Estonian Orthodox Eparchy under the Influence
of the Soviet Religious Policies in 1954–1964
F. Andrei Sotsov
of the present doctoral thesis is to examine the influence
of the Soviet religious policies upon the Estonian Orthodox
Eparchy during the post-Stalinist decade. This was a period,
which witnessed changing relationships between the Orthodox
Church in the occupied Estonia and the Soviet government.
Using the Orthodox Church as an example, the current study
evaluates the increase of the suppressions of the Soviet religious
policies and their attempt to restrict, ruin and extinguish
religious life in Estonia. This tendency became manifest most
of all in 1958–1964, i.e., at the peak of N. Khrushchev’s
The decade under discussion becomes distinct in the history
of the Estonian Orthodox Eparchy for its instability, because
the church members had to undergo various dynamic phases due
to the pressure of the foreign regime. Since the climate of
the religious policies of these times was very fitful, it
is impossible to regard the period as consistent: at times
the fear of terror and deportation dominated, then the threat
receded and the situation stabilized. Such instability was
caused by the Soviet religious policies, which – sometimes
easy and sometimes harsh – were changed repeatedly after the
death of J. Stalin in 1953. This alternation, characteristic
to the religious policies during the post-Stalinist decade,
was influenced by the changes, which took place among the
highest authorities in the USSR, and by the transition from
Stalinist totalitarian dictatorship towards N. Khrushchev’s
single-party system. There is no need for a deeper insight
and analysis to ascertain that the gradual concentration of
the power into the hand of party’s institutions and the strengthening
of communistic ideology were accompanied by the increase of
the antireligious suppression.
Which were the main changes in the Estonian Eparchy during
the period under discussion and to which extent were these
changes caused by the Soviet régime?
Having immersed into the subject the author of the given thesis
provides a detailed insight into the dynamics of the Soviet
religious policies and enables, from the pragmatic-genetic
point of view, to reconstruct the following periods and also
the accentuations of the relations between the Soviet authorities
and the Estonian Eparchy.
In 1954–1955 the Soviet religious policies had only a weak
impact on the Estonian Eparchy, being limited foremost on
establishing the sale standards for agricultural and meat
products for the parish priests and involving the clergy into
some soviet-patriotic activities. The summer of 1954 is considered
as a dramatic change in the religious policies, as in this
period Kremlin’s attempt to carry out a turnaround towards
harshening the religious policies proved to be unsuccessful,
since the milder orientation (G. Malenkov, V. Molotov, N.
Bulagin) won the struggle for power. The incident resulted
in abolition of the anti-religion decree of the Central Committee
of the USSR in November 1954. The three-month-period of the
harsh religious policies did not affect the eparchy seriously.
The warm winds causing „thaw” in the Soviet religious policies
reached the Estonian Eparchy first in the second half of 1955.
The liberalisation of the relations between the state and
the Church enlivened the religious life of the eparchy as
well as the economic climate. Due to the reconstitution of
the administrative institution of the eparchy – the Council
of the Estonian Eparchy, the era of the „remote-control” of
the eparchy was brought to an end. Commissioner’s relations
with the eparchy could be described as a kind of patronage,
being limited to collecting statistical data of religious
practices. Though the authorities of the Estonian SSR formally
accepted the liberal religious policies by Moscow, the same
attitude was not really applied to the relations between the
local authorities and the congregations and this, in turn,
was a cause for some conflicts.
In 1956–1957 the issue of religion was shadowed by the consequences
of the power struggle in the highest ranks of the Party in
the USSR and the complications of the internal and external
affairs, caused by the struggle. The local commissioner sought
to go along with the liberalisation of the religious policies
and, in relation to the Estonian Eparchy, to act according
to the decree of November 1954, which defended the freedom
of religion and called for the rejection of the vulgar, more
aggressive atheistic propaganda.
The actuality, for example, that in 1957 the right for pension
was extended also for Estonian Orthodox Eparchy’s sacristans,
provides proof for the lenience of the Soviet régime towards
the church. The years 1956–1957 were a period of respite for
the Estonian Eparchy: the repressed clerics returned to their
homeland; bishop Joann visited frequently the congregations;
there were attempts to reopen the congregations, which had
been closed earlier; the clerics stood up for the tradition
of teaching catechism to young people and for the new calendar.
