On Sunday, September 9, 1990, Father Alexander Men left his wooden house in Semkhoz early in the morning and headed for the train station. He had a long day ahead at his church in Novaya Derevnya, where he was scheduled to conduct the liturgy, hear confessions, baptize infants and preside over some funerals. Then he was due in Moscow for another of his now famous public lectures. Father Men never reached the train station. Somewhere along the path through an open woodland, he was attacked and struck on the back of the head by an axe. He was able to struggle back to the gate of his house, where he died at the age of 55.
Father Men’s Roots
Alexander Men was born in Moscow on January 22, 1935. His birth coincided with one of the worst periods of persecution that the church ever faced in Russia. By 1935, the Russian Orthodox Church’s public presence had virtually disappeared. More than 95 percent of all its churches had been closed under Joseph Stalin’s aggressively anti-religious campaign, along with all monasteries and seminaries. Numerous observers have described the Stalinist repression of the 1920s and 1930s as the worst persecution of Christians since the time of the Roman emperor Diocletian.
Alexander’s mother, Elena, was born into a Jewish family in Kharkov, but later became a Christian, much to the displeasure of her parents. In 1934, she married a young engineer, also Jewish, named Vladimir Grigorevich Men, and they had two sons, Alexander and Pavel. Alexander was secretly baptized when he was nine months old by a “catacomb priest” named Father Serafim, who lived in hiding and ministered to his parishioners in secret.
By the age of twelve, the young Alexander had decided to become a priest. While living in a crowded communal flat in Moscow, the young boy would often retire to bed early, where he could feed his voracious appetite for books. He was reading the works of Immanuel Kant when he was thirteen and, by the time he was fifteen, had discovered Vladimir Solovyev, one of Russia’s great religious philosophers.
Antisemitism was at a peak in 1953, following Stalin’s death, and Alexander was denied access to university education on racial grounds. He was eventually able to enroll in an institute to study biology, while also pursuing his theological studies. In 1955, his institute was transferred to Irkutsk in Siberia, where he spent three years, building links to the cathedral located across the street from his school. Three years later, he was ordained deacon and given his first parish appointment in the village of Akulovo, southwest of Moscow. In 1960, he was ordained as a priest and moved to Alabino, 100 kilometers southwest of Moscow.
Father Men’s Ministry
For the next thirty years, Father Men developed a remarkable ministry in a very difficult environment. He was, first and foremost, a pastor to his people. Father Men was famous for his amazing ability to relate to all kinds of people. The village babushki (grandmothers) found him to be a friend and counselor, as did local Soviet officials and educated, pagan intellectuals. A prominent Russian Christian philosopher described him as “the man sent from God to be missionary to the wild tribe of the Soviet intelligentsia,” a ministry that began in the remote village of Alabino.
Men’s parish became a haven during this time of persecution. While periodically harassed by Soviet security, Father Men continued to provide a safe place for people of faith. He also initiated meetings with other young clergy who met for discussion and to share experiences as pastors in a hostile world. At his parish in Alabino, and later in Tarasovka and finally Novaya Derevnya, where he remained for twenty years, small groups were organized for Bible study, prayer and encouragement. These groups, often made up of approximately twelve people, were similar to the “base communities” which developed in Catholic countries in Latin America.
Father Men was under constant surveillance and Soviet security forces kept his house and church under their faithful eye from a nearby house. He was often called in for interrogations, sometimes on a daily basis, and his office and home were searched periodically. But then, under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, things changed. Beginning in 1988, Father Men made the first of hundreds of public lectures on Christianity. By the summer of 1988, there was an explosion of religious activity in Russia.
In the midst of all this excitement, Father Men worked with a sense of urgency — a sense that time was short. He spoke to huge audiences in crowded palaces of culture, in schools, clubs and universities. He was a driven man, driven by the desire to “give people the authentic message of Christ, because this liberty could come to an end at any time.” In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “I work now as I have always worked: with my face into the wind. . . I’m only an instrument that God is using for the moment. Afterwards, things will be as God wants them.”
NOTE: For an introduction to the life and ministry of Father Men, a new book has just been published which translates some of his writings and speeches into English. I highly commend the book Christianity for the Twenty-First Century: The Life and Work of Alexander Men, edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Ann Shukman, and published in 1996 by SCM Press Ltd. in London.