Translations Department

The past year has given me many reasons for gratitude and hope in various areas of my life in literature and literary translation. Other events I’m pleased to share word of include:

– Taking part in publishing issue 33 of Apraksin Blues, including both Russian and English-speaking authors. Familiar authors got even better, and new ones came through perfectly. We celebrated the latest issue’s release in St. Petersburg. While there, we also organized three philosophy seminars on the topic of time, beginning a cycle that may continue. And we were glad to host the literary seminar Modeling Historical Processes. Thank you, friends of AB!

– The award of the Babel Prize for Literature by Mundus Artium Press to my mentor Tatyana Apraksina, an author whom I’m lucky enough to translate. The publisher also appointed me as an associate editor for Mundus Artium: A Journal of International Letters and the Arts. I supported the publication of the first issue of the second series of the magazine, which was previously published from 1967 to 1986. The issue includes my article about Mike Naumenko’s song “Sweet N,” as well as my reviews of books by Rosalba Fantastico di Kastron (Italy) and Kooseul Kim (South Korea). The issue also features an article by Apraksina about music, as well as poetry by my longtime friend from Bosnia, Emira Tufo (whose war memoirs are soon to appear in The Iowa Review). In 2023, I also served as literary editor for books by three more Mundus Artium authors: Khosiat Rustam (Uzbekistan), Angela De Leo (Italy) and Rita Dee (India; this one, including my introduction, is forthcoming in 2024).

– Being named translation editor for the philosophical and cultural almanac Paradigma (St. Petersburg), along with articles in its summer and winter issues: an English-language version of an article about my apparent distant relatives Jacob and Roman Bruce, associates of Peter the Great, as well as a Russian-language version of reflections on aspects of my experience translating Tatyana Apraksina’s book Lessons for Orly.

– Presenting papers at two conferences of the International Association of Historical Psychology and at the conference of the Russian Association of Teachers of English Literature, and publication of all the related articles: on Mundus Artium Press, on reading Jules Verne’s novel Michael Strogoff, and on translating Lessons for ‘Orly. Here, here and here are those papers in Russian; may chances for English publication follow.

– Participation in the organizing committee of the conference “Metaphysics of Music” (St. Petersburg, Vaganova Academy of the Russian Ballet), along with presenting a conference paper on music translation.

– Collaboration with Tatyana Apraksina and Igor Petrovsky to prepare translations of Mike Naumenko for Mike’s collected works, forthcoming in a new edition from the AST publishing house in Moscow.

–’s publication of my memoirs of friendship with the poet Bill Yake. My thanks to publisher Richard Whittaker, Bill’s widow Jeannette Barecca, and friends Greg Darms, Nancy Cherry, and Devon Vose. Bill left us on 12/12/2022, and his memory became a big theme of the past year. Part of his literary archive is now housed by Apraksin Blues. Bill’s charming “Car Stories” can be read in AB No. 33.

– I wrote new songs in 2023 but haven’t yet done much new recording. Two exceptions: “Song for the Battle of Petersburg”; and “Made to Like Butter.”

– The main settings for all this were, in California, the AB Campus and Tatyana Apraksina’s Studio, and in St. Petersburg, the AB editorial office on Apraksin Lane. Here’s hoping that the same places, among others, will be blessed in the New Year and can become scenes of fresh turns for the bettter.

– And I hope 2024 will also bring many good things your way. Collaboration will be welcome.


With warm best wishes,

James Manteith

The Encyclopedia of “Sweet N”: James Manteith’s presentation from the 50th International Scholarly Conference of the V.I. Startsev International Association of Historical Psychology — Historical and Psychological Aspects of the Fall of the Soviet Union: Historical Parallels and Attempts at Interpretation. Dec. 13, 2021


Among the goals of culture is to help people survive such changes of eras as the collapse of the Soviet Union. From this point of view, I’d like to talk about the perception of one song as a bearer of the healing power of cultural continuity.


The song “Sweet N” was written by the Leningrad musician Mikhail “Mike” Naumenko, one of the first authors of artistically powerful blues and rock music in the USSR. Naumenko belonged to the Soviet Union’s unofficial so-called “second culture”. His songs initially had to circulate by amateur means, but quickly gained popularity and recognition, which have only grown since then.


One of Naumenko’s most famous songs — “Sweet N”, which appeared in 1980, was notably embraced by contemporaries as an “encyclopedia of life” in the author’s hometown and country. This definition implies a reference to Belinsky, who called Eugene Onegin an “encyclopedia of Russian life.” With this, the critic gave Russian literature an important symbolic yardstick, which remains in place to this day.


Such representatives of the second culture as Alexander Startsev, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya and Boris Grebenshchikov called “Sweet N” an encyclopedia of Russian, Soviet or St. Petersburg life, as different variants of recognition. That is, they agreed about the quality of encyclopedicity, which we can trace in the song at many levels, and about the song containing life as such. We might say the song has both facts and a sense of life, a characteristic search. In addition, these observers seem to have found it valid to compare this short, modest song from the late 20th century with the classic “novel in verse” of the golden age of Russian culture. And we can also surmise their feelings that in the song’s psychological space, Russian, Soviet and St. Petersburg life remains unified, and Leningrad’s life remains St. Petersburg’s.


