Friday, 9 September 2016

Alexander Men - new biography

A new biography of a remarkable man, murdered 26 years ago today.

Today is the 26th anniversary of the murder of Fr Alexander Men.

I first heard of Alexander Men, the subject of this new biography,  Russia’s Uncommon Prophet:  Father Aleksandr Men and His Times (Northern Illinois University Press, DeKalb, 2016)  by Professor Wallace Daniel, in Moscow in 1965. My boyfriend at the time was  Latvian film director Leo Linder. He was making a film 'About Love'.  He told me that he had been filming an interview with a priest in Pushkino, a village not far from Moscw..  That priest was Fr Alexander.

Canon Michael Bourdeaux reviewed the book in The Times (Credo ‘Russian Orthodox Church listens to its modern martyr’ Aug 27 2016). Michael Bourdeaux is the founder, now President, of Keston Institute (Keston College) for the Study of Religion in Communist Lands.  He was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize for his work in 1984.  It is therefore sad that, to the best of my knowledge,  no representative of Keston's permanently-staffed office in Moscow at the time ever met Fr Alexander, who was freely available for many years at his parish a short distance from Moscow, or in Moscow itself where he was frequently to be found lecturing in the last two years of his life.  So far as I know, the only representative of Western Christianity ever to visit Fr Alexander was the then Cardinal of Paris,  Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger who was also, as it happens, like Fr Alexander, Jewish by ethnicity, converted to Christianity in the camps during WWII.

My daughters and I were luckier.  Through Katya Genieva and Yura Belenky her hosts in Moscow,  where she was undertaking her language practice for a degree in Russian, my elder daughter Abi came to know Fr Alexander and was baptised by him on Easter Day 1990.  This is not mentioned by Professor Wallace in his book.

Some weeks before he baptised Abi, Fr Alexander invited us to his parish office next to his church at Novaya Derevnya to discuss Abi’s baptismal name.  We had seen the coffin of a recently-departed parishioner in the church, open, as is the custom in the Orthodox church, awaiting burial.  Her name was Agafiya so Abi suggested that she might be a replacement.  Father Alexander, a fan of the English detective novel smiled and said 'Then you would by Agafiya (Agatha) Christi (Christie)’.  Later that summer, he asked to be remembered to ‘Agafiya Christi’ in a postcard sent from Italy where he was on holiday and visiting his daughter.

Meeting Fr Alexander was a turning point in my life.  After his death I was commissioned by the late John Bowden MD of SCM Books to make a collection of excerpts from his representative writings and talks, with a biography.  This was published in 1996, co-edited with Ann Shukman, under the title ‘Christianity for the Twenty-First Century: The Life and Work of Alexander Men’.
The review by Michael Bourdeaux stirred up much emotion.

I have to admit to being knocked sideways by the news of Alexander Men’s murder.  I was immediately aware that it placed a responsibility on my shoulders.  I was not best pleased, in fact I was quite resentful.  In the space of seconds, my life looked very different  Why me?

He was murdered on a Sunday morning.  Because of the various limitations on communication in those days, the earliest that our friend and Fr Alexander's parishioner and friend, Katya Genieva, could get a message to us was on the Monday morning.  Although she was a senior member of the  staff of the State Library for Foreign Literature (VGBIL), she had no access to a fax machine so she ran round to Georgy Andzhparidze’s office at Raduga, the prestigious Soviet publishing house of which he was then the charismatic director, and sent us the fax from there.  The fax arrived at breakfast time to our house in London.  Abi and I were on our own.  We sat on the stairs, stunned.  We had been expecting Fr Alexander in London the following week.  The BBC rang me up and I did a broadcast as best I could.  No-one else in the UK had met him, except me and Abi and my younger daughter Elly who came with me to Novaya Derevnya to agree on a baptismal name for Abi with Fr Alexander.

When I am asked what I made of him, as I was by Russian TV last September when I was in Novaya Derevnya for the events marking the 25th anniversary of his death, I say simply that meeting him gave me an idea of what it must have been like to meet Christ.  If that sounds extravagant, so be it.

We had taken a supply of disposable needles for the children’s hospital where Fr Alexander had been given permission to minister.  These were sent by my lawyer in Los Angeles (at the time I was president of Cooper Estates Inc, a subsidiary of our family company developing shopping malls in Los Angeles).  Bob was gay, and had HIV, so had access to a limitless supply of needles. 

Later, I visited with Yura (Katya’s husband) the chapel that Fr Alexander had lobbied to be established at the hospital.  I had an extraordinary experience.  Tears literally poured out, no stiff upper lip or holding back, like turning on a tap. 

Not long after, I was in Moscow with that year’s UK Book Trust exhibition which happened to include one of my books.  Katya had billeted me at the Patriarch’s hotel, built for the millennium of Christianity in Russia.  One morning I happened to share a table with John Bowden, then MD of SCM Press (and  translator of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer letters from prison).  I mentioned Fr Alexander in the course of conversation.  He was in Moscow to advise the Patriarchate on publishing.  He said that I was the third person to mention Fr Alexander during his visit, and we agreed to meet at my house in London when we both got back so that I could show him all the materials I had been given for safe-keeping – books and tapes and videos etc.  There was a well-founded fear that the KGB would try to eliminate all trace of him and his work.

When he saw everything laid out on our dining table, and had discussed it, he asked me to collect materials to show the range of his writings and broadcasts,  and a biography for a book .

Getting the materials chosen was quite a task in those days.  His followers were in hiding, in fear for their lives.  I traced one down to a monastery near Tchaikovsky’s estate in deep snow – shortly after, he fled to Germany where he lives now as a monk.

Georgy Andzhaparidze died falliing off the stage at the cinema premiere of John le Carre’s the Russia House.

Fr Alexander’s followers and I believe that the murder was a professional job carried out by special forces with a sapper’s spade.  The injury Fr Alexander suffered was identical to those incurred by the victims in the square in Tbilisi some months before.

I helped an American film documentary team make a film about Fr Alexander;  I was also commissioned with theatre director Mark Rozovsky  by Donald Smith at the Scottish Story-Telling Centre to devise a play about Fr Alexander which was performed in Russia, including at Mark’s theatre ‘At the Nikitsky Gates’ in Moscow before touring and could now be performed in the UK,  The play was based, at the brilliant suggestion of Chad Coussmaker, chaplain to our Embassy at the time of the murder, on a group of Russian actors rehearsing T S Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’.  Eliot’s widow Valerie forbad any adaptation of her late husband’s work right up to a few months before her death, when she sent a message to me via Mark le Fanu then Secretary of the Society of Authors who manage the Eliot Estate, to say she had lifted her ukaz.

After the premier in Moscow I was taken very ill with a mysterious illness.  I think I was poisoned, not with intent to kill but a warning shot across my bows

I have not given up hope of the play being staged in this country.

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