Patriarch Alexei II prays at his parents’ grave in Tallinn. (photo: stringer/AFP/Getty Images)
St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn was built between 1894 and 1900.
Tucked in a remote corner of northern Europe on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, lie the republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These nation states possess distinct cultures, languages and peoples, yet they have shared a common history and fate. Squeezed between larger and more powerful peoples — Danes and Germans to the west, Swedes to the north, Poles to the south and Russians to the east — theirs is a history of domination and subjugation. Each neighboring power has struggled to capture their hearts, minds, souls and wealth.
Northern Crusades. The Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were the last European peoples to embrace Christianity. At the end of the 12th century, Pope Celestine III called a crusade to convert the non-Christian tribes of the Baltic Sea. These Northern Crusades, conducted by military orders allied with the Catholic kings of Denmark and Sweden, succeeded in converting the Baltic peoples by the 14th century.
Christianity, however, was not unknown among them. The Slavs of Kievan Rus, especially those in the nearby city of Novgorod, had established mission churches throughout the region since they embraced Christianity in its Byzantine form in the 10th century. The Kievan Rus — whose descendants today include Belarussians, Carpatho-Rusyns, Russians and Ukrainians — maintained close trading partnerships with the various Baltic tribes, whose amber, flax, honey and timber were particularly valued among the Byzantines. Some Baltic tribal leaders even adopted the Byzantine religion of the Rus, erected churches, ordered their peoples to be baptized and had them instructed in the Orthodox faith.
The military orders who carried out the Northern Crusades, especially the knights of the Teutonic Order, did not end their exploits with the establishment of Catholic states in the Baltic, which included the Duchy of Estonia. They also incorporated Orthodox principalities into their realm — which Pope Innocent III called Terra Mariana, or Land of Mary in Latin — and imposed Catholicism. In 1240, Catholic knights invaded Orthodox Rus, capturing the city of Pskov, then attacked Novgorod, which had remained independent despite the marauding Mongols, who at the same time were devastating other cities of Kievan Rus.
On 5 April 1242, the reigning prince of Novgorod, Alexander Nevsky, lured the Catholic knights on the frozen surface of Lake Peipus, where they were crushed by Nevskys cavalry. The Battle of the Ice, known in Russian as the Slaughter on the Ice, ended the efforts of the Teutonic Knights to advance Catholicism among the Orthodox Rus and drew a definitive northern border between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East.
Though routed in the East, the Teutonic Order consolidated its holdings in the Baltic and formed the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights, or Ordensstaadt. In 1525, the 37th grand master of the order, Albert of Brandenburg-Ansbach, embraced the reforms of Martin Luther, secularized the Ordensstaadt and, after offering fealty to the kings of Poland, established the Duchy of Prussia, the first Protestant state.
Baltic Germans and Russia. With the imposition of Swedish rule in the latter half of the 16th century, Estonia became an integral component of Lutheran Scandinavia. This ended in 1721 when Peter the Great, Russias reformist tsar, defeated the Swedes in the Great Northern War. Estonia, along with neighboring Latvia, was formally ceded to the Russian Empire. In an unusual gesture, the tsar confirmed the privileges of the Baltic nobility and burghers, including their governing bodies and the character of the Lutheran Church.
Estonias nobility, largely made up of Baltic German landowners, played leading roles in the post-Petrine Russian Empire. Functioning as bureaucrats and military leaders (even assuming the highest levels of state, intermarrying with the Romanov dynasty), they advanced the Russian Empire, helping to transform it from a medieval Orthodox theocracy into a modern, albeit overly bureaucratic, state.
Unlike Poland and other Russian-occupied territories, the Duchy of Estonia was largely unaffected by the waves of Russification that marked the rule of the tsars through the 1870s. Yet individual families, especially those in prominent governing or military positions, eventually adopted Orthodoxy. Russian merchants also moved into the duchy — especially its commercial cities, such as Reval (now Tallinn) — bringing with them their culture, their families and their faith.
After a famine in 1845, some 64,000 Estonian peasants (about a third of the peasantry) embraced Orthodoxy when rumors spread about the availability of land to Orthodox converts. The rumors proved unfounded, however, and some 35,000 peasants attempted to return to the Lutheran faith, an unlawful act in Orthodox Russia. The Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Russia, nevertheless, erected an eparchy in the city of Riga (the capital of present-day Latvia) in 1850 and extended ecclesiastical jurisdiction throughout Estonia, erecting parishes and building churches for Estonias Orthodox population.
Attempts to Russify Estonia intensified after the unification of Germany in 1871 and its ascendancy in Central Europe. Fearful of a German-friendly population just 50 miles from the capital of St. Petersburg, Russias last two tsars instituted a program of reforms in Estonia, replacing the Estonian and German languages with Russian in the courts and government administration. Large numbers of soldiers were stationed in Estonian cities and Russian Orthodox churches were built to symbolize Russian power and might.
After World War I, when Estonia declared its independence from post-tsarist Soviet Russia, about 15 percent of Estonias population belonged to the Orthodox Church.