Written in the style of a precise material and human document, the song forms at least a “short story in verse.” Naumenko made sure that the paths and perspectives of this story’s characters accommodate thoughtfully selected details which entrancingly convey typical second-culture realities: its settings, moods, habits, personalities, layers, manners of communication and relationships, its food and drinks, its economic life, and so on.


The song narrates a simple sequence of events. The main character, who tells its story, casually wakes up and goes outside, where he meets a second character, previously a stranger, on a bridge. They buy wine together, and the new acquaintance take the main character to visit a loft, where cursorily described bohemians are having a party. And at the end the hero returns home, where he claims he finds a sleeping woman, Sweet N, the character who occupied his imagination during the song. The way each of these scenes is described conveys a lively, direct notion of an alternative internal code for how people of the Soviet era — and of any era — might partition themselves from the official world’s categories and aspirations. This attitude has as much resonance with the legacy of classic contrarian thinking of earlier ages of Russian culture as with the Soviet equivalent.


Like the cultural movement it represents, the song focuses on observations about its own world, on the natural actions, feelings and dreams of its circle. A personal world becomes an environment for spontaneous artistic transformation. The song’s hero sets out without specific plans, but still winds up in an adventure. On the surface, he doesn’t spend his day constructively, but he guilelessly and observantly engages in making sense of his environment. And the song reveals his experience and orientation as containing a whole universe, into which listeners are invited, and to which they can relate.


Listeners’ attitude to the song shows that for many, literally every detail has an inspired resonance with their everyday lives. The sung testimony that exactly four rubles were spent on three bottles of apparently cheap wine in the Soviet Union during the stagnation period has remained poignant against the general backdrop of later financial vicissitudes. It’s also nice to learn that in the loft people are listening to Bach and discussing Zen Buddhism and flying saucers — an ironic, truthful eclectism not likely accounted for in the official reference books of that time.


Music helps to show the metaphysical scale that lies behind this dailiness, against whose background the hero remains preoccupied with his life’s meaning, embodied by the image of his muse, Sweet N. This harmonious dedication helps to give the song’s compressed encyclopedicity the expansiveness of a ballad or saga.


As with the cosmogony of Onegin and other classics of Russian literature, the dynamics and development of a life as diminutive and intuitive as described in “Sweet N” can easily affect a listener’s imagination even now. A thorough recollection of the norms of such a life in Soviet times provides an example for the present. The historical and current perception of the song tells us that the task of a person of the past, present and future is to find meaning and happiness where he is, and, if possible, to share his findings with the utmost encyclopedicity — that is, with artistic orientation on a reality independent of change.

Back in St. Petersburg by the beginning of November 2021, AB’s editors immediately found many opportunities to assess current attitudes toward culture. At the 5th Cultural Congress, in which we took part, we encountered the opinion that the era of the cult of globalism is already over and has given way to a new era of recognizing the need for attention to various individual phenomena, on the scale on which a person really exists. The topics of our sections overlapped: “Cultural Industries” and “International Research and International Cooperation in Culture,” where we presented our views on “culture as a model and vector of evolution” and on the preservation of cultural heritage based on our work with the poetic archive of Anna Alekseeva (see AB 30).

Some reflections on the sections: in some of the lectures one could feel the inertia of conformity to the old world, and in some, on the contrary, the recognition that a new time is already coming by necessity — for those, at least, who are determined to truly belong to the culture. It is not enough to rely on abstract globalism, which removes individuals’ personal responsibility for their own development and leaves a void in society, which then fills with fragmented interests and values. Structures called upon to serve culture should not use their powers for this.

Therefore, it seemed natural that after the congress a strong desire remained to continue the conversation about culture in an even more vivid form — especially since the congress itself shifted to a remote form at the last moment. Indeed, a very lively dialogue took place on November 18 in our editorial office on Apraksin Lane, thanks to Tamara Viktorovna Partanenko’s seminar on L.N. Gumilyov’s theory of ethnogenesis. The seminar formed a successful precedent for the activities of our club Boogie-Woogie? -Ῥῆμα (Rhema).

Boogie-woogie is a rock-and-roll term that implies an active mutual exchange. Ῥῆμα is a Greek term for the action of utterance. The latter term was suggested to us by our author, philosopher Alexander Lvov, trying to characterize what happens at our seminars. By the end of the evening, philosopher Andrei Patkul looked at his watch and couldn’t believe the three hours dedicated to the event had flown by so quickly. Yes, we managed to elude the influence of time. Among the participants, who included both professional philosophers and supporters of philosophy representing other specialties and manners of life, namely the kind of polyphonic state of interaction transpired about which we can confidently say that yes, that was Boogie-woogie ῥῆμα.

The seminar participants’ additional interest was sparked by Partanenko having personally known Gumilyov, whose lectures she unexpectedly began to attend while still a psychology student. As a result, Partanenko switched to philosophy and began to study and apply Gumilyov’s theory, primarily in examining the relationship between cultures. Although Partanenko became a successful expert on Russian-French relations, her desire to make Gumilyov a central source in her work led to difficult consequences for her academic career at a time when Gumilyov himself was officially in disgrace.

