Russia kicks out British Council and ends 60 years cultural exchange

By Simon Tait

The British Council, the cultural agency that operates throughout the world on behalf of the UK, has been told to cease operations in Russia after almost 60 years of continuous interplay.

Image shows Sir Ian McKellen on his 20916 British Council tour of Russia

“We can now confirm the reports today that the British Council in Russia has been told to cease operations” a statement said this morning. “We are profoundly disappointed at this development. It is our view that when political or diplomatic relations become difficult, cultural relations and educational opportunities are vital to maintain on-going dialogue between people and institutions. 

“We remain committed to the development of long-term people-to-people links with Russia as we do in over 100 other countries.”

Off the record, a senior British Council official told AI: “Yes, a profound disappointment. A huge amount of effort had gone into keeping lines open in culture in last five to seven years”.

It has been a tricky relationship in recent times, with the Council’s operations in Russia severely curtailed in 2008 after the Litvinenko incident and only the Moscow office being allowed to stay open, and the frosty inter-government relationship following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea was survived; the Council went ahead with a planned UK-Russia Year of Culture, with 340 events in Moscow and 12 other cities, reaching a million people face-to-face and 12.5 million overall.

Mikhail Shvydkoy, president of Russia’s Special Representative for international cultural collaboration, said then: “It is key that during such difficult periods we keep communicating, that we carry on listening to and hearing each other and that we keep the relationship alive. In this respect cultural ties are a priceless tool allowing us, so to say, to keep the communication muscle toned.”

The British Council has worked continuously in Moscow since the signing of a UK-USSR cultural agreement in 1959, but the entire operation has been brought to an abrupt halt for the first time since then with the Moscow office closing and the new consulate in St Petersburg cancelled.

The period had been seen by the British Council as an “extraordinary opportunity” for cultural engagement involving cultural institutions from all parts of the UK and all regions of Russia. It was particularly seen as auspicious for reaching young Russians, open to the world and the world open to them in a way unprecedented in Russian history.

Boris Yukhananov, artistic director of Electrotheatre Stanislavsky, has been quoted as saying that his young audiences are “the flower of the nation” and that “cultural exchange is about reminding Russia that it is part of the world”. 

In 2016 there was a successful UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature 2016 which Laurie Bristow, the UK’s ambassador to Moscow since 2015, described as “an extraordinary opportunity to build links between people and institutions in our two countries at a time of political tension between our governments”. It centred on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and included a Midsummer Night Festival which took Sir Ian McKellen from Moscow to Ekaterinburg and St Petersburg, a British Literature Today seminar at Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, a travelling arts residency on the Trans-Siberian railway which took UK writers to the Krasnoyarsk Book Fair, and the Moscow Non/fiction Book Fair at which the UK was Country of Honour.

"The British Council has plans to reach out across Russia and touch the lives of millions more young Russians" said Michael Bird, director of the British Council in Russia in December, "There is no point in thinking small in Russia, and Russians respect long term commitment. Given Russia’s size and importance, it is important for the future that, when it comes to cultural engagement, the UK thinks and acts large scale and long term."

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