The Blog

Russia's Regression

Now a crackdown on the British Council.

11:00 PM, Jan 30, 2008 • By MICHAEL WEISS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

IT DOESN'T TAKE an Anglophile to appreciate the English way with understatement, particularly at moments of high tension or pique. Readers of the Moscow Times got a slight taste of this national characteristic last Friday, when Mr. Giles Cattermole, a resident of Sonning-on-Thames, wrote in to express his discomfiture at the current state of British-Russian relations:

So Andrei Lugovoi allegedly assassinated Alexander Litvinenko. And that's fine--he becomes a hero, gets elected to the State Duma and is appointed second head of the LDPR party list. He also gets asked if he will run for president.

Vitaly Kaloyev, the architect from the Caucasus region of North Ossetia, assassinates Peter Nielsen, a Swiss-based air-traffic controller, and Kaloyev gets a senior government job in his hometown.

Now, just what message about Russian society and morals does that send?


You couldn't have asked it more politely yourself.


Mr. Cattermole is referring to the plight of the British Council, which in the middle of this month, was forced to close its offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg at the behest of Vladimir Putin's Foreign Ministry. Arbitrary though the Kremlin typically is when intimidating bodies foreign and domestic, there was actually a logical warp and woof to this affair. Russia has for months refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, wanted by Scotland Yard for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the ex-KGB agent turned fierce Putin critic who was irradiated in London in 2006. (Extradition is against the Russian constitution, although Lugovoi's recent election to the State Duma has also granted him immunity from internal prosecution, to say nothing of the "message" that minor farce of December's parliamentary elections delivered.) Britain responded by expelling four Russian diplomats last July. The Council crackdown is thus the third demarché in an ugly bilateral standoff that has every Western media outlet invoking the Cold War.

And as during that twilight struggle, many have resorted to moral equivalence and blaming both sides for their intransigence, despite the fact that only one country has now ventured beyond the realm of political brinkmanship and taken to hounding and shuttering a strictly cultural institution.


The British Council was created in 1934 under monarchial patronage to serve as a kind of roving language-and-ideas outpost of parliamentary democracy. With a strong presence in the Middle East and Latin America, it has endeavored--and I quote from its website -to "support British Institutes and societies and English schools in other countries, recruitment of university lecturers, support to students and English teachers, books and periodicals for libraries, lecture tours, music performances and art exhibitions." Though sponsored by the Foreign Office and often domiciled abroad on the premises of the British consulate, the Council operates as an independent charity with its own chairman and board of directors. That hardly makes it neutral in its promulgation of "British" values--the Council's founder Sir Reginald Leeper advocated unashamedly "cultural propaganda" to combat fascism, and during World War II it was even suggested that the organization be absorbed into the nascent Ministry of Information. The idea was squelched in favor of continued independence. At once above politics and yet ever at the mercy of it, the Council was banished from a war-ravaged continent in the middle of the century, though still kept up its charter by establishing National and Allied Centers in London that catered to refugees from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Norway and France.

Leave it to the British to be self-critical, if not slightly self-loathing, about one of their most recognizable totems of internationalism. Also on the Council's website is a small essay entitled, "Propaganda?," written by a professor of American Studies, Nicholas J. Cull, who examines the organization's evolving raison d'etre: "During the Cold War the British Council maintained its propaganda value and developed an important double function. It provided a point of contact with western ideas in the non-aligned world and, when thaws permitted, the Eastern Bloc. More than this, the British Council provided a view of the West distinct from that presented by the United States and its equivalent operation: the United States Information Agency; building a sense of the diversity of western culture."

George Orwell once warned writers seeking a supplemental income not to lower themselves into shilling for the organization, although his objection was to how this might affect literary talent rather than conscience. Adding to the aura of postwar intrigue was the Council's slightly haphazard placement at the fault-line between diplomacy and espionage. John le Carré chose one of its first "audio fairs" in the Soviet Union as the opening backdrop for his glasnost-era spy thriller The Russia House (it is to a Council book salesman that the beautiful Katya hands off her friend Yakov's manuscript containing Soviet nuclear secrets).

