Two late priests icon the 20th century anguish of Russian Orthodoxy

By Jon Kennedy

hen the Bolsheviks secured their grip on power in Russia and created the Soviet Union after the 1917 revolution, Russian Orthodoxy faced a seemingly impossible choice, and thus was split in its decision. Part of it became a church in exile, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA), for a time seeking refuge in Paris, in Shanghai, in New York, Sydney, Johannesburg, London, and San Francisco. The other part, the Russian Orthodox Church under the Moscow metropolitan, attempted to accommodate the atheistic powers enough to do at least something for the millions of faithful under Communist bonds.

Understandably, one side came to characterize the other as pro-Communist or at least “soft on Communism,” and the other side to respond by calling the exiles anti-Communists, hard-line conservatives, and monarchists. Today, the Russian Orthodox Church in North America (ROCA) and the Orthodox Church in America (formerly the Russian Orthodox Church in communion with the Moscow-based hierarchy) live in tension with one another, periodically discussing an ultimate reunion.

Meanwhile, two men—one born in San Diego in 1934 and raised as a nominal Protestant, the other born a few months later in January 1935, in Moscow to Jewish parents—have come to epitomize the two factions. Seraphim Rose, who became a priest of ROCA, is better known in the West, where he long stood in staunch opposition to Russia’s Communist regime. And now, the heretofore little known Eastern legacy of Alexander Men continues to gain attention and an enthusiastic following. His teachings emphasize the ultimate unity and sacredness of all things.

Both Rose and Men were precocious as boys, and possessed intelligence quotients that towered above their peers. Impressed with the claims of the gospel in their high school and college years respectively, both dedicated themselves to lives of Orthodox ministry, sacrificing their personal lives. The ministries of both drew intellectuals and, especially, youth seeking answers and alternatives to materialistic values, to them. Both produced major legacies of written work and died unexpectedly; Fr. Seraphim Rose of a sudden illness at age 48, Fr. Alexander Men at the hands of an unknown assassin at age 55. Both have had continued followings and increased demands for their books and articles after their deaths. Both have often been mentioned as candidates for sainthood and memorialized in biographies and icons.

Fr. Seraphim RoseEugene Dennis Rose was educated in the California public schools. He was part of the early-sixties beat-generation subculture in San Francisco and shared the fascination of many in his generation for Far Eastern religions. A contemporary and friend of Alan Watts, he learned the Chinese language to pursue his interest in Buddhism. He was working on a doctorate, well on the way to an illustrious career in Asian studies on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, it appeared, when he discovered Orthodoxy at the cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in San Francisco. Though cautious at first, he soon converted, began studying Russian, and became a personal disciple of the cathedral’s pastor, Archbishop John Maximovitch, who himself was glorified as a saint in 1994 by both Orthodox factions.

Ultimately, Eugene Rose abandoned his career track at Berkeley to develop a lay ministry of publishing a magazine, tracts, and eventually books, and running a small bookstore next to the cathedral. Eventually, he and his partner in ministry, Gleb Podmoshensky, took monastic vows and established a two-man skete (a tiny monastic center) in the northern California wilderness where they continued their publishing enterprises. Through the remainder of his life, Eugene, who was tonsured as Brother Seraphim Rose and eventually ordained as Fr. Seraphim, produced hundreds of articles and books, including many translations from Russian saints. By the time of his sudden death in 1982, his works were being translated into Russian and he was probably more widely known in that country, through the underground circulation of his works, than he was in his native America.

Meanwhile, the Moscow-born Fr. Alexander Men is less well-known outside his own country, but his fame is increasing rapidly as more of his works are translated into English. Notes Bishop Seraphim Joseph Sigrist of the Orthodox Church in America, “The renewal of Christianity in Russia today, the virtual rebaptism of the nation...and all the changes in Russia, cannot be understood without understanding the life and work of Fr. Alexander Men.”

Men’s parents were ethnically Jewish. His father was a college-educated intellectual agnostic; his mother, Elena, was a devout believer in her people’s God. Elena’s openness to Christianity was stoked by a family legend that claimed her grandmother had been healed of a severe illness at an outdoor rally conducted by Fr. John of Kronstadt, a great nineteenth-century preacher (since glorified as St. John of Kronstadt).

