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Interview on the state of the Russian Church

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This was the last interview Fr Alexander gave. It took place on 5 September 1990, four days before his death. There are grim clues in his answers to the Spanish journalist, Pilar Benet, as to the likely reasons why he was murdered and by whom.

Pilar Benet
What changes have there been in the Russian Orthodox Church since Gorbachev came to power?
Father Alexander Men
Gorbachev has revolutionized the relationships between church and state. The Bolshevik system was conceived as a system of absolute authoritarian control. But total authoritarianism is only possible when no other form of authority exists. From the outset, therefore, the Bolsheviks sought to destroy those institutions which represented another, spiritual, authority. That's why the Bolshevik regime was aggressively anti-religious from the very start and this attitude did not alter in principle for the whole seventy years.
But Gorbachev changed this policy by a deliberate act. That's a historical fact. Not merely the details changed, but the history of the church in our country changed.


PB
What tendencies are now apparent in the Russian Orthodox Church?
FM
The conservative tendency is fairly powerful: it is strongly anti-Western, hostile to all reforms and idealizes the past, taking the harshest models from the past, even I'd say mediaeval ones. This tendency is very popular in certain circles. In Western terms, we could call it “right-wing”, it's a profoundly right-wing trend.
You might ask why this should be so in the church. One of the reasons is the artificial selection which went on over several generations through the merciless suppression of all forces in the church that were alive and ready to experiment. If a bishop displayed any spirit of freedom or independence of thought, or propensity to experiment, he was immediately despatched to the provinces or forcibly retired.


PB
In other words, what happened in the church was a reflection of what was happening in society in general.
FM
Yes, and that's why the most conservative and right-wing elements have been preserved, have survived, and multiplied. They found favour with the functionaries and with the KGB. It is no secret that the authorities liked the church which looked like an ancient relic from the past, a museum.
In the 1960s, there were some independently-minded and forward-thinking individuals among the clergy.[1] They were pushed aside. The bishops were conservative. Today, there are more open-minded people among the bishops, but among the rank and file clergy, there are more conservatives. But even so, the tendency towards protectionism, i.e. conservatism, is prevalent everywhere. Besides, the liberals are a bit afraid of it.


PB
Would you say then that in a sense the liberals are living underground?
FM
Yes. The general trend nowadays is a reaction against the destruction of national values. Since the Communists can't get things done, then let's have a monarchy, an idealized monarchy; since the Party's failed, then let's restore the church just as it was before the revolution. Though we forget that it is precisely because the pre-revolutionary church was the way it was, that the catastrophe happened. But nobody is interested in this any more. It's all nostalgia for the past.


PB
To what extent would you say that this is dangerous?
FM
It causes a great deal of disappointment to people who are weary of the ideological yoke. They looked for open positions among Christians, but instead they've found a new version of the closed society.


PB
Are you not disturbed by the fact that today the Russian Orthodox Church is proving itself to be wholly incapable of renewal? In this respect, the church could really only be compared with the Communist Party, don't you think?
FM
Of course, the only difference is that God helps the church but not the Party.


PB
What is your opinion of the so-called Karlovci Church?[2]
FM
That church is even more conservative than the Russian Orthodox Church and it is a monarchist church, which is what people find attractive. That is all I have to say. In general, religious awakening is a natural thing. Our society is, on the whole, potentially quite religious. When it was deprived of its faith, it transferred its religiosity to the political sphere. Now, disappointment with the old gods has set in and there is a return to tradition.
It is understandable that Communism did not like anything national because it wanted a levelled down society. It wanted citizens, not nations. The communists acted just like the rulers of ancient Assyria. When they conquered a country, they deported the peoples they had defeated and settled people from other subjugated areas in their place.[3]
Why was this done? So that people lost their national identity. So that there was no centre of resistance and all people became mere subjects of the king. Nationalism is a completely understandable reaction, it's to be expected, it's self-defence to keep some form of cultural identity. Nationalism is not a completely normal state of affairs, it's reactionary, but still the reaction is legitimate.


