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Italy’s Russian romance

Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini in Moscow’s Red Square

In the “complicated uncoupling” taking place between the West and Russia, there’s probably no country as entangled as Italy, says Tobias Jones in Engelsberg Ideas. The Italians import about 40% of their gas from Moscow, and exported $9bn worth of goods to Russia last year. There are deep cultural ties, too. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, Italian architects constructed most of the iconic buildings in Moscow and St Petersburg. Plenty of Russian artists were staunch Italophiles. “Who has been in Italy can forget all other regions,” wrote the 19th-century Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol. “Who has been in Heaven does not desire the Earth.”

So it’s no surprise that Italian politicians “have frequently been shills” for Vladimir Putin. Former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi once likened him to a “younger brother”. When the Russian leader was asked a tough question at a joint press conference, Berlusconi mimed shooting the journalist in response. Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Lega party, once called Putin “the best statesman currently on earth” and proudly wore a t-shirt bearing his face in Moscow’s Red Square. It’s all part of a tendency among the Italian intelligentsia “to display erudition” by adopting the most contrarian position. For years, defending Russia was a “parlour game” – a way for Italian politicians to air their radical credentials. “Only now that the game has become deadly are some attempting to backtrack on their adulation.”