As the statue of Yuri Gagarin is unveiled outside the British Council offices in London, Paul de Quincey, British Council Director Russia, asks whether cultural exchange has any diplomatic value.
There has been a flurry of commentary recently about the role of culture in diplomacy and business.
As someone who has been working in the area of cultural relations for the last 30 years, I thought it might be time to share my views on this and, more specifically, on the relationship between culture and other aspects of the Russia-UK relationship.
Although I only recently arrived in Moscow, I was very aware of the sensitivities surrounding the British Council’s presence here, as I had been overseeing our work in the wider region since 2009.
When things became difficult for us in Russia in 2007/08, I was heading up our operation in Paris and very quickly heard about what was going on, not only via Whitehall and the British Council in London but also via the Quai d’Orsay.
It became very apparent that culture, politics and trade were quite closely linked in people’s minds and that the way in which a cultural organisation had become embroiled in a political spat was of great interest to the French, as it was to a number of our other European partners.
Currently there is much debate about whether or not Culture (Capital ‘C’, note!) really helps diplomacy and business, and really contributes to prosperity and security in the world.
I am not saying that Culture, or the work of the British Council, is necessarily going to set the world to rights. But after 30 years of working in cultural relations, I am absolutely convinced that it can underpin diplomatic and business ties by making it easier to take advantage of opportunities. Culture can directly facilitate dialogue and broker relationships that can lead to diplomatic and economic gain.
In the UK, Culture is often viewed disparagingly as something only for the élite. But this is not so for many other countries – or for Russia in particular – where Culture is not only highly regarded for its intrinsic qualities but is also seen as part and parcel of a rounded relationship with the outside world.
In other words, and irrespective of your own professional or business interests, in Russia you ignore Culture at your peril.
Here, many of the private cultural foundations are funded by wealthy, high net-worth individuals, and, as individuals, they can often be very influential in the world of politics and business. Many of those who run the big cultural institutions in Russia also influence other areas of Russian life.
Tomorrow in London, the British Council will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s epic journey into space.
His statue will be unveiled in Whitehall (a gift from the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos) and an exhibition of original artefacts connected to the Russian space programme will be opened, including a cosmonaut suit and ejector seat from the 1960s, the famous capsule that took one of the ‘trial’ dogs into space, original film footage and family photographs.
Sergei Krikalev, the cosmonaut who accompanied our own Helen Sharman into space, will give a talk at the Science Museum, and Natalia Koroleva will talk about her father’s contribution to the Russian space programme.
Countless organisations have been involved in the series of events that will take place throughout the week, which will be attended by film-makers, artists, cultural leaders, politicians, scientists, and businessmen – Russian and British.
Is this art, science, diplomacy or business? I’m not sure it matters what you call it. Judging by the number of people wanting to be at the events, my suspicion is that they have already spotted the intricate connection.