go to content go to search box go to global site navigation

Estonia

History

Beginnings

Estonia's oldest human settlements date back 10, 000 years, with Stone Age tools found around Pulli near present-day Pärnu. Finno-Ugric tribes from the east (probably around the Urals) came centuries later - probably around 3500 BC - mingling with Neolithic peoples and settling in present-day Estonia, Finland and Hungary. They took a liking to their homeland and stayed put, spurning nomadic ways that characterised most other European peoples over the next six millennia.

^ Back to top

The Christian invasion

By the 9th and 10th centuries AD, Estonians were well aware of the Vikings, who seemed more interested in trade routes to Kiev and Istanbul than in conquering the land. The first real threat came from Christian invaders from the west.

Following papal calls for a crusade against the northern heathens, Danish troops and German knights invaded Estonia, conquering the Southern Estonian castle of Otepää in 1208. The locals put up fierce resistance, and it took well over 30 years before the entire territory was conquered. By the mid-13th century Estonia was carved up between the Danish in the north and the German Teutonic Order in the south. The Order, hungry to move eastward, was powerfully repelled by Alexander Nevsky of Novgorod on frozen Lake Peipsi (marvellously imagined in Eisenstein's film Alexander Nevsky).

The conquerors settled in at various newly established towns, handing over much power to the bishops. By the end of the 13th century cathedrals rose over Tallinn and Dorpat (Tartu), around the time that Cistercian and Dominican religious orders set up monasteries to preach to the locals and (try to) baptise them. Meanwhile, the Estonians continued to rebel.

The most significant uprising began on St George's night (23 April) in 1343. It started in Danish-controlled Northern Estonia when Estonians pillaged the Padise Cistercian monastery and killed all of the monks. They subsequently laid siege to Tallinn and the Bishop's Castle in Haapsalu, and called for Swedish assistance to help them finish the job. The Swedes did indeed send naval reinforcements across the gulf, but they came too late and were forced to turn back. Despite Estonian resolve, by 1345 the rebellion was crushed. The Danes, however, decided they'd had enough and sold Estonia to the Livonian Order.

The first guilds and merchant associations emerged in the 14th century, and many towns - Tallinn, Tartu, Viljandi and Pärnu - prospered as trade members of the Hanseatic League (a medieval merchant guild). Tartu's St John's Church (Jaani Kirik) with its terracotta sculpture is testament to its wealth and western trade links.

Estonians continued practising pagan rites for weddings, funerals and nature worship, though by the 15th century these rites became interlinked with Catholicism, and they began using Christian names. Peasants' rights disappeared during the 15th century, so much so that by the early 16th century a peasant became a serf.

^ Back to top

The Reformation & the Russian threat

The Reformation, which originated in Germany, reached Estonia in the 1520s, with Lutheran preachers representing the initial wave. By the mid-16th century the church had been reorganised, with monasteries and churches now under Lutheran authority. In Tallinn authorities closed the Dominican monastery (of which some impressive ruins remain); in Tartu both the Dominican and Cistercian monasteries were shut.

^ Back to top

The Livonian war

During the 16th century the greatest threat to Livonia (now northern Latvia and southern Estonia) came from the east. Ivan the Terrible, who crowned himself the first Russian tsar in 1547, had his sights clearly set on westward expansion. Russian troops, led by ferocious Tatar cavalry, attacked in 1558, around the region of Tartu. The fighting was extremely cruel, with the invaders leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Poland, Denmark and Sweden joined the fray, and intermittent fighting raged throughout the 17th century. Sweden emerged the victor.

Like most wars, this one took a heavy toll on the inhabitants. During the two generations of warfare (roughly 1552 to 1629) half of the rural population perished, about three-quarters of all farms were deserted, with disease (such as plague), crop failure and the ensuing famine adding to the war casualties. Except for Tallinn, every castle and fortified centre in the country was ransacked or destroyed - including Viljandi Castle, once among northern Europe's mightiest forts. Some towns were completely obliterated.

^ Back to top

The Swedish era

Following the war Estonia entered a period of peace and prosperity under Swedish rule. Although the lot of the Estonian peasantry didn't improve much, cities, boosted by trade, grew and prospered, helping the economy speedily recover from the ravages of war. Under Swedish rule, Estonia was united for the first time in history under a single ruler. This period is often referred to as 'the good old Swedish time'.

The Swedish king granted the Baltic-German aristocracy a certain degree of self-government and even generously gave lands that were deserted during the war. Although the first printed Estonian-language book dates from 1535, the publication of books didn't get underway until the 1630s, when Swedish clergy founded village schools and taught the peasants to read and write. Education received an enormous boost with the founding of Tartu University.

By the mid-17th century, however, things were going steadily downhill. An outbreak of plague, and later the Great Famine (1695-97) killed off 80,000 people - almost 20% of the population. Peasants, who for a time enjoyed more freedom of movement, soon lost their gains and entered the harder lot of serfdom. The Swedish king, Charles XI, for his part wanted to abolish serfdom in Estonian crown manors (peasants enjoyed freedom in Sweden), but the local Baltic-German aristocracy fought bitterly to preserve the legacy of enforced servitude.

