History of EOC


by Vlasios Phidas, Professor of the University (Athens)(1)

The Autonomous Church of Estonia is an important historical witness of Orthodoxy’s presence in the Baltic Lands in the second millennium of the church’s historical existence; and it belongs to the community of Autocephalous and Autonomous Orthodox Churches. The Church of Estonia was proclaimed Autonomous by the ecumenical Patriarchate with the issue of the customary Patriarchal Tome, in 1923. After a protracted period of persecutions and others vicissitudes, the Orthodox Church of Estonia now gained its ecclesiastical autonomy and its internal self-reliance.

The spread of Christianity into Estonia was related to the activities of the Byzantine mission to Russia in the late tenth and early eleventh century. We learn from the Russian «Chronicle of Novgorod» that the Great Prince (velikii kniaz) of Kiev, Yaroslav the Wise (1015-1054), built two orthodox churches in the town of Yurev (the later Dorpat and Tartu). This town was to be the centre of the mission to Estonia, and it became a bishopric of the metropolitan see of Kiev and All Russia. Several bishops of Yerev arc mentioned in the eleventh and twelfth century Russian sources: they include Michael (1072-1073), Antony (1089), Marin (1091-1095), Daniel (1113-1122), Damian (1147), Nikephoros (1185) and Adrian (1197-1198). This is proof of the continuity of church life in the region roundabout, up to the middle of the thirteenth century. The Byzantine metropolitan bishops of Kiev and All Russia were completely responsible for organizing missionary work in the see of Yuriev.

When the Russian princedoms became subject to the Golden Hordo of the Mongols (1240), their unity weakened, and so did that of their bishoprics. Already in 1217 the Teutonic Knights, crusaders from Germany in league with the Danes, had overrun Estonia and Latvia. The conquerors outlawed the Orthodox creed and form of worship, and tried to impose Roman Catholicism by main force. When the Orthodox clung staunchly to their traditions, there were harsh persecutions in which many clergy and ordinary laypeople went to their martyrdoms. This was the situation until the early sixteenth century, underpinned by the Roman Catholic Kings of Poland and Lithuania. When the Livonian Alliance broke up, the northern part of Estonia passed into Swedish hands and the south into Polish hands: after the first war between Poland and Sweden, however, the Swedes, by the Treaty of Altmark in 1629, extended their control over the whole of Estonia.

Under Swedish rule (1661-1721) Lutheranism was systematically introduced into Estonia. King Gustavus Adolphus II of Sweden founded the University of Dorpat (now Tartu) in 1632 and encouraged both Roman Catholics and Orthodox to become Lutherans. After the Russo-Swedish wars of 1700-1721, however, Estonia was ceded to Russia, by the Treaty of Nystad in 1721; but Russia granted important privileges to the German barons of the Baltic Lands, up to the early nineteenth century. These historical vicissitudes in Estonia were distressing to the Orthodox, who were put under intolerable pressure by their Catholic or Lutheran conquerors to desert the Orthodox creed. When Estonia was annexed to Russia in 1721, the local Orthodox Church was small minority in a Lutheran land.

During Russian rule (1721-1918), the Orthodox Church of Estonia reconstituted itself and developed to an impressive degree. The see of Rihkva was the leading church centre, where the work of organizing Orthodox communities into parishes was co-ordinated. A Theological Seminary was founded at Riga in 1848. This was operative until the First World War, closing in 1915, and it provided not only the clergy but Estonian public life with important figures. The see of Riga was founded in 1850, and became the Estonian church’s ecclesiastical and spiritual centre. Students at the Theological Seminary included Estonia’s first president, K. Päts; and the first Estonian bishop of Estonian church, Plato bishop of Tallinn (1917-1919), who was slaughtered by the Russian Communists and is honoured as a martyr. Russian rule ended after the Estonians’ War of National Liberation (1917-1919), crowned with the Peace Treaty of Tartu (1920) whereby Estonia won her complete freedom and became an independent state.

Political independence from Russia also increased the tendency among the Orthodox towards ecclesiastical independence from the re-established Patriarcate of Moscow. The first General Assembly of the Estonian Orthodox Church (March 1918) chose a graduate of the Riga Seminary, Alexander, as archbishop of Estonia. Relations between the Orthodox Church of Estonia and Patriarcate of Moscow were broken off, in particular with the imprisonment of Tychon, Patriarch of Moscow, by the Bolsheviks. At the Second General Assembly of the Estonian Orthodox Church (June 1922) it was decided to seek Autocephalous status from the ecumenical Patriarcate, and the imprisoned Patriarch of Moscow, Tikhon, gave his assent to this. The Patriarcate made the Church of Estonia Autocephalous by Patriarchal Tome, in 1923, and declared archbishop Alexander metropolitan bishop of Estonia.

The Estonian Orthodox Church now numbered some 250,000 believers and represented some 20% of the country’s population. Of the Orthodox, 85 to 90% were Estonians, and 15 to 10% were Russians. The Church of Estonia had three sees, a hundred and forty seven parishes, three monasteries, and other foundations spiritual; but it also exerted great influence in the country’s public affairs and intellectual life. Estonia’s president, and intermittently prime minister, K. Päts (1917-1940), was Orthodox, and so the government ministers and top potholders in the machine of state. The diocese of the Estonian Orthodox Church was ratified by a Charter of Incorporation (Law 129/1926), which was modified and added to, taking its final form in 1935. This Charter was in force until 1945, when Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were annexed to the Soviet Union.

