SEMKHOZ, U.S.S.R. -- "What is written with a pen cannot be hacked away by an ax."

Russian proverb

In the morning twilight, the village priest opened the door and headed for the train platform less than a half mile away. It was Sunday, and Father Alexander Men always caught the 6:50 elektrichka from his village near Zagorsk to his parish church in Novoya Derevnya, a small town just outside Moscow.

Father Alexander, a healthy man of 55 with a thick beard of black and gray, was the emerging spiritual leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. Unlike countless others, he had kept his independence through the Brezhnev years, refusing to cooperate with the KGB. He taught underground Bible classes. His theological works were published abroad under a pseudonym and in the Soviet Union in underground editions. Now, he told his brother Pavel, he felt like "an arrow finally sprung from the bow," able to preach and lecture in churches and auditoriums, on radio and television, all without fear.

The priest kept walking along the asphalt path through the Semkhoz woods. The narrow macadam path has proved dangerous at times. There have been rapes, beatings. Drunks often take their bottles there and harass the passersby. Not long ago, the local authorities cleared away some of the trees to make the path to the train platform less forbidding.

Suddenly, from behind an oak, someone leapt out and swung an ax at Alexander Men. An ax: the traditional Russian symbol of revolt, one of the symbols of the neo-fascist group Pamyat. The blow hit Men on the back of the skull. The wound was not very deep, but it severed major arteries. The killer, police sources said, grabbed the priest's briefcase and disappeared into the woods. Father Alexander, bleeding, stumbled toward his home, walking a full 300 yards to his front gate at 3-A Parkovaya St. Along the way, two women asked if he needed help. He said no and they left.

From her window, Natasha Men saw a figure slumped near the gate and pressing the buzzer. She could not quite make out who it was in the half-light. She called an ambulance. In minutes, her husband was dead.

It has been 40 days since the death of Alexander Men. In Russian Orthodox tradition, this is the day when a person's soul, after long wandering, ascends to Heaven or descends to Hell. He is judged. "And who would doubt he is going to Heaven?" says Father Ioan Pentkovsky, Men's fellow priest at the small wooden Sretinye Church in Novoya Derevnya.

In the weeks since the murder, Men's parishioners, family and friends have tried to search for a meaning, as well as a killer. To their astonishment, it was an article in the popular weekly magazine Ogonyok that expressed the fears, the suspicions of nearly everyone who was touched by Men's death. Even while the police concentrate their efforts on finding a thief, a common criminal, most people here are convinced that Men, as an honest, charismatic and, not least, Jewish-born priest, had scores of enemies: the antisemites of Pamyat, the conservative zealots in the Russian Orthodox Church establishment, the police, the KGB.

"No one believes this was merely a petty crime," Pavel Men said. A thief, the Ogonyok article said, "goes after a woman wearing jewels on the street or a well-dressed man with a fat wallet. But rich people don't go to work at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning. The rich don't live in Semkhoz.

"Humanization and democratization is one side of our system. The other is murder," the editorial continued. "We have been freeing ourselves from fear, but the ax is an instrument to remind us of our fear. They are reminding us that we are defenseless."

The author of the article, Alexander Minkin, compared Men's death with the Polish secret police's assassination of pro-Solidarity priest Jerzy Popieluszko in 1984 -- "an event that once and for all set the people against the forces of power in Poland." But here, Minkin wrote, "people are standing in lines talking about other things. They have fallen lower into the muck than our brothers in the 'socialist camp' in Eastern Europe. So much the worse for us. We have not revolted, we have not become indignant. ... This is a turning point in our history and we do not realize it yet. When we become aware, what will we do?"

To understand Minkin's anguish -- a despair representative of countless people here, both intellectuals and simple peasant believers -- is to understand the tragic history of religious belief in the Soviet Union. The regime of militant atheism was a nightmare for every faith. The Bolsheviks outlawed religious education, turned churches into silos and warehouses, planted KGB informers in every house of worship. "The Communist Party cannot be neutral toward religion," Stalin wrote before coming to power. "It must struggle against any and all religious prejudices." Countless thousands of believers disappeared in the Gulag. For priests and rabbis, the price of independence was death.

The Bolsheviks tried to replace the iconography of the Russian Orthodox Church with one of their own. Stalin, a failed seminarian, created a distortion of the catacombs of Kiev when he ignored the wishes of Lenin's wife and built the Bolshevik leader's tomb on Red Square. The Communist Party created a grotesque, orthodox faith: cities littered with the enormous portraits of saints named Stalin, Brezhnev, Suslov, Khrushchev; public discourse degraded by slogans that seemed to mimic the incantations of the Orthodox liturgy. The state did such violence to religion that in many churches only old people seemed willing, or able, to keep faith.

