The Life and Death of Aleksandr Menn

Larry Woiwode

New Horizons: February 1998

Christian Martyrs

Also in this issue

To Give Your Life for Christ

Persecution Around the World

Intolerance? Or Honest Conviction?

Lessons from Genevan Presbyterianism

Two months before Aleksandr Menn (also spelled Men or Men') was felled by an ax, he was asked in a radio interview that was broadcast across Russia, "Does one need to be a Christian, and if one does, then why?"

"The question is totally different when it is put this way," Menn replied: "Why Christianity? Is it because of the sacred Scriptures? No, every religion has sacred scriptures.

"Then why Christianity? Morality? Certainly. I am happy that in our society the high moral values of Christianity are accepted, but it would be totally erroneous to maintain that there are no moral values outside Christianity....

"Then why Christianity? Should we embrace pluralism of religion; or should we embrace a position that God is revealed and therefore can be found in any kind of religion? No, because then the uniqueness and absolute character of Christianity will disappear.

"I think that nothing will prove the uniqueness of Christianity except one thing-Jesus Christ himself....

"It is a historical myth that Jesus simply preached morals. He could not be crucified for just doing that.... I believe that everything that is of value in Christianity is valuable only because it belongs to Christ."

The Moscow State Radio interviewer must have almost tipped over in his chair. But Menn went on: "On the one hand, he is the framework of history. On the other, he is totally unique. Christianity is unique because Christ is unique."

That was his answer, pared down, given under the constraints of an interview to which the KGB was listening. And that was only the start. Menn spoke with eloquence for another half hour. It was July 19, 1990, and the disassembly of the Soviet system was nearly complete, or so consumers of television in the U.S. were led to believe.

But before glasnost and perestroika had become bywords on the nightly news, Menn was known across Soviet Russia as a beacon of evangelical reform. In his humble church in a Moscow suburb, where intelligentsia flocked, even unlettered workers could understand his plain sermons and presentations of the gospel. That gospel teaches how particular gifts are given to believers, but the honed clarity that Menn exemplified does not fall from the stars; it takes dedicated study.

The Life of Menn

Menn was born in Moscow in 1935 of Jewish parents. His father was an atheist and a nonpracticing Jew, but his mother, Elena, came under the teaching of Fr. Serafim Batukov, a priest in the underground church. Seven months after Aleksandr was born, Elena took him secretly to Fr. Serafim, and she and Alik were baptized. Seven years later, as the elderly Batukov lay dying, he said to Elena, "Thanks to what you are enduring and to the serious way you are raising him, your Alik will someday be a great man."

At the age of thirteen, Menn knocked on the door of Moscow Theological Seminary and asked to be admitted. He was turned down, but the dean of students was so impressed by his abilities-Menn had begun to master Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, as well as several modern languages-that he became Menn's lifelong advisor and confidant.

Menn's younger brother, Pavel, says Menn was called to the ministry when he was twelve. "He sought out religious literature wherever he could find it. I can still see him in a Moscow market, poring over books by great religious philosophers. 'They inoculated me against the pestilence of Stalin,' he once told me. 'I trembled as I read.' "

At the age of fourteen, Menn began writing a life of Christ. Within the year, he finished a first draft. Menn loved the natural world and wanted to know it fully. He studied biology in Moscow, and then at Irkutsk, in Siberia-and said he never felt any contradiction between faith and science.

His roommate at Irkutsk was Gleb Yakunin, an atheist. Menn persuaded him to rejoin the Russian Orthodox Church, where he had been baptized. (Yakunin was later ordained and became an outspoken defender of human rights in the Soviet Union, and, after the overthrow of communism, served as a deputy in the Russian parliament.) The year Menn should have received his degree in biology, however, he was expelled as "a practicing church member."

He felt his call to the ministry confirmed in 1948, when Israel became a nation. He believed that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, and that the people of Israel would acknowledge that one day-once they were gathered from the Diaspora into a nation, and began to study what he called their "Jewish legacy-the New Testament." The need for Jewish preachers of the gospel then, he sensed, would be momentous.

