Is Father Alexander Men a Saint?

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This article from the Toronto Slavic Quarterly deals with the relations of intellectuals, and Jews, and the Church and is from the point of view of someone outside the Church but is an interesting commentary.

           Father Alexander Men' probably needs no introduction to many of you. He is the late priest in the Russian Orthodox Church who was found murdered by an axe in September 1990, and whom the late academic Sergei Averintsev called "The man sent from God to be missionary to the wild tribe of the Soviet intelligentsia." [1] According to a woman I'll call "Marina," a Russian-Jewish writer in her fifties who I interviewed in Moscow in 1997:
           In the second half of the twentieth century in Russia there were two charismatic figures, comparable because of their influence, although in different spheres: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Alexander Men'. If the influence, the literary influence of the one grew quieter …and began to seem somewhat questionable ...…the influence of Alexander Men', on the contrary, has grown even stronger and wider. [2]
           My paper today will be about that influence and how it is or is not felt today, fifteen years after Men's death, in a "reborn" Russia with a strengthened, state-supported Orthodox Church, and an intelligentsia much more splintered and diffuse than it was in the 1960s, 70s, and even the 80s, the time of Men's ministry. I ask what has become of Men's followers among the intelligentsia, the Jews, and the religious "dissidents" of the late Soviet period, and whether his legacy has had a lasting effect on the Church. To answer these questions, I'll first analyze those who entered the Church during Men's lifetime and under his influence, many of them what I call "Russian Jewish Christians" in my recent book, Doubly Chosen: Jewish Identity, the Soviet Intelligentsia, and the Russian Orthodox Church. In the second half of my talk, I'll examine several parishes where his influence is still felt today, and analyze the words of some of his remaining spiritual children.
           To begin: Who were these members of the "wild tribe" that Men' baptized, as Averintsev gave witness? According to Yuri Glazov, himself a Russian-Jewish Christian: "Two striking phenomena are interwoven with the post-Stalinist development of the Russian intelligentsia: dissent and religious revival. [...] Stalin's death brought forth a very acute crisis in Soviet ideology and in the spiritual body of the nation as well." [3] How did the intelligentsia respond to this crisis? Says one particularly reflective Russian-Jewish Christian, an historian turned priest:
           It was an issue of how to maintain your difference. ... To stay a spiritual personality. Not to be completely engulfed. In this sense, the Church helped to support the human personality, the personality of the intelligentsia, for whom personhood is extremely important. Not to be completely dissolved into the aggressive Soviet mass. …. It was the power that I found to stay myself. (Father Michael)
           For another Russian-Jewish intellectual affected by the wave of baptisms in the late sixties:
           .... Living in the Soviet Union, and always being bothered by the constant lie, you had the sensation that there must be a great deal that they are simply hiding. I was led to a sense of readiness, readiness to believe in something else. I didn't know what that something was, but the readiness was there. ("Osip")
           There were and are, of course, many ways to respond to such inner "readiness." They could have sought out Judaism, to the extent that was feasible in the Soviet Union of the time. They could have become Zionists, and tried to go to Israel. Or they could have followed the secular dissident pattern of, say, Sakharov. Indeed, in the sixties, these paths did not seem so disparate, as one interviewee acknowledged:
           From the same underground came the dissident movement and the Zionist movement. Discussions would take place in the same house… I didn't hide the fact that I went to church. For those Jews in those days the fact that we were Christians was not an issue. Most of them had been in Stalin's camps. Christians were not enemies. They were all allies. In those days we were a minority of outcasts. (Father Michael)
           For many of these "outcasts," as I have said, it was Father Alexander Men', by both example and word, who showed them the way out of what has been variously called the ideological lie, the vacuum, the cellar, or the prison of Soviet culture. Born a Jew, thus an outsider, a "dissident" by birth, trained as a scientist in a Soviet institute, Men' came to represent for these intellectuals the best of all worlds. [4]
           Men's clearly had charisma. But he also had a message that appealed to a generation straitjacketed in their institutes for Historical Materialism and Marxism-Leninism. The way out of the cellar that he showed them celebrated the highly sensual ritual, the materiality of Russian Orthodoxy not as a utilitarian end, but as the incarnation of mystical Truth and as a sign of the possible deification of creation. Spirit and matter, religion and secular knowledge were not so far apart, after all. Engineers, historians, and mathematicians were attracted by Men's readiness to build a bridge between the Church and secular society, between science and religion: "This idea of dialogue with the world has stuck with me all my life," wrote the Jewish priest. [5]
           Beyond his personality, then, Men' provided a bridge, and preached a message of unity between peoples. This message of ecumenism and universalism struck a popular chord. Furthermore, the danger of dissident participation in the Church, itself severely restricted in the atheist state, combined with the attraction of Orthodox spirituality. Sparked by the influence of charismatic figures like Men' (Dudko, Eshliman, Iakunin…), the Church drew otherwise secular Soviets to what at the time they understood, from Men's teachings, to be an inclusive and universal Orthodoxy. The fact of the Church's restriction in the Soviet period made these freedom-seekers, many of them Jews, feel like natural allies with those who professed the national religion of the ancient Russian people. They were dissidents together.
