Platon (Kulbusch) (1869-1919)

The First Estonian Bishop

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Estonians and Latvians left their homesteads in search of better economic conditions, either as settlers in the virgin lands of Siberia, Crimea, and the Caucuses or as workers in the cities, especially St Petersburg. The religious affiliation of these migrants became concerning for Russian Orthodox hierarchs, who worried, for good reason, that the Latvians and Estonian converts to Orthodoxy might leave the fold in favour of the Lutheran church or sectarianism. Even though fathers Adam Simo and Feodor Kuldsaar (Orthodox priests of Estonian origin) had already preached in Estonian to workers in St Petersburg, in 1894 the Synod appointed Pavel Kulbusch, a young and energetic graduate of the St Petersburg Theological Academy, to lead the first Estonian parish in the capital. In 1917, Father Pavel became the first Estonian bishop of Riga.

Platon (Kulbusch)

Platon (Kulbusch)

Pavel Kulbusch was born on 25 (13)  July 1869 at Pootsi (Podis) manor near Pärnu into the family of a parish sacristan and schoolteacher. He graduated from the Riga ecclesiastical seminary in 1890 at the top of his class, which gave him the chance to study at the St Petersburg Theological Academy, where he wrote a well-received thesis on penance in Lutheran theology. While studying at the academy in 1890-94, Kulbusch actively engaged in missionary work among the Orthodox Estonians, preaching in the parish of St Michael the Archangel in the Malaia Kolomna district of St Petersburg to workers who lived nearby. This Estonian parish in central St Petersburg was a desirable position: Simo and Kuldsaar, among others, attempted to attain it. However, Metropolitan Palladii (Raevskii) chose the industrious Kulbusch, who then married Nadezhda Losskaia, the daughter of the influential secretary of the Riga consistory and the sister of a fellow student at the Riga seminary.

Church of St Isidor of Iurev in St Petersburg

Church of St Isidor of Iurev in St Petersburg

Father Pavel was one of the founders of the Brotherhood of the Holy Martyr Isidor of Iurev (1898), whose cult was flourishing in the Baltic provinces during the last decades of the 19th century. Together with Bishop Veniamin (Kazanskii), the chairman of the brotherhood, Kulbusch became one of the key figures in the Orthodox urban mission, involved in social work, translating the writings of Father Ioann of Kronshtadt into Estonian, and preaching in different city parishes. Appointed as the dean of the Estonian parishes of St Petersburg diocese in 1900, Father Pavel energetically worked to fill the parishes with parishioners, even using the help of the city police to spread fliers about his new church. He solicited the support of the authorities in identifying Estonian Orthodox and organizing parish life, justifying such actions by referring to ‘de-Orthodoxisation’ among Estonian migrants.

In the 1900s, he collected funds to build a church dedicated to St Isidor of Iurev, which had both Estonian and Russian congregations. He set up a school, a shelter, and a training center for unemployed women. In 1909, having separated from his wife and survived brain surgery, Father Pavel became enthusiastically involved in the centralisation of church candle production, during which he studied foreign candle-making techniques.

Bishop Platon and Estonian priests (1918-1919)

Bishop Platon and Estonian priests (1918-1919)

In August 1917, the council of Riga diocese unanimously elected Father Pavel to become a suffragan bishop of Reval. When the delegates from the Baltic approached Kulbusch with this proposal, he felt anxiety about abandoning his projects in Russia and the tribulations he would face as a bishop. Nonetheless, he agreed: ‘As the motherland church elected and called me, I had no right to resist, and I treated it as God’s will’.[i]

After prolonged paperwork in the Synod, Father Pavel finally received official confirmation of his appointment, for which he had to go through a formal divorce procedure: he was consecrated as a bishop with the name Platon on 31 December 1917 in the Aleksandr Nevskii Cathedral in Reval. As Ioann (Smirnov), the archbishop of Riga, had left the Baltic in August 1917 in order to be a delegate at the Russian Church Council in Moscow, Riga diocese was left without a hierarch: the situation was further exacerbated by the fact that most of the Baltic region was under German occupation. Due to these circumstances, Platon had become the de-facto bishop of Riga, administering Latvian, Estonian (including Seto), and Russian parishes from his residence in Tartu. He managed to visit over 70 parishes in less than a year in 1918. The arrival of the bishop in the parishes had been always a remarkable event that brought together Orthodox and Lutherans, so the churches could not contain the crowds of those who wanted to hear the bishop preach. The German military authorities did not uniformly mistreat the Orthodox Church. While in some areas Orthodox schools were closed and property was taken, in other instances the Germans tried to cooperate with the Orthodox clergy. Bishop Platon gave permission to the Catholic clergy of the Germany army to use churches in Tallinn and Pärnu to provide services for soldiers: the German authorities offered financial support for the Orthodox Church, which Platon had to seriously consider.

