Alexander Men – The Mystery of the Assassinated Priest
Text by Phil Baillie
Semkhoz, a small village situated an hour and a half north west of Moscow on the electrichka, consists of a group of houses dispersed between dipping, twisting roads radiating from a hiding, still blue lake. Each house in the area varies in style and age, the majority of the humble abodes nailed together with old wooden panels, ornate skirting, yet often with shiny, tiled roofs. There is one shop beside the station, well supplied with alcohol more than anything else, while a mixture of barebacked Russians and cheaply hired Chechen guest workers appear and disappear from and to the surrounding forest to collect their daily supply of bread. The village holds a certain air of mystery, possibly due to the silent knowledge of the locals that a horrifying act of violence occurred on these soils almost two decades ago. Amongst the overgrown trees and tall weeds silently sits an enclosure of whitewashed church buildings; today a pilgrimage point built on the spot where influential and renowned Orthodox priest Alexander Men was fatally struck down by an axe-wielding pair of men on September 9, 1990. Yet today, almost twenty years after his death, inquests personally headed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, radio discussions on ‘Echo Moskva’ and television programs have all failed in their attempt to identify the perpetrators of the murder of a great Russian and a holy man.
Churches and museum (right) erected in memory of Alexander Men in Semkhoz
Born into a Jewish family in 1935, during the Stalinist ‘Catacomb’ years, a period particularly associated with the supression of Christianity, Alexander Men started life already in a hostile environment. His mother, Elena, converted to Christianity through her sister, and secretly baptised the infant Alexander into the faith. The Church at that time operated in an underground manner, meeting at homes of believers to avoid supression from the political authorities. By the age of twelve, Men had written his first book entitled “What Does the Bible Tell Us?” and had already expressed his ambition to become a priest. Since he was barred from university studies because of his Jewish background, he took up an alternative path in biology in Moscow and Irkutsk where the young student was known to be a voracious reader and became firmly involved in parish life; a commitment which ultimately cost him his graduation. Eventually, in 1958, his day of reckoning had come and he was ordained as a deacon, by a Moscow bishop convinced of his worthiness for the position. In 1960 he was ordained as a priest and assigned to a parish at Alabino, later Novaya Derevnya (New Village) where his spiritual in! uence would flourish, culminating in nationwide fame at the end of the 1980’s until his sudden and shocking death outside his home in Semkhoz.
It is possible that the KGB had finally decided that Father Men had reached a point of influence that was no longer acceptable in the communist regime, and took the decision to finally eliminate him after years of constant surveillance and threats.
Orthodoxy and Openness
Father Men was accused of being guilty of ‘ecumenism’ by many Orthodox critics who saw the embrace of other religious practices within Christianity as unorthodox in its openness to western culture and a rejection of the ‘pure’ Christianity of the Orthodox Church. Little, therefore, has been written in a positive light about the man who did in fact write extensively on Orthodox liturgy and correct practices during prayer or communion; clear evidence that Men was not anti-Orthodox as many might have claimed. His writings and sermons were to open the way for a recognition of Christian diversity in a complex world of cultures; a view that encourages mutual understanding, tolerance and most importantly love of others as one church body, just as Paul the Apostle wrote to the Church in Corinth in the New Testament to confront intolerance between Jewish and gentile Christians.
Due to the repressive political atmosphere of the Soviet period, Men wrote under varoius pseudonyms (including Pavel, or Paul), publishing his works from abroad. Apart from anti-religious propaganda, writing on religion was certainly seen as a display of dissidence; an act which attracted the interest of the intelligence and internal security service otherwise known as the KGB. Despite efforts to hide his identity, Men received plenty of attention from the KGB; harassment by interrogation, frequent house searches and constant surveillance for the entirety of his active service in the Orthodox Church. It was not just his writing that attracted suspicion and criticism, but his outlook and approach to personal ministry. He encouraged people to meet in their homes to pray, read the bible in groups, visited parishioners in their homes and took a humble approach to people, explaining who Jesus was in simple terms, avoiding complicated theological terms that could alienate people from religion. On the other hand, he had in! uence among the intelligentsia including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His progressive approach must have alarmed the right-wing arm of the Orthodox Church as well as the Soviet authorities as he inspired a religious enlightenment in Russia, especially as his platform grew to incorporate televised sermons and radio broadcasts during the Gorbachev thaw.
At 6:30am on Sunday, September 9, 1990, Father Alexander Men walked to the Semkhoz station platform on his way to Church. Approximately 300 meters from the platform, two men approached him, handing him a piece of paper with writing on it. While reading, Father Men was suddenly struck from behind with a sharp object, thought to have been an axe (the Russian weapon of revenge), leaving a gushing wound to his head while the assassins fled into the surrounding forest. Despite the pain and open wound, the bloodied priest stumbled on to look for his stolen briefcase. According to witnesses interviewed for an NTV documentary Men rejected offers of help, determined to find his briefcase. When the pain became too great he stumbled back along the road towards his home for help, collapsing against a fenced gate. His wife rushed out to the distressed man, unable at first to identify her husband, who had been disfigured by the blow.
There are various possible theories suggesting a suspect or motive for the elimination of Alexander Men. Firstly, he was an influential Christian of Jewish descent, living in an anti-semitic environment, making him a possible target for the extreme right-wing National Patriotic group ‘Pamiat’ who burnt his books. Furthermore, his openness to ecumenism created suspicion and sharp criticism from the religious right of the Orthodox Church, threatening, as they considered, a heretical movement. It is possible that the KGB had finally decided that Father Men had reached a point of influence that was no longer acceptable in the communist regime, and took the decision to finally eliminate him after years of constant surveillance and threats. Crucially, it is important to consider that the case is left unresolved today despite multiple investigations by the politicised KGB, police and prokuratura. Perhaps the case was always going to be left unresolved; investigations were to be frustrated by the perpetrators of the crime.
For whatever reason or by whomever Father Men was assassinated on that fateful morning, there is no doubt that his work still resonates in Russia today. His sermons and books are still read, and have inspired a new generation of Russian Christian groups, encouraging them to ‘love thy neighbor,’ in an age of intolerance. As new findings on the holy man’s life and works are uncovered, history will surely stand up for a man who stood up for his faith.