September 9 marks the 30th anniversary of the murder of Aleksandr Men.
By Charles Hoffacker
The courtyard of the State Library for Foreign Literature in Moscow features a statue of Father Aleksandr Men, a prominent Russian Orthodox priest murdered in 1990. Its fourth floor houses the Center for Religious Literature and Russian Publications Abroad, which includes a room dedicated to him. Although he rarely traveled outside his native Russia, none of Men’s books were published inside Russia during his lifetime. Instead, they were published elsewhere under pseudonyms and smuggled into the country from which he wrote them.
Limitations on publishing were not the only way the state opposed his ministry. The KGB subjected him to interrogation on many occasions and may have been responsible for his death. Fittingly, the library room named for him faces away from the Kremlin.
Born in 1935, Aleksandr Men grew up during Stalin’s regime and lived through periods in Russia when religion of all kinds was savagely repressed. He served as a priest for 30 years, from 1960 until his death. This year is the 30th anniversary of his murder, regarded by many as his martyrdom. Although not yet canonized, several icons of him have been written.
Men’s influence continues to spread, both in Russia and in other countries. In the first two decades after his death, the Russian public bought more than 5 million copies of his books, sermons, and lectures. His works are now available in several languages, including English. His message remains of vital importance for Christians everywhere, and perhaps the period of his greatest influence is still to come. After all, Men believed that Christianity itself was still in its infancy.
Men’s theological vision was shaped by some of his era’s most notable Orthodox exponents, including the elders of the Optina Pustyn monastery, parish priests Aleksei and Sergei Mechev, and theologians Vladimir Solov’ev, Sergei Bulgakov, and Nikolai Berdiaev. Largely self-educated, Men also gained an expansive understanding of the Russian cultural heritage, at a time when it was devalued and ignored by those in power.
Wallace L. Daniel, a scholar of Men’s work, has observed: “Throughout his school years, Aleksandr read voraciously, having already gained access to a wide variety of books. For him, books played a large part in creating a parallel existence to the political and ideological world surrounding him, a pathway into a world much different from the one to which his schooling exposed him. During a time when the state assaulted ways of thinking that lay outside the Marxist-Leninist mainstream, books kept alive older traditions and perspectives.”
Men’s studies as a biology student at the Fur Institute, first in Moscow and then in Siberia, strengthened his appreciation for the sciences and exposed him to a wider view of the Soviet Union, including its diverse faith communities. He took correspondence courses from the Leningrad Seminary and the Moscow Theological Academy, graduating with a master’s degree in theology.
His passion for books did not prevent him from manifesting a deep interest in the people around him. While he became well known as an apostle to Russia’s intelligentsia, he connected effectively with people of every background. His popular and energetic style as a speaker and teacher engaged both the small parish-based groups of his early ministry and the large audiences he addressed in his final years.
Any survey of Aleksandr Men’s life must recognize that his level of activity was extraordinary. Despite official hindrances on religious activity, he wrote countless books, engaged in a vigorous pastoral ministry, guided numerous small groups within the Russian Orthodox Church, and served as a supportive husband and father. Men’s sheer productivity recalls Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Merton. Like them, he encountered serious opposition as he restored and renewed the inherited faith and died while still relatively young.
Men’s Son of Man, a life of Jesus, sold over a million copies. It addresses the questions of non-believers, who were often taught that Jesus Christ never existed. At one time the police considered this book to be anti-Soviet and possession of a copy was extremely dangerous. His most ambitious work is History of Religion, a seven-volume opus incorporating modern scholarship, ancient texts, and Russian sources. In the work, Men distinguished between a dynamic, creative spirituality marked by reverence for God, and a spiritual tendency characterized by static, repressive attitudes toward the world.
A bibliography, however extensive, does not exhaust the influence of Aleksandr Men in our time. Even more important than the books he produced are the lives he touched, whether directly or through intermediaries. Thousands of people alive today can testify to his work as an apostle and prophet.
He worked to build bridges, restoring connections between contemporary Russia and its traditional faith and culture. However, unlike many of his fellow citizens, he had no interest in nostalgia, sentimentalism, or nationalism. He believed that Russia needed to be enriched by the best of its cultural heritage and to recover Christian faith in order to live that faith amid new and ever-changing circumstances.
His teaching emphasized the importance of freedom, drawing on the Christian gospel, and the work of late 19th-century and early 20th-century Russian philosophers. Men contrasted true freedom with both the control exercised by the Soviet Union over its citizens’ interior lives, and Western individualism, which he believed was frequently atheistic in practice.
Men recognized that churches, including the Russian Orthodox Church, often favored power over freedom. He called for his church to demonstrate an openness to the world and a commitment to dialogue, relating to other religions with respect. Yet he firmly rejected any notion of blending religions or even different Christian traditions in a way that would dissolve their distinct identities.
Father Aleksandr Men faced many opponents during his lifetime and continues to have vociferous critics three decades after his death. Those functioning as agents of the militant atheism of the Soviet Union saw it as their duty to oppose a priest who served as an effective catalyst of faith for many people within his parishes and beyond. His life and ministry also rebutted official propaganda that Russian Christianity was on death’s door, of interest only to uneducated old women.
Aleksandr Men was a Christian. He was also a Jew. Thus, he drew the hatred and contempt of the substantial portion of the Russian population that was to one degree or another anti-Semitic. He also drew hostility from more nationalist and fundamentalist clergy within his own church, who criticized his openness to Western thought.
Once the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia faced the supremely difficult task of relating anew to culture, history, and faith without falling prey to extreme nationalism. The results to date are mixed at best. But Aleksandr Men lived and died in an effort to show that national life could be reborn through both an authentic and open Russian Orthodoxy and a fresh embrace of Russia’s cultural and historical riches. Killed by the blow of an axe on September 9, 1990, his funeral occurred on the Orthodox feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Like the forerunner, Aleksandr Men bore prophetic witness to Russians and to all people. Men scholar April French sums up his ministry with three words: courage, integrity, and presence.
In his homeland and around the globe, new generations can take up this work.
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest who lives in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The literature about Fr. Men is large and growing. Much useful material can be found at alexandermen.com.
These titles are in print and especially recommended:
Wallace L. Daniel, Russia’s Uncommon Prophet: Father Aleksandr Men and His Times. Northern Illinois University Press, 2016.
April French, editor. Christa Belyaeva, translator. An Inner Step toward God: Writings and Teachings on Prayer by Father Alexander Men. Paraclete Press, 2014.