Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn. Photo: Flickr.

The two Estonian Orthodox Churches and the war in Ukraine

Unlike other Baltic states, there are two Orthodox churches in Estonia: the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, which belongs to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is part of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). In this way, the situation in Estonia is very similar to Ukraine, as there are also two Orthodox churches there, while in the other Baltic States there are Orthodox churches only under the Moscow Patriarchate.

However, the situation of the Estonian Orthodox community also differs from the other Baltic States in terms of the views expressed by the representatives of the Orthodox Churches of the ROC. Metropolitan Alexander of Riga and all Latvia, who is the head of the Latvian Orthodox Church, has condemned the war and distanced himself and the Russian-speaking population of Latvia from the war waged by Russia. He has emphasized  the need to explain to the members of his church what is happening in Ukraine.[1]

Archbishop Innokentiy of Vilnius and Lithuania expressed himself even more directly, declaring his condemnation of the war initiated by Russia and stating that concerning the war he does not agree with the views of Patriarch Kirill.[2]

However, the head of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Eugene (in Estonian Jevgeni) of Tallinn and all Estonia, has decided to adopt a maneuvering and controversial tactic. As a result of his statements and his political line, he is compromising those Orthodox members of the Moscow Patriarchate living in Estonia who do not agree with the war. He is apparently speaking on behalf of those people living in Estonia, who have approved of the war or have not condemned the behavior of the Russian authorities.

In fact, controversial statements by Metropolitan Eugene about Ukraine and the ROC began already before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On February 5, the largest Estonian daily Postimees published an article about the aggression of the Russian Orthodox Church in Africa, where Moscow has invaded the territory of the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Moscow has established a parallel structure against the Orthodox canons. It serves the political goals of the Russian authorities.[3] As a response Metropolitan Eugene published an article, claiming that the ROC rejected accusations that the church was engaged in politics.[4]

However, the war that began on February 24 has confirmed the opposite. The Russian Orthodox Church is directly involved in the war, seeing it as a metaphysical struggle with the West. In almost every sermon, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has emphasized the unity of Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian peoples, at the same time denying Ukrainian statehood and Ukraine’s right for self-determination. Week by week, these speeches have become increasingly political.

The speech of Patriarch Kirill on February 24, when the war began, was published the following day on the website of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.[5] This was followed on March 2 by an official statement by Metropolitan Eugene, in which he continued to defend the view that the church had nothing to do with politics. At the same time, Eugene warned that a lot of misinformation was spreading, which could incite hatred, urging ”everyone to be sensible about spreading rumors, and not to succumb to incitement to hatred, which could complicate an already difficult situation”. He called for prayer for peace soon, but there was no condemnation of the Russian aggression. At the same time, he said that political divisions and war must not divide Christians.[6]

Eugene has been the head of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate since 2018 and was nominated to this position by the Patriarchate of Moscow. He had no significant contacts with Estonia before his election. Soon after his election he was mentioned in the yearbook of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, because under his leadership the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate joined the propaganda campaign against the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was established in early 2019, and against the Patriarchate of Constantinople, who had supported the creation of the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Regarding Eugene’s views, the Foreign Intelligence Service considered it necessary to note that he had visited Crimea already in the spring of 2014, i.e. immediately after its annexation by the Russian Federation.[7] Just a short time before the aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate published a special edition in Estonian and Russian. In it, the Church expressed criticism about the independence of the Ukrainian Church and defended the historical right of the Russian Orthodox Church to the soil of Estonia.[8]

The vague statements made by Eugene after the Russian aggression caused a debate in Estonian press and social media in early March as to whether the activities of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate should be restricted or banned in Estonia. Toomas Kümmel, a journalist who frequently covered the conflict between different Orthodox communities in the 1990s, suggested asking Metropolitan Eugene directly to whom he was loyal to and what was the message that the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate was sending to its members about the Russian aggression?[9] At the same time, several Orthodox members of the Moscow Patriarchate congregations, led by the world-famous composer Arvo Pärt, appealed to Patriarch Kirill with a request to speak up for an immediate end of the war. Among the signatories were Orthodox from Russia, Belarus, European countries and the United States.[10]

On March 7, the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (EAOC), under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, adopted a statement calling for peace in Ukraine as soon as possible and condemning Russia’s unjust war of conquest. The EAOC statement also emphasized that people must not be misled by sleazy news and propaganda that try to downplay or justify this terrible war.[11] The Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, in cooperation with the Ukrainian community, has begun to organize services for war refugees, who have arrived in Estonia.[12] Other churches, including Lutherans, Catholics and Free Churches, are also aiding war refugees. Help is also provided by the congregations and members of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

