A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH OF ESTONIA
1. Early History
The early beginnings of Orthodoxy in Estonia remain in the twilight of history. Estonians or their forefathers have lived in the present territory at least from the 3rd millennium BC. Their beliefs before Christianity were most probably a mixture of ancient Fenno-Ugric shamanistic-animistic religion with an addition of some features from neighbouring Indo-European polytheism. Contacts with Christianity started with the conversion of neighbouring German, Scandinavian and Slavic peoples.
It is believed that in the 10th – 13th centuries there was a small but growing Christian minority. On the coastline and western Estonia there was felt the influence of the Western Church and in Eastern Estonia of the Eastern Church. According to some historians, the missionaries sent by St. Photius of Constantinople did reach also Estonian tribes. It is known that prince Yaroslav of Kiev conquered Tartu and established a fortress and a church there in 1030.
A major turn occurred in the history of the people, when in the late 12th c. The Popes proclaimed crusades against the mainly heathen Estonians, Latvians and Livonians (Livs). Estonian territory was taken through a period of wars between 1208 and 1257 by knights of the Brothers of the Sword (mostly German) and Danish forces. The conquest of the land went side by side with forceful baptism to the Roman Catholic faith. In consequence German nobility, priesthood and other higher classes remained in power in Estonia and Latvia for practically 700 years, even though the overlords changed (Swedes, Polish, Russians). Also, the Estonian peasantry had to follow their masters in matters of faith - first Catholic and after 16th century, Lutheran. The conquest and forced Christianization left a mark on the religious mentality of Estonians, who for long considered Christianity more as a matter of their lords. A change came just in the end of the 18th century, when the pietist Moravian Brothers (Herrnhuts) made a more effective mission work among Lutheran Estonians.
A small part of Estonians in the South-East remained under Russian Pskov princedom, and later under the Grand-princedom of Muscovy. These Estonians (the descendents of whom are now called Setus) were gradually converted to Orthodoxy, especially due to the influence of Petsery (Pechory Pskovskiye) Monastery. But due to the language barrier and illiteracy, their religiosity was until the 20th century of a rather mediaeval peasant type of piety, mixed with pre-Christian customs.
Estonia came under the Russian Empire after the Northern War (Nystad peace 1721). Although Orthodoxy was the State religion in Russia, the Czars recognized the privileges of German nobility and Lutheran Church in Estonia and Latvia. However, in cities, churches were built for Russian military, officials and merchants.
2. The Time of the Czars
In the middle of the 19th century, due to the influence of various trends in Europe, Estonians were gradually awakened to the national consciousness and started to look for ways towards economic, political and spiritual emancipation. Against this background came also the movement of conversion to Orthodoxy.
Estonian peasants who were complaining about their difficult socio-economic conditions got some sympathy and support from auxiliary Bishop Irenarchus of Riga. Soon, there were rumours that the Emperor will give land and alleviation in taxes to those who convert to Orthodoxy. Despite official denials, these rumours remained one of the reasons of conversion. Altogether, more than 100 000 Estonians and Latvians, some 17% of the population, in the Province of Livonia (Livland, comprising modern South Estonia and North and Central Latvia) converted to Orthodoxy in 1840-s. In the beginning, there was a lack of knowledge about the new confession, plus a shortage of rooms for worship, literature etc. Russian priests needed translators, though a couple of Estonians who were Orthodox before the conversion movement were also ordained. The diocese of Riga and Mitau was established in 1850 and a priest’s seminary was established in 1851. Entering the seminary was free and many Estonians were trained as priests, choir leaders and schoolmasters. Churches were built by the State or by local donators. Parallel to the well-developed network of Lutheran parish schools, Orthodox parish schools were established. Very early, liturgical texts were started to be translated into Estonian, so that by the end of the czarist period, priests service book (leiturgikon; 3 editions) book of needs (3 editions), horologion, triodion, pentekostarion, Sunday oktoechos and various liturgical compendia were published. Spiritual literature - cathechisms, lifes of saints and polemical writings etc. were also printed. The Riga Seminary published a theological-pastoral journal and from 1907 a newspaper “Usk ja Elu” (Faith and Life) was issued.
At that period, State support for converts to Orthodox was minimal. No lands were given to the converts and the Baltic German authorities often discriminated against them. Some of the new converts wanted to return to the Lutheran Church, but this was prohibited by the laws of the Empire. Practically, however, only some Lutheran pastors who received converts back were exiled, and the laws were mitigated from 1865 up to 1885. After a period of more strict policies, religious tolerance was adopted in 1905. The percentage of reconverts was less than 15 altogether, indicating that most converts had found their spiritual home in Orthodoxy.
