Missionary and Martyr in Moscow

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Review Essay: Missionary and Martyr in Moscow A Review of Works By and About Fr Alexander Men

by Fr Michael Plekon

NB: This article originally appeared in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. 41, 1996. It is slightly adapted for use here and published with Fr Michael Plekon's kind permission.

Elizabeth Roberts and Ann Shukman, eds. Christianity for the Twenty- First Century: The Prophetic Writings of Alexander Men, (NY: Continuum, 1996), paper, 226 pages.

Yves Hamant, Alexander Men: A Witness for Contemporary Russia, A Man for Our Times, trans. Steven Bigham (Torrance CA: Oakwood Publications, 1995), paper, 233 pages.

Alexander Men, About Christ and the Church, Alexis Vinogradov, trans. (Torrance CA: Oakwood Publications, 1996), paper, 112 pages.

Only now in the West are we beginning to know the priest and teacher whose fatal killing we heard of in the fall of 1990. I recall well Serge Schmemann's article about it in the New York Times. Within the last year Fr Alexander Men has erupted into English and into our consciousness. First came a lavishly illustrated biography by a friend, the French scholar Yves Hamant, really an intellectual history, which thrusts us into the turbulent 20th century experience of Orthodoxy in Russia, there to encounter this most unusual priest who became the major public voice of the Church in so forceful a manner that it cost him his life. Under repressive conditions in the years of Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Andropov, this brilliant student was kept out of both the university system and formal theological education. Fr Alexander's self-education, in a time of harassment and rigid control, is astounding. Without financial support and alongside full-time pastoral duties in his parishes and familial obligations, Fr Men produced a formidable authorship: a seven volume history of the great world religious traditions inspired by Soloviev, several volumes on how to read the Bible, on biblical commentaries and scholarship, on liturgy and prayer, numerous journal articles, sermons, lectures, talks in people's homes, as well as a direct, accessible work on Christ, Son of Man, due to appear in translation by Oakwood next year. Not only did Fr Alexander produce a literature any academic would have been proud of, he accomplished what the majority of professors never carry off. In his lucid writing he began the education of a generation deprived of understanding of Christianity, the Church and liturgy, the Bible but also the history and place of religion in human culture. He was a one man antidote to decades of Marxist propaganda, a personal university, one might say, for his writing, much of which was published abroad anonymously and under pseudonyms until Glasnost, crossed over the borders of the academic disciplines. He became, very quickly, both teacher and pastor to a vast "parish" in Russia. There were those more proximate who were baptized in adulthood by him, who could attend the services in his parish outside Moscow, come to him for pastoral conversation or confession. Beyond, there were more who could come to his lectures and read him. And just before his death, an even vaster audience was forming, his viewers on Russian television. Over the years, Fr Men was personally connected to notables such as dissidents Dmitri Dudko and Gleb Yakunin, the poet Galich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Osip Mandelstaum's widow, Nadeszhda, among others.

Buried among the ordinary parish clergy for the better part of 30 years, despite all of his study and writing, Fr Men only emerged into public life just as the long winter of oppression was thawing under Gorbachev. Just as abruptly, he disappeared. Walking to the train to travel to Sunday liturgy on the morning of September 9, 1990, he was accosted by never-identified assailants, axed in the back of the head, dying shortly after attempting to crawl back home. The killing was not robbery and not haphazard. It remains which of Fr. Men's enemies -- in right wing nationalist movements, in state agencies, even in the Russian Church -- considered him such a menace that his death was deemed necessary. We do not often read a priest or theologian's words these days, ideas such that others acted to remove and silence him. Yet such are Fr. Men's writings, such his witness.

The collection of his sermons from Lent through the paschal season, Awake to Life (Marite Sapiets, trans., Oakwood, 1995) revealed a direct and spare style, anchored both in the details of people's everyday life and in the Gospels and feasts of the Church year. Now we have more extensive access to Fr. Men's thinking in the Continuum anthology, the volume of transcribed "house conversations" on Christ and the Church, his responses in mini-lecture form to his parishioners' questions, and Yves Hamant's biographical study.

