Two teachers observe a class at a British Council school in wider Europe
Two teachers observe a class at a British Council school in wider Europe ©

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Our work in Wider Europe had particularly dramatic beginnings

Much of our history was limited owing to the Cold War. However, today we are connecting with the demands of governments and individuals through the arts, English language teaching and partnership programmes. 


During the war

In 1939 we opened an institute in Belgrade, our first in Eastern Europe. As well as teaching English here, we also supported a number of Anglophile societies across what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In 1941 we were forced to abandon our Belgrade institute as Serbia was engulfed by World War Two.

During the war, we conducted limited cultural work with the government of the USSR. Our work in Turkey flourished in this period; we established an English teaching operation which was conducted through the network of ‘Halkevleri’ – a type of local institute unique to the country.

We also established five institutes in what was then British-administered Palestine. These provided a range of social and educational activities to the local population and Allied servicemen.

Post-War readjustment

The end of the War led to a rapid (and short-lived) increase in our work within the USSR, whilst in Yugoslavia we re-opened our Belgrade Institute in August 1945.  

The expansion of operations in Eastern Europe was soon suspended. Considerable resource restrictions, and suspicion and persecution of staff and service users meant operations became difficult.

We closed all our institutes in British Palestine just before the declaration of the state of Israel, and a year later opened an office in Tel Aviv. Resource restrictions, however, made it impossible to rebuild an operation of the same size. 

Financial issues similarly restricted our activities in Turkey, the support of the national government ensured we still achieved considerable impact.

We stopped all work with the USSR in the late 1940s. In Yugoslavia, we managed to retain our institute in Belgrade from which we conducted English teaching and arranged visits by British academics and specialists across the whole country.

Developing relations

We established a Soviet Relations Committee in 1955. This organised a programme of cultural exchanges with the state, ensuring we could maintain some communication with the USSR. Although limited in scope, this ensured that connections remained in place during the long years of the Cold War.

In 1960, a change in Yugoslavian law meant we stopped our teaching activities. Instead, we collaborated with the USA to provide teacher-training courses within each republic. We also responded to local need – after the Skopje Earthquake of 1963 we provided books to help restock the badly damaged university library.

At this time we didn’t conduct any teaching in Israel; our activities continued to be limited to lectures and exam administration. Our library, however, was extremely popular - by 1962 it was the most well-used Council library in the world.

Our activities in Turkey continued to expand. By the 1960’s we had trained over 80% of Turkish teachers of English, and in the following decade we were teaching over 3500 students a year. 

A changing world

The collapse of the USSR and violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia shook up the structure of early 1990s Wider Europe. 

This caused an expansion in our work that was unprecedented in the region. 

In 1991 we signed a lease on our first premises in Russia, moving into Ukraine and Albania the following year. From our offices in Russia and Turkey we began to work in Georgia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The ongoing conflict in the former Yugoslavia meant it took longer to establish our operations there; we opened our first office in Bosnia – Herzegovina in 1995. Our work there was cautious at first, but we soon established operations across the independent states.

Initially we focused on providing training in skills necessary to rebuild infrastructure and develop the economy. 

We received considerable resources from the British government’s Know-How Fund, which funded programmes to aid the transition to free market economies. Under this funding we were able to support ‘high flying’ young businesses in Russia, and appoint senior UK managers to provide advice and support to government departments across the former communist states. 

At the same time, our activity in Israel was developing, after we recommenced teaching in 1987.