Fr Alexander Men
Fr Alexander Men' by Robert Sexton
Murder is a terrible word, so out of place in a newsletter like this, but it is some thing that might intrude even here. The murder of a priest must stand as a particularly awful crime. We have had the experience in our own diocese done for a sordid motive. There was another such murder that happened a few years ago and a continent away and for far different reasons. It is not the deed on which I would focus but the victim because that priest was a remarkable man and his story deserves our particular attention.
Alexander Men: A Witness for Contemporary Russia (A Man For our Times) by Yves Hamant was originally published in France in 1993. Translated by Fr. Steven Bigham, this book tells the story of Alexander Men, Russian Orthodox priest, his life and his death. But it is more than that for his story is very much the story of the Church in Russia during the years of the Soviet Empire. For Hamant this is a personal testimony as he knew Fr. Men and had met with him a number of times.
Fr. Alexander Men was the parish priest of Novaya Derevnya, a small village in Russia on the old road from Moscow to Zagorsk. His church, like most such small Russian churches, was a wooden building of no special quality, built oddly enough, after the revolution. This parish Fr. Alexander had served since 1970. He was born in 1935 and both he and his mother were baptized at the same time. Though he studied biology at the Moscow Fur Institute, he had long felt a calling to the Church and had studied theology on his own. He married and had a son and a daughter. He was ordained a priest in 1960.
When, in the late eighties, Mikhail Gorbachev declared the policies of perestroika and glasnost, and the whole rotten facade that was the communist Soviet Union utterly collapsed, Fr. Alexander Men became perhaps the most well known priest in the Church. Overnight it seemed, he was appearing everywhere, in demand as a speaker, making TV appearances, starting his own television series on religion.
Of course, he didn't come to prominence without reason. For any priest during those long years under Stalin, Khrushchev, Breshnev the safest course was to sit back and take care of the babushki and make as few waves as possible. But that served the communists too well. If they couldn't eliminate the Church they would let it have a token existence. Keep the priests in line and they keep the believers in line.
The alternative to this safe course was to resist, which many did. Many went underground. The priest who baptized Fr. Alexander was part of the underground Church. Many more attempted to resist publicly. No one will ever know how many bishops, priests, monks and nuns went to their deaths in the Gulags. They number in the tens of thousands. Nor will there ever be a full accounting for all the laity who followed them into martyrdom. They number in the millions.
But Fr. Alexander was cut from a different cloth. He would follow neither the safe course nor futile martyrdom. Somehow he began to gather a following of young people, intellectuals and others, most of whom had no familiarity with the Church. During his tenure in the parish of Alabino, while undertaking the repairs and remodeling of the church, the group gathered around him began to call this place "the abbey".
It was during this time that his writing began to attract attention. In the course of his career, he published numerous articles in the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate. That, as Hamant describes it, "got him the honor of being attacked in Science and Religion", a state journal published to discredit religion. Of more importance, he also published several books, but always (as did a number of Russian authors) outside the Soviet Union.
All of this gradually made him a target for the KGB. As the Soviet Government blew hot and cold regarding tolerance of religion, Fr. Alexander would find himself undergoing frequent interrogations. During one such period, Hamant notes, "He was summoned to interminable daily interrogations, to which he went as if to work." But somehow these never lead to arrest or imprisonment. Even so, his friends often attempted to persuade him to leave the country. To one he replied "A writer must live in his own country. Manuscripts may go here and there as they want but our place is here. People are waiting for the Word."
And finally, the long nightmare of communism was over. Sakharov was released, the gulags began to be emptied, Solshenitzen came home. The attendance at Fr. Alexander's parish swelled and he was in demand. Then one Sunday, as he was on his way to his church, he was met by two men, one who engaged him with a question perhaps, while the other moved behind him and struck him with an ax. He managed to make his way back to his house where his wife found him. He died a short time later. Ironically, his funeral was held on the day commemorating the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, called the Forerunner.
That the weapon was an ax is of special significance. In Russian history, the ax was the weapon used to chase out foreign invaders. It became "the traditional symbol of popular justice, of the punishment of traitors." The murder of Fr. Alexander Men was no ordinary crime. It was meant as a message, as a warning. The murderers are to this day unknown and it is unlikely that they will ever be known.
It is difficult to get a real feeling from this book for the indubitable charisma of Fr. Alexander. It is a translation and suffers somewhat from that. Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger said, "When I found myself face to face with Fr. Alexander Men, I felt I had known him all my life. He seemed like a brother, a friend who would always be close to me..." More compelling than the text is the portrait of Fr. Alexander on the back cover. He gazes directly at you, expressionless yet at the same time expressing much. His face shows remarkable intelligence and the weariness of thirty years of living with the dragon.
There is a cautionary lesson that can be drawn from this. Fr. Alexander lived most of his life under rulers bent on eradicating the Church. And when they could not destroy it by force, they tried to kill it with feigned kindness, reasoning that a Church grateful for its existence would offer no opposition to its supposed benefactors.
Fr. Men's conversations are permeated with his faith in the overwhelming, though not yet visible, victory of Jesus. The meaning of the Resurrection, for today and not just for history, is that Jesus "will triumph always; and He has only begun His work, only begun, because His aim is the Transfiguration of the world, the Kingdom of God." As Fr. Alexander points out to his listeners, and through them, to all of us, Jesus has personally called upon each one of us, so that each biography may become, in its own way, a small part of Church history.
Nor should it be forgotten that Soviet policy specifically suppressed religious education. This resulted in an enormous loss of knowledge of the faith and its practice. Fr. Alexander had to spend much time teaching converts the most rudimentary religious conduct, as they often had no idea at all how to behave in a church.
But are we so different? Our churches are privileged in law, sheltered from taxes, even extended the occasional opportunity for public prayer at political events. But the quid pro quo is political neutrality and invisibility in the public square. Our public education, as crucial to religion as it is to any other part of life, is rigorously secular. Our universities regularly produce graduates who claim an education but have no knowledge of the most rudimentary religious conduct.
So consider all this, the turmoil in Russia, the fate of the Church and its meaning to us. And as you do, pray for Fr. Alexander Men, Priest, Martyr, and pray for Russia and the whole Church.
This article was written for The Orthodox Reader, a publication of St. George Greek Orthodox Church of Fresno, CA. © 2000 Robert D. Sexton. Published here with Robert D. Sexton's kind permission.