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Interview with Rosemary Hilhorst OBE
Director, British Council Russia
Cultural Counsellor of the British Embassy.
Interview conducted by John Harrison
Photos by Alina Ganenko

You have been appointed director of the British Council in Russia and also cultural counselor of the British Embassy. How did this come about? How did you become interested in Russia?

I arrived here in September 2008. Within the British Council, our posts are awarded on a competitive basis, and internally advertised. We tend to be in a country for between three and five years. At some point towards the end of that period we have to apply for the next posting. I have now worked for the British Council for about 24 years in different overseas placements and in the UK. I have always been interested in Russia, but a suitable opportunity has never quite come up. Last year, however, the right job came up; I applied and was appointed, which was fantastic. So I am aiming to be here for as close to five years as I can.

Are the problems with the authorities here now coming to an end?

I came in after the most difficult times in 2008, and wasn’t here when the St. Petersburg office was closed, which was very difficult for us. There is a double answer to your question. There are still big tax cases going through the courts in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and we are taking these very seriously. Those arguments are still on-going, but many, many companies are familiar with this situation in Russia, and I think we have to see it through the court system. On the other hand, we have had huge restructuring. We are now down to 25 people in this small Moscow office, and that is down from over 180 people in 15 cities before 2008, so there is a difference! So now we have to be realistic about what we can achieve. In fact, there is immense freedom in being a small team in the capital city. It means that we have to focus and we need to give Moscow itself more attention. Also, we need to pay more attention to developing our projects and developing those with partners; rather than managing buildings and spaces and that kind of thing. So in a way, it’s been quite liberating. We’re developing a new program now for the next three to five years, and it’s very exciting.

Does this mean that you have to delegate more responsibility to your partners?

The days of us just signing a check for something to happen are long gone. What we want to do now is work with a partner right from the beginning of an idea and ask ourselves: what do we want to do with this, what do we want to get out of it, who should we be working with, where should we work and what should we be doing? An example might be the Chekhov Theater; perhaps the key theater organization in Russia. We have worked with them in the past, and some of the links formed in the past have created the opportunity for UK theatrical companies to come out here. This July, for example, Matthew Bourne is coming out with his company doing Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, which should be great. We are talking with them about the future and we hope to be working on a project with them and the Royal Shakespeare Company over three or four years which will both go to support the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Russia Season in the UK and also help us to be able to bring UK theater here. So the Chekhov Theater is an example of a crucial partner, where we get completely engaged and monitor progress together.

So the work of the British Council includes taking Russians to the UK, not only bringing British arts people here?

We do both, but there are also Russian organizations working in the UK that have the remit to bring Russian culture to the UK. What we try to do is to make sure that there is mutual benefit, which means that you are talking about exchange. It’s about sharing what we have. We see ourselves as being a bit of a broker between Russian and UK organizations sometimes. You put them together and then it happens. We can help put some different kinds of partners together who wouldn’t normally connect up. We also do a lot with young people, for example there is the Chevening scheme which helps send bright young Russians to the UK to study. There is Education UK, where we are promoting study in the UK, and other projects like the Young Creative Entrepreneurs which identifies creative young people [Russians] in the creative industries and giving them an experience in the UK.

We know that the British Council library closed, but we also know that you recently donated your collection of books to an existing library within the library of Foreign Literature here at Nikolyamskaya Ulitsa, 1. Would you like your own library back?

Actually, no. So many books are published globally these days, and you need enormous resources to keep them all up to date. A lot of books are available to people in different ways now, both through other libraries and also things like Amazon. We made sure that when we came out of our centers across Russia that the materials were handed over to our partner institutions, so they weren’t

lost. I’d rather we put our money and our time into other programs, such as concentrating on literature. We have a lot of exciting projects in this area coming through; working with publishers, readers and authors.

Are you happy with what you are doing now in Russia?

I’m happy with what we’re doing, and I’m happy with the plans that we are beginning to develop. In the last twelve months we’ve reached one million Russians in one way or another. We are increasingly reaching people through our web services. Most of our English language work is concentrated on providing materials, ideas, communities for teachers and learners through the web, and that will reach every part of Russia that has access to the Internet. So we feel that putting effort in that direction makes it possible to reach more people. I’ve been quite humbled in my first few months here at the demand for what we do, in spite of the difficulties.

I read that the British Council was cutting back on promoting visual artists from the UK. Has that now been resolved?

I won’t simplify this as it was quite complicated. This issue was well rehearsed in the British press a few months ago, particularly in The Observer when Michael Craig-Martin, one of our top artists wrote about this. It coincided incidentally with the re-opening of the Whitechapel Gallery in London. One of the opening exhibitions was the British Council collection. What it demonstrated is how we use this collection around the world. Every piece of art had its passport attached to it; showing where in the world it had been exhibited over the last decade. That exhibition demonstrated how we try and use the collection and send it round.

I think in Europe, and I include Russia within that, we went through a stage of realizing that an awful lot of contacts between the UK and Europe happen anyway. There are very good relationships built up. Whether we get involved or not, there is an awful lot happening. The question is; where do we put our effort? In the last couple of years, the British Council has been trying to rethink that quite carefully. There was a consultation exercise at the end of last year and the beginning of this year with the arts community in the UK about what we can really support. For Russia we have come up with what we are calling Creative Russia, which is sort of an umbrella for the work we want to do between the UK and Russia in the arts. I think we did lose our way a little bit for a little while, and resources had something to do with that, but I think we are back on track and that in Russia you’ll see a new approach coming through.

Can culture be transferred?

What the British Council would say is that our business is cultural relations. And that is all about people in different parts of the world meeting in some way and gaining an understanding of how different people approach life. I think that cultural relations are critically important, and need to be understood properly. We tend to feel that it is an area of expertise around the world in 110 countries, something that we have built up over 75 years; it’s the 75th anniversary of the British Council this year. It’s all about how you get people together, how you broker those sorts of engagements, how you make it easier, and how you facilitate. You can’t just put 10 nationalities in a room, particularly if they’re 18- or 19-year-olds, and think that they’ll get on with each other. You have to provide a safe space where that kind of dialogue can take place.

In Russia, there is a phenomenal amount of tradition in culture, in the arts and in literature in particular. For me, my first interest in Russia was caused by reading classical Russian authors as a teenager. They are incredible. Understanding comes with knowing more. Sometimes I think that views in the 21st century are very shallow. They come from a very quick reading of Wikipedia or something. Some of this needs a lot more work, and if we can help that to happen, that is worthwhile.

Are you here with your family?

My husband comes and goes, and the reason he comes and goes is because we have two children, and they are now grown up and have just started earning their own living. When I was moving around to different countries with the British Council, my husband Francis stayed at home and brought up the children. He was the main carer, which was fairly pioneering at the time I think. Now that they are both doing their own thing, he went back to university. He chose his life-long passion: art, and his degree show is on this week. In the autumn he’s going to start an MA at Goldsmiths College. I’m really proud of him. He comes here as often as he can. He enjoys Moscow - especially the contemporary art scene which is terrific here.

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