An interview with the Chairman of the Westminster Russia Forum.
At a recent debate you said Russians in London should stop reinforcing stereotypes by ‘partying like Russians’. What other stereotypes of Russians do you think are being perpetrated? And where have they come from?
I was speaking specifically in regard to the stereotype of Russians being attracted to symbols of wealth and power. I think it’s a phenomenon which partly stems from being able to individualise and distinguish themselves now, in contrast to much of their history over the last century. It’s not a million miles from a problem that we have in Britain too, with the addiction to celebrity culture and the fact that many young people want to be famous rather than successful or happy.
There is a feeling that Russians are equally addicted to wealth, but whilst some are, most are not. There are millions of poor Russians, and thousands of Russian students living in the UK who don’t have money to throw around and aren’t able to drink Crystal in China Whites every weekend. Which is why I think it’s a shame that most Russian parties are held at such venues. Not only does this exclude people, it also reinforces a negative stereotype.
There is of course a much more dangerous stereotype that is constantly being regenerated by the media. This stereotype always links Russians to crime, corruption, impropriety, espionage … even murder. Of course there have been well publicised events that are at the forefront of peoples’ minds, and the fact that these haven’t been resolved makes this worse. But these are individual cases that can’t be applied in blanket fashion to an entire nation. If we tried to do similar with other nations or peoples, it would be labelled as ignorant racism.
There have been some shocking examples of this in the media in recent years, where individuals are splashed across newspapers, bullied and hounded out of jobs, even out of the country, on the basis of nothing other than their nationality or personal interests. It’s considered inexplicable that a Russian could hold a powerful job in the UK without being a spy, or that a Brit could have an interest in Russian politics without being paid by the Kremlin. Its outrageously small minded, but unfortunately it sells newspapers!
You mentioned being invited to Russian events often “hosted at a swanky venue with expensive drinks”, are there a lot of perks to your position?
I don’t consider it a perk to be invited to a bar where I have to pay £50 to walk through the door and another £150 for a bottle of wine. I’m a Yorkshireman, I’m much happier in a basic pub than a swanky bar!
I wouldn’t say anything is a ‘perk’ because I have had to work very hard to create WRF, to make it successful, to ensure that it functions as an organisation and that events go well, and I’ve had to fight against a lot of prejudice and unwarranted public attacks. But I hugely value having the opportunity to host events with incredibly interesting speakers that I never thought I’d stand in the same room as, and I love meeting such a wide range of people and hearing different views. I think it broadens the mind.
It has been reported recently that Russia has been sending missiles to Assad. Is there any defence of this?
I’m not here to defend or promote anything that the Russian Government chooses to do. I like to see an open debate, because such issues are rarely straight forward.
Personally I think that sending more arms into such a turbulent region is likely to enhance the problem rather than resolve it, but this goes for both sides. Its very easy to get into a ‘tit for tat’ situation like we had in the Cold War because an imbalance on either side can be destabilising.
It is also far too simplistic to label Assad as the only problem, and the ‘Opposition’ as the only solution. This is something we’ve been taught time and time again in international affairs, not least in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Westminster Russia Forum has a picture of jailed band Pussy Riot on its front page. What are your thoughts about the Russian government’s treatment of opposition groups?
We have many pictures on our rolling banner on the front page, all of which are relevant to the current political scene in Russia, which of course Pussy Riot is.
I must stress that we work very hard as WRF to encourage open and free debate, and the provision of information, facts and arguments on both sides so that people can come to their own views. I think this is very important, so as an organisation we try not to insist on a group view because there is a wide mix of opinions within it.
Personally, I thought the treatment of Pussy Riot was excessive and I have said so several times. In particular I disagree with people being jailed for long periods without trial.
However, there are a number of issues that I have been really struck by. Firstly, there is a huge chasm between the views of normal Russians and those of people in the West on this. One reason is the cultural difference – in our more secular society it is hard for us to imagine the strength of disgust many religious Russians felt about Pussy Riot’s actions. But then nobody outside Britain would understand why we arrest and jail someone for jumping into the Thames during the Boat Race. The magnitude is obviously different but the principle is the same, that universal judgements are problematic and why should we tell them what to think?
Another reason is that there has been a major misreporting of this case. It was described as an arts or music group jailed for demonstrating against Putin. Little was said about their other exploits such as bestiality and sexual acts in public places, or that their ‘protests’ were wide-ranging and largely without response, and of course that they are neither musicians nor artists.
This is not to justify the penalty, but it does frustrate me when the truth is clearly manipulated for the sake of creating a good story whilst denying people the information they need to make their own judgements.
What mistakes do you think the UK is making in its relationship with Russia? Should we be more vocal on human rights abuses?
I think the UK is quite vocal about these issues, but it often appears to be patronising and judgemental, and rarely takes into consideration the difference of cultures and the transformational nature of modern Russia. And it is very easy for Russia and other nations to accuse the West of not practicing what it preaches. Our politicians naturally respond to pressure to raise the well-known issues whilst ignoring lots of underlying problems, but they also know that economic and international realities sometimes override issues that should be raised.
