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

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Men seldom addressed the political world with its clashes of competing interests and dogged pursuits of power and influence. But his teachings had major immediate implica­tions for Russia's evolving political order. Men's emphasis on personalism would foster a political environment that required religious liberty, welcomed diverse religious beliefs, and saw freedom of conscience as an essential aspect of humanity. He had a passionate love for people, seeing in their triumphs and their faults, their similarities and their diver­sity, evidence of God's creation. He also loved discovering the components of the world, finding their connections, and observing their beauty. The imagination this required could not be forced into a narrow political or religious framework. The Orthodox tradition, as Men interpreted it, encouraged, rather than restricted, this quality of imagination. Men's teachers and his own experiences emphasized the importance of looking twice at the world and penetrating beneath its outer, physical appearance to the hidden structure lying under­neath. In the surrounding environment that placed such emphasis on material existence, the imagination enabled one to discover another reality. Imagination went beyond the material and the purely rational; it stressed the importance of mystery and the need to see things in a new light, as the philosopher Kuprianova, the artist Vatagin, and Men's other childhood teachers had impressed on him. Cultivating the imagination, Men claimed, was among the primary responsibilities of the church.

Although he underscored the importance of freedom and imagination, Men also saw another, darker, and more ominous side to the church. In interpreting its responsibilities, the church too often had exploited them and, paradoxically, had turned them into "occa­sions for arrogance."75 It had fostered what Men called "false convictions," misreading the scriptures to provide support for intolerance, fanaticism, and hatred.76 The Gospels' teachings about love required tolerance and openness in human relationships:

If in the name of the Gospels are sanctioned acts of punishment and intolerance, then such an interpretation is a lie, similar to the well-known lie in which in the name of equality they chopped off heads, in the name of freedom they sent people to the camps, and in the name of brotherhood they took away everything that distinguished human beings, in all their diversity, from one another.77

Freedom, equality, and brotherhood are among our noblest of words. But, according to Men, they are also among the most easily perverted and can be used in ways opposite to their real meaning. When the artist sings of God, he or she sings of love, of openness to the world; that love, that creativity, will be multifaceted and will come from the soul.78

Men's teachings were deeply threatening to many people in Russian society. His univer-salism challenged political extremists who interpreted Orthodoxy primarily as a vital part of Russia's national identity. Men's teachings on creativity also confronted Orthodox Church officials, who saw the country's primary need as restoring the church's power, rather than regenerating the spirit. Men never became a religious dissident; he refrained from signing letters and petitions expressing his opposition to the government. He envisioned himself as a pastor and a priest of a small village parish. But, as Igor Pochoshajew observes, he presented a more profound challenge to the political and religious establishment than the dissidents.79 On the morning of Sunday, September 9, 1990, as he traveled to his parish church, Men was murdered with an ax; his courageous and penetrating mind was stilled.

However, his teachings continue to resound in his books, in his published lectures and sermons, in the special reading room named in his honor in the Library for Foreign Litera­ture in Moscow, and in the lives of his followers in Russia and elsewhere. In one of his last public lectures, Men cited Christ's words, "I will be with you all the days until the end of time." Christ, Men emphasized, did not say, "I left with you some kind of text, which you can blindly follow." Rather, Men said that Christ "did not leave anything, only Himself."80 To such a creative spiritual legacy, Men's own life bears powerful testimony.

Although many of Russia's current political trends have moved toward development of an autocratic, centralized framework, Men's life and teachings are powerful reminders that Russia's religious culture contains other voices and perspectives. In the hope they offer and their quest for a more open framework, they remain very much alive in the Russia that is taking shape. They may yet exert a more profound influence on the future than the authoritarian voices.


  1. In earlier days, the warm, dignified presence* of Father Georges Chistakov, director of the reading room and a close friend of Men, endowed it with his own special touch.

  2. Kornei Chukovsky, quoted in Vladimir Andreevich Skorodenko, Margarita Rudomino All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature (Moscow: Rudomino, 2004), 6.

  3. Vladimir Andreevich Skorodenko, Vserossiiskaya gosudarstvennaya biblioteka inostrannoi literatury imeni M. I. Rudomino, 1922-1997 (Moscow: Rudomino, 1997), 28-29.

