The present article deals with the history of the Orthodox Church in Lithuania between 1944 and 1990, focusing mainly on the exceptional situation of Orthodoxy conditioned by the Soviet attempts to exploit it via internal policy in the republic.
Consolidating the Stalinist regime in occupied Lithuania in 1944–1948, the government demanded Orthodox archbishops start ‘the struggle against reactionary Catholicism’, i.e., start a critique of its dogmas, to bring the whole faith into disrespect, etc. Nevertheless, even though it enjoyed state support the Orthodox Church was too weak to compete successfully with Catholicism which remained dominant in the country. Small in number, Russian-speaking, alien to Lithuanian society and culture and lacking intellectual potential, the Orthodox Church failed to cope with the task. Besides, strengthening the position of Orthodoxy was not acceptable to the leadership of Soviet Lithuania.
Though subsequently not directly protected, but having already strengthened its structures, the Orthodox Church continued to enjoy its favourable political image as a religion ‘less harmful’ to the interests of the state than Catholicism. Accordingly, the consequences of the antireligious campaign, conducted in the entire Soviet Union from 1958 to 1964, were minimal in the Lithuanian eparchy. Some of the reforms were not implemented here altogether.
In Lithuania the attention of the Soviet regime was concentrated mainly on the struggle against Catholicism, and Orthodoxy for a long time remained outside the sphere of atheistic propaganda. As time went by the Orthodox eparchy was put into the shade entirely by the concern of the KGB and the commissioners about the growing underground of the Catholic Church in Lithuania. Meanwhile the structure of the Orthodox Church in Lithuania suffered comparatively insignificantly (only four parish churches were closed). The Orthodox communities shrank mainly as a result of the rising secularization and urbanization of society. Only communities in the major towns retained their former vitality.
This paper analyses the resulting legal situation in the Lithuanian Republic in 1918–1940 when only the clergy of state-recognised religions registered acts of civil status (births, marriages and deaths). This situation created many problems for the small number of believers of ‘unrecognised’ religions, and non-religious citizens. This paper investigates the different approaches to civil registration by the political forces representing the government. It attempts to explain what solutions society found from the resulting situation, that is, how in the absence of a state registration system of civil status, believers of ‘unrecognised’ communities and the non-religious population nevertheless married, registered children and buried their dead. The consequences of the dominance of Church registration are also discussed.
All the right and left political parties that ruled the Lithuanian state recognized the importance of the introduction of civil registration: all of them promised and prepared to adopt laws to regulate it. However, by 1940 these laws were not adopted. This was determined by the active opposition by the Catholic Church, and from a religious point of view the quite homogeneous position of the majority of society. The dominance of Church registration radicalised the part of society that was dissatisfied with this, especially the intelligentsia. The Lietuvos laisvamanių etinės kultūros draugija (Lithuanian Libertines Society) appeared and grew, its initiative spread to establish civil marriage in the Klaipėda region and abroad, and to establish a cemetery for libertines (freethinkers). Although such events were rare, their presence indicates a social change: the trend towards the liberalisation of traditional conservative Catholic culture.