"The destruction of souls over three-quarters of a century -- that was the most chilling thing of all," Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in his recent essay, "How to Revitalize Russia."

Alexander Men was, in a way, the spiritual equivalent of a political dissident. While a few village priests dared under Brezhnev to attack the regime for its assaults on the church and the church hierarchy for compromising themselves, Men took another road. His form of dissidence meant being an honest, uncompromising priest; it meant providing the means for internal, spiritual rebellion in individuals. "There was so much potential there in one man. He was our spiritual phenomenon," said Gleb Yakunin, a dissident priest who has gone from a cell in the Gulag to a seat in the Russian parliament. "Alexander was the one man in this country who could have cleansed the church, who could have helped us all shake off these decades of decay. He had the light." Men, said his longtime assistant, Andrei Yeryemin, "was the one bridge we had between the religious thinkers of the early part of the century and the present day. He showed the way out."

Men once said, "Dissent is the individual's way of protecting his right to perceive reality in his own way, not to yield to the views of the mass. When an individual calls such views into question, he shows his natural independence, his freedom. It is only when such a personal appraisal is lacking that the law of the mob prevails and an individual turns into a particle of a mass which can easy be manipulated."

While his friend Yakunin organized political groups to defend the rights of believers, Men tried to instill a kind of spiritual dissidence in his parishioners, an independence of soul. "In general, I think politics is a transitory thing and I wanted to work in a less transitory way," he told the Moscow Komsomolets newspaper a few months ago. "I consider myself a useful person in society, which like any society needs spiritual and moral foundations."

While maintaining his small parish in Novoya Derevnya, Men became well known among the Moscow intelligentsia for the breadth of his learning. He was a spiritual adviser to a range of artists and writers including Nadezhda Mandelstam and Solzhenitsyn. He was a close friend of the late Andrei Sakharov and other leaders of the human rights movement.

"This was a man who could speak to all of us, from Sakharov to the simplest person," said Yelena Chukovskaya, a well-known writer here. Literary critic Natalya Ivanova said, "In a country where the regime managed to eliminate, in a sort of grotesque genetic engineering, its best minds, its most honest souls, Men survived to teach, to be an example."

Growth of a Dissident Alexander Men was born to Jewish parents. His father was a nonbeliever, his mother had converted to Russian Orthodoxy. In a country where Jewish religion and culture has been assaulted even more severely than the church, many families of the intelligentsia gravitated to Russian Orthodoxy, if only because they were able to feel their Russian identity more closely than their Jewishness. Men's mother, Yelena, saw the church as a place apart, a refuge.

"In our family there was a personal religious search," said Men's brother Pavel, a computer programmer. "Like so many people disgusted here by the life around them, our family tried to look within themselves for a religious way out." Yelena Men took her sons to pray under the guidance of Yegumin Serafim, an honest priest who evaded the authorities by moving from apartment to apartment. Most of the parishioners were believers who had been in the prison camps, people who had lost relatives and friends for their belief.

"And so Alexander saw around him a kind of elevated moral life, God's people," Pavel Men said. "He made a decision when he was just 12 to study for the priesthood. He went to the local priest and asked what he would have to do to get into the seminary one day. The priest said Alexander was not 'one of ours.' Meaning he was Jewish. But Alexander set out to overcome that kind of thinking."

As a boy and young man, Men found religious literature in ramshackle country stores, "there among the nails and the guinea pigs." He began reading the great religious philosophers of the early part of the century, such writers as Vladimir Solovyov, Sergei Bulgakov and Nikolai Berdyayev, who wrote in spiritual opposition to the Bolsheviks. Such reading, Men once said, "inoculated me against the cult of Stalin. I trembled as I read them."

Yakunin, who later spent nine years in prison camps and exile for his dissident activity, studied with Men at a biological institute in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. They lived together in a tiny wooden house. Men brought with him huge trunkloads of books and kept Yakunin up nights at their rickety kitchen table talking about issues forbidden by Soviet law.

"The Russian character, as you may have noticed, can be very lazy and unambitious," Yakunin said, "but Alexander knew just what he wanted to do. He was interested in all subjects, but he had a purpose. Unlike me, he always knew he was meant to serve God, no matter the consequences."

One day, the two young men, in their Moscow clothes, wandered into a village church looking, as Yakunin said, "like a couple of white elephants." Someone informed the local KGB that they had seen them; for making their religious faith so public, the two men risked their academic careers. The institute director barred Yakunin from finishing his studies and wanted to throw Men out too. But the students, feeling the first flush of the post-Stalin "thaw," went out on strike in support of Men, refusing to go to lectures or classes. Men finished his degree.

