Since the beginning of the Russian war in Ukraine, the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has stood out with controversial public statements. In this article I analyse how the leaders of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate speak about the ongoing war and how the Estonian society has reacted to the ambiguity in the church’s rhetoric.
On 18th October 2022 Metropolitan Yevgeny (Eugene), the head of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (EOC-MP), gave an interview, which was a day later shown in Pealtnägija, one of the most popular weekly shows on Estonian National Television. During the interview, he was reminded by the host Uljana Kuzmina, that when he was in the studio in spring, he had not given a clear assessment of what was happening in Ukraine. Almost eight months had passed and since then the world had learned about Bucha, Izjum, and other war atrocities, and therefore it was justified to ask again, whether the Metropolitan had formulated his attitude towards the war in Ukraine.
Yevgeny said that he had always considered the war evil and that’s the reason why the church was against the war. However, when asked again, whether he was against the war that Russia was waging in Ukraine, he wasn’t so sure anymore and distanced himself from holding Russia responsible for the war. Moreover, he wasn’t willing to take a stand on the fairness or unfairness of the war: “Whether it is fair or unfair, we cannot always say, because after some time – I also said this in the previous interview – some documents, different views may come out, and then they start pointing the finger that he said this, but it wasn’t actually so. The Church does not interfere in politics in this matter, it tries to distance itself from evaluating the events. War as such is evil.”
Yevgeny more or less repeated the message, which he had delivered already in March 2022. Then he said that Russia’s interpretation of the events and the lack of information made it impossible for him to take a stand on who was to blame for the war: “Russia’s interpretation is that after a few days Ukrainian troops could have started the invasion. – – Three to five years pass, maybe even 50, and then some documents are found that completely overturn today’s interpretations of these events.” He was then asked to confirm his position that he did not want to condemn the Russian leadership for the invasion, and he responded: “I don’t know, I don’t have the right to express my opinion here, because I don’t know.”
The reaction to Patriarch Kirill’s statement in September
The interview of Metropolitan Yevgeny in October was given after a series of events, which took place because of a sermon by Patriarch Kirill on 25th September, where the head of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) said that all soldiers who die in the line of duty in Ukraine have all of their sins forgiven. He was of course talking about Russian soldiers. Kirill compared their sacrificial death to that of Jesus.
Kirill’s sermon received a strong reaction from Estonian religious leaders and politicians. It wasn’t only the words of Kirill that caused such a heated reaction, but the ambivalent position of the EOC-MP, i.e., the fact that after more than 6 months the church had not managed to clearly state its position towards the war. As a result of that, throughout spring, summer and autumn there were articles published in Estonian media, explaining the historical and political position of the ROC and the EOC-MP and demanding the termination of the EOC-MP.
As an answer to these accusations, the EOC-MP claimed that they were attacked and forcefully drawn into politics by Estonian media. In August the Church published an open prayer to all Orthodox in Estonia, to pray both in churches and homes that their flock would not decrease because of evil people, who want to harm the EOC-MP, and that there will be reconciliation. Although several church leaders, who had before the war belonged to the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Moscow, stopped praying for Kirill after the beginning of the war, Yevgeni continued to pray for his Patriarch.
To clarify, in Estonia, there are two Orthodox churches. In addition to the EOC-MP with approximately 170 000 members, 37 congregations, and 81 priests there is the Estonian Apostolic-Orthodox Church with approximately 30 000 members, 59 congregations, and 43 priests. The EOC-MP is according to the constitution of the Patriarchate of Moscow a self-governing church (a special status for Estonian and a few other churches) within the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Moscow, and the EAOC is autonomous under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
The head of the latter, Metropolitan Stephanos, together with several other Orthodox leaders from other parts of the world expressed firmly that the views of patriarch Kirill about the forgiveness of sins to Russian soldiers were anti-Orthodox. Stephanos added: “The fact that the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church uses a vocabulary that is not very different from that of religious fundamentalism, calls for holy war as if the concept of jihad or crusade is possible in the Orthodox Church is particularly alarming. – – All this is not in accordance with the teachings and traditions of the Orthodox Church, which has no concept of a holy war, in which the soldiers who die are more than forgiven of all their sins.”
