Despite (or perhaps because of) centuries of occupation by Danes, Swedes, Germans and Russians, Estonians have tenaciously held onto their national identity and are deeply, emotionally connected to their history, folklore and national song tradition. The Estonian Literary Museum in Tartu holds over 1.3 million pages of folk songs, the world’s second-largest collection (Ireland has the largest), and Estonia produces films for one of the world’s smallest audiences (only Iceland produces for a smaller audience).
According to the popular stereotype, Estonians (particularly Estonian men) are reserved and aloof. Some believe it has much to do with the weather – those long, dark nights breeding endless introspection. This reserve also extends to gross displays of public affection, brash behaviour and intoxication – all frowned upon. This is assuming that there isn’t a festival under way, such as Jaanipäev, when friends, family and acquaintances gather in the countryside for drinking, dancing and revelry.
Estonians are known for their strong work ethic, but when they’re not toiling in the fields, or putting in long hours at the office, they head to the countryside. Ideal weekends are spent at the family cottage, picking berries or mushrooms, walking through the woods, or sitting with friends soaking up the quiet beauty. Owning a country house with a sauna is one of the national aspirations.
Of Estonia’s 1.3 million people, 69% are ethnic Estonians, 25% Russians, 2% Ukrainians, 1% Belarusians and 1% Finns. Ethnic Russians are concentrated in the industrial cities of the northeast, where in some places (such as Narva) they make up the vast majority of the population. Russians also have a sizable presence in Tallinn (37%). These figures differ markedly from 1934, when native Estonians comprised over 90% of the population. Migration from other parts of the USSR occurred on a large scale from 1945 to 1955 and, over the next three decades, Estonia had the highest rate of migration of any of the Soviet republics.
One of the most overlooked indigenous ethnic groups in Estonia are the Seto people, who number up to 15,000, split between southeastern Estonia and neighbouring Russia.
According to a 2009 Gallup poll, Estonia was the least religious country in the world (they've subsequently lost pole position to China), although many consider themselves spiritual, with a nature-based ethos being popular. Since the early 17th century, Estonia’s Christians have been predominantly Lutheran, although the Orthodox church gained a foothold under the Russian empire and has experienced a resurgence in recent years. Today only a minority of Estonians profess religious beliefs, with 16% identifying as Orthodox and 10% as Lutheran; no other religion reaches over 1% of the population.
Jews arrived in Estonia as early as the 14th century and by the early 1930s the population numbered 4300. Three-quarters escaped before the German occupation and of those that remained, nearly all were killed. Today the Jewish population stands at around 2000 and in 2007 the Jewish community celebrated the opening of its first synagogue since the Holocaust, a striking modern structure at Karu 16, Tallinn.
On the international stage, the area in which Estonia has had the greatest artistic impact is in the field of classical music. Estonia’s most celebrated composer is Arvo Pärt (b 1935), the intense and reclusive master of hauntingly austere music many have misleadingly termed minimalist. Pärt emigrated to Germany during Soviet rule and his Misererie Litany, Te Deum and Tabula Rasa are among an internationally acclaimed body of work characterised by dramatic bleakness, piercing majesty and nuanced silence. He's now the world's most performed living classical-music composer.
The main Estonian composers of the 20th century remain popular today. Rudolf Tobias (1873–1918) wrote influential symphonic, choral and concerto works as well as fantasies on folk song melodies. Mart Saar (1882–1963) studied under Rimsky-Korsakov in St Petersburg but his music shows none of this influence. His songs and piano suites were among the most performed pieces of music in between-war concerts in Estonia. Eduard Tubin (1905–82) is another great Estonian composer whose body of work includes 10 symphonies. Contemporary composer Erkki-Sven Tüür (b 1959) takes inspiration from nature and the elements as experienced on his native Hiiumaa.
Estonian conductors Tõnu Kaljuste (who won a Grammy in 2014 for a Pärt recording), Anu Tali and Paavo Järvi are hot tickets at concert halls around the world.
Hortus Musicus is Estonia’s best-known ensemble, performing mainly medieval and Renaissance music. Rondellus, an ensemble that has played in a number of early music festivals, performs on medieval period instruments and isn’t afraid of experimentation. Its well-received album Sabbatum (2002) is a tribute album of sorts to Black Sabbath – the only difference being the music is played on medieval instruments, and the songs are sung in Latin!
Rock and punk thrives in Estonia with groups like Vennaskond and the heavy but timelessly Estonian Metsatöll, whose song titles and lyrics make heavy use of archaic Estonian language and imagery. The more approachable Ultima Thule and Smilers are among the country’s longest-running and most beloved bands.
The pop- and dance-music scene is strong in Estonia, exemplified by Estonia’s performances in that revered indicator of true art, the Eurovision Song Contest. Tanel Padar won the competition for Estonia in 2001, making Estonia the first former Soviet republic to win. The tough-girl band Vanilla Ninja hit the charts throughout central Europe early in the millennium with various English-language tracks. Stig Rästa of local hitmakers Outloudz teamed up with reality TV contestant Elina Born to represent Estonia at Eurovision 2015 with Goodbye To Love, which subsequently entered the charts in 10 countries.
