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

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Later Life

As a priest in the village parish at Novaya Derevnya, Men served in the church during a period when the state and its security organizations severely oppressed the Orthodox Church.34 Men endured constant KGB harassment, house searches, and personal inquiries, all of which placed significant pressure on him and his parish. During these difficult years, despite the intense political pressures he endured, he devoted himself to his parishioners and his scholarship. He was able to present the Gospels both to village parishioners and to urban intellectuals, many of whom came on Sundays from Moscow to Novaya Derevnya.35 He developed an eloquent literary style that gave his writings appeal to a range of people. As David Remnick notes, Men provided a link to early twentieth-century philosophers, such as Solovev and Berdyaev, who, for urban intellectuals "stood apart from this tragic tradition of subservience and obscurantism."36 Such attempts to refresh Russia's historical memory and the key sources of its religious heritage would become increasingly important during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the discussion of Russia's historical sources intensified. Gorbachev's emphasis on recovering Russia's heritage and his desire to strengthen the country's ethical and moral standards brought into the open many subjects that had earlier received little attention. His reforms opened a debate, in politi­cal and intellectual circles, about the Orthodox Church's role in Russian history and its contributions to the country's development. Especially after Gorbachev's historic meeting with Patriarch Pimen and five members of the Holy Synod (the supreme governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church, headed by the patriarch) in the Moscow Kremlin on April 20, 1988, the public — particularly nationalist groups — became more interested in discussing the church's role. To these groups (which included many Communist Party members), Orthodoxy offered a means of rebuilding Russia's national identity. During the millennium celebrations commemorating Russia's acceptance of Orthodox Christianity, the bells in Russia's churches once more began to ring. To the nationalist groups, the peal of the church bells did not hold an ecumenical message but instead signified Holy Russia, national unity, and authoritarian conceptions of power.

The ultranationalists exhibited a range of views on current problems, but they generally displayed hostility toward national minorities and Jews, viewed ecumenism as betrayal, railed against freedom of conscience, and identified Orthodoxy as synonymous with Russia. Metropolitan Ioann of St. Petersburg and Lake Ladoga served as the recognized leader of the ultranationalists until his death in 1995, and he wrote many well-publicized articles proclaim­ing Orthodoxy as the core of Russia's national identity.37 Other spokesmen, many within the church, also saw the church as a major bulwark for protecting Russia against the harmful Western influences of democracy, pluralism, and ecumenism. This attitude is demonstrated in a 1990 article by Father Vladimir, titled "Not by Bread Alone": "Russian people must not be assembled under such alien banners, which undermine for us eternal words: Orthodoxy, Motherland, and national resurrection. We are obliged to build a Holy Russia, an eternal ideal of our historical life on whose wise and practical foundations the history of Russia has proceeded. . . . We are Russian to the degree that we are Orthodox."38

Such assertions were part of the nationalistic revival that precipitated and accompanied the collapse of Communism. The extreme nationalists called for people to disregard their own immediate faith experiences and focus their religious energies at the state level. They tapped into the desire to recover national pride and honor, when the Russian population was under increasing pressure, internally and externally, because of the collapse of the Soviet state. They were part of a broad desire to reexamine Russian history and reclaim vital parts of its heritage that had been heavily assaulted by the Bolsheviks. This reexami-nation and debate, which began in the late 1980s and has yet to subside, centrally involved the Orthodox Church.39

Men engaged in this discussion in both his parish and the larger Russian public square. He had long been interested in history; he had read and studied its sources for most of his life. His talks and writings contained constant references to history and literature, whose themes he tried to relate to the present. He presented many of his ideas in informal discussions with members of his parish. The participants in these meetings mostly took rough notes, and only scant records of the proceedings have been preserved. But Men's son, Mikhail, made a fairly complete copy of one discussion, held in 1988. There is also a record of a public lecture Men gave in 1988, at a large public gathering in Moscow. In both sources, Men attempts to connect present circumstances with Russia's past, to tie earlier situations and personalities to present ones. "Philosophical and political ideas formulated earlier are related to what we observe in Russia today," he maintained, and the church had to come to terms with them.40 Those earlier experiences, in his mind, belonged not only to the past but also to contemporary affairs, humanistically, morally, and religiously — par-ticularly as Russia straggled to redefine itself.

