Latvian Orthodox Church 1917-1940



The Nativity of Christ Cathedral in central Riga


Latvia historically has become a crosspoint between three main confessions of the Christianity. Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodox Church share almost equal ground in Latvian society. While Western Christianity had greater influence in Latvia and the Baltic States as the whole, it was the Orthodox church that had it first official converts in Latvian territory. However, it became prominent only in the 19th century when Tsarist authorities started the policy of spreading Orthodoxy among Latvians and supporting of building churches and monasteries. When talking about Orthodox the common stereotype is that Orthodox church is commonly for Slavic nations like Russians, Ukrainians, and others. However, since the first converts in the 11-12th century, the Orthodoxy was also popular among Latvians. After the fall of Russian Empire and Bolshevik takeover the leader of the Orthodox church was Latvian national Archbishop Jānis Pommers (Иоанн (Поммер) – Архиепископ Иоа́нн (Священномученик Иоанн Рижский). He was the Archbishop and leader of the Latvian Orthodox Church from 1920 to his tragic death in 1934. During his reign, the church was independent both from Moscow and Constantinople Patriarchate and took a very antagonistic stance towards Bolshevism, Social Democracy. He was also elected as a deputy in Latvian parliament and lead the Russian Orthodox conservative forces. Pommers was met with controversy. Leftist forces despised him as he despised them. Latvian nationalists accused him of being a Tsarist and Russian nationalist. Russian liberals, leftists and the Old Believer faction opposed him. Struggling with opposition a staunch and fanatical Pommers met a horrible fate on October 11, 1934, when unknown assassins killed him in his summer cottage. His death was a major tragedy for Orthodox church and prompted to cut all ties with Church in Moscow and establish itself under Constantinople patriarchate. Jānis Pommers in 1981 was first declared a Saint a hieromartyr (sanctus martyr, cвященному́ченик, svētmoceklis) by Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia. In 2001 the Russian Orthodox Church and its now subordinate Latvian Orthodox Church canonized Archbishop Jānis. He is the only Latvian who had entered Sainthood.

First Orthodox missionary in Latvian lands was Scandinavian Torvald Kondarnson who was appointed by Byzantine Empire as envoy for rulers of Rus. The closest Rus duchy to early Baltic tribes was Polotsk ruled by Duke Ragvald whose daughter Raghilda or Gorislava entered monastery that was built in present-day Krāslava. No archeological evidence back this legend. However, because Latvian territory was on the path between varyags (Vikings), Rus and Byzantines it was crossed by missionaries from both sides. In 12th century the Latgalian rulers of Jersika and Tālava became Orthodox and built first Orthodox churches. In the city of Jersika ruled by Orthodox Visvaldis the gospel was translated to Old East Slavic language in 1270.The Orthodox clergyman introduced words baznīca (church), gavēnis (fast), krusts (cross), svēts (saint) grāmata (book) klanīties (kneal) svētki (celebrations) and nedēļa (week) from Old Slavic that became used in the future unified Latvian language.

Some Russian historians have speculated that if Rus would not be invaded by Mongols, the Rus duchies would eventually overcome and conquer pagan Baltic lands. Kievan Rus had already been weakened and divided in smaller duchies years before Mongol invasion. The duchies of Novgorod, Pskov, and Polotsk had placed the Latgalian rulers under tribute payment in return for nonaggression. However, the Rus rulers had no will and power to conquer and forcibly baptize the Baltic tribes. During this time the Catholic crusaders from the West took the upper hand and established Crusader states in the present day Latvia and Estonia. Jersika was sacked and Orthodox churches were destroyed. Crusader advance to the east was halted in 1242. Lithuanian Grand Duchy a union between Lithuanian and Slavic duchies who later became Belarus, converted to Catholicism. The spread of Orthodoxy was halted for centuries.


