Estonian History

Figure 1.--We think this is an Estonian portrait, but the boy's parents were apparantly Communists. There were Estonian Communists, but they were a relatively small minority. The inscription on the back suggests the portrait was taken in 1939, perhaps Estonian readers can tell us what it says. I'm not sure if the writing is Estonian or Russian. I thouht at first it might have been a photograph belonging to ethnic Russians that the Soviets brought into Estonia, but tht did not begin until 1940.

Estonia was unknown to the ancient world. The Baltic was a rough neigborhood in the mid-Middle ages as the Estonians were exposed to Viking raids. The country enters into the written record as Christian Europe begins tom spread east. Estonia was a part of historic Livonia and ruled by the Livonia knights (13th century). Sweden acquired Estonia (1561). Russia under Peter the Great conquered the area (1710). Under Russian rule Germans as a result of the Livonian Knights formed the ruling class. As a result of the World War and the Russian Revolution, Estonia achieved its independence from Russia (1918). A formal treaty was signed with the Bloshevicks (1920). A democratic republic ruled the country. President Konstantin Päts began authoriative rule (1934). After the start of World War II, Stalin began to move against the Baltic republics. He first demanded bases (1939) and then invaded all three countries and annexed them to the Soviet Union (1940). The NAZIs occupied the Baltics as part of the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Soviets retook the Baltics (1944). For four decadeds the Baltics languased within the Soviet Empire, but was relatively prosperous. For most of its history, Estonia has played a small role in European history. This changed dramatically late in the the 20th century (1987-91). It was in Estonia that the first overt opposition within the Sigiet Union appeard leading to the unraveling of the country. Today Estonia is both democratic and prosperous with afree enterprise economy. A sharp contrast to the path that President Putin has chosen for Russia.


Evidence has been found that the Baltics have been populated by humans since the end of the last glacial era (10.000 BC). The earliest evidence of human habitation in what is modern Estonia are artifacts left by the Kunda Culture. An early-Mesolithic Pulli settlement has been found along the Pärnu River. Archeologists estimate that it dates to the early-9th millennium BC. The Kunda Culture is mamed after the Lammasmäe settlement site in northern Estonia which has been dates before 8500 BC. Both bone and stone items comparable to those found at Kunda have been discovered at other sites in Estonia as well as oyer Bzltic sites (Latvia, northern Lithuania, nd southern Finland). The Kunda people used flint and quartz to make cutting tools. The Narva culture appears in the Neolithic Period and the first ceramics at the beginning of the 5th millennium. Archeologists date the earliest finds from around 4900 BC. This early pottery was made of thick clay mixed with pebbles, shells or plants. The Narva type ceramics are found throughout most of the Estonian coastal region and on the offshore islands. Their stone and bone tools are similar to the Kunda arifacts.

Ancient History

The ancestors of modern Estonians settled along the Baltic coast (3000 BC). Linguistic studies suggest that the Estonians share common origins with the Finns and Hungarians (Magayars). Estonia was little known to the ancient world.

Viking Era (9th-12th century)

The Baltic was a rough neigborhood in the mid-Middle ages as the Estonians were exposed to Viking raids. Scandinavian peoples raid the Baltic coasts. But this was not a one sided activity as the Balts mount raids on Scandinavia as well. There were Estonian Vikings, but as far as I know they only operated within the Baltic. Scandinavian reports complain of Viking attacks from the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea (11th century). Their most daring exploit was kidnapping Norwegian Queen Astrid and her son, future King Olaf Trygvesson. They sell them into slavery. Estonian Vikings pillage Sweden’s main town, Sigtuna.

Northern Crusades

Estonia enters into the written record as Christian Europe begins to spread east. With the Christinization of the German tribes and eventually even the northern tribes (Scadinavoans) and the development centralized authority, the new kingdoms begin to turn to the pagan east. Thus developed the Baltic crusades. This was a lengthy series of military campaigns which eventually transformed the eastern Baltics. There were campaigns against the Livs, Letts and Estonians. Finally the Prussians and the Finns fell to the crusaders. The campaigns included military conquest followed by baptism, occupation and even geocidal extermination. [Christiansen, p. 93.] Estonia was one of the final corners of medieval Europe to be Christianized. Pope Celestine III called for a crusade against the remaining pagans in Northern Europe (1193). Crusaders from Northern Germany established a stronghold at Riga. After defeating and Chritenizing the Livs and Letts, the crusaders used them to assist in the campaign against the Estonians (1208). Estonian historians refer to the conflict as the Estonian ancient fight for independence (1208-27). The Estonian tribes proved a fierce foe. And retaliated with raids on the Christians. The Sword Brethren, a Germnan order, assisted by converted allies won a major battle against the Estonians and killed their commander--Lembitu (1217). Danish King Waldemar II landed an army at the Estonian town of Lindanisse (Tallinn). The Danes defeated the Estonians at Battle of Lyndanisse (1219). The Sword Brethren defeated the last Estonian stronghold--the island of Saaremaa (1227). This left all of Estonia in Crusader hands.


