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Murder of a quiet dissident

by
04 September 2008

Michael Bourdeaux pays tribute to a Russian intellectual whose murder was never properly investigated

At home in the forest: Fr “Alik” Men, who trained in forestry after he was barred from studying theology. He was attacked in a birch wood near his home

At home in the forest: Fr “Alik” Men, who trained in forestry after he was barred from studying theology. He was attacked in a birch wood near his hom...

ON 10 SEPTEMBER 1990, I was about to leave the Keston office for a press conference in London to launch my book Gorbachev, Glasnost and the Gospel when the phone rang. An agitated voice told me there had been some terrible news from Moscow. Fr Alexander Men had been murdered.

The shock I felt was compounded by the fact that my book was proclaiming a new era of religious liberty in the Soviet Union, and the news directly contradicted what I was about to say. On the train, I opened the book, and there was Fr Men in the very first photo, writing a manuscript with a shelf of books in the background. The caption below said: “Fr Alexander Men: a gifted Orthodox priest who had a formative influence on young people in the late 1960s; he now lectures openly in Soviet schools and factories.”

Alas, no more. What could I say at the press conference? The best I could do was to re-dedicate the book to his memory.

It would be a further 18 years before I would visit his house and be invited by Natalya, his widow, to sit at the desk where the photo was taken. Overwhelmed by the weight of his personality and his learning, surrounded by his magnificent collection of books, preserved as a memorial, I wrote a few sentences of the script for the radio broadcast we were recording about him.

It would be a further 18 years before I would visit his house and be invited by Natalya, his widow, to sit at the desk where the photo was taken. Overwhelmed by the weight of his personality and his learning, surrounded by his magnificent collection of books, preserved as a memorial, I wrote a few sentences of the script for the radio broadcast we were recording about him.

We never met, although I was in touch with him. Even in the days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s transforma­tion, Fr Men was still cautious, sending me a request not to call on him if I were to be in Moscow. I respected what he said, and, as I re-evaluate his life today, I find it typical of the man. To have visited him would have led the KGB, who were watching me, straight to him.

SO WHAT happened on that terrible day? Early in the morning of 9 September 1990, Fr Men set out, as usual, to walk through the birch woods at Semkhoz, Zagorsk, to the local station to catch a train to Novaya Derevnya, a distant suburb of Moscow where he served as a priest.

A few steps down the path, some­one approached him and asked him to read something. A blow from behind from a blunt instrument — never found — struck him down. This almost certainly came from a second person, as his reading glasses lay beside the path while their case was in his pocket. Fr Men staggered back a few yards to his house, where he died at the garden gate.

I had never met Natalya before this year. If I expected to see a grieving widow, I could not have been more mistaken. Here was some­one full of life, able to recount details of his murder while talking of his great legacy.

As with so many other murders in Russia, no proper investigation ever took place. Why was this warm, charismatic — indeed, brilliant — man struck down at 56, at the height of his powers? There were rumours that this was an act of revenge by a fanatical Jew, but Fr Men had not been a convert — it was his parents who were the con­verts; he was brought up as a Chris­tian.

Equally perniciously, another theory placed the murder at the hand of some demented Christian who wanted to rid the faith of its Jewish elements. No shred of evidence supports either theory. Almost certainly, this was the last act of revenge by conspirators from a dying, atheist-dominated Commun­ist Party. After all, the victim was undoing more than 70 years of anti-religious activity by the state.

Alik, as he was familiarly known to his family and friends, as a young child came under the influence of a clandestine confessor of the faith, Fr Serafim. He passed his zeal to Mother Mariya, head of a secret community of nuns, who occupied an ordinary-looking wooden house just outside the walls of the Holy Trinity monastery at Zagorsk (now Sergiev Posad), subsequently closed by the Communists. She instructed Alik in his early years, and he discovered a vocation to the priest­hood. The Party, though, maintained strict control over entry to the Moscow Theological Seminary when it reopened after the Second World War; so this was barred to a young man with such an energetic faith.

Instead, he had to choose his second loves: nature and the country­side. He enrolled at a forestry institute in Moscow, which soon transferred to Irkutsk in Siberia. He once wrote: “God has given us two books, the Bible and nature.”