The Council first opened its doors in Russia in 1945 during the brief honeymoon period that followed the Allied victory. It persisted for a mere two years of Stalin's reign until the exigencies of the Cold War forced it withdraw, as it also did in Eastern Europe after the Warsaw Pact. In 1967, at the unlikely moment of re-Stalinization under Brezhnev and the suppression of Soviet dissidents, the organization appointed an ambassador to Moscow who became a one-man-band operation. In 1992, a full-fledged Council center was established in the Russian capital, and by 2006, about a half million Russians partook in one of its many creative programs or exhibitions. Last year, another half million were taught by teachers who graduated from its pedagogic institutes, and 40 Russians traveled to the UK on scholarships it dispensed.

Yet throughout the Putin regime there have been three distinct phases of buffeting the Council in order to pain Whitehall. The method has always been to accuse the organization of conducting "illegal" commercial activity on Russian soil and failing to pay taxes (and never mind that the Council doesn't pay them in any other of its 108 host countries). In 2004, it was pressured to pony up for arrears after the UK refused to extradite the oligarch Boris Berezovsky and the Chechen separatist leader Akhmed Zakayev. Berezovsky, a media mogul largely responsible for Putin's election in 1999, dispatched himself to London shortly after falling out with the president, who then nationalized Berezovsky's holding, the television station Channel One, and made it another handmaid of state disinformation. As for Zakayev, a one-time deputy prime minister and special envoy under the Yeltsin-backed Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, he was granted asylum in 2003 by a British magistrate, who surmised that the Russian evidence suggesting he was a terrorist, kidnapper and mass murderer was politically motivated. (The British are not alone in casting a skeptical eye on the reasons Moscow's erstwhile negotiator for Chechen peace is wanted back home. In 2002, after Zakayev traveled to Copehagen to take part in the World Chechen Congress, he was arrested on an Interpol warrant filed by the Kremlin; the Danish courts freed him, claiming the case was wafer-thin.)

In 2006, the Council once more found itself in bad odor after the FSB, the successor intelligence apparat to the KGB, claimed to have uncovered a message container disguised as a rock, which it believed British embassy officials were using to pass coded information to their Russian sources.

And now the current contretemps over Lugvoi, which began on December 12 when the Foreign Ministry declared that, due to its inappropriate legal remit and history of tax evasion, the Council would have to cease its operations in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg on January 1. Both offices had been closed since December 24, due to the Christmas and New Year holiday, and were scheduled to reopen on January 14. In the event, the Yekaterinburg resumed its activity few days early, on January 9; the St. Petersburg branch, as scheduled, on the 14th. This was the same day that Tony Brenton, the British Ambassador, was summoned to a meeting with Ministry officials and emerged defiant, saying the orders of closure were baseless and would therefore not be upheld. James Kennedy, the director of British Council in Russia, stated that he had received no information from the Russian government indicating that his organization's work was unlawful--there was only the diktat that it must shut down. London's position is that all Council branches in Russia operate well within the boundaries of a 1994 bilateral agreement between the two countries, and also the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations, which governs diplomatic protocol. (A famous violator of the latter covenant is Nashi, the fascistic pro-Putin "youth group," which operates with money and support from the Kremlin, and routinely harasses British Embassy personnel without interference by the Russian authorities.)

The Foreign Ministry's response was as swift as it was predictable: It threatened to stop renewing or issuing visas for diplomatic staff of the Council's regional branches outside the main Moscow hub, which would be allowed to remain open, although, like the other branches, subject to administrative and legal penalties.

It didn't take long for these to be applied. On January 15, the FSB hauled in more than 20 Russian employees of the St. Petersburg branch for questioning about their work. That night, Russian tax police visited ten others in their homes--an example of psychological intimidation straight out of the Stalinist playbook. An FSB spokesperson later told Interfax, "these were no interrogations . . . British council workers talked with FSB officials, who told them that the British organization was operating illegally"--a claim that is plausible if one believes those same workers had stayed silent about such rampant illegality up until the secret police came calling. Further, the FSB, ignoring the popularity of the Council within Russia, said it was conducting such non-interrogations for the people's own good:

"In order to safeguard Russian citizens from being used as tools in the Britons' provocative games, the Federal Security Service institutions have started a campaign to explain the situation surrounding the British Council and the Russian government bodies' position in relation to this organization's branches in Russian regions to Russian citizens working for this organization."

