Historical background of Orthodoxy in Estonia

I. Origin of Orthodoxy in Estonia

II. As part of Russian Empire

III. Establishment of Riga Vicariate

IV. Establishment of Independent Diocese in Riga

V. Establishment of the Autonomous Orthodox Church in Estonia

VI. Reestablishment of the Canonical Jurisdiction of Estonian Orthodox Church

VII. Estonian diocese as part of Moscow Patriarchate




Our history has not preserved any details on the origin of Orthodoxy in Estonia and on the Baltic region on the whole. The closeness of Russia, such cities as Novgorod, Pskov, Polotsk and others had an enlightening effect on the pagans and idolaters inhabiting the Baltic Sea coast. The first documentary evidences on the advent of Orthodoxy on the Estonian land date back to the XII century, but, undoubtedly, it became firmly established in 1030 together with the foundation of the city of Yuryev (Tartu) by the Russian Prince Yaroslav Wise.

The spread of Orthodoxy was not very intensive, however, it has always been a gospel bringing peace and brotherhood to the people; and only those who expressed their wish to accept the Holy Baptism joined it. It is well known that already in the first half of the XII century in Novgorod and Pskov dioceses there were rules to be followed for notifying Estonians on the coming baptising. It was prescribed by Nifont, the bishop of Novgorod (1130-1156), to notify Estonians 40 days before the baptising ceremony. The development of close and good-neighbourly relations between Estonians and Russians and the spread of Orthodoxy in the Baltic region were suspended by the invasion of German knights in the early XIII century.

But nevertheless Orthodoxy could not vanish completely. During the second half of the XIII century trade relations were established between East and West. Russian merchants settled down in the towns of Livonia establishing own offices there. The indispensable condition for concluding trade agreements was the erection of orthodox churches.

In Reval (Tallinn) the Russian settlement with own Orthodox church was situated in Morskaya (Sea) street next to the Small Sea Gate. At the beginning of the XV century, together with the revival of trade, the Russian population in the city grew up considerably, and merchants from Pskov and Novgorod settled down in the area near Vene (Russian) street, where the church of St Nicholas was erected.

In Derpt (Tartu) there were two Orthodox churches: St Nicholas church and Great Martyr George Church, one for Novgoroders, and the other for Pskovers. St George church, despite the counteraction of German rulers and Catholic clergy, preserved own self-governing system and became the centre of religious life of Orthodox believers. In 1472 priest Isidore and 72 orthodox Christians were drowned in the ice holes of the Emajőgi river for the rejection to adopt Catholicism.

The priest of the St George church, John by name, managed to escape from the lot of his co-believers. He left the town and founded the Monastery of the Caves in Pskov district, becoming its Father Superior by name Iona. The cloister had a great effect on the spread of Orthodoxy in the southwest of Estonia, particularly under Father Superior Cornelius. The fame of the ascetics of this Monastery attracted the inhabitants of the Lake Peipus coast to attend the cloister. On coming back home the people told about the Holy belief, miracles and austere lifestyle of the hermits. Some peasants ran away from the brutality and tyranny of their landlords, found shelter in the Monastery, adopted Orthodoxy and stayed there for living.

In the middle of the XVI century the Livonian War broke out: Russia strived for reaching the Baltic coast. As a result of the hostilities, major part of Estonian territory got under Russian rule. New churches appeared on the occupied lands. Narva had two of them: one in the fortress and the other in the town, and in 1570 episcopial cathedra with its centre in Yuryev (Tartu) was established. "Novgorod was attended by member of higher orders of Moscow clergy Cornelius-New from Yuryev-Livonian". These data are stated both in Novgorod chronicles and in the script of the legate of Pope Gregory XIII, Jesuit Anthony Possevin. It is unknown how long Cornelius headed the episcopial cathedra. In the chronicles of the Monastery of Caves of Pskov there is an entry about his date of passing away - the 5th of February, and his title - Holy Bishop of Yuryev and Viljandi. Bishop Savvas is considered Successor to him.

