Remembrance by Lisa
When the phone rings before eight in the morning it is never good news. On the morning of Friday, May 28th, the phone rang at about 7:45 a.m. It was Len Rosenberg (Black Lotus, as he is known to many). Len is my teacher, Third Degree Emeritus, and founder of my coven, Mnemosynides, which I have been a part of for fifteen years. His voice began, "I have some very sad news..." My heart sank. Alexei Kondratiev, Len's life partner, our High Priest and working partner had been found on the street close to his home in Queens. He was on his way home from the train station. He died of an apparent heart attack. His heart stopped beating and my world suddenly stood still. He passed away under the light of the full Flower Moon.
If this is the first you have heard of Alexei Kondratiev, let me tell you a little bit about him.
Alexei Kondratiev, compulsive-language-acquiring, musical, Celtic, Russian, Bear. These were the words he used to describe himself on a social-networking site. I could fill a book with words to describe this unusual, magickal man full of knowledge, facts, and myth. But none would completely describe what it was like to know him. I have known some amazing and wonderful people in this lifetime, but none quite like Alexei.
Alexei was born in Queens, NY, on February 15, 1949. His mother is French, his father was Russian. In his household they spoke French, Russian, and English. He grew up in Queens and summered every year in France, where he first felt the spark that ignited his passion for the romance, mystery, and magick of the Celts. He was the eldest of six children; he had four sisters and one brother. Here is a lovely description of Alexei from his sister Nadia:
Alexei loved birds first of all, even as a small child. When I was small I always linked Alexei to birds and then natural history in general (he was subscribed to the magazine). For languages, we grew up with three languages at home and friends of my parents who spoke others, which added to the languages we became sort of familiar with. My mother was an interpreter and my father did his university studies at the Ecole des Langues Orientales in France, so this exploration of languages was sort of a given. Alexei had a special talent for that so he carried it further than any of us did.
I think the interest in various cultures came with the interest in languages and the international atmosphere we grew up in - my mother at the United Nations and my father at the Voice of America, working with Africa. The people who came to my parents' parties were from everywhere.
I remember Alexei being deeply into Polynesian culture; he even infected me with that at the time and he helped me prepare a whole expose sort of thing for school.
But the Celtic culture is the one that grabbed him the most. I think everyone finds the culture that fits them, not necessarily the one in which they grew up. Maybe if you grow up with a mix you are more liable to choose a different one altogether - my youngest sister is an honorary Italian.
Queens always remained his favorite part of New York City. He loved the cultural diversity and the nature that abounds there. It was one of his favorite places to go birding. He claims to have seen over 100 different species there in just one day. Taking a walk with him through the park would quickly turn into a lesson containing fascinating information on botany and ornithology. I remember him saying just a few months ago that he was sad he didn't have as much time and energy to go birding during spring migration season anymore, but that he was grateful to the birds for stopping by to see him while tending his garden. His garden is a magickal place where every inch has been planted. He has several different types of wormwood, sage, basil, as well as a pomegranate tree and a coffee tree that he kept in pots so he could bring them inside in winter. One of his favorite things to do in the summer was to sit out in his garden reading with his mother and sister. His sister Valeria tends the garden for him now. He often came to my house with pockets full of herbs, seeds, and flowers for ritual. No wonder the birds found him.
One of my favorite of Alexei's stories of his childhood was how he had such a love and curiosity for insects that he would open the windows to his bedroom at the chateau in France and then close the door behind him leaving the light on to attract as many insects inside as possible. Then about an hour or so later he would come back and see what kind of visitors he had attracted. He never hurt any of them, he was only lovingly curious. He just wanted to see them and know them better. Alexei had a distinct aversion to cockroaches, yet he still tried to communicate with them. One of our last conversations was about how he could talk to the cockroaches. Yes, he could even communicate with insects! Although I am certain he did not include this in the list of languages he was fluent in. This is another shining example of Alexei, the great communicator.
Alexei studied archeology at Columbia University in New York and then later at the Ecole des Hautes Etues in Paris. He was probably most well known for his Celtic scholarship and extensive knowledge of many languages. He wrote a very well respected book on Celtic ritual entitled The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. Alexei immersed himself in Celtic culture and spent extended periods of time in France, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales learning the languages and rituals on a very intimate level. He taught all six living Celtic languages. One of the places he taught for many years was the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan, where he also taught Celtic mythology, early Celtic Christianity, and the the history of Celtic traditional music. This last subject came naturally; Alexei was very musical, composing many classical and contemporary pieces. He also enjoyed playing the harp, tin whistle, and flute.
