Capital : Tallinn
Size: 17 300 sq m Popn: 1 542 000
The Estonian people are descended from Finno-Ugric tribes who were settled in the Baltic area at least 4 000 years ago. They have linguistic and racial connections with Finland and Hungary and the Livs of northern Latvia.
Independent states were formed in the area during the C1st AD. In the Middle Ages, the Estonian towns of Tallinn (Reval) on the coast and Tartu (Iurev/Dorpat) in the interior were important as staging posts at which slaves, wax and furs from Russia were traded for weapons, salt and cloth from the west.
By the C12th, the surrounding Norse, German and Slavic peoples were strong enough militarily to begin the conquest of the Baltic territories. Southern Estonia came under the control of the Teutonic Knights and Denmark sold northern Estonia to them in 1324. The Teutonic Order forcibly converted the population to Roman Catholicism although it later adopted Lutheranism. Most of the country was contained by the province of Estland with Livonia to the south consisting of the Livs and some Latvian tribes and Livonia was separated from the province of Courland in the C16th. A ruling class of German landowners and merchants was established which was to outlast even the Swedish domination. Sweden took control of the north in 1521, with Poland governing the south, and the whole country was under Swedish rule 1625-1710.
Tsar Peter I (the Great) took Estonia and Livonia from Sweden in 1721 and they were formally made part of the Russian Empire under the Treaty of Nystad. There was some degree of autonomy with full emancipation for the peasants in 1816 and the country remained Lutheran. The Baltic Germans retained their privileges until the accession of Alexander II in 1856 when the policy of 'russification' was adopted.
The German landowners remained in Estonia, Livonia and Courland until after WWI but during the C19th, the ethnic diversity of the cities was increased by the movement into them of the peasant population. In 1885, Tsar Alexander III made Russian the compulsory language of government, education and administration. As education and literacy increased (95% in Estonia by 1897) the Estonians became more nationalistic and less willing to adopt the German and Russian cultures. A new educated class of native Estonians developed and men such as Konstantin Päts and Jaan Tõnnisson led the move towards nationalism. F. R. Kreutzwald compiled a collection of stories and poems called the Kalevipoeg which is similar to the Finnish Kalevala.
During the 1905 revolution, many German priests and aristocrats were killed in a peasant uprising and there was a general strike in October. The Germans and Russians punished the peasants severely between 1905-8 but the use of the Estonian language was allowed again. There was some attempt to pacify the country by giving the Estonians representatives in the Russian Dumas and at local government level but this was not far-reaching. The ethnic German 'Rittershaften' tried to re-establish cultural control by encouraging emigration from Germany to the Baltic but few accepted and the Reich under Kaiser Wilhelm stuck to the tradition of friendly relations with Russia and Prussia which had been established in the Napoleonic era.
This had deteriorated by 1914, largely due to trouble in the Balkans between Russia and Austria. The First World War broke out in 1914 but the first German threat to the Baltic came with the invasion of Courland and Livonia in 1915 and much of the population was evacuated. Russia was weakened by the 1917 Revolution and Germany occupied the whole of Estonia by February 1918. Although the west did not support full independence in the Baltic, as it wanted to remain friendly with Russia, resistance to Germany was encouraged. Estonia declared itself an independent republic just before the Germans took Tallinn in February 1918 but fear of Germany was so great that by May 1918, the Allies had recognised Estonia as an independent country. Germany collapsed in November 1918 and the Bolsheviks invaded but were driven out by a combination of British and Finnish forces by February 1919 and there was a peace treaty between Estonia and the Soviets in February 1920 which opened up trade.
The new political independence led to the establishment of a democratic parliament elected by proportional representation for 3 years which could only be dissolved by a referendum. There was still a mixture of racial minorities in Estonia (in 1934, 88% of the population of 1.1 million were ethnic Estonian, 8.5 were Russian, 1.7 German, 0.7 Swedish and 0.4 Jewish) and the new constitution gave them all the right to education in their own language. Any minority group of more than 3000 was given the right under public law to become a corporation and take control of its own education and cultural affairs but most of the Germans' lands were taken over by the government by 1926.
