Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Father Aleksandr Men and the Struggle to Recover Russia's Heritage

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Father Aleksandr Men and the Struggle to Recover Russia's Heritage

Article excerpt

Abstract: Aleksandr Men represents a significant line of thought within Russia's religious and cultural tradition. In contrast to the ultranationalists who emerged at the end of the Soviet Union, Men advocated openness, tolerance, and humility, interpreting these values and perspectives as central to the Russian Orthodox Church. He saw the long-standing schism between the church and society as one of the church's primary difficulties and looked for ways to heal it. In his view, reconciliation required reacquainting Russians with the foundations of Christian culture in Russia--the older voices that expressed compassion and spoke against violence in all its forms. These foundations, he believed, had been distorted not only by the ruling elite but also by church officials. The recovery of such foundations required imagination and a willingness to see the past anew, which Men viewed as part of the church's mission. His legacy offers a challenge to the autocratic, centralizing trends so prominent in Russia in both the past and the present.

Keywords: church fathers, distortion of spiritual mission, diversity of religious beliefs, freedom, ideals of Russian culture, imagination, openness, Orthodox Church, tradition and creativity

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The Centre of Religious Literature and Russian Publications Abroad in the M.I. Rudomino All-Russian State Library for Foreign Literature in Moscow presents a sharp contrast to the aggressive, inward-looking, and nationalistic groups that view the Orthodox Church as a key part of Russia's national recovery. Consecrated by Patriarch Aleksi II, the center includes a room honoring Father Aleksandr Men, one of Russia's leading priests and pastors, whose murder in September 1990 marked a turning point in Russian history. Men's death, unresolved to the present day, reminded his followers of the violence often inflicted on Russia's greatest prophetic minds. Yet the murder also stiffened the resolve of those who venerated Men's accomplishments and his teachings. The room in Men's honor communicates his persistent efforts to learn from other religions. The books and key texts of those other faiths, the green plants that bring the natural world inside, and the skilled and dedicated library staff (who seem to consider their service here an honored task) suggest Men's openness to the world. (1) The large number of students, scholars, and foreign visitors who come to this place to do research experience a part of Russia that reaches beyond the nation's boundaries to other cultures and religious traditions.

The Library for Foreign Literature was founded in 1921 by Margarita Ivanovna Rudomino, a twenty-year-old woman who preserved a collection of French, German, and English books, brought from her late mother's estate in Saratov, in a run-down apartment in the Arbat district of Moscow. Writer Kornei Chukovsky recalls that this modest library existed in "a small, cold, and dark room crammed full of books. The books were frozen stiff. An emaciated, shivering girl whose fingers were swollen with the cold watched over them." (2) During a time when Russia became increasingly isolated in the international community, Rudomino believed that it must not lose its cultural connections: its capacity to hear the humanitarian voices that reach beyond politics. (3)

Openness to foreign voices, however, led to constant tension with the Soviet state, which is reflected in the location of the library. "We are something of an anomaly," said Yekaterina Genieva, the library's distinguished director-general. In most countries, "foreign literature is integrated in other library collections. In the Soviet Union, it was set apart, housed in a different place." (4) However, that separateness makes the library special. The library's unique role is evident everywhere: in the marble busts in the courtyard, the art exhibits on the walls of nearly every floor, the colorful displays of children's literature, the audio facilities of the BBC, and the American reading room. …

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