Eparchy’s independence from the governmental power during
this period has also been confirmed by the eparchy’s low involvement
in the activities that were characterized by Soviet patriotism.
At the end of 1957 the power struggle of the leading party
members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU)
escalated anew. The power was concentrated into the hands
of N. Khrushchev and the active reformation of the official
ideology brought the former, liberal relations between the
Church and the state to an end. The earlier policies were
declared null and void, and systematic harshening of the Stalinist
legislation applying to the religious cult was taken up.
The first step towards the implementation of these changes
at the local level was to engage the media of the Estonian
SSR in upgrading the atheistic propaganda. The second step
contained the replacement of the collective of the Council
for Russian Orthodox Church Affairs (CROC) and of the Council
of Religious Affairs and also a change in the attitudes of
these institutions. The third step was to ruin the economic
life of the Church by means of the decree of the Council of
Ministers of the USSR of October 1958.
The commissioner cancelled the reopening of the congregations
(e.g. Tiirimetsa and Mõnnuste). Furthermore, acting on orders
of Moscow, he began with the liquidation of the congregations.
Since 1960 the liquidation acquired a determined and violent
How was the change of the religious policies in 1958–1961
manifested in the Estonian Eparchy? The first percussion was
caused by media’s attacks towards clerics and believers, as
well as by the clerics who became apostates or quit their
vocation. Secondly, the restrictions of the Soviet fiscal
policy aggravated the economic situation of the eparchy generally.
Thirdly, pursuant to the orders from Moscow, the commissioner
shut down the congregations. In 1958–1961 there were deregistered
three congregations, two prayer houses and the Kuremäe monastery
representation in Tallinn. Furthermore, there were several
additional restrictions, e.g. ban of pilgrimages to holy places
and veneration of relics. From all of these administrative
measures against the Church, the most noticeable is the congregation
reform of 1961. This reform ordered the separation of clerics
from the financial and economic activities of the congregation.
The established situation instigated the clergy’s discontent
with Bishop Joann`s activity in stopping the pressure against
the religion. CROC, in turn, started to revise the activities
of the commissioner P. Kapitonov. Both cases led to the replacement
of the bishop and the commissioner by the bishop Aleksius
(Ridiger) and the commissioner J. Kanter, who were more progressive
in the authorities’ point of view.
Intolerance towards religion gained strength especially in
1962–1964. Everything that was elaborated and given a trial
during the previous four years now obtained a judicial form
and became legal. In other words, the reformed legislation
applying to the religious cult was used for interfering in
the congregational life and to supervise the clergy and the
members of the congregations.
The new commissioner J. Kanter held in his position a very
strong view against the Church. His motto could be quoted
as: to impose total control upon the Church members, to restrict
the religious life, and to ruin its economic base. The realisation
of this motto began with the campaign against the violation
of the law applying to the religious cult. Furthermore, the
propaganda against religion was fully supported and new forms
were found for the propaganda, e.g. introducing Soviet ceremonies.
Furthermore, all activities of the eparchy were under close
control. In this period the interference with the Church’s
internal employment policies and deregistration, threatening
and other methods to discipline the church members became
a part of everyday life.
The second phase of the realisation of the motto aimed to
the massive deregistration of the Orthodox Churches, as well
as the almost tenfold increase of the insurance contribution
for congregations in 1963, and further media’s attacks against
religion (e.g. articles, which denigrated clergy’s reputation
and satirized religious feelings). What was the result of
these attacks? In this period, for example, 19 Orthodox congregations
and 5 chapels were deregistered in the ESSR, i.e., 74% of
the sanctuaries were closed in the given decade. Furthermore,
the number of religious practices of the eparchy (baptisms,
church weddings, funerals) decreased visibly. Due to the eparchy’s
poor economic situation, bishop Aleksius had to ask for more
donations from the congregations to cover eparchy’s administrative
This doctoral thesis has performed its task – to handle systematically,
while taking into consideration the historical background,
the influence of the Soviet religious policies upon the Estonian
Orthodox Eparchy in 1954–1964, and in addition the changes
and reactions to the authorities’ growing suppression during
the period under discussion. By solving the problems raised
in the research questions, the following conclusions were
1. The changes in the administration of the Estonian Eparchy
and in the personnel of the clergy were caused when the following
radical steps were taken by the Soviet religious policies:
• In 1954 a new direction of the religious policies was shaped;
• In 1955–1957 the religious life became more vivid due to
the milder religious policies, prevalent in this period;
• In 1958–1961 a period of harshening followed, characterised
by the atheistic propaganda and several economic and other
restrictions for the congregations;
• In 1962–1964 the route was set towards ultimate liquidation
of the church and religion.