Urmas Viilma, the Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, also condemned the words of Patriarch Kirill and mentioned that the voices of the members or leaders of the EOC-MP, which would give an idea of what these Orthodox Christians living in Estonia think of the position of Patriarch Kirill, were very rare. The tension was growing and the society expected a clear and unequivocally condemning assessment, he added. Viilma also mentioned that the joint ministry of Estonian Christians would become more and more difficult if the condemnation of Russia’s war and spiritual and physical aggression in Ukraine was not equally shared.
Asking for answers from Metropolitan Yevgeny
According to the Ministry of the Interior, Patriarch Kirill’s speech was an act of hostile influence activity, which was not allowed in Estonia. Therefore, on 27th September Lauri Läänemets, the Minister of Interior, said that he expected a clear message from Metropolitan Yevgeny that he disagreed with Patriarch Kirill: ”We expect that the Metropolitan would clearly say that he distances himself from these statements and that the Russian Orthodox Church in Estonia, which is subordinate to Moscow, will not go along with such activities”. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas added in a radio interview that Russia has always used the church and faith to fulfil its imperialist goals, but the government had not yet discussed this topic: ”At the moment, we have not discussed whether to do something directly with this church in Estonia, but it is clear that we have adopted a law that prohibits the justification of crimes of aggression, the use of all kinds of symbols and prescribes punishment for it.”
As Metropolitan Yevgeny did not take a stand on Patriarch Kirill’s words, he was invited to the Ministry of Interior to explain his position in connection with the views of Patriarch Kirill. The ministry said that the head of the EOC-MP had to publicly denounce the views of its Patriarch concerning the forgiveness of sins to Russian soldiers. This was a question of maintaining the public trust in the EOC-MP and keeping the Estonian society united in a situation of war in Ukraine.
As Metropolitan Yevgeny is a Russian citizen, who has a fixed-term residence permit in Estonia, the Minister of Interior said on 5th October that the actions of Metropolitan could lead to the withdrawal of the residence permit. When these events happened, Yevgeny was not in Estonia, officially due to health reasons. On 9th October he celebrated his 65th birthday in Moscow, and Patriarch Kirill congratulated him and praised him for preserving the unity of the church. As Yevgeny was not in Estonia, Raivo Küüt, the Undersecretary for Population and Civil Society of the Ministry of Interior first met with two representatives of the EOC-MP and explained the need to take a position about Kirill’s statement and gave a deadline for Yevgeny to formulate his answer.
The state’s position to ask for answers was met with criticism by Christian conservative circles, who considered it an attack against the EOC-MP, which they interpreted as an attack against all Christians living in Estonia. Archbishop Urmas Viilma, who himself had earlier asked the EOC-MP to take a clear position about the war, now asked the public to calm down. In October Estonian media was full of articles demanding the closure of the entire EOC-MP. Viilma explained that there were members in the EOC-MP, who had openly opposed the war, so the closure of the entire EOC-MP seemed unfair. He also questioned the state’s right to ask for answers in such a manner from churches. Viilma’s statement caused a strong-worded reaction from the Estonian public. It was asked, why Viilma suddenly became an advocate for the EOC-MP, and there were even claims made that Viilma had begun to radicalize.
At the same time Minister of Interior and the undersecretary of the Ministry confirmed that if there was a danger that under the guise of religious freedom a church was defending a position of justifying the military or other actions of the aggressor state, the Republic of Estonia could not allow this and must react to it. Raivo Küüt also explained that the Estonian state had not demanded a political statement from Metropolitan Yevgeny, but explanations and a clear message that the church operating in Estonia did not support the enemy and thus did not divide the society.
Raivo Küüt’s article was partly published as a response to Urmas Viilma’s criticism and the official statement made by the Synod (acting government) of the EOC-MP. On 6th October the synod released a statement, claiming that in March they had signed a statement of the Estonian Council of Churches (ECC) condemning all wars and among them the aggression in Ukraine. They said that the church cannot make political statements all the time, because then the people with different political views would not feel safe in the church anymore. After the declaration in March by the ECC Metropolitan Yevgeni in an interview said that before accepting the statement of the ECC the EOC-MP had asked the council to remove a reference to Vladimir Putin, which was there at first or add a reference to Western leaders, who in his view bore responsibility for the war too. The council decided to remove the reference to Putin.
