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Bitten by the bear: the British Council and Russia.

IT seemed a bold move on the part of the British Council to try reopening its offices in Ekaterinburg and St Petersburg after the end of the Russian New Year. The British Council was created in 1934. One of its main functions is to promote the study and use of the English language. It receives some of its funds from the government through the Foreign Office. The Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, David Miliband, had regarded the action of the Russian authorities on 12 December 2007 to shut down the offices as illegal. According to the Foreign Secretary, the British Council would 'remain open and operational in St Petersburg and Ekaterinbutg'. (1) The British Council, a much admired cultural and educational organisation which facilitates exchanges between Britain and host nations, first received an angry rebuke on 14 January from Moscow, followed by an order to suspend operations a few days later.

The grounds for closure were far from clear, though dissatisfied rumblings about the Council's activity have gone on since the Russian Interior Ministry requested its financial records in 2004. The sentiment then was captured by Sergei Verevkin-Rakhalsy of the Ministry's section investigating economic and tax crimes. 'We want to understand what this strange organization that earns huge money is doing on the territory of our country'. (2)

The motivations for such action are numerous. Tensions between Downing Street and the Kremlin have been icy since the murder in London of the former Federal Security Bureau (FSB) agent, Alexander Litvinenko, in November 2007. Relations had already taken a nervous turn the previous year with allegations of British espionage in Moscow Square. British tactics provoked amusement and outrage.

Her Majesty's espionage operators, using standards of professionalism similar to British Rail and the baggage operators of Heathrow's Terminal 5, seem to have given the game away. Faulty wiring within a boulder, or 'spy rock' specially equipped to conduct surveillance led to its discovery. 'In one [film] clip', notes an article from The Times, 'an agent was filmed pretending to relieve himself in the shrubs as he fiddled with its sophisticated electronics". Sergei Ignatchenko, chief spokesman for the FSB, was triumphant at the indiscretions of his fiddling counterparts. 'This was the first time we literally caught them red-handed in the process of contacting their agents here and received evidence that they finance a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs)' (3)

More severe than the discovery of this less than 'smart' rock were the images of a dying Litvinenko, perishing from the radioactive effects of Polonium 210 after a series of shadowy meetings in London. The conduct surrounding his demise has become something of a commentary on Russia and international relations.

That the murdered former FSB agent, Litvinenko, was also a British citizen particularly complicated relations. Infractions against the safety of a citizen of one state by another may not be the cause of war, but such acts can be preparatory towards it. Scotland Yard, after preliminary investigations, set its sights on its chief suspect, Litvinenko's former colleague Andrei Lugovoi. His extradition was duly sought.

Security services who are otherwise dismissive of laws are the first to resort to them in times of crisis. The Kremlin, which usually treats the Russian Constitution like putty, preferred to throw Article 61, forbidding the extradition of Russian citizens, at British requests for Lugovoi's extradition. Besides, Andrei Mayorov of Russia's Prosecutor General Crime Unit remained unconvinced by the evidence. Lugovoi would remain in Russia.

As always with the murderous actions that stem from the security apparatus of the Russian state, the central planner is invisible. Vladimir Putin is often blamed, but a bright, well-lit paper trail is nigh impossible to find in the murky undergrowth of the Russian state. The same murky set of circumstances governed the assassination of the Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006, whose writings in A Russian Diary do much to put a candle to the darker subjects of Putin's Russia. Fervent finger pointing in the direction of the Kremlin has now become commonplace.


A point raised consistently by the Russian authorities regarding the British Council is that of legality. Its status has been consistently questioned--is it a 'cultural' organisation, or does it facilitate other exchanges Moscow is not privy to? Charges of espionage circulate in the establishment like lethal bacilli. The chattering and security classes in Moscow are dining out on a rather severe tale, fostered by the likes of Lugovoi: Britain's external espionage service, MI6 has been hatching a plan to 'dismember' Russia.