           There was, of course, a downside. In an obituary written shortly after the murder of the priest, Men's friend (and a friend of some of you), Mikhail Agursky, called him a "passionate missionary, [who] tried to attract everyone to Christianity, but especially Jews. [...] For this, he was hated by many Russians as well as very many Jews." [6] Indeed, the former Metropolitan of Leningrad, Antonii Mel'nikov called him a "guard" of Zionism in Orthodoxy (postovoi sionizma v pravoslavii). [7]
           So, the newly-baptized Jews did not always find the bridge of ecumenism and universality that Men' preached, however, and an interesting metaphor crept into many of my interviews: that of illness and healing: The Russian Orthodox Church is rather sick, "Marina" pronounced. "Avraham" diagnosed the illness: the Church is infected by antisemitism. … It is not just a disease in the Church. It is a genetic disease. It is destroying the Church from the inside.
           So what, we might ask, are the Russian Jewish Christians doing in this hotbed of infection and disease? One might assume that they, too, would become infected. And, in fact, such so-called "self-hatred" is not unheard of among acculturated Jews in Russia as well as elsewhere.[8] And Jewish out-converts to other denominations often suffer from the illness. For example, the scholars Isser and Schwartz argue that, "modern Jews who have converted to 'Hebrew Christianity' or 'Jews for Jesus' groups are not only plagued by the 'ineradicable' Jewishness within themselves, but frequently suffer as well from minority self-hate, often manifested in anti-semitic behavior" [9]
           But self-hatred was definitely not a characteristic I found in the population of Russian Jewish Orthodox Christians. As I was told over and over, But the deeper I went into the Church, the more deeply I felt myself as belonging to the people of Israel ("Avraham") and The more I am Christian, the more I feel myself a Jew ("Dima"). What is more, this Jewish identity had become positive and internal, rather than the negative, externally reinforced anti-Semitism that was their basic identification with Jewishness before entering the Church. They did not become "Russian" in the Russian Church, but "Jewish."
           And where are these Jewish intellectuals, Men's "children", today, when the official Church, many feel, is even less open to "outsiders" and as it becomes more and more entrenched in the politics of the new, increasingly nationalist Russia? What are the followers of Men' doing with his legacy of ecumenism, inclusivity, and bridge-building between the intelligentsia and the Church, between Jews and Christians, between East and West?
           Some are in the West, but I won't today be talking of those Russian Jewish Christians in the U.S. or in Israel. Instead, I'll confine myself to those living in his home town of Moscow where, as a rule, individuals might attend services here or there, or nowhere at all, but they continue to worship as communities in just a handful of churches. Some of Men's followers continue to make the long train ride out to his final parish in Novaia Derevnia. There is also now also a small church erected at the site of the murder.
           But probably the largest number of "heirs" of Men's teaching now attend the Church of Cosmas and Damian (Kram sviatykh bessrebranikov Kosmy i Damiana v Shubine) in central Moscow, just off Tverskaia St. by the statue of Dolgorukii and the Aragvi restaurant. [10] It is led by Fathers Aleksandr Borisov and Georgii Chistiakov, both close associates of Men', as well as by two other priests appointed, as I was told by a regular parishioner with perhaps a bit of leftover Soviet paranoia, to watch us. It is on the second floor of the Church of Kosmas and Damian that Men's younger brother, Pavel, runs the Aleksandr Men' Foundation. [11] And it is here, in the church's bookstore, where you can find the largest selection of books and tapes by Men'. Father Aleksandr Borisov estimates that the church supports 3000 regular parishioners.
