Is something rotten in the state of Denmark?

Maxine Peake as Hamlet. Source: Jonathan Keenan

Maxine Peake as Hamlet. Source: Jonathan Keenan

A Russian eye on what was happening in the UK last week: does soft power need gender equality?

Soft power in a hard shell

One in seven current world leaders have studied in the UK, British Council research has revealed. It shows that 27 of about 190 states of the world have a leader, either executive or ceremonial, who attended a British university or college. The British Council analysis has found that of Heads of State who have studied at universities abroad, the proportion of UK alumni is a close second to those who've studied in the USA.

Head of the British Council Education Professor Rebecca Hughes said "Having so many Heads of State spend part of their most formative years learning about and being part of UK culture is a fine example of how the UK's higher education sector is a long-term asset”.

Looking at the list of the current 26 world leaders with UK higher education one cannot but notice those most prominent in the news: President of Syria Bashar al Assad studied at London Western Eye Hospital; President of Iran Hassan Rouhani graduated from Glasgow Caledonian University; President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe has several degrees from the University of London.

Moscow can hardly boast such a high profile list but most of Mr. Assad’s ordinary compatriots studied in Russia in their thousands. Many engineers, doctors and other professionals in Afghanistan and the Arab world can still speak decent Russian. Prof Hughes would like the UK higher education sector and government “recognise that hosting a student is more than just someone spending a few years living here, it's the start of a life-long relationship."

Messrs. Rouhani, Mugabe and al Assad can hardly complain about lack of interest in their postgraduate fortunes from the country that gave them the grounding in its culture. Dr. al Assad, for one, may be wondering why London is so intent on bombing a British alumni who was imbued with UK culture, out of his job.(After all, wouldn't Dr. al Assad be wondering why London was so intent on bombing a British university alumni, imbued with UK culture, out of his job?)

To be She for He

The alumni list makes a grim reading to the gender equality activists. Among the 26 British educated world leaders just one is a woman -  Queen Margrethe II of Denmark.

Of course, one royal may be worth many commoners but is not enough to satisfy the feminists. Leading English theatres have announced their intention to make changes in their programming and working practices to tackle gender inequality in the theatre industry. Sheffield Theatres said it hoped to balance the number of men and women actors in its in-house shows "within the year", BBC reports. It quotes artistic director Daniel Evans as having said his pledge was "not just about numbers, but also about the scope and range of parts female actors get to play".

The living playwrights will hopefully oblige to come up with more female characters but what about the classics of the ages past? The Royal Exchange in Manchester has offered a solution by staging a production of Hamlet with Maxine Peake in the title role. One may suggest staging more of Chekhov, after all the main characters in “The Three Sisters” are exclusively female. A

ctors are now at the forefront of the HeForShe campaign, a “solidarity movement for gender equality” spearheaded by Emma Watson of Harry Potter film fame and a UN Goodwill Ambassador. The talk is of the need for more role models that will help change attitudes to gender equality. One such role model from Russia has just blasted off to the International Space Station. Before the lift-off Yelena Serova, an engineer and a mother had to field mildly sexist  questions from the press as to how she would look after her hair aboard the ISS. She replied by wondering why the journalists were not as equally interested in the hair styles of her male companions.

Money out of the air

One can only envy the astronauts who travel light and need no cash nor cards to survive in outer space. Not so lucky for us the mundane air travellers, especially those who have had the misfortune to take off from Gatwick. A Sussex Police Community Support Officer has been convicted of swindling passengers at Gatwick Airport out of thousands of pounds.

She tricked travellers by telling them they had too much cash as they boarded long-haul flights at the North Terminal. During the trial, the court was told how the officer approached passengers and told them they could not take more than £1,000 in cash out of the country. They were reassured that the impounded money would be handed back upon their return. The officer collected 13,500 pounds through this hardly sophisticated trick. Makes one wonder how gullible those passengers were.

At Moscow airports, for example, excess cash is dealt with by the customs cashier’s office under a well-documented procedure, with an option to transfer your dollars and pounds into travellers’ checks. Russian passengers would be extremely surprised to see a police officer checking their wallets at the departure gates, especially these days when most are content with carrying credit cards instead of wads of cash.

Curtain raiser

Peeking into other people’s wallets is nothing compared to the phone hacking scandal which has seen 87 people arrested so far.

Trinity Mirror has become the latest media group to admit that some of its journalists were involved in phone hacking. It admitted liability and will pay compensation to four people who sued for the alleged hacking of voicemails. Six other phone-hacking claims have already been settled. A further 19 claims are registered at the High Court and another 10 claimants have indicated they will bring proceedings against Trinity Mirror.

But it’s not just the phones that can be used for hacking into private lives. A CCTV operator has been jailed for spying on a woman in north Belfast with a police camera. The 51 old man was convicted of voyeurism and misconduct in a public office at Antrim Road police station. The court heard how he had directed a camera at a woman's apartment for 79 minutes over a 26-day period to spy on her for his own "sexual gratification". The camera was tuned to monitor a city intersection but the operator used it to zoom into the apartment to watch the woman in the “state of undress”.

Well, you don’t have to be a CCTV operator to peek into Britain’s homes. What really puzzles many Russian visitors to the United Kingdom is the absence of curtains or blinds in most properties. Some put this down to the “open” nature of the British society, others – to the desire to save on blinds. Or, maybe it’s because of the long and cold winters that curtains are more important to the Russians than to the British. They keep the warmth in and the peeping Toms out.

Nikolai Gorshkov is a freelance writer based in London. He served as a BBC correspondent and representative in Russia and the former Soviet Union from 2001-2012.


Read more: A British eye on what was happening in Russia last week

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