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14 October 2014
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Fr. Alexander Men: Russian Orthodox priest of fearless faith

Holy Trinity Monastery, Sergiev Posad, a square white building with Russian-style blue and gold domes topped with Christian crosses

Holy Trinity Monastery, Sergiev Posad (formerly Zagorsk)
It was in an ordinary-looking wooden building just outside this monastery that a young man called Alik Men was secretly taught and baptised by Mother Mariya, abbess of a covert community of nuns. This was the Communist era, when religion was banned or heavily restricted in the Soviet Union - and the monastery itself was closed.

Alexander (or Aleksandr) Men, later Fr Alexander, devoted his life to reforming the Russian Orthodox Church from within and reaching out to a younger generation deprived of Christian teaching.
The information in this gallery is provided by Canon Michael Bourdeaux.

Memorial to Father Alexander: a small wooden pillar set in the middle of a paved path, surrounded by snow.  The display has a tiny roof to protect an image of Jesus and a plaque bearing Alexander's name from the elements. A lighted lantern is hanging underneath the plaque

Memorial to Father Alexander at the site of his death
In September 1990 Father Alexander Men was murdered. As with so many other murders in the Soviet Union at the time, no proper investigation ever took place.

Why was this warm, charismatic man struck down at 56? What was it in his extraordinary career that led him to acquire both loyal followers and deadly enemies?

Father Alexander Men, middle-aged, in the outfit of a Russian Orthodox priest

Father Alexander in vestment
Alexander Men was the son of Jewish converts and was brought up a Christian. The Communist Party had strict control over entry to the Moscow Theological Seminary - so, though he was devoted to his church, the priesthood seemed closed to Alexander.

A chance for ordination eventually arose, but in the meantime, Alexander's love of the countryside led him to join a forestry institute, in Moscow and later Irkutsk in Siberia. "I find more meaning in the wing of a bird and in the branch of a tree, than in five hundred icons. God has given us two books: the Bible and Creation," he wrote.
Photo courtesy Maria Grigorenko

Natalya Men, Fr Alexander's widow, with Canon Michael Bourdeaux in Father Alexander's book-lined study

Natalya Men in Father Alexander's study
Father Alexander's widow, Natalya Men, with Canon Michael Bourdeaux in Father Alexander's study at Semkhoz, a village in the outer suburbs of Moscow.

Natalya says that Fr Alexander used to scour the second-hand bookshops in the 1950s, a time of semi-relaxation in the atheist campaign. Many were keen to get rid of banned books that could have landed them in trouble, so Alexander occasionally found valuable titles concealed under the counter. He drank in their contents and the sum of his knowledge, in the circumstances, verged on the miraculous.

Father Alexander Borisov, a white-haired churchman, in his home with a photograph of Alexander Men visible on the wall behind him

Father Alexander Borisov
Father Alexander Borisov was a great friend of Father Alexander Men and is now parish priest of the church of St Cosmas and Damian in the centre of Moscow.

Father Alexander's church, a tiny, square wooden building with neat steep-angled roofs and small blue domes and a painted icon of the Virgin and Child next to the door

Father Alexander's church at Novaya Derevnya
Before Gorbachev permitted de facto religious liberty in the late 1980s, Fr Alexander taught a growing group of young people who came out by train to visit him. They constantly demanded his time, his energy, his books, but he never refused their requests or turned them away either from his church or his home.

In Soviet times his disciples sent his manuscripts to Brussels, where the organisation La Vie avec Dieu printed them anonymously, gradually infiltrating them back into Russia, where they had an immense influence. Fr Alexander was often interrogated and forced to switch parishes in attempts to reduce his influence.

Father Alexander Men, middle-aged, in the outfit of a Russian Orthodox priest and speaking passionately into a microphone

Father Alexander speaking
During Gorbachev's perestroika reforms, Fr Alexander became almost overnight the public authority on the Christian faith. The demands on him were on the edge of what a human being could bear. He was constantly on the radio and TV.

Most significantly, perhaps, he breached a physical barrier, becoming a frequent lecturer on official Soviet premises. As well as serving in his parish, during the last year of his life he gave over two hundred lectures.
Photo courtesy Maria Grigorenko

Woodland path by the side of a suburban Russian house

Site of the assassination
The woodland path, close to Father Alexander's home in Semkhoz in the outer suburbs of Moscow, where he was murdered early on the morning of 9 September 1990. He was on his way to Novaya Derevnya when a blow from behind struck him down.

The police hinted that the culprit was a fanatical Jew; another rumour claimed it was a fanatical Christian. There is no shred of evidence for either. As Michael Bourdeaux writes, it seems more likely to have been an act of revenge by a fanatic from the Communist Party. After all, the victim had helped put Christianity back centre stage following over seventy years of anti-religious activity by the state.

Father Alexander's grave in Novaya Derevnya churchyard, a neat, well-kept stone monument shaped like a Christian cross, with flowers laid on it

Father Alexander's grave in Novaya Derevnya
Fr Alexander delivered his last lecture the night before he died. Some of those present felt this was his valediction, as he spoke of Christ's sacrifice.

"Through his love for humanity he stayed with us on this dirty, bloodstained and sinful earth, just to be beside us."

Maria Grigorenko, Michael Bordeaux and Victor Grigorenko in the Father Alexander museum, standing among glass cases in front of a huge photograph of Alexander in full Orthodox vestment

Fr Victor Grigorenko in the Alexander Men museum
Father Victor Grigorenko is the Orthodox priest who now looks after the two churches at Semkhoz built to commemorate Fr Alexander's life and ministry. He is pictured here with his daughter Maria and Canon Michael Bourdeaux in the newly opened museum at Semkhoz attached to the churches.

Michael adds: "As one stands by Fr Alexander's grave, visits the new churches built in his memory or talks to the priests of great spirituality who officiate in them, there comes an overwhelming feeling that Fr Alexander Men's legacy is even more powerful than the message he proclaimed during his lifetime."

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