^ Back to top

The Great Northern War

Soon Sweden faced serious threats from an anti-Swedish alliance of Poland, Denmark and Russia - countries seeking to regain lands lost in the Livonian War: war began in 1700. After a few successes - including the defeat of the Russians at Narva - the Swedes began to fold under the assaults on multiple fronts. By 1708 Tartu had been destroyed and all of its survivors shipped back to Russia. By 1710 Tallinn capitulated, and Sweden had been routed.

^ Back to top

The Enlightenment

Russian domination of Estonia was bad news for the peasants. War (and the 1710 plague) left tens of thousands dead. Swedish reforms were rolled back by Peter I, destroying any hope of freedom for the surviving serfs. Conservative attitudes towards Estonia's lower class didn't change until the Enlightenment, in the late 18th century.

Among those influenced by the Enlightenment was Catherine the Great (1762-96), who curbed the privileges of the elite while instituting quasi-democratic reforms. It wasn't until 1816, however, that the peasants were finally liberated from serfdom. They also gained surnames, a greater freedom of movement and even limited access to self-government. By the second half of the 19th century, the peasants started buying farmsteads from the estates, and earning an income from crops such as potatoes and flax (the latter commanding particularly high prices during the US Civil War and the subsequent drop in American cotton export to Europe).

^ Back to top

National awakening

The late 19th century was the dawn of the national awakening. Led by a new Estonian elite, the country marched towards nationhood. The first Estonian-language newspaper, Perno Postimees, appeared in 1857. It was published by Johann Voldemar Jannsen, one of the first to use the term 'Estonians' rather than maarahvas (country people). Other influential thinkers included Carl Robert Jakobson, who fought for equal political rights for Estonians; he also founded Sakala, Estonia's first political newspaper. (Jakobson's house and farm, provide insight into this unique man).

Numerous Estonian societies emerged, and in 1869 the first song festival was held, a major event foregrounding Estonia's unique choral traditions. Estonia's rich folklore also emerged from obscurity, particularly with the publication of Kalevipoeg, Friedrich Kreutzwald's poetic epic that melded together hundreds of Estonian legends and folk tales. Other poems, particularly works by Lydia Koidula, also helped shape the national consciousness - one imprinted with the memory of 700 years of slavery.

^ Back to top

Rebellion & WWI

The late 19th century was also a period of rampant industrialisation, marked by the rise of large factories and an extensive railway network that linked Estonia with Russia. Socialism and discontent accompanied those grim workplaces, with demonstrations and strikes led by newly formed worker parties. Events in Estonia mimicked those in Russia, and in January 1905 as armed insurrection flared across the border, Estonia's workers joined the fray. Tension mounted until autumn that year, when 20, 000 workers went on strike. Tsarist troops brutally responded by killing and wounding 200.

Tsar Nicholas II's response incited the Estonian rebels, who continued to destroy the property of the old guard. Subsequently, thousands of soldiers arrived from Russia, quelling the rebellions and then executed 600 Estonians and sent hundreds off to Siberia. Trade unions and progressive newspapers and organisations were closed down, and political leaders fled the country.

More radical plans to bring Estonia to heel - such as sending thousands of Russian peasants to colonise the country - were never realised. Instead, Russia's bumbling tsar had another priority: WWI. Estonia paid a high price for Russia's involvement - 100, 000 men were drafted, 10, 000 of whom were killed in action. Many Estonians went off to fight under the notion that if they helped defeat Germany, Russia would grant them nationhood. Russia, of course, had no intention of doing so. But by 1917 the matter was no longer the tsar's to decide. In St Petersburg Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, and the Bolsheviks seized power. As chaos swept across Russia, Estonia seized the initiative and on 24 February 1918, effectively declared its independence.

^ Back to top

The War of Independence

Estonia faced threats from both Russia and Baltic-German reactionaries. War erupted as the Red Army quickly advanced, overrunning half the country by January 1919. Estonia fought back tenaciously, and with the help of British warships and Finnish, Danish and Swedish troops, it defeated its long-time enemy. In December Russia agreed to a truce and on 2 February 1920 it signed the Tartu Peace Treaty, which renounced forever Russia's rights of sovereignty over Estonian territory. For the first time in its history, Estonia was completely independent.

^ Back to top

Days of wine, roses & dictatorship

In many ways, the independence period was a golden era. The economy developed rapidly, with Estonia utilising its natural resources and attracting investments from abroad. Tartu University became a university for Estonians, and the Estonian language became the lingua franca for all aspects of public life, creating new opportunities in professional and academic spheres. Secondary education also improved (per capita the number of students surpassed most European nations), and an enormous book industry arose, with 25,000 titles published between 1918 and 1940 (again surpassing most European nations in books per capita).

