Letters of Orthodox Priests about the German Occupation of Estonia during the First World War





Russian Orthodoxy in the Baltic; First World War; German occupation; Lutheranism in the Baltic; religion and war


During the invasion of the Baltic provinces between 1915 and 1918, a large swathe of territory and its population fell under German control: this included Orthodox parishes and their priests. The clergy and laity thus had to face many new challenges: the behaviour of occupation forces, material deprivations, and the actions of Lutheran clerical and secular elites in the new context. This article focuses on the response to the advance of the German armies in 1915 and 1916 into the Baltic. On the one hand, the article addresses the preparation and execution of the evacuation of the clergy and the rhetoric that underpinned the process of evacuation. On the other hand, it examines the problem of the church life under occupation. As evident from the sermons and articles published in the ecclesiastical press, the Germans represented a major threat to the Orthodox faith, clergy, and church property. Thus most Orthodox institutions were evacuated from the Baltic in 1915. Finally, the article discusses the position of the Orthodox Church during German occupation of the Estonian islands seized by the imperial German navy on 3 November 1917 from the perspective of parish priests. The article is based on the letters written by priests to the bishop of Riga and provides a complex picture of the German occupation, much of which differs from the representation of Germans in Russian war propaganda. Most priests represented the German forces as being relatively respectful towards churches and the clergy: their main complaint against the soldiers was the seizure of food, horses, and property, with the concomitant disruptions and discomforts this caused. The more serious threat to Orthodoxy, according to this evidence, came not from Germans but from the Lutheran clergy, who allegedly used the opportunity afforded by the invasion to undermine the Orthodox Church’s position. This publication will provide a unique insight into religion under occupation during the First World War, revealing the difficulties of maintaining everyday religious life in a multiconfessional region during and after invasion.

Author Biographies

Irina Paert

PhD, Senior Researcher, School of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Tartu.

18, Ülikooli, 50090, Tartu, Estonia.

ORCID 0000-0002-7238-2584


James M. White

PhD, Senior Researcher, Laboratory for the Study of Primary Sources, Laboratory of Archaeographical Studies, Ural Federal University; Research Fellow, School of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Tartu.

19, Mira Str., 620002, Yekaterinburg, Russia.

18, Ülikooli, 50090, Tartu, Estonia.

ORCID 0000-0002-4549-9381



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How to Cite

Paert, I., & White, J. M. (2020). Letters of Orthodox Priests about the German Occupation of Estonia during the First World War. Quaestio Rossica, 8(1), 222–241. https://doi.org/10.15826/qr.2020.1.458