Father Aleksandr Men and the Struggle to Recover Russia's Heritage

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Father Aleksandr Men and the Struggle to Recover Russia's Heritage

Wallace L. Daniel*

Abstract: Aleksandr Men represents a significant line of thought within Russia's religious and cultural tradition. In contrast to the ultranationalists who emerged at the end of the Soviet Union, Men advocated openness, tolerance, and humility, interpreting these values and perspectives as central to the Russian Orthodox Church. He saw the long-standing schism between the church and society as one of the church's primary difficulties and looked for ways to heal it. In his view, reconciliation required reacquainting Russians with the foundations of Christian culture in Russia—the older voices that expressed compas­sion and spoke against violence in all its forms. These foundations, he believed, had been distorted not only by the ruling elite but also by church officials. The recovery of such foun­dations required imagination and a willingness to see the past anew, which Men viewed as part of the church's mission. His legacy offers a challenge to the autocratic, centralizing trends so prominent in Russia in both the past and the present.

Keywords: church fathers, distortion of spiritual mission, diversity of religious beliefs, freedom, ideals of Russian culture, imagination, openness, Orthodox Church, tradition and creativity

*Wallace L. Daniel's most recent publications include The Orthodox Church and Civil Society in Russia (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006); "Reconstructing the 'Sacred Canopy: Mother Serafima and Novodevichy Monastery," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 58 (April 2008): 249-71; and (with Meredith Holladay) "Church, State, and the Presidential Campaign of 2008," Journal of Church and State 50 (Winter 2008): 5-22. He also recently coedited Perspectives on Church-State Relations in Russia (Waco, TX: J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, 2008) with Peter L. Berger and Christopher Marsh. He is currently working on an intellectual biog­raphy of Father Aleksandr Men. He is the provost and a professor of history at Mercer University. Copyright © 2009 Heldref Publications

The Centre of Religious Literature and Russian Publications Abroad in the M. I. Rudo-mino All-Russian State Library for Foreign Literature in Moscow presents a sharp contrast to the aggressive, inward-looking, and nationalistic groups that view the Orthodox Church as a key part of Russia's national recovery. Consecrated by Patriarch Aleksi II, the center includes a room honoring Father Aleksandr Men, one of Russia's leading priests and pastors, whose murder in September 1990 marked a turning point in Russian history. Men's death, unresolved to the present day, reminded his followers of the violence often inflicted on Russia's greatest prophetic minds. Yet the murder also stiffened the resolve of those who venerated Men's accomplishments and his teachings. The room in Men's honor communicates his persistent efforts to learn from other religions. The books and key texts of those other faiths, the green plants that bring the natural world inside, and the skilled and dedicated library staff (who seem to consider their service here an honored task) suggest Men's openness to the world1. The large number of students, scholars, and foreign visitors who come to this place to do research experience a part of Russia that reaches beyond the nation's boundaries to other cultures and religious traditions.

The Library for Foreign Literature was founded in 1921 by Margarita Ivanovna Rudom-ino, a twenty-year-old woman who preserved a collection of French, German, and English books, brought from her late mother's estate in Saratov, in a run-down apartment in the Arbat district of Moscow. Writer Kornei Chukovsky recalls that this modest library existed in "a small, cold, and dark room crammed full of books. The books were frozen stiff. An emaciated, shivering girl whose fingers were swollen with the cold watched over them."2 During a time when Russia became increasingly isolated in the international community, Rudomino believed that it must not lose its cultural connections: its capacity to hear the humanitarian voices that reach beyond politics.3

Openness to foreign voices, however, led to constant tension with the Soviet state, which is reflected in the location of the library. "We are something of an anomaly," said Yekaterina Genieva, the library's distinguished director-general. In most countries, "foreign literature is integrated in other library collections. In the Soviet Union, it was set apart, housed in a different place."4 However, that separateness makes the library special. The library's unique role is evident everywhere: in the marble busts in the courtyard, the art exhibits on the walls of nearly every floor, the colorful displays of children's literature, the audio facilities of the BBC, and the American reading room. But most striking is the large room dedicated to Men on the fourth and top floor of the library, facing away from the Kremlin and testifying to the important connection between books and learning, memory, and wisdom. Men demonstrated this connection in his life, his pastoral work, and his writings.