In 1958 he married, and that summer was ordained a deacon. Two years later he was ordained a priest. He served parishes near Moscow, but only as an assistant, because his ministry was so popular; the higher-ups didn't like that. Worship services, once attended only by elderly women, were overflowing with crowds drawn by his preaching. He baptized the songwriter Aleksandr Galich, the writer and cultural commentator Nadhezda Mandelstam (widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam), and the writer Andrei Sinyavsky.

The Ministry of Menn

Menn was the spiritual advisor to the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the physicist Andrei Sakharov, both of whom would be Nobel Prize winners. In nearly every photograph, Menn is smiling the broad, clear smile of one whose joy springs straight from the heart.

He read widely and his memory was encyclopedic. He wrote a six-volume history of religious and philosophical thought in Eastern and Western cultures before Christ. The series began with his life of Christ, drafted when he was fourteen, and ended with the teachings of Christ spreading throughout the world in Acts. That work, according to a biographer, Yves Hamant, exceeds 4,000 pages. In addition to a similar work, a seven-volume dictionary of biblical studies, Menn wrote books and essays, including one on worship and one on how to read the Bible-a necessity in tradition-fogged, officially atheist Russia.

The vibrancy of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels, Menn felt, had to reanimate the thousand-year-old Russian Orthodox Church. He was aware that the Russian church had compromised itself under the Soviet regime. His books, circulated secretly in typed manuscript, demolished the Soviet claim that atheism was a science, and advanced Christianity as the true intellectual Way. These writings, Michael Meerson says, breathed out the appealing person of Christ. They brought about revival in the Russian Orthodox Church; thousands of young people were converted through them. Menn's popularity angered not only government officials, but clerics in the church. They moved him from Moscow to the suburb of Novaya Derevnya.

Michael Meerson visited him at the house where Menn and his family lived for twenty years: "I found him working in his garden, watering plants. He was reading a book held in his left hand, reciting something to himself, while watering with his right hand. 'What are you reciting, Father?' I asked him. 'Dante's Divine Comedy,' he replied. 'I can't live without it. I know it almost by heart, and reread it several times a year to keep it in my memory.' Conversation with him was an intellectual feast: his language was picturesque, full of puns, literary allusions, and quotations from memory of poetry... and of Scriptures, which he knew brilliantly."

Menn in Danger

Members of the hierarchy in the Russian Orthodox Church now denounced Menn, not only within the church, but also to the press and to Soviet authorities. Those authorities, who had been shadowing Menn, finally moved in. For six years the KGB kept him under surveillance, and during 1985 and 1986 he underwent searches and seizures and further harassment, including meetings with KGB officials several times a week. They threatened him with deportation and prison, and tried to force him to sign a public denunciation of his ministry.

He refused. He was somehow able to negotiate his own terms, finally stating that in the past he hadn't always behaved with proper caution and had made mistakes-a rudimentary confession for any sinner redeemed by Christ.

When upheavals began in Russia in the late 1980s, Menn said to a group of young professionals, "People see perestroika as a kind of panacea. 'Here's the solution for everything!' But that's not the way it works. We are living with the consequences of a colossal historical pathology [communism]. Our church, our Russia, have been virtually destroyed, and the damage lives on, in people's souls, in the work ethic, in the family, and in the conscience."

As the restrictions on religion were lifted, Menn moved more freely. He broadened his ministry, visiting schools and speaking with students. He gave public lectures-often taking on twenty speaking engagements a month-besides Bible studies and prayer meetings and daily pastoral duties at his church. He appeared on radio and television. Asked how he kept up, he said, "I volunteer; God provides the time."

In the eyes of the Russian public, he was assuming the dimensions of Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov. But a darker shadow was dogging him now. Death threats arrived in the mail. They may have originated with the KGB, or a worse tyranny-one of the heart. Menn had been emphasizing an evangelical ecumenicity, and zealots in the Orthodox church started calling him a secret Catholic and crypto-Jew.

