When British Prime Minister Theresa May expelled 23 Russian diplomats from UK soil on 14 April, Moscow’s response was both prompt and predictable. 23 British diplomats quickly found themselves being ferried across the Russian border, while the Kremlin joyfully extolled its policy of reciprocal retaliation — a long-standing touchstone in Putin’s response to this kind of Western “provocation”.

But while the diplomats’ expulsion remained firmly on the front pages, a second, far quieter victim of the Skripal scandal also surfaced. The UK’s cultural exchange programme, the British Council, was ordered to cease operations in Russia and asked to leave the country for good. The move is unprecedented in Russia, where the British Council worked throughout most of the Cold War since 1959.

Much of the organisation’s work involved promoting British culture abroad: spotlighting the benefits of UK businesses and universities, bringing British artists and institutions to foreign audiences and boosting the use of English globally. It’s undeniable that the concept of soft power lies at the heart of the British Council and other organisations like it. It operates as the Cultural Section of the British Embassy — although all but one of its 35 permanent staff are Russian citizens. Despite grandstanding at the foreign ministry, the group’s expulsion isn’t just a blow to British cultural influence — Russia itself is also set to miss out. In many ways, the decision to expel the British Council could be far more damaging to Moscow than the loss of a few embassy bureaucrats.

It’s this kind of work — the work that breaks down barriers and promotes global links — that has never been more vital

While the diplomats’ expulsion might mean a few extra weeks for Russians to wait should they ever submit themselves to the UK’s grindingly slow visa process, cultural exchanges bring tangible benefits, not only the country’s cultural scene but also its economy.

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    Backstage at the first Fashion Film Workshop, organised by British Council and Moscow Film School in 2013

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    Special feline guest at the the Shakespearean Passions Train launch in 2016. Image: TASS / Valeriy Belobeev

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    Shakespeare on the Moscow Metro. Image: Dmitriy Smirnov

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    Screening and panel discussion of the film The Building and Operation of Industrial Museums. Image: Polytechnic Museum

As well as being a popular pull for the Moscow elite on the capital’s lecture circuit — giving talks on entrepreneurship, film and fashion — the British Council ran master-classes, mentoring programmes and courses. While a handful of attendees may have been enticed to pack their bags and study in the UK, Russians didn’t need to leave the country to benefit from the programme. The vast majority took away practical lessons and vital networking opportunities to boost their own businesses and careers, in Moscow, St Petersburg and elsewhere. These Russia-based businesses have been slowly building the country’s blossoming creative economy — benefiting Moscow as much as London.  

The British Council wasn’t imposed on Russia — it was also used as a conduit to promote Russian culture in the UK. When Moscow wanted to launch its own branded metro car on the London underground, it was the British Council who first reached out to make contact with Transport for London. The organisation was a key partner in last year’s UK-Russia Year of Science and Education, just as it was in 2016 for the UK-Russia Year of Culture and Literature. Events were held in both countries to celebrate the occasion. A special competition challenged British children to review Russian books. The country’s artists were invited as special guests to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Edinburgh Book Festival and the Edinburgh International Festival. London’s Barbican Centre marked Russia Day with a one-off choral program.

If Russians have benefited from taking courses or masterclasses with the British Council, then British creators have also been able to use the group to break through their own stereotypes and preconceptions about Russia, working with the council to exhibit their work at events such as the Moscow Biennale.

Ultimately, it’s this kind of work — the work that breaks down barriers and promotes global links — that has never been more vital. Many Russians feel scorned by the West, leading to a siege mentality which is often encouraged by state media. Plenty of Westerners meanwhile, have come to see Russia as out-of-control and aggressive, dismissing Russians themselves as a mindless mass controlled by the Kremlin.

Cultural links and industry crossovers actively fight against these perceptions. They help people to meet with others who are similar to themselves, who strive towards similar creative goals, despite being separated by vast geographical expanses. They allow cultural figures, institutions and individuals to connect to each other as people, rather than identifying whole populations through the bombastic statements made by point-scoring foreign ministries. It drives home the point that arguments between governments do not — and should not — equal animosity between artists, creators, or anyone at all.

On Monday, 14 EU countries — as well as the United States, Canada and Ukraine — announced that they would expel Russian diplomats of their own in a show of solidarity with the UK government. The Kremlin has already announced that more US diplomats will be expelled in retaliation. A similar fate is likely to befall their European counterparts. What remains unclear is whether Russia will also stand to lose more cultural organisations, such as Germany’s Goethe-Institut and L'Alliance Française.

For the British Council, meanwhile, the future is uncertain. “We have cancelled planned events and suspended programmes in line with the instruction from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” the group said in a statement on Tuesday. “We are in discussion with the Russian government to find the best way of maintaining engagement between the UK and Russia through cultural and educational links.”

Despite tough talk on Twitter, both sides need to remember there are strong incentives to put aside the soundbites and find common ground. Without cross-cultural exchange, both the UK and Russia are set to lose out.

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