St. Peter and St. Paul Church – the oldest Orthodox church in Riga


At last, Orthodoxy returned in the 17th century when Russia made major church reforms and those who opposed it often was forced to seek refuge and came to Inflanty of Latgale and Duchy of Courland. Old Believers established continuous minority in Latvia. In the 19th century, Russian Empire took over all lands of present-day Latvia. In first decades the Tsarist authorities tolerated mainly Lutheran Baltic German nobility and the Catholic church in Latgale. The absolute majority of Latvians were either Lutheran or Catholic. However, Tsarist and Baltic German relations worsened and in the 19th century, 30’s the Orthodox church was used as a countermeasure to weaken Baltic German influence. While there were reports of a small church of St. Nicholas in Riga mainly for merchants and diplomats, the first major church in Riga was St. Peter and St. Paul Church was built in 1785 for Russian garrison. In 1836 the first church authority was created in Riga. The Riga Vicariate of the Pskov eparchy and its head was bishop Iriniach who started to build churches in the countryside. Doing so he ignited the will among Latvian peasants who despite abolishment of serfdom still felt oppressed, to convert to Orthodoxy and gain rights to leave the Baltic German nobles to whom they paid high rents for their small land plots and were still forced to do corvees for the nobles. In 1841 after draught the conversion became massive and peasants came to bishop Iriniach to ask for help. Baltic German General Governor of Baltic province von Palen tried to suppress the “Movement of Warm Lands” and arrested the main leaders. Armed clashes followed. This movement was also partially caused by the fact that Tsar Nicholas I had made manifest for the establishment of Jewish agricultural colony in Kherson region in Ukraine. More than 2 thousand Jews from Courland moved there and Latvian peasants also wanted to move to “Warm lands” away from Baltic Germans.

In 1841 Filaret became Bishop of Riga and further contributed to the mass conversion to Orthodoxy. In Vidzeme governorate, the amount of Orthodox reached 12%. In 1896 Russian Empire made census and  33,6% or 56 003 were Latvians. As in this time, Riga and Eastern Latvia became colonized by migrants from Russia and Belarus creating Slavic majority among Orthodox in Latvia. 236 churches and 488 church schools were in Latvian territory before the war. As state church, the Orthodox church enjoyed privileged level. However, almost none of Latvian converts could move to new lands to Russia and Ukraine. Most lost their lands. Their children moved away from Orthodoxy, while some who were registered as Orthodox still lived as Lutherans. Only small portion of Latvians became true Orthodox followers.



Jānis Pommers


One of them Jānis Pommers who was born in Prauliena parish near Madonna city in 1876. He studied in Riga Orthodox School and graduated Riga Orthodox Spiritual Seminary in 1897. From 1900 to 1904 he studied in Kyiv Theological Academy and in 1901 entered monastic rank. After gaining a degree in theology he worked in  Chernihiv Spiritual Seminary, then in Vologda, then as rector of Vilnius Lithuania Spiritual seminary. In 1912 he was appointed as Bishop of Slutsk. He was also present in Mensk, Taganrog, and Ekaterinoslav (Dnipro). In 1917 he met the Russian Revolution in Tver.

Jānis or Ioan in Slavic languages, he was popular among worshipers. He was loyal to the Tsarist government and was strictly against Bolshevik revolution. In so he was seen as a danger by the Bolsheviks. In 1918 he was prevented from going to Odessa and was moved to Penza. According to Orthodox church biography during his time in Penza, the Bolshevik Cheka made an assassination attempt on him and also shelled monastery where he lived. In the end, he was arrested and moved to Moscow. In 1921 after Latvia gained independence Pommers moved to Riga.



Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow 1917-1925


The Orthodox Church in Soviet Russia was in a precarious state. It existed while faced repressions, arrests, and executions of the clergy and destruction of churches. The Church survived mainly because of Patriarch Tikhon who on November 4, 1917, restored the Patriarchy that was broken since February revolution. At the start, he condemned the murder of the Tsar family and opposed the Bolsheviks, by open means. However, as he saw that Bolsheviks had won the war he started what was known as Tikhon’s affair to gain common ground with the new power. Doing so created schismatic movements within Russian Orthodox Church often inspired by Cheka. New sectarian movements like True Orthodox Church or Catacomb church and the Living Church emerged that declared resistance against “Tikhon heresy”. Tikhon died in 1925 and Soviets prevented from appointing new Patriarch. New Patriarch of Russia was only allowed in 1944 when Stalin wanted to clear out the clergy who supported Nazi occupation. Jānis Pommers meanwhile was positive towards Tikhon and wrote long speech marking his death and acknowledged his effort in keeping the Church together and facing the Soviet oppression.


