02/12/2012 13:18 GMT | Updated 01/02/2013 05:12 GMT

If You Want to do the Business in Russia, Your First Date Should Be an Art Gallery

You can't do business in Russia without some cultural foreplay. That's my advice to UK plc as Russia assumes the presidency of the G20 group of major economies on 1 December.

The UK's ability to successfully trade with Russia is vital for both countries' economic future - for natural resources, skills, creative industries to name just three. As the sixth and 11th biggest economies in the world, and both with economic plans that put increased foreign investment front and centre, we need to get together.

But, in our haste to reap the rich benefits of trade with Russia, we forget one thing at our peril: In Russia, culture comes before commerce.

In a previous life, I remember well the 1990s 'goldrush' when Telecoms companies dashed into Russia - I worked for a big UK Telecoms company in Minsk, Moscow, and over the Urals into Siberia. And the constant in all three was that Russian Telecoms engineers were as knowledgeable about ballet, literature and UK music as they were about cell-phone towers and pylons.

Russia's artistic and cultural history is the history of the world in the 20th century - but it runs far deeper than that. Russia's artistic, musical, architectural, balletic, literary and design achievements - along with its science and technology - are sources of tremendous, justifiable Russian pride.

Anyone who wants to do business with Russia needs to know that Russians know their culture, value it, are well-read and cultivated. Russia knows it has cultural 'soft power' - remember the cultural, technological and propaganda arms races of the 20th century. Now this exists it in a more subtle form: the power of attraction and an incredible range of increasingly burnished cultural assets - take a look at the new Peterhof.

Our British Council #Trustpays research shows that only 27% of the next generation of Russia's business leaders are interested in doing business when they haven't participated in any cultural exchange with the UK. But, when they've had a chance to interact culturally with the UK - whether that's through learning English and enjoying our literature or experiencing UK art - the number interested in business opportunities with the UK rises to more than 50%.

And the more culture we've shared with Russians, the more likely they are to want to do business. Our research shows each incremental engagement ups the appetite. So we shouldn't just look at culture as an initial pleasantry that can comfortably be cast aside when the door to trade has opened. Once you've had that first date, a healthy interest in and respect for culture should underpin the whole relationship.

The British Council, like the UK in general, has had its difficult moments with Russia. As you may well recall, we closed our offices outside Moscow in 2007.

But culture has been at the heart of our own improved relations - just as it has for the UK as a whole. Last year we helped to take Henry Moore to the Kremlin and erected a statue of Yuri Gagarin - a gift from Russia - outside our London offices on the Mall, just across the road from one of our own great explorers, Captain Cook.

As Russia assumes presidency of the G20, expect culture to be firmly on the agenda - just as it was when President Putin visited the UK this summer.

In Russia, just as in so many countries, there's a simple equation:

Shared culture = Trust = Trade

My message to UK PLC is simple: Try talking culture with Russia before you try to do the business.