Partanenko spoke about the reasons for this disgrace, connected with Gumilyov associating the evolution of civilization with the effect of cosmic radiation at certain moments striking the Earth like a whip. Because of this view, unacceptable for the Marxist-materialist intellectual environment of the Soviet Union, Gumilev faced serious professional restrictions. However, in parallel, he achieved great popularity among readers due to his lively style and the scope of his perspective, combining history, geography, biology, psychology and other disciplines.

The former student remembers Gumilyov as a brilliant lecturer who taught without notes and who, in an uncharacteristic way for Soviet times, asked questions directly to students, asking for their opinions. This approach at first embarrassed Partanenko but eventually contributed to her fascination with his personality and thought.

The scholar N.V. Serov, who attended the seminar, also recalled his personal contact with Gumilev at lectures in the 60s. Gumilyov impressed him as a kind person who spoke with students as equals. Serov, who eventually also took up syncretic thought in his own way, wrote an article comparing Gumilyov’s theory with Confucian philosophy, establishing an analogy between the concepts of “biosphere” for Gumilyov and “heaven” for Confucius.

Those present at the seminar were interested in the relevance of Gumilyov’s thought today:

– Was Gumilyov really ahead of his time, as Partanenko believes, anticipating recent discoveries about space?

– Or does Gumilyov remain an antiquated anachronism, whose ideas no one is developing?

– On the basis of what information or influences did Gumilev build his theory? Or did he invent it himself?

– Was what Gumilyov considered a discovery actually more a new presentation of thoughts about evolution, characteristic of Darwin’s century, while including other ideas about the mechanism of “passionarity,” the readiness for self-sacrifice, which he considered the driver of evolution?

– Did Gumilev prove the existence of this mechanism in the form that he describes, or does his system depend solely on his personal intuition?

– Does his system contain arbitrary distortions, even if its more cosmic part is treated metaphorically?

– Does his theory too strongly equate militancy with evolution, paying less attention to other manifestations of human nature, for example, in culture, peacemaking, dialogue?

– Do ethnic groups really exist as rigid, unchanging categories, if people demonstrate an ability to freely adapt to new geopolitical contexts?

– Is the tendency to adapt a sign of the strength or weakness of an individual or ethnic group?

– Is it possible to compare Gumilyov’s ideas about the energy of an ethnic group with, for example, what Machiavelli said about the people’s inherent energy, which the “prince” absorbs into himself?

– Or is the power of a ruler always illusory compared to more essential factors in the evolutionary state of a people?

– Was Gumilyov’s desire to think in ideal categories laudable or doomed?

All these and many other questions raised during the conversation remain open for further discussion.

Summer has arrived. According to Far Eastern traditions, it’s now a horse month, during which the sages advise to take special care to curb all manifestations of power now faced by and available to many.


Our authors continue to work or rest as best they can. Head Editorial Office Coordinator Elena Starovoitova, for instance, told us of her recent trip to Gorno-Altaysk, from which she crossed three mountain passes to a retreat center. In just a few days there, a group of Buddhists made more than 300 tsa-tsa — relief sculptures for spiritual practice. Having returned to Petersburg, Elena will soon resume this craft in a new place.


Other authors have either already sent materials for issue 32 or are working on their contributions, or will let us know their plans.


Yulia Sventsitskaya, always one of our most indispensable authors, has already sent her translations of Italian poet-translator Salvatore Quasimodo. We’ll present her Russian versions of a selection of Quasimodo’s translations of the poets of ancient Greece.


Anton Kiselyov, whose wonderful Mihai Eminescu translations appear in issue 31, sent a translation from Hebrew of a charming “chess poem” written by the famous poet, philosopher, grammarian and astronomer Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra in 12th century Spain. Kiselev also recently released a poetry collection, 100 Literary Riddles in Verse, highly recommended.


Olga Shilova, continuing to study her beloved Decembrists, is now examining their lyceum years.


Olga Zemlyanikina, according to recent reports, is engaged in either gardening in the country or decorating interiors in the city.


The poet Anna Alekseeva, whose archival poems were featured in issue 30 and also recently in the journal Svyaz Vremyon (The Time Joint), is quoted in a new Los Angeles Times review of Maria Bloshteyn’s anthology of wartime poetry Russia is Burning. The forthcoming issue of Cardinal Points magazine will include my translations of three poems by Alekseeva dedicated to N. Gumilyov, along with commentary on the poet and the story of people involved in recovering her legacy.


The editor-in-chief and translation editor are sitting in the mountains in California. In our Oakland studio, two started paintings wait on easels, but that space is hard to bear during the hot season. We felt it was best to stay in the mountains at least until the solstice, then see where things stand.


The most important feeling at the Campus, now as always, is tremendous gratitude for the inner purpose of all circumstances and all participants.


— James Manteith, Arroyo Seco, California

(English translation of a May 17 lecture for the International Association of Historical Psychology conference “Societal Atmosphere on the Eve of the Wars of the 19th and 20th Centuries: Historical and Psychological Aspects”)


— James Manteith (Apraksin Blues, Mundus Artium Press)


It’s good to think about people who not only have foreseen wars but who also have sought to prevent them. One such peacemaker was Scottish gentleman, politician and philanthropist Robert Monteith.