The Danes found the Estonians difficult to rule. The St.George's Night Uprising was launched by the Estonians of Harria (1343). The Danes were driven out of large areas of Estonia. The Danish king asked the Livonian Order to restore Danish authority. Eventually the King sold his Estonian dominions (Harria and Vironia) to the German Teutonic Order for 19,000 silver marks (1346). The Teutonic Order then resold the area to the German Livonian Order for a 1,000 mark profit (1347). The Livonian Knights supressed the Estonian rising. Estonia became part of historic Livonia and was ruled by the Livonia knights (13th century). As a result, the Germans become the landed gentry and native Estonians the feudal peasantry. The German privlidged status would continue for 700 years. The principal city in Estonia during the medieval era was Tallinn. The population was about 4,000 (1400). The German influence was particularly noted in urban centers like Tallin. Estonians make up about 40 percent of the population; Germans 30 percent; Swedes, Finns, Danes and Russians the remainder. The principal languages were Estonian and German while the clergy and scholars still used use Latin. The Estonians dominated the population of the countryside.


Martin Luther psted his 95 Thesis (1517). The Reformatio quickly spread in Germany and along the Baltic, reaching Estonia. Lutheran teaching began to be used in the liturgy (1523). In part because of the Reformation, the the first book is published in Estonian (1525).

Sweden (1561-1710)

Sweden acquired Estonia (1561). They infroduce social reforms. Tartu University was founded (1632).

Tsarist Russia (1710-1918)

Russia under Peter the Great conquered the area as part of the Great Northern War (1710). Tallin before the War had a population of 100,000. About 80 percent died as a result as a result of starvation and the plague. It would take two centuries to recover. Sweden formally ceded Estonia to Russia (1721). The Tsar does not upset the social order. Under Russian rule Germans as a result of the Livonian Knights continued to form the ruling class. Serfdom was abolished, decades before abolition in Russia (1816). Estonian nationalism began to grow un Europe after the Napoleonic Wars and this trend reached Estonia (1860-85). Estonia was affected by Tsarist policies which began to pusg Russification. A rail line was completed connecting Tallin to St. Petersburg (1870). Tallin became one of the most important ports in the Russian Empire. This help bring about industrial development and the population of Tallin increased from 30,000 to over 100,000. The disastrous Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) weaked the Empire economically. And the resulting Revolution of 1905 shook the Empire to its core. The Revolutioin swept the whole Empire, including the Baltics. Estonians called for needed reforms, including freedom of the press and assembly, elections with universal voting, and for a degree of autonomy. Estonian peasants and workers attacked no only the Czarist police, but also the Baltic Germans. The Germans continued to be the ruling class in the province, owning about half the cultivated land including many landed estates. Estonian gains from the Revolution were minimal. A kind of tense stability settled in with a freer press and a degree of political activity permitted. Estonia in the early 20th century had perhaps the most advanced economy in the Russian Empire. A desire for autonomy, however, caused friction with the Imperial Government. The Government of Russian prime minister Pyotr Stolypin devised plans to strengthen the central government and Russify Estonia and Latvia. The Government promoted the colonisation of the Baltics with Russian peasants.

World War I (1914-18)

The Baltics but not the Baltic peoples played an important role in Russian military planning in the early-20th century. The Germans were seen as the primary military threat. Petrograd was about 300 miles from East Prussia. An invading German Army woyld have to drive throughthe Baltics. And , especially the defence of Petrograd (St. Petersburg). The Russians built fortifications in Estonia. Especially important was the Baltic fleet's naval base and shipyards at Tallinn. Another naval base was built on the Northern coast--Peter Island. About 100 000 Estonians were drafted into the Russian Army. They did not, however, form Estonian military units to help defend Petrograd. The Russians did not feel confident about the loyalty of the Esonians and other national groups. Estonians were conscripted, but served in Russian units. Estonians before the outbreak of the War, had mostly been assigned to Russian regiments stationed in Estonia itself (Livonia and Kurland) or in north-eastern Russia). With the outbreak of the War, many Estonians served with the Russians in the various far-flung fronts of the War. Some 10,000 Estonians were killed in the War. Estonian politicians generally remained loyal to Russia during the War. They hoped to be rewarded with greater autonomy after the War and feared Germanification if the Germany prevailed. At the time that the Tsarist Army began to desintergrate, Estonia was the only area of the Baltics still in Russian hands (late-1916).