Those close to him believe an ultraconservative element of the KGB, or the church, or the two in concert, stirred up members of a nationalistic group called Pamyat against Menn. This Russian cult believes that the Jews are a curse, and it blames Russia's troubles through the centuries on the Jews. In some of Menn's later lectures, there were disruptions, and one night a group started shouting, "Get out, you Yid! Don't tell us about our Christian religion!"

In September 1990, Menn was invited to host a regular television show, broadcast from Moscow, on religion and culture. He was also asked to assume the position of rector of Moscow Christian University. Then threatening mail arrived: "Accept either position," it said, "and you die." Menn set the threats aside, or read them in public, trying to pass them off as nothing serious. But members of his church began accompanying him home from public appearances, and someone close to him suggested he should emigrate to the West.

"Why?" Menn asked. "If God hasn't turned away from me, I have to stay and serve him. And if he has turned away, where could I hide?"

Menn Struck Down

By 1993, Michael Meerson was able to gather enough facts to write this account of Menn's last day:

In the morning twilight, the village priest opened the door and headed for the train platform less than a half-mile away. It was Sunday, and Father Aleksandr Menn always caught the 6:50 a.m. elektrichka from his village near Zagorsk to his parish church in Novaia Derevnia, a small town outside Moscow. The priest kept walking along the asphalt path through the Semkhos Woods. Suddenly, from behind an oak, someone leapt out and swung an axe at Aleksandr Menn. An ax-the traditional Russian symbol of revolt, one of the symbols of the neo-fascist group "Pamiat." The blow hit Menn on the back of the skull. The wound was not very deep, but it severed major arteries. The killer, police sources said, grabbed the priest's briefcase and disappeared into the woods. Father Aleksandr, bleeding, stumbled toward his home, walking a full three hundred yards to his front gate at 3-A Parkovaia Street. Along the way, two women asked if he needed help. He said no, and they left. From her window, Natasha Menn saw a figure slumped near the gate and pressing the buzzer. She could not quite make out who it was in the half-light.

The night before Menn was struck from behind by an ax, he gave a lecture in Moscow, with this at its very heart:

Some ants build; some ants sow and later reap the crop; and some apes fight and have wars, although they are not as cruel as people are. But nothing in nature, except for man, ever tries to think of the meaning of life. Nothing climbs above its natural physical needs. No living creature, except for a man, is able to take a risk, and even the risk of death, for the sake of truth. Thousands of martyrs who have lived are a unique phenomenon in the history of all our solar system.

One pauses at that final sentence, which is filled with implications. The conventional way to put it would be "martyrs who have died," and perhaps that was Menn's first choice. But he had just used the word "death" and, as a biologist, was speaking in a larger sense of life on the earth; so, "martyrs who have lived." He understood the endlessness of every martyr's death; they live on in their present-day effects on other lives, but more clearly than most they live eternally in Christ.

After Menn's death, the highest officials in Russia, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, denounced the brutality of his murder and demanded justice. But to this day no one has been accused, and not one person has been arrested. Official police reports claim the motive for his murder was robbery.

What self-respecting thief, much less one willing to murder, would imagine that a priest carrying a briefcase to an early morning train on Sunday would be a likely prospect? No, what took place probably originated in the government itself; the hidden factions conferred and decided it was time. They knew about the symbolism for Russians of the icon and the ax: one was a mark of enduring religion, the other of brute force-which is why the ax was designated by Stalin to be used on Trotsky. They decided to smash Menn, the icon, with an ax.

It was probably actually a camper's hatchet, chosen to suit their plan of stealth. They had shadowed Menn enough to know he walked alone to the train on Sunday to get to his morning service. A central patch of the woods he passed through would be deserted then. One of them-no, two, for cowards must have company-would loiter on the asphalt path, acting as lookouts and bait-one for each arm, if Menn resisted. They would look confused, act lost, or perhaps hold a scrap of paper with a map scrawled on it.

