Recent historical background of the religious situation in Estonia

Contemporary Estonian society reflects the impact of fifty years of Soviet colonialism, which was characterised by consistent attempts to neutralise the cultural autonomy of the non-Russians. This concerns religious life as well: destroying people’s religious identity was one of the essential aims of Soviet cultural policy.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the renewal of national self-awareness in the second half of the 1980s, the situation gradually changed. On the one hand, during this period the control of Soviet power structures over religious life weakened. On the other hand, religion, which had been repressed for decades, re-emerged in people’s interest as a balancing factor in society, and during the struggle for self-determination and independence, as a connection to Estonia’s past. The Lutheran Church, which had been the predominate church before the Soviet annexation, played the most visible role in this process.

Paradoxically, religion came to represent a form of counter-culture, an opposition to the official Soviet ideology — adherence to the officially condemned view often expressed a silent protest. It was not unusual that believers were expelled from universities or lost their jobs, or that ministers who drew attention to the shortcomings of the Soviet system were repressed.

The Soviet Marxist ideology of atheism was implemented particularly forcefully in the 1960s. Young people were indoctrinated in Soviet rites and rituals. This atheistic indoctrination succeeded; the majority of the younger generation was estranged from religion, and the number of religious services was dramatically reduced. Religion and religious institutions were marginalised in Estonian society.

Immediately following Soviet annexation of Estonia in 1940, the religious life of Estonians came under fierce attack. The official Soviet policy promoted the elimination of religious institutions at every level of society. To achieve this, the Department of Theology at Tartu State University, where both Lutheran and Orthodox ministers were educated, was closed. The Estonian Apostolic-Orthodox Church was turned over to the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarchate. The activity of numerous religious organisations was prohibited. Spiritual and religious periodicals were banned. Churches and religious organisations were strictly regulated; religious activities could transpire only in prescribed locations.

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