The outcome of the Livonian war was quite a misfortune for Russia. The Livonian Order ceased its existence and its territories were divided between Sweden and Poland. The Russian population had to leave Livonia in accordance with the Peace Treaties. The clergy left the land together with the settlers and troops taking away icons and other church valuables. The bishop of Yuryev and Viljandi left Derpt in 1582, and his cathedra was abolished. Orthodox churches became desolate and by the beginning of the XVIII century St Nicholas Church in Reval was the only church functioning on the territory of Estonia, but even this one was open now and then only, mainly for the coming Russian merchants and few orthodox believers residing in the town at that time.



Northern War had a major effect on the life of the population of Baltic coast and pushed many reforms. Even before Peace Treaty in 1721 new Orthodox churches started emerging to meet the needs of local inhabitants as well as the military. By the time when Tartu was captured by Russian troops in 1704 there were no orthodox churches there, so Count Sheremetev made an order to hand over the former Lutheran St John Church where the divine worship was held on the occasion of the victory of the Russian Army, it was attended by emperor Peter I. In Reval General Governor of Estonian and Livonian provinces, Field Marshal Alexander Menshikov, made an order to hand over the former Swedish garrison St Michael church, which was situated in the former Cistercian nunnery. The church received the icon of Great Martyr Theodore the Military Leader and the church got the name of Theodore.

The land forces in Tallinn got their own wooden church of the Nativity of the Most-Holy Mother of God. This church received a copy of Kazan icon of the Mother of God and an ancient military (folding) icon with the same portrayal. In public the church got the name of Kazan. For the Navy Empress Anna made an order to construct a wooden church at Tallinn Port. The church was consecrated in the name of the empress's heavenly patroness St Anne the Prophetess and Simeon the Receiver of God. The money for its construction was donated by sailors, and as the legend runs, the church was founded on the bottom of a ship that was washed up on the shore.

It might seem that together with the annexation of Estonia to Russian Empire, Orthodoxy, supported by an orthodox state, would become a governing religion, but the church itself did not strive for violence, and the state very often didn't provide any support to it. On the contrary, for political reasons, the German aristocracy were offered exclusive privileges.

During the first years after the Northern War Orthodox churches were governed by Patriarchal Locum Tenens Metropolitan Stefan (Yavorsky), but in March 1725 the parishes of Livonian and Estonian provinces were handed over to the Pskov diocese headed by Archbishop Theofan (Prokopovich). The remoteness of the diocese centre and the peculiarities of the plight of orthodox population in the heterodox environment made the parish life very difficult. The Baltic region was badly short of priests speaking local languages. The education level of those who served in churches was rather low. To avoid misunderstanding bishops from Pskov very often had to write lots of detailed directions for different occasions or even pay special "instructing" visits to sites.

In 1764 the parishes of Estonian province were handed over to Metropolitan of St Petersburg. With a view to ensuring direct control a new Clerical Board of Estonia was established. Metropolitans of St Petersburg, burdened by the problems of the capital, visited Estonia only twice: in 1783 Metropolitan Gabriel (Petrov) and in 1863 Metropolitan Isidore (Nikolsky), who consecrated a new church in Weisenstein (Paide) on 8 September and made a liturgy in the Transfiguration Church of Reval on 10 September.

In 1817 Reval Vicariate under St Petersburg Diocese was established. Vicar bishops directly ran orthodox parishes in Northern Estonia, but they resided in the capital and visited the Vicariate very infrequently.

Among Right Reverends of Reval there were some prominent bishops, such as Holy hierarch Philaret (Drozdov), later Metropolitan of Moscow, preacher and theologian, statesman and ascetic; Metropolitans of St Petersburg Grigory (Postnikov) and Nicanor (Klementievsky) as well as Holy archbishop Nikolai (Kasatkin), Enlightener of Japan.



Together with Emperor Nikolai I coming to the thrown Russian Government began to pay more attention to the old believers' communities in the Baltic region. Member of Holy Synod, Metropolitan Seraphim (Glagolevsky) of St Petersburg and Novgorod was assigned to consider the feasibility of establishing a new diocese on the territories of Livonian and Kurland (Kurzeme) provinces with an archbishop cathedra in Riga. Archbishop of Pskov was requested to provide data on the plight and number of orthodox population on those territories. The small number of orthodox parishes at that time, absence of monasteries and shortage of money forced Holy Synod to address the tsar with a petition to establish not an independent cathedra in Riga, but a Vicariate in Riga under Pskov diocese; Nikolai I granted his consent to it.

