This article has been published in a special edition of Russia in Global Affairs, May 2019
After the Soviet Union’s demise, the Ecumenical Patriarchate grew increasingly active in the “newly vacant space.” The conflict over the Ukrainian Church autocephaly is not the first confrontation to which it is a party. In the 1990s Constantinople challenged the Russian Orthodox Church in Estonia. It was then that the contours of the ethno-phyletism Constantinople style became visible. In the longer term, they would serve as the basis for the Phanar’s policies in Ukraine.
ESTONIAN ORTHODOXY IN A TURBULENT ERA
The history of this small European country with a mostly not very religious population reflects many twists and turns in European religious life. Back in 1030 Russian prince Yaroslav the Wise established the city of Yuriev (modern Tartu), where Orthodox churches were built. The Orthodox tradition was gaining strength there alongside Catholicism until the moment the Crusaders’ expansion forcibly interrupted it in the 13th century. The domination of Lutheranism followed. A strong campaign for conversion to Orthodoxy began there in the middle of the 19th century, largely contrary to the stance of St. Petersburg, where the Lutheran pro-German community had a firm foothold.
Estonian Orthodoxy began to be canonically formalized at the end of 1917, when the first Estonian Bishop, Martyr Platon (Kulbusch) was appointed head of the Revel Vicarage and temporarily of the whole Riga Diocese. He was shot by the Red Army before its retreat from Tartu. Patriarch Tikhon of All Russia granted autonomy to the Estonian Orthodox Church led by Archpriest Alexander Paulus, ordained bishop and appointed the Archbishop of Revel (after taking an oath of allegiance to the Moscow Patriarchate).
However, the Estonian authorities demanded the Orthodox Church should be independent (that is, dependent exclusively on them). Militant atheism and religious turmoil in the Soviet Union strongly augmented such arguments. In 1923 Archbishop Alexander asked Patriarch Meletius IV (Metaxakis) of Constantinople for granting the autocephalous status to the Estonian Church. No autocephaly was granted, of course. Instead, under a relevant Tomos the Estonian Church received autonomy within its jurisdiction. As an excuse for this uncanonical move (the adoption of such a decision without a proper act by the Mother Church), the Tomos mentioned extraordinary circumstances that temporarily hindered communion between the Estonian Church and the Patriarch of Moscow. In 1935 the Estonian Metropolitanate, which officially named itself the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (hereinafter EAOC), adopted its charter and obtained authorization from the governing bodies.
When Estonia was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940, Metropolitan Alexander, having asked the clergy for their opinion, made an attempt to reunite with the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1941, after a second message to Metropolitan Sergius (Stargorodsky) with a request for “embracing with love the unintentional sin of schism” the Estonian Church was reunited with the Moscow Patriarchate. Not for a long time, though, because with the beginning of World War II Metropolitan Alexander violated the oath once again to break away together with the Tallinn Diocese subordinate to him, while the Narva Diocese under Bishop Pavel (Dmitrovsky) stayed loyal to the Russian Church. In 1944, Metropolitan Alexander and 22 EAOC clerics emigrated, while the Tallinn Diocese united with the Narva Diocese to form one Estonian Diocese. As for the emigrants, they established the Foreign Synod of the EAOC in Stockholm in 1948.
On April 3, 1978, Patriarch Demetrios of Constantinople and the Holy Synod ruled: “Since at present the canonical communion of the Most Holy Russian Church with the Orthodox Church of Estonia has been properly restored and the Russian Church can again exercise its pastoral protection and care over it, Our Humbleness together with our Eminent Metropolitans and venerable brothers and co-celebrants in the Holy Spirit, having discussed this question in council, recognized it as their duty to declare the aforesaid activity of our Holy Great Christian Church completed and the patriarchal and Synodal Tomos of the month July, the Year of Grace 1923, indiction 6, inoperative.”
