During the past few years, the world has discovered the three small Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Once almost irrelevant to the politics of the late 20th century, the Baltic States have in recent years taken their place almost daily in television news.
The Baltics huddle together at the east end of the Baltic Sea, rendered almost invisible and anonymous on the map by the massive dominance of the Soviet Union, into which they were incorporated over 50 years ago. But then in the late 1980s, Glasnost prised out for the Soviet people the historical truth that the Germans and the Soviets abolished the independent existence of the three countries by the “secret protocol” of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, which carved up eastern and central Europe into two spheres of influence.
On June 14, 1940 the Red Army marched in and there were elections under the threat of the gun, leading to their formal “incorporation” as Soviet Republics. The Nazis invaded a year later and as the Reds drove them out in 1944, the Baltics were led into an even deeper subjugation.
The bravery, nationalism and religious fervor of these oppressed people have now ignited the flames of freedom throughout the Soviet Union and the world. At first, however, the communists dealt with nationalism through deportation. The cream of two generations, politicians, scholars, clergy, leaders of industry, the armed forces and nationalists were removed to the arid desert of Kazakhstan or the mortal cold of Siberia. Approximately ten percent of the entire Baltic population were deported in cattle trucks. Many died under the deplorable conditions.
These tribulations had the effect of more than ever uniting three nations very different from each other in culture, language and religion, but sharing a similar recent history of brief independence between the World Wars and then subjugation. The only gain from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in the whole of the Baltic States was that Lithuania regained its ancient capital of Vilnius from Poland in 1944.
The Baltic States, with their tradition of hard work, their efficiency and “Western” look, were then infiltrated by Russian immigrants who found life there to be attractive and now make up 20 percent of Lithuania’s population; 40 percent of Estonia; and almost 50 percent of Latvia.
The Christian Revival
Lithuania is overtly the most “Christian” of the three nations, with nearly 80 percent of the non-immigrant population belonging to the Roman Catholic Church, which nurtured the spirit of the nation during times of great suffering. Where massive prison sentences awaited any suspected of independent political activity, attendance at church became a symbol of unspoken protest.
The KGB harassed, deported and imprisoned many Catholics; clergymen who did not fall into line were often physically beaten. Communist authorities responded by interrupting every local Christian activity outside the Church buildings, maintaining a crude campaign in the press against religion, and summoning priests to the State Offices of the Council for Religious Affairs. However, the communists could not keep the Roman Catholic clergy in line with their “progressive” policies against religious activism.
The Popular Fronts
In an era of unprecedented events in the Soviet bloc, the emergence of the popular fronts in the Baltic States forms one of the most astonishing developments: three tiny nations prepared to take on the might of the Soviet system, with its double threat of military intervention and KGB terrorism.
In Lithuania, the church found a way around the ban on political meetings by inaugurating “masses for the fatherland” and over 600 of these (that is one in almost every church) took place in 1988. With fewer ethnic Russians in Lithuania than the other Baltics, nationalistic religious fervor soon blossomed into Sajudis – which means “movement.”
Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania’s gentle and artistic president, a pianist and musicologist by profession, describes the movement as follows: “Sajudis is not a political party, but a movement. It does not seek to seize power, but rather to exert influence over those in power and thereby have a say in the running of the country’s affairs.”
Almost all the leaders of Sajudis, including Landsbergis, are Catholic. Within the movement are not only Christians and anyone who seeks to preserve the nation’s heritage, but even a number of more progressive Communist party members. Full religious freedom was a fundamental point in its founding document and the Communist Party newspaper published the whole text of this on October 12, 1988.
In July of 1988, Lithuanian TV inaugurated a regular weekly series of religious programming on Sundays. For Lithuanian believers, who had lived through two invasions and fifty years of religious oppression, these events were indeed the dawning of a new age.
One of the smallest nations in Europe, with only one and a half million population, Estonia is also one of the most remarkable. A close neighbor of Finland and its language descended from ancient Finnic, Estonia has kept apart from the Slavic culture, although its people feel a great solidarity with the two other Baltic States through common history and suffering. One notable exception is that, like the Scandinavian countries, Estonia is a child of the Protestant Reformation.
At the age of 42, Harri Mötsnik abandoned his work as a lawyer to become a Lutheran pastor, thereby incurring the wrath of Soviet authorities. This only sharpened his determination to preach the Gospel, however, in a form pointedly relevant to the oppressed people he was addressing. In the early 1980s, some of his sermons seemed provocative to the point of foolhardiness. He spoke of freedom and peace in these terms:
“Freedom is not understood or sufficiently valued until it is lost and the realization of its absence becomes a personal experience. Freedom is not an illusion, but an experience of reality … Peace is very precious, because it is necessary for life. To a Christian peace means a good and secure life, clean air and water, health and long life. This includes a democratic, independent homeland, freedom of conscience and religion.”
When the Estonians established their Popular Front in October 1988, the founders proclaimed in the press that the fight with religion was a relic of the past, that the obsolete Stalinist legislation must be changed, that Christians should actively promote holiness, patience, care for the old and the sick and inculcate moral values in the young. At its Constituent Congress, the Estonian Popular Front featured a whole section of debate entitled “Church and Society” which promoted legislative changes and greater equality of believers and atheists.
