Published in February 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Time for some cultural détente
The recent skirmishes between Britain and Russia give some credence to the idea of “the new cold war” (the title of a new book by the Economist’s Edward Lucas). But in the absence of any big ideological clashes between the two nations, there is really no reason why they shouldn’t be friends. Culturally, Britain and Russia have always appealed to each other—an affinity that the two countries’ increasing business ties will surely enhance.
But Russia and Britain do suffer from mutual misconceptions about how their respective governments work, as has been revealed by the row over Russia’s crackdown on the British Council. The Russian authorities cannot understand how an organisation like the British Council can be both a cultural agent of the British government and yet wholly independent of it.
But the Russian state is no less of a source of puzzlement to the British. All its branches are riven with warring factions who define the national interest to suit themselves. This means that the president is not fully in control of “his” system. He cannot disavow lawless actions taken by subordinates without losing his authority—which is why, for instance, he can’t allow honest investigations into the murders of Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya.
One irony of the current situation is that British Council staff fondly recall the assistant to the mayor of St Petersburg who in the early 1990s worked tirelessly to help the council set up its office in the city. His name? Vladimir Putin.
Salt of the earth (image, below): Las Salinas Grandes in Argentina is a giant 8,290km2 plateau of salt high in the Andes, on the border with Chile and Bolivia. Members of the Quechua, a Native American ethnic group, struggle to make a living from packing 50kg bags of salt; each sells for around 70 US cents.