Historians and writers on religion generally portray Men as a moral leader, a key figure in Russia's attempt to recover its moral bearings and identity after seventy years of Com­munist assault.5 Although these assessments contain a great deal of truth, Men's significance extends beyond moral and political circumstances. A major part of his significance lies in his emphasis on recovering Russia's heritage, especially the role of the Orthodox Church. He did not believe that faith could be imposed by any political or religious authority; rather, it had to come from within the individual, from the struggle within one's own mind and spirit. Such a conviction raises several seminal questions about his life and his thought: What influ­ences led Men to think in such great contrast not only to state authorities, but also to most other leaders within the church? How did his ideas on the church's role in Russia's history challenge the views of Russian nationalists, who have gained increasing power during and after the Soviet Union's collapse? How might the Orthodox Church support the creative imagination? In this article, I argue that Men's importance transcends his own time and place and speaks to the more universal themes of religious liberty and freedom of conscience— themes within Orthodoxy that he aspired to recover and activate.

Early Life

Men was born in Moscow in 1935; his life spanned the major turning points in Russian his­tory between 1940 and 1990. His father, a nonpracticing Jewish engineer, was arrested in 1941, when Men was six years old. His mother, Yelena Semenova, also ethnically Jewish, had converted to Orthodoxy at an early age. Following her husband's imprisonment, she found herself with two small children and no regular income. She was energetic, resource­ful, and well educated; she was also deeply religious. She and her sister Vera Yakovlevna Vasilyevskaya, a child psychologist, had an enormous influence on the young Aleksandr. They raised him in a world of books and exposed him, while he was still a child, to dis­cussions and meetings with religious intellectuals. Chance encounters with scientists and other adults who befriended him further opened up to him a much more colorful world than was typical of the gray realities of Soviet life.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Soviet school system aimed at promoting widespread lit­eracy and providing Soviet citizens with the skills to successfully function in an industrial society. The values and principles the Bolsheviks championed in creating the Soviet Union lay at the core of the new school system: rationalism, positivism, and empiricism. Seeking to develop Soviet citizens with the technical skills most needed in an industrial economy, the government rapidly expanded the school system and heavily employed certain teach­ing strategies—memorization, repetition, and use of a narrow range of texts. From the party's perspective, such strategies had the added advantage of encouraging the "cult of Stalin," honoring the leader of the assault on Russia's religous and cultural heritage and its perceived economic backwardness.

However, the periods of great purges and terror (and the narrow system of education) in which Soviet citizens operated did not prevent certain religiously committed individuals from creating their own alternative religious community. Their circle did not directly chal­lenge the state—to do so would have been suicidal—but it did offer a parallel existence, a chance for individuals to think differently and engage in activities outside the educational network promoted by the state. This group developed apart from the state and its official structures; it flourished beyond the control of the security police, despite efforts to suppress independent activities and civil society. In the inner sanctuary of the family apartment, in the meetings among friends that took place outside school, in the religious activities in private settings, and in encounters with certain people, sometimes by accident, a different universe existed. Men's early life was shaped by experiences in such an environment. From the beginning, Men developed a way of thinking apart from the approaches and values fostered by the Soviet system.

Men showed a disposition toward a creative, imaginative view of the natural and physi­cal world early in his life. His childhood drawings of Moscow streets, church buildings, and wild animals were unusually perceptive and innovative. According to Zoya Masle-nikova, his aunt Vera "read him books, taught him to draw and to build, and nourished all aspects of his creativity," encouraging him to see beyond the physical surface of natural beings and imagine their inner life.6 As Men remembered, she wanted him to take nothing for granted and to perceive the material world as dynamic and constantly changing, not as something lifeless and fixed.7 This sensitivity to beauty in nature and in human beings carried over into Men's adulthood, shaping his perceptions of humanity.

Men grew up in the catacomb church, and the people and experiences in it were another influence on his life and thought. This independent, underground church organization developed shortly after Metropolitan Sergii signed the controversial agreement pledging the Orthodox Church's cooperation and support of the Soviet government in 1927. View­ing the agreement as a betrayal of Christianity, the catacomb church formed in opposition.

It was an illegal, secretive, oppositional organization that committed itself to preserving Christian principles from a power committed to destroying religion. Men's mother and aunt were active members of the catacomb church, and they brought the young Aleksandr to its services and to meetings with its priests.

Clandestinely meeting in a house in Moscow and later in Sergiev Posad, the catacomb church aimed to protect the "pure spirit of Orthodox Christianity" from violence and from compromises with the government.8 Members of the underground church witnessed the ubiquitous arrests of churchmen, murders of church leaders, assaults on church buildings, and official pronouncements portraying religious belief as superstitious and backward. Continuing to hold to one's beliefs and one's view of the world required the courage to stand outside a system committed to destroying religious values and perspectives. The meetings Men attended as a child took place in the Sergiev Posad house. In one of the rooms stood an altar, and behind it hung the Iversky Mother of God icon. Ten to fifteen people worshiped there each week. At these meetings, Men was exposed to the liturgy, to the Gospels, to church tradition, and to priests passionately committed to the teachings of the church fathers.