The first bishop of Riga Irinarch (Popov, 1790-1877) was a very erudite person: he spoke several foreign languages, graduated from St Petersburg theological Academy as Master of Theology; he served at Russian Embassies in Milan, Florence, Rome and Athens. Before appointing him a cathedra bishop the Holy Synod normally prepared a special instruction - a regulation on further activities. Such an instruction was written for Irinarch, too. The paragraphs about old believers and relations with people of other religions were highlighted: the Vicar of Riga was supposed to become a major Missionary.

Bishop Irinarch arrived in Riga on the 6th of November 1836, and after the official reception the activities of the Riga Vicariate started on the new site. The first attention of the high clergyman was drawn to the worship services, he demanded devotion to the duties, he was sure that preach and prayer can convince those in doubt. In relations with old believers he had a very cautious policy being sure that any unreasonable noise or radical measure could intensify the negative attitude to the Orthodox Church. During Irinarch's rule the first moves of conversion of Lutheran peasants - Latvians and Estonians - into orthodox religion started. The main cause of this movement was the hard life of the people in the region, particularly in 1838-1840 - the years of poor harvests. The indifference of landlords and authorities towards the starving peasants, rumours about the possible resettlement in other regions in Russia, pushed the people to address bishop Irinarch for help. He listened to them very attentively, helped the have-nots. Seeing the delicate reception of the orthodox priest the number of visitors increased. They began applying for immigration and conversion into Orthodoxy. All this had a hostile effect on the local authorities headed by general-governor baron Palen. Such a conduct of the peasants was interpreted as a riot, general-governor Palen accused bishop Irinarch of his instigation to it and in 1841 he initiated a petition to dismiss the high orthodox clergyman from Riga seeing a threat to Lutheran Religion as well as to the ruling German nobility in the Baltic region. The petition drew a positive respond and bishop Irinarch left Riga.

On the 4th of October 1841 a new bishop of Riga was appointed - it was the rector of Moscow Theological Academy archimandrite Philaret (Gumilevsky, 1805-1866).

Despite Philaret's cautiousness the tension between him and the local authorities was felt from the very beginning. General-governor Palen and the chief of gendarmerie Benkendorf were afraid of the events of 1841 to come back. Vicar of Riga, seeing the opportunities of expanding his flock, promoted the translation of some church books into Latvian and Estonian languages. The knowledge of local languages was a matter of special concern of his. Within a very short time the languages had to be learnt and the priests had to provide the services in them. Philaret himself mastered both Estonian and Latvian; he personally participated in editing the translated books and checking the language skills of priests. In 1846 tsar Nikolai I approved the decision of the Holy Synod on establishing theological school in Riga, the school was supposed to prepare priests for the Vicariate of Riga.

In 1844 another failure of harvest broke out in Livonian and Estonian provinces. It caused another period of conversion. In 1845-1846 bishop Philaret and the clergy of Vicariate acted very vigorously and as soon as new petitioners for conversion appeared they immediately sent a field church, priest, reader and chorister. Since October 1845 Derpt (Tartu) became the centre of orthodox conversion; there the supervision of local authorities was much less intense than in Riga. From 19 September through 11 October 2533 Estonian peasants submitted their petitions to adopt Orthodoxy. Together with the arrival in Derpt the second priest, Father Paul Nevdachin, it became possible to provide public worships in Estonian. The conversion movement was spreading: in 1845 the public worships in Estonian began in Räpina and Mustvee; in 1846 in Vőru, Sangaste, Pőltsamaa and Viljandi. In 1845 all in all 9519 peasants of Livonia turned to Orthodoxy. Bishop Philaret took certain measures to search for good candidates among the Estonians to become priests. The first of them were John Kolon and Cyprian Sarnet.



After bishops of Riga Irinarch (Popov) and Philaret (Gumilevsky), vicars of Pskov diocese, Platon (Gorodetsky) became the third hierarch and the first diocese bishop independent of Pskov.