2. Concerning the changes in the Estonian Eparchy’s administration
and clergy, it is quite certainly possible to differentiate,
which of these changes were caused by the suppression of the
Soviet religious policies and which were not. In consequence
of the official restraint, the administrative body of the
eparchy, loyal to the authorities, became a kind of a political
tool or assistant in the implementation of the restrictions
applying to the religious cults at the end of the 1950-ties.
Independent of the authorities and the official course, there
were some differences in points of view of the Estonian clergy
in the middle of the 1950-ties about the calendar reform and
the legalisation of teaching the catechism to young people.
3. The local authorities and the commissioner of the CROC
had a crucial influence on the eparchy’s activities. The commissioner
was the leading figure in the religious policies and in implementing
the atheistic propaganda. He dealt with the supervision of
the religious policies and according restrictions in particular
at the end of the 1950-ties. During the previous period his
main functions were to observe the eparchy statistically and
to enable the activities in accordance with the law. The bishop
and the central administration were reticent implementers
of the guidelines and restrictions. The main problem was the
exertion of the restrictions at the grass-root level, i.e.,
at the level of the congregations, and not that much at the
level of the eparchy’s administration and the commissioner.
Bodies of power, in turn, organized control over the implementation
of the restrictions at the level of congregation. This, for
example, is well conspicuous in the forced liquidation process
of the congregations.
4. In connection with the formation of the control-mechanisms
and with different forms of hostility towards Church, it became
evident that the liberalisation and „thaw” processes were
just short-term ones – covering only the years 1956 and 1957.
Therefore, it would be more appropriate to call the influence
of the Soviet religious policies on the Estonian Eparchy during
the post-Stalinist decade rather „hoarfrost” than „thaw”.
In 1958–1964 the administrative suppression increased, the
congregations were shut down by force and the number of clerics
decreased rapidly. Although the attacks against the Church
were carefully planned and systematic, there were still some
setbacks, e.g. due to the confrontation (that is – lack of
interest) of the local administrative institutions in1963
to form controlling commissions.
the time period under discussion with the previous and following
ones, the following changes in the emphasis of the religious
• The main difference, compared to the Stalinist religious policies,
lies in the fact, that N. Khrushchev`s rule did not regard the
Orthodox Church as means for decreasing the influence of the
Lutheran Church anymore, but as being an ideological foe like
all the other churches and religious unions, which had no place
in the communist society.
• The influence of the post-Stalinist religious policies is
not limited only to the period under discussion, but it also
is important for understanding and evaluating the stagnation
period. Though the main traits of the atheistic ideology officially
dominated also during the following decades under the rule of
L. Brežnev, it had already lost its former force and aggressiveness
it had had in 1958–1964.
• In the first half of the 1960-ties the first weaknesses and
set-backs occurred in the prevalent religious policies. In the
middle of the 1960-ties dissidents (like e.g. priests Gleb Jakunin
and Nikolai Eschliman) appeared in the Moscow Eparchy and their
calls for a protest reached also the Western world, where freedom
of religion, as claimed by the USSR, was now regarded with suspicion.
• At the local level, the first failures of the official religious
policies emerged already in 1963. The assignment of the commissions,
which were formed to control the legislation applied to the
religious cult, for example, turned out to be inefficient in
several administrative units and the chairman of the CROC demanded
J. Kanter to make the administration of the clerics easier.
The overview concerning the set of problems under discussion
in this doctoral thesis is far from being exhaustive for understanding
all the facets of the religious landscape in the post-Stalinist
decade in Estonia. Therefore there are still several issues,
waiting to be dealt with, like for example: the history of the
Estonian Eparchy according to the archives of the Moscow Eparchy;
the history of the Orthodox deaneries and congregations in the
period under discussion; the unofficial history of the eparchy,
reconstructed on the basis of collecting and analysing the memories
of the ordinary believers. All these themes will introduce new
facets in the relations between the Estonian Eparchy and the
Soviet authorities and would allow us to explore these relations
more efficiently. There should be done a more comprehensive
comparative research concerning all the suppressed churches
and religious unions.