(Vienna, kath.net, March 2021) The original German edition of the unusual book, How I Became a Man: A Life with Communists, Atheists, and Other Nice People, was published in 2020. The first edition was sold out in a few weeks. The English edition is now available from Ignatius Press.
The author is a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Cologne, Germany. Son of a Russian father and a German mother, he spent his childhood and youth in the Soviet Union and stepped inside a Catholic Church for the first time at the age of twenty.
Alexander Krylov’s life story is impressive. He studied history and economics, worked as a teacher, and directed the municipal youth groups in his city. Then he became the manager of a concert business in Moscow, which organized major performances. Later he turned to science, earned a degree, and at the age of thirty became Assistant Dean of the National Institute of Business in Moscow. In the year 2000 Krylov became a German citizen and worked at the Institute for World Commerce and International Management at the University of Bremen. In 2008 he received a professorship at the University of Management and Communication in Potsdam and became director of the West-Ost-Institut in Berlin.
“Even though my professional career may seem varied and many-sided, in retrospect it turned out to be a continual path from an occupation to a vocation,” Krylov said. In 2011 he entered the major seminary of the Archdiocese of Cologne, studied theology, and in 2016 was ordained a priest. He is amazed that there are people in the Church who fight for power and careers. There are plenty of opportunities for that in business and politics.
An interview with this extraordinary man follows.
You worked as a scientist. Ten years ago, you changed your life completely and went into the seminary. Why did you wait until now to break your silence about it?
Alexander Krylov: As a matter of fact, I tried then not to make a fuss about my entrance into the seminary, and my intention was to avoid an unnecessary report about a “scientist who gave up everything”. Fortunately, becoming a priest is not yet a heroic deed. I pursued my priestly vocation and thereby made my life even more beautiful and meaningful. Everyone who is in love is glad when he can do without something for love of another person. And so this change from a occupation to a vocation brought me lasting joy, too. For me it is not a topic that deserves special public attention.
But now you have written a book in which you tell about your childhood. What motivated you to do this?
Krylov: Even during the time when I taught at the university, again and again I would tell various anecdotes about life in the Soviet Union and was often asked why I did not write them down. My answer was always: “I am still too young to write my memoirs.” Even though in my book I tell about my childhood, it is not primarily about me, but rather about life and faith in an authoritarian society. In order to make it authentic and vivid, I so to speak loaned myself out and wrote down my personal experiences.
Between the lines the reader can also recognize some of the common problems today. Is this amusing book meant as a social critique?
Krylov: As a matter of fact I get a lot of feedback and letters from readers who recognize themselves, their own childhood, and even our current societal trends in the book. This shows that good and evil in the world are universal. Whether they live in the East or in the West, people need love and devotion, they have fears about their existence, and they are happy about little attentions. There are universal weaknesses, too. Greed for power, the desire to control other people’s lives, and also a susceptibility to ideologies. Every society is in danger when it starts to replace God with some moral ideas, even good ones.
You spoke in your book about the faith, which was forbidden in the Communist system. Who passed it on to you?
Krylov: The family plays an important role in this question. Our family was able to tolerate the political repression and all the difficulties of life only because of our faith. I was not deliberately raised to be a believer. God was simply always present in our life. I tried to show this in my book. But I also know many people from atheistic families who found their way to God. That makes me confident. If someone looks at the world with his eyes open and questions and seeks, he will find his way to God.
The title of your book is: How I Became a Man. What does it mean to you to become a man?
Krylov: My book deals with a process of growing up and with the desire to be grown up. The first cigarette, the first feelings of love, and the first paycheck do not make you a grown-up, but rather the awareness of being responsible for yourself, for your life, your decisions, and your neighbors. The title of my book addresses also the political situation at that time, for every authoritarian society treats its citizens like underage children; it prescribes what they should think and how they should behave. Thus, we can compare such a society to a kindergarten.
We get the sense that freedom is especially important for you….
Krylov: That’s right. This is due on the one hand to my faith convictions and on the other hand to my family. For I grew up with a certain discrepancy. At home I experienced one hundred percent trust and complete freedom—in society, however, certain rules of the game and thought control. My studies took place during the period of perestroika; I too fought for freedom and even went once to the barricades. As someone for whom freedom is so important, I can say that genuine freedom can be found only with God.
From the media, though, one may get the impression that for centuries the Church limited people’s freedom.
Krylov: When I was a student, my first major was history. If you want to understand a historical epoch, a process or a decision, you must try to see it from the perspective of the situation at that time and their way of thinking. In the history of the Church there were many dark moments, but the Church was precisely the institution that led Europe to education and progress. It shaped our notions of freedom, responsibility, and solidarity.
But it did so not out of political or other convictions, but rather out of our understanding of God. For our God is love and thus freedom, too. Look at our society today. Various aspects of our Catholic practice of the faith that were rejected are coming back as secular practices. Fasting out of a faith conviction is considered not cool, but instead we are called on to give up meat out of love for nature. Confession is considered outmoded. But we constantly see how admissions of guilt and remorse are expected in public, if someone says something politically incorrect. God and the faith are mocked extensively on television today. Instead there are new phenomena that are treated as “sacred,” and beyond any and all criticism. The commandments of God and the precepts of the Church do not limit our freedom, but rather protect it.
Do you find everything that the Church is doing today good?
Krylov: As a scientist I learned to perceive nuances in everything. Therefore it is important to make distinctions in discussing the Church, too. There is the Holy Church, to which all the saint and all the souls in heaven belong, also. And there are many people who work today on earth for the Church. Among these people there are, as everywhere on earth, sinners, dictators, schemers, and careerists. But we also have many, very many lay faithful and priests who are living a holy life today. In various encounters, in the confessional and also in everyday life, again and again I meet people who can be taken as examples of the faith.
In your book, you describe a society that preaches atheism and yet somehow keeps its faith. Today, fewer and fewer people in Europe believe in God. Can we compare these situations? Will the Church survive this time?
Krylov: The Church will survive, for one simple reason. Not because it is so good, and not because it does everything right, but because it was founded by Christ. I am not worried about the Church in itself, but rather about the souls of the people, “who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36). At that time, in the Soviet Union, the situation for believers was clearer. On the one side stood the atheists; on the other, the believers prayed in secret. Today, when many clergymen say that they do not believe in the Resurrection, and many religious teachers tell children that the sacraments should be stood only as symbolic images, it is much more difficult for people to get a good grounding. We are so fond of talking about structures or theories, but what is at stake is the salvation of concrete human beings.
You were once a teacher, journalist, manager, business advisor, and professor. Now you have become not only a priest, but also a writer to boot?
Krylov: For me, it was very surprising that a little book with my stories from the life of a naive child had such a positive reception from the readers. Before now I had written only scientific books and homilies and had serious doubts whether I should publish at all a book like How I Became a Man. Today, of course, I am happy about the positive feedback; I am especially glad, though, when people begin to reflect about their faith stories and to share with others their testimonies of faith. For the life of every single human being is much more exciting, more interesting, and more instructive than the best adventure novel. Pastors can confirm that.
(Editor’s note: This article was posted originally at kath.net in March 2021. This translation by Michael J. Miller is posted at CWR with kind permission of kath.net.)
How I Became a Man: A Life with Communists, Atheists, and Other Nice People
By Alexander Krylov
Ignatius Press, 2022
Paperback, 162 pages
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