In the liturgy, the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church still continues to remember Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, because as an autonomous church it follows the mother church, which has not excluded Kirill from prayers. Metropolitan Stephanos, the head of the EAOC, made a statement in early April about this issue.[13] However, this has still provoked a reaction among the members of his church, who, at the time of the mention of Kirill, have begun to shout “anaxios”, declaring him unworthy for his position. While usually the choir sings “many years, many years” after the mention of church leaders, in the case of Kirill the choir now sings three times “the Lord have mercy,” this way praying for the sinner and the lost one.[14] In Tallinn, on the early morning of April 14, a red-coloured reference to the Bible (Gen 4:10) and messages such as ”Ukrainian Blood” and ”Bucha” were painted on the stavropigial (in this case meaning directly under the authority of the Patriarch of Moscow) Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn, which is located directly opposite the Estonian parliament building.[15]

The Estonian Council of Churches, which brings together ten Estonian Christian religious associations, initially held a cautious position and did not rush to speak on Ukraine. The Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is also a member of the Estonian Council of Churches. Alexiy II, the former patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (1990–2008), who came from Estonia, was one of the founders of the Council in 1989. The president of the Estonian Council of Churches Andres Põder, who retired on April 1, even managed to defend the vague position of the Council in Estonian media and claimed that the Estonian Council of Churches had acted prophetically already a few days before the war with an appeal for peace. He also defended Eugene’s statement and did not doubt his sincerity.[16] This way he was probably hoping to keep the Council together and avoid conflicts. Realizing the absurdity of the latter statement, the Council on March 17, i.e. nearly a month after the beginning of the war, finally adopted a proper statement. It referred to a document adopted by the UN General Assembly condemning Russia’s aggression and expressed solidarity with the position of the UN. Attacks on civilian objects were separately condemned. It was also signed by Metropolitan Eugene of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.[17]

Unfortunately, this did not mean any change in the mindset and statements of the leader of the Moscow Patriarchate in Estonia. This was evident in an interview given on March 30, in which Eugene refused to recognize Russia as an aggressor and admitted that at the request of their church, the reference to Vladimir Putin was left out from the statement of the Council of Churches. He said he had agreed with the statement of the Council of Churches, but left it for everyone to decide who was to blame for the war and who was the aggressor. Eugene said that because he was not familiar with politics, he could not say who was to blame for the war, adding that he had instead heard the Russian side claiming that the Russian attack on Ukraine prevented an attack by Ukraine on Russia which would have taken place a few days later. According to him, the responsibility for resolving the conflict also lay on the West.

This absurd position is fundamentally in line with that of Patriarch Kirill, who has spoken over the past month about Russia’s and Ukraine’s foreign enemies trying to drive a wedge between the two peoples. Thus, of course, there was no criticism of Kirill from Eugene, in contrast to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, where in more than 10 dioceses Kirill’s name has been left out from the prayer[18] and almost 300 priests have called for Kirill to be put on trial by the Orthodox Church.[19] Eugene also testified that on March 20, i.e. nearly a month after the war, he attended the liturgy with Kirill at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, saying that his participation had been agreed already a long time ago. Finally, Eugene expressed his conviction that even though some European congregations (the exit of the Amsterdam congregation from the Russian Orthodox Church was known at the time) had left the ROC, the war would not violate the unity of Estonian congregations of the Moscow Patriarchate.[20]

It is difficult to predict whether the unity will be preserved. In Lithuania, for example, Archbishop Innokentiy expelled three priests from the church, because they were too loud in their criticism towards Kirill and the ROC leadership. However, it seems that there is also fear that congregations will change their jurisdiction Moscow to Constantinople.[21] It means that even though Innokentiy condemned the actions of Patriarch Kirill, he is strongly opposed to the idea of moving from the Patriarchate of Moscow to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The longer the war is going on, the more difficult It is to keep the churches in the Baltic States in the ROC and for that reason criticism towards Kirill and the ROC can not go too far.

On April 1, the Archbishop of the Estonian Lutheran Church, Urmas Viilma, took office as the new President of the Estonian Council of Churches. In a radio broadcast on April 7, Viilma mentioned that the Council of Churches had not considered the expulsion of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, but he also admitted that Eugene had signed the statement of the Estonian Council of Churches but had later expressed himself differently.[22]

It is difficult to say whether it is the fear to express one’s position, as it is in the case of some clergy in Russia, or sympathy for the actions of the Russian authorities. Eugene may just be a simple-minded person who thinks that the ROC can be excluded from politics, even though it is a major ideological pillar of the Russian world ideology and of the aggression against Ukraine. In any case, the position of the head of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and his political line makes it difficult to provide Russian-speaking Orthodox people living in Estonia with adequate information about the war in Ukraine. This is a problem for both Estonian society and specifically the Orthodox community as part of the society.

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Article photo: Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn. Photo: Flickr.

Priit Rohtmets. Foto: Liis Reiman.


Priit Rohtmets is an Associate Professor of Church History at the University of Tartu and a Professor of Church History at the Institute of Theology of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church. In his research he focuses on Estonian, Baltic and Scandinavian church history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, state–church relations, history of Orthodox Churches in the Baltic States and in the Balkans, the relationship between nationalism and religion in Northern Europe and the ecumenical movement in the Baltic States and Scandinavia. He has published 5 books, more than 30 articles and has edited several books and conference proceedings.

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