Russians defend banned British Council caught up in spy row

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Moscow (AFP)

From plans for a Shakespeare statue to film festivals and English teaching, the British Council has suspended all its projects in Russia for the first time in almost 60 years after Moscow banned the arts and education organisation.

Moscow announced the restriction on the British Council on Saturday along with diplomatic expulsions in response to London's moves over the poisoning of Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

Britain has blamed Russia for the March 4 nerve agent attack in the English city of Salisbury and has expelled Russian diplomats from London amid a deeping public row.

The British Council said it was "profoundly disappointed" by the Russian foreign ministry's ban and on Thursday confirmed the cancellation of "all scheduled events and programmes".

The organisation, which has worked continuously in Moscow since 1959, organised high-profile events in Russia including visits by writers Julian Barnes and Jonathan Coe, film directors and artists including Sam Taylor-Wood and Peter Greenaway and actor Ian McKellen.

It also organised popular film festivals and in 2016 launched a Shakespeare-themed train on the Moscow metro, and in turn artistic Russians were able to visit the UK and build cultural ties.

- In shock -

"I can only say it's a great loss for the culture of both countries," said Yekaterina Antonenko, who conducts a vocal ensemble and has just won a grant from the British Council, which also sent her to Britain this year on a fully paid trip.

"For me it was just a shock, that announcement on Saturday. I talked to them on Friday and nothing suggested anything wrong."

She said the decision was particularly sad as the British Council has recently built up its activities in Russia, adding she had little interest in politics. "Culture is something different," she said. "It's above that".

A group of top Russian-language writers including Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich from Belarus and acclaimed novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya has also signed a statement backing the British Council.

Writers who are members of the Free Word Association condemned a "decision that is destructive to the arts -- and that means Russia's future".

Moscow has formally banned the British Council because of alleged problems over its legal status.

Mikhail Shvydkoi, President Vladimir Putin's envoy for international cultural cooperation, told TASS state news agency that Russia did not want to "tear apart and cease cultural relations with Britain in general, in particular with the British Council".

But he said the political situation had made it impossible to show "good will" and overlook the legal problems.

Lawmakers have accused the British Council of acting as a cover organisation for spies.

MP Nikolai Kovalyov, former head of the FSB security agency, told TASS that "very many" secret services officers work in organisations such as the British Council "since it's a very good front organisation for an agent's activities".

- 'Painful to see' -

A petition calling for the ban to be lifted on Change.org was launched by 16-year-old student Mikhail Safronov and has gathered more than 7,000 signatures.

"The British Council has not come under such pressure in any country except Russia," he wrote.

Safronov, from the city of Zheleznogorsk in the southwestern Kursk region, told AFP: "It was just painful to me to see what's happening between Russia and Britain -- our countries should be friends."

He said he used a English-learning website, took part in competitions and visited the British Council's "wonderful" library in Moscow.

"The British Council has done a lot of good to us, possibly more than a government ministry," he said.

As relations sour, Russia's education ministry has confirmed all "joint educational programmes will be halted".

- Shakespeare statue -

The British Council's ban has also thrown into doubt a plan to erect a statue of William Shakespeare in central Moscow.

City officials said last year that the statue would go up by 2019 next to a museum dedicated to British merchants, with the British Council covering the costs.

A design competition was set to launch in April with the head of the British Council in Russia, Michael Bird, on the jury.

"I can't comment on the decision on the statue," said project head Yelena Petukhova, who works at the Moscow Union of Architects.

"We are waiting for the British Council's decision. It's their decision."

The British Council was hit by a previous freeze in relations following the 2006 murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium.

In 2008 it was forced to close its centres in the cities of Saint Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, leaving only one in Moscow.