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Not all good is visible
A post dedicated to the memory of Father Aleksandr Men
On Saturday 14th April, exactly thirty-three years ago, I was baptised by a Russian Orthodox priest in a church just outside Moscow.
That sentence is a real ice breaker on a first date, I can tell you.
I was doing my degree in Russian, Italian and Music at Swansea University, and as part of my time abroad I gained a place to study singing at the Moscow Conservatory. I was taught by Bella Andreyevna Rudenko, prima donna with the Bolshoi. Originally from Kiev, or as the BBC now say, Keeeev, she had a high squeaky voice, and was built like a Soviet tank. Bella was a party member from her strawberry blonde bouffant, to the tips of her frosted, fuchsia nails.
I spent the first month singing just three notes. ‘Abichka, she’d trill in her strong Ukrainian accent: ‘to be a great singer, you must have a strong foundation.’
It was quite a shock going from dancing to Groove is in the Heart clutching a plastic pint glass of snakebite & black in Cinderellas, to Bella’s strict, three note regime. Put it this way, if I had been doing a degree in flattening grass and partying, I definitely would have got a First.
I lived with a wonderful family in a tiny flat in a suburb southwest of Moscow called Belyayevo. There were six of us: Katya, Yura, Dasha, Galina Pavlovna (the eighty-seven year old babushka), and an Airedale Terrier called Mordash. There were serious food shortages at that time, and the cold winter froze my bones, but I can honestly say that it was one of the very happiest times of my life.
The family priest was a man called Father Aleksandr Men*
I first saw him give a talk in a big hall in Moscow about, among other things, Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene. He was given written questions from the audience by a young intermediary.
As my time in Moscow went on, I learnt more about him. Father Men was born in Moscow to a Jewish family on 22 January 1935. He was baptised at six months along with his mother in the banned Catacomb Church, a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church that refused to cooperate with the Soviet authorities.
He had become a leader with considerable influence and a good reputation among Christians both locally and abroad, among Roman Catholics and Protestants, as well as Orthodox. He had a unique combination of broad erudition, openness to secular culture, science, to other confessions, to non-Christian religions, and deep Christian roots from the Catacomb Church propelled him into the ranks of leading Christian preachers.
When Father Aleksandr was 6 years old, the NKVD arrested his father, Volf Gersh-Leybovich (Vladimir Grigoryevich) Men. Volf spent more than a year under guard and was then assigned to labour in the Ural Mountains.
His son also fell foul of the Soviet authorities, and he was continuously harassed by the KGB for his active missionary and evangelistic work.
I warmed to Father Aleksandr immediately.
I should say at this point in the story that I was a staunch atheist from the moment I could form ideas. I used to sit next to learned theologians at my parent’s dinner parties, and insist that God didn’t exist and give my well thought out reasoning. I was like someone who says they’re allergic to parsley, and then proceeds to talk about parsley for hours.
Katya and Yura gave me their room. It had lots of beautiful icons in the corner, and I remember writing in my diary**:‘Perhaps not all good is visible. I could feel something shifting in me, like water.’
One morning towards the end of March, I woke up, stepped on Mordash who used to lie by my bed like a giant rug, came into the tiny kitchen in Belyayevo and announced that I wanted to be baptised by Father Aleksandr.
Everyone was delighted. We all hugged each other, drank tea, and danced joyously, big paws a loft.
Katya took me to meet Father Aleksandr in his parish office at Novaya Derevnya. We talked about my decision, and he explained what would happen at the ceremony. I believe I was the first British person to be baptised by him.
Meanwhile, I travelled to the Conservatory every day for my singing lessons. I took the underground, then jostled for a place on the number 87 bus. I was on my own, but I never once felt unsafe. The two old ladies in the cloakroom at the Conservatory had named me Anglichanka, which means English girl.
As well as Rachmaninov, Scarlatti and Bach, the soundtrack to my time in Moscow consisted of Peter Gabriel, Chicago and Elton John. They were the only cassettes I managed to get in with me. As I write this, I’m listening to Don’t Give Up, the Peter Gabriel duet with Kate Bush from his album So.
I have to confess I did frequently strut my stuff down Bolshaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa listening to Kiss The Bride on my canary-yellow Sony Walkman.
SATURDAY 14TH APRIL 1990
On the day of my baptism, I wore my favourite white shirt, navy blue and white polka dot skirt from Hobbs, big pearl and gold clip-on earrings, with my hair tied back. When I wore this outfit, my Russian family used to call me Princess Anne. My chosen baptismal name was to be Agafiya because one day I’d seen a dead lady laid out at the back of a church in her coffin, covered in flowers. Her name was Agafiya. It made me think of Agatha Christie.
Just before I was baptised, I changed my mind, and decided I would be named Aleksandra.
The church at Novaya Derevnya was full of people milling about, mixing with the heady incense, and the young men being baptised were stripped to the waist. I was nervous, but after my turn circling the font, I found myself standing in front of Father Aleksandr, and my nerves subsided like water. His gentle brown eyes smiled above his magnificent beard as he said: ‘Today, I am very happy for you, little Aleksandra.’
