of miners and workers and peasants who, since the end of the 19th century, had begun to chip away at the old stereotype that depicted the subjects of the grand-dukes as long suffering. From an early age, as was only to be expected, he belonged to the anarchist movement there and was deeply involved in the epic events of, first, the social struggle, and then of the post-Great War years. An anti-militarist, he participated in anti-war activities mounted by local anarchists and the Socialist Youth Federation, targeting the disciplinary battalions and then opposing the Libyan expedition in 1911. After Italy entered the Great War in 1915, he was called up but deserted time and again, was captured, shipped to the front lines and sentenced to a prison term before being released under the amnesty of February 1919. He was active in the USI (Italian Syndicalist Union) which in the Vadarno area was led by Attilio Sassi. That organisation, a leftwing revolutionary syndicalist breakaway from the reformist GCdL (General Labour Confederation), had seen its ranks swell in the area during the war years as 5,000 miners who quit the CGdL flooded into it. In the Valdarno in Arezzo, Malatesta was on home turf: as late as the 1970s you could hear elderly militants talking of the crowds that showed up for his rallies in the “Gioco del pallone” square in San Giovanni, about the clashes between the miners and the forces of law and order and of the first acts of thuggery by the fascists.

After the fascist attacks against individual militants and the premises of various labour and popular associations and institutions got properly under way at the end of the so-called “Red Biennium”, on 23 March 1921 there were serious clashes in San Giovanni Valdarno with the fascist expeditionaries from Florence and this triggered rioting throughout the nearby mining district of Castelnuovo. Premises were seized and barricades thrown up and a bomb was tossed into the mine administration office. A group of workers, Gaggi among them, was later charged with premeditated armed conspiracy. Gaggi went on the run. Gaggi, who was a premature partisan, found himself aligned with those who held that they had to defend themselves by force of arms from the rising tide of fascist violence and he joined the Arditi del Popolo (People’s Commandos). These units welcomed volunteers of every persuasion, inspired by an antifascist libertarian outlook, but were afforded official backing only by the anarchist movement. With the police on his trail and forced to go underground in San Marino, Gaggi was given a 30 year prison sentence by the courts in Arezzo and like other Valdarno workers was forced into exile.

But where was he to go? Among the various options open to him (although he didn’t have a long time to mull it over), the possibility of going to the USSR, to the ‘socialist homeland’ looked most inviting. There was already an existing escape line headed by the new-born Communist Party of Italy which offered help indiscriminately to any antifascist in need of its services. Even though since the early 1920s there had been no shortage of awful hints about anti-anarchist reprisals mounted by the Russia of Lenin and Trotsky, and despite the disappointing audience that Armando Borghi (the USI’s general secretary) had in Moscow with Lenin himself in 1920, in spite of the appeals for the release of anarchist prisoners that had been presented to Soviet Foreign Minister Chicherin in Italy, in spite of all this, we can still see how many thought at the time that this might be just some sort of a passing crisis, a misunderstanding due to the straits in which the revolution found itself and that everything would be sorted out later.

From the outset, enthusiasm for the victorious Russian revolution had spread through the entire worldwide workers’ movement. Moreover, the Communists could scarcely be regarded as anything other than brothers since they filled Mussolini’s prisons, in equal and even greater numbers than any other antifascist faction.

Gaggi, a childhood friend of some of those who were then supporters of the new-born Communist Party of Italy, would probably have reasoned along these lines. He boarded a Soviet vessel that dropped him off in Odessa. Reaching Moscow in 1923 after a long and roundabout trip, he received a warm welcome from the substantial (200-300 strong) Italian antifascist colony there already. But, as was the case with every new arrival, along with Gaggi there arrived a dossier noting his political history as compiled by a number of his countrymen, Party officials and completed by the Soviet police.

He found work as a doorman with a large firm in Petrovka Street in central Moscow. He picked up and took classes in Russian (he who could barely read and write in Italian) so that later he was able to carry out sterling work as a translator and interpreter. He continued to show an interest in developments in Italy and in the USSR, whilst holding on to his anarchist beliefs. His wife was a Russian citizen employed by the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs. Gaggi lived with her for ten years and they had a son together. So his life in Moscow, his new home, was made up of small pleasures, a longing for the Valdarno and Arezzo and Florence and larger worries that loomed as Stalin came to power. His enthusiasm for politics was still evident in discussions within the Italian exile community with which he remained in touch, and with many others he met in his day to day work. In 1929, the libertarian syndicalist refugee from Milan, Francesco Ghezzi, was arrested and deported to Suzdal [NE of Moscow]. This signalled the start of a crackdown on leftist dissidents among the Italian colony. In 1930 Gaggi approached the Italian embassy to sound his chances of returning to Italy, his lawyer having suggested in a letter from Italy that the case against him and his sentence might be reviewed. In June 1933 a gathering of Italian exiles from Moscow, Kiev and Odessa, heard a proposal from Giuseppe Sensi that they all adopt Soviet nationality. Gaggi was reluctant to do so as he still hoped somehow to get back to Italy. The Italians split into “orthodoxes” and “dissidents”. Gaggi was one of the latter.

In December 1934, the USSR had entered one of the darkest periods in the history of the international communist movement. With the murder in Leningrad of the Soviet leader Kirov as a pretext, the Stalinist purges got properly under way. This tremendous purge even hit the Bolsheviks of the old guard before spreading through the Comintern parties. Suspicion, slander and denunciation ate into the motley community of Italian antifascist refugees. In December 1934, Otello Gaggi was inexplicably arrested by the GPU. And since the building where he worked as doorman housed the Argentine embassy, one of the charges levelled at him was that he was a spy for that South American nation. A nonsensical charge. He was accused of belonging to a Trotskyist counter-revolutionary organisation headed by another Italian exile, Luigi Calligaris, a follower of Amadeo Bordiga. The interrogation records show that under questioning in the Lubyanka, Gaggi denied the charges of counter-revolution and Trotskyism but agreed that he shared Calligaris’s view that there was no freedom in the USSR and that workers’ lives were wretched there. He conceded that he had been corresponding with a group of Italian anarchists in Paris, among them Umberto Tommasini.

The courts in Moscow sentenced him to three years’ hard labour in Siberia under Article 58, Paragraph 10 of the Soviet Penal Code! In an attempt at sarcasm, the Russian Bolshevik judges had thereby shown that they were ten times more “clement” than their Italian fascist counterparts who had sentenced this anarchist trade unionist from the Valdarno to thirty years. Gaggi was banished to the province of Arkhangelsk in northern Russia, 1,000 kilometers from Moscow. Two years after that, he was deported to Kazakhstan in Central Asia, after which his trail goes cold.

By who knows what freakish means, he managed from a camp in Siberia to communicate to comrades in Paris his desire to come and fight the fascists in Spain, as well as the plea he had made to that effect to the Soviet authorities.

After some inevitable mishaps, the Tuscan exile got through and dozens of telegrams were sent off to Stalin, signed by CNT and militia leaders, calling for Gaggi to be set free and for him to be allowed to come to Spain!

No reply was ever received and nothing was heard of Gaggi again. And so it stands.

Giorgio Sacchetti

From: [adapted from a paper read to the Libertarian Festival in Reggio Emilia, Italy (1990) later published in Umanità Nova of 30 September 1990, and from a review of his book Otello Gaggi, vittima del fascismo e dello stalinismo (Pisa 1992)] . Translated by: Paul Sharkey.