Less than a year after Alexander’s birth, she traveled at great risk from Moscow to Zagorsk to be baptized and to have Alexander baptized. Their priest, who had been part of a parish renewal movement at the time of the revolution, had gone underground to defy a government ban on religious activities. Fr. Seraphim Batiukov, sensing approaching death, insisted that Alexander make his first confession to him at the exceptionally young age of seven, and predicted that because of the way his mother was raising him, “someday Alik will be a great man.”

Fr. Alexander MenAlexander’s works that have been translated into English thus far are striking for their depth and breadth of knowledge. His education—especially in the areas of religious history and comparative religions, despite the strictures on studying such subjects under the Communists —is all the more impressive because he was mostly self-taught, using banned books. Reading far beyond his age level—Emmanuel Kant’s philosophy at age 13, for example—Men was deemed to have the equivalent of a Russian seminary education by the time he finished high school at age 18.

“From early childhood, the contemplation of nature has been my ‘theologia prima,’” Men wrote. “I used to go into a forest or a museum of paleontology in the same way I went into a church.” His teaching emphasizes that there is no dichotomy between the material, or physical, and spiritual or religious worlds; all were the handicraft of the same Creator. Men’s biographer, Yves Hamant, relates how at a flea market, among old shoes, nails, and locks, Alexander, at about age 15, discovered a book by nintheenth-century Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, whom some call the “founder of twentieth-century Russian religious thinking.”

“Soloviev’s Christian vision,” Hamant says, “incorporated every aspect of life.... Anything and everything was to be brought together and transformed.... Alexander took Soloviev as his main intellectual guide without, however, losing his own critical mind.”

Showing broad interests from a young age—from theology to painting, music, and paleontology—Men took up studies in biology upon finishing high school and also began writing his first book, What is the Bible Talking About and What Does it Teach Us? The biological institute in Moscow closed in 1955, and its students were transferred to another scientific institute in Siberia. Men went along and finished the course, but when his constant activities on behalf of the local bishop—whose church was directly across the street from the institute—were noted by authorities, he was denied a diploma in science and any opportunity to complete an internship in the field. Men took this as a sign to get on with his real vocation, his priestly calling.

Befriended by the secretary of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, he was ordained a deacon in 1958. He first served a poor parish near Moscow, where he, his wife, and infant daughter lived for two years. At the end of this period, during which he also pursued studies with the Leningrad seminary by correspondence, Alexander was ordained a priest and assigned to assist a parish about thirty miles from Moscow. He became the pastor after a year, and although religion in Russia was suffering new restrictions imposed by Nikita Khrushchev at the time, his parish and ministry prospered, even enjoying good relations with the small town’s city hall. He and his wife added a son to their family.

A garden was attached to his parish house, in which he could write, and there Fr. Alexander began his writing career in earnest. He published about twenty articles in the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate which, Hamant says, “got him the honor of being attacked in Science and Religion .” Young people started seeking out Fr. Alexander, and “a little community of active Christians began to take shape.” His books started to appear, printed underground in Belgium and smuggled back into Russia for distribution.

This ideal situation ended, however, when a parish cantor, under the influence of alcohol, set off a chain of events that led to government investigations. Though no arrests were made, Fr. Alexander was required to leave that relatively idyllic assignment and take a parish north of the capitol, toward Zagorsk, where his ability to minister was greatly confined.

Fr. Alexander’s reversal of fortune may have heightened his sensitivity to the plight of other persecuted faithful in Russia. About this time, the plight of persecuted Christians, Jews, and other non-Communists in the Soviet Union was gaining public attention, affecting world opinion and, over the next three decades, altering Soviet policy toward dissidents. Though never himself a political activist per se, Fr. Alexander was in touch with the entire dissident movement. A close friend from his time at the institute in Siberia was Gleb Yakunin, a champion of human rights and religious liberty, who has served on the post-Communist Russian parliament.