Monteith, one of my distant relations, was born during the Napoleonic Wars and matured against the backdrop of the Victorian era. As a translator and specialist in Russian culture, I share his interest in diplomacy and mediation. It’s hard to be indifferent to such matters.


Read more about this presentation here.

In Monteith’s era, as in our time, world powers constantly competed and viewed each other with suspicion, circumstances often expressed in hostilities. Recognizing endless unjust wars as unavoidable given the current order of things, Monteith looked for fulcrums to stop such wars — if possible, any wars.


Like Leo Tolstoy, Monteith considered military violence a sin, permissible only under certain conditions.


What was Monteith’s path? First, he sought guidelines for an objective, independent material and spiritual assessment of war. This demanded that he do what we all must do: step outside the narrow, unsustainable and often generally accepted frameworks of the society around us.


In Monteith’s case, this process of personal moral development received significant further impetus when he studied at Cambridge and engaged with the semi-secret intellectual circle of the Cambridge Apostles. The same circle included his lifelong friend, the poet Tennyson.


Then Monteith became a Catholic, which meant breaking with a de facto state religious denomination — the relatively young Anglican Church, which naturally reflected the policy of the British Empire. Eventually Monteith became a papal nobleman and the commander of the Knights Hospitaller of Malta. Historian Bernard Aspinwall calls Monteith the “most influential and significant Scottish Catholic layman of the 19th century.”


As a Catholic anti-imperialist, Monteith criticized the social and military policies of England and other powers and built coalitions for the cause of peace and justice. He articulates his views in his Discourse on the Shedding of Blood and the Laws of War. The treatise, which he began to circulate shortly before the end of his life, was officially published after his death midway through the 19th century’s penultimate decade.


Monteith was a man of action and thought. His sole treatise reflects many decades of peace-oriented activity and studies. One feels how much philosophical and theological erudition meant for persuasiveness in his era, in his environment, and for Monteith himself. The specific conflicts Monteith examines also remain enduringly relevant. He condemns, for example, the Anglo-Afghan wars of the “Great Game” of the era’s empires. And we know this game continues to this day.


Monteith supported certain typical, contestably contentious assertions regarding the Russia of that time. Yet he did not view such contentiousness as giving England a license to act despicably.


Monteith was willing to venture that people participate in unjust wars because of ignorance of the so-called “Law of Nations.” This meant international law based on respect for the human person and for the sovereignty of individual states. Monteith believed this law should be taught to everyone, that it should have real weight, that diplomacy should be cultivated, and that neutral domestic and international councils were needed to resolve issues of war and peace.


He saw the Vatican as a potential source of universal moral authority for the re-proclamation of the Law of Nations. To this end, he participated in negotiations both with the Pope and with many ecclesiastical, political and intellectual figures who had to consider the complex contexts of their own states, not always interested in responsibility accountability from the perspective of international law.


The Law of Nations was to receive a coordinated mutual proclamation at the international First Vatican Council in the early 70s of the 19th century. But time ran out: the Franco-Prussian war began, the Council collapsed, and the Vatican itself was once again severely curtailed.


Yet Monteith finished his treatise. The ideas he supported survived in committed circles. The Vatican has continued to support international diplomacy and mediation in parallel to similar aspirations on the part of certain countries and the world community, despite the incitement of numerous new wars over the decades since then.


Modern conflict studies also agree with Monteith’s position.


At the same time, Monteith’s treatise is wonderful both as a historical monument and as a record of an enlightened human being. Without solid enlightenment, there is no sustainable culture; without sustainable culture, illegal, unethical wars are inevitable.

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…

There’s no tree to be found, only fake ones or bunched branches. But just before New Year’s, a man appears on Garden Street with beautiful real trees brought from the Volosov region. The Haymarket tree fair at is closed due to the pandemic.


AB chooses a small tree with cones and lichen on the trunk. Two branches jut forward like hands outstretched to offer and claim gifts.


Not planning to extend New Year’s invitations, we welcome a visit from someone we haven’t seen for about a quarter century and who says he’d like to join us.


Dmitry Kalashnik is a longtime friend of Mike Naumenko. He taught Mike to play guitar. He and Mike went to school together, loved the Beatles together. Dmitry even went on to have a conservatory education. He writes compositions for piano and voice.


Unlike Mike, Dmitry stayed in school. He became a linguist. He and Mike had a quarrel about Mike’s decision to drop out of college. Then they made up.


Dmitry remembers how Mike’s father, a teacher at their college, tried to rehabilitate his son’s standing there.


Apraksina recalls that at the same time, Mike, not wanting to go to college, came by her home every morning and simply sat there until evening. Then he went to “Saigon” or somewhere else.


“So that’s how things were,” says Dmitry, surprised.


Dmitry is clearly more than a random guest, and he himself understands this. In surplus confirmation of this, he’s arrived on a wave of green lights and found a parking space right by the gate.


When midnight comes, Apraksina counts down the last seconds of the Old Year. Others’ watches run slow. The glow from the lighted tree tints faces turned toward the future.


Dmitry’s face wears an obedient, attentive expression; he stands like a highly disciplined soldier.