Father Seraphim (Sergey Mikhailovich Batyukov, 1880-1942) was one of the priests with whom Men had contact. As organizer of the catacomb church in Sergiev Posad, he impressed Men's mother and aunt, who developed a deep trust in him. He told Vasilyevskaya that the catacomb church existed not for political reasons or a desire to oppose evil, but as a commitment to "preserve the purity of Orthodoxy."9 This need, he believed, went beyond the coming of the Bolsheviks to power in Russia; it related to an earlier time in Russian his­tory when the Orthodox Church, in his view, had lost touch with the people, had failed to speak clearly and effectively to Russia's spiritual and social problems, and had forfeited its independent spiritual voice. In the first year of World War II, even with the rapid approach of the German army, Men's mother, who had very little protection, moved her young family to Sergiev Posad on Father Seraphim's advice. Seraphim was extremely well educated, was deeply read in the writings of the church fathers, and believed wholeheartedly in the church's preeminent spiritual power. He assured Semenova of her family's safety, despite the physical proximity of the fighting.10

Father Seraphim believed that the Orthodox Church had a social mission, a need to care for the poor and the suffering in society. He was significantly influenced by the elders of the famous Optina Pustyn monastery and had studied under them. His emphasis on the church's social mission partly derived from the Optina elders' teachings that the church must not turn inward, becoming isolated from the world around it. His view that the person must look inside oneself to one's own inner being, to the spiritual essence lying at the core of one's personhood, also mirrored one of the main teachings of the Optina elders."

Another catacomb church leader in Sergiev Posad played an even larger role in Men's early development. Mother Mariya (1879-1961) celebrated the liturgy in the church shortly after Seraphim's death and the arrest of his immediate successor. She became a mentor who, as Men later recalled, "in many ways defined my life's course and spiritual framework."12 Men remembered her as "a person of unusual spiritual gifts, well-educated, and extremely humble in demeanor . . . entirely devoid of hypocrisy, conservatism, and narrowness—qualities often found in people of her rank." She taught him how to read the scriptures. She handed him the Bible when he was seven years old and told him, even after he asked her for guidance, that she would give him no directions. He had only the instructions to open the book, begin on the first page, and "simply read," letting the words speak directly to him.13 In this process, she spoke to him about mystery and wonder and their importance in reading the text.

«Men offered a view of reconciliation

that contrasted to that of the ultrana-

tionalists, who also wanted to unify the

people and saw such unity as a key ele-

ment in rebuilding Russia's strength.»
n all her teachings, Mother Mariya never employed force or attempted to be authoritative. Instead, she encouraged Men to open his mind and his eyes, to try always to see things as if for the first time. Like his mother and aunt, Mother Mariya nourished in him certain capacities of the imagination. Her manner would for many years loom large before him; he described her as a small, delicate woman who had "borne many heavy burdens in her life" but preserved "in full a clear mind, a total absence of sanctimonious behavior ... a lively sense of humor, and — what is especially important —a strong belief in the importance of freedom (svoboda). 14 Mother Mariya, Men recalled, "possessed the quality that connected her to the Optina elders and put me on the same road: openness to people, their problems, their struggles, their openness to the world."15

In addition to its leadership and the qualities it fostered, the catacomb church provided members with another important advantage. The small, tightly knit group offered a supportive com­munity of believers. Nurturing and giv­ing moral and psychological succor to its members, this community operated even in the most dangerous circumstances, existing outside official Soviet structures and supporting different ways of thinking. The organization of this small community and the mutual sup­port of its members would leave a lasting impression on Men. In the late 1970s and 1980s, when he built his parish at Novaya Derevnya, he used the example of the catacomb church as his model.16

In school, Men was a precocious child, often bored, able to read and comprehend on a level far beyond nearly all of his classmates, easily distracted, and unchallenged by the rote learning. His school on Serpukhov Street was in a rough neighborhood, a dingy, gray, crowded place, where street fights often occurred and the struggle for existence could be seen everywhere. In the last years of World War II, his classmates nearly always came to school hungry. They were not ready to learn, and the teachers, who had only meager train­ing, were unprepared to teach.17 In Men's case, the most important learning experiences took place outside the classroom, beyond the official educational structures, in much more informal, unprescribed settings. Such settings continued to open up for him connections to ways of thinking much different from those endorsed by the state.

