Presenting on Peacemaker Robert Monteith in St. Petersburg via California

 

— James Manteith (Apraksin Blues, Mundus Artium Press)

 

In the wee hours of one morning in May 2021, it was my privilege to have a chance to give a remote Russian-language presentation on my distant kinsman, the Scottish gentleman and anti-imperialist peace activist Robert Monteith, as part of an academic conference in St. Petersburg, Russia.

 

His old clan has employed a bewildering number of spellings across the centuries and continents where they’ve wandered: Monteith, Manteith, Mantooth, Manetheth, Mineteth, Munteitht and many more. Rendering variants of the name in Cyrillic opens yet more possibilities. Ideally, such fluid calibrations might transcend clannishness in favor of basic humanity. 

 

Read an English version of this presentation here.

Delivered from Apraksin Blues‘s base in California’s Santa Lucia Mountains, my presentation glossed a paper written in St. Petersburg two months before. Toward the end of our five-month stay there, extended by the vagaries of the coronavirus pandemic, improvisation within Blues communities had supported a renewed acquaintance with Monteith.

 

The theme of the May conference, hosted by the International Association of Historical Psychology, had been defined as “Societal Atmosphere on the Eve of the Wars of the 19th and 20th Centuries: Historical and Psychological Aspects.” A similarly titled conference anthology contains the Russian version of my Monteith paper, now included here in the Russian Index of Scientific Citation.

 

The paper’s title translates as “Robert Monteith: A Knight for Peace”; the formal abstract appears in both Russian and English:

 

The views and work of Victorian gentleman Robert Monteith provide a valuable example of evolving attitudes toward justice in response to the ever-looming shadow of war among rival imperial powers. Monteith’s search for means to achieve peace was deeply personal and fundamentally mindful of cultural and spiritual traditions. Despite the arguable subjectivity of some of Monteith’s political views, especially regarding the actions of the Russian Empire, his advocacy of principles and virtue underscores the potential of peaceful cultural dialogue for adequate self-determination on an individual and societal basis.

 

While preparing the paper, I had known only an informally stated conference theme, defined as “premonitions of war.” The association’s leader, historian and retired decorated colonel Sergei Poltorak, had suggested this general topic toward the end of the group’s prior conference.

 

That preceding conference had taken place toward the beginning of Blues editor-in-chief Tatyana Apraksina’s and my second month in St. Petersburg. I had also participated in that conference remotely, but due, at that point, to social distancing restrictions.

 

Fittingly, the late 2020 conference, the association’s 48th, had been devoted to the theme of “Historical, Psychological and Social Aspects of the Effect of Epidemics on People and Society”; I’d written and spoken on “Art in the Time of Pandemic,” basing my observations on a haunting painting Tatyana had produced early in the era’s waves of lockdowns.

 

Curly-headed, jovial Poltorak had acknowledged that “premonitions of war” would represent yet another rather heavy subject — the 47th conference, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II, had examined “The Great Patriotic War, the Wars of Russia and Problems of Historical Memory,” and the 46th had looked at “Russia and the Ukraine: Historical and Psychological Aspects of Relations.”

 

“What it feels like before a war would make such a great topic, though,” Poltorak had ventured. “There are so many interesting documents about that, including in memoirs and diaries. We have our 50th jubilee conference on the horizon; we can save some light-hearted topic for that!”

 

Both Tatyana and I had strong reservations about “premonitions of war” as a conference theme. In late 2020 and early 2021, social and geopolitical tensions were on the ascent in the world. The United States, even while gripped by its own civil unrest, was continuing to promote partisanry in Eastern Europe. Many in Russia also felt that the time was ripe for protest against their own government. Whether such disputes might spiral into civil or broader wars was anyone’s guess.

 

In that context, “premonitions of war” struck us as a conference theme verging on the disturbingly fatalistic, even if Poltorak could view it with professional aplomb.

 

In the early part of the new year, the former colonel and the association’s co-founder, East-West ethnography specialist and Blues author Tamara Partanenko, paid Tatyana and me a visit at her St. Petersburg studio. They reminded us to plan ahead for the upcoming conference. Tatyana expressed her intent to abstain; I was non-committal. “It’s a great topic,” Tamara said. “I’ll explain it more, and you’ll see.” Ultimately, though, even Tamara limited her own conference participation to her usual aid from behind the scenes.

 

At one point during their visit, Poltorak accidentally addressed me as John. Quickly realizing his error, Poltorak asked himself aloud how he could avoid such a slip in the future. “James,” he said, “like James Bond. Only you’re much nicer than James Bond!”

 

In February, sitting at the Apraksin Blues office with another of our longtime authors, philosopher Alexander Lvov, puzzling through the intersection between philosophy and historical context, I spontaneously recalled and described Robert Monteith’s ideas and story.