The Apple Branch, was dedicated to his close friend and former working partner, Eileen Campbell Gordon. He met her at one of his favorite places, the Rivendale bookstore in the East Village. She was a well-known expert on Scottish Witchcraft. They shared a close bond and common passion that resulted in them forming a Celtic reconstructionist group. Her death was a painful and profound loss for Alexei.
Alexei spoke over 60 languages in total and was fluent in at least 13 to 20 of them. In addition to his extensive knowledge of Celtic culture and language, Alexei taught many Native American languages, including Cherokee, Algonquin, Lakota, and Navaho. For Alexei, acquiring languages was more than just an act of communicating. Alexei believed that language enables us to connect to a culture, the land, the great spirits of Nature and the gods in a way that is only possible through language, that the language itself is a magickal tool that has secrets hidden within: secrets that will help us connect with the land and our environment to achieve a true balance, which will bring healing and happiness. This is why it was so important to him to keep learning and, more important, to keep teaching so he could help preserve this connection. He did not want to keep it to himself! I believe this was his life's work.
Alexei was a great lover of modern myth and in all of the years I knew him he hardly missed a Mythcon gathering and was greatly involved with the Mythopoeic Society as well as the Tolkien Society. His dear friend Ken Gale encouraged Alexei to combine his love of Celtic religion and history with his love of fantasy to produce a comic book series about a Celtic hero named "Vidorix the Druid" who travels through time to reclaim and preserve the Celtic culture. At the time of Alexei's death he was in the middle of writing a book on Celtic mythology. He was also working on several other fiction pieces, including fantasy novels and some erotica. He had a wicked sense of humor and a love of all the sensual pleasures in life, which became evident the more you got to know him.
In addition to his work at the Irish Arts Center and the Celtic League, Alexei was also involved in many organizations, including New Moon New York. He was also the program director for an interfaith group facilitated with his friend Dave Stephens, which was called Esotericon. Esotericon existed for about six years and had memorable guests such as Selena Fox, Raymond Buckland, Katherine Kirk, and Marion Zimmer-Bradley.
Alexei identified as a "bear" in the gay community. He never missed his Queens Bear Den Meetings or an opportunity to march in the Gay Pride Parade. For those unfamiliar with "bears" they are a group of gay men who have a particular admiration and attraction to large, hairy men. Alexei found fat people very appealing, which is a breath of fresh air in this city. He held much affection for his bear den community. I believe he came out to the world (at least to the pagan world) in an interview in People of the Earth. Alexei's sexuality was an important part of who he was. I admire his self-love and his ability to be true to himself and his community.
When I first met Len and Alexei, fifteen years ago, they were in the garden of Enchantments Occult Shop in the East Village. They sat close to each other, Len with a Laxshmi t-shirt, a white hat with many badges that had pictures of Hindu goddesses on them pinned to the brim. Alexei was sitting to his left with a Celtic Cross t-shirt, suspenders, and a crazy mustache. I was drawn to them immediately, striking up a conversation with Len about Laxshmi. "I have just recently learned a mantra of hers and I just did my first pudja!" I told Len. He raised an eyebrow, which I took as skeptical approval. They modestly spoke of how Len had a flair for things Wiccan and a love for things Hindu, and Alexei had a passion for all things Celtic. I learned that Mnemosynides Coven celebrates the four Celtic holidays (Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnasadh) as Celtic rituals and the other four sabbats in traditional Wiccan style. They also celebrated many Hindu holidays as well. I found out what a Shakdi was and that there were many parallels between Hindu mythology and Celtic mythology. At the time I didn't know much about either path, but these wise and magickal men were intriguing and unlike any other people I had ever met. They left me wanting to know more. I always felt respected by them both, and never spoken down to. They had a mysterious wise-witch-on-the-edge-of-town vibe to them, which appealed to me. I visited other covens in the mean time and then I circled with Mnemosynides a month later on Samhain. I dedicated to the coven four months later on "Shiva Ratri" (the Night of Shiva), working my way up to Third Degree and then eventually to High Priestess of the coven. I have been working as a triad with Carole Linda Gonzalez and Alexei for the last five years. I chose to walk this path with these two men (Len & Alexei), and everything they would open me up to would forever change my life. They helped guide me in a way that always felt honest, magickal, loving, and meaningful. The only thing they ever asked of me in return was to keep passing the knowledge on with an equally open and loving heart. Their love and support will always be a great source of strength to me now and forever on my journey.
