Two weeks ago, an estimated three billion people around the world tuned in to watch the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics. Like Danny Boyle's acclaimed ceremony for London 2012, our event gave a whistle stop tour through our nation's proud history and culture, albeit with a little less British humour. The popularity and indeed scrutiny of these events is a powerful reminder of the importance of culture and history in shaping both a country's own national identity and its understanding and appreciation in the international community.
The UK and Russia are nations that have both been blessed with rich cultural heritages with great artists, composers, writers and performers known throughout the world. And alongside this history, we also have vibrant contemporary cultures which is why I am delighted that this year, starting on 24 February, has been designated the first UK-Russia year of culture.
Organised by the British Council and the Russia Ministry of Foreign Affairs the scope of the festival is ambitious: Over 50 major events will take place across the UK alone including a Kazimir Malevich show at the Tate Modern, the Maslenitsa Festival in London's Trafalgar Square, tours of Maestro Yuri Bashmet and the Eifman Ballet slated for the London Barbican and performances throughout Britain by the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra and the Sretensky Monastery Choir. In April, the British film director Peter Greenaway will open a multimedia exhibition showing 400 works of art from Russian museums such as Moscow's Manege Museum.
In Russia, British imports will include a look into the world's most famous spy, with the Barbican's Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style at Moscow Multimedia Art Museum. A major exhibition of the Young British Artists at the Ekaterina Foundation will also take place and touring stage performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic and Shakespeare's Globe will be presented across the country.
But what does this blaze of culture mean for the two countries?
Relations between our two great countries do not always run smoothly and we would be mistaken to think that a cultural festival such as this is the answer to all the challenges we face. I do, however, believe that it signals a way in which relations can be reinvigorated, refreshed and revived. Indeed, even during the most testing moments in our recent relationship, cultural exchanges have continued. In 2008, months after diplomats had been expelled from our respective Embassies, the Royal Academy hosted an exhibition of paintings from Russian's four principal museums - the first time works from these museums had been gathered for a single exhibition.
This is important because there are many things that we share culturally. But it is equally important because it helps us recognise and appreciate our differences in a way that builds understanding about each other as well as ourselves. I think this can manifest in two important ways.
Cultural linkages and connections lead to more creativity. From Dostoyevsky to Shakespeare, Pushkin to Dickens, the Romanovs to the Tudors, Thon to Wren - great artists, architects and writers have enriched the dialogue between our countries. This cultural interaction and sharing helps us question the simplistic stereotypes that programmes such as the Fox series - Meet the Russians - all too easily shape.
The second important factor is that cultural linkages lead to better business and trade ties too. In recent years Russia has become an increasingly important trading partner for the UK. The country is the UK's fastest growing export market and in 2012 British exports to Russia increased by 15%, reaching £5.5billion. With trade comes cultural interaction too. Deeper cultural links are the vital grease that oils the cogs and without it the great potential for further business growth could be missed.
And we should not forget the importance of the creative industries to the economies in both our countries. In the UK, the sector is one of the fastest growing industries, contributing 6% of GDP and employing over two million people. In Russia, cultural and creative arts hubs in St Petersburg and Moscow are gaining momentum and filtering into the fabric of these celebrated cities. Greater cultural ties between our countries have the potential to be a catalyst for more growth and collaboration in these sectors too.
In a year when we have opened our country up to the world through the biggest winter sports event ever seen - the Winter Olympics, I strongly hope that by building our cultural and creative links through this cultural Olympiad, our nations will find further understanding, new opportunities and greater awareness of what brings us together rather than what divides. I believe that this can be the legacy of the UK-Russia year of Culture and I for one cannot wait for it to start.
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