Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 21

“The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomeos, canonical leader of some of the world’s Orthodox churches, was in Estonia from October 27 to November 1 to visit the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church. Denunciations by the Moscow Patriarchate turned that ecclesiastical visit into a political event with potential international implications.

The Moscow Patriarchate considers the entire former Soviet-ruled territory as its “canonical territory,” in which all Orthodox Churches must be subordinated to its authority. It concedes no more than a vague “autonomy” to the Orthodox churches in the CIS and Baltic states. Apart from those considerations of general policy, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksy II must have felt personally stung by the visit of Bartholomeos to Estonia. Aleksy was born and ordained in Tallinn, where his dual career took off in the service of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Soviet state.

While the Estonian people are overwhelmingly Lutheran, a small part of them belong to a national Orthodox church–a situation mirroring that in its neighbor and kindred country, Finland. In 1923, Estonia’s Apostolic Orthodox Church (EAOC) placed itself under the canonical authority of the Constantinople Patriarchate and was recognized by the latter as a national church. The last pre-occupation head of state, Konstantin Pats, was an Orthodox Estonian who perished in a Soviet prison. The Soviet authorities wiped out the EAOC and imposed the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate over Estonia’s Orthodox. Estonians who fled to Finland, however, kept the EAOC alive de jure and de facto. With the restoration of Estonia’s independence, the EAOC reestablished itself in the country on the basis of legal continuity–also a cornerstone of the restored state itself.

The visit of Bartholomeos has helped strengthen the EAOC’s position in the ecclesiastical rift which lingers in the wake of the Soviet occupation. The Orthodox Church in Estonia of the Moscow Patriarchate (OCE-MP) seeks legal recognition as successor to the pre-1991 Russian Orthodox Church in Estonia. The Estonian state, however, has registered the EAOC as the direct successor to the pre-occupation EAOC, the legal existence of which never ceased. One result is that the EAOC retains valid titles to church buildings and other property seized from it by the Soviet authorities and handed over by them to Russian Orthodoxy’s branch in Estonia, and now being used by OCE-MP. The Estonian state is prepared, on the basis of Estonian law, to grant registration to the Russian Orthodox congregations, but not to the OCE-MP as such.

The EAOC does not seek to regain those properties. It has at times suggested that it might charge a symbolic rent for their continued use by the OCE-MP. The latter in any case is far larger numerically because of the influx of Russians into Estonia during the Soviet period. The EAOC for its part is not quite an “ethnic Estonian” church. Its following also includes some descendants of the pre-occupation Russian minority in Estonia and even some of the later arrivals. The OCE-MP hierarchy, apparently fearing a hemorrhage of its membership, declines to conduct a dialogue with the EAOC and attacks the Constantinople Patriarchate as an intruder on Russian Orthodox territory. The head of OCE-MP, Archbishop Korneliy, rejected two invitations to meet and conduct joint liturgies with Bartholomeos in Tallinn and Tartu. Instead, Korneliy issued vehement condemnations of Bartholomeos for visiting and of the EAOC’s Metropolitan Stephanos for inviting the Patriarch to Estonia.

Fear of dispossession, on the other hand, is neither realistic nor the main reason behind the Russian Orthodox Church’s demand for official recognition in Estonia. The key goal is preservation of the Moscow Patriarchate’s “canonical space,” one which coincides with the former “Soviet space” and in some cases–including Estonia’s–also with the limits of the former Russian Empire. Senior officials of the Moscow Patriarchate accused Bartholomeos of “disregarding the fact that Estonia had for centuries belonged to the canonical territory of the Russian Church;” his visit “therefore amounted to a declaration of war on the Russian Church.”

According to those same officials, moreover, the visit to Estonia may turn out to be a “dress rehearsal for a similar action in Ukraine,” where Bartholomeos is known to be considering recognizing the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) which supports Ukraine’s national independence. The Russian Orthodox Church officially classifies the UOC-KP an “assemblage of schismatics” and supports its own branch, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) in Ukraine. Historically supportive of the expansion of the Russian state and of Soviet expansionism in central Europe, the church authorities in Moscow hope to retain ecclesiastical authority in countries where Russia has lost the political authority. “Should the Russian Church lose Estonia and Ukraine, the Russian state itself would thereby incur a tremendous loss,” the Patriarchate officials stated in Moscow.