  4. Yekaterina Iurevna Genieva, interview with author, Moscow, June 9, 2006.

  5. For some superb studies that reveal many diverse aspects of Men's ministry, see Yves Hamant, Alexander Men: A Witness for Contemporary Russia (A Man for our Times), trans. Steven Bigham (Torrance, CA: Oakwood, 1995); Andrei Alekseevich Yeremin, Otets Aleksandr Men, Pastyr na rubezhe vekov, 2nd ed. (Moscow: Carte Blanche, 2001); Michael Plekon, "Alexander Men: A Modern Martyr, Free in the Faith, Open to the World," in Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church, ed. Michael Plekon, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002); and Zoya Afanasevna Maslenikova, Zhizn ottsa Aleksandra Menya (Moscow: Izd-vo Pristselya, 1995). See also Mikhail Aksenov-Meerson, "Zhizn svoyu za drugi svoya," in Pamyati protoiereya Aleksandra Menya, ed. T. V. Gromova, 116-20 (Moscow: Rudomino, 1991); Mikhail Aksenov-Meerson, "The Life and Work of Father Aleksandr Men," in Seeking God: The Recovery of Religious Identity in Orthodox Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia, ed. Stephen K. Batalden, 13-27 (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1993). Aksenov-Meerson's essays contain biographical materials and insightful views of Men's theology.

  6. Maslenikova, Zhizn ottsa Aleksandra Menya, 61.

  7. Aleksandr Men, "O sebe: vospominaniya, intervyu, besedy, pisma," 3. I wish to express my gratitude to Pavel Volfovich Men, Aleksandr's brother, who gave me access to these then-unpublished autobiographical materials. These autobiographical notes are preserved in the office of the Aleksandr Men Foundation in Moscow. Pavel Men is director of the Aleksandr Men Foundation (Fond imeni Aleksandra Menya), which is located on the second floor of the Church of Saints Kosma and Damian on Stoleshnikov Pereulok in Moscow. Aleksandr wrote the notes sporadically, over many years. They are incomplete, and his work on them was interrupted repeatedly because of his outside responsibilities and other pressures he faced. Written in the form of a diary, the notes offer much more detail in some years than in others. For example, entries for the 1950s include only a paragraph or two per year. These important autobiographical materials have recently been published, although I have not yet had access to the book. See Aleksandr Men, О sebe: vospominaniya, intervyu, besedy, pisma (Moscow: Fond imeni Aleksandra Menya, 2007). Subsequent references below are to the unpublished materials.

  8. Maslenikova, Zhizn ottsa Aleksandra Menya, 44.

  9. Vera Yakovlevna Vasilyevskaya, Katakomby XX veka: Vospominaniya (Moscow: Fond imeni Aleksandra Menya, 2001), 36.

  1. Pavel Volfovich Men, interview with author, Moscow, June 2, 2006.

  2. Vasilyevskaya, Katakomby XX veka, 13-1 A. Vera Yakovlevna's personal recollections of the catacomb church leaders and her struggles to develop her own path offer a firsthand account of underground religious life and the attempt to establish a private existence in the face of enormous public pressure to take the opposite direction. For information on the Optina elders, see Vadim M. Bakusev et al., eds., Optina pustyn: Russkaya pravoslavnaya dukhovnost (Moscow: Kanon+, 1997).

  3. Men, "0 sebe: vospominaniya, intervyu, besedy, pisma," 4. Father Seraphim's immediate successor, following his death in 1942, was Father Petr Shipkov (1881-1959). Shortly before his arrest in October 1943, Father Petr planned the transfer of the church leadership to Mother Mariya, the director of a small, secret women's monastery in the Sergiev Posad region. Maslenikova, Zhizn ottsa Aleksandra Menya, 51-52.

  4. Ibid., 4.

  5. Ibid., 4.

  6. Ibid., 4.

  7. Father Georges Chistakov, interview with author, Moscow, May 30, 2006. See also Wallace L. Daniel, "Fr Aleksandr Men and the Conflict between Freedom and Power" (unpublished manuscript), 24-25.

  8. Men, "O sebe: vospominaniya, intervyu, besedy, pisma," 7-8; Maslenikova, Zhizn ottsa Aleksandra Menya, 67-70.

  9. Maslenikova, Zhizn ottsa Aleksandra Menya, 11.

  10. Men, "O sebe: vospominaniya, intervyu, besedy, pisma," 5-6.

  11. Ibid., 5.

  12. Ibid., 5-6. Theosophy is a synthesis of philosophy, science, and religion that signifies a "Divine Wisdom" and is derived from the Alexandrian philosophers of the third century. The theosophists sought to convince Jews, Christians, and pagans to put aside their disputes and strife, claiming that they were all descendents of the same truth and held this truth in common.

  13. Men, "O sebe: vospominaniya, intervyu, besedy, pisma," 5.

  14. Ibid., 4; Maslenikova, Zhizn ottsa Aleksandra Menya, 77.

  15. Men, "O sebe: vospominaniya, intervyu, besedy, pisma," 5.

  16. Ibid., 9.

  17. Maslenikova, Zhizn ottsa Aleksandra Menya, 144—47.

  18. Elizabeth Roberts and Ann Shukman, eds., Christianity for the Twenty-First Century: The Prophetic Writings of Alexander Men (New York: Continuum, 1996), 10.