Hamant's work is both rewarding and frustrating. He is thorough and riveting in sketching the historical catastrophes of the Russian Church. Particularly revealing are his profiles of those who influenced Fr. Men: "underground" figures such as Frs Batiukov, Ieraks and Skipkov and Mother Maria, later Fr Golubtsov, themselves molded by the renowned spiritual fathers of the Optina monastery. We meet as well the better known Russian thinkers who most shaped him: philosophers Vladimir Soloviev and Nicholas Berdiaev, and the brilliant, controversial theologian Fr Sergius Bulgakov. Hamant's work is almost a photographic history of the Russian Church in this century, alongside the rich collection of images of Fr Men throughout his life. The photos themselves would have made a worthwhile publication! Hamant is most generous in quotation of Fr Men's writings and interviews, so that in the course of the book, one not only gets him "on the ear," but begins to trace major themes in Fr Men's writing. Moreover, Hamant describes the ways in which those close to Fr Men attempt to carry on his work.

However, as much as the biographical study acquaints us with the public figure of Fr Alexander, the actual, tangible person he was, the husband, father, friend and pastor, eludes the reader. One simply does not come nearly close enough to the man. Likewise aside from a couple of photos and very brief mentioning, Fr Men's family is almost non-existent, invisible. Perhaps they wanted it this way, perhaps others similarly preferred the intimate portrait subordinated to the larger (than life?) one. In any case, it raises the question of whether such a biographical undertaking was premature. As valuable as the sweep of Hamant's historical investigation is, Fr Men's charisma was by no means restricted to his books or even to his lectures but was found, so I have been told, in the depth of his pastoral care, that is, in encounter with the person. Something of the richness and authenticity of a person, the combination of admirable, but also puzzling, even less than positive qualities is lacking in Hamant, and taking its place is, in many ways, a too early hagiography.

A much more intimate experience of Fr Men is provided, however, in the transcribed talks, About Christ and the Church which he gave in informal, home gatherings, in response to questions. One can almost hear the clatter of spoons and dishes, the backdrop of coughs and children's noise which surrounded the taped versions of these, now deftly and eloquently translated by Fr Alexis Vinogradov. Fr Men's learning and passion come through, and in lively, colloquial style. While we are warned both by a former parishioner and the translator that these are not polished, finished theological works, what come across in them is the dynamic viva voce presentation for which Fr Men can now be heard to be rightly famous.

As in some of the collected sermons and several of the interviews gathered in the Continuum anthology, the bold frankness assaults you: "Paganism is always easier for us ... often what passes for Orthodoxy or another Christian confession is simply natural religiosity which, in its own right, is a kind of opium of the people..." (p.52). "When we say we are the Church of Tradition then this can be even understood in a perverted way, that we are the Church that died, the Church which stopped and froze like a mummy" (p.82). And it is by no means only Russians who may be shaken up by Fr Men's assertion that their Church failed in what the Gospel demanded of her: preaching, witness, presence, hence atheism triumphed there for most of the century (p. 64). Many hyper-traditionalist, rigorist Orthodox even here in America will be disturbed by his words about Orthodoxy's historical flaws, its tendency toward rigidity and intolerance. And if these statements were not enough, Fr Men will also provoke some by his respect for other Christian confessions, his recognition of the truth in Catholicism and in Protestantism as well.

These conversations bring to mind the splendid volumes of Fr. Alexander Schmemann's talks broadcast to Russia on Radio Liberty, now translated and titled A Celebration of Faith (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press). The faith is communicated clearly, in terms that even the unchurched person can comprehend, and without any pandering to current taste, without any dilution of its force or obscuring of its beauty. Most of all what is conveyed is the integrity that the Gospel gives. In both of these Alexanders we hear priests of integrity, mincing no words about the failings of fellow Christians in the Church, yet also men full of freedom and joy in the Risen Christ.

