Zagrebelsky: “My totally random life in which the Russian soul is surfacing”

“I am angry, under the guise of meekness. There are situations in which I can’t control myself, for example, when it seems to me that I am in the presence of an abuse of power or I perceive bad faith in the interlocutor. After all, this is the Russian soul As time goes on, as I get older, I find that I look more and more like my father.” Gustavo Zagrebelsky, constitutionalist, president of the Consulta, for years a symbol of the defense of the Constitutional Charter, over a coffee and a cigarette begins to tell his story like this.

“I was born on June 1, 1943 in San Germano Chisone, one of the two Waldensian valleys, because we were displaced there. I come from a half-Russian family, on my father’s side, Giovanni, who was from St. Petersburg and on my mother’s side, Elisa, called Lisin, Waldensian”.

But how did his parents meet?
“When war broke out in Russia in 1914 (my father was five years old), the Zagrebelskys were in Nice. The borders were closed, Europe was divided in two: Russia, France on one side, in the middle the central empires or rather Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Then, they moved to Sanremo, thinking that Italy could be a safer place. And it is in the Ligurian town that my parents met, because my mother went there to spend the holidays”.

A historically complex intersection.
“Yes, history happened in their coming together. I can imagine the astonishment that overtook my mother, who came from a very strict upbringing and had the traits of someone who grew up locked up in a valley, when she met my father. He was a handsome, elegant, eclectic, creative man. He had invented everything to work and survive, on the other hand, as he said, he had been “surprised” by the Revolution. He also apprenticed to a shoemaker, then enrolled at the university in Genoa and graduated in Turin. He had even managed to pass off some of his short stories to the Secolo XIX and to the Corriere Mercantile, passing them off as unpublished by Gogol. Brilliant, isn’t it?”

What did he mean when he said they were “surprised” by the Revolution?
“Among the Russian emigrants there were those who had managed to escape and take away goods and possessions and those instead, like my grandfather, who had left to spend their holidays by the sea. They really had to live in another world!”

Let’s go back to her. Where did he grow up, in which neighborhood?
“San Salvario, in via Silvio Pellico 34, in one of those Fiat houses overlooking corso Massimo D’Azeglio. I went to school at San Giuseppe, as did my older brothers Vladimiro and Pierpaolo. There I learned to bear the hard work of studying. One of my fraternal school mates and friends was Roberto Faenza”.

But did rebellion, as a boy, in religious terms, come for you?
“I’ve never been a boy. According to the San Giuseppe, the religious component was obvious to me, like sleeping at night… Then it faded over time”.

So, now how do you define yourself: secular, agnostic, atheist?
“I think of a natural religion, like Rousseau, deep down we are part of something that transcends us. I also had an extra-sensory vision…”

“It was summer, at sunset, I was alone. I was in the mountains in Bousson, between Cesana and Sestriere. The atmosphere was still, there wasn’t a breath of wind, the silence was supernatural. I sat down, leaning against the trunk of a tree and maybe I fell asleep. At a certain point, however, I realized that I had to go home. Half an hour had passed, but I hadn’t noticed it. Time had passed like this, slipped by. I told this experience to my brother Vladimiro and then I wrote it in a book published by Einaudi “Liberi Servi””.

And how did his brother react?
“He told me I was crazy. He is a positivist, for him things exist to the extent that they can be weighed, touched, measured”. (Smiles).

How did older siblings treat you when you were little?
“I always say that the wisest of the three is Pierpaolo who is not a jurist. Vladimiro, in his youth, was convinced that he had to educate me and therefore subjected me to oppression…” (He smiles).

And how did she react?
“I had to submit, then I took refuge from my mother who told me: sooner or later everything passes”.

Professor, why then did you enroll in Law, to follow your brother Vladimiro?
“Because I didn’t have any particular vocation. I wanted to be a pianist, but you really have to be a genius”.

He did a few concerts though.
“Yes, I accompanied the cellist Mario Brunello on the piano. However, they were shows, in which we played but talked and talked about each other”.

And the most beautiful piece in your opinion or your favorite?
“It doesn’t exist. It all depends on your state of mind”.

OK, I’ll rephrase the question. What piece does he hear or play, when thrown into nostalgia?
“Well, Chopin. When I want to hear something that moves me, I listen to De André’s “Love that you come, love that you go”. If instead I want to entertain myself with human cruelty, then I switch to Jannacci with “Sei minuti all’alba”, most beautiful songs that tells the Resistance “.

We got lost. Let’s go back to the choice to make Law.
“My father was a great friend of a well-known astrophysicist, Gleb Wataghin who had built a particle accelerator in the basement of the physics institute in corso Massimo D’Azeglio. In short: my father, thinking that perhaps I could follow the in his footsteps, he had asked him if I could spend half an hour with him and look at this huge car of his”.

