Wednesday, 6 July 2011

How a book was made

A digital, updated version of the book I co-edited with Ann Shukman in 1996, Christianity for the Twenty-First Century. - the Life and Work of Alexander Men is about to be made downloadable as an ebook/Amazon Kindle. For this second edition, I have written a short account of how the book came to be made.
Here's is how it happened:

In 1990, the Director of the All-Union International Library for Foreign Literature in Moscow, VGBIL,- an immensely powerful institution at the forefront of the drive for liberalisation in what was then the USSR -, Mrs Ekaterina (Katya) Genieva, introduced my daughter Abi to Fr Alexander Men, who was Katya’s close friend, colleague and parish priest at Novaya Derevnya where she had a weekend dacha. By this time, Fr Alexander had a weekly prime time TV programme addressing general historical, cultural and philosophical as well as religious questions, and was giving lectures on a wide variety of topics every day of the week at halls and auditoriums in Moscow and other big Russian cities. He had been allowed to visit Rome where he met Pope John Paul II and was due to go later in the year to Germany with General Secretary Gorbachev as part of a select top level retinue. Abi was living with Katya and her family while she studied voice at the Conservatoire as part of the language practice requirement of her degree course in Russian at Swansea University. Katya had become a friend of our family over the 10 years that I worked alongside my husband John Roberts, being both a Russianist and a long-standing (since 1962) member of the Great Britain-USSR Association of which he was Director.

At Easter 1990, Abi decided to be baptised by Fr Alexander, so I went out with my daughter Elly to meet him and discuss details such as her baptismal name. News of his death came by fax to our house on the morning of Sept 10, the day after he was attacked with an instrument now believed to have been a sappers spade as used by the Soviet special forces, on his way to take morning service . Abi was devastated and I was also deeply shocked. We had been expecting him in London the following week where he was due to speak at a conference at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. I was invited to give an instant assessment of the scale of Russia and the world’s loss on the BBCR4 Sunday programme that weekend. One of my oldest friends, Robert Dudley, who was then a publisher of Christian books, offered to publish a cycle of Fr Alexander’s Easter sermons Awake to Life to which his parish priest Richard Harries (later Bishop of Oxford, now Lord Harries of Pentregarth) wrote an introduction; later, Robert came out to Moscow for the ‘presentation’ of the book, and met Katya.

A couple of years later, I was in Moscow, again on literary business, staying at the Patriarch’s hotel, built originally to accommodate the dignitaries who had come to Moscow in 1988 to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the Christianisation of Russia. I came down to breakfast one morning and sat at the communal table with John Bowden, director of SCM Press and translator and publisher of the Bonhoeffer letters. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned Fr Alexander Men.

He said: ’You are the third person to have mentioned that man’s name to me on this visit (he was in Moscow at the invitation of the Patriarch, to advise on publishing). When we are both back in London, we must meet to discuss doing a book’ .

When Bowden came to see me, I had laid out on the dining table all the materials I had. Then and there, we decided what form the book should take:- a series of characteristic excerpts of his work, to be chosen by someone close to him whose judgement was considered sound by others in his immediate circle, with a biographical introduction giving the reader an idea of his life and character.

Having signed the contract with SCM, I went back to Russia to start the process of collecting sample writings, sermons and excerpts from his books. His followers were largely still in shock or in hiding, fearing that the same fate might befall them. Communications both within Russia and to and from the outside world to Russia at that time were extremely difficult: telephones were rationed and bugged, photocopiers, where they existed, were kept in locked cupboards to which only authorised persons, party trusties, had a key. Mobile phones, of course, did not exist. As an example of the kind of precautionary steps that were thought necessary: following Alexander Men’s death on Sept 9, I went out to Russia in October 1990 to attend the traditional ‘40th day’ services, which included a ritual meal at Novaya Derevnya, attended by a crowd of clerics including the Metropolitan and Gleb Yakunin plus only three women: Fr Alexander’s widow Natalya Federovna; Katya Genieva and myself. Before I left, I was asked to take back to England a suitcase full of tapes, videos, photographs and other materials because it was feared that the KGB would try to destroy them all. The man nominated to select the material for the SCM book was Fr Ignatiy Krekshin, then one of two monks who were sent to occupy a monastery near the Tchaikovsky estate at Klin 60 miles northwest of Moscow. I went there in the depths of winter, with a car and driver provided by Katya, as discretely as possible, in deep snow. Fr Ignatiy gave me a sheaf of papers typewritten and photocopied to be smuggled back to London to be translated.

For most of 1992, John was in the process of retiring & in 1993 – the year of his actual retirement - I was teaching at the university of Yaroslavl. In 1994, we moved out of London into the house at Crookedstane Rig we had built in my forestry plantation, later to become my home, in the southern uplands of Scotland. For the book, I had gathered together a team of volunteers to attempt translations of the texts and they were of a pretty mixed quality. Due to the other pressures on my time and my own limitations as a translator/editor, the time came when I turned for help to Ann Shukman, who took over the business of producing a professional translation and writing a well-researched biographical note placing Fr Alexander in his time. Others – Richard Harries and Cardinal Lustiger who had met Fr Alexander briefly en route to meet the Patriarch -, and Abi also provided material. The book launch in 1996 was held in Oxford and attended by Rowan Williams then Bishop of St David’s in Wales.

An international conference revisiting these events, and debating what lessons can be learned for the conduct of successful ministry in a largely secular culture is planned for Moffat in Sept 2012.

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