           In 1992, some members of Borisov's parish split away to register a new community, and in 1996 were given a new church a few blocks away. The parish is slowly refurbishing this Church of the Assumption of the Mother of God (Khram Uspeniia Bogoroditsy na Uspenskom Vrazhke), led by Fr. Vladimir Lapshin, also a long-time associate of Men'.
           But perhaps the most radical, and controversial of the followers of Men' now gather to pray in the basement of the building housing the Center for Human Rights, near the Nikitskie Gates. To be clear, this small community is not part of the Patriarchate of Moscow. It belongs to the so-called Apostolic Orthodox Church, founded in May of 2000 through the authority of the True-Orthodox (Catacomb) Church, a body that never reunited with the Moscow Patriarchate since the 1920s. [12] It is sometimes called Gleb Iakunin's Church, for its founder, the famous dissident from the 60s. [13] At the recommendation of Iakunin, this dissident Church's synod canonized Father Aleksandr on September 8, 2000.
           The canonization of Men' was, and still is, highly controversial. [14] Many followers of Men' with whom I spoke agreed that the canonization was perhaps deserved, but nonetheless, in this form and by this splinter Church, nothing more, and nothing less than an unnecessary provocation: We split with them over this, Men's brother explained. I understand their views, but it was all done on their own, which only disturbs the situation. Men's son, Mikhail, currently the deputy major of Moscow and a controversial figure in his own right, wrote: "I look on this as a provocation directed against all my family. ... by an organized group of people having no relationship to the Russian Orthodox Church."[15]
           But a saint he is, say some. The makeshift Church of the New Martyrs, led by Father Iakov Krotov, is divided by an iconostasis with only three icons: the Mother of God, Christ, and one of Father Aleksandr. The wall is punctuated by wide arches in place of the closed royal doors of a traditional icon stand, thus making the altar fully visible, and accessible, to the congregation. The services are conducted in Russian, rather than the Church Slavonic recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church, and, thus, also easily accessible to the worshipers. There is no choir; the congregants themselves are expected to chant the entire service, and Father Iakov recites all prayers aloud, rather than mumbled as is usually done in the Orthodox Church. All of these innovations, Krotov believes, make his service more democratic, more inclusive, and more in the spirit of Father Aleksandr Men's own teachings.
           When I asked Krotov in the summer of 2003 about any continuing influence of Men' on the official Orthodox Church, the spiritual child of the late charismatic priest admitted that it would be marginal at best. Fundamentalism is now central in the Church. And, there is more "Bolshevism" in Church life today than in secular life. Pavel Men' seconded much of this opinion. This is not to say that Pavel is totally pessimistic: Definitely a small living kernel remains, as always. And if intellectuals are not flocking to the Church as they did during Father Aleksandr's ministry, they are reading his books. It is through the books, propagated by the Men' fund that Pavel directs, that he sees a future. Many seminarists and priests, he believes, are reading them on the sly: I know that people are using the books of Aleksandr, teachers, not naming him by name.
           Father Vladimir Lapshin took a different take on Men's legacy during our interview. When I asked if I might have a few minutes to talk about his memories of Men', Father Vladimir, unlike all the others I spoke with, curtly responded that he is has nothing to say. He expressed impatience with what he alluded to as the "industry" of children of Men', and he became quite angry when the conversation turned toward the question of Men's legacy.
           Lapshin's severity on this issue, I ultimately concluded, grows from his efforts to remember and portray Father Aleksandr not as a radical, fringe priest in the Church, but as absolutely central to the ancient and true, Orthodox teachings. When asked about the legacy of Men's teaching, Father Vladimir answered curtly, He had no teachings. When pressed about the continuation of his direction (napravlenie), a term used by Father Borisov, Lapshin declared that he had no direction, because everything he taught was not his, but that of the Church. He did not work toward the reunion of the Churches, Lapshin claimed, despite everyone else's assertions that this was one of Men's main focuses, because Men' knew that the Church is one, and can only be one. None of the questions, it seems, was apt, as long as I implied that Men' was anyway outside the core of Orthodox teachings.
           Father Vladimir's efforts to separate Men' from any "industry" that relies on the priest's iconoclasm, and others' desires, on the contrary, to propagate Men's martyred image, represent two poles of a cautious optimism about the ecumenical priest's legacy, and about the possibility of continuing influence on the Church of the intellectuals that he first attracted to faith.