  19. Men, "O sebe: vospominaniya, intervyu, besedy, pisma," 28.

  20. Ibid., 13; Hamant, Alexander Men, 71-72.

  21. This church, the Presentation of the Virgin, was in the village of Akulovo, about thirty-five minutes from Moscow by train. Men served there for two years before he was sent to the town of Alabino, about thirty miles from Moscow, also to the southwest.

  22. Men, "O sebe: vospominaniya, intervyu, besedy, pisma," 28. At Alabino, Men's small parish did not face the brunt of the persecutions and the 1961 reforms, enacted by the government to exert tight party controls over church operations. Men had friendly relationships with the local authorities, and he often worked out agreements with them that benefited both parties. Hamant, Alexander Men, 72; and Maslenikova, Zhizn ottsa Aleksandra Menya, 190-92.

  23. Maslenikova, Zhizn ottsa Aleksandra Menya, 160-63.

  24. Men had already published parts of Syn chelovechesky in Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhy during Vedernikov's tenure as editor. Men, "O sebe: vospominaniya, intervyu, besedy. pisma," 10, 25.

  25. See Tatiana A. Chumachenko, Church and State in Soviet Russia: Russian Orthodoxy from World War II to the Khrushchev Years, ed. and trans. Edward E. Roslof (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2002); Mikhail Vitalevich Shkarovsky, Russkaya Pravoslavnaya Tserkov i sovetskoe gosudarstvo v 1943-1964 godakh: ot "peremiriya" k novoi wine (St. Petersburg: DEAN+ADIA-M, 1995); Mikhail Vitalevich Shkarovsky, Obnovlencheskoe dvizhenie v Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi XX veka (St. Petersburg: Nestor, 1999); Mikhail Ivanovich Odintsev, Gosudarstvo i tserkov v Rossii: XX vek (Moscow: Luch, 1994); and V. A. Alekseev, Ilyuzy i dogmy (Moscow: Politizdat, 1991).

  1. Men's connections to Moscow intellectuals began earlier, in the late 1960s, when he served in the Tarasovka parish; he led wide-ranging discussions of literature, theology, art, and politics. Michael Bourdeaux, Gorbachev, Glasnost & the Gospel (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990), 88-89.

  2. David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (New York: Vintage, 1994), 363. See also Sergey Bychkov, introduction to Aleksandr Men "Rol tserkvi v sovremennom mire," Segodnya, September 10, 1994, 11.

  3. Metropolitan Ioann, "The West Wants Chaos," in Christianity after Communism: Social, Political, and Cultural Struggle in Russia, ed. Niels C. Nielson Jr., 107-12 (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1994); Ralph Delia Cava, "Reviving Orthodoxy in Russia: An Overview of the Factions in the Russian Orthodox Church," Cahiers du Monde russe 38, no. 3 (1997): 387-414.

  4. Father Vladimir, "Ne khlebom edinym," Nash sovremennik, 1990, no. 6: 55-56.

  5. Sergey Borisovich Filatov, "Russkaya pravoslavnaya tserkov i politicheskaya elita," in Religiya i politika v postkommunisticheskoi Rossii, ed. L. N. Mitrokhin, 99-118 (Moscow: Institut filosofii RAN, 1994); Wallace Daniel, "Religion and the Struggle for Russia's Future," Religion, State and Society 24, no. 4 (1996): 367-83; Andrei Borisovich Zubov, Mikhail Petrovich Mchedlov, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, Aleksandr llich Kurdriavtsev, Peter Berger, Christopher Marsh, and Wallace L. Daniel, "Orthodoxy, Civil Society, and Democracy" (round table discussion, Danilov Monastery, Moscow, July 9, 2003).

  6. Men, "Rol tserkvi," 11.

  7. Aleskandr Men, "Khristianskaya kultura na Rusi," in Radostnaya vest (lektsy), ed. M. V. Sergeeva (Moscow: Vita-Tsentr, 1992), 249-50.

  8. Ibid., 250.

  9. Ibid.; Men, "Rol tserkvi," 11.

  10. Men, "Khristianskaya kultura na Rusi," 251.

  11. Men, "Rol tserkvi," 11. Many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century religious philosophical thinkers emphasized the need for an independent church, and Men sought guidance from them. Elsewhere, Men criticized the government's relationship with the church: "The government has always aspired that the Church would not develop independent thoughts, nor take an independent position whatsoever on any kind of concrete real-life problem." Aleksandr Men, "Mozhno li reformirovat pravoslavnuyu tserkov: neizvestnoe intervyu Aleksandra Menya," Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 2, 1992, 6; Men's interview was also published as "Problemy tserkvi iznutri," in Kyitura i dukhovnoe voskhozhdenie, ed. R. I. Albertkova and M. T. Rabotyaga (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1992), 440-45.