On 12th October Metropolitan Yevgeny officially stated that he did not share the views of Patriarch Kirill concerning his sermon about the forgiveness of sins to Russian soldiers and confirmed that there was no war propaganda made in the church. A week later he visited the Ministry of Interior to repeat his statement and after the meeting, Raivo Küüt explained to the public that at the moment, there was no reason to consider the EOC-MP as a security threat. Minister of Interior, Lauri Läänemets was also pleased that the Metropolitan distanced himself from the statement of Patriarch Kirill, “where he essentially said that Putin is holier than the holiest, the war in Ukraine is holy and essentially approved it.”
However, this was not all Yevgeny said to explain his position. First, he overruled the claim that he had abandoned his Patriarch and that there was a schism between the two: “No, he is our patriarch and I did not express any opposition to him”, he explained, and added that he just expressed his disagreement with one statement made by Kirill about the forgiveness of sins to soldiers. So, although he disagreed with one statement, he continued to share all the other public statements made by Patriarch Kirill about the war. Among them are statements, which can be considered as justification for crimes of aggression. Moreover, Yevgeny said that he disagreed with the statement about the forgiveness of sins because it was expressed confusingly. He then offered a surprising explanation, saying that in fact, the Patriarch had not incited war, but tried to take care of people, so that they would not lose their humanity in this difficult situation.
The controversy continues: is war a political or a moral question?
Metropolitan Yevgeny’s statements have deepened the belief in the Estonian public that the EOC-MP, being part of the ROC, represents the so-called Russian world in Estonia, which is the cornerstone of Russian imperialist ambitions and the ideological basis of the ongoing war. The imperialist way of thinking does not only concern Ukraine and Belarus but also other areas where the ROC operates. The church’s view on history plays a key role here. It is well known by now that in the context of Russian aggression in Ukraine, the ROC as well as Vladimir Putin speak of a united Christian thousand-year-old Russia that must be protected.
This kind of imperialist approach to history is a cornerstone of the official historiography of the EOC-MP. In this context, it needs to be reminded that the ROC decided in December 1991 that, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church must be kept together within the borders of the former Soviet empire and not allow the Orthodox churches located in countries freed from the Soviet Union to become independent.
In the context of Estonia, the cornerstone of Russian imperial history is the statement that the ROC has already established a foothold here in the 11th and 12th centuries. This was last mentioned by Metropolitan Yevgeny only this September in the EOC-MP magazine Православный Собесьдникъ. This way Yevgeny tried to justify why the ROC and the EOC-MP, and not the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, have the right to operate in Estonia.
This statement is problematic both from a historical point of view – we do not know anything definite about the Orthodox settlement here at the time – but also from church history and canon law point of view. ROC expanded to the territory of Estonia only in connection with the expansion of the Russian Empire and spread among the local population only from the 19th century.
Despite this, the EOC-MP emphasizes that the territory of Estonia is a native Russian territory, where a lot of Russian blood has been shed already centuries ago. This kind of history is alive and it is enriched with stories of saints and historical events suitable for the historical narrative, as well as with theology and historical thought, and thus Estonia is smoothly placed in the Russian religious and cultural space.
Therefore, it is difficult to speak of EOC-MP as an organisation, which could integrate the Russian-speaking community into Estonian society. The EOC-MP has not developed practices specific to the local church over the past decades, but still retains the image of imperial orthodoxy – the same one that fuels the current war. Religion is thus at the service of Russian imperial history and the political ambitions of the Russian state.
In the context of the EOC-MP, the clergy also needs attention. While the Estonian Apostolic-Orthodox Church trains its clergy in a seminary located in Estonia, the overwhelming majority of the EOC-MP clergy is made up of Russian-speaking priests, who have been educated in Russian seminaries and academies. The congregations of the EOC-MP continue to be mainly Russian-speaking, with only a few exceptions.
Therefore, the EOC-MP is more or less isolated in Estonian society and relations with other Christian churches are relatively modest. Personal relations between the clergy are more common, but even they are also rare. In this situation, it is easy for Yevgeny to say that the church is under attack.