There’s a sense of a wave of time passing through the room, an almost visible hand tearing away the crust of the already lived. A blue-white spirit flutters in the air.


“Do you feel how things have changed?” asks Apraksina. “This year is completely new.”


Everyone feels it. “I didn’t serve in the army, but I’ve talked a lot with military people,” says Dmitry. “The military is very good at making effective decisions.” Then he plays one of his compositions. The very first one.


The words, in English, belong to Mike. The melody is lovely. The song’s era is immediately perceptible, but above all it just sounds like a person trying to comprehend life’s charming mysteries.


“I don’t know what angel made Mike start writing songs in Russian,” Dmitry says. “I myself started getting interested in more progressive music then — Bowie, Yes, Jethro Tull. Mike stuck with what he’d always like: Lou Reed and T. Rex. “


Dmitry recalls that he himself made two musical discoveries earlier than others in Russia: Elton John and Madonna. He first heard Elton John on the waves of Radio Luxembourg, which he could pick up late at night. At first, the black-market LP traders he asked had never even heard of Elton John.


The vibrations of Dmitry’s composition are still sounding when the next, also spontaneous, guests arrive at three in the morning.


Vladimir, wearing a Santa Claus hat with a bell, offers a fat pineapple. Marina arranges other fruits on a bookcase with an icon and a child-sized violin. Inna sits next to Dmitry on the couch, where he immediately begins to tell her about Mike and about his, Dmitry’s, rather hostile attitude towards Alexander Kushnir’s recently released Mike book.


Dmitry, interviewed for the book, insisted on the right to check the relevant parts before publication, warning Kushnir that if something turned out to be wrong there, Kushnir might be surprised by the degree of Dmitry’s dissatisfaction.


But there’s no fixing the main source of Dmitry’s displeasure with the book: its sentimentality, its pathos, which Dmitry tends to associate with Kushnir’s evident feelings toward himself. The author remains foreign to the cultural environment he studies.


“If there were a list of everything we talked about this New Year’s Eve,” Apraksina later recalls, “anyone would be surprised. I just sat there and basked in it all.”


The guests sit until half past six in the morning and even then are in no hurry to leave. The later the hour, the more serious the whole conversation grows.


Inna, a hemostasiologist, having taken part in opening new hospitals throughout Russia over the past year, remarks on the exceptional humaneness of Russian intensive care workers.


She then tells the amazing story of a Buryat Buddhist lama who left the world in the lotus position in the 1920s and has since stayed incorrupt, in deep meditation. Now seated to receive visitors in this mysterious state, he continues to impart wordless advice and blessings.


In the already transcendent hours of New Year’s Eve, this transcendental tale leaves a sense of the imperishable mentor’s astral presence among the guests.


The assembled company is permeated with an air of engagement in a spiritual quest. Everyone seems to dream of further reassurance that they’re fully alive, that the year has really changed, and that the experience of the past year was not in vain and will not repeat itself.


With all agreed that important experiences have been gained — in particular about the value of communication and being physically in the world — a passionate discussion of culture begin.


One guest defines culture as good manners; another sees it as something more: a code of memory and traditions, or a reflection of subjective reality in general.


We speak about the cultural encodedness of St. Petersburg, about the semantics of culture — a formal definition that is somewhat offputting but which remains valuable if one doesn’t let the realities it signifies be stripped of living content.


There’s an impression that each person feels the fate of culture largely depends on managing to meet this New Year correctly.


“The makeup of the population of St. Petersburg has changed completely at least three times,” says Dmitry. “The city itself cultivates new people.”


So true. And on New Year’s Eve, cultivation was in full swing. May it continue all year long!


We wish you, our friends, a wonderful New Year and new happiness — and look forward to new collaboration in cultivating Blues.




— James Manteith, St. Petersburg, January 2021

For obvious reasons, many have voiced surprise that we, AB editors, decided to make an attempt to come to St. Petersburg in 2020. We were also surprised, and even more surprised it’s happened. We already had enough challenges in 2020: in addition to our own run-in with the pandemic, we had to evacuate twice in the summer and autumn due to no fewer than three forest fires raging near the Blues Campus in the mountains in California.


But in Petersburg people were waiting for us. They asked about our arrival. Apart from urgent practical matters in the city and on Apraksin Lane, we acutely felt that we should come this year. For the sake of authors and allies, for the sake of the publication in its anniversary year, for the life of the Petersburg editorial office, for the sake of truth and faith.


Apraksin Lane 3, 2020

Apraksin Lane 3, 2020


And now we have been in St. Petersburg for over a month! We arrived on crammed planes via Istanbul and sat out our quarantine, and we’re now meeting with people individually or in small groups, as is done now. Of course, many people ask about larger gatherings, performances, exhibits. We have to postpone all that — let’s see where both general and particular circumstances turn. The main thing is that here, at the birthplace of AB, there’s new strength to draw on and share, just as from all interactions with the local scene. It’s very noticeable how much people are trying to stay intensely engaged with vital matters, including cultural ones. This inspires us! We’re trying, too!


