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.”

Now attention turned to the Italian Communist Party. What would the Communist leaders say? Had Mr. Ryjov perhaps intended more to annoy them than to attack Ripa de Meana and the Biennale?

Traditionally in Italy, the position of the Party on a problem of this kind, involving “cultural freedom” and “foreign interference,” must be considered along with that of la sinistra—the left. This is a flexible expression defining the shifting coalition of parties opposed to the Christian Democrats. On such issues as divorce and abortion, all the left parties work firmly together, considerably aided by the corsivi—the short editorials in the Vatican paper Osservatore Romano whose dogmatism often embarrasses some of the Christian Democrats themselves. La sinistra can include Republicans, Social Democrats, even Liberals, when it comes to such civil rights questions as divorce. It tends to shrink to Socialists, Communists, and “independents of the left” on questions of union wage demands and attacks on the Italian industrial establishment.

For la sinistra the case of the Biennale was highly unusual. As it happens, Ripa di Meana—the man responsible, according to Izvestia, for “vilifying the Soviet Union and the cause of socialism”—is also a member of the central committee of the Italian Socialist Party. And the PSI—which tends to agree with the PCI on most social issues—has usually taken a strong position on human rights and has no special respect for the USSR.

On both of the latter questions the PCI has achieved an unprecedented degree of independence since it condemned the invasion of Prague in 1968. The Party recently endorsed the Czech Charter 77 and it welcomes exiled and dissident Marxists such as Wolf Biermann to Italy. The communist publishing house in Rome, Editori Riumiti, has printed books forbidden in the USSR. But here the Communists were alone and under a new kind of open pressure, directly challenged in Venice and Rome, not Prague, and their response was awaited in silence, as in a scene from a political version of High Noon. In retrospect, their performance seemed risky and yet uneven. Risky because they stood up to the Soviet ambassador; uneven because, while at times they supported the original Biennale project and Ripa di Meana, they also offered a variety of discrepant positions, some extremely cautious, some more forthright, suggesting that different political tendencies are hidden behind the solid façade of the Party.

The first comment came on March 4 from the Communist Party of Venice, whose representative sits on the Biennale’s board of directors. “We are not going to create obstacles” was its dry comment on Ripa di Meana’s letter.

Then came a more theatrical comment, one that may have surprised the PCI leaders at headquarters on the via della Botteghe Oscure in Rome. This was from Giulio Carlo Argan, the mayor of Rome, not a member of the Party but an “independent” communist, elected on the Party ticket. Argan is a respected art historian, a man of much cultivation and canniness, who has made a point of meeting twice with the Pope since he was elected last June. As an intellectual, he could be expected to make a statement on the Biennale controversy, but what he said was surprising, to say the least:

We appreciate the Red Cross zeal of this Ripa di Meana running after the so-called victims of dissent. But how can one refrain from remarking what bad artists these people are? How can we overlook the aesthetic mediocrity of what they have to offer? Are we going to have a Solzhenitsyn parade?

When pressed to be more specific—and perhaps invited to be more moderate on the issue by Communist Party leaders—the sophisticated mayor of Rome offered one more opinion on the matter: “Art is political in so far as the aesthetic problem is related to the structural problem of information.” If the sentence is obscure, it must remain so because nothing further was said by way of clarification.

It was understandable, therefore, that on March 7 La Stampa published an editorial challenging the Communist Party to prove, once and for all, its independence from Moscow. The editor, Arrigo Levi, formerly a correspondent in Moscow, asked whether the PCI’s frequently proclaimed policy of having “no preferential ties” with the East was, or was not, to be believed. Moreover, Levi suggested, Ryjov should apologize or go.

The Italian government had nothing to say about La Stampa’s editorial. The Communist Party did. The same day Aldo Tortorella, a high PCI leader, responsible for cultural affairs, issued a three-point statement: sober, controlled, carefully phrased. It said: 1) The Biennale is independent and will keep its independence. 2) There are many questions that are of proper concern for a cultural organization such as the Biennale. Political and cultural dissent in the world may quite naturally be among them. 3) So far as we are concerned, preparations for the Biennale will meet no objection; but we have not as yet seen what is planned and we have no grounds, as of this moment, on which to give an evaluation or even an opinion. We will wait for the plans without prejudice. We are in favor of free debate.