Several main themes in Men's public statements and writings stand out in his attempt to recover this tradition. First, in his view, Russian culture had deep roots in Christianity from its beginnings. In the introduction to his lecture on Khristianskaya kultura na Rusi ("The Christian Culture of Russia"), Men cited Dmitry Sergeevich Likhachev, the preeminent twentieth-century historian of early Russia: "the appearance of the Russian Church marked the beginning of the history of Russian culture."41 Drawing from Likhachev's works, those of the nineteenth-century historian V. O. Kliuchevsky, and other sources, Men described a religion that, coming to the medieval state of Kievan Rus, did not fall on barren soil but, as elsewhere, mixed with local customs and beliefs to create a rich literature, art, and spiritual culture. By accepting Christianity, Russia also entered the family of European nations, becoming part of a larger, more complex, and more interdependent framework than it had previously known. The resulting exchange of cultural and spiritual ideas greatly stimulated Russia's growth.

In contrast to the ultranationalists, who saw Russia's relationship with Europe quite differently, Men viewed the connection with European countries as extremely positive: "Culture cannot develop in isolation." To advance it requires what he called a "constant going in and going out," an exchange of ideas with diverse people and beliefs.42 According to Men, such interactions promoted the flourishing of spiritual culture and ideas, as they had during the time of Prince Vladimir in the tenth through twelfth centuries. Cultural stagnation occurs when a country looks inward, becoming isolated from others and cut­ting itself off from the stimulation that cultural encounters provide, even when they seem threatening. Russia had suffered from such isolation. The Mongol invasion at the beginning of the thirteenth century had isolated Russia and had undermined the social ideals and the shared notions of political power that Kievan Rus had developed.43

A second theme in Men's work is his criticism of the church-state alliance that emerged in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and later became more entrenched. Together with Russia's cultural isolation, this church-state alliance created a deep divide between the church hierarchy and the Russian people. "The church leadership, having lost its capacity and the possibility to act and speak to the people . . . seemed to hurl itself backward, to cut itself off from the culture of educated society" and the rest of the population, Men argued.44 He described the church schism of the seventeenth century, Peter the Great's hastily pre­pared reforms, including his 1721 Ecclesiastical Regulation, the dominating power of the imperial bureaucratic system, and the cultural gap that resulted from separating educated society from the majority of the Russian people as all having unfortunate consequences. He pointed out that their cumulative effect made it extremely difficult for the church to relate to the people effectively.45

Third, throughout his writings and teachings, Men talked about a "deep, constant demand," a persistent thirst, for "spiritual values" that could be found among all ranks of society. In his exploration of Russian history, he sought to explain why the church had responded poorly to this need. The cultural gap between educated society and large parts of the population was exacerbated, in his mind, because the church had looked inward, rather than outward; it spoke an antiquated language far removed from the life and needs of the people. The church failed to fulfill its mission: it did not preach, act as a witness, or educate, nor was it an active presence in the world—all purposes to be accomplished "not by bearing witness to some kind of ideology, but by bearing witness to the divine presence in all of us."46 Although the church had the capacity to be the instrument of Christ in the world, it had drawn away from this mission. It had little interest in spreading the faith, but this failure was not because Russia lacked theological education:

In the eighteenth century the Moscow Spiritual Academy had come into existence, albeit under a different name; there were already those people who studied Eastern languages and ancient philosophy. The instruction in the academy was in Latin; people knew Greek, but they could not genuinely bear witness in Russia about faith. If one examines teaching in the academies in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, one will find that this teaching was conducted in foreign languages, and not even in the conversational French spoken in the salons, but in antiquated Latin. And when the best prepared preachers of that time turned their attention to the Russian people from the pulpits of the church, they spoke in a heavy, poorly understood language that required someone to provide a translation. One of our theologians, a Church historian, emphasized that, in the Nikolaevian epoch (1825-55), the language of theological literature became antiquated, as soon as it was published. Such theology was already dead at its birth.47

As an example of this antiquated thinking, Men cited the highly respected Metropoli­tan Filaret Drozdov, the church leader whose life in the nineteenth century spanned the reigns of three tsars — Alexander I, Nicholas I, and Alexander II. Among the best-educated churchmen of the century, Drozdov was "an extremely capable man of deep thought and impressive intellect."48 But he spoke in the stodgy, little-understood language of antiquity. During his long life, he published many volumes of theology, but few people read these volumes, because "neither the people, nor the church leadership, nor even the theologians considered them relevant to much of anything. His sermons seemed to those who heard them like rocks 'overgrown with moss.'"49 During the nineteenth century, the church res­urrected the tradition of preaching. But this preaching had an extremely restricted scope, and elsewhere, Men said, "in this vast land clergymen were silent." Consequently, the large majority of the Russian people, most of whom were illiterate, had little exposure to the word of God.50

In Men's view, one of the primary problems facing the church consisted of healing the schism between the church and society. Men offered a view of reconciliation that contrasted to that of the ultranationalists, who also wanted to unify the people and saw such unity as a key element in rebuilding Russia's strength. To Men, reconciliation meant recognizing and overcoming the distorted features of the church's history, especially its inability to address spiritual needs. It meant reacquainting Russians with the foundations of Christian culture in Russia and the older voices who expressed love for all people and spoke out against violence in all its forms. It meant recovering the voices of the Rus­sian philosophers and theologians who wrote at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, understood Russia's cultural ideals, and tried to build on them.

