Bishop Platon’s role in leading the spiritual resistance of orthodox Estonians during the German occupation in 1918
Keywords:history of Estonian Orthodox church, Bishop Platon, German Occupation of Estonia (1918), resistance, Orthodox clergy
At the start of the 20th century, the church strongly influenced the value judgements and the world of thoughts and ideas of people in our region. Primarily two confessions, the Lutheran and Orthodox faiths, have to be considered in the Estonian context. Starting from the Reformation that took place in the 16th century, the Lutheran faith prevailed in Estonia. Baltic Germans and most Estonians belonged to this confession. The Orthodox faith rose to the agenda only in connection with the extensive religious conversion movement of the 1840s. The Riga Vicar Diocese (covering the governorates of Livland and Courland) was established in 1836 as part of the Pskov Diocese and became an independent diocese in 1850. The Governorate of Estland was part of the St Petersburg Diocese until 1865. Thereafter it became part of the Riga Diocese. By the start of the 20th century, Orthodox believers accounted for a fifth of Estonia’s population. It is unclear how large a part of all Orthodox believers in Estonia consisted of Estonians at that time. In 1914, there were 210 Orthodox congregations in the territory of Estonia and Latvia: 99 Estonian, 49 Latvian, 29 Russian, and 33 mixed congregations. It is quite evident that Estonians accounted for the greater portion of the members of Estonian Orthodox congregations and that Estonians dominated as clerics in them as well. In 1918, 74 Estonian Orthodox priests served in at least 75 Estonian Orthodox congregations, in other words 75% of Estonian congregations in Estonia.
After the February Revolution, large-scale changes took place in the summer of 1917 in the organisation of the entire Orthodox Church of Russia. The most important innovations were the restoration of the church council and of the position of patriarch. Estonian Orthodox believers wished to give local Orthodox church life more of an Estonian character: church services in the Estonian language, christening using typically Estonian names, instruction in the Estonian language in Orthodox schools similarly to Lutheran schools, publication of spiritual literature in Estonian, and other such matters. Yet the most important issue for the Estonian congregations in the Riga Diocese was the restoration of the Tallinn Vicar Diocese headed by an Estonian bishop. The Russian Orthodox Church Synod granted permission for this in July of 1917.
Estonian Orthodox believers made proposals to two men who had been educated at the Riga theological seminary as well as the theological academy to apply for the position of Tallinn’s Vicar Bishop. Aleksander Kaelas (1880–1920), a philosophy lecturer at Moscow University, declined the offer. Paul (Pavel) Kulbusch (1869–1919), the priest of the St Petersburg Estonian congregation, also thought twice about the proposal before agreeing: ‘I knew what condition our homeland was in and was familiar with its Orthodox church life. Besides, it was foreseeable what would henceforth happen in our country due to the war: plenty of sadness and hardship could be expected.’ Additionally, the arrival of German forces in Estonia could be expected soon. Kulbusch was elected Vicar Bishop of Tallinn at a plenary assembly of the Riga Diocese that took place in Tartu on 10 August 1917 and was ordained on 31 December.
During and after the First World War, new nation-states were created as empires collapsed. As part of this process, the Republic of Estonia was born on 24 February 1918. Estonians could not yet start building their independent state because German forces shortly captured all of Estonian territory. The occupying authorities did not recognise Estonia’s independent statehood and set Estonia’s annexation to Germany, the country’s colonisation by Germans, and the Germanisation of Estonian cultural life as its objectives. Very little is still known about Estonian cultural life from that time. Its study will help to better understand the aspirations of Estonians in preserving their national-cultural self-awareness in 1918 under the conditions of Germanisation. The German occupying authorities were particularly ill-disposed towards everything associated with Russianness. Thus, the position of the Orthodox Church deteriorated, and the position of the Lutheran Church, which was associated with Baltic Germans, became stronger.
In January of 1918, Patriarch Tikhon appointed Vicar Bishop Platon provisional acting Bishop of Riga as well. Tikhon and Platon thought that Platon would probably remain alone in his work during German rule without the support of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was not known if henceforward it would be possible at all to move about between Estonia and Russia and to exchange information. Hitherto in historical literature, it has been believed that Estonia’s regular communication with the church authorities in St Petersburg and Moscow was cut off due to the German occupation. In reality, it was possible even later on in certain cases to cross the border either with the permission of the German military authorities or illegally. Bishop Platon nevertheless succeeded in sending Archdeacon Konstantin Dorin, the secretary of the Provisional Council of Riga Diocese, to Moscow to see Patriarch Tikhon in the summer of 1918. Dorin’s report on his trip reveals the mutual esteem and trust that the leaders of the Estonian and Russian Orthodox churches felt regarding one another.
The financial situation of the Orthodox Church deteriorated significantly in 1918 compared to 1917. On the one hand, the wartime economic difficulties affecting all of Estonia influenced this. These difficulties became even more pronounced during the German occupation, when reserves of raw materials, fuel, and food were even taken from Estonia to Germany. On the other hand, Estonian Orthodox clerics were left without any stable income due to the political changes. After the October Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks seized control of Russia’s finances, including those of the Orthodox Church. Starting on 1 January 1918, the church no longer received any money from the state. The Orthodox Church in Estonia was able to operate only thanks to donations from Orthodox believers.
Bishop Platon rendered very considerable services in supporting the spiritual resistance of Orthodox Estonians during the German occupation with his tours of the country, his memorandums, and the promotion of the Orthodox Church more broadly. In 1918, Platon visited 71 congregations in cities (Tartu, Võru, Valga, Pärnu, Viljandi, Riga), conducted tours in Tartu and Võru counties, and around Võrtsjärv Lake. Considering the fact that there were 118 congregations in Estonia’s Orthodox rural deaneries in 1915, the number of congregations that he visited accounted for over half of the congregations. The bishop was most frequently in Tartu, visiting Tartu’s Alexander congregation, the cleric of which was Anton Laar, who was Platon’s confidant and a member of the Provisional Council of Riga Diocese. Platon’s words gave clerics strength of soul to remain with their congregations in that difficult time in both worries and joys. According to Platon, the aim of his visits to congregations was to bring the people together, to affirm national self-awareness and their belief in the victory of goodness and fairness, and to encourage the people at a difficult time. Thereat Platon supported all nationalities, both Estonians and Russians.
The First World War ended on 11 November 1918 and in essence, the German occupation in Estonia also ended on that date. Bishop Platon held Estonia’s independence in high esteem, writing on 14 November 1918: ‘Now, on historical days, when the idea of Estonian independence has finally managed to assert itself, although initially provisionally, every Estonian wishes that this loveliest idea of Estonia will also be permanently secured. In this sense, I as well, as the head of the Estonian Orthodox Church and hence the spiritual leader of 1/5 part of the Estonian people, support with all my might the firm undertaking of the Estonian people: to arrive at its complete independence.’ Other Orthodox clerics also rejoiced together with the entire Estonian people regarding the end of the German occupation. Unfortunately, the end of the German occupation did not yet bring peace to Estonia. Shortly, the armed forces of Soviet Russia crossed the Estonian border, and the Estonian nation and church, power and spirit were in mortal danger. The Bolsheviks executed Bishop Platon in Tartu on 14 January 1919. He was declared a martyr-saint in 2000.