The 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture has its work cut out. Events in the two countries are intended to bring their peoples together through a celebration of their respective contemporary cultures. But now, understandably, the British government has cut it loose and no officials will be participating from now on. Russia, quite comically, is trying to give the image of business as usual. Fat chance of that.
But the show goes on. None of the exhibitions or shows in either country has been cancelled, and all will take place with or without diplomats in attendance. (In fact, most have already taken place – if the British Council was calculating that worsening diplomatic relations would make later events more difficult, then that was a good call.)
The lack of political involvement could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. As diplomatic relations sour, the need for cultural collaboration becomes all the greater, even when the context makes that an increasingly unlikely proposition.
Even before the current standoff, British attitudes to contemporary Russian culture and society were jaded, and well beyond anything that Putin or his regime could be blamed for. Putin himself has become a bogeyman for the Western media, a position that suits him well, and that will probably further his aims. But it is as much a result of suspicion of Russians in general as it is of his actions.
Popular attitudes in the West to Russia are deeply paradoxical. Typically, the representation of Russia in an English-language newspaper will begin with a front page story about corruption or some other evil in the Russian government, probably based in fact but reported in terms of Cold War stereotypes and clichés that make corruption in Slavic lands a foregone conclusion. Then you turn to the second page and find an effusive review of the latest Mariinsky tour to Covent Garden. That Russian culture is OK because it is old (an image that Russian opera and ballet companies feed with the stiflingly traditional fare they always take on tour). Nineteenth century Russian culture has become like Classical Greek culture – it has nothing to do with the people who actually live there now.
Contemporary Russian culture gets a rough ride in the West. Vladimir Jurowski, to his credit, has promoted a number of living Russian composers – Martynov and Raskatov among others - with the London Philharmonic. He hasn’t been thanked for it though, and the reviews have been universally negative (confession: I’ve been responsible for a few myself). But it is incumbent upon Western audiences to hear new music in terms of its cultural context, or at least not to dismiss it just for failing to meet our current modernist and individualist paradigms.
What’s left of the UK-Russia Year of Culture looks unlikely to tackle any of these issues in any depth, but anything that it can do to help is in the interests of both peoples. The recent activities of the Putin administration are rapidly forcing a pariah status on Russia. The West is right to impose sanctions and to put pressure on the government through by any necessary diplomatic means. But the cultural corollary helps nobody, and if we continue to distance ourselves from modern Russia, its culture and society, while still celebrating the Tchaikovsky ballets it periodically sends us, then sceptical Russians are right to see our view of them as deeply hypocritical.