At Large

The KGB vs. Shakespeare

The latest Tempest from Moscow.

By 1.24.08

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For some time Russia has acted as if it is spoiling for a fight -- nothing physical, just something to impress friends, neighbors and its own citizens with how tough it is.

The latest in the Putin regime's rather perverse effort to gain respect is its harassment of the British Council, the officially backed organization that informs and instructs worldwide in things British.

The Kremlin has been deeply resentful that their campaign to crush Chechen dissidence has not been accepted as a war against terrorism. They were particularly unhappy with the British for giving political asylum to Boris Berezovsky, the former Russian "oligarch" who the FSB (heir to the 2nd Chief Directorate of the KGB) charged with stealing billions of dollars from the companies he controlled during the Yeltsin era.

These actions, and the American plan to put an anti-missile system in Poland, have been used by Putin to challenge the peaceful motivation of the U.S. and U.K. toward Russia. Moscow has refused to increase pressure on Iran's nuclear development. They have been adamant in their support of Serbia on the question of Kosovo independence. They even have resumed Cold War-type long-range bomber flights and threatened to bring the Russian navy back to the Mediterranean.

So what is so dangerous to the Putin regime's existence that the FSB has decided to make a target of the British Council offices in Russia? These offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg in the Urals provide English language education, library facilities, exhibitions and theatrical events among other cultural activities.

DURING THE COLD WAR the idea that this cultural organization acted as a cover for British intelligence (MI6) was accepted by both the KGB and spy novelists. It certainly has been a convenient target.

As one Soviet diplomat said years ago when asked why Moscow didn't treat the U.S. Information Agency (USIA/USIS) the same as its British counterpart, "Frankly, they (USIS) don't do anything. They just sit there. Ha, ha." It was a clever way of putting down the Americans while obliquely condemning the Brits.

The Russian cold warrior had attempted to make a sly joke in his second language, though he had a point. The British have always been rather aggressive as "culture warriors," but of course in a decorous manner. The presentation of certain of Shakespeare's plays can carry a strong political message. It's amazing how touchy Russian officials can become over "Richard III."

The Russians today have far more specific problems with the British Council. The cultural agency has had considerable outreach among Russian journalists and dissidents who view the Putin regime as repressive of free speech. From the FSB standpoint this is meddling in internal politics. And this is the point where the real conflict between the two governments surfaces.

THE BRITS WERE livid at the poisoning of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London and subsequently demanded the extradition of another former KGB officer, Andrei Lugovoi, as a criminal suspect. The Russians refused to comply. The clear implication was that if there were to be no Berezovsky extradition there wouldn't be any questioning of Lugovoi.

The Russians ordered the British Council offices closed in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. The British refused in both places. Last week traffic police picked up Stephen Kinnock, the director of the St.Petersburg office, on a driving under the influence (DUI) charge.

He was released within 30 minutes, but the political point had been made. Kinnock is the son of Lord Kinnock former head of the British Labour Party and a European commissioner. He now chairs the British Council.

The Brits went ballistic, even to the point of having their new foreign minister, David Miliband , launch a stinging rebuke toward Moscow. The Russian tax police had made nighttime visits to Council employees' homes and generally intimidated everyone who worked for the cultural office. The charge was made by the Russian authorities that the British Council had not gone through the proper procedures for the opening of the offices outside of Moscow.

An administrative retreat line was thereby established and the experienced British Foreign Office followed the path indicated. The two branch offices are now temporarily closed and "The Tempest" is now, hopefully, in its final act.

For the ordinary public this event was nothing more than another amateur theatrical experience. But for the security services involved there was nothing amateur about it. The Russians are serious about sending signals that they demand respect on all levels, and will press all issues at home and abroad to make that point.

The question now exists to what extent the Kremlin intends to challenge United States and European positions -- and what the US/EU will do about it?

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.