I have learned much about Alexei in these weeks since his death. I have heard from friends, colleagues, students, and fellow myth lovers. And one thing is for certain: He touched many on a deep and profound level. Alexei left a trail of knowledge wherever he went. To many he may have come across as a quiet, gentle genius, but once you struck up a conversation with him you would soon realize that you were engaged with someone powerful, strong, balanced, and truthful. One of Alexei's greatest strengths was his ability to transfer and communicate great knowledge without spouting and claiming absolute truths or narrow pathways. He told me the word religion literally means "linking." His belief was that "this linking was the most important aspect of human thinking and relating." He meant ALL religions. Not just Celtic, neo-Pagan, or Christian. All cultures, all languages, all religions have something valuable and useful to offer. They all have their strengths and their weaknesses. And to limit yourself to one path, one language, or one narrow way of thinking went against everything he taught me. He acquired language and knowledge not just to use it for his own self-reflection or personal growth, but to share a living thing with those who sought out the knowledge and had an open mind and heart. He gave away knowledge like his patron goddess, Brigit, gave away treasure, without hesitation and with a loving heart. He responded to our curiosity with a sparkle in his eye and an excitement in his voice. As I say, he left a trail of knowledge wherever he went.
With this trail in mind we have created a network of people close to Alexei in the different facets of his life to preserve whatever writings, video, and audio are available of his teachings so his instruction may continue. With the help of friends, colleagues, and family members we will be able to preserve and continue what Alexei had worked so hard to bring to our consciousness. So fear not if you never got the opportunity to meet him in person. Many kind-hearted people are working very hard to keep his knowledge and connections alive.
As impressive and vast as Alexei's knowledge was, what really impressed me most about him was his ability to embody the Goddess in his daily life. The more I looked at Alexei's life, the more I saw examples of his devotion to his patron goddess, Brigit. He brought her into my life as a gentle presence and now, stepping back, I see how he set the example so well by how he led his own life as he let her radiant generosity flow through him. Brigit is our foster mother. Kinship was of vast importance to the Celts. Kinship was not necessarily dictated by blood relations. It was always very apparent to me that family and kin were of great importance to Alexei. He felt a loving obligation and devotion to those who he considered his family. This was most clear by the way he took care of his mother and his lover, Len, but also by the way he treated his chosen family.
In the twenty plus years he was High Priest of Mnemosynides, he never once missed a circle. Not once. I have never in my life known anyone with that kind of loyalty and devotion. He lived his life close to the Goddess and that is what he has come to represent to me. In the way he lived his life I see overwhelming examples of generosity in its purest form. He gave his gifts freely, with a loving and accepting heart to those who showed a genuine curiosity. In fact, he was more attracted to outcasts and the "unwanted" than to the arrogant or privileged. When he came to my house for circle he was energized and pleased to be in my home. He always brought seltzer as a symbol of the combination of fire and water to honor Brigit. I got great pleasure from feeding him and witnessing him taking in the comforting smells and flavors coming from the kitchen. Whether we were meeting for a sabbat or just getting together to talk, he always treated my home as a safe and sacred place. I have had few people in my life who encouraged me to create with such love and deep respect. He believed in my abilities and illuminated my strengths. I was part of his family and he treated me as such.
Brigit also served as a link between the Christian religion he was brought up with, and his Pagan beliefs. Alexei never renounced his Christianity. This was always something I greatly appreciated and respected. He taught me the bridge between Celtic Paganism and early Celtic Christianity is an important element not to be discarded or replaced with "ersatz Pagan innovations." His family always treated the coven and all its members with the greatest respect. Alexei's mother used to invite the entire coven over every year for Russian Orthodox Easter. It was wonderful. All I can say is that Alexei was part of an extraordinary family. His mother is one of the most kind, gentle, and generous spirits I have ever met. Each of his sisters has some incredible gift or talent as well. The conversation was never dull at the Kondratiev house.
For me, one of the most memorable moments of Alexei's funeral occurred at the cemetery. We were getting out of our cars to gather around the grave site. Judy Harrow, mother of Proteus Coven, came up to me, took me by the hand and said she had something to show me. She led me in the direction of Alexei's grave to a life-size statue of St. Brigit erected right next to where Alexei's body would be buried. His mother and sisters had chosen this place to bury him because of this statue of Brigit. I was overwhelmed with emotion, tears of sorrow mixed with tears of extreme joy filled my eyes when I saw her standing over him. The love and light that her image invoked in me is something I will never forget. As I stood there holding Judy's hand I felt the power of life's circle. I felt the enormous love and respect his family had for him by choosing this final resting place. I felt the link that was Brigit. But more than anything I felt gratitude. Gratitude for the love, support, and the opportunity to share in the life of this incredible man. Grateful for the people, the knowledge, the deeper connection to the world around me. I will be forever grateful that I was blessed with the opportunity to share in the life and spirit of Alexei Kondratiev. My spirit shines more brightly having known and loved him.
From the bottom of my heart, I thank him.