The historical and diplomatic relations between Italy and Russia are indeed very ancient, dating back at least six hundred years. At the present time, Italy is the second Russian commercial partner after Germany within the European Union. Italian diplomacy is particularly active in the Russian Federation through the Italian embassy in Moscow, some general consulates in Ekaterinburg and Kaliningrad, some further branches of the embassy in cities like Samara and Volgograd, and many lesser consulates throughout the country. The Italian chamber of commerce and trade unrolls a prominent part in stimulating economic exchanges and bilateral investments. Both Russia and Italy are member States of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and of the Council of Europe. Italy strongly relies on the importation of Russian gas and accordingly significant agreements have been signed between the Italian ENI agency and the Russian Gazprom. Indeed a vast portion of Italy’s GDP comes from Russian tourism, investments and exports of goods and services towards the Russian Federation.
In the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries, during the rule of Ivan III of Muscovy, several Italian architects and artists were invited to Moscow to draw and build the churches of the Kremlin. Amongst them were Aristotele Fioravanti, Antonio Gilardi/Anton Fryazin, Marco Ruffo/Marco Fryazin, Pietro Antonio Solari/Pёtr Fryazin, and so forth. The word fryazin (Фрязин) is an ancient Russian word that indicates a “foreigner”, or more specifically an “Italian” or “Genoese” (cf. the Russian city of Fryazino in Moscow’s oblast’).
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Russian empire strengthened its ties with several Italian States and polities, especially with the Republic of Venice. It is remarkable to highlight that in 1711 the first Russian consulate in the Italian peninsula was founded in Venice, and chronographically it was the world’s second after that of Amsterdam.
Throughout the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars it is well known that czarist Russia aided the Italian kingdoms and republics against the French invaders, and it would be perhaps superfluous to recall here general Suvorov’s military campaign of 1799.
After the Congress of Vienna and the Restauration (1814-15) the Russian autocracy longed to preserve the European status quo and to dishearten the outburst of liberal and democratic revolutions in the Italian peninsula.
Later, during the Crimean war (1853-56), the kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont, which would have then turned into the unifying State of Italy, fought along with the British-French-Turkish coalition in order to gain attractiveness amongst European countries and to expose in the following peace conference, which would have taken place in Paris in 1856, Italy’s problems, especially those related to the unification.
Nevertheless, after the Italian unification (1861) the Russian empire speedily recognized the newly born kingdom of Italy in 1862 by sending diplomatic representation and by entwining economic relations and trade exchanges. Perhaps this might be considered weird if thinking that the birth of the Italian State had been largely due to liberal and masonic devices and that the Russian tsardom was wholly adverse to liberalism.
Afterwards, during World War One Italy and Russia fought on the same side, backing the United Kingdom and France within the Triple Entente against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. Nonetheless, when the Bolshevik party gained power over Russia in 1917, unlike other Western countries, Italy kept some relatively good relations with Bolshevik Russia first and the Soviet Union later. As a matter of fact, in 1924 the Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini decided to recognize the USSR. However, during World War Two Fascist Italy joined Nazi Germany in the invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation “Barbarossa”) in 1941. Despite the overall mistake of the entire operation, Italian soldiers treated Russian civilians with kindness and dignity unlike other members of the invading coalition. In 1944, when the war was finally reaching an end, Stalin recognized Italy when the country had had already overthrown the Fascist government and was de facto fighting on the Allies’ side.
During the Cold War the Italian relations with the Soviet Union were intense and passionate besides the Italian strategic alignment with the NATO countries. It is noteworthy to highlight that the Italian communist party (PCI) was in fact the strongest in Western Europe in terms of activism and electoral body. An example of the solid mutual esteem between Russians and Italians in that period may be the following: in 1946 the Soviets changed the name of Stavropol’-na-Volge into Togliatti, which was the surname of the general secretary of the Italian communist party, and began building there a great factory for the construction of FIAT cars.
Finally, after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 Italy recognized the Russian Federation as the successor of the former superpower. Between 1994 and 2003 huge amounts of agreements had been signed between the two countries. In 2002 the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi wished to craft a more powerful dialogue among NATO countries and Russia hosting a general summit at Pratica di Mare, not far from Rome (for insights see also NATO’s new strategic concept). Berlusconi’s Italy meant to become a kind of bridge between the US and Russia. Rather naively, the Italian prime minister even suggested that Russia could join the EU! Anyways, important agreements were concluded for gas furniture (think of the Blue Stream and the South Stream projects). Later Italian PM Gianni Letta participated to the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games of 2014 held in Sochi, unlike many other Western leaders.
In terms of economic relations, as already mentioned, Italy is the second Russian commercial partner within the EU, the fourth of the world and the seventh importer. The bilateral trade of the countries was worth 22 billion dollars in 2010 and 27.4 billion dollars in 2011 (in just one-year time the commercial growth raised up to 21.4%). At the same time, Italian exports towards Russia in 2011 were worth 9.3 billion dollars (some 17.8% more than in 2010). There are more than 500 Italian enterprises in Russia also due to the fresh Russian adhesion to the World Trade Organization. Moreover, Russia is the main energetic exporter in Italy: the oil import reaches 15% of the total and the gas import 30%.
Unfortunately, after the break out of the Ukrainian crisis, in 2014 Matteo Renzi’s government introduced economic sanctions against Russia following the EU guidelines. Since then the results have been disastrous: Russia answered to the sanctions by imposing a stark embargo that led to the crack of production and to a severe recession for many Italian enterprises in different fields: gastronomy, fashion, tourism, services, etc. Yet we must strongly underline that there has been a tough opposition in Italy to EU’s decisions to sanction Russia, especially among the enterprisers, the touristic agents, the shop owners, and so forth. It is also decisively to highlight that PM Renzi was not elected through democratic and constitutional elections but merely nominated by the President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano, who is often considered to be a puppet in Brussel’s and Merkel’s hands.
What we would like to add here is that after almost a year of sanctions against Russia Italy is undoubtedly in a far worse position than before and nothing positive occurred in terms of economic growth and stability: on the contrary, recession is ever rising and many enterprises, especially in the Northern part of the country, shut down their activities. Did sanctioning Russia bring to a positive outcome? Not at all if we consider that the Ukrainian crisis has not been solved yet and that Italy’s reputation towards an ever friendly State like Russia is now partially tarnished. It seems utterly senseless for Italy to sanction one of her main economic partners just to satisfy the blind will of the European Union, in many ways contrary, all the time, to Italian national interests.