There were many different political parties which caused problems and Konstantin Päts and the Farmer's Party led calls for reform. The extreme right League of Freedom Fighters proposed a fascist regime which was accepted by 1933 but this did not benefit its leaders, Andrews Lark and Artier Irk, as Konstantin Päts declared a state of emergency and outlawed them in 1934. Estonian became the only language of government and place- and surnames were changed to Estonian forms. Päts established himself by banning political organizations and victimised his rivals including a fellow campaigner for independence, Jaan Tõnnisson, but appeared to be becoming more liberal by WWII.
The German Reich gave financial aid from the 1920s on and the Estonian National Socialists grew in influence. Most of the German population was evacuated after the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, before Päts' nationalist policies could take effect. In summer 1939, Britain and France opposed the Soviet plan to move into the Baltic to prevent an expected attack by Hitler's Germany, but the Estonian government was forced to agree to the establishment of Soviet bases at strategic points. Hitler was forced to abandon German claims to Estonia and Latvia under the German-Soviet non-aggression pact. The Germans launched an offensive in the west in May 1940 and it was perhaps in response to that that the Soviet troops seem to have virtually taken over Estonia which was declared a Soviet Socialist Republic in July 1940. Most of the political leaders were deported and few returned or were heard of again.
Under the German occupation of 1941, the Estonians were considered 'Germanised not only in intellect but also in blood' (Alfred Rosenberg), but the Jewish and Polish minorities were virtually wiped out. The last legal president of the Estonian republic, Professor Uluots, tried to restore independence in 1941 and as the Germans evacuated the country in 1944 he was president of a short-lived independent Estonian republic until the Red Army filled the space they had left.
Estonian claims for independence were almost ignored by the Yalta and Potsdam conferences after the war and the area remained under Soviet control after 1945. Greater industrialisation brought an influx of Russian workers which changed the ethnic balance again (only about 60% of the population was ethnic Estonian by 1970). 'Sovietisation' was strongly resisted by guerrilla forces until the early 1950s but many opponents of the regime were deported during the establishment of collectives under Stalin (around 80 000 were sent to Siberia in 1949) and few survived to return after Krushchev allowed it in 1956.
Protests continued but Estonia was cut off from the outside world so they were not really effective although nationalist dissent grew after 1980. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the policies of Glasnost and Perestroika presented further opportunities. There were demonstrations in Tallinn in 1987 and the Popular Front (Rahvarinne) was established in 1988 by Edgar Savisaar to campaign for autonomy, democracy and eventual independence. The Estonian supreme soviet declared sovereignty in November 1988 and adopted its own constitution which had the power of veto on all Soviet legislation. It allowed private property and put land and resources under Estonian control but was rejected as unconstitutional by the USSR's supreme soviet.
Estonian became the state language again in January 1989 and there was a joint Baltic assembly in Tallinn in May which called for economic rather than political independence from the Soviet Union. In November, the Estonian assembly denounced the incorporation of the republic into the USSR in 1940 as 'forced annexation'. The elections of 1990 led to a coalition between the Popular Front, the Association for a Free Estonia and the pro-Russian International Movement. The non-Soviet Estonian congress and its elected Council under Tunne Kelam, declared itself independent on March 30th 1990 with Savisaar as prime minister. Direct talks with Moscow began later that year. In spring 1991, a plebiscite resulted in a 78% vote in favour of independence and the republic began the process of privatization, freeing prices of agricultural products in July.
During the anti-Gorbachev coup of August 1991, Red Army troops moved into Tallinn and seized the television transmitter and the main port was blocked by the Soviet navy. Estonia declared its full independence after its 'period of transition' and made the Communist Party illegal. It was recognised by the Soviet government and the West in September, joining the UN and the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. Food and energy shortages led to the imposition of a state of emergency and the resignation of Savisaar and his cabinet in January 1992. Former transport minister Tiit Vahl took over with some of the same ministers and lifted the state of emergency. In June, a nationwide referendum approved a new constitution but there was no direct winner in the 1992 presidential elections and there was no overall majority in the parliamentary elections although the right-wing Fatherland Group had the most seats.
This collection of names was compiled by Kate Monk and is ©1997, Kate Monk.
Copies may be made for personal use only.
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