STATE INDEPENDENCE AND ECCLESIASTICAL CONFLICT
In 1991, the Estonian Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church was registered by the state authorities as the Orthodox Church of Estonia. In August 1992, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church granted the Orthodox Church of Estonia “independence in ecclesiastical-administrative, ecclesiastical-economic, ecclesiastical-educational and ecclesiastical-civil affairs.” In April 1993, the autonomy of the Estonian Church, granted in 1920, was fully restored under a Tomos issued by Patriarch Alexy II. The Estonian Interior Ministry was promptly notified of the restoration of the Church’s autonomous status and of the preparations for registration of an edited and updated version of the EAOC of 1935.
However, at about the same time a small group of clerics and laymen led by the chairman of the Foreign Synod of the EAOC, cleric of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, Archpriest Nikolai Suursoot held its own meeting with reliance on the Interior Ministry’s Service for the Affairs of Worship. That group had no powers or parishes or public support from the Orthodox community, but it enjoyed the political backing of the Estonian authorities, whose anti-Russian stance was gaining strength. The group presented its meeting as a “conference of parishes of the Apostolic Orthodox Church of the Estonian Republic’s citizens.”
It should be explained that in 1993 a special act called Law on Foreigners split Estonian society into citizens and “aliens.” Regardless of their ethnic background, all people were divided into citizens with the legal successor status, whose ancestors had been citizens of the Estonian Republic before World War II and all others, who under certain conditions could have a chance to become naturalized citizens. The schismatics acting in conjunction with officials and with support from some politicians and the media tried to arrange church affairs in accordance with the same templates: there are legal successors within the EAOC, whose members were its parishioners before 1940, and there are all others, who “flocked in” after Estonia’s incorporation by the Soviet Union. The aforementioned meeting proclaimed a policy of governing church affairs in conformity with these standards. The schism was based on a very special type of phyletism, not confined to the nationalist sentiment, although relying upon it. This was well seen in the mixed ethnic composition of the schismatics’ vanguard and the quantitative split of the Estonian clerics: half of these, ordained before 1994, remained within the Moscow Patriarchate.
From correspondence between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Estonian President Lennart Meri
From Boris Yeltsin’s letter of November 5, 1992:
I believe it is important to dwell upon a problem that arouses our great concern. The point at issue is the enforcement of guarantees to Estonia’s Russian-speaking population and the elimination of discrimination it is exposed to in the political, economic and social spheres.
From Lennart Meri’s letter of November 13, 1992:
In the final part of your letter you touched upon another issue that is very close to my heart—the enforcement of the rights of the Russian speaking population. I can notify you that on my first day in office I found it quite natural to address the Russian-speaking population with an extended hand of friendship and to assure it that the president of the Estonian republic is fair towards all residents of Estonia.
From Boris Yeltsin’s letter of October 15, 1993
First and foremost, I will dwell upon the causes of stagnation and—in a number of issues—of regress in our relations. The main of them is the adoption and enforcement in Estonia of certain legal acts and decisions of discriminatory nature towards the Russian-speaking population.
I do expect that all bodies of power in Estonia… will develop the awareness that taking care of the rights of Russian citizens and Russian-speaking residents and patronage for them is a permanent guideline of our foreign policy.
From Boris Yeltsin’s letter of November 24, 1994
It is no secret that we are seriously concerned about the position of a considerable share of ethnic Russians currently resident in Estonia. And this is not induced by the internal political situation in our country, contrary to the impression some in Estonia are trying to create. The protection of the interests and rights of the Russian-speaking population remains a priority of our policy.
On August 11, 1993, the Estonian Interior Ministry registered, under the historical name the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, an entity that originally consisted of two parishes presented by the so-called Stockholm Synod. This tiny breakaway group was recognized by the Estonian officials as the legal successors with all the ensuing consequences. And on September 14, the Tallinn City Court granted the group’s request for recognizing it as a full-fledged participant in the property reform. The canonical Estonian Orthodox Church was denied registration and stripped of most of its rights.
