Father Aleksandr Men (1935-1990) is a name which very quickly becomes known to every Westerner coming to Russia with some interest in religion. The problem is that the name is highly mythologized and evaluated differently in opposing circles of Russian society.
Fr. Men from his childhood possessed common sense, an inborn gift of attracting people, and a healthy outlook on life. He wanted to be a priest, but decided first to obtain a lay education. He was greatly fond of biology and studied it in an institute, but was expelled before graduation because it was discovered that he took part in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. In 1958 he was ordained a deacon; in 1960, a priest. His Jewish origin and intellectual level were quite uncommon in the priesthood.
Evangelist to "Soviet" Man
The pastoral work of Fr. Aleksandr in different churches of the Moscow Region--from 1968 in the Church of Novaia Derevnia near Pushkino--did not echo loudly with political struggle as did the church services of Fr. Gleb Yakunin and Fr. Dmitrii Dudko. Men preached orally and in written form. He wrote more than ten books, including a biography of Jesus, a six-volume history of ancient religions, a book on church rites, and a soon-to-be published multivolume dictionary of the Bible. They were addressed to unbelievers and struggled first of all with the atheistic myths of Soviet propaganda. They were written in good Russian, with a profound knowledge of the psychology and superstitions of "Soviet" man.
Fr. Aleksandr took from the West the tradition of catechizing (previously absent in Russia), Bible reading, and prayer seminars. He advised reading the books of great Christian Russian thinkers--Solovev, Berdiaev, Bulgakov, and Catholic and Protestant books as well. His parishioners actively reprinted by clandestine methods Russian and Western theological literature.
Slavery or Freedom in Christ?
Many priests today prefer to have a strict and constant control of the spiritual life of believers. Many people enjoy this sort of church slavery, seeking not the spiritual guidance of Christ so much as a kind of spiritual slavery to a priest. Moslems leave their shoes outside before entering a mosque; Christians often leave their will and their brains behind before entering the church. This tendency is especially tempting in Russia with its long tradition of ideological dictatorship. In contrast, the method of Fr. Men was to help a person find freedom in Christ.
Beginning in 1988 Fr. Aleksandr had the opportunity to preach to large masses of people in person and on television. On Saturday, 8 September 1990, he delivered a lecture on Christianity to more than 600 people in Moscow. This was the last in a series of lectures on the history of religions which Fr. Aleksandr gave in the spring of 1990. The next day, Sunday, at 6:30 a.m., an unknown assailant attacked Fr. Men near his home as he was leaving for church, killing him by means of an ax blow to the head. Practically everyone was sure it was a deed of the KGB and compared his murder with the police murder of Polish Catholic priest Jerzy Popieluszko. Undaunted, many of Fr. Men's former parishioners actively preach the Gospel. And his books continue to be published in large quantities.
Two circles of people know the details of Fr. Men's biography and have studied his books closely, but have directly opposite opinions of him. First is the circle of his former parishioners and friends. For them Men is the symbol of a free-minded, open, ecumenical, reasoned Russian Orthodoxy, in which intellectuals can find a proper place for their creative abilities. In sharp contrast is the circle of conservative Russian Orthodox for whom Men is the symbol of Jewish/Masonic efforts to destroy Russian Orthodoxy from inside by means of Bible criticism. This circle tends to equate religion with rigid Church discipline. This fundamentalist circle often lies about the views of Fr. Aleksandr, depicting him as a destroyer of Russian Orthodox tradition.
In the Spirit of C.S. Lewis
Fr. Men, like C. S. Lewis, was a brilliant apologist who managed to explain the truth of Christianity in lively, simple, and clear language. His apologetics met the needs of intellectuals burdened with prejudices towards Christianity. It is no accident that many translations of Lewis into Russian were made by Natalia Trauberg, a parishioner of Fr. Aleksandr, at his initiative. Those charitably inclined towards Fr. Aleksandr Men see him as a symbol of nonaggressive, nonpoliticized, nonghettoized, nonfundamentalist Russian Orthodoxy.
Yakov Krotov is a Moscow-based church historian and journalist. This editorial is excerpted with permission from his Web site: http://members.xoom.com/krotov/Engl/Myen.html.
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© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report