Russian Revolution (1917)

The Army rebelled against the Tsar. He was forced to abdicate. A Provisional Government was formed (March 1917). The Provisional Governent refused to exit the War. They continued the war with Germany and even attemopted new offensdives even though the Army was desintegrating. The Provisional Government moved toward autonomy, but not independence, for Estonia within a democratic Russia. The Provisional Government granted autonomy to a unified Estonia (April 1917). This was the first development of Estonia as a unified political state. A umified Estonia was a new deveopment. Even under Russian rule, Estonia had been divided. Estonia in the middle ages had been divided between Denmak and Sweden. The Provision Government combined thevGovernorate of Estonia in the north (Danish Estonia) with the Governorate of Livonia. The Estonians held elections for a provisional parliament--the Maapäev. The two major factions in the new Maapäev were the Menshevik and Bolshevik fractions of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party--the same situation as the Russian Duma. As in Russian, the Bolsheviks were the smallest, but best organized faction. The Estonian Bolseviks struck two days before the October Revolution in Saint Petersburg (November 5, 1917). The Estonian Bolshevik leader Jaan Anvelt seized power by force from the legally constituted Maapäev. The Maapäev and other political powers were forced underground. underground. The Bolshevick Revolution (October 1917) changed the dynamic. Opinion differed about autonomy in a democratic as opposed to indepencence. Attitudes toward the Bolshevicks were far more unified. Many Estonians objected to the Bolsheviks, both their policies and authoritarian tendencies. Estonians began to shift from wanting autonomy to a consenus for full independence and separation from the new Bolshevik state. If opinion had been divided before the Bolseviks seized power, the experience of Bolshevik rule turned most Estonians against them.

Independence and Occupation (1918)

After the initial revolution overythrowing the Tsar (March 1917), Estonians began forjing what the Tsar never did, Estonian national military units. This was interupted by the arrival of the Germans (Febryary-November 1918). By the end of the year when the Bolsheviks had seized power, four Estonian infantry regiments had been formed, including a rear battalion, an engineer company and an artillery brigade. The 1st Estonian Division was formed on the basis of these units (October 1917). Podpolkovnik (Lieutenant Colonel) Johan Laidoner of the General Staff was appointed Commander of the Division and Podpolkovnik Jaan Soots became his Chief of Staff. Most of the Estonian officers and soldiers with front experience in the Russian Army were incorporated in the division. Thdey would form the core of the Estonian army in the uopcoming War of Independence (1918–20). Estonian military development was interuptec by the Bolshevik coup (October 1917-March 1918) aand ensuing German occupation (March-November 1918). Estonia would have had difficulty breaking away from the Soviet state on its own, but World war I had not yet ended. Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted out of the War, but were shocked by the draconian German demands. They thus attempted to delay signing a peace treaty, knowing that the Germans wanted a treaty quickly so forces could be shifted west fir their war winning Spring offensive. Finally the Germans decided to resume fighting on the Eastern Front (February 1918). The Germans launched a major offensive. The Blosheviks knowing they could not effectively resust the Germans, withdrew to the Russian heartland. This provided an opportunity for the anti-Bolshevik Estonians. Before the Germans occupied the country, the non-Bolshevik politicans surfaced. A Salvation Committee of the Estonian National Council Maapäev declared Estonia independent in Parnu (February 24, 1918). The Bolsheviks were forced to accept a peace dictated by the Germans--the Breast-Litovsk Treaty (March 1918). The Treaty recognized German control of the Baltics including Estonia. The Germans did not recognize Estonian independence. The Germans supressed independent Estonian political activity and established a puppet government--the United Baltic Duchy. The Estonian Provisional Government was forced underground. TheGermans disbanded the Estonian military units. The German Army began arresting Estonian political political figures (June 1918). The underground Provisional Government managed to get de facto recognition from theAllies (Britain, France and Italy). The delay in finalizing an end to fighting on the Eastern Front, limited the forces that could be sent west. The German Srping offensive in the West failed by the narrowest of margins when the American Expeditionary Force was commited to battle for the first time. The war-winning Allied Hundred Day offensive followed (August-November 1918) which forced the Germans to seek an armistice ending the War. A provision of the Armistice was the abrogation of the Treaty of Breast-Litoivsk and withdrawl from the areas of the Russian Empire seized in the War. The Germans turned power over to the Provisional Government and withdrew (November 1918). The Estonian provisional Government was once again in control and raidly began activating the Estonial military units that had been organized earlier.