CONSTANTINOPLE AND THE SPLIT OF ESTONIAN ORTHODOXY
The principle of church split, where “there is neither Jew nor Greek,” not even by the ethnic criterion, but by the ancestors’ affiliation with a civil society of half a century ago met support from Patriarch Bartholomew I. One may find it difficult to believe but it remains a hard fact that the Prime Orthodox Hierarch wrote to Patriarch Alexy II that an “insignificant group of schismatics,” as the latter called them, “… consists of descendants and legal representatives of the once Orthodox majority in Estonia. Ethnically Orthodox are Estonians who after 45 years of Soviet occupation found themselves in a situation where they became a minority in their homeland in comparison to Orthodox Russians. <…> Do you consider it fair that decisions are made for them in their country by a majority of some other people who massively resettled there during foreign occupation?” (September 3, 1995).
A message of Patriarch Bartholomew I to Orthodox believers in Estonia of May 29, 1995, reads: “We do not find, therefore, obstacles of canonical nature to the reactivation, within present free Estonia, of the stipulations of the Patriarchal Tomos of the year 1923, which we request. The dependence of Estonian Orthodoxy upon Moscow appears as the last remnant of the Stalinist tyranny. But, even in the event that the memory of the Soviet period is wiped out in the future, we know very well that the magnitude and the might of the Russian giant will look as a menace to Estonia. We understand, therefore, some existing fears that if you, Orthodox Estonians, continue to depend on the Russian Patriarchate, you will be considered alien to Estonian society and even suspected as collaborators of the dangerous neighbor.”
In 1995-1996 Patriarch Bartholomew I maintained active correspondence with the Estonian government and the Russian Orthodox Church. Whereas in communicating with the secular authorities Patriarch Bartholomew I sounds very benevolent, the tone of his addresses to the Orthodox brethren turns ever harsher and even threatening.
The analysis of correspondence between Patriarch Bartholomew I and the Estonian authorities—President Lennart Meri, Prime Minister Mart Laar and European Affairs Minister Endel Lippmaa—inevitably raises the question if political leaders are empowered to speak on behalf of the Orthodox believers in Estonia and propose re-subordination of the Orthodox Church in the republic to Constantinople. The latter’s solution is unequivocal: “Having become an independent republic, sovereign and recognized by the international community, its people as represented by its government have both canonical and human rights to choose both the form of the Church and its status.” In other words, it is not the Christian brethren, but the government (regardless of the confession of its top officials and representatives) that is Constantinople’s main partner. The sad habits developed during the 300-year-long miserable existence of the Ecumenical Patriarch under the viziers of the Ottoman Empire have made themselves felt in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s stance today.
In the correspondence with the Russian Orthodox Church concerning Estonian Orthdoxy, Constantinople used arguments that would be applied to the Ukrainian events twenty years later. From the letter of Patriarch Bartholomew I to Patriarch Alexy II of September 3, 1995: “… An overwhelming majority of Orthodox believers in Estonia today are Russians, and this explains the decision of the overwhelming majority to maintain unity with the Moscow Patriarchate. Does it seem fair to you that this decision is also binding on Orthodox Estonians, whose number has so sadly decreased in the Soviet years? Does it seem fair to you that in their own country a certain majority of representatives of a different people, who massively migrated here during the foreign occupation, takes decisions for them? Does it seem fair to you that Orthodox Estonians have no right to decide for themselves in their homeland?
“We cannot violate the commandment given to the Church of Constantinople by the holy fathers of the IV Ecumenical Council in Canons 9 and 17, ordering this Church to listen to requests and rightly judge Christians from all local Orthodox churches, who turn to it of their own accord. This is not an honorable privilege, but a duty …
“Our memorable predecessor Patriarch Demetrios, in his striving to maintain even and fraternal relations with you personally, as the Metropolitan of Tallinn and Estonia, issued the Patriarchal and Synodal Act of April 13, 1978 to announce that the Tomos of 1923 was ‘inoperative,’ but he did not declare it void or invalid. The Tomos continues to exist and can be reactivated again, if this is deemed necessary, by means of a simple patriarchal letter, according to the tradition of our Orthodox Church.”
