Soviet Religious Policy in Estonia and Latvia: Playing Harmony in the Singing Revolution

Soviet Religious Policy in Estonia and Latvia: Playing Harmony in the Singing Revolution

Soviet Religious Policy in Estonia and Latvia: Playing Harmony in the Singing Revolution

Soviet Religious Policy in Estonia and Latvia: Playing Harmony in the Singing Revolution


Soviet Religious Policy in Estonia and Latvia considers what impact Western religious culture had on Soviet religious policy. While Russia was a predominantly Orthodox country, Baltic states annexed after WWII, such as Estonia and Latvia, featured Lutheran and Catholic churches as the state religion. Robert Goeckel explores how Soviet religious policy accommodated differing traditions and the extent to which these churches either reflected nationalist consciousness or offered an opportunity for subversion of Soviet ideals. Goeckel considers what negotiating power these organizations might have had with the Soviet state and traces differences in policy between Moscow and local bureaucracies.

Based on extensive research into official Soviet archives, some of which are no longer available to scholars, Goeckel provides fascinating insight into the relationship between central political policies and church responses to those shifting policies in the USSR. Goeckel argues that national cultural affinity with Christianity remained substantial despite plummeting rates of religious adherence. He makes the case that this affinity helped to provide a diffuse basis for the eventual challenge to the USSR. The Singing Revolution restored independence to Estonia and Latvia, and while Catholic and Lutheran churches may not have played a central role in this restoration, Goeckel shows how they nonetheless played harmony.


This book examines the policy of the Soviet regime toward churches and religion in two of the three Baltic republics, Estonia and Latvia. the Baltic republics posed a unique challenge for the regime: they represented the only republics with primarily Western religious traditions and churches. in the remaining republics, various forms of eastern Orthodoxy and Islam were predominant, historically and culturally. the Bolsheviks who assumed power in 1917 had experienced Protestants and Catholics only as tiny minority religions until 1944. With the Communist takeovers in Eastern Europe, the Soviets would also encounter societies that were largely Catholic (such as Poland and Hungary), Lutheran (such as East Germany), and confessionally mixed (such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia). But in these Eastern European cases, adoption of the Soviet model of religious policy was not automatically or rigorously expected of these nominally sovereign states. Having been incorporated as constituent units in the ussr, however, the Baltic republics were expected to adopt Soviet religious policy in its entirety. Using in-depth description and analysis of two of these Baltics cases, Estonia and Latvia, my aim here is to investigate the extent to which this was the case over time and the factors in the church-state relationship that may explain any divergence from Soviet policy.

As author, I should clarify what did not motivate the writing of this book. When I began the research on which it is based, the Berlin Wall had recently fallen, and Germany had been reunited. I had recently completed a related book on the role of the GDR’s relationship with the Lutheran Church, which eventually played an instrumental role in the democratic revolution and end of communism in 1989. During my on-site research in 1990–1991, many of my Baltic interlocutors good-naturedly asked me to quickly write my second book so that it might have the same effect in the case of the USSR! Little did we know that the ussr would collapse long before my book would be complete. On the other hand, today’s interested observers often assume my goal was to explain why so few Estonians believe in God, looking for answers in the almost fifty years of Soviet atheistic policies. This book was obviously not written in the heat of the system collapse of the ussr, with the intent to explain the churches’ role in that regime change. Nor has it been written to explain why this region is among the most secularized in Europe, however intriguing the correlation might be.

Rather, my intention has been to shed light on variation in Soviet religious policy, yielding generalizations regarding church-state relations in communist . . .

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