November 26, 2011
"If love abides, then hope remains that we will survive…" ‒ An Interview with Architect A.N. Neiman

Over the course of his life, Russian artist and architect Aleksei Naumovich Neiman has designed more than one Orthodox church, and today his churches in Russia and Belarus are a spiritual home to hundreds of worshipers. Once retired, Aleksei Naumovich decided to dedicate the remainder of his life to designing Russian Orthodox churches and monasteries free of cost. Eastern American Diocesan Media Office correspondent Reader Peter Lukianov met for an interview with Mr. Neiman in Holy Cross Monastery in the hills of West Virginia, where the architect is planning to design West Virginia’s first Russian Orthodox cathedral and monastery complex. The interview with Aleksei Naumovich is available to our readers below.


Reader Peter: Over the course of two days, I was able to spend a lot of time with Aleksei Naumovich during our long trip to West Virginia and while observing the initial stages of planning at Holy Cross Monastery. He struck me as a very simple and pious man who was reluctant to give an interview, because he felt that he did not deserve credit for his small role in the process of developing a master architectural plan for the monastery. In the early hours of the evening, I came to the monastery library, where I found Aleksei Naumovich sitting in the corner, reading a book with one of the monastery cats nestled comfortably at his feet. He was overjoyed to see me, not because of the interview, but because he desperately wanted to share what he was reading with me. He called me over and said, "I randomly picked a book off the shelf about the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov, and have been moved by his truly inspirational words. May I share them with you?" He began reading the following exert from St. Seraphim: "A sorrowful monk cannot move his mind toward contemplation and can never perform pure prayer. He who has conquered passions has also defeated sorrow. But one overcome by passions will not avoid the shackles of sorrow. As an ill person can be identified by the color of his face, so is one overcome by passions distinguished by sorrow." He then paused and emphasized the following words of St. Seraphim: "It is impossible for one who loves the world not to feel sorrow. But he who despises the world is always cheerful." He closed the book, smiled at me, and said, "Are these words of our holy Batushka Seraphim not amazing?"

I was taken back for a moment by the simplicity and sincerity of this man, who traveled half way around the world from Moscow to West Virginia, and all he wanted to do was finish our interview so that we could get back to discussing St. Seraphim. I hope that our readers will enjoy reading the responses of Aleksei Naumovich as much as I enjoyed speaking to him in person.

Aleksei Naumovich, tell us about yourself. Where are you from? How did you come to be in West Virginia?

This is a long tale, perhaps even a novel. My name is Aleksei Naumovich Neiman. I was baptized at an advanced age at the insistence of my dearly departed wife. I was without work, having had trouble getting a job, and spent my time painting. It so happened that one church asked for my assistance in drawing up building plans, to which I replied that I had no experience with any kind of construction projects. But the friend that initially approached me told me, "If you don’t undertake this project now, they will do it without you anyway. And can you vouch for the quality of their work?" So I helped out a little, and it went forward from there bit by bit… And since then I have accumulated a couple decades’ worth of on-site experience with planning and designing church buildings and other structures related to Church life. Many of them have since been built, and I reside in one of them now. As far as America goes, it seemed to me at the end of the nineties that leaving my ten-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter in Russia was just dangerous, and I, with God’s help, moved to America, which, as it turns out, was much more interesting for the children than it was for me.

Why less so for you?

You see, I was already sixty years old, and that’s not an age that lends itself to great changes in lifestyle. Although, I never had anything against such changes, and don’t have anything against them now, I rather like it. And I simply loved America. What a remarkable, amazing country! And, in general, I owe it a great deal, even my own life, since I had a serious operation here… but the way I work, the way of life I would like to have, is unlikely to take shape here.

And what way of life is that?

One in which you are always "in demand." You see, this is very important… Again, though, one mustn’t forget to credit the uniqueness of this unusual situation; here, too, "demand" begins to pop up.