Here we see a canonical trick that in the current situation, after the cancellation of the 1686 Tomos, looks worthy of a circus conjurer. This is what Patriarch Bartholomew I wrote: “We remind you that all such tomoi [a clear reference to the 1923 Tomos regarding the autonomy to the Estonian Church] are temporary and stay effective until the convocation of a new Ecumenical Council, which will make the final decision on the newest autocephalous and autonomous Churches. Until then, even the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as the authority that issued the Tomos, has no right to unilaterally, that is, without the consent of the other party, to cancel the Tomos of 1923.”
And what about the cancellation of the 1686 Tomos without consent from the Russian Orthodox Church? Why is it absent from the list of “all other such tomoi?” A riddle!
And how do the European principles of human rights correlate with the following statements by Patriarch Bartholomew I in his letter of February 24, 1996? “The flock of Archbishop Kornelios cannot be regarded as a successor of the flock of the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church that existed prior to 1940, since an overwhelming majority of them are Russian immigrants who were coerced by Stalin to resettle themselves massively to Estonia in order to alter the ethnic composition of the population.” Another riddle!
Yet Patriarch Bartholomew I shows little logic in his own statements and actions, if at all. In the very same letter, he argues that the Estonians, “as a separate people have the right, in accordance with Canon 34 of the Holy Apostles, to establish their own Church with their own bishops from among their own race, especially since they constitute a sovereign and independent nation.” But three years later when Patriarch Bartholomew I appointed the head of his church structure in Estonia a bishop selected not “from among their own race,” but Metropolitan Stephanos, an Africa-born Greek who acknowledged he had known nothing at all about Estonia before his appointment.
On February 20, 1996, the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued an act to reactivate the Patriarchal and Synodal Tomos of 1923 regarding the Estonian Diocese, saying that at the request of “the Orthodox Christians residing in Estonia and constituting a worthy segment of the Estonian nation” the Most Holy Church of Constantinople “declares anew that the Patriarchal and Synodical Tomos of 1923 regarding the Orthodox Metropolitanate of Estonia is reactivated in all its articles, and also recognizes as the legal successors of the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church all those who accepted the Tomos and preserved the canonical continuity of that Church.” Also, it stated: “We declare that Orthodox immigrants of Russian descent in Estonia, who settled there during the period when Estonia constituted part of what was then the Soviet Union, will be ensured ecclesiastical life as an integral part of the Estonian Autonomous Church under their own Russian-speaking bishop.”
This division of Orthodox Christians into a worthy segment of the nation and the descendants of immigrants happened in a European country at the initiative of an Orthodox Patriarch. Doesn’t the future of Ukraine look fearsome? In fairness, far from everybody accepted this Constantinople-imposed ethnophyletism: half of the clerics of Estonian descent had a different understanding of what was really worthy and honorable and refused to support the schism either at the first stage or afterwards.
The canonical Church of Estonia for a long time remained rightless and without an official registration, which it would obtain after prolonged and laborious talks in 2002.
Boris Yeltsin to Lennart Meri
February 26, 1996
Esteemed Mr. President,
On February 20 of this year the Patriarchate of Constantinople located in Turkey made a decision to create an Estonian Autonomous Orthodox Church as its incorporated entity. It is completely obvious that this is an attempt to vest this entity with the right of legal succession of the Estonian Apostolic Church, which had existed in Estonia before 1940.
While having no intention to intervene in intra-confessional affairs of religious organizations I nevertheless cannot but draw your attention to the fact that the recognition of the organization established by Constantinople Patriarchate as a legal entity and full legal successor of the pre-war EAOC, whose existence in Estonia had never ceased, and the alienation of church assets, including churches and shrines worshiped by believers, will lead to large-scale violation of the rights of Russian citizens and ethnic Russians, which cannot but evoke an extremely negative reaction from our state.
I believe that in order to prevent this situation from evolving into an open conflict it is crucial that you give firm guarantees that the Orthodox parishes that wish to stay subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate will retain all of their current property, and also to rule out any possibility of forcible handling of proprietary disputes that may emerge between parishes.
I express the hope that you will use your influence to settle this problem and protect the rights of Estonia’s Russian-speaking residents.
“The Russian President’s Correspondence with Heads of State and Government”
Vol. 1, 1991-1996. Currently being prepared for print.