Soviets and Nazis. Soon after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in 1917, an assembly of prominent Estonian Orthodox clergy and laity met in Reval to nominate a candidate to lead their church as bishop.
The pastor of the Estonian parish in St. Petersburg, Paul Kulbusch, was selected and consecrated bishop of Tallinn and All Estonia. Taking the name Platon, the new bishop was arrested in January 1919 by Soviet agents and detained in the Estonian city of Tartu. As Estonian troops approached the city, he and four priests who had been imprisoned together, two Orthodox and two Lutheran, were stabbed and shot to death. The Orthodox Church commemorates Bishop Platon and his companions on 19 January.
Virulent Soviet persecution of the Russian church prompted another general assembly in Estonia to petition the Russian Orthodox leadership for Estonian Orthodox autonomy, which was granted in 1920. However, further instability in Soviet Russia prompted the successor of the martyred Platon, Bishop Alexander, to petition the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople to receive the Estonian church into Constantinoples jurisdiction. In 1923, Meletios IV of Constantinople issued a tomos, or patriarchal decree, granting the bishops request and ties to the restored patriarchate in Moscow were cut.
By June 1940, when an independent Estonia ceased to exist, the countrys Orthodox Church included some 210,000 people — almost 20 percent of the population — more than 150 parishes, two monasteries and a seminary.
As part of a secret pact between Hitler and Stalin, the Red Army occupied Estonia in spring 1940 and quickly dismantled all Estonian institutions, including the Orthodox Church. Shortly before Hitler surprised Stalin by invading the Soviet Union less than a year later, the Red Army deported thousands of prominent Estonians — including Orthodox clergy and laity — as potential agitators. When the Nazis invaded in June 1941, most Estonians welcomed the Nazis as liberators. But they grew disillusioned when Estonia was denied its independence and incorporated within the German province of Ostland.
When the Red Army reoccupied Estonia in 1944, Metropolitan Alexander joined 100,000 fellow Estonians in exile, some 8,000 of whom were Orthodox Christians. From his exile in Stockholm, the metropolitan commissioned priests in exile to minister to the needs of the émigrés, establishing the Estonian Orthodox Church Abroad. Until Estonia regained its independence in 1991, this exiled church maintained its links to the ecumenical patriarchate.
In March 1945, with the Soviets in full control of the Baltic states, the Moscow patriarchate dissolved the Orthodox Church of Estonia and absorbed it as an eparchy. Most of the churchs former clerical and lay leaders, including Bishop Peeter Pahkel, were deported and died in Siberia. In 1978, under pressure from Moscow, the ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople declared inoperative its earlier tomos. Ethnic Russians, reasoned Moscow, made up a majority of the Orthodox community of Estonia.
Independence. For Orthodox believers in Estonia, the years following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the restoration of Estonian sovereignty in 1991 have been filled with discord. Weary of Russian intentions in general, ethnic Estonians of all faiths and persuasions have pushed for independent Estonian institutions and applied for membership in the European Union — all provocative acts according to Moscow.
Estonias Orthodox community is divided along ethnic lines. Most are ethnic Slavs — Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians — whose interests are defended and advanced by Russias rejuvenated Orthodox Church and pro-Orthodox government. Soon after independence in 1991, a dispute developed within the church between ethnic Estonians and ethnic Slavs, mostly Russians. A minority of believers sought to reestablish an autonomous church under the jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarch as it existed between 1923 and 1940. The majority, however, wished to maintain their relationship with the patriarchate of Moscow.
In 1996, the synod of the ecumenical patriarchate reactivated its decree of 1923 and appointed Archbishop John of Finland as administrator until the election of a primate. Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow, an Estonian native, reacted swiftly, removing the name of the ecumenical patriarch from commemoration during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy — in effect, severing communion.
Eventually, the two sides agreed on a resolution allowing each parish to decide which jurisdiction to follow. Consequently, there are two Orthodox churches of Estonia.
The Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, which falls within the jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople, is led by Metropolitan Stephanos of Tallinn and All Estonia. Considered by the Estonian government as the legal heir to the prewar autonomous church, it includes some 20,000 members in 60 parishes.
The Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, led by Metropolitan Cornelius of Tallinn and All Estonia, encompasses more than 150,000 members in 31 parishes. The well-known 19th-century convent in Pühtitsa, home to more than 160 nuns, is directly subordinate to the patriarch of Moscow.
Once a Lutheran bastion, Estonia is now home to as many Orthodox Christians (some 170,000) as Evangelical Lutherans (some 175,000) — about 13 percent of Estonias total population of 1.29 million. According to the governments 2008 census, 68.7 percent of the total population of the country is ethnic Estonian and 25.6 percent is ethnic Russian.
Regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, most do not consider religion relevant: A Gallup poll conducted in 2007-2008 determined only 14 percent considered religion an important part of their life. This was the lowest percentage among the 143 countries polled — even lower than that of Sweden, Denmark, Norway and the Czech Republic, considered the most irreligious states in Europe.
Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s vice president for communications.