German army parade in Tartu, 1918

German army parade in Tartu, 1918

In 1918, Bishop Platon was caught in the middle of political struggle in the Baltic. On 12 November 1918, the day of the German surrender, Platon composed an appeal to Orthodox Estonians in which he called them to help to create a democratic and prosperous Estonian homeland. He believed that the Orthodox Church had to rebuild itself as a people’s church. While the bishop did not mention the threat from the Bolsheviks, his appeal, which was published in all newspapers, was certainly not missed by the Reds. On 7 December, Lenin signed a decree recognising the Estonian Workers’ Commune and providing financial support for it. On 21-22 December, the Bolsheviks entered Tartu, forming a Soviet of workers’ deputies: this was the second time Tartu had come under Bolshevik rule (the first time was between October 1917 and January 1918).

The raising of the red flag over Tartu’s town hall was marked by much violence: landowners, shopkeepers, the clergy, and even high-school students were arrested on the grounds of counter-revolution. The Estonian communists exceeded even their Russian counterparts in their revolutionary zeal. Entering Tartu two days before Christmas in 1918, the Bolsheviks issued a ban on religious services, thus immediately secularising the soundscape of the city: no churches could ring the bells for the Christmas service.

Platon was arrested on the street on 2 January, together with Deacon Konstantin Dorin, his secretary: this was the first occasion the bishop had left his house in quite some time, as he had been severely ill with influenza. On 3 January, two other Orthodox priests (Nikolai Bezhanitskii and Mikhail Bleive) and the Lutheran pastor Traugott Hahn were arrested. The total number of arrested and imprisoned in Tartu amounted to 500, according to some data. Fellow prisoners remembered that Bishop Platon and Pastor Hann fulfilled their pastoral duties in prison, reading the Gospels and counselling those faint at heart. These eyewitnesses characterized both Hahn and Platon as saintly figures, who washed the toilet with their bare hands and turned the heavy wheel of the water pump. On 14 January, the communists left the city in haste as they retreated from the attacks of the Liberation Army, leaving behind traces of their crimes.

Icon of the Tartu martyrs

Icon of the Tartu martyrs

An eyewitness described the scene in the cellar of Kampanii 5: “The view was so frightening that Dante's description of hell pales in comparison with the ugly picture that that opened up in the light of a small kerosene lamp in the square of the damp cellar.” He counted 23 corpses piled one on top of the other: the floor, walls, and ceiling were covered in blood and brains. The floor was so full of bodies that the doctor had to step over them in order to do his work. He did not find anyone alive and made a careful forensic report about the shootings. The executioners had made the prisoners undress to their underwear before shooting them in the head so they could not be identified. The body of Bishop Platon was identified because of the panagia worn around his neck: there were also signs of torture.

News about the death of the beloved Platon spread quickly. Father Pavel Bugrov, a priest in Nina, wrote: “At this time in Iurev, there was total bacchanalia, and the devilish dance of the Bolshevik communists began; there were large-scale searches, arrests of “burzhui [bourgeois]”; ordinary citizens lived through Bartholomew nights; the beloved reverend Bishop Platon, along with the no-less-popular archpriests and men of people Dean Mikhail Bleive and the 70-year-old Father Nikolai Bezhanitsky, were arrested by the Bolshevik communists and, at 11 o’clock on 14/1 January 1919, savagely killed in the cellar of the building of the Credit Society on the Meat Market in Iurev. Eternal memory and gratitude to you, martyr-sufferers who suffered for faith!”

The memory of the martyrs in Tartu was maintained during the period of Estonian independence and suppressed during the Soviet period. Bishop Platon was first canonised by the Russian Church Abroad in 1981; in 2000, the names of all three Orthodox clergymen were included in the list of martyrs of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the same year, Platon was canonized by the patriarch of Constantinople.

[i]. Platon, “Mõne lehekene“, 1-3.

Author: Irina Paert.