PB
Do you think this is a temporary phenomenon or … ?
FM
Yes. The fact is that people will tire of it. People cannot spend all their time engaged in a form of cultural narcissism, they'll get fed up. At the end of the day, even the most committed patriots will tire of it.


PB
So is Russia currently living through a phase of narcissism?
FM
No, I'd say it's just beginning. But it's harmful and dangerous because it makes society idealize itself. This is very characteristic also of our clerical circles. They think they're wonderful. When we believers celebrated the millennium of Christianity [1988], there was not a single word of repentance, not a single word about the tragedy of the Russian Church, only triumphalism and self-congratulation.
I understand that every culture, every nation, must to a certain degree love its own identity, but now this has got to the point where we love ourselves and no one and nothing else. Even the Catholics in our country have become nationalists. Take the Greek Catholics in Ukraine. You might think they belong to the one universal international church, but they are behaving like a group of nationalists. The Lithuanian Catholics are also nationalists.
The process of returning to national traditions has started after long years when these were suppressed. We should respect this process. I do respect it and I understand the fact that art in its actual forms has to be national. But, at the same time, it is imperative to avoid the dangers of a shift to the right. You see, the open model is acceptable to those who are sure of their own ground. Those who stand on shaky ground prefer a closed model because it is easier for them.
Around fifteen years ago, a young man at my church started making occasional visits to the Baptist Church. I told him, you are Orthodox, of course you can go there because the church is everywhere, Christ is everywhere, the gospel is everywhere. Do both: go to the Baptist Church and don't forget your own spiritual roots. And when I explained the open model to him, he said, Oh dear, how uncomfortable! He ended up by becoming a Baptist.
That person could only be either a Baptist who did not recognize Orthodoxy, or an Orthodox who cursed the Baptists. He wanted to have a little hole to hide himself away in. Apparently Peter the Great also suffered from a psychological disorder - the fear of open spaces. He built himself tiny little rooms and so on. There is an illness like that - the fear of open spaces. In the history of religion, there is also this fear of open spaces.


PB
Now more and more Orthodox are turning to the Karlovci Church. Is this some sort of shift to the right?
FM
Yes, it is.


PB
What about people looking for something more to the left? Where can they go?
FM
Nowhere. They can stay within the Moscow patriarchate. Some people are trying to go off to the Catholics. Two or three people from my parish have done that.


PB
Have you ever considered this course of action yourself?
FM
No, because I believe that the church is one, so it wouldn't make any sense to me.


PB
How would you describe Pope John Paul II?
FM
Some of my parishioners knew him when he was still a bishop. Everyone liked him. The fact that he is a little strict is perhaps not a bad thing as a counterbalance to the general disintegration. He is criticized for his attitude towards family life, for example, for his views on abortion, but abortion is murder after all, all the more so now when contraception is available.


PB
So, you think contraception is normal?
FM
This is not my own opinion. I have consulted with our bishops and they are of the opinion that a person has a right to practise birth control. Otherwise, they may bring more children into the world than they can support, in which case they will become animals rather than human beings.


PB
Is the conservative tendency in the church reflected in military and political circles?
FM
Yes, our nazis support this tendency and there are many of them. Take “Pamyat”[4]; it is full of nazis and fascists and their numbers are mushrooming. Why is there anti-ecumenism? Because ecumenism demands that you respect another person's model of Christianity. Instead of this, we have hatred. The word “catholic” has almost become a term of abuse now, like in the times of Taras Bulba.[5]


PB
Have you witnessed any particular disturbing symptoms recently?
FM
Well, if you don't call the growth of Russian fascism disturbing, what else is! Of course I have! And very many church people are very actively supporting it.
There has been a joining up of Russian fascism with Russian clericalism and nostalgia among church people. It's of course shameful to us believers because society was expecting to find in us some kind of support and instead support goes to the fascists. Of course not everyone shares these attitudes - it's only a tiny percentage. I can't say what that percentage is because I haven't studied the figures. But wherever you go, whoever you meet, this one's a monarchist, this one's an anti-Semite, that one's anti-ecumenist and so on. And people keep putting labels on, even those people who never used to be like this. Do you understand? It's typical, a feature of our times, the era of reaction. When Gorbachev opened the floodgates, reaction as well as democracy poured in. But reaction is always more aggressive.