On 29th November the biggest Estonian daily newspaper Postimees published an interview with Metropolitan Yevgeny, where he hinted that he was concerned about the manner, in which the Estonian state treated him. Yevgeny added that his flock was worried about the repetition of the repressions of the 1930s. Thus, he compared the behaviour of the Estonian state and the potential threat to the EOC-MP with the Great Purge during Stalin’s reign, when thousands were executed.
The motive that the ROC is attacked is actually more widespread – it is also discussed elsewhere, where churches are belonging to the structure of the ROC, but usually, the biggest complainers are the ROC and the Russian authorities themselves. If one compares the statements made by the leaders of other churches belonging to the structure of ROC after the beginning of the war with those of Yevgeny, the latter appears to be the most loyal to his Patriarch and the ROC. If compared to Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine, he has the shortest career as a Metropolitan, and even more importantly, he had no ties with Estonia before 2018, when he took office. He was Moscow’s candidate for the post of Metropolitan.
When we look at the views Yevgeny has expressed over the church’s participation in politics, we see how they correspond with the statements made in Russia.
For example, in November Metropolitan Yevgeny stated that the church should not react to everything that happens in society, but should do so in the most important issues, above all in matters concerning morality. He repeated that the church should distance itself from politics.
This statement is in accordance with the views of Vakhtang Kipshidze, the Deputy Chairman of the Russian Church’s Synodal Department for Church Relations with Society and the Media, who in an interview on 2nd November 2022 said that the church was outside of politics, and this was the reason, why the church will not become a part of political opposition in Russia: “It’s on the side of the people, it’s on the side of those whom it’s supposed to nourish pastorally,” including soldiers.
Firstly, this position seemingly separates political issues from value issues, although value issues are an integral part of Russian state politics. After all, Russian leaders justify the current war by protecting their values and their way of life.
Secondly, it characterises perfectly the understanding of politics in Russian society and Yevgeny’s mind. When we in Western societies have considered politics as being an integral part of democracy, have valued different opinions, considering it as an essential part of a democratic society and thus there is no major gap between the people and politics (if we leave out the rhetoric of the far-right), the statement we have here, characterises something else. It mirrors Russian society, where politics is something, which is removed from the hands of the people, where one opinion is correct, and others are wrong. Where opposition is punished, prisoned, and killed. This is why it is possible to draw a strict line between politics and the people and claim that the church is on the side of the people.
Another issue, which needs to be addressed here, is the paradox that killing Ukrainian civilians in a cruel and torturous way is a political and not a moral issue in Yevgeny’s opinion, and therefore there is no need to speak on this topic. According to him, and likewise the synod of the EOC-MP, it is enough to refer to the statement adopted by the ECC in March, in which the war was condemned. Meanwhile, the slaughter in Ukraine continues.
It must be emphasized that there are EOC-MP members, who think differently than Yevgeny and the leadership of the ROC. The local Orthodox community, as well as the public, plays an important role in determining the future of the EOC-MP.
Already in March 2022, the laity of the EOC-MP published a statement calling on the heads of the ROC to speak up against the war so that the bloodshed would end. A new statement was made public after the sermon made by Kirill in September. On 30th September, a group of Estonian Orthodox called Yevgeny to clearly state his position on the war and Kirill’s statements. Even more remarkable is the proposal to start thinking about convening an Orthodox church council that would discuss the issue of the possible autocephaly of the EOC-MP. Yevgeni then replied that the EOC-MP is already an independent church in administrative matters, but admitted that canonically the church is subordinate to the ROC. According to him, the church is too small for autocephaly, although there are other small churches in the family of autocephalous Orthodox churches.
Although the situation has calmed down after the clash in September and October, there are some cracks in the EOC-MP. It is correct to presume that the longer the war lasts, the more we will see propositions to leave the structure of the ROC, as has happened in Latvia and elsewhere. Legally, however, it is difficult, and congregations can’t leave the church without the permission of its central bodies. There are, of course, other options: a smaller group could leave and start acting on its own, some members may join one of the Russian Orthodox communities outside of Russia, or may wish to join the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church instead.