Beautiful print runs of issue 30 were made by Kirill Astakhov and are now in circulation. New materials for issue 31 are being accepted. In the editorial office itself, scholarly articles and novels are being written, papers are being remotedly presented, songs are being composed and recorded. T. Apraksina has started painting in her studio here for the first time in 22 years. And we plan to celebrate Christmas and New Year here, be here for a decent part of early 2021 and generally spend more time here, returning without such long delays as we had to endure this year. So hopefully there’s much more ahead. A new process is clearly in motion!


It was wonderful to celebrate Thanksgiving here. We were joined by our author, Pushkin Prize laureate Victor Kulle, which added a special note to the holiday. Partly because of cues from author Patricia Walton when she came to Leningrad as a student at the start of the 80s, in the last millennium Thanksgiving Day was celebrated many times at our premises on Apraksin Lane, sometimes with foreign guests and sometimes solely with local ones, who discovered their own meanings and justifications for this holiday. What a joy to celebrate it here again now… It seemed no coincidence that in parallel in America in many places it was generally forbidden to pay holiday visits this year. The awareness that people accustomed to celebrating this holiday in America had to keep up the festive spirit in restricted circumstances made the St. Petersburg version seem even more valid and authentic, manifesting the holiday in an even more universal way. As it should be. That perspective was reflected in the occasion’s solemn speeches — even as Viktor Alfredovich didn’t neglect to express gratitude for Robert Frost and for Brodsky’s work in America… Indeed, there are so many things — both shared and personal — for which we feel grateful. Above all, Apraksina reminded, for God being in place.


Виктор Куллэ

Victor Kulle


America’s contribution to the world is contemplated from a darker side in a fresh scholarly article by T. Apraksina, “The Cult of Symbols and Attributes of Death in Contemporary Western Culture.” The article, written in November on Apraksin Lane on the basis of previously compiled materials and impressions, is included in the materials of the December conference of the Professor V.I. Startsev International Association of Historical Psychology. The same conference also included J. Manteith’s article on a pandemic interpretation implied by an Apraksina painting done in California in the first half of the year. We thank our author Tamara Partanenko, also an Association representative, for collaboration and facilitation.


T Apraksina Pastel 2020

T Apraksina. Pastel on Paper, 2020. 28 x 17 in.


James also spoke at the large International Scholarly Conference of the Color Society of Russia, RUcolor 2020. For his lecture and accompanying article, he chose the theme of two portraits of D.D. Shostakovich painted by Apraksina in 1986 and 1996 and for many years permanently exhibited at the House of Composers in St. Petersburg. An outline was written back in California, while the article and the report itself were prepared on Apraksin Lane under the influence of impressions tied to the obviously strong, active cultural life in St. Petersburg in any era, as well as to reunification with the artist’s local paintings and wanting to “read” them better, much as her works situated elsewhere.


Tatyana Apraksina. "Faces of Shostakovich." Oil on canvas. 1986. "Portrait of D.D. Shostakovich." Oil on canvas. 1996.

Tatyana Apraksina. “Faces of Shostakovich.” Oil on Canvas, 1986. “Portrait of D.D. Shostakovich.” Oil on Canvas, 1996.


During our stay here, the New York-based translation magazine Cardinal Points (print copies here) published James’ articles on the art of translating the brilliantly emotional, eccentric songs of Alexander Vertinsky, Novella Matveeva and Oleg Woolf. Each author is represented by a song translation suitable for singing. Thanks to editors Boris Dralyuk and our author Irina Mashinski for their support with this publication. In the previous issue of the same magazine, translations (collaborations with Patricia Walton) of Apraksina’s essays and poems appeared.


It’s been a pleasure for us to get to know the team at the projects BGepiphany (BGyavleniye) and Rock Puzzle, led by Andrei Advaytov, an author in the forthcoming issue 31. Both projects are inspired by living interest in the actual depths awaiting within their chosen cultural and musical landscapes. We have also enjoyed being in touch with a BGepiphany-affiliated group interested in translations from the goldmine of Russian songcraft.


We and many others may feel like voices crying in the wilderness, occupying a position not recognized as typifying this age. On the other hand, maybe this moment portends a change of era, with chances for influence.


Different eras declare themselves simultaneously in the life of AB. With special persistence, for example, the themes of Mike and the Leningrad underground are percolating. This in part comes in the wake of the recent release of Alexander Kushnir’s book about Mike, Escape from the Zoopark — whose author consulted, among others, with T. Apraksina and with other AB authors related to St. Petersburg-Leningrad rock-music circles — with Igor Petrovsky, for example, and with Anatoly Zavernyaev (Rodion) and Alexander Donskikh von Romanov — and in the wake of last year’s film about Mike and Tsoi, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Summer, made without entirely without Apraksina and limiting itself to the genre of free fantasy. Although well-received by many, it seems that Summer has legitimized the genre of fantasizing about the history of Leningrad rock music, with the result that now such things as Alexei Uchitel’s new film Tsoi have less and less relation to the real heroes. Apraksina, as a matter of principle, has not watched Summer and has not read Escape from the Zoopark, not wanting to supplant her memory with the foreign approaches of either Serebrennikov or Kushnir. Just seeing stills from Summer with the actor playing the role of Mike, she says, is enough to understand that something is off. Mike simply couldn’t have had facial expressions like the actor’s, and this betrays the absence of Mike’s kind of thoughts.


