Paul de Quincey

The director of the British Council in Russia discusses the country's centralised schools system, the changing perception of the teaching profession, the power of the oligarchs and the impact of the Pussy Riot affair. Interview by Henry Hepburn Photography by Colin Hattersley

What does your job entail?

The British Council is the cultural representative of the UK overseas - culture in a broad sense, which can include language teaching, science and sport. I run an office of 35 staff in Moscow. I double up as the cultural counsellor in the British Embassy.

What do people in the UK not know about Russia that they should?

There are certain stereotypes around the Cold War and high literature. People probably think of Moscow as fairly hostile; actually, it's a delight to work in. Not the easiest place - there are huge traffic jams - but a massive, cosmopolitan city of 11.5 million people. If you're into cultural life, it's absolutely tremendous.

What's been your most memorable experience in Russia?

Going to St Petersburg for the first time, one winter. It's a stunningly beautiful city.

Supporters of the city's biggest football team, Zenit, have called for the club to stop signing black players. How bad is racism in Russia?

It is a problem in St Petersburg. The city is almost in a timewarp. It's not quite caught up with reality yet. The integration of ethnic minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues - those sort of things are not really accepted in St Petersburg.

How would you describe the education system in Russia?

It's becoming more internationalised; there was a big push from President Medvedev - as was - to modernise Russia, including higher education. But it's a bit like turning the Titanic around - there's a massive infrastructure, quite a state-controlled one. You wouldn't find the same kind of independence as UK universities have.

So the schools system is centrally driven?

There's a very centralised curriculum, but again it's being overhauled. It's not as centralised as in France, however, where you have the same lesson going on in classes around the country at the same time.

An Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development briefing on Russia showed education spending at school level far below average - but more people go to university than in other countries. Is higher education a bigger priority?

Yes. In one sense you fend for yourself at secondary age, and if you get through to university, that's where the investment is.

The same briefing showed that no other country had as high a population of female teachers in secondary schools. Why would that be?

I guess there's a fairly traditional view that the male is the breadwinner, and teacher salaries are not particularly high. Men might be more inclined to work in banking or the financial sector, or some kind of commercial role.

So teaching is not held in high regard?

It's changing slowly - there have been some fairly substantial pay rises in the past year or so. But teachers are very well respected.

How strong is democracy in Russia?

It's a different form of democracy. You have to put it into context: democracy is very young, barely 25 years old, whereas the UK has had centuries to refine it. The huge size of Russia is an issue, and there are so many ethnicities and language groups. There is a question about whether you could ever run Russia using the same kind of political democracy as in the UK.

How much power do the oligarchs wield?

It depends whether they are in favour or not. People like (Alisher) Usmanov and (Roman) Abramovich are allowed by the Kremlin to do business in the way they want to. But the UK rich list has Russian oligarchs at the top - how much power do they wield in the UK?

Is corruption a big issue?

Most people would acknowledge that it is, even within government. Putin, purportedly, is striving to drive out that corruption. But it will take a long time because it is so endemic.

Did the Pussy Riot affair receive as much attention in Russia?

Yes, it grabbed the headlines for quite a while - but probably grabbed the attention of the Western press more. A lot of people couldn't care less, but as a symbol of resistance to the Kremlin's power it's still there. There was a debate about the closeness - or not - of the Orthodox church to the Kremlin, but that wasn't really picked up in the Western press. It's difficult for people in the UK to imagine the shock and horror that the religious part of the population felt when that display took part in the main cathedral.

How do Russians view the UK?

There's a bit of suspicion because of connotations around the Cold War and spying, but the younger population generally sees the UK as a funky, cool place - a leader in fashion, rock music, theatre and dance. The number of visas issued in the past year has gone up by about 30 per cent; EasyJet has just started direct flights. They see it as a nice place to live.

Does Scotland even register?

People know the beauty of its landscape, bagpipe music, most will have seen pictures of Edinburgh Castle - it's pretty stereotyped. But more and more people are travelling outside London, and gradually perceptions are changing.


Born: Devon, 1954

Education: Sutton High School, Plymouth; BA (Hons), Certificate in Education, master's degree, University of Leeds; advanced management program (AMP), The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, US

Career: English and drama teacher; various roles with the British Council over 32 years, including director of Venezuela, Americas, UK, France; and regional director Russia and Northern Europe; for the past two years, director Russia.

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