Later in the year, in mid-August, Estonia played host to the largest Christian youth festival ever to be held in the USSR, organized by the local churches. The opening rally took place in Tallinn’s vast Oleviste Church. There were services also in the Lenin sports stadium which seats 6000.
Whatever the difficulties which the Estonian churches have faced, it is clear that they are set to be the focus of lively new ideas and rapid action.
In 1988-89 the church in Latvia also experienced unprecedented revival and a determination to use every opportunity which the improved political situation offers. The Latvian Popular Front included significant points to guarantee religious freedom in its manifesto, recognizing the role of the church in the moral regeneration of society and in the affirmation of universal values.
Although less reported than similar demonstrations in East Germany and Poland at the same time, an indication of the ferment was the turn-out of over half a million people on the streets of Riga, almost one-fifth of the total population of the country, to celebrate “Independence Day” on November 19th, 1989.
The “Rebirth and Renewal” movement started with a conflict – just the sort which the atheist authorities always used to win. In 1985 a bright young theological student was in trouble with the authorities for his energetic work and strong stances within the Lutheran church. The local Council for Religious Affairs refused to sanction his ordination. The Latvian bishops bent to the intimidation, but a neighboring Lithuanian bishop granted the ordination.
This touched off a series of events which led to a national revival in the church in Latvia, the reopening of the Riga Cathedral and the deposition of a cowardly archbishop.
The new young pastor, Maris Ludviks, could have been shot under Stalin, imprisoned under Khruschev or Brezhnev. Instead of caving in to pressure from the communist authorities, the Christian community rallied to Ludviks’ aid. The two key players in this drama were: Modris Plate, a young pastor only in his early thirties, and Juris Rubenis, a young seminarian still in his twenties.
When the communist newspaper, Padmju jauntne, began smear tactics directed against Ludviks, Plate led a group of five clergy in a visit to the editorial offices of the newspaper to protest and demand a retraction. The situation only worsened when the authorities were able to pressure Plate’s archbishop to remove his ministry registration papers.
The conflict only snowballed, however, when a group of nineteen clergy signed a petition in Plate’s defense. They were able to resist the Council of Religious Affairs. Plate’s parishioners supported him and he continued on as their pastor without registration. This occurrence sparked the rapid growth of the “Rebirth and Renewal” movement, the stated purpose of which is to “defend openly the right of Latvians to live a Christian life.” Among other things, they were able to print one of the first official Christian youth magazines, Zvaigznite (“Little Star”), in the Soviet Union.
Now enter the second player, Juris Rubenis, who stepped to the center stage by being one of the original signers of the petition in support of Modris Plate. Rubenis was able to orchestrate the first service in the great Lutheran Cathedral of Riga in over thirty years. He relates:
“I was sitting at my desk one day when the idea came to me that we should ask permission to hold a service there. We could scarcely hope for success, because its conversion in 1959 into a concert hall stood as a symbol of the triumph of communism over religion. However, the Popular Front took up my proposal and, miraculously, we held a service at which Modris Plate and I officiated, but we were told it was just a one-off event.
“People packed out the church and spilled out across the square outside, but there were loudspeakers and those who did not come were able to watch on TV or listen in on radio, the first such transmission since the war. Of course our people now demanded regular services; after protracted arguments the authorities agreed.”
Later Pastor Rubenis said that the TV transmission “led to a kind of seismic disturbance in people … On that day a great many people reconsidered all that they had built up against faith in God.”
Then in April of 1989, the Archbishop was voted out of the Lutheran Consistory of Latvia. New elections were held and into the Consistory came the key figures of Rubenis and Plate, together with six others who had been active in the “Rebirth and Renewal” movement. At its first meeting after their election, the Consistory made a statement which, remarkably, an official secular newspaper published:
“We denounce the arrogant and heartless policies on the ecological, economic and spiritual state of Latvia … Only in an independent Latvian state, free from the dictates of any imperial center, will our people be able to realize fully either it national values or the universal values given to us by the Christian faith.”
Karlis Gailitis, a nationalist Archbishop, age 53, was also consecrated after the elections. Archbishop Gailitis is far different from the previous leader from the Soviet Union who followed the conventional Communist Party line. Gailitis seems destined to play an international role among world Protestant leaders.
The Future of the Baltic States
In each Baltic State, in a very different way, the church is now playing a vital role. As these countries seek to implement their newfound independence, the church will be called upon to mediate rather than to incite, but it will never again play the subservient role it did under communism.
January 1991 saw the crack Soviet “Black Beret” troops gun down defenseless people on the streets of Vilnius and Riga. Then last summer, Russian tanks rumbled through the Baltic streets again during Genadi Yenayev’s failed coup attempt in Moscow. Through all the turmoil, it is clear that it was the church that has increased the determination of the majority to break free from Soviet domination – once and for all.
Compiled from The Gospel’s Triumph Over Communism, Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, MN.