Estonian Orthodoxy in the 1990s
This project of research is very much in the making still, and I have not yet been able to make adecision about the approach I will choose and the methodology I would like to follow. What follows is the historical background to the problem, as well as some possible approaches to the subject.
Background – until the Soviet time
Estonia was supposedly Christianised in the 13th century by German Crusaders. The Germans remained in Estonia for almost seven centuries and thus played an important role in Estonian history. During the Reformation, Estonia was still under German rule, but the local Baltic German nobility attempted to limit its actual impact in the region. It was of no use to them that the Estonian peasants started to think independently. German Reformators only had limited success among the peasants, and a bit more in the cities. In the following centuries, different foreign rule largely determined the nature of Christianity in the Estonian lands. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the Poles took over and Polish Jesuits started a thorough re-catholisation. When the Swedes conquered all of what is currently Estonia in 1645, the Lutheran Swedish state church became the only Christian Church in Estonia. The Russian rule from 1710 was actually the first to not prescribe a religion for the Estonian people, following the liberalising and secularising reforms of Peter I.
The pietistic movements that spread from Germany throughout Northern Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s were the first large scale attempts to bring Christianity to the ethnic Estonian population. In Estonia, they were represented first and foremost by the Herrnhut brotherhoods, which organised house meetings and encouraged independent Christian practicing. Their success was noticeable in the cities, but the German landowners still managed to keep it largely unattainable to the Estonian peasants in the countryside. Into the nineteenth century, there was an increased feeling of discontent from the latter, who, since the abolishment of serfdom had not gained any more status or opportunities. This discontent was largely directed towards the landowners, but also towards the German clergy. With the failed harvests of 1841, 1844 and 1845, desperation and epidemics spread quickly among the peasantry.
In their desperation, the peasants attempted to turn to higher instances than the landowners, namely the Russian Tsar. The recently established Orthodox Eparchy of Riga under the leadership of Bishop Irinarh proved a natural instance to turn to with peasant grievances. With cunning help by Bishop Irinarh, the rumours started to spread that the Orthodox Church promised to provide everybody who converted to Orthodox Christianity with a piece of land of their own somewhere in Russia. This started a movement which saw more than 65 000 Estonians turn to Orthodoxy in the three years 1845-1848, accounting for about 13% of the Estonian peasantry. In some parishes, the converts made up more than 75% of the local population, although how much they could actually be called real converts remained questionable, and many wanted to return to the German Lutheran churches once it was clear that there was no land to be had from converting. The Lutheran Church was however not allowed to allow them back in until 1965, when about 30 000 returned. When Tsar Alexander III acceded to power in Russia in the 1880s and started his russification and anti-reforms policy, he invalidated this permission which initiated hundreds of court cases against Lutheran priests who accepted the ‘returnees.’
It was not until the 1905 tolerance law that religious conscience became relatively free in the Russian Empire, and a few of the about 150 000 Orthodox in Estonia turned back to the Lutheran Church. Nevertheless, after the Estonian independence war in 1918-1920, there were 210 000 (19%) Orthodox believers in the new independent Estonian republic, whereof 86 000 Russians. The new constitution of the Russian Orthodox Church of 1917, in addition to reintroducing the Moscow Patriarchate, granted the Eparchies unprecedented autonomy. The freshly elected Patriarch Tikhon, taking into account the difficult war times, appointed an Estonian as the representative of the Riga Eparchy in Estonia. Upon the Estonian declaration of independence in 1918, this representative became Bishop Platon I of Estonia. He was murdered the following year by Russian-friendly Bolsheviks in Tartu and is now hailed as a martyr.
By the time a new Bishop, Alexander, had been elected, several factors led to the first event of importance for Estonian Orthodoxy in the 1990s. Namely, the Estonian government was eager to cut all ties with the Communist Soviet Union, and demanded of the newly founded Estonian Orthodox Church (EOC) to leave the Moscow Patriarchate. The imprisonment of Patriarch Tikhon in 1922 gave Bishop Alexander a reason to officially ask the Ecumenical Patriarch Meletios in Constantinople to take over the jurisdiction of the EOC and grant it autonomous status. Patriarch Meletios issued a Τομος in 1923 granting this wish “due to ne political conditions accompanying the gaining of sovereignty by the Republic of Estonia and the ecclesiastical disorder in Russia” and “taking into account the impossibility to settle this issue by the Holy Church of Russia.” However, about 40% of all Orthodox believers within the borders of the Estonian state were ethnic Russians, and their wish to remain under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate was not heard in the euphoria of Estonian nationalism. Although the Russians were granted one of the three new Estonian eparchies to cater for the Russians, several incidents of bad luck and misjudgement outweighed this concession.
In the 1930s, the Estonian State became more and more authoritarian, and the EOC followed suit. In 1932, it was decided that the reforms after the Finnish pattern, to which especially the Russian eparchy had mounted considerable resistance, should be carried through if must be with the help of state force. The revised Church constitution of 1935 also abandoned the parliamentary nature of the EOC in favour of an authoritarian-episcopal structure. This new constitution was only to last for five years, however, when the Soviet Union annexed Estonia following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939.
In January 1940, representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate arrived in Tallinn and dictated the conditions for the union between the EOC and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) to the Estonian Holy Synod which were forced to sign it. Two months later, Metropolitan Alexander was summoned to Moscow along with his Latvian counterpart, and forced to recite prayers of regret for the Estonian-Latvian ‘Schism.’ The Patriarchal Locum Tenens Sergius (Страгородский) soon appointed the Metropolitan of Vilnius and all Lithuania Sergius (Воскресенский) to be the Exarch of the new diocese of Estonia and Latvia. After a short revival of the hopes for an autonomous EOC under the German occupation 1941-1944, Metropolitan Alexander fled Estonia upon the second Russian occupation in 1944 and established the EOC in exile in Sweden, which had about 8000 members all over the world in 1961, while the Orthodox that remained in Estonia suffered Soviet atheistic propaganda and disadvantages.
