Cultural managements

Top private school hosted British head of Kremlin cultural agency linked to Russian intelligence

A leading private school for girls hosted the head of the British branch of a Kremlin cultural agency linked to Russian intelligence, The Independent can reveal.

The British leader of Rossotrudnichestvo spoke at the £16,563-a-year Oxford High School at a ‘Russian lecture’ in 2019, which was attended by more than 150 pupils from private and public schools – even posing for a photo with participants in front of the agency’s logo.

Anton Chesnokov also spoke at the same event in the fall of 2018 – months after the Salisbury nerve agent attack, allegedly carried out by a Russian squad, which left a woman dead.

In 2017, the school also hosted First Secretary Sergey Gushchin of the Russian Embassy, ​​in the presence of students from Eton College.

The UK’s Rossotrudnichestvo Facebook page has mentioned the Oxford Girls’ Day School – whose alumni include actresses Dame Maggie Smith and Miriam Margolyes, and convicted sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell – on several occasions.

In 2019, he posted photos of students receiving their visa applications for a trip to Russia, as well as photos of them during the visit.

But the school said The Independent that Rossotrudnichestvo “had no involvement” in the events mentioned on his Facebook page – saying “we can only assume they were picked up by the agency from Oxford High’s Twitter feed”.

A report by the Henry Jackson Society think tank published in late 2018 said Rossotrudnichestvo – whose UK branch was based in west London near Kensington Palace – harbored undeclared intelligence agents.

Rossotrudnichestvo’s UK headmaster Anton Chesnokov (left) with Oxford High School’s Head of Russian Ekaterina Solovyova and the school’s headmaster at the time Dr Philip Hills at the 2018 conference

(Oxford High School/Twitter)

In 2013, it emerged that the FBI was investigating whether the American director of an exchange program Rossotrudnichestvo was smuggling Americans as possible intelligence agents.

The Russian embassy in Washington has denied that the cultural center is involved in the recruitment of spies, The Washington Post reported.

The revelation of Oxford High School’s association with Rossotrudnichestvo comes after the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on Thursday voted to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council following its invasion of Ukraine . On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russian troops of committing the “most terrible war crimes” since World War II.

Oxford High School’s website detailed how the Russian conference in November 2019 was “large in scale and had a bigger impact than anything we’ve seen before”.

The publication on the website revealed the involvement of Mr. Chesnokov from Rossotrudnichestvo in the proceedings at the school and posted a photo of him posing surrounded by pupils.

In the background, a screen displayed the Rossotrudnichestvo logo.

“The day ended with a gracious message of encouragement and support from Mr. Anton Chesnokov, a representative of the Russian Cultural Center Rossotrudnichestvo,” the website reads.

According to the school magazine, Mr Chesnokov also attended the same event in 2018.

The fall 2018 edition of Minervathe magazine of Oxford High School, includes an article on the day.

It reads: “This term, Oxford High School hosted a conference for over 50 A-level students currently studying Russian at OHS, Harrow… The event culminated in some inspirational words from Anton Chesnokov, the director of Rossotrudnichestvo (House of Russian Culture).”

The conference came just months after the nerve agent Novichok was used to target former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in March 2018. Then Prime Minister Theresa May said to MPs later in the month that it was “very likely” that Russia was responsible.

Servicemen wearing protective suits investigate the poisoning of Sergei Skripal on March 11, 2018 in Salisbury

(Getty Pictures)

Dawn Sturgess, a woman later exposed to the nerve agent, subsequently died in July 2018. The Russian government has denied any involvement in the attack. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has authorized charges against three Russian agents suspected of being behind the attack.

In November 2017, the school also hosted First Secretary Sergey Gushchin of the Russian Embassy for a one-day conference.

“The Head of Russian Studies at Oxford High School, Ms Ekaterina Solovyova, organized a fantastic one day conference on Tuesday 28th November for almost 40 British students from Eton to St Paul’s, all studying Russian A level “, an article on the Girls ‘says the website of the Day School Trust.

A July 2018 post on the UK’s Rossotrudnichestvo Facebook page, along with photos, read: “Another wonderful morning spent in the junior department at Oxford High School, Oxford, with very enthusiastic and brilliant third-year linguists!

