Art exhibition thaws relations – a bit

It was business as usual as British and Russian officials put aside hostilities this week at the inauguration of the much-anticipated From Russia exhibition at the Royal Academy, which opens to the public on Saturday.

Attending the launch was Russian Ambassador Yuri Fedotov and British Minister for Culture, James Purnell, whose eleventh hour scramble to change Britain’s anti-seizure laws allowed the exhibition to go ahead.

A press officer at the Russian Embassy said he hoped this gesture of cultural diplomacy would “warm up” relations between Britain and Russia. However the absence of a top-ranking minister – customary at these blockbuster launches – suggests that relations remain chilly (even Iran managed a vice presidential appearance to open an exhibition on the Persian Empire in 2004).

But many suspected the exhibition would not even see the light of day as tensions between Russia and Britain were again ratcheted up this month when Britain Council refused to close down its offices in St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg, which the Russian authorities claim are operating illegally.

Russia responded by announcing that it would not issue further visas to British Council officials. The head of the British Council Office in St Petersburg, Stephen Kinnock, was also briefly detained for drink driving, but due to his diplomatic status was released without charge.

Locally engaged staff members of the British Council, however, have no diplomatic immunity and were visited by the FSB, Russia’s security service – a move that the FCO has branded “intimidation tactics”.

However, the British Council relented and has closed its offices temporarily.

Rumours in the British media that the FCO was planning to retaliate by expelling 34 diplomats at the Russian Embassy were denied by the Foreign Office. A press spokesman at the Russian Embassy also dismissed the stories as “utter nonsense”.