The anthology provocatively titled Christianity for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Ann Skukman, continues the experience of Fr Men's thinking and teaching, in fact providing the best sampling so far between two covers. Included are interviews and lectures in which Fr Men's boldness crackles off the page. He speaks as a child of the Russian Church, nourished by its saints, especially Seraphim of Sarov and shaped by such embattled yet luminous modern teachers as Soloviev, Berdiaev and Bulgakov. It is out of love that he condemns the failings of his Russian Church: extremist, right-wing insurgency manifesting itself in anti-Semitism, fanatical opposition to any development of renewal of liturgical or catechetical activity, acquiescence to whatever form the state takes, czarist, communist, capitalist. Of particular insight is his lecture on the two understandings of Christianity symbolized by Doestoevki's Frs Zossima and Ferapont in the Brothers Karamazov. These are world-affirming and world-hating tendencies, each of which becomes misguided in isolation from the other.

The deep imprint of the Optina elders' spirit of openness to and love for the world, a truly paschal joy in the Risen Christ present in all, radiates in these selections as in the sermons and house conversations. One hears this especially in the lecture given the night before his death, from which the anthology takes its title. The freedom of the Tradition of the Church, of the children of God, of Christians of "true worship," comes in volley after volley in the collection of sayings, "A Credo for Today's Christian." What an experience it would be to bring these before a gathering of bishops, priests, the faithful -- and then see the excitement (of all kinds) that would ensue. Fr Men also addressed the atrocities even of our post-war, post-totalitarian time. He brings the violence and turmoil in the republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia into the mystery of the birth at Bethlehem in a Christmas meditation from 1989. At numerous points throughout all these translated writings he indicts the ruthlessness, even of educated, professional people today -- the rage for success, the obsession with looks and money, the frantic, frenetic pace of work which consumes family, friends, health and life.

Even with these volumes and the translation of Son of Man to come from Oakwood in 1997, only a fraction of Fr Alexander's work is accessible to non-Russian readers. Much like Dietrich Bonhoeffer's partial revelation in his Letters and Papers from Prison years ago, so too, we cannot say we have experienced all the man, the breadth of his thinking,. and its depth. And it is always the temptation to squeeze Fr Men into niches into which he does not fit, that of the pure academic, the statesman- hierarch, the pious devotional author, and judge him on those comparisons. One can hope, that as with the publication of Thomas Merton's complete journals, the broader publishing of Fr Men's work will enable us to know, both him and his proclamation of Christ better. Yet even with so partial a sampling thus far, two strong Men emphases dominate our impression from these books. The one he faithfully passes on from his own teachers, his constant centering on Christ and the mystery of "God-Manhood" (Bogochelovestvo) -- God's becoming human and humankind's being deified, filled and completed in God. The incarnational, yes sacramental vision of the "churching" (votserklovenie) of all creation is one of the chief contributions of modern Russian theology to the whole Church and world. But God's incarnational reaching out must be matched by ours, as Church and by each Christian, individually. In Fr Men's writing, and even more so, in his life and death, this response to God, this true synergy with God, is expressed and enacted. His is a singular embodiment of this bridging between God and man, between Church and churches, Church and world, between our time and the Kingdom.

Due to the tragedy of the schismatic "Living Church" movement after the Russian Revolution, the very word "renewal" has become poisonous and taboo in Russian Orthodoxy, Yet, this is also true, sadly enough, in other locations of the Orthodox Church, even here in America, among traditionalists, many of whom themselves are converts to Orthodoxy. Fr John Meyendorff once said that the Tradition could be protected and preserved to death. Among the living voices of Orthodoxy to the other churches and the world, we should now place Fr Alexander Men and dare to hear his sometimes disturbing but dynamic and truthful expression of the Gospel.

Content © 1996 Fr Michael Plekon