On a sunny morning at the beginning of March, Nikita Ryjov, the ambassador of the Soviet Union to Rome, entered the huge marble corridor of La Farnesina—the Italian Foreign Ministry, formerly a fascist school of physical education—and was promptly escorted by puzzled functionaries into the office of Secretary General Manzini. He lost no time in diplomatic chat, getting right to the point, which took one and a half hours to make. Sharply summarized, his point was this: You intend that the principal Italian cultural festival, the 1977 Biennale in Venice, will be dedicated to dissent in Soviet and Eastern countries. Don’t. Our relations are good, but if you pursue this idea of giving undue importance to “dissent,” we will lodge a strong protest. Eastern countries will join us. We consider this emphasis on dissent a provocation. It will not be good for you. We have so many reasons, do we not, including trade, to remain on friendly terms? Why injure them?
Ambassador Ryjov was listened to attentively, offered explanations. The Biennale, he was told, was in no way controlled by the government or by the Foreign Ministry. In the smooth diplomatic jargon of the Farnesina, he was told that after all, there was nothing much that could be done.
Apparently the ambassador returned to his theme again and again, with energy and passion, and when he left Mr. Ryjov made two more calls, highly unusual for any ambassador, let alone the Soviet ambassador, who does not often visit Roman ministers. The same afternoon, he made unannounced visits to the Minister for Cultural Affairs and the Minister for Entertainment (Italy being perhaps the only country with such a ministry), giving the startled officials the same warning: if you think you can make a spectacle out of Soviet and Eastern European dissent—which the ambassador persistently defined as “counterrevolutionary”—you are dangerously wrong. We will react, and strongly. That is a promise.
These highly unusual visits on March 1 made no news. No statement was released by any of the parties; no leak reached the press. Yet the visits of the Soviet ambassador became—within a few days—a major incident in Italian politics, an unwanted and difficult challenge for the Italian Communist Party, and a peculiarly embarrassing one for the ruling Christian Democratic Party—which survives only because the Communists have agreed not to vote in the Parliament. All this happened because, of the small group who knew about the visits, one person, the president of the Biennale, decided to react by resigning; and when he did so, he recounted in a letter to the Turin paper La Stampa the story of Mr. Ryjov’s strolls through the Roman ministries. Resigning such a job as president of the Biennale is most unusual in Italy. A highly placed official is more likely to say he wants to avoid a “childish response,” that “time is a wise counselor,” in other words, that what is evaded can be buried in delay.
Carlo Ripa di Meana, the president of the Biennale di Venezia, was evidently in the mood for childish behavior. “La Biennale” is a festival dedicated to cultural events from Italy and abroad—films, plays, ballets, paintings, sculpture, discussions. It was promoted by the fascist regime to bring international glamour to Venice, and then reorganized many times during the postwar years. Three years ago the government of Premier Mariano Rumor devised a new system for running the Biennale. The Christian Democrats, Socialists, Communists, and the principal unions were each allowed to appoint representatives to the governing council, which then elects a president. Carlo Ripa di Meana, an independent sort of Socialist, was chosen as president, perhaps because he was considered by the others to be an easy-going man, clever enough to reconcile the sharp differences that frequently split the governing group—and “nice” enough, if he could not, either to keep quiet or leave. He comes from an aristocratic family and seemed well aware that he has “le physique du rôle” and not much political power to go with it.
But the elegant Ripa di Meana did not play his part. In his letter to La Stampa, he said not only that he had been called to the Foreign Ministry on March 3, but that the ambassador’s previous visit had been described to him as aggressive and threatening. Of course, as he made clear, the Foreign Ministry was in no position to give him orders. It only wanted him to listen, to understand the gravity of the case, to ponder what might be done…perhaps, it was implied, to help in some way, to be “responsible.”
In fact, devoting the Biennale program of 1977-1978 to Soviet and European dissent was Ripa’s own idea. He was in no mood to help the Farnesina. Two years ago, he had presided over the 1975 Biennale which had been officially dedicated to protesting the repression in Chile. Murals by exiled Chilean artists appeared all over Venice. Radical folk-singing groups which had escaped from Chile gave concerts. One could see films made during the Allende days, listen to clandestine tapes smuggled out by French leftists, hear denunciations of the US for its support of Pinochet. Artists and musicians and film-makers dedicated their otherwise apolitical work to the victims of Chilean terror.