Men believed these philosophers and theologians offered an accessible bridge to the largely forgotten ideals of Russian culture. Such writers included Solovev, whom Men once called his mentor and whose works Men had discovered as a youth. Solovev viewed Christianity as a life-giving force, not as an "abstract ideal," and saw its denial as giving birth to destructive forces that threatened all of life.51 Human beings desired the good life, and because the highest form of good comes from God, faith was a rational, not an irrational, choice. Solovev's foundational argument offered hope, giving free play to the imagination to make the world a better and more spiritually hospitable place.52 In the late 1980s, in his public talks, Men bemoaned the loss of this earlier voice over the generations; he argued that Solovev had much relevance to the present and urged listeners to become acquainted with his writings.53

In addition, Men emphasized the importance of a 1909 collection of essays published in Vekhi (meaning "landmarks"). Men argued that the essays, written by Berdyaev, Bulga-kov, Semen Frank, and others, all of whom would later become famous philosophers and theologians, offered perspectives relevant to Russia's present moral situation. Although they differed on many points, the Vekhi authors shared a common view of the importance of spiritual life: they believed that "the individual's inner life is the sole creative force in human existence, and that this inner life, and not the self-sufficient principles of the politi­cal realm, constitutes the only solid basis on which a society can be built."54

Men "talked to us constantly about these writers," one of his parishioners said; "he thought that we had to get acquainted with them, because they offered a key to rebuilding Russia's spiritual culture."55 Men believed that Russia's Christian ideals had not only been suppressed, but had also been distorted by the ruling elite and church officials. "In this treasure house" of ancient ideals, he thought, like the Vekhi authors, "we would discover . . . the sources for creativity, social thought, and life, which could not be found on the roads of positivism, mechanization, and the other modern theories" on which the Bolshevik policies were based.56

Whereas Men had discussed these ideas many times with his parishioners in earlier years, the late 1980s offered him a chance to speak to a much larger audience. He was constantly in demand for public lectures, television programs, and newspaper inter­views. By the end of 1988, he was giving thirty lectures a month and maintaining his parish work and commitments, never refusing a request from anyone, and eager, after many years of limited activity, to take full advantage of the new political climate.57 "I feel like an arrow, which [had] been . . . kept on a strained bow string," he said.58 He addressed the rediscovery of Russia's religious heritage in his lectures, asserting the need to recover historical memory. He sought to stake a claim to the earlier traditions, which the Bolsheviks had tried to obliterate. In the process, he offered interpretations that conflicted with other interpretations, including that of the Moscow Patriarchate, which aimed to interpret the past in its own way. In this effort, Men is often labeled, especially by church officials, as a liberal. Yet Men's significance and the importance of his thought, particularly on tradition and the role of creativity, go much beyond the political circumstances of the Soviet period.


The idea of tradition in Orthodox Christianity, according to Father Georges Florovsky, "is not only a protective, conservative principle; it is, primarily, the principle of growth and regenera­tion. Tradition is not a principle striving to restore the past, using the past as a criterion for the present. Tradition is authority to teach, potestas magisterii, authority to bear witness to the truth?59 Tradition is thus a guiding principle; it lives within the Orthodox Church, and "it was only in the Church, within the community of right faith, that Scripture could be adequately understood and correctly interpreted."60 As a guiding principle, however, tradition is not rigid, static, frozen in time. Tradition needs constant fresh interpretation and elaboration. "The Church," Florovsky writes, "bears witness to the truth not by reminiscence or from the words of others, but from its own living, unceasing experience, from its catholic fullness."61

Tradition did not call for the church to turn away from the earth, focusing entirely on the spirit and otherworldly concerns. Part of Men's significance lay in the importance he gave to creativity, which he saw as fundamental to Orthodox Christianity. In his lecture "Christianity and Creativity," Men interpreted the Incarnation as a calling to this creative act, a concrete expression of God's love for all the people of the earth, an invitation not to deny or reject the material world but to reach out and embrace it. Some within the church viewed creativity as a form of sin, an aspect of man's fallen state. Men, however, saw it differently: Creativity expressed a "spontaneous movement within the person . . . some kind of ringing in the soul, a desire for transformation coming from the depths of one's being."62

Such an impulse is what gave rise to art. Men spoke of many within the church who maintained that the individual, having embraced Orthodoxy, should turn away from secu­lar activities. Those who believed this claimed that one should renounce interests that belonged to a fallen world; they also asserted that creativity — whether expressed in paint­ing, literature, music, or architecture — represented aspects of this fallen state. One often heard this argument in the Orthodox Church, Men pointed out, particularly from believers who had recently converted to the faith.63 This belief, he said, led to a kind of slavishness, a dependency on church officials to assert truth, otherworldliness, and a rejection of ele­ments that nurtured creativity and Christianity, which he tied together.

