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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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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