Estonia’s oldest human settlements date back 10,000 years, with Stone Age tools found near present-day Pärnu. Finno-Ugric tribes from the east (probably around the Urals) came centuries later – most likely 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 the nomadic ways that characterised most other European peoples over the next four millennia.
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 Kyiv (Kiev) and Istanbul than in conquering the land. The first real threat to their freedom came from Christian invaders from the south.
Following papal calls for a crusade against the northern heathens, Danish troops and German knights invaded Estonia, conquering the southern Estonian fortress of Otepää in 1208. The locals put up a fierce resistance and it took well over 30 years before the whole territory was conquered. By the mid-13th century Estonia was carved up between the Danes 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 Sergei 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 Tartu, around the time that the 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 their part of Estonia to the Livonian Order (a branch of the Teutonic 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). However, it was mainly German merchants who lived in these towns while the native Estonians were relegated to toiling as peasants in the countryside.
Estonians continued practising nature worship and pagan rites for weddings and funerals, 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 most Estonians became serfs (enslaved labourers bought and sold with the land).
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 churches now under Lutheran authority and monasteries closed down.
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 all wars, this one took a heavy toll on the inhabitants. During the two generations of warfare (roughly 1552 to 1629), half the rural population perished and 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.
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 regarded as an enlightened episode in the country’s long history of foreign oppression.
The Swedish king granted the Baltic-German aristocracy a certain degree of self-government and even generously gave them lands that were deserted during the war. Although the first printed Estonian-language book dates from 1535, the publication of books didn’t get under way 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 in 1632.
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. 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.
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. The Great Northern War began in 1700 and 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 to Russia. By 1710 Tallinn capitulated and Sweden had been routed.
Russian domination was bad news for the native Estonian 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, 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 exports to Europe).
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.
Numerous Estonian societies formed, and in 1869 the first song festival was held. Estonia’s rich folklore also emerged from obscurity, particularly with the publication of Kalevipoeg, Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald’s poetic epic that melded together hundreds of Estonian legends and folk tales. Other poems, particularly works by Lydia Koidula, helped shape the national consciousness – one imprinted with the memory of 700 years of slavery.
Rebellion & WWI
The late 19th century was also a period of rampant industrialisation, marked by the development of an extensive railway network linking Estonia with Russia and by the rise of large factories. 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 responded brutally 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; 600 Estonians were executed and hundreds were sent 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 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 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 it effectively declared its independence.
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.
In many ways, the independence period was a golden era. The mainly Baltic-German nobility were given a few years to sort their affairs before their manor houses were nationalised and their large estates broken up, with the land redistributed to the Estonian people. For the very first time many peasant farmers were able to own and work their own land.
The economy developed rapidly, with Estonia utilising its natural resources and attracting investment 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 authoritarian rule that dogged the fledgling republic until WWII.
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. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a nonaggression pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany, secretly divided Eastern Europe into Soviet and German spheres of influence. Estonia fell into the Soviet sphere. At the outbreak of WWII, Estonia declared itself neutral, but Moscow forced Estonia to sign a mutual assistance pact. Thousands of Russian soldiers subsequently arrived, along with military, naval and air bases. Estonia’s Communist Party 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, many Estonians welcomed the Nazis as liberators; 55,000 Estonians joined home-defence units and Wehrmacht Ost battalions. The Nazis, however, did 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 (7000 Estonian citizens were shot) and those Estonian Jews who hadn’t already fled the country (around 1000). To escape conscription into the German army (nearly 40,000 were conscripted), thousands fled to Finland and joined the Estonian regiment of the Finnish army.
In early 1944 the Soviet army bombed Tallinn, Narva, Tartu and other cities. Narva’s baroque Old Town was almost completely destroyed. 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 had lost over 280,000 people in the war (a quarter of its population). In addition to those who emigrated, 30,000 were killed in action and others were executed, sent to gulags or exterminated in concentration camps.
Back in the USSR
After the war, Estonia was immediately incorporated back into the Soviet Union. This began the grim epoch of Stalinist repression, with many thousands sent to prison camps and 19,000 Estonians executed. Farmers were forced into collectivisation and thousands of immigrants entered the country from other regions of the Soviet Union. Between 1945 and 1989 the percentage of native Estonians fell from 97% of the population to 62%.
Resistance took the form of a large guerrilla movement calling themselves the Metsavennad, or ‘Forest Brothers’. Around 14,000 Estonians armed themselves and went into hiding, operating in small groups throughout the country. 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 communist years (notably the ‘thaw’ under Khrushchev, where Stalin’s crimes were officially exposed), it wasn’t until the 1980s when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ushered in an era of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) that real change seemed a possibility.
The dissident movement in Estonia gained momentum and on the 50th anniversary of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop 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 300,000 Estonians gathered in Tallinn’s Song Festival Grounds and 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 and regained its independence in 1991.
Independent Estonia Mk 2
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 Estonian kroon as currency and negotiating the complete Russian troop withdrawal. (The latter was a source of particular anxiety for Estonians, and the country breathed a collective sigh of relief when the last garrisons departed in 1994.) 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).
Following a referendum in September 2003, approximately 60% of Estonians voted in favour of joining the EU. The following spring, the country officially joined both the EU and NATO. This was followed by membership of the OECD in December 2010 and adoption of the euro in place of the short-lived kroon at the beginning of 2011.
Recurring post-EU-accession themes are the economy, increasing income inequality and strained relations with Russia, particularly with regards to Estonia’s large Russian-speaking community.