The Patriarcate of Moscow hastened to appoint archbishop Sergey, a Russian, as metropolitan of Vilnius and exarch of Latvia and Estonia, riding roughshod over the Church of Estonia’s autonomous status and Charter even before Soviet control of the country was complete. During a brief period of German occupation of Estonia (1941-1944), secured by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1940, the Russian exarches Sergey interfered arbitrarily in the internal affairs of the Estonian Church, causing a breach between Estonian and Russian Orthodox. The see of Narva, where the great majority of Orthodox were Russians, broke away from the diocese of the Church of Estonia to recognize the authority of the exarches from the Moscow Patriarcate.

The Soviet Army finally conquered Estonia in 1944. The result was the violent suppression of the Estonian church’s autonomy. Alexander, the metropolitan bishop of Estonia, was compelled, along with twenty-two of his clergy and eight thousand believers, to take refuge in Sweden (1944). Here he organized a Holy Synod from beyond the national frontiers in order to provide pastoral care in exile, for his sorely tried flock in Estonia. The Estonian Church was reorganized as a see under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Moscow, with its seat at Tallinn, and its autonomy was arbitrarily abolished (in March 1945). The bishop of Tallinn and All Estonia was now elected by the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate, and adopted for the administration of his church the latter’s Charter of Incorporation. The Russian language was made compulsory in all parish services. Persecution of Christians by the Communist regime, expropriation of Church property, closure of monasteries and ecclesiastical seminaries, and a ban on church publications: all these were applied with particular severity in Estonia so as to crush any resistance. Estonians were also banished, Russians were settled en masse, and so on.

The ecumenical Patriarchate and other Orthodox Churches refused to acknowledge these one-sided actions by the Patriarchate of Moscow, while recognizing the Holy Synod of the metropolitan Alexander in exile as canonical. When Alexander died in 1953, the ecumenical Patriarchate appointed a warden for the Estonian Church: Athenagoras, archbishop of Thyatira. After the death of the successor of Alexander, Georgios (1951-1961), the person appointed was the new bishop of Thyatira, Jacob (1961-1970). Consequently, there were during the Soviet period (1945-1991) two simultaneous de facto authorities in the Church of Estonia, one — the ecumenical Patriarchate — respecting the church’s autonomy, and the other — the Moscow Patriarchate — suppressing it. This made for fiction in inter-Orthodox relations about such a canonical irregularity. Moreover, the mass settlement of Russians in Estonia had cut back the numerical superiority of the Estonian Orthodox, especially during the tenure of the see of Estonia and All Estonia by Alexis Ridiger (1960-1990), who was in 1990 to become Patriarch of Russia.

The break-up of the Soviet Union put an end to Soviet occupation of Estonia. The country regained its freedom and became an independent state. With political independence the question of the administrative regime of the Estonian church returned to the forefront. Legislation to register the country’s religious organizations (20.5.1993) showed up the Estonian church’s administrative irregularity. The parishes of the Estonian Orthodox asked to be registered according to the 1935 Charter, in other words under the regime of the Autonomous Orthodox Church (19.6.1993), now also recognized by the Patriarchate of Moscow (27.4.1993). The Estonian Ministry for Internal Affairs accepted this demand by the Estonian parishes, and proceeded to register the Autonomous Church of Estonia (14.9.1993). However, the Russian bishop of Tallinn submitted a second demand (5.11.1993) with the same content; but the Estonian government rejected this on the grounds that the see of Tallinn and All Estonia were founded only in 1945 and had never accepted the 1935 Charter. The Assembly of Estonian Orthodox Parishes asked the ecumenical Patriarchate to confirm the autonomy of the Estonian Church and to restore its diocesan organization. Despite objections from the Patriarchate of Moscow, the ecumenical Patriarchate did restore the Estonian Orthodox church’s autonomy (20.2.1996), and it elected bishop Stephen as metropolitan of Estonia. But there still remains the problem of the two parallel jurisdictions: one for the Estonian Orthodox parishes, and one for the Russian Orthodox parishes.

The Estonian Orthodox church’s historical vicissitudes have left indelible marks on the spiritual life of its people. The spiritual blooming of the period of independence (1923-1944) was undermined during the period of Soviet rule (1945-1991), not simply by the regime’s policy of oppression, but by the split between Estonian and Russian Orthodox parishes as well.

The mass flight of Estonian Orthodox and the mass settlement of Russians in Estonia altered the balance of the church’s flock, to such an extent that Russian believers are now in the majority over Estonians, even though in 1941 they were no more than 10 % to 15 % of the Orthodox in Estonia. The jurisdiction problem must be immediately dealt with, if the Autonomous Church of Estonia is to be reconstituted so as to assist self-propelled development of the spiritual life in a strongly Lutheran environment. The combination of the ecumenical Patriarcate’s traditions with the special features of Russian spirituality provides a reliable and well-tried method of renewing the Estonian Orthodox church’s spiritual life.


1.- Published in the Collective work THE SPLENDOUR OF ORTHODOXY-2000 YEARS (History-Monuments-Art), vol. 2, The Glory of Grandeur of Christian Orthodoxy, Athens, by the Editions “Ekdotike Athenon”, 2000, p. 516-518 [English edition].


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