The selfless efforts of the Right Reverends in Riga prepared good grounds for establishing an independent diocese in Livonia. Both Philaret and Platon did their best to push the local authorities to it in order to protect Orthodoxy in the Baltic region. General-governor Suvorov supported the establishment. On the 25th February 1850 Tsar Nikolai I approved the report of the Holy Synod on the reorganisation of the Vicariate of Riga into an independent diocese, which had the 2nd grade. Kurland and Livonia got under the jurisdiction of the new-born diocese; Estonia joined it in 1865. In 1850 on the territory of the diocese there were 146 000 orthodox believers, 109 churches and 2 monasteries.

The major part of the archbishop Platon' activities was not just keeping the Estonians and Latvians orthodox-oriented, but attracting new believers from the Lutheran population. With the view of carrying out these tasks as well as improving the quality of priests' training it was decided to reorganise the theological school in Riga and establish a theological seminary with special focus on Latvian and Estonian languages. There was a real urge to build and furnish churches. By the 50s of the XIX century the worships in the countryside were provided in buildings far from being suitable for churches: many of them didn't have the necessary items and even clothes, light walls served as iconostasis, icons were mainly donated by other dioceses, they looked quite shabby, considerably differed in size and manner. Right Reverend Platon thrived to provide every parish with a church properly equipped. Thanks to his efforts the diocese got 44 new churches, and this is despite the resistance of German landlords to sell plots for the construction of churches even at highest prices.

In spite of all the difficulties, by 1866, the last year of Archbishop Platon' rule in the diocese of Riga, the number of orthodox believers reached 180 000, the congregation increased by 40 000.


Archbishop Arseny (Briantsev)

In the history of Orthodoxy in Estonia the diverse, untiring and selfless activity of archbishop Arseny (Briantsev) has a very special place. The news about his appointment to Riga in 1887 he met with obedience and at the same time fear: with obedience, because he saw God's will in it, and with fear because cathedra in a multi-religious region implied cautiousness and a lot of labour. It looked so that there was hardly an area of church life that he didn't take care of. A very good evidence of his fruitful work up to this day is the number of churches erected during his rule in Estonia. On the 7th of September 1889 he consecrated the church of the Nativity of the Most-Holy Mother of God in Alajőe on the coast of Lake Peipus, 17th of August 1893 - the church of St Prince Vladimir in Narva-Jőesuu (unfortunately destroyed during WW2), 13th of August 1895 - the Epiphany church in Jőhvi and many others. The total number of churches built under his archbishopship in Estonia is 22.

Together with the governor of Estonian province, Prince S. V. Shakhovskoy, Vladyka Arseny was the initiator of creating Pühtitsa Dormition Convent, which was inaugurated in 1891 on the day of the Dormition of the Most-Holy Mother of God.

Along with the erection of new churches much time was devoted to reconstruction and refurbishment of old ones. The creation and redecoration of churches contributed to unifying orthodox believers and reviving life in parishes.

A lot of good was done by archbishop Arseny for Orthodoxy in Riga diocese and particularly in Estonia. The Orthodox Church became stronger, more mature and numerous.


Governor of Estonian province - Prince Shakhovskoy

The activity of Prince Shakhovskoy, the governor, was of a really great value for the history of Orthodoxy in Estonia. He came to Estonia in 1885; here his talent of administrator, uncommon diligence and purposefulness, clear understanding of the state needs opened up. He was appointed to Estonian province at the time when the Government, following the strict will of Alexander III, decided to put an end to the differences in legislation and management systems in the Baltic region and Russian Empire through carrying out judicial, police and school reforms.

In this respect the activity of the governor, focused at reinforcement and spread out of Orthodoxy among the local population, is of great interest. The advent of Prince Shakhovskoy in Reval coincided with a new raise in Lutherans' joining Orthodoxy. What's more, the petitioners explained their wish by their being convinced in the truth of Orthodox religion, which is professed by the monarch himself and the Russians. This movement got a massive character among the local population; Prince, understanding the importance of those events perfectly, took it for granted to support the spread out of Orthodoxy in Estonian province. He petitioned, and the Government agreed to invest a very significant for that time amount of money - 420000 roubles - for the church construction needs.