In March 2019, the agency posted a photo on Facebook of students from the school, accompanied by Russian principal Ekaterina Solovyova, filing their visa applications for a trip to Russia.

In April 2019, his Facebook page also posted photos of students from the school during the visit to Russia.

The school confirmed Mr Chesnokov visited twice, for the 2018 and 2019 conferences.

A Henry Jackson Society report titled ‘Putin Sees and Hears All: How Russian Intelligence Agencies Threaten the UK’, from November 2018, stated: ‘The Russian trade delegation, based in leafy Highgate, is believed to be home to also a number of undeclared people. intelligence officers, as was the case during the Cold War.

“The same goes for Rossotrudnichestvo (the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation), whose offices are located off High Street Kensington.”

Orysia Lutsevych, researcher and head of the Ukrainian Forum of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, said The Independent that Rossotrudnichestvo – a Russian state agency created in 2008 – is an “ideological outfit that implicitly justifies violent revisionism”.

She said: “Rossotrudnichestvo was reaching out to educational institutions in order to mold the younger generations in the West but also in Eastern Europe and expose them to Russian ideology and the worldview of leaders.

“Using Russian culture as a medium and as a way to get people interested in events, the strategy is to distract from a stark departure of the modern Russian regime from the very humanistic tradition of a segment of Russian culture.

“Russian leaders carry out repressions, poison the opposition, censor, participate in many illegal armed conflicts in the region, support dictators.”

Taras Kuzio, research associate at the Henry Jackson Society, said: ‘It is unusual for the director of such an organization to take on such a micro-managing role in such events. I would see it as a talent scouting for future potentials. Also, to spread a pro-Russian line among the elites of the British establishment.

He added: “When the Soviet Union existed, all these types of structures that were outside the Soviet Embassy were always staffed with many KGB agents. So I don’t think it would have changed much because the people in charge of Russia are former Soviet KGBs.

“Since Putin’s well-known February 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, Russia has taken an aggressive stance toward the West in diplomacy, intelligence operations, and seeking to expand its influence.

“The number of Russian intelligence officers in the west is at the level of the worst relations between the west and the USSR during the Cold War. I think this type of activity is increasingly seen as a information.

According to Mr. Chesnokov’s LinkedIn profile, he was chief executive of London-based International House from August 2010 to December 2021. He is now listed as an “advisor” and “NED” in a “Charity Fund”, with London, Dubai and Moscow given as locations.

In a statement, Oxford High School said: “Oxford High School hosted Mr Chesnokov as part of a Russian language conference in 2019. He was part of a balanced program which included many different speakers with points different points of view, in particular British diplomats, university professors. and a British intelligence officer.

“Ms. Solovyova invited Rossotrudnichestvo to send a representative as part of her role inviting all guest speakers to the event, as one would expect in her capacity as Head of Russian. Formal protocols were observed, such as for all guest lecturers at the school, and it was made clear to Mr. Chesnokov that opinions different from his would be presented.

“The conference took place at a time when Russian relations and engagement continued in all aspects of British cultural life.

“Russian is one of six languages ​​taught at the school and the conference (one of many to be held at the school that year) was an integral part of the school’s language offer at that era.

“For example, the school also liaised with the Alliance Française as part of its French offering and had French and Spanish visitors speak to the school in similar circumstances.

“Rossotrudnichestvo had no involvement in the Oxford High School events mentioned on Rossotrudnichestvo’s Facebook page and we can only assume they were taken by the agency from Oxford High’s Twitter feed. Neither Oxford High School nor its staff received any donations from Anton Chesnokov or Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian Embassy or the Russian state.

“Under the current circumstances, Oxford High School has no contact, and does not plan to have any, with Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian Embassy or other Russian state bodies.”

Harrow School had no comment.

Eton College said: ‘Eton teaches Russian at A level. In 2017 a small group of pupils attended a language and culture symposium at Oxford High School and a teacher from Eton contributed to a introductory session on the study of Czech.

“Eton students or staff did not attend the symposium in 2018 or 2019. Eton received no funding from Rossotrudnichestvo or the Russian Embassy.”

The Independent contacted Mr. Chesnokov, Rossotrudnichestvo and the Russian Embassy in London for comment.