The British Council had been targeted before Christmas, but the attack was surgical--only its offices in Ekaterinburg and St Petersburg received special attention. The logic of this escaped some observers. The head of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, put it down to an issue of legality--the Moscow office of the British Council was recognised, while the others had been established without the Kremlin's consent. The reasons for their actions were aired in Parliament on 17 January. Robert Goodwill, the Conservative MP for Scarborough and Whitby, asked whether the activities of the Council 'could be described as in any way commercial'.

David Miliband, in reply, said that the Council had been questioned about running a system of exams, which was accused of being 'commercial'. Despite Miliband's refusal to accept this classification, the exam format had been suspended in favour of more cultural changes. (4) British politicians were also speculating about Moscow's motives. Paul Farrelly, a Labour MP from Newcastle-under-Lyme, pondered whether the Kremlin 'may have memories of the actions of US and UK banks and brokers who also profited greatly, in and out of the country, from the Yeltsin sell-off'.

From the British standpoint, the closure was a violation of the diplomatic and legal 'framework' that had been established between the countries. One was, as ever, international law and the application of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The other was the bilateral agreement between Britain and Russia in 1994 on cultural cooperation. The tax argument did not hold, as the British Council was a registered entity which had complied with all requests from the Russian authorities.

The response by the Russian authorities has not stopped at the forced closures. British Council employees have been hauled before ESB agents for interrogation. British officials have been harassed. The head of the St Petersburg office, Stephen Kinnock, son of one-time Labour leader Neil Kinnock, was arrested for drink driving on 16 January. Neil Kinnock is now Lord Kinnock of Bedwelty and currently the Chairman of the British Council.


What is perhaps disturbing, when casting an eye over the Russian press, is the kind of vitriol that is seeping out from an overheated conspiratorial complex. Cold War precedents of this behaviour return with renewed relevance, resonant with spy scandals as those of 1971 that saw reciprocal expulsions of diplomats--some 105 Soviets from Britain alone. A keener historical eye would detect a centuries-old resentment dating back to Ivan 'the Terrible'. That particular potentate, who reigned as Ivan IV from 1533 to 1584, is known to have regarded his contemporary, Queen Elizabeth, as 'an ordinary damsel' incapable of governing her unsettled subjects. (5)

Could the American author of Soviet containment, the US State Department's famed Russian specialist George F. Kennan, have been right when he expounded on this mindset in his 'Long Telegram' of 1946? Kennan's often conflicting document, which has generated its own mythology, was authored in the aftermath of rising tensions between the Soviet Union and the West. The strategic picture then was vastly different from what it is now, but the psychological portrait penned by Kennan remains striking. Stalin and his officials spoke of impending encirclement. The USSR still lived, Kennan explained, in fear of 'antagonistic encirclement' which resisted any sense of 'permanent peaceful coexistence'.

The English response was well put in the analysis of Kennan's counterpart in Moscow, the British charge d' affaires Frank Roberts, whose dispatches of March 1946 cast Soviet-British relations in the light of emerging Cold War animosities. While the Soviet Union was not intent on the destruction of Britain, it was 'fundamentally hostile' to it, shaped by the obsession of a state 'with no natural frontiers and surrounded by enemies'. (6)

The Soviets, not to be outdone, had their own conclusions to draw. The Soviet Ambassador to the US, Nikolai Novikov suggested some seven months after Kennan's dispatch that American foreign policy was being 'conducted in a situation quite different from that which existed in the prewar period'. The Truman Administration (1945-53), in contrast to the preceding government of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was infected by the 'reactionary circles' of the Democratic Party, circles intent on increased arms budgets and Soviet encirclement. (7)

Britain was not exempted from Novikov's scathing analysis. While the unrestrained New World hegemon resembled an unbound Gulliver, Britain was becoming, in the eyes of officials in the Kremlin, a toadying accomplice. A 'partial division of the world on the basis of mutual concessions' would take place. Britain would have a free hand with India; the US would be left unmolested when dealing with China and Japan. But mutual antagonism inherent in the nature of the capitalistic system would eventually drive them apart.

