Spy poisoning sees British Council's Russian literature programmes 'suspended'

Spy poisoning sees British Council's Russian literature programmes 'suspended'

A number of arts and literature programmes run by the British Council have been "suspended" following the UK's fall-out with Russia over the Salisbury spy case.

The organisation was told to cease operations in the country over the weekend after prime minister Theresa May pointed the finger at Moscow for the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

The British Council's work in Russia, which in the past has included the largest and longest running annual literature seminar outside the UK, is currently "suspended".

The British Council has said it is "profoundly disappointed" by the order to cease operations. 

With a mission to "connect the UK with the next generation of Russians", the British Council in Russia was established in 1959 and since 2008 it has been operating from a single office in Moscow, employing 35 staff, one of whom is a British diplomat. Its work focuses on the Arts, Education & Science, and the English language.

"It is our view that when political or diplomatic relations become difficult, cultural relations and educational opportunities are vital to maintain on-going dialogue between people and institutions," its statement read. "We remain committed to the development of long-term people-to-people links with Russia as we do in over 100 other countries."

In 2017 the British Council reached out to almost 9 million people with its arts programme in Russia, a continuation of its UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature 2016. Among the events and activities was its "Shakespeare on the Moscow Metro" exhibition enjoyed by 3 million people. 

It also represented the UK at the 18th International Book Fair, when 33,000 people visited its "Literature is Great" pavilion, while its programme of 76 events with UK writers, including Julian Barnes, attracted 42,000 visitors. Meanwhile, according to the British Council, its annual Literature Seminar is "the largest and longest running outside the UK". Hosted by Yasnaya Polyana, the estate-museum of Leo Tolstoy, it included critically acclaimed authors such as Sunjeev Sahota, Louse Welsh and Owen Sheers.

The British Council gathered a party of Russian and British writers, artists, photographers and musicians to explore and perform in five Russian cities in late 2016 as well. The travelling art residency - known as the "Trans-Lit" project - was organised as part of the Year of Language and Literature and travelled along the route of Russia's Trans-Siberian railway visiting Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk.

A spokesperson for the British Council said the organisation wouldn't be able to comment on the future of its arts and literature programmes at this time. However, it confirmed it would be "suspending operations whilst we work through the implications of Saturday's announcement". Further updates will follow.