By Eugene Smith
A Durham University centre for Russian culture is sponsored by a government-funded foundation described as a “propaganda” arm of the state.
The Russkiy Mir “Sergei Averintsev” Centre, opened in April 2013 and located in Elvet Riverside, was founded to conduct interdisciplinary research and to “communicate the riches of Russian civilisation to the general public,” according to its website.
For setting up the joint centre, the University accepted a payment of £85,000 from the Russkiy Mir Foundation, which was established by President Vladimir Putin in 2007 with the stated purpose of “forming the Russian World as a global project.’’
The foundation is regarded as a Russian soft power initiative to challenge Western cultural tradition and has built links with various British universities, including the universities of Oxford and Edinburgh.
A December 2016 article in The Times newspaper claimed the foundation’s involvement with British universities constitutes a “secret propaganda assault on Britain from within its own borders.” The Tab Durham also ran an article on the centre in July 2016, citing the accusation of a source within NATO that, alongside Sputnik, Russia’s government-controlled news agency, the Russkiy Mir Foundation is “operationalising information to present a Russian view.”
In February 2014, the foundation supported a programme of seminars at St Antony’s College, Oxford, including one entitled “Cultural Memory in Sevastopol – Ukraine’s City of Russian Glory.” Sevastopol is a city in the southwestern region of Crimea, the Peninsula annexed by Russian forces one month later, in March 2014.
One Durham second-year, who studies at the centre as part of a Modern Languages course, commented: “The Russkiy Mir Centre basically provides extra resources and a place to work for students of Russian. That any university wants to accept setting up a centre to promote the culture of another country is great and I think many people do see it more negatively just because it’s Russia.”
When asked for comment, the University clarified that the Centre’s £85,000 opening fee has been used to “support repairs to, and equipping of, the Russian Centre … and to support the employment of a Director for the Centre”.
A University spokesperson also told Palatinate: “The Centre’s primary focus is to help students studying Russian at Durham University with their language learning. In addition, it helps interested students to learn more about Russian culture. The Centre welcomes a range of speakers with a spectrum of views. The [Russkiy Mir] Foundation has no influence – nor has it attempted to have any influence — over the activities of the Centre.”
The revelation of the foundation’s links to the university comes amid wider increasing scrutiny of the Russian government’s ties with British public institutions.
A University of Cambridge intelligence forum recently severed connections with a digital publishing house, Veruscript, due to allegations that it had received money from a Russian donor close to the Putin regime. Three convenors of the forum, including former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove, have also stepped down from the debate group, with the Financial Times reporting, albeit without full substantiation, that their resignations were in response to the suspicions of Russian government interference.
Meanwhile, in November 2016 the European Parliament drafted a Resolution recognising that “the Russian Government is aggressively employing a wide range of tools and instruments, such as think tanks and special foundations,” in combination with other organisations, “to challenge democratic values, divide Europe, gather domestic support and create the perception of failed states in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood.”
The recent spate of news stories about Russia has contributed to a wider media representation of the country that highlights the Putin regime’s alleged interference in foreign countries. These include ongoing operations in Ukraine, air-strikes against rebel forces in Syria, and reports of unconventional hacking during last year’s US presidential election to the benefit of the winning Republican candidate Donald Trump.
Photograph: Vicente Villamón