Anti-Orthodox caricature suggesting removal of the Orthodox cathedral and replace with  Monument of Freedom. From Svari 1930

In new independent Latvia, the situation for Latvian Orthodox was not as negative as in Russia but it was still problematic. Among the Latvian national political elite, many despised the “Tsar church”’. In 1922 the St. Alexius church and monastery in Old Riga was give back to Catholics. The main center of Latvian Orthodox the Nativity of Christ Cathedral was also considered for demolition. What was demolished was the chapell near Riga Train Station that was built to celebrate the miraculous Tsar family survival of the Borki train disaster in 1888. Church also lost the St. Peter and St. Paul Church that was taken over by Lutherans. The Spiritual Seminary building became Anatomicum for University of Latvia.



Archbishop Jānis with nuns of the Riga Orthodox Female Monastery


The Latvian Orthodox Church had to prove its loyalty to the Republic of Latvia, while it still in their hearts and minds griefed the fall of the Tsar. Only in 1926 the Latvian lawmakers issued regulations for the Orthodox church and gave it equal rights as all other churches, Moscow Patriarch Tikhon had issued order Nr. 1026 that allowed the independence of the Latvian Orthodox Church while keeping canonical ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. The Theological Faculty of the University of Latvia included the Orthodox chamber and seminary was opened to educate young clergy. During the independence, the Latvian Orthodox observed the main Christian holidays at the same time as Catholics and Lutherans. Before the war, the Russian Orthodox Church observed and still observes all Christian celebrations according to old Julian calendar. Jānis Pommers defended the celebration by the new style as he argued that Orthodox people cannot celebrate while being at work and the Orthodox fate must survive in new Latvia. He also based his decision on both Moscow and Constantinople patriarch who also accepted celebration according to the new calendar. In 1930 there was 169 000 Orthodox.


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Archbishop Jānis basement chamber in the Riga Orthodox Cathedral


Jānis Pommers an authoritative person, fanatical and good speech giver was an obvious candidate for the leader of the Church. Patriarch Tikhon gave him his blessings and relieved him of duty in Penza. He returned to Riga in 1921 July 22 and started the first service in Riga Cathedral since 1917. Because of his efforts, the church was recognized by the state, but to secure the rights of the Orthodox he also chose to run for parliamentary elections.



Deputy Pommers fighting Social Democrats. From Vecais Sikspārnis 1931


Latvian Russian politics had no unity. There was strong Russian social democratic fraction. There was also a faction in Saeima for Old Believers and various liberal nationalists. Then there was White Guard emigrants and open monarchists. Latvian Secret Police fought Monarchists and suspected Pommers of being such. The main Latvian Russian newspaper Сегодня (Today) belonged to Jewish investors and pursued liberal social democratic agenda. The Russian conservatives had less money and reader base to raise their voice. For a few years, Pommers used newspaper Слово (The Word) to pursue his political agenda.  During his political career, he was a staunch enemy of the Social Democratic party in the parliament and also stood against Latvian nationalism. His enemies accused him of being Tsarist, he was attacked on the streets. In his speeches and writings, he raised great concerns over the state of the Orthodox church in the Soviet Union. He stood against Latvian-Soviet trade agreement in 1927 as it became known that Moscow had asked Latvian government to limit anti-Soviet publications in Latvian and Russian press. In his writings and speeches, he warned about the danger of Marxism, Soviet agents. He was an uncomfortable enemy to rivals in Latvia and also to Soviet government as he always stood against every Latvian-Soviet agreement. While keeping his faith and admiration to fallen Russian Empire and his authoritative church, he was patriotic anti-communist and kept his church within these lines. As a monk he chose to live in the basement chamber of the Riga Cathedral, however, he also had a small cottage in Riga, Šmerlis suburb, that belonged to the Church.



