Estonians are one of the longest-settled European peoples, whose forebears,
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 from 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
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 Estonian 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, 1 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 (E.S.R.) was proclaimed on July 21, 1940, 1 month after
Estonia was occupied by Soviet troops. The E.S.R. was formally accepted
into the Soviet Union on August 6, and the official name of the country
became the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (E.S.S.R.).
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-third 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
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 era of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
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
E.S.S.R. (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, 1991.
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.