Fr. Michael Meerson was converted through the ministry of Fr. Alexander, and worked with his mentor to publish underground literature until he had to flee the USSR in 1973. He now ministers in Washington, D.C. Fr. Meerson reports that Fr. Alexander baptized the well-known dissident Nadezhda Mandelshtam in the 1960s. Fr. Alexander also “had long conversations on religion, Christianity, and Eastern Orthodoxy with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that eventually brought him back to the church.”

Besides the dissidents, whose intellectual opposition to the corrupt Soviet system changed the world, young students and intellectuals were also drawn to Fr. Alexander and, through him, to personal relationship with Christ. Fr. Meerson recalls meeting him for the first time in 1963, while he was a searching college student only 19 years old. Fr. Alexander “impressed me very much with his knowledge, but even more so with his openness,” he told an interviewer for Again, an Orthodox magazine. “I couldn’t imagine that there was such a thing as an Orthodox priest who was conversant with all kinds of secular matters and matters of general interest. For us, the church was completely out of reality, ostracized, belonging to a completely different generation, a different civilization.

“So for me, this was a real encounter with a person who represented the church, but at the same time was as human as I was. He shared many of my interests and had others of his own. My first encounter with him was in 1963, but it still took two more years for me to make my own way to Christianity, to be ready to accept the Gospel. When this actually happened, I immediately joined his community.”

In the years that followed, Fr. Meerson became better acquainted with Fr. Alexander, with whom he shared the common background of a secular-state upbringing and ethnic Jewish heritage. “When I first entered the Orthodox Church (it)...seemed to me a totally alien environment. Fr. Alexander made this environment homey for me because he was a pillar of stability, of common sense, fully at home in Russian Orthodox culture, being at the same time a man of good humor and responsive to various completely human interests. “

This is what made him such an attraction for thousands and thousands of Russian intellectuals in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. He became an apostle of faith in the Soviet Union for a generation of intellectual people and youth.”

Another writer, Sue Talley, summarizes Men’s work this way in an Again article: “In the time of intense activity just prior to his death, Fr. Alexander helped recreate a Bible Society in Russia. He began to lay the foundation for an Orthodox University, and to create an association called ‘Cultural Renaissance,’ whose goal was both educational and humanitarian. He encouraged parishioners to take over a service at the Pediatric Hospital of the Russian Republic in Moscow, where his work continued in the treatment of desperately ill children, and their spiritual and psychological support. Just a week before his death, he organized and opened a Sunday class to teach catechism to the children of his village. He seemed to know that his time was short and wanted to accomplish as much as possible before the end.”

Bishop Seraphim Sigrist says that the Moscow Pediatric Hospital—founded by Riassa Gorbachev, the only place in all of Russia that does organ transplants, heart surgery, and other state-of-the-art treatments for children—would have closed had it not been for Fr. Alexander’s influence in organizing parishioners to keep it operating. Their continued service still keeps it open.

On September 9, 1990, after only three years of relative freedom to conduct his ministry without intrusive government interference during Gorbachev’s perestroika and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet system, Fr. Alexander was struck and killed by an unknown assailant wielding an axe. He was walking to church.

Though no perpetrator has ever been found, there is little doubt that he was targeted for his religious activities. The brutal deed was undoubtedly a testimony to his effectiveness at reforming the system and to his power of moral suasion.

While the American convert monk, Fr. Seraphim Rose, epitomizes through the continued popularity of his writings Orthodox distrust, disdain for, and fundamental opposition to ecumenical outreach, the Russian-born Fr. Alexander Men epitomizes the other side of Orthodoxy that is open to all Christians and desirous of greater cooperation and unity. While the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and its best-known contemporary teacher oppose church renewal as un-Orthodox, the followers of Fr. Men are saying that the refreshing winds that were blowing in the Russian church before the revolution are needed especially now, when Russia is being targeted by every Western cult, sect, and denomination as a “mission field.” And, they are saying, Fr. Men has led the way to the future.

Originally published in Re:Generation Quarterly

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© 1997, 2009 Jon Kennedy