So the Communists made their point. They were careful not to attack Mr. Ryjov himself. (“Imagine what would have happened if Ambassador Volpe—in his day—had done something like that,” Ripa di Meana mused to reporters after his resignation.) They were also careful not to commit the Party to approve future developments. But they produced, after all, a position that could support the new independent look of PCI; and soon the position seemed stronger. On March 11, during a parliamentary discussion of the resignation of Ripa di Meana, a Communist deputy declared that “the USSR had unacceptably interfered in Italian affairs.” For a moment it seemed the old world of Italian politics had turned upside down. A PCI representative was making the sort of comment on the USSR that might formerly have been expected from the Christian Democratic government, now silent.

Only for a moment, however. The next day, March 12, the PCI made a wholly unexpected announcement. The Party’s official paper, Unita, published on its front page the news that the Venice Regional Council had just signed an agreement with the Soviet cultural attaché, Mr. Vladimir Bogorad. Under this agreement there will take place in Venice next autumn “weeks of friendship between Italy and the Soviet Union.” During what would normally be the height of the Biennale season on dissent, the Soviet Embassy, working both through the Party and the Venice Regional Council, had arranged for Italian-Soviet friendship to be vigorously celebrated. Russian and Italian ballets, movies, folk-dancing, popular concerts are to be presented, along with exhibits of Soviet progress in space exploration, agriculture, and archaeology. Much of the festival will be paid for by the Russians at a cost close to what the Biennale had been asking for, so far without success.

Still, on March 12, the same day as the Unita story, Adriano Seroni, a PCI representative on the Biennale’s governing board, said he saw no reason why the Biennale program should meet with difficulties. “There is just one thing everybody has to consider above all,” he was quoted as saying, “and that is the good of Venice and the interest of culture.” He did not elaborate further.

Once again the Communists gave backing to Ripa, accompanied, it seemed, by a soft-spoken hint that there were limits. Who outside the Party can definitively say what kind of balancing of which pressures has been going on within it? It was hard to avoid the impression that the PCI was walking a fine line, or perhaps several lines. Had Mr. Ryjov gone to the Farnesina only after failing to get the PCI to intervene? Had some divisions occurred within the Party after Ripa di Meana made his protest?

“We are facing a Finlandization of our country,” wrote the Corriere della Sera columnist and Soviet expert Albert Ronchey on March 16. “Finlandization is when you are diplomatically nice in order to receive in exchange some kind of compensation or protection.” Here Ronchey was calling attention to the failure of the Christian Democrats to say a word in defense of the values of free dissent they claim to stand for. As for the PCI, Ronchey was puzzled and exasperated: “Sure, the PCI stated its support for the Biennale. But they worded it timidly, with peculiar uncertainty, almost as if they were disoriented. Is it because they are unpersuaded or because they are afraid? Of what?”

A few days before, on March 11, Ripa di Meana had published in La Stampa an open letter to the Italian Parliament. “I have had support, not much. If you give me a small amount of money I will drop any other project, but not the one on dissent. If you drag your feet and allocate no money for this year’s event, remember that it is the project on dissent, not my job, you are killing. You have certainly noticed we live in a strange season. I see a coincidence between the meeting of Carrillo, Marchais, and Berlinguer in Madrid, and the stormy entrance on our stage of Ambassador Ryjov. I sense bureaucratic difficulties and unnecessary delays. I am ready to pay my price. Are you?”

The Italian Parliament can be very noble, when faced with such a message. Almost unanimously it pledged itself to act. Ripa di Meana was persuaded to withdraw his resignation. But during April and May, the bill for financing the Biennale languished in parliamentary committees. Communist leaders said privately that they were much irritated both by Ryjov and Ripa.

Finally on May 30, after an all-night meeting, the Biennale governing council decided to go ahead with the original program on dissent, but not without more hesitation. The Communist members produced a new position at this meeting, arguing that instead of “dissent,” a much better theme for the new Biennale would be that of “dialogue” with the Eastern countries. They sharply opposed one of the most important aspects of Ripa di Meana’s project: inviting dissenters to Venice. Later, in exchange for joining in a unanimous vote, they offered a counter proposal which boiled down to this: Keep the word “dissent,” if you wish, but don’t interfere in the political and cultural life of other countries; avoid controversial invitations. We could have a very good debate on dissent among Western intellectuals and artists, without providing a forum for airing personal grievances. (This is not an official or recorded statement, but a summary of the leaks to the press on the night of May 30.)

When the other representatives refused this proposition, the Communists abstained on the specific point of inviting any dissenting artists—not only those from the Soviet Union and the Eastern countries, but those living in exile as well. Two days later, the well-known painter Renato Guttuso, a member of the PCI Central Committee, explained the Party’s position—or rather one of its positions.