“Not only had I not been able to ask a single question, but I had also remained in total silence. And so Wataghin said to my father: he can do everything, but not an astrophysicist!” (Laughs).

And so is Jurisprudence. Why did you then choose constitutional law?
“At San Giuseppe I had Professor Gallo as a philosophy teacher. I was very impressed by one of his commentary lessons on a news story told by Rai’s special envoy from the United States, Ruggero Orlando, famous for the greeting with which he introduced his matches “Here New York, Ruggero Orlando speaks to you”: a man had been executed with the death penalty. My professor had explained to us, in a critical way, how the word “executed” can have nothing to do with the penalty And so when I had to choose the field of study, I remembered this episode: the Constitution contains an article that prohibits the death penalty”.

Among his teachers?
“Naturally Bobbio, Giuseppino Treves, Leopoldo Elia with whom I graduated, Marcello Gallo, Mario Allara. If I look back, there were very few moments of choice. In 1966, as soon as I got out of university, I received an offer to I work at Stipel, the then telephone company. I was about to accept when Professor Treves sought me out to tell me about a scholarship from the CNR. Subsequently, I applied for the competition to become an assistant and I passed it also because I was the only candidate”.

At least one choice, however, has made: his wife.
(She smiles) “I met Cristina thirty-five years ago. She graduated in law with Professor Carlo Federico Grosso. They had offered her to take the competition as an assistant, but she refused because she didn’t want people to think she was the “favourite” because I I was in the same institute and later in her career. So she devoted herself to teaching, law and economics in high school”.

And when did you get married?
“Shortly before our daughter Giulia, who is thirty-two, was born. We lived for a while in Savigliano where Cristina taught and then we returned to live in Turin. We are here, in this house, where we are today, in via Accademia Albertina , since 2004”.

You took the chair very young in ’68, when you taught in Sassari, you even had a minister, Francesco Cossiga, as your assistant. What do you remember?
(He smiles) “I had just graduated two years ago. It was said that I was the youngest professor in charge but, I should add, it all happened by a stroke of luck, because in those years the faculties of Political Sciences had just been formed. Going back to Cossiga: he was a tenured assistant and in charge of a subject set up ad hoc for him, namely Regional Constitutional Law. He was a really good man. I learned a great lesson from him: passive resistance to bureaucratic oppression”. (Smiles).

Professor, he then entered the national debate when he began writing editorials for La Stampa. But there was already his brother Vladimir who worked for the newspaper. How did it go?
“At that time my brother, a magistrate, had become head of the prosecutor’s office at the magistrate’s court. Since Fiat, the owner of La Stampa, had legal disputes in the magistrate’s court, as the rigorous man he is, wanting to avoid role conflicts, he went to the director at the time, Paolo Mieli, explaining to him that he could no longer write in the newspaper”.

And what did Mieli say?
“He asked him to indicate someone who could take his place. My brother who at this point thought he had educated me enough, mentioned my name”. (Smiles).

And the newspaper believed in her so much that, in short, it entrusted her with the legacy of Bobbio who was by then already very old and rarely wrote. Is that so?
“Well, I had been his pupil but I wasn’t exactly close. We knew each other well. But when it came to the case of the letter to the Duce, Bobbio asked me to intervene with a word of wisdom. He was very prostrate, he even spoke of suicide” .

And how did she help him?
“I told him: professor, you take stock of an entire existence. It was a sad situation. I went to see him and, as you do with the elderly, I also brought him sweets, like with my father. By now no one was looking for him anymore , only the most faithful friends remained close to him”.

So Bobbio also gave you public recognition, not just friendship?
“Yes, it was all by chance, again. And so I also became a constitutional judge. The President of the Republic at the time, Scalfaro, whom I didn’t know, after reading two of my editorials, called me and, having to make his appointments for the Consulta, announced to me that it wanted to choose me because I was not tied to any party”.

Professor, tell us something more about your life. Are you a fan?
“Well, in the evening when I have to relax if there’s a game, whatever it is, I watch it, whether it’s Barcelona-Paris St. Germain or Ternana-Albinoleffe. It relaxes me”.

But has he never had a favorite team?
“If I really have to answer, the Grande Torino. I can recite the formation by heart: Bacigalupo, Ballarin, Maroso, Grezar, Rigamonti, Castigliano, Menti, Loik, Gabetto, Mazzola, Ossola”.

And why Toro and not Juve?
“Because it was the real Turin team. Juventus in my memory was a bit of a stranger. Even though I was six years old, I perfectly remember the funerals in the mourning city. I would come home from school, first grade and cry. You will understand that calling this cheering is an understatement”.

Zagrebelsky: “My totally random life in which the Russian soul is surfacing”