On other fronts - notably the political one - independence was not so rosy. Fear of communist subversion (such as the failed 1924 coup d'état supported by the Bolsheviks) drove the government to the right. In 1934 Konstantin Päts, leader of the transitional government, along with Johan Laidoner, commander-in-chief of the Estonian army, violated the constitution and seized power, under the pretext of protecting democracy from extremist factions. Thus began the 'era of silence', a period of gross authoritarian rule that dogged the fledgling republic until WWII.

^ Back to top

The Soviet invasion & WWII

Estonia's fate was sealed when Nazi Germany and the USSR negotiated a secret pact in 1939, essentially handing Estonia over to Stalin. Thousands of Russian soldiers arrived, along with military, naval and air bases, between 1939 and 1941. Apparatchiks (Communist Party members) orchestrated a sham rebellion whereby 'the people' demanded to be part of the USSR. President Päts, General Laidoner and other leaders were sacked and sent off to Russian prison camps, a puppet government was installed, and on 6 August 1940 the Supreme Soviet accepted Estonia's 'request' to join the USSR.

Deportations and WWII devastated the country. Tens of thousands were conscripted and sent not to fight but to work (and usually die) in labour camps in northern Russia. Thousands of women and children were also sent to gulags.

When Russia fled the German advance, Estonia welcomed the Nazis as liberators. Fifty-five thousand Estonians joined home-defence units and Wehrmacht Ost battalions. The Nazis, however, would not grant statehood to Estonia and viewed it merely as occupied territory of the Soviet Union. Hope was crushed when the Germans began executing communist collaborators. Seventy-five thousand people were shot (5000 of whom were ethnic Estonians). Thousands fled to Finland, while those who remained faced conscription into the German army (nearly 40, 000 were conscripted).

In early 1944 the Soviet army bombed Tallinn, Narva, Tartu and other cities. Narva's baroque Old Town was almost completely destroyed as Russia exacted revenge upon 'Estonian traitors'.

The Nazis retreated in September 1944. Fearing the advance of the Red Army, many Estonians also fled and around 70, 000 reached the West. By the end of the war one in 10 Estonians lived abroad. All in all, Estonia lost over 280, 000 people: in addition to those who emigrated, 30, 000 were killed in action; others were executed, sent to gulags or exterminated in concentration camps.

^ Back to top

The Soviet era

After the war Estonia was immediately annexed by the Soviet Union. This began the grim epoch of repression, with many thousands tortured or sent to prison camps and 19, 000 Estonians executed. Farmers were brutally forced into collectivisation, and thousands of immigrants flooded the country from different regions of the Soviet Union. Between 1939 and 1989 the percentage of native Estonians fell from 97% to 62%.

As a result of the repression, beginning in 1944, Estonians formed a large guerrilla movement. Calling themselves the 'Forest Brothers', 14, 000 Estonians armed themselves and went into hiding, operating in small groups throughout the country. Unfortunately, the guerrillas had little success against the Soviet army, and by 1956 the movement had been effectively destroyed.

Although there were a few optimistic periods during the tyranny (notably the 'thaw' under Khrushchev), Estonia didn't see much hope until the mid '80s. With the ravaging war in Afghanistan and years of disastrous state planning under its belt, the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of economic catastrophe.

The dissident movement in Estonia gained momentum, and on the 50th anniversary of the Stalin-Hitler pact, a major rally took place in Tallinn. Over the next few months, more and more protests were held, with Estonians demanding the restoration of statehood. The song festival was one of Estonia's most powerful vehicles for protest. The biggest took place in 1988 when 250, 000 Estonians gathered on Tallinn's Song Festival grounds. This brought much international attention to the Baltic plight.

In November 1989 the Estonian Supreme Soviet declared the events of 1940 an act of military aggression and therefore illegal. Disobeying Moscow's orders, Estonia held free elections in 1990. Despite Russia's attempts to stop it, Estonia regained its independence in 1991.

^ Back to top

Postindependence

In 1992 the first general election under the new constitution took place, with a proliferation of newly formed parties. The Pro Patria (Fatherland) Union won a narrow majority after campaigning under the slogan 'Cleaning House', which meant removing from power those associated with communist rule. Pro Patria's leader, 32-year-old historian Mart Laar, became prime minister.

Laar set to work transforming Estonia into a free-market economy, introducing the very solid Estonian kroon and negotiating the complete Russian troop withdrawal. (The latter was a source of particular anxiety for Estonians, and the whole country breathed a collective sigh of relief when the last garrisons departed in 1994. Unfortunately, the Russians left a few things behind: ecologically devastated lands in the northeast, polluted ground water around air bases and nuclear waste in naval bases.)

Despite Laar's successes, he was considered a hothead, and in 1994, he was dismissed when his government received a vote of no confidence by the Riigikogu (National Council). Laar returned to the political arena in 1999, when he was elected prime minister a second time. During this time in office, he helped correct the Estonian financial crisis brought on by Russia's financial collapse in 1998. Laar cut business taxes and reduced social benefits, and continued the march to privatisation. His remedies worked, pulling Estonia out of its negative growth in 1999, which allowed it to begin accession talks with the EU. There was much political wrangling, however, among the coalition government, and in 2002 Laar resigned.

^ Back to top