The first Estonian independent government after the end of Soviet rule in 1991 decided to regard the entire Soviet period as an illegal occupation, and therefore attempted to restore as much of the status quo of 1939 as possible. When the EOC in exile came to register themselves as ‘the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church’ (EAOC) in 1993, the government granted this request without hesitance. With this status, it followed that the EAOC was the legitimate successor to the pre-WWII EOC, and automatically took over the ownership of all church assets. In addition, the EAOC initiated the process of re-establishing its autonomy as it had been under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Just as during the first independence, the interests of the Russian communities in Estonia drowned in the nationalist Estonian discourse. However, the Russian population of the first independence period was a different one from the one in the 1990s. Some of the regions where there had been a Russian majority in the inter-war republic were claimed by Russia during the Soviet time and are still disputed territories, but de facto not in Estonia anymore. On the other hand, due to Soviet labour migration, a large number of Russians had been settled on Estonian land during the Soviet rule, and were now seen as illegal immigrants by the new Estonian government. The Orthodox Church that had been allowed to function during Soviet time and especially in the late 1980s under perestroika had been a Russian-dominated church under the Moscow Patriarchate. When they were denied a separate registration in the end of 1993, the struggle started. The reason for this denial was completely in line with the government policy of regarding the Soviet rule as an illegal occupation. Namely, the Orthodox Eparchy of Tallinn under the Moscow Patriarchate had been founded after the Soviet occupation in 1945 and had never accepted the EOC’s church constitution of 1935. It was therefore part of the illegal occupation and had no right to be registered.
The two Patriarchates attempted during the next three years to settle the question on the canonical jurisdiction of the Estonian Orthodox Church, not always with methods displaying Christian love and brotherhood. In 1996, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople ‘gave up’ settling the question with the Moscow Patriarchate, and re-enacted the τομος of 1923, granting the EAOC autonomy under its jurisdiction. The individual congregations in Estonia were free to choose which jurisdiction they wanted to belong to. 54 out of the 84 Estonian parishes chose the EAOC under Constantinople, predominantly but not exclusively Estonian-speaking congregations. The remaining 30 congregations, consisting of predominantly Russian speakers chose to remain under the Moscow Patriarchate. The Estonian State did not officially register the congregations of the Estonian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) (EOC(MP)) as religious organisations until April 2002, however.
Approaches to Estonian Orthodoxy in the 1990s
Estonian Orthodoxy in the 1990s can be approached from several interesting angles each emphasising certain aspects of the struggle. Firstly, the Estonian case is an interesting and explicit showcase of the debate about the canones within Orthodoxy. The three main angles of this debate can be described as the fundamentalist, the liberal and the spiritual position. The fundamentalists regard the diverse and often self-contradictory canones, shaped through centuries of local and ecumenical councils as eternally valid and unquestionable. The liberal camp argues for a codification and rationalisation of the canones, in order to render them applicable to the conditions of the contemporary world. Finally, the proponents of the spiritual position argue that it is not the wording but the spirit of the canones that is important, and that it is the prerogative of the Bishop to disregard a canon if it does not (or no longer) express God’s love to humanity. The Estonian situation is an important case in this context, as the canones the representatives of the two churches and two Patriarchates use to justify their actions and decisions exemplify the debate.
Secondly, I want to single out two social scientific ways to approach the study of Estonian Orthodoxy. One approach takes up the thread of Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations,’ and regards the Estonian insistence of being different (and ‘better’) than the Russians as an example of the clash of civilisations. In the case of Estonian Orthodoxy, however, Huntington’s idea that religion is at the base of civilisation is blurred and this approach would seek to determine whether there is a cultural or group psychological difference between the two civilisations, which can be seen also between the two Orthodox communities. In other words, this approach would attempt to determine whether the two Orthodox Churches in Estonia display differences that are also to be found in the larger Estonian society between Estonians and Russians. For this approach, the important methodology would be large scale sociological studies and/or discourse analysis.
From a political angle, the fundamental question would be how the different actors in the conflict framed their interests and who sided with whom. First of all, such an approach would ask what role the Estonian state played in the struggle and why it acted the way it did. Here the theories of nationalism and state building take a central place coupled with theories on the instrumentalisation of religion for political purposes. The famous definition of nationalism as the political idea that the borders of the nation and the state should coincide is already problematical in Estonia due to the traditionally large Russian minorities. To what extent did the state-building process in the 1990s mirror the efforts during the first independence in the 1920s, and how was the different set-up of the Russian population acknowledged and put into the debate? Moreover, how does the orthodox insistence on coinciding borders between churches and nation-states lend itself to political instrumentalisation and how was this exacerbated in the Estonian case. Another interesting aspect would be to determine whether the Estonian political actors realised what they were doing, and how the official perception of Orthodoxy evolved as the conflict continued.
While the first, canonical approach focuses on Orthodoxy and internal procedures and debates within this Christian tradition, it leaves much of the specific Estonian situation out of the equation. The second approach, on the other hand, may be an interesting proposition, but it is virtually impossible to achieve any kind of conclusion with it, not least because ethnic divide between the Russians and the Estonians does not equal the division between the two churches. The third approach, finally, runs the danger of focusing too much on the formal aspects as pursued by rational political actors, and leave out the ‘spiritual’ aspect that inevitably accompanies any religious conflict.
University of Erfurt