Better yet, they would have a transcript of Menn's talk, distributed the night before, audaciously entitled simply "Christianity." They would approach him with concern, saying, "Father, is it true you really said this?""pointing to the words "martyrs who have lived."

That would be the cue for the man behind the oak, hidden in the spot where investigators later found underbrush trampled, to strike. But quiet, here he comes.

No one who leads a straightforward life suspects he'll be attacked from behind. Menn sees the pair ahead and notices their bedraggled state, their worn clothes, and slack-lipped look of shame-apparently two of the homeless alcoholics who were bedded down in the Semkhos Woods.

"Father?" one says, seeming so sorrowful he has trouble swallowing.

"Is it true?" the other asks, and seems unable to get his breath, his mouth hanging open. "Did you really say this?" He holds the printed pages up.

Menn sets his briefcase on the walk, draws his reading glasses from a pocket of his windbreaker, and slips them on. "Now, my friends, what?"

At the sound of his voice, the hidden one springs and strikes. Menn falls to the ground. In the silence, one assailant grabs his briefcase, snapping it open, and the assassin drops the hatchet inside. The other man snaps it closed-a sound like a pair of pistol shots in the still woods-and walks off while the other two turn in separate directions of their own, as prearranged.

In Menn, consciousness trembles to live. Like most who suffer a blow to the head, he has no memory of the moment before. He knows he was on his way to the train for morning services and somehow fell. He gets to his feet, off balance, feeling faint, and understands he should have-he can't draw the thought to completion. In the distance he hears the sound of his approaching train.

He starts for it, his legs novocaine numb, and feels he's pouring sweat. He puts a hand to his neck, and in the dim light it comes away black. Perceptions are reversed. Or he cut himself when he fell. In a swirl of blackness, he feels suspended across the distances of time and space he knows Jesus occupies, and then he remembers his briefcase.

He swings around, and when he comes to the place he started from, he would like to lie down. Two women are approaching. His wife, Natasha? No. But now his goal is to get back to her. He shoves his hand into his pocket and steadies his walk. "Are you hurt, Father? Do you need help?"

"No, fine."

He jolts above them like a tottering colossus, his numb legs spanning stars, and then his consciousness starts fraying along its edges like window screen being ripped. His heart hits his ribs so hard he has to admit he's dying. He squints out of the dim chink of consciousness that is still left. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus-the words match his gait, drawing him along a line he can't otherwise manage, and he repeats them. His house appears ahead-a light on, the gate.

He's there when he knows he won't see her. He forces himself to take a last step and dives, striking the palings of his garden fence-bars holding him from the garden where his Savior suffered. He's jolted awake by that last vestige of pride, what he said when the women offered him help: "No, fine." His body won't respond when he tries to move, but finally he forces one hand as far as the bell. Then the subatomic, the insubstantiality of the world gives way, its veil parting, and he passes through the palings and everything he has known into the everlasting light.

Natasha Menn saw a man slumped against the garden gate and phoned for an ambulance, assuming she was ministering to a drunk. When the man didn't move, she felt drawn to him, and cautiously opened the door. "Don't tell me," she said to the crowd gathering, meaning she knew it was her husband.

At Menn's burial, in the churchyard of the parish he served for twenty-two years, a peasantlike crowd gathered with the intellectuals. Gleb Yakunin, putting himself at considerable risk, delivered Menn's eulogy.

After the burial, a reporter for the New York Times found a woman praying at Menn's grave. She was in her eighties, a member of Serafim Batukov's underground church, and had known Menn since he was baptized. "The final path of this holy man was marked with his own blood!" she cried. And then she added, "I remember when he was a boy-his mother showed me that he had written 'Defeat evil with good.' That is exactly how he turned out."

Mr. Woiwode is an elder at Bethel OPC in Carson, N.D. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 1998.

New Horizons: February 1998

Christian Martyrs

Also in this issue

To Give Your Life for Christ

Persecution Around the World

Intolerance? Or Honest Conviction?

Lessons from Genevan Presbyterianism

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