East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring 1999, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Ethnic Tensions in the Baltics:  How the Church Can Point the Way

Mark P. Nelson

The Problem
How can Estonia function with 30 percent of its population ambivalent or even hostile toward its existence as a nation?  If the Baltic countries, and other new states in the former Communist world, cannot find a peaceful resolution to this question, all that they have worked for, including advances made by the church, may be lost.  Ethnic strife is a serious obstacle and must be overcome.  Yet the Church can--and indeed must--lead the way in lessening, rather than heightening, ethnic tensions.

Soviet leaders bear part of the responsibility for fueling ethnic hostilities in the Baltic states.  After seizing power at the end of World War II, they supported the influx of a large number of Russian-speaking immigrants, which deeply alienated the indigenous population.  Officially, the Soviet constitution proclaimed freedom of religion, yet believers were harassed and discriminated against at every turn.  Officially, the Soviet Union was democratic, with elections held regularly.  In reality, citizens had no choice but to vote Communist.  This constant contradiction between word and practice extended into the realm of ethnic policy.  While the Communist Party celebrated cultural minorities in the Soviet Union, the system also constantly stressed the superiority of Communist culture coming from Moscow and the Russian Revolution.

It was considered axiomatic that Communism brought progress and material advancement.  A recent documentary on Estonian television concerning life in the 1940s illustrates the point.  After the Soviet occupation following World War II, a propaganda film showed Estonian children rushing in for the first day of school, while the commentator explained, "Now Estonian children have the opportunity to explore the wonders of education."  Propaganda clearly stated that it was only with the arrival of Communism that education was introduced.  Of course, Estonians knew this to be a blatant lie.  Education had been common since the Lutheran Reformation made Bible reading a prerequisite for confirmation, which in turn was required for a Lutheran wedding.  But according to Communist ideology, wherever Communism went, revolutionary improvement took place in all aspects of society.

Half a century later, Estonians understand the 1940s propaganda film as a ludicrous attempt by an illegitimate government to vindicate itself.  The effect has been resentment toward Communism and all things Russian.  In addition, postwar Russian immigrants by the hundreds of thousands were affected adversely by the lies of Communist propaganda of "progress."

Due to both language barriers and feelings of animosity, Estonians had minimal contact with postwar Russian immigrants.  The newcomers, bombarded with propaganda about improvements to society following the arrival of Communism, innocently believed what they were told.  They assumed that, before Communism, local society had been culturally backward.  Since Communism came from Russia, and since new immigrants were Russian, they considered themselves bearers of light in a dark and primitive land.  While official policy honored ethnic diversity, Communist ideology drove groups apart, stirring up, rather than reducing, ethnic tensions.

A Solution
If the present situation grew out of years of Soviet policy, how can society today begin to solve the problem?  Obviously, the solution is not to ignore deep-rooted causes of prejudice, but rather to address them directly.  If misinformation about ethnic groups caused the problem, the first step toward reconciliation is to teach the truth.  Only by bringing the Russian minority together with the local majority can the tensions truly be dealt with.

The Baltic Mission Center in Tallinn, Estonia, a multifaceted project which includes the Tallinn Methodist Church and the Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary, is one example of peaceful and promising ethnic relations.  In the seminary, simultaneous translation allows Estonian and Russian students to study God's Word side by side.  For most, it is the first time in their lives that they have been together.  Even with language difficulties, they get to know each other as individuals, rather than as representatives of stereotyped ethnic groups.  They better understand each other's culture, background, and way of thinking.  Estonian students appreciate the tremendous religious zeal in their Russian brothers and sisters, while Russian students appreciate the methodical way in which Estonians spread the Gospel.

The language barrier still does divide.  Estonians speak little or no Russian, and many Russians speak no Estonian.  In the seminary, students communicate with each other in Russian, Estonian, or English, depending on the situation, and if no common language is found, another student translates.  While it is unavoidable that groups tend to socialize with others of the same linguistic background, there is some mixing, providing a necessary first step.  Prejudices built on ignorance and lies can be removed only when people come to know each other as human beings.

The Role of the Church
The church is the natural place for such reconciliation to start.  The early church believed that "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).  From its beginning the church was a place where people of different backgrounds met together as brothers and sisters.  If the church cannot bring cultural groups together, then how can we ever expect society to?

Reconciliation must take place, and it cannot be done by ignoring the past.  Rather, the past must be confronted.  Both sides must admit prejudices, acknowledge the causes, and show a willingness to work together.  Members of Baltic nationalities must realize that the atrocities of Communism do not excuse negative feelings towards Russian minorities.  After all, Russians suffered under Soviet dictators as well as non-Russians.  On the other side, Russian minorities in Baltic states must acknowledge the serious effect Communist propaganda had on their views of Baltic cultures.  These Russians need to respect the right of self-determination and must work with--not against--the governments of independent Baltic states.

The church in former Soviet republics must take as a part of its mission the active reconciliation of Russian minorities with local ethnic majorities.  Total merging of cultures is neither possible nor desirable.  The unique identity of each group must be protected.  But the protection of any one nationality should include understanding of and appreciation for those who are different.  This protection must go beyond words, to include a willingness to actively work together as one in the Body of Christ, and in so doing, point the way for society.

Canadian Mark P. Nelson is a lecturer in Old Testament and systematic theology at the Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary, Tallinn, Estonia.  His wife, Kai, is Estonian.

Mark P. Nelson, "Ethnic Tensions in the Baltics:  How the Church Can Point the Way" East-West Church & Ministry Report 7 (Spring 1999), 5-6.

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© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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