Russia’s Uncommon Prophet: Father Aleksandr Men and his times
Wallace L. Daniel
Northern Illinois University Press £27.50
Church Times Bookshop £24.75
AT LAST, a scholarly study in English about the life and times of the Russian Orthodox priest Fr Aleksandr Men, who was murdered in 1990 a few miles from Moscow, has been published. The author points out that this remarkable priest and his ministry remain “nearly unknown” in the United States; this is also true of the UK. Yet Fr Men’s witness and writings are important for a much wider audience than Russia alone.
This “uncommon prophet” was a man of great erudition with an unusual ability to communicate with a generation who knew little, if anything, about the Christian faith. He was born during the Stalin period, and was nurtured within a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church which resisted the control of the Communist system and existed underground. After his ordination, he was at first able to publish articles in an official Church publication, but this outlet was soon blocked as he became the target for intense KGB scrutiny. Russia’s Uncommon Prophet is especially valuable for the way it places Fr Men within the context of Soviet history and the political changes of perestroika under Gorbachev, a period when Fr Men was able to fulfil his gifts as a missionary and writer.
Fr Men had trained in the Institute of Fur in Siberia and developed a lifelong love for the natural world and the sciences; his work on the relationship between science and religion is of particular interest in the 21st century. He also understood how vital it was for Russia to reconnect with its cultural past, and thus introduced many to Russia’s religious philosophers, whose work had been banned by the Soviet regime. He supported freedom for the individual to follow a personal spiritual quest; government and society, he believed, must respect the dignity of the individual, otherwise humanity was destined, in his words, “to suffer the same fate as the dinosaurs”.
He advocated a Russian Orthodoxy that was open to the secular world, willing to communicate with other denominations and religions, tolerant, humane, and non-authoritarian, as opposed to a structure that was closed, inward-looking, oppressive, and frozen in its thinking. He condemned the close alliance between Church and State in the past, calling his Church to repentance for its collaboration with the Soviet authorities before perestroika. His message is as relevant today for Russia with its increasing church-state cooperation as it was during his lifetime.
Fr Men constantly preached against violence, calling his listeners to Christian love and compassion, and yet, tragically, his ministry drew hostility from ultra-nationalist groups, which burgeoned as the Communist system disintegrated. Those who murdered him have never been identified, but it is the conviction of many that this was the work of the KGB; it is chilling to learn that an independent medical examiner of Fr Men’s head wound identified the instrument used to kill him as having been a sapper’s spade, a weapon common to KGB professionals. His death is a profound loss not only for Russia, but for us, too.
Xenia Dennen is a Russian specialist, and chairman of Keston Institute, Oxford.