The History of Estonia
Below is a brief history of Estonia. To find information other than history for Estonia then visit
the Estonia Country Page.
Estonians are one of the longest-settled European peoples, whose forebearers, known as the "comb pottery" people, lived on the southeastern shores of the Baltic Sea over 5,000 years ago. Like other early agricultural societies, Estonians were organized into economically self-sufficient, male-dominated clans with few differences in wealth or social power. By the early Middle Ages most Estonians were small landholders, with farmsteads primarily organized by village. Estonian government remained decentralized, with local political and administrative subdivisions emerging only during the first century A.D. By then, Estonia had a population of more than150,000 people and remained the last corner of medieval Europe to be Christianized.
In 1227 the German crusading order of the Sword Brethren defeated the last Estonian stronghold. The people were Christianized, colonized, and enserfed. Despite attempts to restore independence, Estonia was divided among three domains, and small states were formed. Tallinn joined the Hanseatic League in 1248.
Despite successful Russian raids and invasions in 1481 and 1558, the local German barons continued to rule Estonia and since 1524 preserved Estonian commitment to the Protestant Reformation. Northern Estonia submitted to Swedish control in 1561 during the Livonian Wars, and in 1582-83 southern Estonia (Livonia) became part of Poland's Duchy of Courland.
In 1625, mainland Estonia came entirely under Swedish rule. In 1631, the Swedish king Gustav II Adolf granted the peasantry greater autonomy, opened the first known Estonian-language school in Tallinn, and in 1632 established a printing press and university in the city of Tartu. Sweden's defeat by Russia in 1721 resulted in the Uusikaupunki Peace Treaty, and Russian rule was then imposed in what became modern Estonia. Nonetheless, the legal system, Lutheran church, local and town governments, and education remained mostly German until the late 19th century and partially until 1918.
By 1819, the Baltic provinces were the first in the Russian empire in which serfdom was abolished, allowing the peasants to own their own land or move to the cities. These moves created the economic foundation for the Estonian national cultural awakening that had lain dormant for some 600 years of foreign rule. Estonia was caught in a current of national awakening that began sweeping through Europe in the mid-1800s.
A cultural movement sprang forth to adopt the use of Estonian as the language of instruction in schools, all-Estonian song festivals were held regularly after 1869, and a national literature in Estonia developed. Kalevipoeg, Estonia's epic national poem, was published in 1861 in both Estonian and German.
As the 1905 revolution in Russia swept through Estonia, the Estonians called for freedom of the press and assembly, for universal franchise, and for national autonomy. The uprisings were brutally suppressed, and Estonian gains were minimal, but the tense stability that prevailed between 1905 and 1917 allowed Estonians to advance the aspiration of national statehood.
With the collapse of the Russian empire in World War I, Russia's provisional government granted national autonomy to Estonia. A popularly elected assembly (Maapaev) was formed but was quickly forced underground by opposing extremist political forces. The Committee of Elders of the underground Maapaev announced the Republic of Estonia on February 24, 1918, one day before German troops invaded. After the withdrawal of German troops in November 1918, fighting broke out between Bolshevik and Estonian troops. On February 2, 1920, the Treaty of Tartu was signed by the Republic of Estonia and Soviet Russia. The terms of the treaty stated that Soviet Russia renounced in perpetuity all rights to the territory of Estonia.
Independence lasted 22 years. Estonia underwent a number of economic, social, and political reforms necessary to come to terms with its new status as a sovereign state. Economically and socially, land reform in 1919 was the most important step. Large estate holdings belonging to the Baltic nobility were redistributed among the peasants and especially among volunteers in the War of Independence. Estonia's principal markets became Scandinavia, Great Britain, and western Europe, with some exports to the United States and Soviet Union.
The first constitution of the Republic of Estonia, adopted in 1920, established a parliamentary form of government. The Parliament (Riigikogu) consisted of 100 members elected for 3-year terms. Between 1921 and 1931, Estonia had 11 governments. Konstantin Päts was installed as the first President of the Republic in 1938.
The independence period was one of great cultural advancement. Estonian language schools were established, and artistic life of all kinds flourished. One of the more notable cultural acts of the independence period, unique in western Europe at the time of its passage in 1925, was a guarantee of cultural autonomy to minority groups comprising at least 3,000 persons, and to Jews.
Estonia had pursued a policy of neutrality, but the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact on August 23, 1939 signaled the end of independence. The agreement provided for the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia, part of Finland, and later, Lithuania, in return for Nazi Germany's assuming control over most of Poland. After extensive diplomatic intrigue, the Estonian Socialist Republic (ESR) was proclaimed on July 21, 1940, 1 month after Estonia was occupied by Soviet troops. The ESR was formally accepted into the Soviet Union on August 6, and the official name of the country became the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Soviet occupation was accompanied by expropriation of property, Sovietization of cultural life, and Stalinist communism permeating political life. On June 14, 1941, mass deportations took place simultaneously in all three Baltic states. Officially, nothing was said about the arrests, and no one was prosecuted or sentenced.
