Culture cold war thaws between UK and Russia

Pressure eased over extradition of former KGB agent as Yuri Gagarin statue is unveiled in London


Russia’s cultural “cold war” with the UK has quietly ended, following earlier claims that the British Council was “a nest of spies”. Four years ago there were serious threats against the personal safety of council staff in Moscow.

The détente will be symbolised by the unveiling on 14 July of a statue to cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (a copy of a Russian original), which is to be erected outside the British Council’s headquarters off the Mall, within sight of Buckingham Palace.

The main factor behind the normalisation of relations is that the British government appears to be quietly lessening its pressure for the extradition of the Russian wanted in connection with the murder in London of dissident Alexander Litvinenko.

Litvinenko died on 23 November 2006 from poisoning from a radioactive substance. Following a decision by the director of public prosecutions in May 2007, a request was made for the extradition of former KGB operative and politician Andrei Lugovoi. This was refused, creating serious tensions between the two countries.

The UK’s coalition government has continued to demand Lugovoi’s extradition, but behind the scenes not as strongly as the previous Labour administration (because it is now clear that Russia will not respond). However, a Foreign Office spokesman said: “We have pressed, and will continue to press our case with the Russian authorities, that Mr Lugovoi be brought to justice.”

In late 2007, following the extradition row, the Russian authorities accused the British Council of evading tax and in December the council was ordered to shut its offices in St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg. On 15 January 2008 the head of the St Petersburg office, Stephen Kinnock (son of former Labour leader Neil Kinnock), was detained on alleged traffic offences. Later that year court action was taken to pursue tax payments.

Stephen Kinnock, whom the Russians identified with the Labour government, was later transferred to the British Council’s office in Sierra Leone. Anthony Brenton, the British ambassador in Moscow, left and was replaced with Anne Pringle.

The British Council says the tax problems have now been “resolved”, although its St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg offices remain closed. The Foreign Office told us that the council is “a cultural, not a political institution”, and Russia should not treat it otherwise because of “unrelated issues”.

Following the détente, the British Council is supporting a series of major exhibitions in Russia. The artist Antony Gormley is due to show at the Hermitage in September. The council is also assisting the Fourth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (22 September-30 October).

The Tate is sending an exhibition on “William Blake and British Visionary Art” to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow in November. Models by Anish Kapoor are to due to go to Moscow’s Museum of Architecture in December.

A major Henry Moore exhibition will be shown at the Kremlin Museum in Moscow in February 2012, which will be the first time that it has presented modern art. The museum’s director is Elena Gagarina, the daughter of the cosmonaut.

The Tate is planning to tour its exhibition “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde” (which will open in London in September 2012) in 2013. Although not yet announced, it is expected to go to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in February 2013 and then to the Pushkin in June 2013.

The Tate may be hoping that developing links with Moscow will help it fundraise from Russian oligarchs.

The British Council is keen to avoid becoming entangled in political matters. Hence the decision that the London statue should be unveiled by Elena Gagarina, not prime minister Putin who is head of the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of mankind’s first flight into space. Had Putin come, prime minister David Cameron would have become involved, and cultural relations would then be more likely to become embroiled in international politics.