DUI was evidently one form of provocation. Stephen Kinnock, the British Council head in St. Petersburg, was detained that same night for allegedly driving through the intersection of Konyushenny Pereulok and Naberezhnaya Moiki, where traffic is prohibited. City police followed him home and claimed they smelled alcohol on his breath when they pulled him over. (Kinnock and the Council maintain he was sober and committed no traffic violation.) Adhering to diplomatic protocol, he refused to leave his vehicle and admit to a breathalizer exam, fearing its results would be doctored and sensationalized. Kinnock was released from custody upon the arrival on the scene of the British Consul General William Elliott.

The St. Petersburg office of the British Council closed the next day, January 16; the Yekaterinburg one the day after that.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, striking an uncharacteristically blunt note, called the Russian tactics "reprehensible," and not befitting a "great nation." He also indicated the only losers would be the Russian people themselves, who have long benefited from the Council's magnanimity. Indeed, Irinia Ishchenko, the deputy pro-rector for international relations at St. Petersburg State University, told Interfax: "Our students and teacher's use [the British Council's] wonderful library. However, recently, fewer of our students have managed to get supplementary education in the UK with the council's help." One appreciates why this is regrettable: Sixty Russian students who were given scholarships by the Council have signed a collective letter of protest against their government's actions, expressing sadness that "this decision has been taken after all the Council has done for Russia in the last 15 years."

And Russia has done a lot to the Council in that time. A January 15 article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta written by Yuliya Petrovskaya and Andrey Riskin carefully examined prior cases of shuttered branches of the organization.

The one in Nizhniy Novgorod, for instance, stopped its activities when the oblast, or regional government, complained that it had never paid for its leased office in the center of town. Back rent was assessed at 5 million rubles. Yet that office had been given to the Council in the early 1990's, shortly following Margaret Thatcher's visit to the city, by then-Governor Boris Nemtsov. He stipulated that in lieu of rent, the Council should simply refurbish and maintain the space, which it did. (It is perhaps worth noting that Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under Yeltsin, is the co-founder of the pro-democratic opposition party, the Union of Right Forces. A strong critic of Putin, he recently withdrew from the Russian presidential race in order to make way for his firend Mikhail Kasyanov, now facing criminal charges for alleged signature forgery on his nominating ballot.) Curiously, when Nizhniy Novgorod chose to re-evaluate the Council's lease in 2004, it found that there were no formal documents in existence due to the ad hoc agreement struck a decade before. Anthony Brenton and new Governor Valeriy Shantsev failed to negotiate a proper new lease in 2006, and the oblast decided last summer that it was evicting the branch for its unwillingness to "make up the budget losses." However, eclipsed by such angry public accountant's rhetoric was the fact that the Council had invested 1.5 million rubles annually in Nizhniy Novgorod--added value far outpacing the ambiguously determined default sum.

Never letting a good deed go unpunished was also the policy of the local officials in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. The krai accused the Council branch there of overstepping its mandate in holding competitions and granting foreign study opportunities to locals citizens. In actuality, of the 100 or so students that did take advantage of Council-sponsored foreign travel, all of them returned to Siberia; a two-way ticket was a prerequisite for enjoying this privilege. (The disingenuousness of the Krasnoyarsk complaint is underscored when one considers that a Russian citizen can't very well travel abroad without a passport, a document the British Council is hardly in a position to supply.)


Even where branches closed due to internal bureaucracy or the reallocation of resources, the exit strategy was always pretty graceful. Take the center in Tomsk, which operated for four years on the campus of the city's Polytechnic University. When the Council withdrew its staff in the spring of 2006, it donated all of its materials to the university, an act of largess that earned the gratitude of Polytechnic President Yuriy Pokholkov. The branch that shut down in Samara last December similarly bequeathed its entire library of over 3,500 books to Samara State Aerospace University. And the last community event it sponsored? Raising money on behalf of the Russian Children's Fund.