Men hoped to counteract this rejection of creativity, which he claimed came from certain church officials who misinterpreted Orthodox theology. He maintained that the impulse that produced many of the greatest works of art originated from the same impulse that gave birth to the world's great religions: the subconscious quest for the absolute. On earth, the absolute did not exist in its entirety but parts of it were embodied in the act of creativity. Men asked his listeners to look again at the past artistic achievements familiar to them: the mammoth designs on the walls of the Altai Mountains, the Parthenon on the Acropolis, the intricate patterns of Indian pagodas, the mosaics of Byzantium, and the stained glass of medieval churches. "They are a reflection of this human embodiment, the incarnation of spiritual life."64 They contained the seeds of a religious sensibility and of how people see themselves in relation to something larger and eternal. Each epoch of history expresses this impulse and this spirit, and Men cited the twentieth-century Russian philosopher Pavel Florensky's statement that even in everyday objects "one can discover the essence of civilization," and, consequently, the "faith of an epoch."65

However, it was Christianity, according to Men, that crowned the quest for the absolute. When the Word, Logos, became flesh, he said, it blessed all of creation. In response to the questions, "Is creativity necessary? Are literature, poetry, and the other arts needed?" the Christian fathers responded with a resounding "Yes!"66 In such acts, according to the church fathers, one will find the spirit of Christianity.67 The church fathers themselves, Men pointed out, had been outstanding writers, poets, and social activists, and they offered models of cre­ativity and imagination in their own thinking.68 They showed us, Men said, that Christianity must be open to the world; it should not consider any question outside its interests or alien to its concerns. Made in God's image, human beings must display a similar creative spirit, a desire to cultivate the imagination. "Christ said that each person carries within himself his own treasure," Men said.69 Such a treasure, he told his followers, is not to be seen as a function of the body, but as a sacred aspect of being that requires one to reach out to other people, to find joy through relationships, and to express love through them.

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. Such freedom, Men told his audience, did not come easily; it required reconnecting the self to the teachings of the church and hearing anew the voices of the church fathers. His words echoed the ideas of Berdyaev, who had expressed a similar view eighty years earlier: "The idea of freedom is one of the central ideas of Christianity. . . . Without it the creation of the world, the Fall, and Redemption are incomprehensible, and the phenom­enon of faith remains inexplicable."70 Men told his listeners that the "spirit of freedom pervades the Gospels."71 The Gospels taught radical notions of love, tolerance, and open­ness to the world that expressed the opposite of what the ultranationalists proclaimed. Such notions could only be nourished by freedom and the desire, within church tradition, to constantly see the world anew.


Men's views had several implications for the church and the direction he thought it needed to take. The church needed to sever its connection to the government, because such an alli­ance had hindered the church's independence, stifled its creative religious-philosophical thought, and undermined its social role. Most important, the alliance with the government had associated the church with violence, which had resulted in a monstrous distortion of its spiritual mission and had fostered actions opposed to its essential purposes. The violent persecution of the Old Believers that began in the seventeenth century served as a prime example of such perverted thinking. It was essential, Men believed, for the church to sepa­rate itself from the government if the church was to fulfill its spiritual purpose.

While the Patriarchate, in the mid-1990s, sharply criticized certain reformers in the church, particularly Father Georgy Kochetkov, for their supposed rejection of Orthodox tradition, the criticism indirectly (yet inappropriately) applied to Men. Aleksi II charged the reformers with "undermining the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church" and "creating an alien theology."72 Men's enemies often leveled such accusations at him, both during his life and especially after his death, asserting that he stood on the fringes of the church, far from its central teachings and traditions.73 However, Men represented an important line of thought and belief within Orthodoxy that extended back to the church fathers, who sought to connect the church to society, viewed compassion and humility as essential aspects of Orthodoxy, and taught openness to the world.74 Several of Men's followers moved further away from church doctrine than he was prepared to go. The patriarch understood the dis­tinction, but many others in the church hierarchy viewed all the reformers as heretics.

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