The Baltic Germans were influential in the Russian Empire, being effective and honest officials of the State. For that reason, the official policies of Nicholas I and Alexander II did not come openly into conflict with the Baltic German privileges. Alexander III, however, adopted a nationalist policy and started the Russification of border provinces. During his reign, Orthodox were given some privileges and a new wave of conversions, this time in North Estonia (Province of Estland), was partly initiated by the authorities. But Russification had a double effect, because it hit most hardly the Germans. Most Estonian Orthodox clergy was opposed to the new policies, though could not express themselves openly. During the reign of Nicholas II, most of the Russification reforms were not annulled, but carried out more leniently.
The end of 19th and the beginnings of 20th century saw the rise of political consciousness of the Baltic peoples and the first steps towards a civil society. Orthodox were as active as Lutherans in national awakening and in the creation of independent Estonian statehood. In the end of the Czarist rule, the majority of Orthodox clergy were Estonians, while the majority of Lutheran clergy was German. During the 1905 revolution, when punitive troops often took law in their own hands, Orthodox clergy protected people as well as they could, with the assent of Bishop Agathangelus of Riga (who in general showed understanding of Estonians and Latvians; later, he suffered as confessor in Russia under the Soviet rule).
3. Times of Change and the Autonomous Church
As the czarist regime was replaced by the Provisional Government after the February revolution in Russia, many subject peoples of the Empire started to look for ways towards independence. As Estland and northern Livland were united into one province, most Estonians was for the first time lived in one administrative unit. Soon, demands of greater autonomy were presented. Also, already in 1917, there was a congress of Orthodox priests and lay representatives that decided to seek ecclesial autonomy of some form. One of the main tasks was to form a diocese of Estonia and find a bishop for the see of Tallinn.
Such a man was found – Father Paul Kulbusch, the priest of St. Petersburg Estonian Orthodox community. He met the requirements and was ordained a bishop under the name Platon in the end of year 1917. His title was that of Tallinn (Reval), but he also acted as the locum tenens of Riga. During his brief archpastorship, he made vigorous work to strengthen, comfort and protect his Church during the difficult time of war and German occupation. After the Germans left, he appealed to his flock to support the Estonian Diet. But the Bolsheviks entered Estonia, which had declared independence shortly before German occupation, on February 24, 1918. Bishop Plato was arrested in Tartu (Dorpat) on January 2nd, 1919 because of his rank. He was brought to a temporary prison along with two priests, Michael Bleive and Nicholas Bezhanitski. He consoled the other prisoners and did not yield to the appeals of his tormentors to deny Christ. When the victorious Estonian forces were coming close to Tartu, the Communist security forces started to shoot the prisoners. Bishop Plato was the first; he was stabbed and shot, as were the aforementioned priests, two Lutheran ministers and 9 other respectable citizens of Tartu. He was buried with great honour, as a martyr for both the faith and his fatherland. His tomb is in Tallinn; in 2000, the Ecumenical Patriarchate canonized him on the basis of an appeal by the Orthodox Church of Estonia.
After the Bolsheviks were expelled and an independent Republic established, it was clear that the Orthodox Church should also appeal for some form of independence. The General (clergy-laity) Assembly in 1919 sent the corresponding appeal to the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. On June 15, 1920, the Synod decided to grant the Church of Estonia autonomy in economic, administrative and educational matters and the right to use new (Gregorian) calendar. In November, the dioceses in Estonia, Finland, Poland, etc. were granted the right to have a temporary autocephaly. The same year, priest Alexander Paulus was chosen as the candidate for episcopacy and ordained.
The ecclesial situation in Russia was very unstable at that time due to the persecutions and for long periods no contact could be taken with the Patriarch, St. Tychon. The Estonian Church soon realized that for a lasting canonical solution, they must appeal to the Ecumenical See. So, in 1923, a delegation of Estonian and Finnish Churches went to Constantinople to ask for a correct canonical status for the Church in a newly independent country. On June 7th, 1923, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued the tomos of autonomy for Estonian Orthodox Church. This marked the beginning of a new stage in the history of Orthodoxy in Estonia.
There followed a period of free development of Church life, until Estonia lost its independence in 1940. The Orthodox comprised roughly 20% of the population of Estonia, the majority were Estonians (12% of the total population). The region of Setumaa that earlier had belonged to the Pskov province, was joined to Estonia, and the Setu tribe gradually integrated into the Estonian nation in general, retaining (up to this day) their faith and specific folklore.
