Archaeology has shown that the history of Orthodox Estonia (and Latvia) begins in the eleventh century. By the end of the twelfth century it is clear that monks from Pskov, Polotsk and Novgorod had, like the apostles, already spread the light of Christ through peaceful and patient preaching among members of the once pagan and alphabetless tribes of the region. Orthodoxy was well-established there. Unfortunately, feudal, German-led, Roman Catholic aggression began in the thirteenth century, Orthodoxy was cruelly persecuted and the first martyrs, St Isidore of Yuriev (later Dorpat and then Tartu) and his companions appeared. This situation of spiritual deprivation was to last for centuries.
By the nineteenth century, the only Orthodox left in the area were those of Russian origin, with the one exception of an Estonian parish near Pskov. At last, in 1836, a diocese was established in Latvian Riga, which apart from Latvia also covered southern Estonia, northern Estonia being in the diocese of St Petersburg. It was in the 1840s that peasants, especially in Latvia and southern Estonia, began to revolt against the oppression of German (by then Lutheran) landlords and the harsh and haughty, colonial-style Lutheran clergy. This naturally led them towards Orthodoxy. They were seeking not only economic, social and political support, but also moral and spiritual support.
There is no doubt that they had seen the witness of Russian Orthodox around them. Orthodox clergy were just as poor and simple as they were, and that they also somehow remembered the attachment to Orthodoxy of their distant ancestors before the German invasion. (Here parallels can be drawn with the movement back to Orthodoxy in Bohemia and Moravia in the first half of the twentieth century, and elsewhere in the Western world in the second half of that century).
Now Orthodoxy had to withstand the fury of the German Lutheran governor of the area, von Pahlen, who began to persecute the Church, seeing its support for the peasants, impoverished by their German landlords. First Latvian, and from 1841, then Estonian, peasants were followed by the police, arrested, beaten and shackled. The Russian government gave no support to the peasants who were pleading to become Orthodox, or to Bishop Irinarch in Riga. He was dismissed and sent to the Pskov Caves Monastery, almost in disgrace.
However, in 1845 125 Latvians, led by a David Ballod, petitioned to join the Church. They were received and their leader later ordained priest. Now the gates opened for both Latvians and Estonians. This was now almost wholly a religious movement. Dissatisfaction with the German Lutheran pastors, many of whom did not even speak Estonian and had little care for their flock had reached a crisis point. Now the Russian Church reacted. By the end of 1845 16,000 books about Orthodoxy written in the local languages had been distributed. The seminary in Riga soon became a centre for the education specifically of future Latvian and Estonian priests. Russian priests who had learned Estonian were replaced by natives.
In 1865 northern Estonia was transferred to the Riga Diocese. Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century churches and schools were built for the Latvian and Estonian Orthodox. Much attention was paid to translation. The voluntary Orthodox Church remained very poor, unlike the Lutherans, who had rich German landowners behind them and who launched an anti-Orthodox campaign, supported from the West. The Orthodox were still persecuted. However, by introducing Estonian into services and providing schools, it was the Estonian Orthodox Church which formed the future Estonian educated class.
Between 1883 and 1887 there was a new wave of conversions among the Estonians, for the same reasons as before. Now the movement was supported by a deeply Orthodox governor of Estonia, Prince S. V. Shakhovskoy. He warmly supported church-building, priests and the opening of new parishes, also freeing the police and courts from the oppressive control of feudal German Lutheran landowners and their apartheid-like grip and ruthless Germanisation policies. It was at this time that the Swedish population on the island of Vorms also requested to become Orthodox and there was talk of appointing an Estonian Bishop in Revel. In 1891 the Convent of Pyukhtitsa was founded as a sign of Estonian and Russian spiritual unity.
It can be concluded that it was the Russian Orthodox Church and Faith which freed the Estonian people from centuries of feudal and colonial oppression and gave them an intelligentsia and sense of identity. Through the Orthodox schools founded in Estonia, there came a sense of national culture, that the Estonians were not mere peasants to be exploited by foreigners. Now they could stand on a level equal to others, knowing that Orthodoxy is international and does not denationalise its faithful.
We are indebted for the above to the article of Archpriest Vladimir Fyodorov, ‘Metropolitan Alexis as a Historian of Orthodoxy in Estonia’, in ‘From the History of Orthodoxy to the North and West of Novgorod the Great’, Leningrad, 1989.
By far the most complete and perhaps definitive work on the above question is the 1984 three-volume study by the ever-memorable Russian émigré Metropolitan (later Patriarch) Alexis of Tallinn and Estonia (+ 2008), entitled: ‘Essays on the History of Orthodoxy in Estonia’.