History of EOC

The Estonian Orthodox Eparchy under the Influence
of the Soviet Religious Policies in 1954–1964

by F. Andrei Sotsov

The aim 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 rule.
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 character.
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 charges.
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 drawn:
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.

Comparing the time period under discussion with the previous and following ones, the following changes in the emphasis of the religious policies occurred:
• 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.


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