Independence War (1918-20)

Independence involved more than decaring independence and forming a provisional government. With the departure of the Germany army, Lennin and the Bolsheviks saw an opportunity retake power in Estonia. The Red Army a few days after the German departure invaded Estonia (November 28). The Russians struck the border town of Narva. Prospects for the Estonians were not good. The new independent Government had little time to organize and set up an effecive administration. Money was limited and there was no taxation system. The military units had been disbanded by the Germans and had little time to reorganize. Weapons and supplies were in short supply. Food was a special problem. The War had affected agricultural production. German control of the Baltic had prevented American food shipments from reaching Estonia. The population of the cities were close to a huminitarian disaster. Most Estonians opposed the Bolsheviks, but many were afraid to oppose them, fearing that the provisional government could not effectively resist the well-supplied invading Red Army. Fortunately for the Estonians, this was at the beginning of the Civil War. The Bolsheviks were fighting the Whites on many fronts. This limited the forces available to restablish Russian control of the Baltics. A hastily created Estonian Army with some German arms managed to stop the Red Army. The British provided some milkitary support. The Estonians drove the Bolsheviks back into Russia (February 1919). The Red Army was the main, but not the only military force that had to be confronted. The Estonians fought the Landeswehr (Germnan Baltic militia) (summer 1919) and the White Russian general Bermondt (October 1919). These battles were fought to the south in Latvia. The Bolsheviks unable to defeat the Estonians decided to end the fighting with the Estonians so they could focus on the White armies and cPoles that were a greater threat. So thge Bolsheviks abnd Estonians signed the Treaty of Tartu (February 2, 1920). The Bolsheviks in the name of the Russian SFSR renounced in perpetuity all rights to the territory of Estonia. The new Republic of Estonia rapidly obtained international recognition and was admitted to the League of Nations (1921).

Independent Republic (1918-40)

Most Estonians wanted a democtatic government, not a Bolshevick dictatorship. The new democratically elected Estonian government pursued a number of economic, social, and political reforms. Estonia had for centuries been ruled by foreigners, including Danes, Sweeds, Germans, and Russians. Even ubnder Russian, controlled the Germans controlled much of the land and city factories. Andwhile the Russoan were gone, Germanm landowners and factory oweners remained. As a result, the Governmen sought to institute reforms needed to improve the status of Estoinians in their own country. The first step was land reform, even before the end of the Independence War (1919). The large estates owned by the Baltic (often German) nobility were broken up and the landed turned over to the Estonian peasantry. Volunteers fighting bin the Estonian Army were given preferences. There was a fundamental shift in the econmy. Trade was hiftedcfrom Russia to Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, and western Europe, with some exports to the United States. Trade was not ended with Russia (now the Soviet Union), but became m,uch less important. Estonians approved its first costitution (1920). Ir established a democratic, parlimentary dorm of government. A parliament (Riigikogu) was constitured with 100 members who were elected for 3-year terms. The first parlimentary elections were held (1921), but democracy not unsuprisingly did not take hold. There was no tradition of democracy in Estonia and the other Baltics. The resulting political process was lively, but unstable. Estonia mostly in the 1920s had 11 different governments. A major political movement arose (1930s). It was both anti-Communist and anti-parliamentary. Vaps promoted a referendum on constitutional reform (October 1933) Over 70 percent of Estonians voted for it. Vaps wanted to replace parliamentary system with a presidential system. They expected to win a scheduled presidential election (April 1934). The election never took place. Head of State Konstantin Päts staged a pre-emptive coup d'état (March 12, 1934). He estblished an authoritarian government under a new constitution. He banned political parties and prevented session of parliment. Estoniaas ruled by decree. Vaps was first banned and then disbanned (December 1935). The Government put 150 VAP members on trial (May 1936). Most, some 143 were convicted to long-term prison sentences. The olilitical system began to chnge a few years later. The convicted men were granted an amnesty and freed (1938). By this time the appeal of Vaps litterally evaporated. Despite the political chaos, major economic changes were made, the most important being land reform. The Government launched a major land reform program. The large estates were broken up, most owned by a German nobility. The land was tuned over to the Estonian peasantry. Independence opened up a period of ntionl cultural advancement and flowering. The major probem or Estonia was foreign relations. Estonia and the other Baltics were located between two giant totalitarian powers--NAZI Germany and the Soviet Union. Estonia wanted noting as much as neutality, but that was not to be. The 1930s proved to be a terrible time for small countries without allies and a powerful army. Not only did the NAZIs and Soviets want to destroy the Estonian state, but also targeted the estonian people.

