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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Simon Murphy

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


A top private school for girls hosted the head of the UK arm of a Kremlin cultural agency linked to Russian intelligence, The Independent can reveal.

The UK head of Rossotrudnichestvo spoke at £16,563-a-year Oxford High School at a “Russian Conference” in 2019, which was attended by more than 150 pupils from private and state schools – even posing for a picture with attendees in front of the agency’s logo.

Anton Chesnokov also spoke at the same event in autumn 2018 – months after the Salisbury nerve agent attack, believed to have been carried out by a Russian hit squad, which caused a woman’s death.

In 2017, the school also welcomed the first secretary Sergey Gushchin from the Russian Embassy, with pupils from Eton College in attendance.

Rossotrudnichestvo’s UK Facebook page has mentioned the Oxford girls’ day school – whose alumnae include actresses Dame Maggie Smith and Miriam Margolyes, and convicted sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell – on a series of occasions.

In 2019 it posted photos of  pupils getting their visa applications submitted for a trip to Russia, as well as pictures of them during the visit.

But the school told The Independent that Rossotrudnichestvo “had no involvement” in the events mentioned on its Facebook page – saying “we can only assume that they were taken by the agency from the Oxford High twitter feed”.

A Henry Jackson Society think tank report in late 2018 referenced that Rossotrudnichestvo – the UK branch of which was based in west London, near Kensington Palace – was home to undeclared intelligence officers.

Rossotrudnichestvo’s UK head Anton Chesnokov (left) with Oxford High School’s head of Russian, Ekaterina Solovyova, and the school’s then head, Dr Philip Hills at the 2018 conference (Oxford High School/Twitter)

In 2013, it emerged the FBI was investigating whether the US-based director of a Rossotrudnichestvo exchange programme was clandestinely recruiting Americans as possible intelligence assets.

The Russian Embassy in Washington denied that the cultural centre was involved in the recruitment of spies, The Washington Post reported.

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

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

The website post revealed the involvement of Rossotrudnichestvo’s Mr Chesnokov in proceedings at the school and displayed a picture of him posing surrounded by pupils.

In the background, a screen displayed Rossotrudnichestvo’s logo.

“The day was wrapped up by a gracious message of encouragement and support from Mr Anton Chesnokov, a representative of the Russian Cultural Centre Rossotrudnichestvo,” the website post said.

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

The autumn 2018 edition of Minerva, Oxford High School’s magazine, includes an article about 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 (Russian Culture House).”

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. The then prime minister, Theresa May, told MPs later that month it was “highly likely” Russia was responsible.

Military personnel wearing protective suits investigating the poisoning of Sergei Skripal on March 11, 2018 in Salisbury (Getty Images)

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 authorised charges against three Russian agents suspected of being behind the attack.

In November 2017, the school also welcomed the first secretary Sergey Gushchin from the Russian Embassy at a one day conference.

“The Head of Russian Studies at Oxford High School, Mrs Ekaterina Solovyova, hosted a fantastic one-day conference on Tuesday 28 November for nearly 40 UK students from Eton to St Paul’s, all studying A level Russian,” a post on the Girls’ Day School Trust website said.

A July 2018 post on Rossotrudnichestvo’s UK Facebook page, with accompanying pictures, said: “Another wonderful morning spent at Junior department of the Oxford High School, Oxford with very enthusiastic & bright Year 3 linguists!”

In March 2019, the agency posted a picture on Facebook of pupils from the school, accompanied by head of Russian Ekaterina Solovyova, getting their visa applications submitted for a trip to Russia.

In April 2019, its Facebook page also posted pictures of pupils from the school on the visit to Russia.

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

A Henry Jackson Society report entitled, “Putin sees and hears it all: how Russia’s intelligence agencies menace the UK”, from November 2018 stated: “Russia’s Trade Delegation, based in leafy Highgate, is also thought to be home to a number of undeclared intelligence officers, as it was during the Cold War.

“So too is Rossotrudnichestvo (the Federal Agency for the commonwealth of independent States, compatriots living abroad, and international humanitarian cooperation), whose offices are off High Street Kensington.”

Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow and manager of the Ukraine Forum in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, told The Independent that Rossotrudnichestvo – a Russian state agency established in 2008 – is an “ideological outfit that justifies implicitly violent revisionism”.

She said: “Rossotrudnichestvo was reaching out to educational institutions in order to mould young generations in the west but also Eastern Europe and expose them to Russian ideology and leadership’s worldview.

“Using Russian culture as a medium and a way to interest people in the events, the strategy is to divert attention from a stark departure of modern-day Russian regime from the very humanist tradition of a segment of the Russian culture.

“Russian leadership conducts repressions, poisoning of the opposition, censorship, participates in many illegal armed conflicts in the region, props dictators.”

Taras Kuzio, an associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, said: “It is unusual for the director of such a body to take such a micro-management role in such events. I would see this as talent spotting of future potentials. Also, of spreading a pro-Russian line into the elites of the British establishment.”

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

“Since Putin’s well-known February 2007 speech to the Munich Security Conference, Russia has adopted an aggressive posture towards the west in diplomacy, intelligence operations and seeking to spread its influence.

“The number of Russian intelligence officers in the west is at the levels of the worst relations between the west and the USSR during the Cold War. I think this kind of activity is increasingly seen as intelligence operation.”

According to Mr Chesnokov’s LinkedIn profile, he was managing director at “International House” based in London from August 2010 to December 2021. He is now listed as “advisor” and “NED” at 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 a small part of the balanced programme which featured many different speakers with different viewpoints, including 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 would be expected in her capacity as Head of Russian. Formal protocols were observed, as with all guest speakers to the school, and it was made clear to Mr Chesnokov that views different to his own would be showcased.

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

“Russian is one of six languages taught in the school and the conference (one of several to take place at the school that year) was a normal part of the language offering at the school at that time.

“For example, the school similarly liaised with Alliance Francaise as part of its French provision and has had French and Spanish visitors speak at the school in similar circumstances.

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

“Under the current circumstances, Oxford High School has no contact, nor does it plan to, with Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian Embassy or other Russian state bodies.”

Harrow School did not provide comment.

Eton College said: “Eton teaches Russian to A Level. In 2017 a small group of pupils attended a language and culture symposium at Oxford High School and an Eton teacher contributed a session on an introduction to studying Czech.

“Eton pupils or staff did not attend the symposium in 2018 or 2019. Eton has not been in receipt of any funding from Rossotrudnichestvo or the Russian Embassy.”

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

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