Pioneer of freedom

I knew Keith Armstrong [whose obituary was in PN 2610–2611] at Hephaistos School in 1965–1966. Hephaistos was more family than school, and even though I was there for only a year, Keith and I were quite fraternal, because we both wrote. He published one of my book reviews in the earliest version of his magazine, and we had a spirited discussion about In Cold Blood, which had just appeared in print.

Eighteen months older, I completed my education with a doctorate in drama and secured a low-paying job writing plays for undergraduate drama students. Keith’s life was harder, and he earned more from his poetry. In 1984, he attended a performance of one of my plays in London.

Many of the Hephaistos alumni didn’t survive into adulthood. Among those who did, Keith had the hardest life of all. Most able-bodied people, faced with Keith’s prospects, would decide that death would be preferable. He manifestly didn’t agree, as your obituary makes clear. His example makes one long for an afterlife where such anomalies can be redressed.

Even if there isn’t an afterlife, conditions for people with disabilities are bound to improve. With any justice, future generations will recognise Keith Armstrong as a pioneer for the freedoms they enjoy.

He deserved to have lived longer.

Transform and reconcile

Milan Rai recently (PN 2608–2609) highlighted the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR) as an exemplar of ‘middle-class pacifism’, concerned with harmony above justice. However, even a cursory glance at our website (where our slogan ‘Nonviolence in Action’ is prominently displayed at the top) would make it clear that ‘only harmony’ is not what we are about.

FoR campaigns against war and militarism in the churches and society; we were there at the DSEI arms fair protests (as we have been for many years and at many other demos); our members are arrested for their nonviolent witness. We absolutely reject the passive associations of the language of pacifism and seek to apply the principles of active nonviolence to all our work.

However, we are not going to reject a goal of reconciliation. You don’t get true peace without justice, but once we have justice we need to enable everyone to live alongside each other. This is part of the power of nonviolence: it isn’t just an effective means of social change, it creates that change without permanently destroying relationships or the chance of peaceful coexistence.

It is unfortunate that, in the century since FoR was founded, the common understanding of the word ‘reconciliation’ has somewhat narrowed. We believe that reconciliation between peoples of different social, economic, religious, ethnic, gender, political and sexual identities is both possible and vital for the future of human beings and the planet. However, this is only possible by facing up to the violence and injustice in the world. Our approach to this structural violence (or structural sin if you use religious language) is to seek transformation not avoidance or accommodation.

See you on the screens

I am a trial-and-error learner. Manuals and instructions leave me cold. Far better to just randomly point and click to see what happens. This usually increases my conviction that everything digital is conspiring against me. I recognise that this approach can be frustrating for those around me, especially when it hijacks meeting time online.

I was reminded of my shortcomings when reading the ‘Top tips for running Skype meetings’ (PN 2606–2607). It brought back to me rather embarrassing memories of my early attempts to be part of a group using Skype. My stress levels – and probably those of my colleagues – could have been much lower if I had read this helpful guide before jumping straight into my first online meeting.

I also found the article a useful reminder that effective video conferencing requires structure and planning. Being somewhat technically-challenged, I need a clear understanding of how the session will be set up and managed and the points to look out for.

These include what to do when the internet connection fails or how to reduce background noise when not speaking. Attention to these and other simple issues improves the meeting experience for everyone.

For many people, the use of internet video meetings is now commonplace. However, I suggest that there is still value in sharing information covered by this article with everyone involved in a Skype meeting beforehand in order to get most out of the time. There is a fair chance that the session will finish more positively too.

Nonviolent Russia today

I was delighted to read the article by Milan Rai on ‘The Nonviolent Russian Revolution’ (PN 2610–2611). I read the article shortly after my return from Russia and after spending most of this year reading A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924 by Orlando Figes.

I first visited Russia in 2014. I was living in Oxford and took part in two twinning visits to Perm in the Ural region. In 2016, I returned to Perm with a friend and then, later that year, joined a small group of US activists. We visited Moscow and Saint Petersburg, meeting and talking to people concerned about the worsening situation between Russia and the West.

Soon after my return from Russia in 2014, I attended a conference at Woodbroooke Quaker Study Centre on Quakers in Russia. There I learnt about the history of Quakers in Russia and met the two Russian staff members from Friends’ House Moscow, as well as British and American members of the FHM board:

I was asked to join the board in 2016 and in October of this year attended my first board meeting in Moscow.

FHM helps to support projects which further peace and nonviolence, such as the Alternatives to Violence project in Ukraine and a project which offers support to young men seeking alternatives to military service. Other projects are a refugee school in Moscow and a centre to support the educational needs of young people in care, also in Moscow. We visited both projects before our board meeting.

FHM also enables the translation into Russian of core Quaker texts and also texts specifically about peace and nonviolence. We met a young academic who is working on the evolution of pacifism in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, 1900–1937. She is particularly working on Tolstoyan ideas recorded in the archives she is indexing.

I am hoping to put together a presentation about the work of Friends’ House Moscow and to offer talks to interested groups.

Finally, Friends’ House Moscow has a Facebook page which is well worth following as it often gives reports on activism in Russia and updates on the projects supported by FHM.

I left copies of Peace News in the office of FHM and encouraged people to read it!