It is late autumn in Venice, and aside from the pigeons and several business-hungry shopkeepers who stand at their doorways offering bargains to the lagoon city's few remaining tourists, San Marco Square is nearly deserted.
But the "Napoleonic Wing" of the "Correr Museum" on the West end of the piazza is a beehive of activity. Upstairs in a 17th century room some 60 European scholars and exiled East European dissidents wearing earphones are seated around a table lighted by two elaborate chandeliers of Venetian crystal and gold.
Huge placards announcing the seminar's theme, "Freedom and Socialism: The Historic Moments of Dissent," sport a five-pointed Russian star with one prong left suggestively open. And with the playing of a taped emotional message of thanks from Soviet Nobel Prize winner, physicist Andrei Sakharov, the controversial 1977 "Biennale of Dissent" has gotten under way.
"We promised we would hold this meeting, regardless of the opposition of powerful adversaries, and we have kept our word," said Socialist Carlo Ripa di Meana, the current president of the state-funded "Biennale," whose 1895 birthdate makes it the oldest art festival in modern times.
Until 1973, when the Italian parliament passed a law modifying the 82-year-old festival's legal status and placing it squarely in the hands of Italy's major parties, the Biennale tended to emphasize art rather than politics.
The post-1973 Biennale, whose 18 member board is now made up of representatives of the country's political parties was first charged with subjugating art to politics when it chose Chile and anti-Fascist Spain as festival themes in 1974 and 1976.
But the art-or-politics controversy really flared up when, in late 1976, Meana suggested dedicating the 1977 Biennale to the topic of cultural dissent in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
With its exhibitions on new and "unofficial" Soviet art and Czech graffics, its impressive array of well-known European intellectuals, its schedule concerts, films, theater, poetry readings and literature seminars, the month-long Biennale does not ignore the arts.
But since all the planned exhibits, debates, and cultural events deal with [WORD ILLEGIBLE] European dissent the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Biennale has [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] to [WORD ILLEGGIBLE] of anti-Sovietism. The result [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] that kept the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] 1977 program [WORD ILLEGIBLE] in the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] delayed its opening to the tourist since winter months and saw the year's budget [WORD ILLEGIBLE] doen to a meager [WORD ILLEGIBLE]
In fact the Biennale's organizers may be hard-pressed to deny that the festival's two major exhibits have [WORD ILLEGIBLE] political implications.
One, on the upper floor of the Correr Museum, which the Biennale bought a few years ago, includes [WORD ILLEGIBLE] pieces of Samizdat , the clandestine [WORD ILLEGIBLE] on paper and cloth that have circulated for years in the Soviet Union.
Exhibit No. 2 is represented by the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] themselves, who gathered bere in mid-November in record numbers. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] like Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, say they are no longer Marxists. Others, like Soviet [WORD ILLEGIBLE] lines," complained English histo-Leonid [WORD ILLEGIBLE] historian Andrei Amalrik and Czech refugee Arthur London are living examples of the cultural and political repression currently existing in Soviet society.
A surprise first-day visit to the dissent conference by Socialist Party secretary Bettino Craxi, the only politician present, and an unexpected announcement by Meana that he would be leaving for Belgrade to present the Italian delegation to the Helsinki Conference with a list of those Eastern Europeans who had been refused permission to attend the Biennale, also led a few participants to protest.
"The conference has not been organized along scientific and distinterested lines," complained English historian Quintin Hoare. And Guiseppe Boffa, the only Italian Communist representative at the opening seminar said examining the errors of Eastern European countries was "useful" but that most of the participants seemed to share a foregone conclusion that those countries are not genuinely Socialist.
By choosing the topic of dissent in Eastern Europe the Biennale added Italy's powerful second-place Communists, who although increasingly independent have strong emotional ties to the Soviet Union, to its list of enemies.
The Communists now rule most major Italian cities and six of its regions together with the Socialists, Italy's third largest parties. They therefore resent the smaller party's attempt in recent years to use the human rights issue to differentiate themselves from their larger partner.
But the major opposition came from the Soviets, who last month termed the Biennale as "The Farce of Venice" and published, in "Literaturnaja Gazata," a cartoon of Meana writing the word "provocation" on a giant-sized U.S. dollar.
Last spring the Soviet ambassador to Italy, Nikita Ryjov, risked creating a diplomatic incident when he called on three Italian ministers - foreign affairs, culture and entertainment - in an attempt to have the program canceled.
The next step was the scheduling of an official Soviet exhibit of Seythian gold objects in Venice earlier this fall, while Biennale invitations to Soviet and East European dissidents and artists still living behind the Iron Curtain either went unanswered or, as in the case of sakharov, were returned marked "addressee unknown."
"Many Italians criticized the Biennale's Socialist organizers for using the dissent theme as a cynical meal-ticket for the immediate future. But a few blocks away in the spartan lobby of the smal Benvecchiati Hotel, where evening conversations have been taking place in a mixture of Russian. Czech, French and Italian, the appraisal of this year's was considerably more positive."
"The Biennale could help to miligate repression in the Soviet area . . . and at the same time to give moral encouragement to the dissidents fighting for freedom in their home land," said bushy-eyebrowed Jiri Pelikan, the former head of Czechoslovak TV, who since 1968 has lived in Rome.
Andre Glueksmann, whose girl friend sported an identical bangs and page-boy haircut, said "The Biennale can teach us two things: to better open our eyes to what is taking place in the East and to understand the causes of our own blindness in the face of Socialist totalitarianism."
In the summer of 1976 the International Biennale, with 30 national pavilions and 11 special exhibits based on the theme, "The Environment," attracted close to one million paying visitors. This month, however, only a minority of Venetians stopped to watch the closed-circuit broadcasts of the opening dissent seminar and so far newsmen and Italian intellectuals from Rome have made up a good portion of the 1977 program's audience."
"I'm all for dissent," said the owner of a glassware store on San Marco Square. "But I do hope next year's program, tentatively scheduled for summer, 1978 will be something a bit more normal that will arouse greater interest."