The Soviet Union had refused to participate in various international organisations. Moscow duly rebuffed the Marshall Plan, while tensions were rising in Greece and Turkey. The proposed International Monetary Fund and World Bank were seen, not entirely without reason, as agents of American influence. In highlighted script in his telegram, Novikov emphasised the need for delaying and derailing tactics to 'stop the US aims through work in the US and abroad in other countries. The survival of Communism and the freedom of democratic peoples are at stake'.


Today, we have an instinctive refusal on the part of Moscow to engage in international security arrangements, fed by fears of an impending ring of encirclement bolstered by such measures as an anti-missile shield and NATO expansion. Some, like Edward Lucas of the Economist, go so far as to argue that we are facing a New Cold War. The atrophy of a fledging democracy, the elimination of dissent, and the creation of a social and economic apparatus run by former intelligence officials should, argues Lucas, be a warning to the West. 'The KGB is in effect running Russia', argues Oleg Gordievsky, himself a former KGB operative and double agent. (8) For Gordievsky, the Communist party, for all its ills, at least controlled the KGB. The truth now is that Russia's political infrastructure has been seized by an intelligence plutocracy. In April Gordievsky gave a newspaper interview in which he claimed that he was poisoned last autumn by some rogue elements within the Russian secret service.

The mythology of the Soviet era is being trotted out with vigour to bolster the Russian resurgence. Stalin's sanguinary blunders and murderous purges are being marginalized, the Soviet state's triumphs spruced up and embellished. The Yelstin era, in contrast, is mocked as a humiliating episode, a time of enervating catastrophe and incompetence.

We also have rumblings about the current British role in world affairs, allied as closely as it is to the United States. The crucial difference is that Britain is considered even less independent than it was in 1946. Gone is the 'capitalist' contradiction of inevitable war between the White House and Downing Street. Both simply constitute a bloc of parochial, avaricious Anglo-Americans, in some ways even more dangerous.

Paranoia of 'foreign penetration' to use one of Kennan's terms, is rampant. Pravada, when it is not featuring articles on quack science and tips on how to arouse a frigid lover, is busy mocking 'perfidious Albion'. The English version is unsurprisingly sanitised. The unexpurgated version, in Russian, is far more entertaining, if slightly alarming. It is happy interviewing 'experts' who resemble the casting crew of a Vaudeville act.

Vladimir Zharikhin, to take one of them, is deputy director of the CIS Institute. Interviewed and reported in the English press, he sounds sober and even credible. He chose to explain the crisis to Prcwda from the standpoint of British post-imperial inadequacy. With questionable relevance, he argued that Britain was suffering an identity crisis, unsure about its place in the world (Pravda, 15 January). Historically challenged, Zharikhin was still under the impression that Britain was seeking to 'preserve [its] status of the great empire' while riding on the coat tails of 'an even greater empire'. America remained the unmentionable, the menacing power buried in the undergrowth of realpolitik.

America is much like a daemonic entity in Russian politics, a terrifying presence that animates policy from Moscow. Russian actions towards a humble entity such as the British Council have not escaped this mania. For Zharikhin, Britain is nothing less than a surrogate, an automaton of the United States being given a free hand in Russia. Britain's 'senior partner does not allow it to be independent regarding such pivotal issues as, for instance, Iraq, the relationship with Iran'. The British Council is nothing less than Washington's Trojan Horse.

Adding steam to the already alarmist Lugovoi was Yury Drozdov, the founder of the think-tank (described as an 'analytical centre') Namakon. For Drozdov, formerly counter-espionage chief in the KGB, a good look at the management structure of the British Council in Russia revealed more than a few surprises: the organisation, for one, was crawling with personnel who had been trained in Britain's intelligence services. For the hawk-eyed former operative this made sense, given that Britain was a potential 'invader', and 'the official enemy of Russia', (9)

Moving into the realm of fantasy, Drozdov (Interfax News, 15 January) proceeded to justify the harsh treatment of the British Council: Russia faced a sinister Anglo-American plot to partition it. St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg would be ceded to Britain, while the United States would swallow up Siberia. Ergo, it was best not to give the British Council 'more rope'.