           But this cautious, sometimes a bit weary optimism about Men's legacy is caught within the tension of two paradoxes. The first is clearly expressed by Father Vladimir Lapshin's attitude. This ardent priest's efforts are directed at bringing Orthodox worship back to its doctrinal purity. Although he firmly believes that Men' supported that return to the idea of a true, Orthodox, Catholic, Universal Church, insofar as the "industry" of Men's memory draws attention away from what is truly Orthodox, it defeats, rather than promotes his cause. If anything, it causes further splintering in the Church. So, to follow Men', the Church and its followers paradoxically must not follow him, but return to itself.
           The second paradox is perhaps best expressed in the following anecdote. Recently, I met an old friend in Moscow. She and her husband lived in exile in New York for many years, where she attended services fairly regularly at a parish serving many newly baptized, often Jewish intellectuals. Does she still go to church? I asked, wanting to probe the level of her optimism or weariness. After the death of her husband and the fall of the Soviet Union, she reclaimed her Russian citizenship, bought an apartment in Moscow near the area where she first met Father Aleksandr and, now, as she confessed, rarely goes to church. Why? Because, she admitted with some self- mockery, she misses the dissidence. She was attracted to an underground, revolutionary Church, a catacomb Church, as she told me, and to the sense of urgency and intensity that worship in a forbidden space excites. What some followers dream of desperately -- the mainstreaming of Father Aleksandr Men' -- is also, ironically, what turns many of them away.
           By all accounts, intellectuals are not joining the Church as they once were. Recent surveys suggest that the number of Russians in general who regularly attend church is declining. And today's spiritual seekers among the intelligentsia join the Church, when they do, with a difference from the earlier generations of Men's children. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, during Men's ministry, intellectuals chose baptism as an escape from the vacuum of Soviet ideology, as a way to discover, and express, their "personality", and, ultimately, as a dissident action. Spiritual activity was spiritually alive and exciting, and closely associated for these baptized intellectuals with the politically and spiritually brave individual of Men'. Now, Men's ecumenical legacy must carry the day without his charisma. And it must do so in an atmosphere currently dominated by a less-than ecumenical, rather blatantly nationalist agenda.
           Does he deserve sainthood for this legacy, as those in Gleb Iakunin and Iakov Krotov's Church believe?
           According to one of Men's Russian Jewish Christians:
           I do think that according to the Orthodox definition of a saint, Fr. Alexander is a saint. There are a few different types of saints. One of these types is a person who lived a great life, was extremely important for his time and people around him, bravely preached about faith in the time of danger, wrote beautiful books about faith, and died as a martyr. Who will fit this definition better then Father Alexander Men?
           The OCA website gives the following definition:
           It means only that, within the context of his age, he manifested the image of God in himself in some way -- that he was an ikon, an original creation, a new creature in Christ. …
           Canonization does not make a man a saint. Rather, it establishes the fact, publically and for all to see, that the man is already a saint… [16]
           Was Father Alexander Men' such a man? I don't know. I never met him. I don't believe in saints. I don't even believe in Jesus Christ. And I'm crazy about Jews converting to Christianity. I do know, however, that his ministry, and, even more, the presence of his spiritual children, grandchildren, cousins, and fellow travelers, especially among the Jews, continue to press the case of his significance, and in so doing, to test the saintliness of the contemporary Church itself. "In his day," in the "cellar" of the Soviet Union, he did something unusual. He was an "original creation" as an intellectual in the Church.
           "Pasha," a Russian Jewish Christian now living in New York suggested the following: To show you are a Jew in Orthodoxy is a kind of litmus paper. Jewry is the verification of faith for a Christian. Why? If you take this paper, Jewry, and you immerse it in someone's faith, and the paper changes color, even just a little, then that is a marker that something is not right in his faith. True Orthodoxy, the Orthodoxy his followers believe was preached by Men', is thus associated with tolerance and ecumenism, with what they see as the true message of the gospels. And any Orthodoxy that does not accept Jews, that flunks the litmus test, must have abandoned its true ecumenical form and become intent only on its own ritualistic laws. Did Men' revolutionize the Russian Orthodox Church? By no means. Was he a messiah? Absolutely not. Does his legacy point out to the Church how it might "heal itself"? In a quiet, sometimes defeatist and always paradoxical way: yes.