One of his major objective was the project of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Reval. In April 1888 a special committee, chaired by the governor, was established, and in 5 years the needed money was available, but Sergei Vladimirovich could celebrate only the consecration of the plot for the would-be cathedral; he couldn't see the ceremony of cathedral consecration: he passed away before the construction works, having prepared everything from assets to the site of the cathedral in the Toompea (ancient Upper town in Tallinn).

Sergei Vladimirovich did a lot for the Dormition Convent in Pühtitsa. The governor considered the convent to become very important in the process of unifying Estonians and Russians under Orthodoxy. The summer residence of the governor of Estonian province was situated in the vicinity of the convent, and the governor was buried there in accordance with his will after his sudden death on the 12th of Ocober 1894. In a year after it a church in the name of St Sergius of Radonezh - the heavenly guardian of the Prince - was built over the grave by the governor's spouse, Elizabeth Dmitryevna.


Metropolitan Agafangel (Preobrazhensky)

In October 1897 bishop Agafangel (Preobrazhensky) was appointed to the cathedra of bishops of Riga and Mitava. Vladyka Agafangel continued the cause of his forerunners with love, great energy and fatherly care to spread out the Orthodoxy and to reinforce the confession among the congregation. He exerted every effort to enlarge the number of churches here or to renovate them. In 1898 he consectrated churches in Sillamäe and Valga, in 1900 he participated in the consecration ceremony of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn, consecrated the Nativity of the Most-Holy Mother of God church in Rakvere and a representation church of Pühtitsa convent in Tallinn (unfortunately, this wonderful temple was cruelly knocked down in 1960), in 1904 - a church in Tapa. In 1910 he consecrated the cathedral church of Puhtitsa convent in the honour of the Dormition of the Most-Holy Mother of God.

High intelligence, clear understanding of the current objectives and new social and political trends. He was regarded as "liberal hierarch", despite his reluctance to participate in any political event, he disliked receptions, celebrations, didn't appear in the press; he had a special drawn to education, culture and modern technical inventions.

He directed his wisdom, tact and benevolence towards Estonians and Latvians to comfort them in their plight during the revolution of 1905-1906. He advocated the local population against punitive actions regardless of the religion and nationality of the persecuted. As it is well-known, the suppression of the revolution was carried out very rigorously, sometimes many innocent people suffered. Archbishop Agafangel established a special committee on supporting orthodox families affected by the disorders in the Baltic region. Apart from Orthodox families this committee also managed to save many lutheran and catholic families from execution.

Such humane attitude in favour of Estonian and Latvian population not only attracted people to him, but also helped to enhance the prestige of Orthodoxy in the Baltic region. The sympathies of the local population for Archbishop Agafangel were demonstrated in 1910, when he was leaving Riga for Lithuanian Cathedra: the city had never seen such a cordial and numerous seeing-off ceremony for an orthodox bishop.

In August 2000 by the resolution of the Council of the Russian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Agafangel was canonized as a Saint Hierarch and Confessor of the Faith.



In 1917 archpriest of Estonian parishes under St Petersburg diocese Paul (Platon in monkhood) Kulbush was ordained bishop. Tikhon, the Holy Patriarch of Moscow, appointed him as the bishop of Reval, Vicar of Riga diocese. In January 1918 he was assigned to be a temporary head of the entire diocese of Riga. Vladyka did his best to support and rebuild the church life, which was destroyed during the war. Within one year of his episcopacy the Right Reverend visited more than 70 parishes, where he performed divine services.

Late in 1918 Platon was in Tartu, where, despite his illness, he was arrested and, together with bishops Nikolai Bezhanitski and Mihail Bleive, executed late night from January 14 to 15 by the retreating red troops.

