Italy: The Politics of Culture

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…

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