- Franco Venturi's Russia
Ia pamiatnik sebe vozdvig nerukotvornyi.—Aleksandr Pushkin, "Pamiatnik," 18361
There are many remarkable features in Franco Venturi's historical work on Russia and in his attitude toward its people. Only a few of them will be touched upon in this essay. Others have been the object of valuable articles on Venturi's life and scholarship by distinguished authors.2 But although limited in scope, this essay examines issues that deserve to be seen in a wider context in the hope that this may clarify some major aspects of Venturi's work on Russian and European history.
Like a number of historians of his generation and of a younger one like mine, Franco Venturi (1914–94) did not come to the practice of history and to the professorial chair at the university after quiet and undisturbed years of study along the traditional and uneventful cursus honorum of higher learning and students' pastimes.3 He came to Clio and to the world of academe after years of opposition to fascism, exile in France, prison in Franco's Spain, internment in Avigliano in the Basilicata, underground activity in the Resistenza—the armed struggle against the German occupation in 1943–45, political participation in the movement Giustizia e Libertà and in the Partito d'Azione, and [End Page 77]
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diplomatic service in Moscow. To his historian's craft he brought a considerable amount of life experience and a reflection on human nature, on the inner logic of institutions, on political strife, on contingency and necessity, on collective mentalities and group dynamics, and on the hidden springs and apparent interests that make men and women act as they do. By his profession and aptitudes Venturi was an intellectual, but he was also, from the very start, a man of action. The simultaneous existence of these two traits was one of his specific characteristics at all times.
At the same time, his decision to devote himself entirely to the field of study and research did not diminish his awareness of the fact that social and political life—in Italy, in Russia, and elsewhere—and historical events and processes are always ambiguous and contradictory and often generate tragic and insoluble dilemmas. He knew, and not only from books, that history and history writing were indeed not a simple matter like a walk on Nevskii Prospekt or on Via Roma in Turin.
It has been rightly pointed out that Venturi's exile and study in France in the 1930s and his diplomatic mission in Moscow in 1947–50 were formative periods in his life. This horizon of his may be widened: the people of his generation lived through the Spanish Civil War, the show trials and the Great Terror in Soviet Russia, the Munich agreements, the Molotov– Ribbentrop Pact, World War II, Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the exhilaration of the victory and newly won liberty, the great hopes, immense optimism, [End Page 78] and ideological effervescence in the aftermath of the 1945 victory, and the insidious disenchantments that followed. Those were events never to be forgotten; they, too, represented formative years in one's life, and they left their mark forever. During these years, Venturi and the truly remarkable group of Italian intellectuals to which he belonged lived and actively participated in history in the making. This involvement and its lessons and memories were not lost when he began to write the history of other places in other times.
Venturi abandoned political activity—as happened in Europe to many intellectuals of his generation and of mine—a few years after the end of the war. The reasons for that existential decision were different for different persons in different places. For Venturi, the decision to devote himself entirely to study and research was a process that began sometime between 1947 and 1950 and became final around 1956, after doubts, hesitations, and soul-searching. It was prompted neither by disillusionment nor by cynicism, nor by despair in the righteousness of the struggle for justice and liberty. His choice resulted...