Image of Sir Ian McKellen in Moscow Metro
Moscow to the end of the line. Sir Ian McKellen in Moscow Metro. Photo ©

Valeriy Belobeev CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, adapted from the original.

December 2017

This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. During the 100 years since that momentous event, the UK’s relations with Russia have been complicated and often tense. Yet whatever the political climate, culture has always provided a vital point of contact. 

Culture is the pillar

“Like in previous periods of crisis in our political relations, this time cultural ties have been playing the part of a pillar sustaining the entire structure of our bilateral relationship”, wrote the Russian Embassy in London, in its submission to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recent inquiry into the UK’s relations with Russia.

Cultural ties have been playing the part of a pillar sustaining the entire structure of our bilateral relationship

Russia is in the news more than at any time in the last 25 years and there is the classic danger of the single narrative. There is an important parallel narrative which is that Russia is a country of extraordinary opportunity for cultural engagement, and in a real sense not despite but because of the politics. In many ways it is the best of times for cultural interaction with Russia and this goes far beyond the British Council’s programme and involves cultural institutions from all parts of the UK.

Cultural engagement has the potential to transform the UK’s relationship with Russia, given the importance to Russia of culture, education and science and the relevance of what the UK has to offer in these areas. It is important to take a long view. Whatever the Russian government’s disagreements with the West, young Russians are open to the world, and the world is open to them in a way unprecedented in Russian history. They are also more digitally connected than almost anyone on the planet. For them English is a key to life opportunities. English is a must for entry to higher education and the government is benchmarking universities against global competition. 80% of school leavers would like to study abroad. International scientific collaboration has been another constant in both good times and bad. And notwithstanding some well-publicised recent controversies, challenging work fills cultural venues, not least when it comes from the UK. Boris Yukhananov, Artistic Director of Electrotheatre Stanislavsky, says 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”. 

A history of crisis and thaw

When we look back at previous periods in Russian and Soviet history, we see the resilience of cultural engagement through alternating periods of political crisis and thaw. We see it in the history of the British Council, which has worked in Moscow continuously since the signature of a UK-USSR Cultural Agreement in 1959. This remained in force until 1991, when the USSR ceased to exist, and provided for educational and cultural exchanges which enabled many thousands of people to develop a friendly knowledge and understanding of each other’s countries. 

After 1991 the British Council developed an extensive programme and a network of offices in 15 cities across Russia. It organised a major UK arts festival when the Queen made her historic State Visit in 1994, and it worked closely with federal and regional Ministries of Education on a wide-ranging programme of educational reform. However in 2008, against a backdrop of deteriorating political relations, it was forced to close all its Russia offices except the one in Moscow. 

The story since then has been about successfully rebuilding trust and restating the importance of cultural engagement in a time of diplomatic tension. When political relations were put on ice as a result of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the British Council went ahead with the pre-planned UK-Russia Year of Culture 2014. Through 340 events in Moscow and 12 other cities, this reached one million people face-to-face and 12.5 million people overall. The late Martin Roth, former Director of the V&A, described it as “a cultural emergency kit in a difficult situation”. Mikhail Shvydkoy, the President of Russia’s Special Representative for international cultural collaboration, said “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 UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature 2016 was even more successful. HM Ambassador Moscow Laurie Bristow described it 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 capitalised on two of the UK’s greatest assets, the English language and Shakespeare - on the 400th anniversary of his death - to engage with Russia through people-to-people links on a large scale. Highlights included Shakespeare Schools Day, which reached children and their teachers in schools across the whole of Russia, a Shakespeare train on the Moscow Metro, 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 which took UK writers to the Krasnoyarsk Book Fair, and the Moscow Non/fiction Book Fair at which the UK was Country of Honour. It inspired a joined-up approach by the British Council, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Trade, VisitBritain and the GREAT Britain campaign and, through 39 projects and 2,000 events in 121 cities across Russia, it reached 19 million people, three quarters of them aged 14-26 (11 million of them face to face and through exhibitions, festivals and fairs).

The current UK-Russia Year of Science and Education 2017 aims for a sustainable increase in scientific cooperation between the UK and Russia. Last week the British Council launched a “Future Science” train on the Moscow Metro, following the launch two months ago of the “Heart of Russia” train on the London Underground at which British Council Chief Executive Sir Ciarán Devane said “Connecting people through culture, education and science is as important now as it has ever been, and both trains are great symbols of these connections”. To bring the story up to date, Sir Ciarán Devane and Mikhail Shvydkoy recently announced the UK-Russia Year of Music 2019.

There is no point in thinking small in Russia, and Russians respect long term commitment

The British Council has plans to reach out across Russia and touch the lives of millions more young Russians. 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.

Michael Bird, Director Russia, British Council

See also