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The Latvian Orthodox Church

Latvia became part of the Russian Empire in the 18th century. At this time, radical changes took also place in the territory of Latvia in terms of the relationship between the Church and the State, because the Orthodox Church in Russia was then part of the state administration apparatus. In 1710, after the capture of Rīga and the central part of Latvia (Vidzeme), an agreement was reached between the German aristocracy and the Russian state concerning the maintenance of the Lutheran Church and schools at the expense of the state, as well as about the free spread of Orthodoxy within the conquered territory. This juridical parity principle between the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Russian Orthodox Church remained until the early 19th century, when the Russian Empire went down the path of ethnic and religious state unification. In 1832, this legal parity disappeared as the status of the Evangelical Lutheran Church was reduced (it became an established religional church), while the status of the Orthodox Church was increased (to that of established State church). The Orthodox Church became an important pillar of the Russian imperialist policy, facilitating the program of Russification. The Orthodox Church’s privileges were not taken away during the reform period of the 1860s, and Latvia was subjected to an unprecedented powerful and systematic Russification, combined with the imposition of Orthodoxy, in the 1880s-1890s. Historically, each ethnic group in Latvia had become entwined with one of the religious denominations, and, as a result of the policies implemented in the Russian Empire, the society became more markedly divided into a variety of ethnic and denominational groups.

With the subjugation of the entire territory of Latvia by Russia (1795), the construction of Orthodox churches in Latvia began, even though in 1800 only 0.6% of the population was Russian. In 1871, 147 Orthodox churches were operating in the Rīga Eparchy alone. The territory of Latvia was flooded with Russian bureaucrats, as a result of the Russification policy, and, from 1882, only the Russian language could be used within state institutions. In the late 19th century, a number of Latvians converted to Orthodoxy, adopting the Tsar’s religion for economic reasons. In the early 20th century, there were also Orthodox priests of Latvian ethnicity who served in Latvian Orthodox congregations. However, the state authorities of the Russian Empire did not trust these priests and tried to restrict their number.

The Tsar tried to save the monarchy during the 1905 revolution by restricting the Orthodox Church’s privileged status and by abolishing laws which discriminated against other denominations. The Orthodox Church in Latvia experienced antipathy and hostility due to the Russification policy, and it was drawn into the whirlpool of revolutionary events. During the First World War, religious slogans were advanced at the forefront of Russian imperial propaganda: “For orthodoxy!” and “For the unification of Orthodox Slavs!”. When the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed (1918), the new nation, for political reasons, looked on the Orthodox Church with suspicion. In 1920, the Council of Latvian Orthodox Congregations had to resolve the issue of the relationship with the Moscow Patriarchate, because the Orthodox Church in Latvia was part of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Latvian government was interested in achieving full autonomy for the Orthodox Church, and wanted it to be led by a bishop of Latvian ethnicity. The Moscow Patriarch gave the Latvian archbishop autonomy within the governance of the Latvian Orthodox Church (1921), but the Latvian government’s plan to canonically bind the Latvian Orthodox Church with Constantinople did not succeed. The Latvian Orthodox Church ended up once again under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1940, when the Republic of Latvia was occupied by the USSR. After the Second World War, Orthodox believers in Latvia experienced a similar repression and religious persecution as the members of other denominations. Along with forced industrialization, workers from Russia flooded the cities of Latvia. Orthodoxy became entrenched within the urban environment in Latvia for this reason, while the Old Believers dominated in rural Russian communities. When Latvia regained its independence, the Moscow Patriarch declared that the autonomy of the Latvian Orthodox Church was being renewed under the wing of the Moscow Patriarchate (1992).

D 2 February 2017    AAnita Stasulane

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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