The Church was headed by the Metropolitan of Tallinn and All Estonia as the primate. Local bishops had a limited authority. The bishops formed a Synod, which, during the period when there were just two bishops in Estonia, was completed by the Archbishop of Finland. The practical administration was in the hands of Church Administration, which consisted of 4 priests and 3 laymen in addition to the bishops. Greater decisions were taken by the General Assembly of clergy and lay representatives of the parishes. During this period, the Orthodox Church did a lot of catechetic, philanthropic and organisational work. Three spiritual newspapers were published and new liturgical books prepared.
The period was not without problems, however. There were a bit too many compromises with the protestant-secularist environment on behalf of some churchmen. Neither the leftist-secularist tendencies of the early republic nor the authoritarian rule of President Konstantin Päts (himself an Orthodox) of the late republic were to the benefit of the Church. There remained tensions with some part of the Russians, who favoured ties with either Moscow Patriarchate or the Russian Church abroad (Karlovatz Synod). But despite all this, the Church remained united and continued to proclaim the faith.
4. The War and the Soviet Period
But the independence of the Baltic States did not last long. In 1940, all three were incorporated in the Soviet Union. Arrests, nationalization of properties and other repressions concerned the Church as well as all the society. Soon, Metropolitan Alexander was forced to join the Moscow Patriarchate and to “repent for having left the Mother Church”. The autonomy was annulled and the Estonian diocese brought under Exarch Metropolitan Sergius (Voskressensky). In June 1941, a wave of deportations gave a heavy blow to the Church as well.
During the German occupation (1941-1944), the authorities were neutral towards the Church matters and the OCE could regain its autonomous status. Exarch Sergius, however, closely co-operated with the Germans and part of the Russian-speaking parishes and Petseri Monastery remained under his omophorion.
When the front was nearing Estonia again in autumn 1944, some 100,000 people fled from the new Soviet occupation. Among them was Metropolitan Alexander with 22 priests and some 8,000 faithful. So there was a chance to keep the autonomy at least in emigration, and at that time there were hopes that the Western powers will demand the restoration of the independence of the Baltic Republics soon. This, however, was not the case, and Estonia had to remain under the Communist rule for almost half a century.
The autonomy of the OCE was annulled and its lawful Church Administration dissolved on March 9, 1945. Instead of a local Church there was just a diocese of the MP. Priests who did not agree with this were arrested or deported. In the time of the war, the ROC had been granted a better status and recognition by the Soviet authorities that she had before, and generally religion was not so fiercely persecuted as in 1920-s and 1930-s. The price to be paid for this was a strict NKVD control over the Church. In the late 1940-s, parallel to the general reaction and the culmination of Stalinism, the policy on religion was tightened once more. At that time, all services outside church buildings, all kind of children and youth work and charities were prohibited. The parishes got under heavy taxation. There was a new wave of deportation in 1948, which concerned also some priests, churchwardens and chanters. The agriculture got a heavy blow because of collectivisation and artificial industrialization. This was one of the reasons of the decline of Church membership, especially in the following decades.
The death of Stalin (requiem services were held in every church for the Great Leader) brought soon an end of bloody terror, and soon the convicts and deported could gradually get home again. There was a certain relaxation in the relations of the State with the Church, but in late 1950-s, Khrushchev started a new campaign against religion. He was helped in this by the economic and social improvement of life. During this time, the churchwardens, usually nominated by the KGB, got a prominent role in a parish life, even over the priest and parish council. High taxes on church buildings and urbanization led to the closure of more and more country churches. The Moscow Patriarchate bishops did little or nothing to protect the Estonian-speaking parishes, although they protected the big Russian town parishes and the Pühtitsa (Kuremäe) Convent. A sociological change occurred in the population: hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Russian-speaking, came from other parts of the Soviet Union. This also meant that Estonians gradually became a minority in the Orthodox Church in their land. Also, part of Setumaa was joined to the Russian Federation, so the Setu people became divided between two Union Republics (and remain so until now between Russia and Estonia).
5. The Restoration of Autonomy
This situation continued more or less the same until the perestroika of President Gorbachev brought along a gradual liberalisation. Catechetical, youth and charitable work was once again possible. A lot of new converts came and many faithful became active in their church life. At the same time, Estonians started to strive for an independent country. In 1990, voices were raised within the Orthodox to have an autonomous Church. Contacts were taken with the Church Administration in emigration. After Estonia became independent again on August 20, 1991, it was clear that the Church must have a new status.