I also think the UK creates resentment in Russia due to the granting of asylum to a host of individuals, some of which need it but several don’t. Even for those in need of asylum, to have a situation where London is the destination of choice is really problematic. We can’t expect to harbour alleged wanted criminals and terrorists without creating animosity. This only contributes to the negative stereotypes in the UK and risks London becoming a battleground for those with various vested interests.
Boris Berezovsky’s death was declared as suicide. Did you, as many did, think there may have been something else behind his death when you first heard about it?
My initial thought was that I could anticipate how it would be reported. What I don’t think is sensible to do is assume that every dead Russian is a murdered Russian. It is clear that Berezovsky had many enemies so it is understandable that such an assumption would be made but jumping to conclusions in the initial stages when facts and evidence are hard to come by is a very bad practice.
I think the evidence seems to point to suicide. We recently held an event about the legacy of Berezovsky with Mark Hollingsworth who authored Londongrad, and he was also of the opinion that it was unlikely to be murder. There were many mixed views amongst the audience and of course people seek definitive answers but sometimes they simply can’t be given.
The reality is that nobody knows any more than what the police have determined, but people like to join the dots to create a conspiracy theory that sounds more interesting. It’s no surprise that people with newspapers and books to sell encourage this.
In the wake of the Boston Bombings, a lot of people have been looking toward Chechnya and issues there, do you think the Russian government has acted badly with regards to the region?
What we should be looking at with regard to those events is the fact that terrorism is a universal problem. There is a temptation to view attacks on the USA and UK as a separate category because it feels closer to home, but the Russians have been dealing with terrorist attacks on their own territory for decades without much Western sympathy. Putin was one of the first to attempt to make this clear and encourage multinational cooperation on such issues but there is a real reluctance. There can certainly be arguments about the Russians using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but then we use jet fighters and missiles. I think all nations with a common interest in fighting such terrorism should be working together wherever possible.
There is a prevalent stereotype of Russian businesses being corrupt and immoral. Your group works a lot with companies with UK/Russia ties, do these stereotypes give you any misgivings in your work?
As long as I get asked questions like that I know I need to work harder to overcome such stereotypes. You’re referring to the well-known cases rather than considering the millions that don’t get reported.
During the 1990s there was corruption and immoral business practices on a massive scale, some of which still exists. But there are an awful lot of genuine businesses, particularly small and medium sized ones, that work hard to succeed and are not corrupt. Many trade with the UK, and similarly many British businesses trade with Russia without issue. It’s a different world and an economy in transition but that requires us to seek greater understanding rather than labelling.
John Mann is the guest speaker at your event in the House of Commons in July. As PR advisor to Roman Abramovich you must be expecting him to give an interesting speech. What do you think attendees might get out of it?
Given that Abramovich is virtually silent publicly, this is the closest anybody is going to get to the man himself! I think it will offer an interesting glimpse into the life of somebody who is so much in the public eye. Mann’s PR strategy of “less is more” is an unusual one for a celebrity and for a Russian, so it will be intriguing to hear what goes on behind the scenes. I imagine he also has to do a lot to overcome the stereotypes that we have talked about already, I’m personally very interested in his views on the problems facing famous Russians in the West and how to overcome them.
Then of course there is the venue! The Houses of Parliament is such a special place and to have an event on its terrace overlooking the Thames is a great way to spend a summer evening. Did I mention the free wine and canapés?
Westminster Russia Forum hosted an event about UK-Russia energy links. Do you think, with the increasing state involvement in oil and gas, that Russia will ever take to a stance more supportive of renewable, cleaner energy?
Actually Russia is one of the world’s largest producers of renewable energy. There are still a large number of Soviet era hydro-power stations.
Unfortunately countries and businesses usually only change such things out of necessity. It is only relatively recently that the UK has been talking about fears of running out of resources, and this has led to investment in alternative sources, but it is still a huge debate here, lots of people are unconvinced by renewables. I suspect that as long as Russia has such natural resources available, it simply won’t put the effort and finance needed into research and development of other opportunities. I think that is a great shame because diversity of supply is important, and I also think that whatever your views on ‘climate change’ the steps that we could take to improve the situation are ends in themselves.
On a lighter note, though I’m sure you get this constantly, you’re the Public Affairs Manager for Ladbrokes – any hot tips?
I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t say that first and foremost my tip is to only bet what you can afford and do so in a responsible manner.
I personally usually bet on politics, I think you can make a fair amount on things like the next party leaders. With the exception of Gordon Brown, the initial favourites very rarely win leadership elections and the eventual winners are often dark horses. I backed Ed Miliband at 33/1 and Barack Obama at 16/1 back in 2007 before the first primaries when everyone expected Hilary Clinton to win. But you have to know your stuff and spot potentials way in advance, by the time people are talking about it in the papers it is too late!
On horses, I’m convinced that the less you know, the better you do. Pick a name you like! I’ve won on a horse called Russian Flag!
Richard Royal is Chairman of Westminster Russia Forum (www.wrforum.org.uk)
Tickets are still available for the event with John Mann on the House of Commons Terrace on 11th July, visit the website for details.