One must recognize the situation is not simple. It is important to give the new Biennale a very consistent cultural basis. It is even more important to avoid wrong implications. Dissent suggests the intention of making a propaganda gesture against the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries. We have to refuse that. We have to accept the fact that they [the USSR and Eastern countries] had to face difficult moments, when it was necessary to put some limitation on individual freedom. [Il Giorno, June 3]

On the same day as Guttuso made his statement, representatives from twenty-five of the participating countries met in Venice with Ripa di Meana to express “deep appreciation for,” of all things, “the friendly atmosphere of the Biennale.” The theme of dissent was not mentioned, although the representatives had known for two days it had been approved. Of the Communist countries only Yugoslavia and Rumania were at the meeting, although a member of the Biennale staff later told me that Cuba will “probably” take part in the “Biennale del Dissenso.”

Notwithstanding Guttuso’s rather bleak statement, for a moment in early June it seemed that the great fuss over the Biennale had been resolved. The Communists on the Biennale council said they would loyally support the decision of the majority. A bill allocating some four million dollars was approved in Parliament—and with no opposition from the PCI. But as we have seen, the Biennale del Dissenso is an event that resists happy conclusions. On the weekend of June 11, Italian TV reported some wholly unexpected news. Ripa di Meana had again resigned! Definitively. And there would be no Biennale during 1977. It had been put off until 1978.

As with everything else about the Biennale, this widely broadcast story was not what it seemed. As Ripa soon made clear to the press, he had, on getting clear-cut approval, found himself under intense pressure to rush the festival into Venice by September—hardly enough time to make arrangements for many of the artists, writers, films, and samizdat exhibits he had hoped for. “That,” he said, “would be suicide for the Biennale. We haven’t even received any money as yet, and there will be the usual bureaucratic delay before we do so. If we speed up the program, the result will be weak, irrelevant. While by the spring of 1978—the tenth anniversary of the Prague spring—we could be well prepared.”

As for his resignation, he has not in fact resigned, but will stay for at least several months to plan for next year. He was, however, trying to emphasize that if the spring festival is to be a success, it must be faced that he and the rest of the Biennale officials are on the way out. In December 1977 the appointments of the Biennale staff responsible for the cinema, visual arts, and theater will expire; his own term and that of the others on the Council will end in March 1978.

“We know the Italian tradition,” Ripa told me. “Officials who are soon to leave won’t have effective authority to plan a festival unless it is clear that they actually will run it, or that others who are competent will loyally carry through their plans. And in Italy, it will take months to make new appointments or confirm the current ones. I am simply asking that all the political groups involved in the Biennale affair—the government, the Parliament, the major political parties, and the unions—face up to this problem now. Either they act rapidly or a long empty season will follow.”

What Ripa did not say is that he was trying to avoid the result that some of the Communists concerned with the Biennale of dissent might perhaps have welcomed—a necessarily puny and perfunctory festival on dissent running in competition with the big Soviet show. Intentionally or not, the weird delaying actions on all sides that I have described were tending toward such a result.

The final score of this game is as uncertain as its lesson. The Christian Democratic Party and its ministers had a fine chance to exert some influence in favor of independence and freedom but did nothing; indeed, they silently contrived to slow down action on the Biennale. The position of the Communists wandered between the oddly contentious words of the Mayor of Rome and the dry statement of Tortorella supporting a Biennale that could embarrass the Party in showing the costs of living under Communist rule outside Italy. Having gone so far, they obscured their own real achievement with the peculiar idea of celebrating the “weeks of Soviet friendship” in collaboration with the same government that had repressed dissent in the East and the same people who had, as the PCI deputy himself put it, “unacceptably interfered in Italian affairs.” Finally, on May 30, they tried unsuccessfully to dilute the Biennale program itself, raising more doubts about their independence.

As for Ripa di Meana’s own Socialist Party, it is now in an awkward position, out of government, trying to resist the much greater popular attraction of the PCI. Ripa had strong backing from Battino Craxi, the new party secretary, and from the young staff members Craxi recruited after he was elected in 1975. But he found that many of the other Socialist leaders quite unexpectedly avoided making public statements about the dissent project and some were privately hostile to him.

Only the Soviet Union staged a consistent show. It has been a long time since one of its ambassadors had done anything so theatrical. Some journalists, though, called Ambassador Ryjov a “Venetian blind.” He miscalculated, they said, both in making his visit to the Farnesina and in his sense of Italian opinion. He became the strongest supporter of the Biennale project on dissent by opposing it so dramatically. Was he grossly incompetent or did he know what he was doing? So far at least the contentious ambassador may not seem such a fool after all. But before we decide, let us wait for the Biennale del Dissenso next spring—if it takes place.

This Issue

July 14, 1977