Russia, the arts and the Ukraine crisis

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Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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We’re learning a lot from the forensic dissection in articles and television programmes of the run-up to the First World War, not just of history but, if we reflect a moment in the context of current events, ourselves.

More than one commentator has seen the historical coincidences between 1914, 1939 and 2014; how Europe strolled into the biggest global conflict ever by then seen 100 years ago and how the world is now in the early gambits of the diplomatic chess game in which the pieces include invasion, sovereignty, “areas of interest” and economics.

Apologists for the German invasion of Belgium, which was the first belligerent act of 1914, cited the preservation of their culture as a justification, and in England Wagner concerts were cancelled and those with even vaguely Teutonic names, including the British royal family, changed them to avoid xenophobic opprobrium.

The British Council is determined that in 2014 culture should not be a casualty of the Ukrainian crisis. In January, it launched the UK-Russia Year of Culture and its chief executive, the newly knighted Martin Davidson - something of a convert to the importance of the arts to diplomacy - is “monitoring the situation in Ukraine and Russia closely”.

Touring is vital to companies because, apart from the invaluable learning process of traveling to new venues and traditions, it can attract vital new funding from sponsors and philanthropists, a source post-Soviet Russian companies are only now learning to tap.

The programme is under way, including Chekhov and Shakespeare plays presented by British performers across Russia matched by West End performances by all-Russian casts of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters. They are getting Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre of Scotland and the RSC (celebrating Shakespeare’s 450th birthday there), while we’re also getting opera and ballet. There are 200 events altogether, setting out the thesis that there is really nothing to the alleged “cultural divide” among art lovers.

It has been a long haul for the British Council to get from the point when Russia was closing British Council offices there under the pretext of being nests of spies to the point at which the two governments could plan a year-long programme of cultural exchange. The frost only began to thaw after visits by David Cameron and William Hague since 2010 when they made cultural exchange a point of discussion, and it was as recently as January 2013 that agreement on the festival was reached.

But the fear now is that, while under normal circumstances touring artists would shrug off demonstrations against, say, the Russian government’s attitude to homosexuality which could reasonably be expected, in the febrile diplomatic atmosphere prevailing now the Russians may decide not to risk their artists against the anger of protestors against Putin’s actions in the Crimea. Worse, the Moscow government may believe that culture is a fair fall guy if it feels that the British are being less accommodating in diplomatic exchanges over Ukraine. As bad would be if the Russian authorities decided to withdraw their welcome to our performers, most of whom would be experiencing Russian audiences for the first time.

A high point of the Russian presence here this year will be the debut in London of Moscow’s Novaya Opera when they bring Borodin's Prince Igor to the London Coliseum for just five performances in April. Ironically, the setting of Prince Igor is the resistance of a valiant nation against an invading army, the nation being Russia.

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