Bird Droppings from Estonia: Orthodox Easter and Orthodoxy in Estonia (2)
Archived Articles 20 Apr 2009 Hilary BirdEWR
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The history of Tartu is littered with famous orthodox folk …

Two weekends ago it was western Easter that I celebrated with Handel, and what better representative of the Age of Reason could you wish for? This past weekend was Orthodox Easter, Pascha in Russian, and yesterday was Holy Saturday when an older, different, less rational more mystical tradition was celebrated.

I have been going to Orthodox Easter services for forty years. When I lived in London I used to go regularly to the Russian church in Kensington where Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh, founder of the Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarchy diocese for Great Britain and Ireland, presided over the liturgy. I remember a very striking man - big, tall and with a fine black beard whose leisurely solemnity did justice to the gorgeous, sonorous ritual - I once went to Serbian Easter by mistake and was disappointed by the rushing around. I even went to an Easter service in Moscow in 1971 and was moved by the dignity of the small, elderly congregation who braved a large crowd of sneering Komsomol (young communists) around the church gate to worship in a neglected, drafty, shabby church. I shall never forget this.

On Saturday night, in the free world, I went to church to observe and enjoy the most important Christian festival of the orthodox calendar. I went with two friends to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Assumption, (the Uspenski) to hear the Midnight Office. The church smelt wonderful – incense and burning beeswax candles and the hypnotic singing (unaccompanied by instrument and coming from a hidden source) gave an ethereal other worldly feel. The bearded priests were dressed in their most elaborate robes – a distant echo of the wealth and sensuousness of imperial Byzantium, perched on the very fault line of East and West.

The service begins late: by midnight the church was packed – young, old, seriously devout, tourists, fellow travelling Christians and oddballs such as myself. I bought and lit two candles for family, friends (human and animal) and was quite spoilt as to which icon to invoke. In the end I opted for a rather fine virgin and child. Then, I am afraid, I was rather a sissy and sat down for the next hour because my gammy leg was playing up. There were plenty of others standing for me and a little girl near me was showing such an excess of devotion (much crossing and bowing) that I’m sure God didn’t notice.

Just before midnight all the lights went out except for the sanctuary lamp (the eternal flame as proscribed in Exodus) and all waited in silence and darkness. At the stroke of midnight, the priest walked around the alter swinging a censer and lit his candle from the sanctuary lamp as all the lights went back on. The doors of the inner sanctum opened, the little choir burst forth and the devout lit their candles before following the procession of the priests and icons past a very substantial babushka in the church entrance ringing bells of joy. Really, is there such a sound in the entire world like Russian bells?

I stepped outside to watch the procession with their icons and little wax candles walk around the church (in memory of the journey of the Myrrh bearers to the tomb of Christ) while singing a resurrection hymn while the bells pealed on. The procession re-entered the church and the clergy retired behind the iconostasis (wall of icons) to the inner sanctuary for at least an hour and, after exchanging the traditional Paschal greeting "Christ is Risen!" answered by "Truly, He is Risen," we retired. I was escorted to a taxi rank by my thoughtful friends and went home to watch some more of the service from Moscow in a much bigger, smarter but infinitely less charming church on Russian TV. Matins goes on until daybreak but even the Russians stopped transmission at about 03.00.

Tartu has a long association with orthodoxy. The town was first mentioned in written history in 1030 when the Christian Prince Yaroslav of Kiev (temporarily) conquered pagan Estonian Tartbatu. The German crusaders found some Christians when they came in the 1220s that were almost certainly Russian orthodox merchants. By the time of the reformation the town had two Orthodox churches in addition to seven Catholic ones, three monasteries and a church hospital. The two medieval Orthodox churches both stood near the Russia gate. St Nicholas (for the Pskov congregation) stood in front of the present Orthodox Church. St George the Martyr (for the merchants of Novgorod) was on the site of the Palm House in the Botanical Gardens. The orthodox churches shared the same fate as the Catholic ones. St Nicholas was damaged in 1525 during the Reformation: the town council restored it in 1555 and it was the Jesuit church during the Polish era of the late 16th century. It was completely destroyed by the Swedes in 1613.

Thus, although the first Christian faith in Estonia was Orthodox it was not until the absorption of Estonia into the Russian Empire that the first orthodox stone church was built by Tsarina Elizabeth in 1754. It burnt down in 1775 and it was Catherine the Great who ordered the building of the present modest Uspenski cathedral on the site of the medieval Catholic Dominican Friary. It was consecrated in 1783.

The Uspenski is a traditional rectangular Byzantine building with a central dome and four onions at each corner. As it was built on the foundations of the Dominican friary it was originally cruciform but it was changed to a square orthodox church in 1840. In the left wing is the chapel of St Isodore of Tartu, who, along with 72 other orthodox Christians, was martyred in January, 1472 by being drowned in holes in the icy river for refusing to adopt Catholicism, ironically in the same year that the marriage of Ivan III to the Byzantine princess Zoe Palaiologina, niece of the last empower of Byzantium, was arranged to improve relations between the two churches. Zoe passed through Tartu on her way to Moscow, where Ivan, anxious to get on with the business of producing an heir, married her on the night she arrived despite the fact that the poor girl must have been dog tired after a journey from Rome that took over a month!