Yakunin and Men returned to Moscow to follow their varying paths. "Each man has his own talent, his own way, and I moved toward the politics of religion," Yakunin said. "Alexander had another kind of gift. In a church that suffered from inaccessibility, he had the ability to explain, to make the teachings of the church available to people."

Suddenly, Wider Influence Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to give greater freedom to religious believers was an opportunity for both men. Yakunin returned home from exile and, this year, was elected to the Supreme Soviet of the Russian republic. He sits on the committee on freedom of conscience and religion.

Men, after a long period when he was called in for interrogations by the KGB, suddenly found himself able to teach without fear. Suddenly he was giving lectures in meeting halls and speaking on the radio. He taught a course at the Historical Archives Institute, an outpost of nonconformist academics in Moscow. Young people who attended his lectures taped them and then circulated the tapes throughout the country. The Russian republic's new television station was going to give him air time at least once a week to speak on religious topics.

Andrei Bessmertni, a young filmmaker and "spiritual child" of Father Alexander, said Men "could have reached millions of young people." Men, he said, saw how at a time when faith in the "bright future of communism" had faded away, young people had begun a bogiskatelstvo, a spiritual quest. To overcome their profound cynicism, their sense that history has provided them nothing to rely on or believe in, many have turned inward. "These times are not just about getting blue jeans and a McDonald's hamburger," Bessmertni said. "Some people actually want meaning in their lives, spiritual food."

In some cases, people have found solace in televised faith-healers, men like the silver-haired Alan Chumak, who "treats" people and their ailments with a few silent gestures of his hands, or the egomaniacal Anatoli Kashpirovsky, who promises to cure all diseases through the sound of his voice.

Men tried to bring the Russian Orthodox Church into the modern world, but without compromising it with cheap gimmickry. One week before he was killed he opened a Sunday school in Novoya Derevnya.

"People speak now about a return to Russian culture," said Yeryemin, Men's assistant. "Fine, but which Russian culture? The culture of the Black Hundreds who went on antisemitic rampages? Or the culture of the utopian socialists and Bolsheviks? Or will it be the culture, as Men wanted, of Berdyayev and Solovyov, a humane culture?"

According to some close associates, Men was encouraged by the liberalized world he saw around him, but was also fearful of growing chaos and tension in Soviet society, even the threat of elements of the totalitarian system, like the KGB, rising up once more in fury. "He could not bear the thought of a future that looked so much like our terrible past," one friend said. "Only fools think we are free already."

The Legacy Thousands of people, including religious leaders from the West, crowded the grounds of the village church in Novoya Derevnya on the day of Alexander Men's funeral. In Men's hand was placed a small Bible and a golden cross. People wept and some sank to their knees in prayer. Even weeks later, people walk down the muddy road to the church to stop awhile at the grave, to lay down fresh flowers.

A few houses away in a Siberian-style hut, Maria Tepnina lives and "waits out the days." She is 86 and knew Alexander Men since he was a child. Tepnina sat the other day in her room, half the floor covered with just-harvested potatoes, the walls covered with family pictures and small icons. For many years, Tepnina helped Men with his secretarial work. She noticed that there were often threats that came in the mail. "He just threw them all away, never paid any attention," she said. "They accused him of everything from insulting the church to being a 'rotten kike' to serving the powers that be. Awful things, and they meant nothing to him."

Tepnina herself spent five years in prison and three more in exile. From 1946 to 1954 she was in a prison camp near the Siberian city of Kemerevo and then in exile in Krasnoyarsk. In the camps, she met priests and believers, "real holy men." She saw "fantastic things there," people baptized secretly in their cells, priests shot muttering their thanks to God.

But she had never met anyone with Men's "gift for sympathy." And so she made sure, in her old age, to live near his church. Now, she said, she is trying "vainly" to make sense of the murder. "I think he was a genuine apostle, and all apostles end their lives as martyrs. So perhaps there is a certain justice in this. All his life, Father Alexander prepared himself for this, daring to speak from his soul."

Recently, another of Men's parishioners, Tatyana Sagaleyeva, has moved from the nearby village of Abramtsevo to Tepnina's house. She is helping take care of her friend, but mainly Sagaleyeva wants to be closer to the church. And she too, like so many now in Russia, wants to understand what has happened. Not just in the criminal sense. It goes far deeper than that.

"The murder of Father Alexander is a mystical event, not just a simple killing, an accident," Tatyana Sagaleyeva said.

"God has taken this man from us, a spiritual leader who was at the prime of his life. His appearance was a miracle, a man who could, despite it all, despite an aggressive atheistic state, penetrate the sufferings of a great writer like Solzhenitsyn or of a simple woman like me. And suddenly he disappears. How to understand it? Why did God take him from us? Why now? Each of us will have to grapple with this, try to understand its meaning, every day until the last days of our lives."