When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, most Estonians greeted the Germans with relatively open arms and hoped to restore independence. It soon became clear that sovereignty was out of the question. Estonia became a part of "Ostland." Massive repression continued. About 5,500 Estonians died in concentration camps.
In World War II Estonia suffered huge losses. Ports were destroyed, and 45% of industry and 40% of the railways were damaged. Estonia's population decreased by one-fifth (about 200,000 people). Some 10% of the population (more than 80,000 people) fled to the West between 1940 and 1944. More than 30,000 soldiers were killed in battles. In 1944 Russian air raids destroyed Narva, and one-0third of the residential area in Tallinn was destroyed. By late September 1944, Soviet forces expelled the last German troops from Estonia, ushering in a second phase of Soviet rule. That year, Moscow also transferred the Estonian Narva and Petseri border districts, which held a large percentage of ethnic Russians, to Russian control. In 1944, there were massive arrests of people who had actively supported the German occupation or been disloyal to Soviet order.
An anti-Soviet guerrilla movement known as "the Forest Brethren" developed in the countryside, reaching its zenith in 1946-48. In March 1949, 20,722 people (2.5% of population) were deported to Siberia. By the beginning of the 1950s, the occupying regime had suppressed the resistance movement.
After the war the Communist Party of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (ECP) became the preeminent organization in the republic. The ethnic Estonian share in the total ECP membership decreased from 90% in 1941 to 48% in 1952.
After Stalin's death, party membership vastly expanded its social base to include more ethnic Estonians. By the mid-1960s, the percentage of ethnic Estonian membership stabilized near 50%. On the eve of perestroika the ECP claimed about 100,000 members; less than half were ethnic Estonians and comprised less than 2% of the country's population.
A positive aspect of the post-Stalin era in Estonia was a reopening in the late 1950s of citizens' contacts with foreign countries. Ties were reactivated with Finland, and in the 1960s, Estonians began watching Finnish television. This electronic "window on the West" afforded Estonians more information on current affairs and more access to Western culture and thought than any other group in the Soviet Union. This heightened media environment was important in preparing Estonians for their vanguard role in extending perestroika during the Gorbachev era.
In the late 1970s, Estonian society grew increasingly concerned about the threat of cultural Russification to the Estonian language and national identity. By 1981, Russian was taught in the first grade of Estonian language schools and also was introduced into the Estonian pre-school teaching.
By the beginning of the Gorbachev era, concern over the cultural survival of the Estonian people had reached a critical point. The ECP remained stable in the early perestroika years but waned in the late 1980s. Other political movements, groupings, and parties moved to fill the power vacuum. The first and most important was the Estonian Popular Front, established in April 1988 with its own platform, leadership, and broad constituency. The Greens and the dissident-led Estonian National Independence Party soon followed. By 1989, the political spectrum widened, and new parties were formed and re-formed almost daily.
The republic's Supreme Soviet transformed into an authentic regional lawmaking body. This relatively conservative legislature passed an early declaration of sovereignty (November 1988); a law on economic independence (May 1989) confirmed by the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet that November; a language law making Estonian the official language (January 1989); and local and republic election laws stipulating residency requirements for voting and candidacy (August, November 1989).
Although not all non-Estonians supported full independence, they were divided in their goals for the republic. In March 1990 some 18% of Russian speakers supported the idea of a fully independent Estonia, up from 7% the previous autumn, and only a small group of Estonians were opposed to full independence in early 1990. Estonia held free elections for the 105-member Supreme Soviet on March 18, 1990. All residents of Estonia were eligible to participate in the elections, including the approximately 50,000 Soviet troops stationed there. The Popular Front coalition, composed of left and centrist parties and led by former Central Planning Committee official Edgar Savisaar, held a parliamentary majority. In May 1990, the name of the Republic of Estonia was restored, public use of the symbols of the ESSR (anthem, flag, and coat of arms) were forbidden, and only laws adopted in Estonia were proclaimed valid.
Despite the emergence of the new lawmaking body, an alternative legislature developed in Estonia. In February 1990, a body known as the Congress of Estonia was elected in unofficial and unsanctioned elections. Supporters of the Congress argued that the inter-war republic continued to exist de jure: Since Estonia was forcibly annexed by the U.S.S.R., only citizens of that republic and their descendants could decide Estonia's future.
Through a strict, nonconfrontational policy in pursuing independence, Estonia managed to avoid the violence which Latvia and Lithuania incurred in the bloody January 1991 crackdowns and in the border-customs post guard murders that summer. During the August coup in the U.S.S.R., Estonia was able to maintain constant operation and control of its telecommunications facilities, thereby offering the West a clear view into the latest coup developments and serving as a conduit for swift Western support and recognition of Estonia's redeclaration of independence on August 20, 1991. Following Europe's lead, the United States formally reestablished diplomatic relations with Estonia on September 2, and the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet offered recognition on September 6.
After more than 3 years of negotiations, on August 31, 1994, the armed forces of the Russian Federation withdrew from Estonia. Since regaining independence Estonia has had 11 governments with 7 prime ministers: Edgar Savisaar, Tiit Vähi, Mart Laar, Andres Tarand, Mart Siimann, Siim Kallas, and Juhan Parts.