The history of Tartu is littered with famous orthodox folk …

Vasily Andreevich Zhukovsky (1783-1852), called ‘the Balladeer’ was the most popular poet in Russia in 1800-1820 and a frequent visitor to Tartu. Zhukovsky was the illegitimate son of a Russian landowner and a Turkish slave. His translation of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard (1802) made him famous and he is regarded as the founder of Russian Romanticism. His translations of Byron, Schiller, Goethe, and Walter Scott into Russian were extremely influential. He taught Russian to the Grand Duchess Alexandra Fedorovna from 1817 till 1825 and then served as a mentor of her son, Grand Duke Alexander, the future Tsar Alexander II, who became known as ‘the Liberator’. In 1864 Alexander freed the Russian serfs quite possibly because he was influenced by Zhukovsky’s liberal ideas.

Zhukovsky composed the lyrics for the national anthem of imperial Russia, God Save the Tsar, modelled on the British national anthem. In order to oppose neo-classical trends, he founded a literary society whose members included the young Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), who was strongly influenced by Zhukovsky in his early years. Zhukovsky remained a life-long friend, confidante and supporter. On the publication of Pushkin's first major work in 1820, Zhukovsky presented him with a portrait inscribed with the words: “To the victorious disciple from his vanquished tutor.” Upon Pushkin's death in 1837, Zhukovsky acted as his literary executor, preparing some of his uncollected pieces for publication.

His half-niece Maria inspired Zhukovsky’s best work. He proposed in 1813 but Maria’s mother, Katerina Protassova, would not allow the lovers to marry: she could never forgive or forget the fact the Zhukovsky was illegitimate half brother, half Turkish and half serf. The poet never recovered and his poetry is tinged with melancholy though he was a good sport and was best man when Maria married Johann Moier, professor of surgery, in Tartu in 1817 and was a frequent visitor to their household. In 1825 when Pushkin was living in exile in nearby Mikhaylovskoe, Zhukovsky suggested that Moier operate on Pushkin’s varicose veins. The plan was that Pushkin would come to Tartu for the operation, then, disguising himself as his friend’s servant, escape to join Peter Chaadaev, the dissident philosopher, who Pushkin had known at school. Careless (intercepted) letters to his brother, however, probably gave the game away as the poet spoke of a need for a travelling bag and a book for a long journey on horseback, as well as a wish to avoid normal routes. These were hardly the requests of a sick man! The police would only allow the poet to travel as far as Pskov and the plan was thwarted.

Maria Moier-Protassova appears to have been a very popular figure. She died in 1823. Her husband never remarried. Zhukovsky, too, was desolate. In his memoirs, Professor Nikolai Pirogov (a famous surgeon, taught by Moier) recalls how he met the Moiers in Tartu when Moier’s haughty mother in law, Katerina Protassova, was living with the widower and his surviving daughter. Pirogov recounts how, one day, Zhukovsky called on her to read Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. A shiver ran down Pirogov’s spine when he heard Zhukovsky read Godunov’s line “I saw the bloody child before me”…

It has been suggested that Zhukovsky’s relationship with Maria inspired the character of Tatiana Larina in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Pushkin started writing Onegin in exile in the Caucasus in 1823 around the time of Maria’s death. Maria Moier- Protassova is buried in the Uspenski sector of the Raadi cemetery. Countess Sollogub, wife of Count Vladimir Sollogub, Pushkin’s second at his fatal duel, later built a Russian-style chapel near Protasova’s grave, which is lovingly maintained, along with other tombs, by the Russian community.

Nikolai Yazykov was a friend of both Zhukovsky and Pushkin. Yazykov was at Pushkin’s stag party and Pushkin’s To Yazykov evokes student life in Tartu. Yazykov arrived in Tartu to study in 1822 and found himself in his element in the student life of the young university. His Tartu years were his most prolific. Works include the song that inevitably opens a Russian student rally “From the far away, far away, sweep of the Volga, we all came, wanting our freedom” and other less elevated pieces such as We love our noisy parties and a translation of the German student boozing song Krambambouli. In his poem Dorpat (the German name for Tartu) he calls the town “My best beloved, the place where my soul is inspired.” Too much inspiration resulted in Yazykov's failure to graduate, but he was active in forming the Russian student union “Ruthenia” (a Latinised version of “Rus”) whose poet-members wrote songs à la Yazykov.