Early in 1977, it occurred to Ripa that repression in Russia and Eastern Europe would be no less appropriate a theme for the Biennale. President Carter’s remarks on human rights, as he said later on, had something to do with his decision to propose this theme to the governing board of the Biennale. None of the members objected or raised any questions, the Communist representative included. Ripa was told to go ahead and in late January it was announced to the press that the theme of the new Biennale would be: “cultural and political dissent in the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries and suppression of personal and moral freedom.”
This announcement did not go unnoticed. On February 5, Izvestia published a violent attack on the president of the Biennale and specifically accused him of preparing a “circus stage for vilifying socialist countries.” On February 23 and 24, three Soviet gentlemen, Mr. Llijn, of Sovexport, which handles movies, and Mr. Samoklalov and Mr. Kabaienko of the Embassy Cultural Office, visited Giacomo Gambetti, an aide of Ripa di Meana in charge of the cinema section of the Biennale. Gambetti, a Christian Democrat, says that they used very strong language in an attempt to dissuade him from seeking out “dissident” movies.
Now as it happens, Ripa di Meana’s plans had much to do with dissident films. He had prospects of obtaining films that had been made clandestinely in some of the East European countries or had been banned in Russia and had been smuggled out. He thought he could get a print of an interview with Sakharov that had been filmed for Italian television but never shown (an omission that still awaits clear explanation). Aside from films, he expected that Wolf Biermann, the exiled East German chansonnier, would give a concert at the Biennale; that exiled theater and movie directors living in Paris, London, and West Germany, as well as writers, poets, and philosophers, would be coming to Venice. The visits from Russian officials added to his worries. While he was moving slowly to line up participants, the Italian Parliament, which had to vote funds for the Biennale, was moving not at all. Were the politicians, of all parties, inclined simply to let the financing of the Biennale slide? Did they feel, as Ripa di Meana suspected, that, with so many other inflammatory questions to resolve in Italy, many of them surely more important, there was little point in adding another one to the fire?
So when Ripa di Meana was called to the Foreign Ministry on March 3, little more than a week after the Soviet Embassy’s cultural officials had visited Gambetti—and when he was told before he arrived that Ryjov had just made a visit—he expected the Farnesina would say something about the embarrassment the Biennale was causing. He listened to the Farnesina’s advice, thought it over that night, and decided next day to tell the whole story—and resign. There was, he felt, no other way to call attention to the pressures against a Biennale on dissent.
Speaking to Ripa di Meana last March and April, I did not have the impression that he saw himself as a lonely hero standing up in the name of a good cause. Rather he became mixed up in what seems like a Kafkaesque sequence of misunderstandings, of differences over who said exactly what, and with what nuances. For after Ripa resigned, some of the more prominent figures in Italy were engaged in passionate polemics, explanations, evasions, silences.
One of the few things that were made clear in the entire tangled affair is that the Soviet Union has no use for Carter’s approach to human rights, and therefore is trying to apply pressure to any available soft spot, in order to keep the “Carter syndrome” as isolated as possible. The more complicated reactions of the Italians themselves begin with those of the embarrassed Foreign Ministry officials who told a rather different story from Ripa di Meana’s. In their version, issued right after he announced his resignation, Ripa was not summoned to the Ministry, but had “heard” of international problems over the Biennale and had “asked for the meeting” himself. Worried about his pet project, he wanted support for it. As for the ambassador, he too had been worried and wanted to share his feelings. Both men, as the Farnesina diplomats put it, were really looking for a friendly neutral ear; and that, the Farnesina said, was “just what they got.” There was no reason for Ripa di Meana to be angry, still less for him to resign.
What Ripa di Meana had said in his letter to La Stampa, however, suggested that the Farnesina’s explanation was deceptive. It is true, he wrote, that he had asked for a meeting—but that was back in mid-February after the attack in Izvestia. This request had met with the same sort of evasions and silence that had surrounded the question of the Biennale in Parliament and that, he feared, would sink it. It was only after Ryjov’s visit that he was “called in” to find a diplomatic way out.
Whether one believes the Farnesina or Ripa di Meana about who asked for a meeting on March 3, they disagreed about a more interesting question. Was the ambassador’s visit a direct interference in Italy’s affairs, as Ripa described it? Or was it merely a polite chat? The answer might have remained a permanent mystery if the ambassador himself, somewhat surprisingly, hadn’t supplied it.
“Yes,” he told the Italian News Service (ANSA) on March 5, “we see nothing good in this act of provocation against the Soviet Union. No, we never spoke in behalf of other countries. But we have reason to believe they [the Warsaw Pact countries] would feel as offended as we are, and they would certainly be compelled to withdraw from any Biennale event, along with all truly democratic countries.”