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Visitors in Russia

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It is that time of the year again when I find myself programming our annual festival of arts, media, literature, film and music in Russia. This year, we have chosen Moscow for the celebration. Saint Petersburg was our magical playground in 2007. And I still cherish that very first Russian experience.

What do you do when you invite a musician from a true English rock band to give a talk in a foreign country as opposed to perform his music? After his intense Colombian trip, Alex James arrived in St Petersburg late October to represent Britain and talk about his inspirations when growing up. The record producer William Orbit was meant to join James in conversation but unforunately a few days before the event, he had to cancel the trip but James still came on his own. The last time he was in Russia, he had come with other members of Blur to perform in Moscow for thousands of wild Russian teenagers. Quite a contrast to this visit. We were not entirely certain how to commence the talk. Our host at the Prince Galitzine Library looked slightly concerned after introducing James and the other speakers. But then James broke the silence beautifully by breaking into a song. Not everyday you start serious talks with songs. It was unfortunate that the interpreters were not fast enough to translate James' lyrics. But still, the largely elderly crowd of women looked amused.

''I don't want to talk about 'the continuation of civilisation' if you don't mind'.' Stephen Frears uttered these words to me as I met him for the first time in the stately tea room of Sir Rocco Forte's Russian hotel, the Astoria in St Petersburg. The three hundred and four year old dramatic city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, founded by Peter the Great is dominated by magnificent buildings. The city's obsession with palatial homes and imperial museums is such that you find yourself staring at them on almost every street. The Russians I had met so far seemed perfectly charming yet slightly unimpassioned. But that was a deceptive mask, as I was to learn later in the week. Most Russians tend to be splendidly expressive when it suits them. Back to the tea-room: we could hear a piano in the background. Most of the participants, including Channel 4's news guru Jon Snow, former director of the National Gallery Charles Saumarez Smith (who now serves as the newly appointed CEO of the Royal Academy) and the erudite author Hanif Kureishi, who had just arrived from London were having tea or vodka but I chose red caviar accompanied by a large slice of chocolate cake. The weather was not yet intolerable as some had forewarned us in London but the word "freezing" would describe it well.

Although he expressed his reluctance to take part in a discussion on the aforementioned topic, Frears was looking fairly relaxed and dandy. Sabrina Guinness, sitting next to him, was clearly doing a good job in keeping him cheerful. I thought to myself "so far so good." Frears was of course referring to the festival programme. This time last year, a rather unorthodox idea emerged in my head to create a British-Russian cultural diplomacy festival in Russia's culture capital -- the hometown of Vladimir Putin. Given the increasing political tensions between Great Britain and Putin's Russia, it didn't sound like a wise venture at the time. I was repeatedly being asked to be sensible and reconsider my plans carefully by numerous contacts. I did exactly the opposite. Dogmatic though I sound, their advice encouraged me even more to host this celebration.

Eventually, we found a number of sponsors who seemed keen on the project and as a result we gave birth to Lufthansa Jewel of Russia. The festival programme appeared to be recherché if slightly on the heavy side. I had scheduled Frears to discuss whether the arts still serve as a vital platform in truly uniting cultures, encouraging multiculturalism and questioning it at the same time. Sorry if the subject alone puts you to sleep. What we didn't realise is that his office had actually forgotten to mention it to him which certainly explained his surprise. I was quite curious to see what the members of our British delegation made of Russia and indeed its people seeing as it was their first time in the former Soviet Republic. Many a time, I heard Kureishi commenting ''I have not met any Russians yet. Where are they?'' It wasn't long after that he had his chance.

''Did you know I was in his film The Queen?'' smiled Jon Snow over a contemporary version of borsch. None of us were particularly knowledgeable about the culinary habits of Russians, so we were pleased to find ourselves in a reasonably stylish restaurant looking over the Neva river with a menu which featured a wide range of choices such as beet carpaccio salad; cottage cheese and herbs; venison medallions with cowberry sauce and pelmeni stuffed with veal and pumpkin. For sea food obsessives, the chef had prepared shrimp with lobster sauce. The most intriguing part of the menu came in the form of "golubtsi and rice, vegetable and ground beef pilaf wrapped in cabbage leaves" to which the chefs had added diced tiger shrimp. Some of us were beginning to feel a little guilty about the prospect of self-indulgence on such a grand scale, which would always recur too soon over the next four days, having just landed in the country.

We had booked the entire place for our soiree, so understandably I sensed a feeling of curiosity in the air when the cultural personalities found themselves sharing the restaurant with a table full of ultra-macho, rough Georgian mechanics staring at them with a bewildered look on their faces. However, it did add volumes of character to the evening, especially when they started shouting out vulgar sounding words. Thank god, only they alone knew the meaning. The result was not so much unpleasant as stimulating.

Russia's cultural heritage, and its literary contribution to the world in particular, is mammoth. So it felt apt bringing cultural figures from Britain and connecting them with their counterparts in Russia in hope of a positive outcome and yes, fruitful dialogue. Sir Norman Rosenthal, the outspoken and legendary figure who heads exhibitions at the Royal Academy saw to that. At a discussion on visual arts at the Hermitage Museum/Winter Palace, Rosenthal called Jon Snow a shocking populist upon hearing Snow's question as to why cannot art be for anyone and everyone to appreciate and comment on. ''Because not everybody is made to understand it and like it" shot back Rosenthal with a mischievous school-boyish grin. I bumped into Rosenthal that evening, not knowing what to expect, at the Mariinsky Theatre concert hall where we were staging the Russian premiere of the opera Powder Her Face. I was relieved to discover Rosenthal shared the same sentiment. "You are Pablo? You actually exist!" I found him to be a fascinating character possessing a titanic wardrobe of wisdom.

Hotel lobbies in large Russian cities provide a rare sort of attraction. It would be safe to say they serve as a playing field for highly sophisticated and refined prostitutes. At least those in our hotel lobbies were. It is apparently the norm as prostitution is encouraged despite being ''not strictly legal''. So every night after nine, three or four ethereal looking ladies, wearing faux designer outfits, could be seen chatting among themselves while paying careful attention as not to lose potential customers' eye contact.

Alex James was asking around for directions to the local food market one morning. Preferably one selling all kinds of cheese. Not an unusual request from James who now specialises in that very field. His wish was granted but on one condition. He had to join the delegation to a visit to Dostoevsky's flat which now doubles as a museum dedicated in his memory. The historian Orlando Figes decided to go elsewhere. Thomas Ades, described as the enfant terrible of the British classical music world and Peter Donohoe couldn't join us as they needed to rehearse for their concerts. So we were left with a dozen of half awake artsy congregation discussing wide ranging issues on their way to one of Russia's greatest writers' home. One couldn't help notice the surreal juxtaposition of the literary museum and a sex shop immediately opposite.

A couple of the British guests decided to peek into the shop to study the differences between British and Russian sexual playthings of the 21st century. Unsurprisingly the sex shop was filled with glistening showcases crammed with every form of sex toy but curiously, there were very few punters considering it was a Saturday. Surely it must be common to make a trip to your local sex shop over the weekend whether you are in Reykjavik, Edinburgh or indeed St Petersburg? Did this mean they were all stocked up for the coming Winter or were the prices just too high? Most likely the latter.