Politicians such as the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party took to the Council in protest, colourfully suggesting that Britain was a nation of vile lepers. In late January, he gave a speech of twenty minutes outside the British Embassy accusing it of a range of historical crimes. Britain had been the culprit behind the eighteenth-century war between Russia and Sweden, the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, the Great War of 1914 and, unforgivably, the demise of the Soviet Union. The latter had been the result of Britain's insistence on liberalisation: 'The British,' he raged, 'provoked perestroika'.[10]

In the mind of the presidential candidate, Britain would in time come to 'be recognized as the most barbaric country on the planet'. His speech came with various suggestions on how Britain should run its affairs, including its voluntary dissolution. 'In the end, Britain will have to give freedom to Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland ... and that will only leave London, which, because of [global warming], will constantly flood'. In tow, he had a female model marketed as having the biggest 'chest' in Russia. For some reason, Irene Ferrari's antipathies for the British did not extend to names--her miniscule dog was named 'Bentley'.

The Russian media response to the Foreign Secretary's firm speech against the closures was also strong. The Russian press cast him in the role of a politician genetically programmed to despise Russia. Gleb Pavlovsky saw David Miliband's grandfather as the culprit. Being a Pole of Jewish extraction, he had fought (so Pavlovsky claimed) under the command of Leon Trotsky during the Russian Civil War. Denials by Miliband have been quite simply ignored.

With such analysis, the Council is up against inestimable odds. Russian diplomats have not been expelled en masse. British Council services in Moscow will continue, at least according to the British Council's chief executive, Martin Davidson. Some Russian students, who stand to lose most in the conflict, have come out openly in support of the Council's activities (Moscow Times, 11 February).

Putin's presidential successor, Dmitry Medvedev, has done little to halt the slide. He has even gone so far as to recapitulate the official line that the British Council is an espionage front. It remains to be seen whether his administration remains fixated on fears of encirclement and encroachment. The bewildering discomforts of Anglo-Russian politics are set to continue.


(1.) House of Commons. Daily Hansard Debates, 8 January 2008, column 141.

(2.) Quoted in Sophia Kishkovsky, 'Russia: Inquiry into British Council', New York Times, 9 June 2004, A11.

(3.) Simon Freeman, 'Anglo-Russian relations rocked by "bugged boulder" claim', Times Online, 23 January 2006.

(4.) Comments available in Daily Hansard, 17 January 2008, column 1104. Also see Nick Holdsworth, 'Council shifts focus in Russia', Times Higher Education Supplement 1796 (23 March, 2007): 10.

(5.) Marina Antonova, 'Tempest in a Teapot: Britain and Russia repeat centuries-old cycle of conflict', Russian Life 50, 5 (Sept-Oct 2007): 7.

(6.) G. F. Kennan, 'Long Telegram', 22 February 1946, reprinted in Thomas Etzold and John Lewis Gaddis, Containment: Documents on American Foreign Policy and Strategy, 1945-1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), 50-63, 51; Sean Greenwood, 'Frank Roberts and the "Other" Long Telegram: The View from the British Embassy in Moscow, March 1946', Journal of Contemporary History 25, 1 (Jan, 1990): 103-122; Frank Roberts to Foreign Office, 17 March 1946, noted in Greenwood, at 111.

(7.) Executive Summary, The Novikov Telegram, Washington, 27 September 1946, AVP SSSE, f. 06. op. 8, 45, 759, in Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn#ll, 1990, 148-154, trans. Gary Goldberg for the Cold War International History Project.

(8.) Edward Lucas, The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West (London: Bloomsbury, 2008); Oleg Gordievsky, 'The Bear Bites Back', Literary Review, February 2008, at <>, accessed 12 March 2008.

(9.) Brief discussion in Hugh Barnes, 'Joining the Dots', Open Democracy, 16 January 2008.

(10.) Kevin O'Flynn, 'Zhirinovsky Engages in Street Theatre', Moscow Times, 24 January 2008, 3.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures in Modern History at the University of Queensland.
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Author:Kampmark, Binoy
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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