Eccentric dance diva Kerli Kõiv, better known by her first name alone, has notched up two Billboard US Dance number ones since 2011. Another one to watch is the youthful DJ and producer Rauno Roosnurm (aka Mord Fustang), whose remixes have garnered him a following with international clubbers.
See www.estmusic.com for detailed listings and streaming samples of Estonian musicians of all genres.
Estonian was considered a mere peasants’ language by its foreign overlords rather than one with full literary potential, and as a result the history of written Estonian is little more than 150 years old. Baltic Germans published an Estonian grammar book and a dictionary in 1637, but it wasn’t until the national awakening movement of the late 19th century that the publication of books, poetry and newspapers began.
Estonian literature grew from the poems and diaries of a young graduate of Tartu University, Kristjan Jaak Peterson. Also a gifted linguist, he died when he was only 21 years old in 1822. His lines ‘Can the language of this land/carried by the song of the wind/not rise up to heaven/and search for its place in eternity?’ are engraved in stone in Tartu and his birthday is celebrated as Mother Tongue Day (14 March).
Until the mid-19th century Estonian culture was preserved only by way of an oral folk tradition among peasants. The national epic poem Son of Kalev (Kalevipoeg), written between 1857 and 1861 by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald (1803–82), made use of Estonia’s rich oral traditions; it was inspired by Finland’s Kalevala, a similar epic created several decades earlier. Fusing hundreds of Estonian legends and folk tales, Son of Kalev relates the adventures of the mythical hero, which ends with his death and his land’s conquest by foreigners, but also a promise to restore freedom. The epic played a major role in fostering the national awakening of the 19th century.
Lydia Koidula (1843–86) was the poet of Estonia’s national awakening and first lady of literature. Anton Hansen Tammsaare (1878–1940) is considered the greatest Estonian novelist for Truth and Justice (Tõde ja Õigus), written between 1926 and 1933. A five-volume saga of village and town life, it explores Estonian social, political and philosophical issues.
Eduard Vilde (1865–1933) was an influential early-20th-century novelist and playwright who wrote Unattainable Wonder (Tabamata Ime, 1912). It was due to be the first play performed at the opening of the Estonia Theatre in 1913 but was substituted with Hamlet, as Vilde’s scathing critique of the intelligentsia was deemed too controversial. In most of his novels and plays, Vilde looked with great irony at what he saw as Estonia’s mad, blind rush to become part of Europe. For Vilde, self-reliance was the truest form of independence.
Paul-Eerik Rummo (b 1942) is one of Estonia’s leading poets and playwrights, dubbed the ‘Estonian Dylan Thomas’ for his patriotic pieces, which deal with contemporary problems of cultural identity. His contemporary, Mati Unt (1944–2005), played an important role in cementing the place of Estonian intellectuals in the modern world, and wrote, from the 1960s onwards, quite cynical novels (notably Autumn Ball; Sügisball, 1979), plays and articles about contemporary life in Estonia.
The novelist Jaan Kross (1920–2007) won great acclaim for his historical novels in which he tackled Soviet-era subjects. His most renowned book, The Czar’s Madman (Keisri hull, 1978), relates the story of a 19th-century Estonian baron who falls in love with a peasant girl and later ends up in prison. It’s loosely based on a true story, though the critique of past- and present-day authoritarianism is the crux of his work.
Jaan Kaplinski (b 1941) has had two collections of poetry, The Same Sea In Us All and The Wandering Border, published in English. His work expresses the feel of Estonian life superbly. Kross and Kaplinski have both been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Border State (Piiri Riik, 1993, published under the pseudonym Emil Tode) is about a young Estonian man who travels to Europe and becomes a kept boy for an older, rich gentleman. This leads him down a tortuous road of self-discovery. Not a mere confessional, Border State is a clever and absorbing critique of modern Estonian values. In popular fiction, Kaur Kender’s Independence Day (Iseseisvuspäev, 1998) tells the misadventures of young and ambitious entrepreneurs in post-Independence Estonia.
The most acclaimed Estonian novel of recent times is Purge (Puhastus, 2008) by Sofi Oksanen, a harrowing tale weaving together Stalin’s purges and modern-day people-trafficking and sex slavery. A bestseller in Estonia and Finland, it’s won six major awards and has been published in 36 languages (including English). It was initially created as a play and it's subsequently been made into a feature film and an opera.
The first moving pictures were screened in Tallinn in 1896, and the first cinema opened in 1908. Estonia’s cinematographic output has not been prolific, but there are a few standouts. It’s also worth noting that Estonia produces films for one of the world’s smallest audiences – far more than the output of the neighbouring Baltic countries, and with domestic films capturing an impressive 14% of the filmgoing market share.
