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Joining the dots

The British Council saga took another surprising twist with the news overnight that Russian traffic cops had arrested the son of former Labour Party leader NeilKinnock on a phoney drink-driving charge. Stephen Kinnock runs the Council's office in St Petersburg, which re-opened this week in defiance of an Russian ban on its activities there and in the west Siberian city of Yekaterinburg. The timing of Kinnock's arrest was anything but coincidental. The day before he was quoted in the Russian press describing the case against the British Council as "purely political".

Most people understand that the Council's links to theradioactive murder of Alexander Litvinenko in a London suchi bar are non-existent. It's a cultural organisation that brings schoolchildren to the Hermitage or sends ballet troupes to London. Last year, half a million Russians were taught by British Council-trained English teachers.

Hugh Barnes
16 January 2008

The British Council saga took another surprising twist with the news overnight that Russian traffic cops had arrested the son of former Labour Party leader NeilKinnock on a phoney drink-driving charge. Stephen Kinnock runs the Council's office in St Petersburg, which re-opened this week in defiance of an Russian ban on its activities there and in the west Siberian city of Yekaterinburg. The timing of Kinnock's arrest was anything but coincidental. The day before he was quoted in the Russian press describing the case against the British Council as "purely political".

Most people understand that the Council's links to theradioactive murder of Alexander Litvinenko in a London suchi bar are non-existent. It's a cultural organisation that brings schoolchildren to the Hermitage or sends ballet troupes to London. Last year, half a million Russians were taught by British Council-trained English teachers.

Yet the Russian media is full of dark mutterings about its hidden agenda. And there is at least one former Russian spymaster who subscribes to the argument that culture is politics. Yuri Drozdov, ex-chief of the KGB's undercover foreign intelligence division, is quoted on polit.ru calling Britain "the official enemy of Russia" and a "potential invader".

"Why is the British Council being so provocative?" he adds, joining the dots. "For the simple reason that some foreign politicians in Britain and the United States are planning to divide up Russia, with a view to the landmass from Petersburg to Yekaterinburg eventually becoming British territory."

So now you know.

It's easy to poke fun at Soviet-era hardliners like Drozdov traditionally suspicious of foreigners and eager to declare a new Cold War. It may have already started in the minds of those FSB officers who interrogated the British Council's Russian employees in order to prevent them from being used by MI6 as "instruments in provocative games". The irony, of course, is that it's precisely at times like this, with the politicians trading accusations and threats, that we need to renew the cultural exchange between people that the British Council (among others) helps to provide.

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