Interview with Prince Michael of Kent

HRH Prince Michael of Kent GCVO is the Patron of the RBCC and has been visiting Russia regularly since 1992. John Harrison and Simon Green from RK met up with him in late March, on the occasion of the ‘Gryphon Award 2019, the RBCC Independent Schools Young Musician of The Year’ (see write up here), at Brookes School in Moscow, where he presented the Award to the winner. In this interview Prince Michael speaks about Russia-British relations, the importance of music and his vintage car rally days.

Prince Michael presenting the ‘Gryphon Award 2019, the RBCC Independent Schools Young Musician of The Year’ to the winner, Elizaveta Malysheva, at Brookes School Moscow, March 2018, © Brookes School.

Prince Michael, how important do you consider music in education to be?

Prince Michael addressing attendees at The Award, © Brookes School.

I think that music extends and broadens your education experience. It gives you a love of music for life. I learnt to play the piano and the bassoon at school, without huge success I have to say, and I didn’t go on with either of them. I did play in the school band though, and I played in the school corps band. I was determined to learn how to play whilst marching, and I did eventually learn how to do that. But when I looked up from my music sheet which I had been studying avidly as I marched, I found out that I was on my own, the whole of the rest of the band having turned left in the meantime!

Could schools from all over the world come together under the banner of a music award like this?

Music is one of the greatest means of bringing people together. We in Britain are engaged in a year of music and culture with Russia, and music knows no boundaries. You can use music to bind people together. I’ve been involved in many things in the musical world here. There is a wonderful organisation that was founded at least 25 years ago, maybe more, called ‘Новые Имена’ (New Names), and that was designed to give a platform to very young musicians from about the age of nine to make their names. These young musicians were and are very impressive. I’ve heard them playing all over the world. These children are new names on the block, but some of them, 10 or 20 years later, have become household names. For example, there was one boy I met in Geneva, in the headquarters of the United Nations, who was playing there. I met him again about 25 years later when he was giving a concert recital for Mikhail Gorbachev and Lady Thatcher in the State Apartments. I looked at this young man, and asked if we had met before. And he said, yes, we met when you came to Geneva 25 years ago.

This interview will hopefully be read by many people. Can I ask you what message do you think this award is broadcasting to the world?

I think that however strong your convictions may be, and this particularly concerns young people, it is always important to try to understand other people’s points of view. Just because you don’t agree with somebody, you don’t say I’m not going to talk to you until you change your mind. Because then you are left with a permanent rift. You have to make much more of an effort from a diplomatic point of view to keep the dialogue going. I believe very strongly in that. This is true of anywhere, not just our relations with Russia.

Do you still enjoy coming to Russia?

I have been coming here since 1992. The place attracts me like a magnet. Russia has always had the most accomplished cultural practitioners, whether they be musicians, artists or poets. They have a deep understanding of the emotions of human experience.

What is your favourite piece of Russian music?

That is a very difficult question. I think my favourite piece would be Shostakovich’s 2nd piano concerto. Because it seems to embrace the very brutal first movement with the very soft, subtle passages that follow in the Largo. It embraces the rough with the smooth.

And your favourite Russian author?

It is very difficult for me to say, as I would not seek to compromise anybody by choosing just one. But I think that Dostoevsky stands out, for me, as does Griboyedov. I am reading: ‘Горе От Ума’ (Gore ot Umа/Woe is Wit) at the moment.

What do relations here with establishments like this school, Brookes International School mean to you?

They are very important. In order to maintain links with any group of people, in this case, with a whole nation, you have to keep the dialogue going. This has never been more important than now. This particularly applies to education, where common interests apply and can be built on and encouraged. The more effort one makes to support such links and common goals, the better.

And your role with the RBCC [the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce], what do you actually do with them?

At the RBCC ‘RussiaTALK Investment Forum’, November 2017. Prince Michael is the Patron of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce. Photo © John Harrison

Our purpose is to keep the trade channels between our two countries going in both directions. This is of vital importance in difficult times. I normally come here once or twice a year as the Patron of the RBCC, and I attend their conference in London as well. We have a difficult situation at the moment, without our offices in St. Petersburg which were taken away from us last year, so it is hard on those who are operating out of Russia.

The good news is that in spite of all the very real problems, we are still going strong. The Chamber was founded in 1912, and there have been one or two obvious incidences in Russia since then, which we have survived. In a way, the present situation can be regarded as being no more than a hiccup. The Chamber is very solid. There is a great deal of good will on both sides. Whenever I visit, I find that despite whatever the differences may be, whether it be in Moscow or on the Federal level, people are always very friendly and want to help. That is the key to it, and that’s a very positive thing. So there are good signs.

What is the ratio between Russian and British companies in the RBCC?

Alf Torrents
Executive Director RBCC

In terms of corporate companies, it is about one third Russian and two thirds British.

Is that mainly British companies contemplating coming here to Russia?

Or here already. We also link Russian companies up with British companies in the UK.

Apart from your RBCC activities, do you have other reasons to come to Russia?

Yes. I twice led a rally of vintage cars to Russia, once from Brooklands in Surrey to Moscow, and once from Ekaterinburg to St. Petersburg. And I have driven a motorbike from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk, which is alongside the Chinese border. I’ve been all over the country from Murmansk in the North, to Samara and Krasnoyarsk in the South. I find it fascinating.

The interesting thing about the Russian language is that although it is used in such a large country, people speak the same dialect wherever you are. This is in contrast with many countries such as Britain. East Anglia, for example, is ridden with rivers which flow from West to East, and they are all more or less parallel. Until bridges were invented in the late 1700s, large strips of land were divided by the rivers. The dialects in these strips of land differed. If you have a highly attuned linguistic ear today, to a lesser extent than before, you can work out where people are from. I do think that the Russian regions are very important, and for reasons which are obvious now, we don’t have as much contact with them as we would like, and I’d like to extend our [RBCC] presence across Russia. In the old days, 10 or 12 years ago, I went all over the place with the Chamber, and I’d like to do that again. I think there is a feeling, despite everything, that given the funding, people would like us to extend our influence. I have a great interest in small businesses in England, as do the Russians, and likewise the British have a great interest in establishing contacts with small to medium size businesses in Russia.

When I went on the first rally to Russia, we started from Brooklands in Surrey, drove to Harwich and we crossed over to Denmark, then drove on across to Sweden, into Finland and then Russia. The number of friends we made, and the amount of goodwill that we experienced was extraordinary. Just think, this was 1999, and how things have changed. The reception we received en route was very Russian. When we went from one Oblast [district] to another, the police who were escorting us changed. One would think that the old police would simply wave farewell and the new police would say hello. But we were stopped, not on the hard shoulder, but in the middle of the road for 20 minutes, while the old police said goodbye and the new police said hello. Hot on their heels came people in national costumes and dancers, yes, dancers, followed by people carrying trays of vodka – despite the fact we had to drive another 100 miles that day. They said: “Come on!” Those were wonderful times and one hopes that some of the friendliness of those days will return.