On the 10th of May 1920 the joint meeting of the Holy Synod and Supreme Clergy Council of the Russian Orthodox Church after discussing the situation in the Pskov diocese and Reval Vicariate, which were on the territory of Estonia, declared Estonian Orthodox Church an autonomous. In October 1920 Alexander Paulus, a priest of the Transfiguration church in Pärnu, was elected as Bishop of Reval. This election was approved by Patriarchy Tihon, and on 5 December 1920 the ceremony of bishop consecration was held in St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

In September 1922 the Council of the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church took the decision to address the Patriarch of Constantinople, Melety IV, with a petition to adopt the Estonian Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and to declare it autocephalous. Later on the Metropolitan of Tallinn and all Estonia Alexander wrote that it was done under an intense pressure of the state. On 7 July 1923 in Constantinople Melety IV presented the Tomos on the adoption of Estonian Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople as a separate church autonomy "Estonian Orthodox Metropolia".

At the suggestion of the Patriarchate of Constantinople Estonia was divided into three dioceses: in Tallinn, Narva and Pechery. Evsevy (Drozdov) became the head of Narva cathedra, John (Bulin), a graduate of St Petersburg Theological Academy, became bishop of Pechery in 1926. He headed the diocese until 1932 and left it because of the disagreements on the properties of Pskov-Pechery Monastery. Bishop John spent several years in Yugoslavia and came back to Estonia in late 30-s. He backed actively the returning of Estonian Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of Moscow Patriarchate. On 18 October 1940 bishop John was arrested by NKVD in Pechery, accused of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda and he was executed on 30 July 1941 in Leningrad.



In accordance with the secret protocol between the Soviet Union and Germany on the "Spheres of Interests" the Baltic Republics became parts of the USSR. On 10 November 1940 the Synod of Estonian Orthodox Church addressed Sergy, the Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomna, with a petition to restore the jurisdiction of Moscow Patriarchate over Estonian Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Sergy said that Estonian Orthodox Church reunited with its Mother - Russian Orthodox Church - on 28 February 1941. In Moscow Cathedral of Theophany Divine Liturgy was performed and all the attendees signed the Act on the reunion with Mother-Church.

Soon Metropolitan of Vilnius and Lithuania Sergy (Voskresensky), Exarch of the Baltic region, visited Tallinn, and the climax of that visit was Divine Liturgy in the Church of St Simeon performed by Metropolitan Sergy, Metropolitan Alexander and bishop of Narva Paul (Dmitrovsky).

Soon after the war broke out, Metropolitan Alexander declared his break-up with Mother-Church and reunion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Bishop of Narva Paul remained loyal to Mother-Church. During the occupation Germans didn't hamper Metropolitan Alexander to lead the life of his parishes and bishop Paul to be in charge of the Russian diocese in Narva and many other parishes loyal to Russian Orthodox Church.

Not long before the liberation of Tallinn Metropolitan Alexander left Estonia, the Synod of Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church addressed Alexy (Simansky), Metropolitan of Leningrad and Novgorod, with a petition to resume the jurisdiction of Moscow Patriarchate.



After the reunion of Estonian Orthodox Church with Moscow Patriarchate Archbishop Paul (Dmitrovsky) and his cathedra successors, bishop Isidore (Bogoyavlensky) and Roman (Tang) encountered the problem of ordering and reordering of church life in the diocese, restoration and rebuilding of the destroyed churches. A considerable relief for the diocese was the exemption from the charges fixed by the high church authorities, implementation of free education in theological seminaries and academies for the candidates from Estonia, who were ordained afterwards, as well as pensions from the Central Church Pension Foundations.

In December 1955 Georgy Alexeyev (in monkhood John), the rector of the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, became the head of the cathedra of Tallinn. At that time the Church was persecuted by N. S. Khrushchev authorities. On various pretexts the higher authorities tried to dissolve church authorities; they prohibited baptising and Sacraments, didn't allow religious processions. All this was common to Estonian diocese, too: churches here were also closed and destroyed, the properties were nationalised. There was a threat over St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and Pühtitsa Convent.

The care and concern of Vladyka about the diocese of Tallinn and Estonia lasted until 14 august 1961, when the Holy Synod appointed Bishop John to the cathedra of Gorky and elevated him to the rank of Archbishop. He was replaced by archimandrite Alexy (Ridiger) (later - Holy Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Alexy II).

Churches Map


Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate
Pikk 64-4, 10133 Tallinn, ESTONIA

Phone: +372 641 1301
Fax: +372 641 1302

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