Conversions to Orthodoxy, 1840s

Rumours about a supposed resettlement programme to the sunnier climes of southern Russia combined with economic destitution among the Baltic peasantry to produce a massive wave of conversions to Orthodoxy from Estonian and Latvian Lutherans: some 110,000 Lutherans joined Orthodoxy between 1845 and 1848. Here we provide extracts from documents produced by the courts, the Orthodox Church, and the Russian state (quotes from D. C. Ryan, The Tsar’s Faith: Conversion, Religious Politics, and Peasant Protest in Imperial Russia’s Baltic Periphery, 1845-1870s. PhD diss., University of California, 2008).

No. 1. Juhan Levenson

The Estonian peasant Levenson was arrested for spreading rumours about the material benefits of conversion in December 1845. When interrogated about his conversion to Orthodoxy, he stated:

To the question why I had come [to his local Orthodox church], I said that I want to convert to God and the Tsar. After this, the priest, taking my passport, with which I had traveled to Petersburg, wrote my name in a book and asked whether I was converting so as not to serve [my] landlord, and when I said no, the priest, anointing me, placed a moist cloth on my head, and then giving me a cross, said something, but I understood nothing. And I did not notice what other rituals were performed during the baptism out of fear. Who exactly baptized me, I do not know. During the baptism there was an official. After the baptism, the priest made a notation in the passport.

Asked about the rumours he was spreading, Levenson replied:

In many taverns where there was a crowd of people I heard (but from whom, exactly, I don’t remember) that the tsar wishes conversion to Orthodoxy; that in Livland it is only permitted to convert until January 1 [1846]; and that whoever converts will be given three silver roubles, three measures of land, and that the publication of the Governor General that nothing will be given for conversion is untrue, and is issued because the landlords do not desire the conversions. But I did not spread such rumors. When Tomas Tazan, having learned that I had converted to Orthodoxy asked whether I received anything for this, I answered that I received nothing, and then, during the conversation I said entirely as a joke that for conversion to Orthodoxy they will give each [person] three silver rubles, and three measures of land; but whether I said that a deadline had been set for conversion and that the patent of the Governor General is false, I don’t remember. I spoke no more about benefits for conversion with anyone else.

Furthermore, he added:

In September, while hauling wood to St Petersburg, I heard from Russian peasants (but from whom exactly I don’t remember) that it will be better for whoever converts to Orthodoxy: for all seigniorial peasants who convert will become state peasants. Returning from St. Petersburg, following the example of others, and because Russians are entirely stronger in faith than Lutherans, I decided to convert to Orthodoxy.

(pp. 169-171)

No. 2. After conversion

Following the conversion waves in the 1840s, the new members of the Orthodox Church had to adjust to their changed social and legal status. As parishioners of the Russian Empire’s official church, they were legally required to attend the sacraments and confession regularly. However, those who had converted for material reasons were less than zealous participants in these rituals and were often suspicious about the paperwork required. Here is Bishop Platon (Gorodetskii’s) view on the matter from March 1855:

Three priests of Latvian churches reported to me at various times that when their parishioners come for confession and communion, they don’t want to place crosses besides their name on the list, as I instructed to be done on October 21 last year in all churches, while others even grumbled at the order to mark the crosses, and left the church not having taken communion…I suggest that this comes from the fact that priests are unable to explain well and prudently the purpose for which their parishioners are to place the crosses on the given list…If it should be necessary, explain to them that they need to sign crosses next to their names so that priests and authorities can accurately know who among them took communion so they will not confuse them with those who did not, for whom it is necessary to compel toward the fulfilment of Christian obligations according to the law.

(pp. 276-277)