Church in Soviet Estonia

​Soviet Estonia formally recognised freedom of religion, but all possible direct and indirect hurdles were set for religious people and their congregations in their daily lives. Buildings and land used by the church were nationalised in 1940 after the Republic of Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union; congregations had to pay an exorbitant rent for them. Despite the general anti-church activities, the situation of churches and congregations in Soviet Estonia varied. The two biggest confessions, the Lutheran and Orthodox, fared much better than others. Church organisations and most congregations of these two were allowed to continue, although everything was rigorously controlled. Both were strongly influenced by the KGB, as the agents of the latter had infiltrated into the congregations. The authorities were harsher on smaller confessions, such as the Evangelical Baptists, Methodists and others, closing down congregations or forcing them to unite. The activity of some churches was stopped altogether, for example the Jehovah’s Witnesses who openly declared the unlawfulness of the Soviet power, and they were repressed on the basis of their religion.

At the same time the authorities tried to diminish the role of church in society by atheist propaganda and promoting various secular customs. Christmas was replaced by New Year’s holidays, where some customs imitated the traditions associated with Christmas. In order to suppress Christian confirmation, young people were invited to spend summer days, together, which took place for the first time in 1957. In the following years other substitute rituals were introduced: secular memorial days of the dead became quite popular in Estonia. Secular burials and weddings were made grander and more festive. Church funeral services were still quite regular throughout the Soviet period.

The aim of atheist propaganda, especially vigorous from the late 1950s onwards, was to evoke a hostile or at least indifferent attitude in society towards the church and religion. It was not unsuccessful with the younger generation. Depending on local circumstances and authorities, younger people who observed religious traditions with their parents (especially those belonging to the Komsomol) could well be persecuted at work or at school by their bosses or teachers. More atheist publications and articles in the press were published. By the 1960s the church had lost its traditional moral and balancing role in the daily lives of Estonians. However, despite repression and propaganda, the church essentially remained the only public organisation in Soviet Estonia, which managed to resist being fully dominated by the ruling regime. The church thus fulfilled a role of intellectual opposition in Soviet society.

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