Russia should leave the British Council alone

Britain and Russia should be friends. Born of originally Russian parents, and brought up in England, I can appreciate the two countries’ cultural appeal to each other, quite apart from the fact that they were allies in the two world wars. But friends can, and do, quarrel, and friendship cannot survive escalating bickering.

Consider the current row over the British Council. The British Council is the cultural representative of the British government. It exists to provide information about Britain, and help students who want to study in Britain. It is part of a world-wide web of cultural bodies. Last year almost 500,000 Russians took part in its projects, or visited exhibitions, plays, and films which it organised. The Russian authorities complain that its regional offices have been operating illegally since 1995, in the absence of a bilateral agreement regulating their activity. They have already forced nine of them to close; and have now ordered the remaining two, in St. Petersburg, and Ekaterinburg, to shut down, despite the fact that Putin, before he was President, attended the opening of the former.

Sergei Lavrov claims that the Russian order is a ‘logical consequence’ of Britain’s expulsion of four Russian diplomats in July. It is, of course, nothing of the kind. It is a deliberate escalation, for which a threadbare legal pretext has been found.

At a deeper level, the Russian action betrays a profound misunderstanding of how British government works. The Russian authorities cannot understand how the British Council can both be a cultural agent of the British government and independent of it. They assume that the claim to independence is spurious, that British Council officers are agents of government policy, or even worse a nest of spies.

There is the same misunderstanding of the status of other British institutions like the BBC and the judiciary. Russians often assume that the BBC World Service is a propaganda branch of the British government, because the BBC was set up by the government, and because the government funds it. Similarly, no Russian I have talked to doubts that the decision to grant asylum to Berezovsky and Zakayev (and others wanted for crimes in Russia) was a political decision. Judges, they say, are appointed by the government: so they are ‘obviously’ subject to its will. The paradox of institutions being part of the state but independent of the government is difficult for Russians to grasp.

The misunderstanding is not all on one side. The opaqueness of the Russian state is a constant source of puzzlement to Britons. In principle there is the famous ‘vertical of power’. In practice, the security service, the tax service, even the armed forces are riven with factions who fight each other, pursue private quarrels, and define the Russian national interest to suit themselves. The result is that the President is not fully in control of ‘his’ system. He cannot publicly disavow lawless actions taken by ‘his’ subordinates without destroying his authority. He has to deny that they had anything to do with them, and transfer the blame to others. This I believe is the clue to both the Litvinenko and Politkovskaya affairs. I do not believe the Kremlin was ‘behind’ the murders, but it cannot allow any honest investigation into who was.

In this situation it is absolutely vital to maintain bilateral contacts outside the formal diplomatic channels, in which each side has to protect its national dignity. The important thing is to enable each country to explain itself to the other. Otherwise we will drift back into a ‘cold war of the mind’. That is why the action against the British Council is so unfortunate. It attacks that free flow of information which is the lifeblood of an advanced civilisation.