Archbishop Jānis funeral


His political career ended on May 15, 1934, when Kārlis Ulmanis dissolved the parliament and established his Authoritarian dictatorship. Saddened by the loss of political say, he asked the Church Synod to call the new council to determine the state of the Church and arrange rules for choosing new church leader. This was prophetic. On October 11, 1934, he was visited by Russian opera singer who seems to had also opened doors to the murderers. The investigation concluded that the Archbishop was dragged downstairs and the brought back up and dosed with petroleum and then set alight, He was still alive when was set on fire and died a martyr’s death. The opera singer was also found dead. The investigation failed to find the perpetrator. The Church and Russian minority in Latvia and exile placed blame on Soviet Secret Service. Others blamed the relatives Maria Viola Beatere who had accused Pommers of rape, however she failed to prove it and Pommers was proven not guilty. Others blamed members of the Latvian Orthodox Student organization who conflicted with him. It was not proven. The theory that it was done by Kārlis Ulmanis government also seemed unbelievable and unproven. While Ulmanis removed Pommers from politics they both were allied against left-wing forces. Pommer’s death was a grand tragedy and his funeral was attended by many of the politicians including Jānis Balodis the second man in power after Ulmanis. Pommers was laid to rest in Pokrov cemetery in Riga, special chapel was built from the materials of the demolished chapel that was built to celebrate the Tsar survival in the 1888 train disaster.



Gravesite of the Archbishop Jānis


The successor to Pommers was  Augustīns Pētersons who in 1936 made the transition from Moscow Patriarchate to Constantinople. That was done because of fears from Moscow after Pommer’s murder and also to fix practical issues in church rule due to the lack of bishops.

In 1940 Latvia was occupied and annexed by Soviet Union. Soviets removed Augustīns Pētersons and sent in Sergy Voskresinsky from Russia. Pētersons after “confessing his sins” was sent to pension. He tried to restore authority during Nazi occupation, however only few congregations followed him. When Soviets came back he escaped to Germany and spent his last years helping the Orthodox refugees. The new head Jānis Garklāvs fully restored the Latvian Orthodox church dependence with Russian Orthodox Church.

During the Soviet occupation church suffered. The main cathedral in Riga was closed and turned into planetarium, many churches were either closed or even demolished like in Daugavpils. Church as other religious movements in Soviet Union survived in strict observation by the authorities.

In 1990 Aleksandrs Kudrjašovs  became Metropolite of Riga and All Latvia. He saw the regain of the independence and in 1992 made decision to preserve Latvian Orthodox church autonomy within Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. The main cathedral in Riga was given back to the Church. Many churches were restored thanks to the donations from Russia and support from Latvian state. In 2001 Jānis Pommers was made  hieromartyr – a Saint. In 2006 church issued special Order and Medal of the Saint Martyr of Ioan the Archbishop of Riga.


Icon of Saint Martyr Ioan the Archbishop of Riga


According to official data there are 350 thousand Orthodox in Latvia with 117 congregations. The scholars meanwhile note that if regarding the size of active church goers this size is much smaller. The Church observes the celebrations according to the old Julian calendar. There have been many attempts in Latvia to get official Christmas holidays for Orthodox. Latvian politicians have argued this as unpractical and harmful to economy and reminds that before the war the Church observed new calendar. Since the worsening of the relations between Latvia and Russia, the expected visit by Patriarch of Russian Orthodox church Kirill was canceled. Church receives support from Russian politicians in Latvia, but its influence in Latvian politics has been limited. Some of the most radical Russian and Latvian Christian politicians in Latvia are connected to New Evangelical movement rather than Orthodox church. During the screening of the movie “Matilda” a small peaceful protest activity of the people against the movie was observed also in Latvia. Various foundations from Russia publishes and exports faith books in Latvia and even translate books in Latvian. Latvian percentage in Orthodox church has however downsized during the Soviet occupation. Orthodox church possibly the oldest Christian confession in Latvia continues its existence and commemorates the legacy of the Archbishop Jānis.   



Rīgas un visas Latvijas Arhibīskaps Jānis (Pommers) II. Svētrunas, raksti, uztāšanās. Rīga. Labvēsts. 1993.


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