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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Time of the Czars
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.
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)
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.
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.
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
Times of Change and the Autonomous Church
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.