Yazykov, like Zhukovsky and Pushkin was (at first), a liberal and close to the Decembrists, who, in 1825, rebelled, unsuccessfully, against the autocracy. When Pushkin was banished from St Petersburg for writing subversive poetry and sent to his mother’s estate in Mikhaylovskoe (across nearby lake Peipsi) Yazykov made some short (and brave) trips from Tartu to Pushkin’s neighbours (where he stayed in the sauna) to visit him. Yazykov’s Tartu poetry glorified freedom and individuality, condemned autocracy and obscurantism and warned rulers that the people would eventually rebel. He bitterly lamented the fact that political opposition in Russia was so weak. Later, however, the poet turned his back on the liberal ideas of his youth and became a religious reactionary. Bit like Ronald Reagan.

Those familiar with the novels of Jaan Kross will recognise the name of Timotheus Eberhard von Bock (1787-1836), the real-life eponymous hero of The Tsar’s Madman (Keisri hull). Aristo Tim shocked Baltic German society when he married his peasant bride, Eva, in the Uspenski church in 1817 and followed this up, in 1818, with a memo to Alexander I making proposals for constitutional reform and criticising the treatment of the serfs. He was imprisoned for his pains and only freed in 1827 on grounds that he was insane. Like Pushkin, he remained under surveillance by the secret police.


The Russian poet, Igor Severyanin was also married in the Uspenski. Severyanin was born in Petersburg but spent summers in Estonia. He became famous for his outrageous poetry recitals, and gained a cult following, especially in the provinces of Imperial Russia, where he played to packed halls. Whilst other Russian avant-garde futurists dismissed him and other ‘Ego-futurists’ as puerile and vulgar, Severyanin argued that his championing of outspoken sensuality, neologisms and ostentatious selfishness was as valid a version of futurism as theirs. Pix of Severyanin show an Oscar Wilde-ish figure and he introduced himself with the words: "I am Igor Severyanin, a genius!" He captured popular imagination with his slick pomaded hair parted in the middle, melancholy eyes, impeccable tails and a lily in his hands. An important landmark in the poet’s career was the collection Thunderboiling Cup (1913). One critic wrote that Severyanin’s soul reflected all the vices, dislocation and ugliness of urban life. In 1918 he was named ‘King of Verse’ in revolutionary Moscow in a poetry competition, beating Vladimir Mayakovsky. With the outbreak of WWI and the Russian revolution of 1917, the poet moved to Estonia. When he tried to return to Russia, however, he could not. The war of independence prevented movement, his marriage to the Estonian Felissa (Felissochka) Kruut was frowned upon and the literary climate in new, butch Soviet Russia was unreceptive. After the Soviet annexation of Estonia in Severyanin continued his literary activities, but died of heart attack in German occupied Tallinn, 1941.

Severyanin was a friend of the Estonian futurist poet Henrik Visnapuu who, in 1914, published an ultra-modern Cubo-futurist collection called Green Moment. The idea was to shock and irritate ‘the philistines.’ It succeeded. However it was not just ‘the philistines”, who were unable to understand Visnapuu’s futuristic world. Cubo-futurism had developed in urban societies but skyscrapers, factory smog, mechanisation and high-speed living were virtually unknown in the mainly agricultural Estonia of the time. Later Visnapuu confessed that the first time he saw a car in Tartu (then called Yuryev) was in 1910. It had three wheels and was the only one in town.

The murder of Bishop Platon

Bishop Platon, Paul Kulbusch, the first orthodox bishop of Estonia, studied theology in Riga and St Petersburg and was ordained as Bishop of Tallinn 1917, when the women of his congregation presented him with a vestment in Estonian national colours – white and decorated with blue and black crosses. When German troops occupied Estonia soon after Platon visited almost all his parishes on horseback despite the fact that travel was difficult. He regaled his companions along the way with stories about the night sky – he was an excellent astronomer.

In 1918 the Bishop described the tribulations of the Orthodox in a letter, written in Tartu, to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Red Army took Tartu on December 21, 1918. The religious congregations ignored threats and celebrated Christmas as usual but, on December 29, all services were prohibited. On New Year's Eve a communist ‘service’ took place in St. Peter's. The Marseillaise was played on the organ, the pulpit was covered by red flags and a declaration made that “Everything that has been preached from this pulpit was a lie.” Platon was arrested, locked up in a bank, beaten and forced to clean the toilet with his bare hands. When he refused to stop preaching he was stabbed with a bayonet and shot. He died giving the sign of the cross. Later that day four priests and fourteen other citizens were murdered. The bodies were found soon after when Estonian troops took the town. Platon's panagia, the symbol of his office, was under his shirt. It was later worn by his successors and, after his canonisation in 2000, is venerated as the relic of a saint. His body was brought to the rectory at the Uspenski and a memorial service held. The Estonian Government, however, wanted a grand state funeral. Soldiers made a guard of honour and three bands followed the funeral procession on the way to the railway station. Long lines formed to pay their respects while the body lay in state before burial in the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, Tallinn.

And thus endeth the lesson! Have a great spring! Head kevadet teile!
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