Distrust towards the EOC-MP in Estonian society continues. In December 2022, Martin Repinski, a member of the Estonian Parliament Riigikogu wanted to support the EOC-MP Jõhvi congregation in Eastern Estonia with 25,000 euros. Once a year, members of the parliament hand out regional grants, and while the scheme has been criticized every year for its lack of transparency, in this case, the criticism was about the security and loyalty of the EOC-MP. The Chairman of the Parliament’s Finance Committee, Aivar Kokk, explained that the members of the committee thought that with today’s security issues, it was not justified to give money to this NGO. „The members of the commission unequivocally supported this proposal,” Kokk told.
Political sensitivity in supporting the ROC is not a new thing. Its roots lie in the so-called ‘Eastern money scandal’ in 2011, when the Mayor of Tallinn and the Chairman of the Central Party, Edgar Savisaar, turned to the head of the Russian Railways, Vladimir Jakunin, with a request to help finance the construction of the Lasnamäe Orthodox church and, under this pretext, the party’s election campaign. The deal was cut off by the Estonian Internal Security Service. Jakunin, who was a close ally of Vladimir Putin from the 1990s and like Putin served in the ranks of the KGB during the Soviet era, was also one of the board members of the Russkii Mir Fund when the scandal broke out. Regardless of the scandal, the foundation headed by Jakunin (Фонд Андрея Первозванного) still helped to finance the construction of Lasnamäe church, and so it became clear to the Estonian public that Russian money and influence were behind the EOC-MP church construction.
In February 2011, Jakunin was in Estonia and gave an interview to the Estonian press. What he said sounds familiar even today. For example, he criticized that EOC-MP in Estonia was unwillingly drawn into politics, and the church had nothing to do with politics. Jakunin claimed that the persons criticising him were traitors, people, who already during the Soviet era did nothing but steal. ”We are still working, but they are engaged in all kinds of propaganda,” he added.
Besides the external threat, what the Russian authorities and Patriarch Kirill believe is behind this war, both usually mention traitors among their own people. This is something we have recently witnessed in Estonia too. Russian propaganda attacks those who have analyzed what is happening in the church and have brought to light the ambivalent position of the EOC-MP. This is done to embrace the Russian population living in Estonia.
Here is an example. The website Baltnews published an article on 12th October targeting Andrei Šiškov, who currently works at the University of Tartu. He is a well-known researcher, who once made a career in the structure of ROC, but left Russia at the beginning of the war and often analyses the ROC and its statements. According to Russian propaganda, he was a researcher, who has become a Western propagandist. However, the article, where he is attacked, is also interesting because it states outright that Russians are killing Nazis in Ukraine. According to the article, Šiškov is a critic, who wants to contrast Metropolitan Yevgeny with ordinary church members, claiming that because of Yevgeny’s actions, church members fear that the EOC-MP will be closed.
Since the beginning of the war, several Russian propagandists and provocateurs have been expelled from Estonia. Their residence permits have been revoked and they have been banned from entering the Schengen area. Among them is Aleksander Kornilov, one of the initiators of Baltnews and baltija.eu. His residence permit was revoked in December 2022 and he was banned from entering the Schengen area for 5 years.
On 17th October 2022, a seminar dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the Agreement of Common Interests between the Council of Estonian Churches and the Government of the Republic of Estonia was held in the Estonian Parliament. There, Secretary of State Taimar Peterkop took the floor for the opening speech and said that a general condemnation of war by churches was not enough and that silence was not acceptable. ”Our people need clear moral guidance and judgment. And this assessment should not be based on politics, but on the values and morals of the religious organizations themselves, because silence undermines the validity of our common values and agreements, and in addition, it reduces our religious associations from the position of a moral beacon”.
While the Estonian churches have done a lot to help Ukrainian refugees and the statements made by the Patriarch of the ROC have also been criticized by the leaders of Estonian religious associations, Yevgeny’s views have received little attention. Nor have they asked Yevgeny who is killing civilians in Ukraine and is responsible for the war, who needs to repent because of it to reconcile, and whether what is happening is a matter of moral or just a political question.
At the same time, a large part of the Russian-speaking population hears Yevgeny and finds out that all wars are bad, that peace must be prayed for, and that refugees must be helped, but that Russia is not the only one to blame for the war. Therefore, Russia can be understood and not condemned. This can be considered a potential threat to maintaining the unity of Estonian society.
The article picture shows Yevgeny, the head of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Read also: Priit Rohtmets, The Two Estonian Orthodox Churches and the War in Ukraine. Vartija 17.4.2022.