PB
What is your opinion of Patriarch Alexi?
FM
Well, he's an intelligent man. For example, when he was still metropolitan he was the first publicly to condemn Soviet neo-fascism and anti-Semitism. He was the first and, as far as I know, the only one to do so.


PB
Recently, I visited [the town of] Tyumen' and there I met a priest. I had a conversation with him and he seemed a perfectly ordinary, pleasant person until suddenly he said, 'Well, of course, I do not trust Moscow, it is full of Zionists. There, the church is full of Jews ... '
FM
This fear of Zionism is typical. In 1975, fifteen years ago, I gave an interview which was published in Paris.[6] They asked me then whether there was any anti-Semitism in the church. I said that I hadn't come across any, not on a mass scale. Fifteen years later and the picture has completely changed. I wouldn't say the same thing now. Anti-Semitism has become, unfortunately, one of the distinguishing features of the church.


PB
Are you of Jewish descent?
FM
Yes.


PB
I feel uncomfortable asking you this.
FM
Why should you feel that way?


PB
The point is that you in your position are an ideal target for anti-Semitism.
FM
Of course, that goes without saying. I feel it. I have been a priest for a long time, thirty or so years, but this has only started to happen now. I feel it in the way people behave towards me, in the way they talk to me, in everything.


PB
What do you personally think of the problem of anti-Semitism?
FM
I think this is a question of social psychology. There has to be a category of people who are held responsible for the sins of society. They are the personification of society's own sins.
Instead of admitting that we destroyed our own sacred things, people say that it was Kaganovich[7] who gave the order to destroy the church of Christ the Saviour. If the people hadn't wanted to desecrate it, it wouldn't have mattered who had given the order. They would have killed Kaganovich and saved the church. But the people went and blew up thousands of churches. That means people are to blame. But it's a very difficult thing to admit and so you have to find someone to blame. It's easy to swear at the Jews. A coward will always pick on someone defenceless.


PB
Is it true that, in conservative circles, communists are being identified as Jews?
FM
Yes, but this is artificial because sixty years ago there were many Jews among the Bolsheviks, but my generation does not remember this. I remember the communist authorities being comprised of people of Russian, Ukrainian and Caucasian descent. Kaganovich was the only Jew.


PB
Then the real problem is that the people don't want to admit their responsibility for what took place in this country?
FM
Make a comparative analysis of de-nazification in Germany and de-stalinization here and you'll understand.


PB
What about you personally? How do you view your work in this sense?
FM
I don't. All I do is carry on working. There are people who write history and people who simply live and work in it. I belong to the second category.


PB
Yes, but when you preach, you do put forward certain ideas.
FM
All my ideas can be found in [this book] here!


PB
In the Bible …
FM
Yes, of course. The gospel is the foundation of life.

  1. Reference to Fr Gleb Yakunin, Pr Nikolai Eshliman, among others.
  2. “Karlovci synod”, now Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA), formed after the revolution, and so named after the Yugoslav town where it first met.
  3. Reference to Stalin's deportation of the Chechen and Ingush peoples in 1943.
  4. “Pamyat” is the extreme right-wing nationalist movement.
  5. Nikolai Gogol wrote a story entitled “Taras Bulba” (1835), eulogizing the free life of the Cossacks and their campaigns against the Catholic Poles.
  6. For an English translation of this interview, see Fr Alexander Men', 'The Jews and Christianity', Religion, State and Society, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1995, pp. 25-29.]
  7. Lazar Moiseevich Kaganovich (1893-1987), one of Stalin's chief lieutenants.