At first, the Moscow Patriarchate granted a kind of self-government to the Tallinn diocese, but as Bishop Cornelius of Tallinn and others in charge were pro-Moscow, it did not change the state of affairs much. In early 1993 “autonomy” was granted by the Moscow Patriarchate, and the name Orthodox Church of Estonia (OCE) was adopted. The existence of this autonomy was, however, denied by the Moscow Patriarchate representatives abroad. Many Estonian priests protested against the usurpation of the name of the autonomous Church. Action followed, and pro-autonomy groups attained a court judgment in late 1993 that announced the Church Administration in emigration as the legal heir of the properties owned by the OCE before 1940 (the Government was conducting a property reform that meant the restitution of immovable properties to the pre-Soviet owners or their heirs). The following years were full of negotiations and strife. The pro-autonomy group had contact with the Ecumenical Patriarch HAH Bartholomew, by the mediation of HE John, then Archbishop of Finland. After confirmation that the wish for the restoration of autonomy was serious and shared by the majority of parishes and had the support of the Government of Estonia, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate reactivated the tomos of autonomy on February 20, 1996. The decision was accelerated by the decree of Archbishop Cornelius banning all the pro-autonomy priests from celebrating.
The tomos was publicly announced in the Transfiguration church in Tallinn by the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on the national feast of Estonia, February 24, 1996. It was received with jubilation by the Estonian clergy and faithful and by many Russians, especially those who had lived in Estonia before 1940, or were from families of local Russians. Archbishop John of Finland was appointed the locum tenens of the see of Tallinn. He started the gradual organization of the life of an autonomous Church. It was not easy, however. The reaction of the Moscow Patriarchate was strong and for three months, she even broke communion with the EP. It was restored just after an agreement of Zurich, which enacted the existence parallel jurisdiction of the autonomous Church and a Moscow Patriarchate diocese. A referendum was held in every parish and every priest was free to choose his jurisdiction. A majority of parishes (58) choose autonomy in jurisdiction of the EP. While due to large numbers Soviet-era immigrants, the majority of faithful was and is on the side of the MP, it was not more than 10,700 who gave their vote for Moscow and just 1,100 in Tallinn (roughly half of 400,000 population of the capital are Russian-speaking). But even after the referendum, the Moscow Patriarchate continued to struggle against the autonomous Church, using diplomatic, legal and other means. The main issue for all these years has been the properties.
The internal life of the EOC had to be started practically from zero. In addition to the pressure from the MP, there was much irresolution and tensions among priests. The émigré Church Administration in Stockholm remained the only official organ of the Church. But regular archpastoral visits, clergy meetings and material help from Finland, Greece and elsewhere helped the situation to certain extent. It was clear that the Church needed a locally residing Primate. But there were no good candidates; elderly archpriest Symeon Kruzhkov was ordained in late 1998, but he was already terminally ill and deceased soon. So, the EP was asked to propose a candidate for the office of Metropolitan (the title of the Primate of OCE).
So, the EP proposed HG Bishop Stephanos of Nazianzus, residing in Nice. He had visited Estonia already in 1997, and was known to the Church. After much discussion, he was chosen on March 9, 1999, as the new Primate of the OCE. Same year the General Assembly was first convoked, Church Administration chosen and so, gradually, the Church life began to be organized.
HE Stephanos managed to unite the fractions among the priests and to give a regular pastoral counsel to the clergy. The normalization of the economy of the Church took, however, several years. There were achievements in other fields, too. In 2003, new Statutes were adopted. According to these, the Church is divided in three dioceses; two are yet vacant, but hopefully not for long. A seminary, named after St. Platon, was established, growing from more free courses in theology. Publishing work has been active, and catechetic, liturgical and other kinds of spiritual literature are printed every year. The journal Usk ja Elu (“Faith and Life”), which has been published with gaps for a hundred years now, and had been in the hand of the Estonian Orthodox émigrés, is now published again in Estonia. Lately, it has been transformed into a serious theological paper. In addition, a pastoral newsletter Metropoolia has been issued since 2001. The number of priests and deacons has more than doubled in 8 years (17 priests and 2 deacons in 1999, 28 priests and 10 deacons in 2007). There are three priest-monks, one monk and one nun, and plans to open a nunnery on the island Saaremaa. In general, the Church has some 25, 000 faithful, and the parish statistics show a growth of the numbers; especially the high numbers of conversions of the irreligious or other Christians. Both Estonian and Church Slavonic/Russian are used in services and sermons. The EOC is involved in active diaconal and youth work, has good ecumenical relations both on national and international levels, and relations with sister Churches, especially in Greece and Finland. The relations with the Moscow Patriarchate are not free of tensions even now, but there have been some official contacts recently.
So, despite being a lesser sister in comparison to most local Orthodox Churches and having lived through dark years of persecution, the OCE has managed to survive, strived forward and proclaimed the Gospel in various circumstances. The blessing and support of the Great Mother Church of Christ has also carried her through difficult times and brought her to a new life. Now, she is enjoying the first fruits of the new sowing and looking hopefully towards the future under the wise leadership of her Archpastor
Author. Archpriester Mattias Palli