The nation’s most beloved film is Arvo Kruusement’s Spring (Kevade, 1969), an adaptation of Oskar Luts’ country saga. Its sequel, Summer (Suvi, 1976), was also popular though regarded as inferior. Grigori Kromanov’s Last Relic (Viimne Reliikvia, 1969) was a brave and unabashedly anti-Soviet film that has been screened in 60 countries.
More recently Sulev Keedus’ lyrical Georgica (1998), about childhood, war, and life on the western islands, and Jaak Kilmi’s Pigs’ Revolution (Sigade Revolutsioon, 2004), about an anti-Soviet uprising at a teenagers’ summer camp, have made the rounds at international film festivals. Veiko Õunpuu’s 2007 film Autumn Ball (Sügisball), based on the novel by Mati Unt, won awards at seven festivals from Brussels to Bratislava.
In 2014 Tangerines (Mandariinid), an Estonian-Georgian co-production, became the first Estonian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Set in Georgia, it tells the story of two Estonian farmers who get caught in the crossfires of the war in Abkhazia.
One of Estonia’s most popular locally made films is Names in Marble (Nimed Marmortahvlil, 2002), which tells the story of a group of young classmates and their decision to fight in the fledgling nation’s War of Independence against the Red Army in 1918–20. It was directed by acclaimed Estonian stage director Elmo Nüganen and it’s based on the book of the same name (by Albert Kivikas) that was banned during Soviet times.
Many of the country’s theatres were built solely from donations by private citizens, which gives an indication of the role theatre has played in Estonian cultural life. The popularity of theatre is also evidenced in theatregoing statistics: in 2013 Estonia came third in the EU for theatre attendance in the Eurobarometer survey of cultural participation (behind Sweden and the Netherlands). The results showed that 45% of Estonians attend the theatre at least once a year (the EU average is 28%). Travellers, however, will have trouble tapping into the scene without any knowledge of the local language.
From the weird and wacky world of Estonian sport comes kiiking. Invented in 1997, it’s the kind of extreme sport that, frankly, we’re surprised the New Zealanders didn’t think of first. Kiiking sees competitors stand on a swing and attempt to complete a 360-degree loop around the top bar, with their feet fastened to the swing base and their hands to the swing arms. The inventor of kiiking, Ado Kosk, observed that the longer the swing arms, the more difficult it is to complete a 360-degree loop. Kosk then designed swing arms that can gradually extend, for an increased challenge. In competition, the winner is the person who completes a loop with the longest swing arms – the current record stands at a fraction over 7m! If this concept has you scratching your head, go to www.kiiking.ee to get a more visual idea of the whole thing and to find out where you can see it in action (or even give it a try yourself).
When Estonia regained Independence in 1991, not every resident received citizenship. People who were citizens of the pre-1940 Estonian Republic and their descendants automatically became citizens. Those who moved to Estonia during the Soviet occupation (mostly Russian speakers, many of whom didn’t learn the local language) could choose to be naturalised, an ongoing process that required applicants to demonstrate knowledge of Estonia’s history and language to qualify. For these people, one alternative was to apply for Russian citizenship, as all citizens of the former USSR were eligible, and another was to remain in Estonia as noncitizen residents. However, only citizens may vote in parliamentary elections.
The naturalisation process and the perceived difficulty of the initial language tests became a point of international contention as the Russian government, the EU and a number of human rights organisations (including Amnesty International) objected on the grounds that many Russian-speaking inhabitants were being denied their political and civil rights. As a result, the tests were somewhat altered and the number of stateless persons has steadily decreased. In 1992 32% of residents lacked any form of citizenship while today the UNHCR estimates that this figure has reduced to around 6.7% of the population.
One consequence of this policy is that only 84% of the population of Estonia holds Estonian citizenship. Nearly 9% of the population holds the passport of another state, mostly the Russian Federation, Ukraine or Finland.
Estonia has 64 recorded species of land mammals, and some animals that have disappeared elsewhere have survived within the country’s extensive forests. The brown bear faced extinction at the turn of the 20th century but today there are more than 600 in Estonia. The European beaver, which was also hunted to near extinction, was successfully reintroduced in the 1950s and today the population is around 20,000.
While roe deer and wild boar are present in their tens of thousands, numbers are dwindling, which some chalk up to predators – though these animals are hunted and appear on the menu in more expensive restaurants (along with elk and bear). Estonia still has grey wolves (thought to number around 135) and lynx (more than 750), handsome furry cats with large, impressive feet that act as snowshoes. Lynx, bears, wolves and beavers are just some of the animals that are hunted each year, although a system of quotas aims to keep numbers stable.
Estonia also has abundant birdlife, with 363 recorded species. Owing to the harsh winters, most birds here are migratory. Although it’s found throughout much of the world, the barn swallow has an almost regal status in Estonia and is the ‘national bird’; it reappears from its winter retreat in April or May. Another bird with pride of place in Estonia is the stork. While their numbers are declining elsewhere in Europe, white storks are on the increase – you’ll often see them perched on the top of lamp posts in large round nests. Black storks, on the other hand, are in decline.