Igor Petrovsky — the Belinsky of our day

Igor Petrovsky — the Belinsky of our day


As for Kushnir’s book, people talk about it and send excerpts that convey the book’s characteristic degree of distortion. Kushnir did not ask for an oral interview with Apraksina, and when he came to St. Petersburg from Moscow to interview Mike’s acquaintances here, she was not in the city and did not have access to her own archives, which were unfortunately heavily pilfered from in the period from 1999 through 2019. In the correspondence between Kushnir and Apraksina, in fact, questions about truly important things were conspicuously absent, although he was happy to note the authenticity of the era’s spirit communicated in the artist’s commentary. This commentary was partly included in the book in an arbitrary form, never offered to Apraksina for verification.


Now even fans of Summer among Mike’s acquaintances are engaged in active polemics against Escape from the Zoopark. As Donskikh puts it, Igor Petrovsky is becoming the “Belinsky of our days” based on the number of pages he has filled with detailed criticism of Kushnir’s account. Thank God there are qualified people ready to do this! It’s a shame that many will now take such spurious official sources at face value or at least will be forced to reckon with them (a little like with the purely nominal relationship of S. Volkov’s Testimony to Shostakovich).


Again, we have long wanted to write more than one solid book about Mike. AB‘s difficult circumstances in recent decades have greatly hindered this — we couldn’t come to St. Petersburg for a sufficiently long stay, and during this time muddy legends gained even greater ascendancy… But many are not content with legends, and some are gradually discovering the truth. Besides, the best we can all do to restore the image of a well-rounded, versatile Mike is to be well-rounded ourselves. What a great need there is for writers who write at the appropriate level of truth!


By the way, such a writer has turned up on Apraksin Lane. He is the hero of a fresh painting created by Apraksina with the remnants of paint in tubes found in her salvaged workshop. Even after 22 years, this paint hadn’t dried up completely, and she managed to scrape out enough to cover a small canvas. Old brushes were also resurrected. The birth of this new painting is a miracle in itself. Our life in St. Petersburg is far from being so arranged as to engage in concentrated creativity. Routine matters pose constant distractions. Nevertheless, now there is a painting from November 2020, The Quill of Aquinas, focusing on a writer, who fits so perfectly into the local environment that one gets the impression that he was always sitting here all those years, writing the huge book that lies open in front of him… Yes, some tasks — creative, military and so forth — take many years.


Tатьяна Апраксина. Перо Аквината. 2020

Tatyana Apraksina. The Quill of Aquinas.
Oil on Canvas, 2020. 15 x 12 in.


Strangely enough, it turns out that the color scheme of The Quill of Aquinas bears a direct relation to Apraksina’s already mentioned spring “pandemic” painting. But there, certain colors were used to communicate the desolation of whole strata of mundane reality. Here the same colors are brought into living, inhabited harmony. Something similar is happening now on Apraksin Lane, reminiscent of the return of vital elements to a state suitable for the life of the spirit.


On a corner building at the intersection of Garden Street and Apraksin Lane a large sign reads “Factory.” Toward evening, lights around the sign start flashing. It’s a store of fashion merchandise. And a little further along Apraksin lies AB‘s factory — a factory of people and values. As our author Matt Lucas once spoke of his martial arts dojo in Oakland (the site of AB‘s second studio for eight years now), “We don’t have a product, we just make good people.” Clearly, AB‘s people are already exceptionally good. But when we gather as we can and should, when we acknowledge each other, we become even better. What is truly valuable in one context should remain valuable everywhere and for everyone. This was remarked on late at night on the Lane after the singing of one of our favorite Advent hymns, “People, Look East,” a song that has long held a special significance for us. At the same time, adds Apraksina, “What is valuable is what helps a person to be human.”



Entering the New Year’s season, we’d like to thank everyone who, in one way or another, knows how to distinguish this value under any circumstances. May your deserts be in bloom!

AB’s editor-in-chief and translation editor will be in St. Petersburg through early 2021.

The phone number of the St. Petersburg editorial office is as before: +7 (812) 310-96-40.

The Editors


Now, with the release of Apraksin Blues №30, “On the Way,” another crucial phase begins — the stage of readers’ time with the issue, authors’ mindfulness toward each other, and discussion of what it’s all about.

For the AB Translations Department, there is also the question of presenting parts of the issue in English, apart from articles with English-language sources. At least a few lines are already translated in this issue’s Quotebook. Please check back now and then for more translations! 

This thirtieth issue is very strong, and a quick overview might help. Borrowing a line from the opening mondo, we might ask how each author points to possibilities of “blossoming within a way above your very doorsill”?