  12. Men, "Khristianskaya kultura na Rusi," 251.

  13. Ibid., 251-52.

  14. Ibid., 252.

  15. Ibid., 252.

  16. Men, "Rol tserkvi," 11. Men also pointed to the church's limited social role and how, in the provinces, the lifestyle of a large majority of the clergy was little distinguished from the poorest villagers. Given these circumstances, Men did not find it surprising that the church as an institution engendered little respect in the eyes of Russia's educated society. Nor did he find it difficult to understand why the church fell easily and quickly after the Bolsheviks came to power; it lacked the popular support, social respect, and deep-rooted creativity to withstand the Bolsheviks' ferocious attack.

  17. Men, "Christianity: The Universal Vision," in Roberts and Shukman, 94 (see n27).

  18. Lesley Chamberlain, Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia (New York: Overlook/Rookery, 2007), 62.

  19. Aleksandr Men, "Vladimir Sergeevich Solovev," in Mirovaya dukhovnaya kultura khristianstvo tserkov: Leksy i besedy, ed. Anastasiya Andreeva et al., 2nd ed. (Moscow: Fond imeni Aleksandra Menya, 1997), 425-26.

  20. Mikhail Gershenzon, "Preface to First Edition," in Vekhi: Landmarks, A Collection of Articles about the Russian Intelligentsia, trans. and ed. by Marshall S. Shatz and Judith E. Zimmerman (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1994), xxxvii. These metaphysical writers did not support the social order the Bolsheviks aspired to build, and Lenin forced them into exile. However, as Men asserted, even in exile, such remarkable thinkers "never lost their connection to their homeland and to their native spiritual culture," despite the difficulties of their fate. Men, "Khristianskaya kultura na Rusi," 253. For the story of their exile and subsequent life, see Lesley Chamberlain, The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia (London: Atlantic Books, 2007).

  1. Andrei Chernyak, interview with author, Moscow, May 25, 2007. See also Aleskandr Men, "Nikolai Aleksandrovich Berdyaev," in Andreeva et al., Mirovaya dukhovnaya kultura khristianstvo tserkov, 501-17; Aleskandr Men, "Otets Sergy Bulgakov," in Andreeva et al., Mirovaya dukhovnaya kultura khristianstvo tserkov, 518-32; and Aleksandr Men "Semen Lyudvigovich Frank," in Andreeva et al., Mirovaya dukhovnaya kultura khristianstvo tserkov, 551-61.

  2. Men, "Khristianskaya kultura na Rusi," 253.

  3. Zoya Maslenikova, "Dnevnik i pisma," in Zhizn ottsa Aleksandra Menya, 538-40; Aksenev-Meerson, "Life and Work of Father Aleksandr Men," 23.

  4. Aleksandr Men, quoted in Arturas Lukasevicius, "A Critical Evaluation of Fr Aleksandr Vladimirovich Men's Approach to the Religions of the World, in the Light of the Declaration Dominus Iesus," PhD diss., Open University, 2006, 37.

  5. The Collected Works of George Florovsky, vol. 1, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View (Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1972), 47.

  6. Ibid., 75.

  7. Ibid., 47.

  8. Aleksandr Men, "Khristianstvo i tvorchestvo," in Sergeeva, Radostnaya vest (lektsy), 256.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid., 257.

  11. Ibid., 257.

  12. Ibid., 260.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Alexander Men, "Two Understandings of the World," in Roberts and Shukman, 159-60.

  15. Men, "Khristianstvo i tvorchestvo," 262.

  16. Nicolas Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, 4th ed. (London: Centenary, 1948), 119.

  17. Ibid., 259.

  18. "Patriarch Addresses Moscow Diocese Conference," Pravoslavie v Rossii, December 1997, English translation at http://www.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/9712a.html (accessed February 9, 2009).

  19. Father Andrei Ilia Osipov, interview with author, Sergiev Posad, June 11, 1994. Osipov is Professor of Theology, Kafedra of Theology, Spiritual Academy of the Moscow Patriarchate.

  20. Several of these principles and beliefs are discussed in Dmitry Sergeevich Likhachev, "Russkaya kultura: nasledie proshloe i realnaya sila segodnya," Semya, June 15, 1988, 14-15.

  21. Men, "Khristianstvo i tvorchestvo," 262.

  22. Ibid., 262.

  23. Ibid., 262.

  24. Ibid., 263.

  25. Igor Pochoshajew, "Perspectives on the Orthodox Church in Soviet Times," Religion in Eastern Europe 27 (February 2007): 31-32; and Igor Pochoshajew, Stellen wir die Altdre auf. .. : Aleksand Men zum Verhdltnis von Kirche und Staat (Frankfurt-on-Main, Germany: Verlag Otto Lembeck, 2007), 42-51.

  26. Men, "Khristianskaya kultura na Rusi," 255.

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