He became a friend of his fellow-student, Gleb Yakunin, who would later become a thorn in the side of both the Soviet State and the Moscow Patriarchate. Both burned to see justice for the faith, and to break the steel bonds circumscribing it, but they chose different paths.

With the easing of restrictions in the late 1950s, a door opened to ordination for both of them; but Fr Yakunin became an active protester against the renewed persecution of the Church, while Fr Men chose the equally difficult task of trying to reform the Church from within. This would, he envisaged, be through education; by keeping within the law (just); and by concentrating on reaching out to the younger genera­tion, who were deprived of even the most elementary Christian teaching.

FR MEN was a man of remarkable intellectual capacity, whose sum of acquired knowledge, in the circum­stances, verged on the miraculous. When I visited his home in April this year, Natalya said that he used to scour the secondhand-bookshops in the 1950s. Many people did not wish to retain books that could land them in trouble; so valuable titles occasion­ally appeared on the shelves — books banned from Soviet libraries. He not only bought them, but assimilated their contents.

FR MEN was a man of remarkable intellectual capacity, whose sum of acquired knowledge, in the circum­stances, verged on the miraculous. When I visited his home in April this year, Natalya said that he used to scour the secondhand-bookshops in the 1950s. Many people did not wish to retain books that could land them in trouble; so valuable titles occasion­ally appeared on the shelves — books banned from Soviet libraries. He not only bought them, but assimilated their contents.

Fr Men’s knowledge was soon encyclopaedic. Among many other works, he wrote a six-volume history of world religions, in which he paid tribute to the positive elements he found in Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim scriptures. This was one of the reasons why his works have never been approved by the official Church in Russia.

Another was his reverence for the Roman Catholic Church. All Russian Christian homes have an icon corner where prayers are said before meals. Fr Men’s contains a photo of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

New collections of his lectures, articles, and sermons still appear under the auspices of the Men foundation run by his younger brother, Pavel. In Soviet times, his disciples sent his manuscripts to Brussels, where the organisation La Vie avec Dieu printed them anony­mously, gradually infiltrating them back into Russia, where they had an immense influence. Today, the tally of his works comes to some 20 volumes.

Although Fr Men specifically chose to avoid becoming a “dissi­dent”, he was constantly hounded by the authorities. Subjected not only to interrogation, he was often forced to move to a new parish where — the atheist authorities hoped in vain — his influence would be less. He retained his disciples, but was never imprisoned.

Before Mr Gorbachev permitted de facto religious liberty in the late 1980s, Fr Men taught a growing group of young people. The beautiful house where he lived originally belonged to his wife’s family. He had to travel considerable distances to the churches where he served, but this house was his retreat; so he tried, often in vain, to regulate visiting times.

Young people came out by train to visit him, demanding his time, his energy, and his books, but he never refused their requests or turned them away either from his church or his home. On the train from Moscow, and on the journey back, discussions about the faith developed and deepened the sense of community they shared.

In the period of perestroika, all this changed. Almost overnight, Fr Men became the public authority on the faith — the apostle of Christian glasnost. The demands on him were almost more than a human being could bear. He was constantly on the radio and TV. Most significantly, perhaps, he breached a physical barrier, becoming a frequent lecturer on official Soviet premises.

AS WELL as serving in his parish, during the last year of his life he gave more than 200 lectures. He delivered the last one the night before he died. Some of those present felt this was his valediction, as he spoke of Christ’s own sacrifice: “Through his love for humanity he stayed with us on this dirty, blood-stained and sinful earth, just to be beside us.”

AS WELL as serving in his parish, during the last year of his life he gave more than 200 lectures. He delivered the last one the night before he died. Some of those present felt this was his valediction, as he spoke of Christ’s own sacrifice: “Through his love for humanity he stayed with us on this dirty, blood-stained and sinful earth, just to be beside us.”

Now, though, as one stands by his grave, or by the memorial at the place where he was struck down, there comes an overwhelming feeling, in the new churches built in his memory and through talking to the priests of great spirituality who officiate in them, that Fr Men’s message in death is even more powerful than the message he proclaimed during his lifetime.

Canon Michael Bourdeaux is the founder of the Keston Institute. Fr Alexander Men: A man of fearless faith is on Sunday Worship on Radio 4 at 8.10 a.m. this coming Sunday.

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