I certainly never thought that someone would need me to design an Orthodox church here in America – the thought never entered my mind. As it turns out, they not only need it, but cannot do without it. Amazing!

It all began with a phone call to an old acquaintance of mine from Moscow, who publishes the church journal "Rodnik" in New York. He introduced me to Fr. Vadim Arefiev, who recommended me for a job designing the St. Elizabeth the New Martyr Convent in Jordanville. Later, having introduced me to the Orthodox Business Association, Fr. Vadim recommended that I travel to Holy Cross Monastery.

What are your impressions of Holy Cross Monastery?

The very existence of this monastery is absolutely inconceivable. I have been in many monasteries in Russia, and have seen much. But I have never seen such palpable love make itself manifest. This surprising abundance of love shocked me. Every Russian citizen will understand me when I refer to approaching such an unfamiliar, incomprehensible manifestation with apprehension, although later you are even a little embarrassed at your initial attitude. Here everything is so astoundingly favorable that you begin to rethink your original assumptions.

Did you get the impression that the spirit of Russian monasticism can be felt at this monastery?

You know, it is not mine to judge the spirit of monasticism. I am far too secular a person to make that sort of assessment. Although the national alignment of these things is always very conditional, it seems to me that this is neither Russian, nor American, but real – truly Orthodox. Just as the elders, just as the departed Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, these monks speak Orthodoxy, and this can be felt immediately. As far as modern-day Russian monasticism is concerned, I can say nothing, because every so often, not in my own experience, but solely from printed sources, one comes across very strange and sorrowful developments in today’s Russia. Russia is in a complicated place. The only path, I think, is to read the Gospel; there everything is written. The most important thing is love that unites people. Here there is no America, no Russia – no borders. If love abides, then hope remains that we will survive, that we will never falter. If we will be self-seeking and only look out for ourselves, then everything will end in sorrow. But here, in this holy monastery, everything is very simple, clean, and holy. You can express your opinion, even if it is contrary, and you feel that you are treated no differently for it. Here they just love you as Christians should, as Orthodox should. This was a totally new and unique experience for me, and I am grateful to God for the opportunity to feel this pure and sincere love.

As an architect, how do you view your role vis-à-vis the monastery? What would you like to accomplish?

I don’t want to accomplish anything myself. I would simply like, according to my abilities, to try to realize the ideas presented to me here by the monastery’s administration. We are talking about a general layout for the monastery and the monastery cathedral. I hope simply to do all that is required of me to accomplish this crucial task. I am no longer at an age where I need to seek self-fulfillment; I have little interest in that now. But to try finding a simple, affirmative, faithful resolution to the task at hand is not only interesting from a professional point of view, but is also a way to participate in this sea of love.

Wherein lies the uniqueness of your work in Holy Cross Monastery?

This opportunity to build a Russian Orthodox cathedral for the monks in the hills of West Virginia should be viewed as an extremely rare success and blessing. But this can also be risky. When you arrive at a place or are acquainted with a particular situation or people, it leads to the formation of certain impressions, and a sense arises of the way things ought to be, or at least a few variables. This place obligates us to much. It dictates terms, and we must create a sense that the church building fits naturally in this place, as though it had been there forever. Why do I love St. Basil’s Cathedral more than any other church? Could you image that spot without the cathedral? ‒ It's inconceivable. It was always there. That is the impression the new monastery cathedral must make.

What plans do you have for the future of this project?

These are not my personal plans. We just discussed this with the monastery’s dean, Fr. Hieromonk Alexander, thank God, and decided that in February, I will present drafts of the church and, if God grants that we live until the summer, perhaps I will return here and we will make a model. Then we can discuss matters seriously with people, because people do not understand drawings; they need to see real dimensions. I love this very much myself, because when you deal in absolute dimensions, your own mistakes become very apparent. I pray to God that my humble undertaking will, in some way, help this holy place and the brethren who reside herein.

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