The unofficial channels through which Men found intellectual sustenance formed around certain individuals who, even during Stalin's rule, continued to keep alive a con­trary vision of the world. When he was eleven years of age, Men went after school to a children's sanitarium operated by an acquaintance of his Aunt Vera. This woman, Tatyana Ivanovna Kuprianova, taught philosophy at Moscow University. A religious person and the widow of a well-known theologian, she regularly held a religion seminar in her apart­ment, where she taught young people the symbols and doctrines of the Russian Orthodox faith. She invited Men to attend these sessions, and, although he was much younger than the other participants, they accepted him as a peer. The sessions sometimes veered into religious-philosophical discussions and into lively arguments over various points of view. Such sessions were extremely engaging to Men, opening his mind to a wide and rich intel­lectual universe at a key juncture in his young life. Kuprianova's seminar operated secretly and existed as a closed circle, a "world within another world," like "the shellfish inside the shell. ... In the horrible Stalinist time, this solitary woman fearlessly gave many years to her seminar, when a single word from any one of the participants in the group would have brought an end to her career."18

Men also encountered important people elsewhere. They included Boris Aleksandrovich Vasilev, a family friend who served on the ethnography faculty at Moscow University. As a teenager, Men often went to visit with him. Vasilev talked to Men about the ancient East, Vasilev's specialty, and its connections to the Bible. Vasilev also related to him another subject in which Vasilev had a large interest: the development of the great Russian philosophical-theological writers at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—Vladimir Solovev, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Sergey Bulgakov—whom Lenin and the Bolsheviks had excoriated (they ordered Berdyaev and Bulgakov into exile in 1922). Vasilev gave Men a firsthand introduction to these philosophers' ideas, and Men would shortly thereafter read and deeply absorb their works.

Although most of Men's encounters with such remarkable people grew out of his family circle and its network of friends, not all did. Accidental meetings also played a role in Men's development. Significant among them was a chance encounter with Vasily Alekseevich Vatagin, an artist and scholar, at the zoological museum on Herzen Street, operated by Moscow University. Vatagin is recognized as Russia's greatest animal artist of the twentieth century. At the time, Men was fifteen years old, and his long-standing interest in drawing and animals often led him to the zoological museum, where he looked at the models of wild animals, birds, and reptiles. One day, while drawing, he attracted Vatagin's attention. The artist approached Men, began a conversation with him, and invited him into the room where he drew and constructed the models of the wild creatures. Thus began a friendship that lasted for many years.19

This man, "with a sparse beard and a rattling voice," possessed an inner "elemental power that he transferred to his creations."20 He encouraged Men to look beyond the exter­nal appearances of phenomena, to seek the inner life, the deeper reality, the soul, that lay within. Vatagin later confessed to Men that he was a theosophist, "although he was not a fanatic"; as far as Men was concerned, Vatagin saw the connections and the beauty in all of nature, and the two of them spent a great deal of time discussing India, whose mysticism and other ways of thinking Vatagin greatly admired.21 At their meetings, which took place every Friday afternoon, Vatagin took long walks with his young protege, instructing Men in his own artistic philosophy and telling stories about the natural world. Vatagin "was extremely open and expressed his thoughts freely," even during the final years of the Stalin era, a time when fear and distrust pervaded nearly everything.22

Experiences and contacts like this exposed Men to ideas much different than those promul­gated by the Stalinist establishment. Most important, they connected him to different ways of thinking and different approaches to the world than were available in the highly specialized, materialistic, and technical world that the Stalinist establishment sought to create. In addi­tion, such experiences brought him into contact with parts of Russia's cultural and religious heritage that had come under massive assault by the Bolshevik government. Like many of the people he encountered, Men lived in two different worlds, managing to function within the state's structures while nourishing his own private existence—one that incorporated wonder and mystery. In creating and maintaining a religious seminar in her home, Kuprianova led a similar life. Vasilev served as a priest in the catacomb church, a role that he kept secret from nearly everyone, including his university colleagues.23 As an artist, Vatagin poured his inner sensitivities and private beliefs into his creative works, confiding his beliefs only to his closest and most trusted friends. Men wrote that listening to his adult friends discuss their experiences and private passions "gave me more than books could teach."24

Books also played a major part in Men's parallel existence and deepened his connection to alternative ways of thinking, particularly Russia's philosophical and religious heritage. During a time when the state violently assaulted the churches, books kept alive older tra­ditions and perspectives. Despite the state's fervent efforts to destroy religious activity, it never totally succeeded. Literature served as one of the primary vehicles for its transmis­sion, and Men read books that insulated him from the cult of Stalin. Reading philosophy and poetry informed his passions, taking him back to a time when words were less abstract and less ideological, further connecting him to prerevolutionary Russian traditions and weaving a richer tapestry of ideas than those around him. Men recounted these pleasures and their importance at length:

Precisely in the Stalin era, among the nails and guinea pigs at a market, I found the old books of Vladimir Solovev and Sergey Bulgakov, and 1 read them... with trembling hands. During a time when there was neither samizdat [self-publishing of unofficial publications in the former Soviet Union] nor "tamizdat" [illicit publishing of works by Soviet writers in the West], when in the sphere of philosophy only nonsense was published that was impossible even to hold in one's hands, I entered into the world of great thinkers. ... In our youth, we searched for books. 1 worked during my schoolboy years, traveling to the Crimean national park reserve, in order to earn enough money to buy books. I began to collect a library, when I was still in the fifth class. At this time, when almost all the cathedrals were closed and the [Holy Trinity] Lavra was also closed (except for two churches), I derived my vision of an internal church from literature and from poetry, from what the artist [Mikhail] Nesterov created, from every­thing surrounding them. . . . This vision was not based on external reality. Imagine Nesterov, [Pavel] Florinsky, [Sergey] Bulgakov, Zagorsk [Sergiev Posad] ... a legendary picture, a sort of Kitezh [legendary Russian town], a kind of ideal kingdom. It is a beautiful picture, and it, of course, reflects some kind of ideal in the life of the Church. But this picture did not correspond to concrete reality. When I saw reality up close, I understood that the ideal exists somewhere in the hearts of people, and it cannot be found on earth.25

In secondary school, Men became deeply interested in biology and aspired to study it after graduation. Denied admittance to Moscow University because of his Jewish origins, he enrolled in the Institute of Fur in Moscow, and he continued his studies, formally and informally, in biology and theology. In 1955, the institute moved to Irkutsk, Siberia, and Men lived and studied there for the next three years. In Irkutsk, he roomed with a fellow student, Gleb Yakunin, who would himself later become a well-known priest and political dissident. Men would confide his innermost thoughts to Yakunin, and the two of them often visited a local priest, whom they both came to admire.26 In 1958, just before he was scheduled to take his final examinations, Men was denied permission to take the tests and graduate because of his frequent participation in religious activities in the cathedral in which he served.27

Men had decided earlier to enter the priesthood but had not yet acted on that choice, partly because of the political difficulties such a course entailed. But his dismissal from the institute encouraged him to take that step. When he returned to Moscow in May 1958, he was taken by a friend to see Anatoly Vasilevich Vedernikov, the editorial secretary of Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhy (Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate), whom Men had met years earlier, when he was still a schoolboy.28 Learning of Men's dismissal from the institute and his desire to become a priest, Vedernikov went to see Metropolitan Nikolai Yarushevich of Krutitsky and Kolomensky; Vedernikov told Yarushevich that Men already had excellent preparation for the priesthood, having served for many years in the church and h

«Men’s ultimate goal was freedom—

freedom of the spirit, freedom to

explore the world in new ways, freedom

to reach deeply into one's inner being

and uncover the icon of holiness».
aving acquired an impressive theological education through his extensive readings. The metropolitan accepted Vedernikov's recommendation and waiving a formal examination, took Men into the service of the church, with additional support from Bishop Makariev.29 Men was ordained as a deacon on June 1, 1958, in the Troitse Lavra. He received an appoint­ment in a small village parish south-west of Moscow while completing his course of formal study.30

This was around the time when Khrushchev's violent antireligion campaign began. These were extremely dangerous years, when the Orthodox Church struggled to survive and many churches closed their doors. They also were extremely challenging times for the young Men, who had to support his family on a meager salary and begin his pastoral work when the state tried to restrict religious activities nationally.31 His parish continued to operate, and Men gained a reputa­tion among his parishioners as an accessible and extremely talented deacon.32

During the next decade, he served in several other parishes, mostly in small churches in the countryside around Moscow, where he had diverse experiences and often worked in dif-ficult circumstances. Throughout this period, he continued to study and write, publishing articles under a pseudonym in Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhy and, in 1968, publishing his manuscript Syn chelovechesky (Son of Man), a narrative of the life of Christ using contem­porary language, abroad.33 He continued his scholarly work on pre-Christian philosophy and religion and spent a great deal of time serving his parishioners and responding to their needs. In 1970, he was transferred to the parish at Novaya Derevnya, near Moscow, where he spent the remainder of his life. There, he rapidly achieved recognition for his teaching and his attempts to develop among his parishioners an uncompromising spiritual independence from the Soviet state.

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