All of which makes the St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg orders seem particularly thuggish and unnecessary. "The British Council's connection to the Litvinenko affair is non-existent except insofar as its UK-appointed staff have diplomatic status," ran an angry editorial in London Times on January 15, entitled "From Russia With Spite." "This, Moscow believes, gives grounds for reflexive attacks on the council's operations whenever any aspect of the bilateral relationship is causing irritation, without risking a full diplomatic rupture. It is true that closing libraries and cultural centres may be less dangerous than shutting embassies. It is also true that Russia's latest round of bullying is shot through with schoolyard spite, and entirely self-defeating." The Guardian, too, marveled at how the Kremlin had pulled off that rarest of feats--uniting the whole of European opinion against itself. Even the EU's Slovenian presidency has taken the position that Russia should climb down and allow the Council offices to reopen in order to hasten a rapprochement between the Lion and the Bear.

Unhelpful in its attempt to portray itself the victim of a decade-long tax dodge is Moscow's doublespeak about what is really motivating its latest cycle of intimidation. Officially, the authorities maintain that they are simply sticking to the letter of the law and calling in old debts. Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the State Duma's international relations committee, has told reporters that the "legal and financial" grievances with the Council in various cities have existed for years and are "in no way connected with the latest complications in Russian-British relations." Yet this does nothing to explain why the Foreign Ministry has interfered in revenue or real estate disputes, clearly the domain of the Russian judiciary. The Moscow Times has urged the Council to bring itself up to whatever code the regime has put in place (or says it has) for foreign NGOs, which indeed it should, but also insists, "the Foreign Ministry should stop acting like a law enforcement agency and court--just what it is doing by threatening to investigate the council for tax arrears and order their payment."

It should also stop thinking in Brezhnevite mental categories. Sergei Lavrov, Russian's Foreign Minister, has said, "The historic memory (of the British side) stemming from the days of colonization is not something that can prompt a language in which one can talk to Russia," which certainly prompts a number of interesting questions about what long lost Victorian imperium in the Caucuses he has in mind.

Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB, does one better in his sheer paranoia. He thinks the British are plotting to destroy his country and has even traced the conspiracy back to age of Shakespeare: "Since the time of Elizabeth I, agents have been guided by the principle of the end justifying the means," he told Argumentiy I Fakty in October. "Money, bribery, blackmail and exemption from punishment of crimes are their main recruitment methods."

Which in a slightly different context might be termed "projection." Yulia Latynina, a popular political radio host, as well as a contributor to Novaya Gazeta, the best muckraking newspaper in Russia, has replied ironically in print:

"As a true patriot, this particular allegation horrified me. But I would really like to find out one thing: Exactly who among the employees of the British Council was planning to occupy Russia and just how and when was this endeavor to take place? If Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev knows that such a plan existed but doesn't know who was behind it or when it was to take place, then he should be fired on the spot for gross incompetence. And how could a foreign organization that is fomenting plans to occupy a huge chunk of our territory get off with only a fine for back taxes?"

Or does George Smiley even have the attention span these days, with a different order of menace to protect against? Despite there being more Russian spies in Britain now that at any point since the collapse of the Soviet Union, M15 head Jonathan Evans' rhetoric tends not to reverberate quite so clangingly off the Iron Curtain: "It is a matter of some disappointment to me that I still have to devote significant amounts of equipment, money and staff to countering this threat. They are resources which I would far rather devote to countering the threat from international terrorism--a threat to the whole international community, not just the UK." One might add that a British subject has not yet imported a radioactive isotope into Moscow for the purposes of assassinating a Russian citizen.

One theory popular among Putin's domestic enemies is that the FSB is quite happy to level charges of espionage and "provocation" at so harmless an outfit as the British Council because its own agents desire to live in England. (Lavrov's daughter studied there, as have the children of so many other Kremlin officials.) After all, the greater the supposed threat posed by Her Majesty's Secret Service, the more spies from the other sides are required for surveillance and counterintelligence. Many a grizzled KGB agent has reminisced about his cushy Andropov-era posting near the Thames, and it should come as no surprise that, in a country ruled by ex-KGB agents, there is still the willingness to manipulate national security to obtain la dolce vita. Bottomless accusations against the British Council therefore play into a much larger scheme of what might be called siloviki self-gratification. And that's enough to make even a dispassionate observer sick without polonium.

Michael Weiss is the New York editor of Pajamas Media.