Photo: Dina Yegorova

Photo: Dina Yegorova

  • For nearly thirty years, publisher and photographer Richard Whittaker has been publishing a magazine dedicated to deepening perception through heartfelt conversations on the most important things.
  • Poet, prose writer, editor Irina Mashinski, currently based in America, is strengthening an intellectual space for interlingual eccentricity.
  • Tamara Partanenko, a specialist in Russian and Western views about each other, makes a case for acknowledging the shortcomings of influential historian and Rusologist James Billington.
  • In “Weatherburg,” musician and writer Artyom Zhilyakov builds original “blues” literature from the sovereign materials of his native Tomsk, revealing the peculiar myth-spawning underpinnings of the Siberian city.
  • Kooseul Kim (Korea), Mario Luzi (Italy) and Inna Tregub (USA) find powerful bulwarks for their edifying poetry: the ethos of T.S. Eliot, the “Purgatory” of Dante, the ancient churches of Armenia, and much more.
  • Poet Vladimir Verov (St. Petersburg) provides a stimulating example of creative response, offering thorough interpretation and free-spirited translation of the same stunning Dickinson poem examined by poet-naturalist Greg Darms in AB №29.
  • The first presentation of a selection from the recently discovered archives of Anna Alekseeva (1899-1945), a poet unpublished in her lifetime, spans the days of her mentorship under Nikolai Gumilyov to her endurance of the siege of Leningrad.
  • Recounting the courage of a leader of the Decembrist uprising, executed Sergey Muravyov-Apostol, Olga Shilova follows up on her earlier extensive study of exiled Decembrist Mikhail Lunin.
  • Reaffirming AB’s long-standing ties with French culture, Patricia Walton elucidates the layers of historical conflict, beauty and ambiguity fused in the territories of today’s Louvre.
  • The great Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida epitomizes beauty’s lasting forcefulness. The star, a long-time visitor to Russia, captivates hearts there to this day.
  • A fresh Blues Report pays its own tribute to the pivotal role of beautiful impressions. Personal, topical thoughts on intersecting, still-unfolding alternative cultures — those of “Saigon” and “Lane” — as examples of potential lifelong ferment of intuiting truth, as reference points precluding further convergence with common places. The author views, in part, Mike and Aquarium as at once triumphant and tragic standard-bearers for a music of both these second cultures. Great news: the meanings prove translatable, extricable from the world.
Photo: Leon Verst

Photo: Leon Verst

Here is a song dedicated to all riders in the “blues wheelbarrow”…

WHITE WHEELBARROW (Apraksin Blues №30) – James Manteith



When Anna cedes her sheaves into the care of Shiloh’s priest,

After her best themes remove the shame of barrenness

And her commas surge inserted where she hurriedly

Omitted them some several decades past


Then Pyotr put the dots above the mighty letter yo

And steps beyond the chaos of his daily interest

So they both board the bucket of our white wheelbarrow

While their avatars go floating off to press.



When Tamara’s chosen motto stands emblazoned for tomorrow,

Not scholars but two cosmoses conflict

And the hand she gives brave Olga, trimmed to half her former girth,

Yields a critically compliant list of references.


They will wander with Kooseul along the narrowest of allies,

Expounding on the oddities of fate

Before they all board the bucket of our white wheelbarrow

Where all strangenesses evaporate.



And when Gina quips to Guido, “You and I should make a twosome,

An accountant I can trust upon my quest

To share a periodical with Mario Luzi

As another tier of Purgatory passed,”


Then Patty will come back from her long tour of the Louvre

And lend them each her most capricious hats

So they can all board the bucket of our white wheelbarrow

To roll off to an archive in the stacks.



Poor Richard’s bringing pretzel sticks, untwisted but with salt,

To rub in the intelligence of heart.

The Emperor of Tomsk suggests that meal goes well with wind,

And he blasts a gust across the astral chart.


Inna from Armenia comes trampling like time

Along the battered flagstones by the church

So they can all board the bucket of our white wheelbarrow

And no one will be left out in the lurch.





Grand Vladimir, climbing lattices of Dickinson translations,

Claims the pulpit patriotically

And Irina, an eccentric, joins united abberations,

Taking missions in the wilderness more seriously,


But when Vagid evades the chains of overcomplicated karma,

They’ll all be lifted on an ocean wave

Which will set them in the bucket of our white wheelbarrow.

Together we are on the way.



And the white wheelbarrow’s not impropriously new.

It has simply been retouched with recent paint.

The more it’s overloaded, the more wisely it may move

Through the symphonies of walls while earth grows faint,


As a sermon of selection from an infinite direction

Which lets this planet spin as it should spin

Because if we keep well-weighted in our white wheelbarrow,

The endless will be fine in the end.


© 2020 Apraksin Blues Productions. All rights reserved.



* * *



Since issue 29’s release last fall, it seems as if virtually everyone’s managed to go out of the world. At least in some way. At minimum, in that the world itself’s changing so quickly.

When AB‘s editors and friends met in St. Petersburg in November-December 2019, future continuations of physical meetings seemed much closer at hand. After all, so many difficulties are already overcome!

In spirit, there’s no separation at all. The hot issue 30’s uncompromising quality affirms this, as do the precious contributions emerging for AB‘s next release. New partnerships and initiatives provide further affirmation. Going through changes, confronting challenges, only increases our faith in our foundational perspectives, in our work.

Blues sticks around, and times of scrupulous separation can help us learn better hearing, discernment, readiness for new gatherings. Better listening, not only to each other but to the Theme and to the Path to apprehend it.

So may this time be useful for preparation, for study. The most prestigious distance learning is always open to all of us: a school of relations — international to local — based on harmonious consciousness. In all that lies ahead, our efforts will take hold.


— James Manteith