FR ALEXANDER MEN: Martyr of Atheism
by Michel Evdokimov
(Freedom Publishing, 2011, 108pp, $20.00, ISBN: 978-0-85244-608-9. Available from Freedom Publishing)
On 9 September 1990, just as Russia was on the cusp of experiencing post-Soviet freedom, Fr Alexander Men was murdered one Sunday morning while on his way to celebrate Divine Liturgy.
The author, Michel Evdokimov, emeritus professor of literature at the University of Poitiers and an Orthodox priest, explores not only the life but spiritual legacy of Fr Men.
This work begins with a survey of the religious history of Russia. Evdokimov reminds us that the Soviet era was not the first time in Russia's history that the Church and Christians suffered severe persecutions. Furthermore, for much of its history the Russian Orthodox Church's freedom has been circumscribed by the state.
Born into an atheistic state in 1935 and raised during the height of Stalinist repression, Men became synonymous with the Christian struggle and witness in the face of persecution. Of Jewish origin, when aged seven months, both he and his mother were baptised secretly by Fr Seraphim Batioukov, a priest of the "Church of the Catacombs."
Men's early years were spent attending services secretly, with restrictions on religious practice only slightly loosened by the Soviet regime during WWII as a morale boosting exercise. After completing secondary education, Men studied biology at university. This subject particularly interested him since he saw the marvel of creation as being the handiwork of God its creator.
However, such was the chicanery of the Soviet authorities that he was expelled just before his final examination because of his religious adherence. For Men, this experience was integral in his discernment of a priestly vocation. He then studied theology in Leningrad and Moscow, was ordained a deacon in 1958 and priest in 1960. His first appointment was to Alabino his second and last to the Church of the Holy Meeting at Novaya Derevnia
Throughout his priesthood, Men was a fearless promoter of the Gospel and not cowed into submission by the KGB and its minions. Many people, dissatisfied with the aridity of living in a communist state, were searching for meaning in life and found it in Christianity.
Men prepared for and baptised thousands during the Soviet era. In addition, he wrote a large number of books and articles on Orthodox spirituality and the Bible, most of these being published abroad. He also became renowned for his ecumenical outreach, both to Christians of other denominations within Russia and in other parts of the world. Despite the Soviet regime's restrictions, various periodicals and other books found their way to Men, often by way of Christians with whom he had established a rapport.
Despite the persecution and harassment he endured, Men retained a positive outlook and was charitable towards his enemies. Rather than being dismissive of atheism, he sought to understand it - particularly why it proved so attractive to many people - in order to bring souls to Christ.
Sadly, Men's killers have never been found. However, if they had sought to silence Christianity through killing him, they were mistaken. Men's popularity as a spiritual writer has, if anything, increased exponentially since his death. Furthermore, his cause for canonisation is being considered by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Fr Alexander Men is a brief and interesting account of one of the most significant figures of 20th century Christianity and an excellent introduction to the life and thought of this holy priest, one which this reviewer found hard to put down.
Michael E. Daniel teaches at a Melbourne secondary school.