 

I had first encountered, studied and shared Monteith’s Discourse on the Shedding of Blood and the Laws of War some years before. It now occurred to me that Monteith, who had balanced many premonitions of war with a commitment to peace, might make an inspiring subject for a Russian-language audience. Tatyana voiced strong support for this idea.

 

Throughout much of our time in St. Petersburg, I sought to focus on directly engaging with and interpreting our experience there, suffused with art, music, philosophy, history and other facets of culture. It seemed strange to use any of our span in the city to research a Victorian-era Scotsman’s views on international relations and law. Yet Tatyana assured me that Russians would respond with fascination to this visionary gentleman from exotic environs. I came to feel a fresh sense of welcome for the Cambridge Apostle as an ally in confronting manifold faces of divisiveness, as a kindred spirit and benevolent influence, important to share in new settings.

 

Alexander sent me a copy of his relatively recent paper (a “Frankenstein monster,” he joked) contrasting the philosophical anthropologist Max Scheler’s thoughts about war’s place in the formation of national unity with more contemporary perspectives on conflict studies. Comparing Monteith with the Scheler of Alexander’s paper, which my own later cited, helped to perceive the Scotch convert’s diplomatic orientation as encouraging more compelling, sustainable dynamics of local and transnational identity than a military catalyst might achieve.

 

I wrote the paper in St. Petersburg in March, including some sessions ending past dawn. Winter eased and the northern daylight swiftly lengthened. In mid-April, Tatyana and I finally took the risk of journeying back from St. Petersburg to California. There was a reassuring continuity in the subsequent invitation to present the paper remotely,

 

A week or so before the May 17 conference, Tamara warned us that the United States, as part of new sanctions, was supposedly blocking Russian organizations from using the online tools chosen to facilitate the gathering. Whatever the case, the conference took place as planned.

 

Poltorak, spotting me on his video screen, asked whether I was currently in Petersburg or the U.S.  “What time is it there?” he wondered, then thanked me for “heroically” participating at 1 a.m.

 

Current events — including, in those days, dismaying renewed hostilities in the Holy Land — clearly made comprehending war and securing peace as painfully urgent as ever. Loosely clustered in St. Petersburg and Moscow, the remote audience listened graciously to the participants. Tatyana sat supportively just off-camera, by her choice.

 

Presenting from John Steinbeck’s native territory in California, I made mention of this. It seemed D.V. Rodin, the Moscow-based scholar who had opened the conference with an overview of Steinbeck’s Russian Journal, might find that connection meaningful. While preparing for the conference, I’d read and appreciated some of Steinbeck’s World War II journalism, a welcome coincidence.

 

Rodin expressed gratitude for learning about Monteith, a new name for him. There was little discussion time, but he asked me to clarify whether Monteith would have considered some wars justified — for instance, the Victorian era’s Crimean War. 

 

Monteith indeed had voiced opposition to the Crimean War, and although he posited that theoretically some wars might be justified, he saw that most disputes that turn into war seldom receive the neutral, transparent scrutiny to enable a fair evaluation before conflict ensues; disbalance has a way of moving faster than restraint.

 

Rodin’s paper surveys Steinbeck’s own efforts to support a peaceful equilibrium between Russia and the West. Recounting a visit to the Soviet Union in 1947, at the start of the Cold War, Steinbeck’s journal records how nearly every Russian the American writer encountered had worriedly asked whether America really wanted to attack the Soviet Union, its recent wartime ally.

 

Thinking such fears must reflect Soviet propaganda, Steinbeck had tried to reassure his Russian hosts by characterizing the American people as basically peace-loving, much as he recognized that the Russian people were. He left Russia with the impression that all peoples everywhere in fact want peace.

 

I asked whether Rodin could describe what Steinbeck told his hosts about how the kinds of information Americans are exposed to can influence public opinion. Rodin replied that Steinbeck had conjectured that despite hawkish media’s clout in America, the country’s diversity of expression would make a new unconscionable war unlikely.

 

I wondered whether Steinbeck had really believed what he’d said. If so, had his belief lasted? And what might we ourselves believe?

 

Amid the awkward transitions between remote presenters, Poltorak accidentally called me Robert Monteith. His swift correction took nothing away from this new amusing milestone. As we stumble onto time-worn paths of wandering toward justice, past and present intermingle through shared work and dreams.

 

However troubled our histories might be, perspectives of peace remain vital…

Comments

  1. Robbie Bruce Tiffany Mantooth says

    What a delightful and insightful article, combining the author’s ideas with those of others — contemporaneous and of centuries past! Thank you for providing inspiration in our “time-worn paths of wandering toward justice” and contributing to the vitality perspectives of peace require.

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