Olga Strada:

It’s important to love with your head as much as with your heart

Thirty years ago, an Italian Cultural Institute opened in Moscow. Why?

Everybody in the world has heard of the mysterious Russian soul, but the Italian soul is no less mysterious. At least this is what Olga Strada, the Director of the Italian Cultural Institute who is familiar with the souls of both Italians and Russians, is convinced that this is the case. Her father, Vittorio Strada, is an Italian from Milan. Her mother, Klara Yanovich is Russian who was born in the Far East. Olga’s parents met and fell in love while they were both studying at MSU. They are now both over 80, they live in Italy and are happy that their daughter heads up the Institute. Vittorio, who is one of the leading Slavic Studies experts in Europe, used to be in charge of the Institute himself. He was responsible for introducing many Russian writers and poets to Europeans, including Mikhail Bulgakov, Isaac Babel, Pasternak, Yury Trifonov, Fazil Iskander and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

It is no wonder that Olga has been familiar with Russian literature since childhood and knew a lot of writers personally. She came to Moscow for the first time when she was just four years old. She has been here many times since then and probably knows Moscow as well as she knows her own hometown, Rome. Unlike Rome, the capital of Russia is becoming cleaner and more beautiful. There are gorgeous parks, comfortable pedestrian areas. “I wish we had someone like Sobyanin,” Signora Strada says during her conversation with Sergo Kukhianidze, the Editor in Chief at Capital Ideas. In short, the fact that she has this job is no coincidence. Olga Strada is the perfect person to help Russians and Italians understand each other.

But is there really such a big rift between us? Of course, a Papua New Guinea institute or Burkina Faso’s home would bridge a much wider cultural gap, since Russians know very little about these cultures. But an Italian Cultural Institute? It’s difficult to find a Russian person who doesn’t love Italy and everything that has to do with it: film, fashion, food! “Yes, the mention of Italy will always make a Russian smile. Italy is sun, sea, fresh air,” says Olga, “But you can love something without understanding it. My father, for example, always tried to understand Russia with both his heart and his mind.”

According to Olga, the majority of Russians are completely off in their perception of Italy and Italians. A lot of what they know is based on stereotypes. “Italy is a country of contrasts and paradoxes and Italians are no less mysterious than Russians,” Signora Strada says.

Suffice it to say, for example, that Italians are considered to be big risk-takers. On the other hand, though, it’s hard to find another nation where people are so frugal with their money. Or another example. Italians love company and sharing big meals with friends, but, at the same time, individualism is a prominent trait for Italians.

Olga dismantles stereotypes by inviting famous Italian historians, writers, journalists, architects, artists, directors and actors to the Institute. “As much as I respect Al Bano, Toto Cutugno and Pupo, I want to show Russians that there are different kinds of Italian music,” Signora Strada says. But there is more to do at the Italian Cultural Institute than listen to contemporary Italian musicians, discover new authors or watch the most recent Italian films. You can also learn Italian!

Signora Strada dismantles stereotypes gently, with elegance. The following is just one example. Very few Russians know that cappuccino, which Russians have grown to love so much, is a breakfast drink. Ordering it after noon, as Russians often do in Italy, is a faux pas. “If somebody I am close to does this, I might tell them that’s not how we drink cappuccino back home,” Olga says when we ask her if she would correct somebody who makes the mistake of ordering cappuccino in the afternoon, “But I wouldn’t say anything to a stranger.” Why? “Because it’s not polite,” she says, “and being polite is part of our culture.”



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