I was home.
EASTER SUNDAY 15TH APRIL 1990
I remember it was a beautiful, warm day, and the doors to the packed church were wide open, so that hundreds of people outside could be part of the service.
Father Aleksandr had asked me to sing with the ladies in the church choir, which consisted of three babushki with one tooth between them. I didn’t know the music, but somehow I was carried along by the unearthly sound of the voices around me, who sang the exquisite close harmonies with all their might:
Xristos voskrese iz myertvikh, smertiyu smert poprav.
Christ is risen from the dead, he has trampled death by death.
Although I did not know it then, it would be the most transformational moment of my life.
On Sunday September 9th, my mother came into my room in London with a telegram. She was holding tears back.
Father Aleksandr is dead. Stop.
He had been murdered walking along the wooded path in Semkhoz, on his way to catch the train to celebrate the Divine Liturgy at his church. The killer had bludgeoned him to death, using an axe-like sapper’s spade. He had crawled back to his house so badly beaten, and covered in blood, that his own wife did not recognise him, as he lay dying at his own front gate. He was rushed to hospital, but it was too late.
My world went very, very dark. It felt like a gnarled claw had reached into my soul, and trampled the tiny buds of belief that were growing there.
Even now, it shakes me to my core.
Despite orders from within the Soviet, and later the Russian government, that the case be further investigated, the murder remains unsolved.
Since his death, Father Aleksandr’s works and ideas have been seen as controversial among the conservative, historically state-affiliated faction of the Russian Orthodox Church, citing his strong tendencies towards ecumenism, which his books advocate. Nonetheless, he has a considerable number of supporters, some of whom call for his canonisation. Several key Russian Orthodox parishes encourage following his example as one who faithfully followed Christ. Two Russian Orthodox churches have been built on the site of his assassination, and a growing number of believers in both Russia and abroad consider him a martyr.
I firmly believe that he was killed because his ecumenical, Christ-like teaching was a threat to the state.
One personal story about Father Aleksandr’s practical humanity has stayed with me. In 1990, Bob Hayhurst, our much-loved American friend, was dying of AIDS. One of the significant problems in Moscow at that time was rampant intravenous drug use, so Father Aleksandr arranged with Bob, my mum, and Katya for boxes of clean needles to be sent from the US to his church.
I am more grateful than ever that I met Father Aleksandr, because I believe we are now in the spiritual battle of our lives, and it is our damn duty to fight the good fight.
In March 2020, a darkness started to move rapidly across the earth far worse than any so-called virus. From out of the shadows emerged a familiar gnarled claw that took delight in beckoning humanity to abandon everything we know to be good, beautiful and true.
We’re way beyond petitions and ‘writing to your MP’, which is like asking Beria, Stalin’s Chief of Police, to sit down over a glass of chilled vodka, and some blinis, and chat about why he helped orchestrate the murder of millions of Russians.
Over the last few years the Church, whether it be Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican, locked its doors, and turned its back on its flock at a time of their greatest need. When the Church aligned itself with the Stalinist Covid tyranny, it turned its back on Christ himself.
There are exceptions which must be noted. One such exception is Artur Pawlowski, a pastor of polish descent who garnered media attention when he kicked health officials and law enforcement officers out of his church in Calgary on Easter Saturday. The church had been reported to the police for disobeying Covid-19 rules. When the police barged in to enforce mask mandates, Pawlowski called them ‘Nazi psychopaths’ and ‘sick, evil people.’ Then in May, he was arrested by the Calgary Police Service for holding indoor services, which the agency described as an ‘illegal in-person gathering’. He was even forced to pay thousands of dollars in fines.
In the stampede for justice, we must never forget these fearless, principled men.
Despite being Russian Orthodox by baptism, I don’t associate my faith with a building, or material objects. It is within. If that faith pulls me towards a church, as it often does, then I willingly go inside, and pray for us to seek that good which is not visible.
I pray especially hard for the Substack family.
The night before he died, Father Aleksandr had been giving a talk to a gathering of 600 people about the absurdity of the idea that the world has no meaning. He said that by saying it has no meaning ‘one must recognise and judge it by meaning’. He encouraged several notable figures to return to the church. One of them was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
In January 2020, as my mum was taking her final earthly breaths, my sister held up a little picture of Father Aleksandr, and told her he’d be waiting.
Even in death, and after death, there is meaning.
Dearest Father Aleksandr, I thank you with all my heart for blessing a flailing 20 year old girl who was looking for meaning, and who, thirty-three years later, has found it.
The wooded path at Semkhoz that Father Aleksandr took on Sept 9th 1990 (photo by Jenny Gough Cooper)
**Dear reader, my diary was destroyed in a storage unit fire at the end of 2020. Along with all my late husband’s books and records. Fortunately, I have all the precious memories saved in my brain, my heart, and other places I jotted down my experiences.