Soviet Religious Policy in Estonia and Latvia

Playing Harmony in the Singing Revolution

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Robert F. Goeckel
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , September
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Robert F. Goeckel is known for his research on Soviet religious policy in the Baltics, but primarily for his studies on the effects of the communist regime on the Lutheran Church in East Germany. Soviet Religious Policy in Estonia and Latvia: Playing Harmony in the Singing Revolution serves as a follow up to his excellent The Lutheran Church And The East German State: Political Conflict And Change Under Ulbricht And Honecker (Cornell University Press, 1990).

In his latest work Goeckel focuses primarily on the situation of Lutheran churches in Estonia and Latvia during the Soviet period, with minor reflections on the Catholic Church in Latvia and smaller Protestant denominations in Estonia. This focus is due to the fact that the Lutheran Church has been the historically dominant faith in both countries since the time of the Reformation and that, until the 1920s, the Lutheran clergy was dominated by Baltic Germans in both countries. As a result, the Lutheran tradition shaped the Estonian and Latvian cultures (including their political cultures) considerably. The Orthodox Churches in Estonia and Latvia that had been autonomous under the canonical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical patriarchate, and were then reduced to dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church during the communist period, get little attention. Considered in this context, there is justification for more individualized works examining the Orthodox Church in Estonia and Latvia under Soviet, rule as they were less influenced by local particularities than by the overall Soviet policy on the Orthodox Church in the USSR. 

However, Goeckel’s book on the Soviet religious policies in Estonia and Latvia during the Soviet occupation from the 1940s to 1991 is going to be a classic treatment of the subject for several reasons. It is the first monograph on church-state relations in Estonia and Latvia during the post-World War II Soviet period. It is also a comparative perspective on the effects of Soviet religious policy in these two countries, with additional references to religious similarities to the Lutheran Church in East Germany. Lastly, Soviet Religious Policy in Latvia and Estonia is a must read for anyone interested in either the application of Soviet religious policy crafted within the Russian Orthodox context on Protestant religious environments, or interested in Estonian and/or Latvian religious history in the 20th century in general. Additionally, this book may help to understand the reasons why present day Latvia—and especially Estonia—have been historically more mono-religiously Lutheran and are today both highly secularized societies. 

Goeckel gives an in-depth treatment of Soviet religious policy, which included the political neutralization of churches and was followed by the marginalization of religion in society. In these processes, Goeckel points out how the Soviet regime used personal vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the clergy to make them dance with the devil.

Goeckel bases his research on vast materials from the state archives of Estonia, Latvia, and the Russian Federation along with resources from the archives of the Lutheran World Federation in Finland. Goeckel’s archival work in Russia was done in 1991, during the period when the archives of Russian Federation were open to foreign researchers. In addition to these archival materials, between 1990-1991, Goeckel interviewed 29 individuals from Latvia, Estonia and East Germany, including clergymen and Soviet officials. Although there are some minor errors in personal names and debatable arguments concerning the late 1980s—for example, reference on the formation of the ‘Brotherhood of Pastors’ in 1988 which is highly doubtable (188), the overall perspective is brilliant. For myself, as a native Estonian reader, Goeckel’s so-called outsider perspective in not only refreshing and fascinating, it is also baldly correct.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ringo Ringvee holds currently a position of Adviser at the Religious Affairs Department of Estonian Ministry of the Interior. His previous academic affiliations include the post of Professor extraordinarius of Comparative Religions at the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church Institute of Theology.

Date of Review: 
April 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert F. Goeckel is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the State University of New York College at Geneseo. He is author of The Lutheran Church and the East German State: Political Conflict and Change under Ulbricht and Honecker, and its German edition, Die Evangelische Kirche und die DDR. Konflikte, Gespraeche, Vereinbarungen unter Ulbricht und Honecker.


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