Billionaires quaffing champagne on superyachts, trophy football clubs, capacious swimming pools excavated from basements in Belgravia: in most British minds, images of Russian life are conditioned by the exploits of a few high-profile individuals with vast wealth and the willingness to spend it.
This year, however, the UK will be exposed to a different view of Russia as a sweeping programme of cultural events gets under way in the UK – and British arts organisations head east to showcase the best of their own in a series of projects across Russia.
The UK-Russia Year of Culture will be “the biggest ever” such exchange between the two countries and marks “a huge improvement in cultural relations”, according to its organisers, the British Council and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Its scale is ambitious. The official launch comes in April, when film director Peter Greenaway opens a multimedia installation showing 400 works of art from Russian museums and collections at Moscow’s Manege Museum.
Other highlights of the UK programme in Russia include an appearance by the world’s most famous spy, with the Barbican’s Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style at Moscow Multimedia Art Museum. A major retrospective of the Young British Artists will go on display at the Ekaterina Foundation, with works from Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, while touring stage performances will include productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, the Young Vic and Shakespeare’s Globe. Prized ceramics by Josiah Wedgwood from the Lady Lever museum in Liverpool will be shown for the first time alongside Wedgwood pieces from Russian collections such as the Hermitage.
In the other direction, the Russian expedition to Britain will feature a Kazimir Malevich show at Tate Modern – the first UK retrospective of the radical artist for 25 years – and performances by the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra and the Sretensky Monastery Choir, founded in 1397.
The programmers have construed “culture” broadly: a landmark exhibition at the Science Museum in the autumn will see items from Russia’s space programme come to the UK for the first time – including spacesuits, rocket engines and cosmonauts’ capsules. The museum calls it “the most significant collection of space artefacts ever to leave Russia”.
Such cultural exchanges are intended to allow relationships to be forged between institutions and individuals outside the combative arena of politics. But the 2014 programme comes at an uncomfortable time for broader ties between the UK and Russia. The relationship is still in recovery after the murder in London in 2006 of the former Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko. The subsequent diplomatic dispute enmeshed even the British Council, which suspended operations at its two Russian regional offices in 2008 after accusing the authorities of intimidating its staff.
Further strains came with the arrest – and subsequent release – of British Greenpeace activists, while Russia’s new laws against so-called homosexual propaganda have sparked criticism from human rights groups and western governments. Stephen Fry, the British writer and actor, called for the UK to boycott the $50bn Sochi Winter Olympics over the issue.
Leigh Gibson, executive director of the UK programme heading to Russia, says the British Council followed a policy of “engagement” in the face of such disputes. “Cultural links provide one of the best opportunities to air issues where we might agree – or disagree. We’d always seek to keep the channels of communication open.”
While art might sometimes defuse political tensions, it can often become a battleground for ideological differences. Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, says: “When you’re getting involved with creative people you have a lot of competing agendas at the same time … Creative communities might like to see this as an opportunity to make a point. So both governments will be keen to see it doesn’t get out of their control.”
Funding comes from a mix of sources. Some commercial tours already scheduled have been wrapped into the programme. Others will be subsidised by a combination of British Council funds and individual and corporate sponsorship. BP, a main sponsor, has not revealed the level of its contribution to the year but the British Council said the total value of events would be comparable to the £10m that was spent in a similar programme in China in 2012.
Ms Gibson says the British Council’s contribution in that case had been £1m. “So you can see it’s a pretty good return on investment,” she adds.
From the UK point of view, though, will the Russian imports bring new artistic perspectives? London, already known as a global capital of culture and a magnet for wealthy Russians, regularly hosts institutions such as the Bolshoi Ballet, while Somerset House held its Hermitage Rooms exhibition, with rotating loans from the St Petersburg museum, from 2000 to 2007.
Elena Sudakova, founder and director of the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design, a not-for-profit company that works with Russian institutions to bring art to the UK, says the year of culture will nonetheless be “a big step forward”, particularly for Russian visual arts. Western views have been skewed by the country’s isolation during the Soviet era, she says, when the commercial activities of the big auction houses defined the understanding of Russian art, rather than conventional exhibitions organised between national institutions or in academic research.
Her gallery in London’s Little Portland Street – established as an attempt to redress the balance – will take part in the culture festival with an exhibition of Soviet film posters of the 1920s (from January 17), a show of propaganda textiles and an exhibition about Russia’s experience of the first world war, a period seared on the British consciousness but eclipsed for most Russians by the trauma of revolution and civil war.
“There are some really important trends that started in Russia that got lost along the way because the country was closed for such a long time,” she says. “Even Russians are discovering aspects of their culture for themselves now.”