World War II (1939-45)

Estonia became one of the three small independent Baltic republic along with Latvia and Lithuania. Hitler and Stalin divided Eastern Europe with the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact (August 1939). After the start of World War II, Stalin began to move against the Baltic republics. He first demanded bases (1939). Then after the fall of France removing any possible assistance, Stalin invaded all three countries and annexed them to the Soviet Union (1940). Large numbers of Estonians who opposed to Communism and Soviet intervention were arrested, executed, and deported. About 60,000 Estoniansd were involved. The Soviets targeted the cream of society, the people most likely to resist Sovieization. The Soviets were especially harsh in the NARVA region where Russian "colonists" to a substabntial degree ethnic Estonians. Estonia was occupied by the NAZIs in the opening phase of Operation Barbarossa (1941). Most Estonian Jews have time to escape east. The NAZIs quickly hunted down and killed those who remained. NAZI plans for Estonia are not altogether clear. They looked on the Balts differently than the Slavs. It is likely, however, that if the Germans had won the War, that the Baltic republics would have been colonized with German settlers. The resurgent Red Army drove the NAZIs out (1944). Some Estonians fled west with the retreating Germans. Other Estonians fought a hopeless guerilla war for independence after the War, but faced overwealming forces.

Soviet Era (1944-91)

The Red Army smashed back into Estonia as part of the Bagration offensive (1944). For four decadeds the Baltics languished within the Soviet Empire. The United States and other Western countries did not recognize Soviet annexation of the Baltics, but this had little practical affect. The Communist Party of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (ECP) became the dominant political, economic, and social organization in the republic. Stalin ordered more arrests and deportations (1949). Many Russians move into the Baltics. As a result, the ethnic Estonian share ECP membership decreased from 90 percent (1941) to only 48 percent (1952). The Estonian share of the overall population also declined substantially, but not as sharply. Stalin not only wanted to terroize the Estinians into compliance, but to resify the ethnic composution. Khreschev's De-Stalinization Program ended the Stalinist terror. Cultural and economic conditions improved and the Baltics became the most prosperous region of the Soviet Union. Some of the Balts who survived deportation were allowed to return. The Soviet Stagnation Era began under Premier Leonid Brezhnev (1970s). Conditions in the Baltics were better than in much of the rest of the Soviet Union, but still a far cry from the West. There were shortages and shoddy consumer goods and poor living conditions. Historians describe rule by 'jowly, gray-faced men'. One historian writes that it was an era of "faceless bureaucrats playing an endless game of musical chairs,” moving from the directorship of one department or factory to another. [Lieven] Estonia because of its geographic location and lingisitic similarities with the Finns were the corner of the Soviet Union most exposed to the West. Ater Stalin;s death and De-Stlinization, limited contacts abroad were allowed. The Soviet term was re-permission (late-50s). Ties were reactivated with Finland. A ferry connection was opened from Tallinn to Helsinki (1960). As televusion ownership expanded, Estonians began watching Finnish television. This was a kind of electronic 'window on the West' gave Estonians more information on unsensored news and more access to Western culture and political and economic thought than any place in the Soviet Union. This partialy explained the vanguard role in perestroika during the Gorbachev era. As political and cultural represioin declined, Estonian society grew increasingly concerned about the growing Russian population and threat of cultural Russification, especially the loss of the Estonian language and national identity (1970s). Russian was taught in the first grade of Estonian language schools and was even introduced to Estonian pre-schoolers.

Independence Movement (1987-91)

For most of its history, Estonia has played a small role in European history. Its history was determined by the great powers surrounding it. This changed dramatically late in the the 20th century. It was in Estonia that the first overt opposition within the previously monolithic Soviet Union appeard leading to the unraveling of the Soviet state. Premier Gorbechev Glasnost policy resulted in the first public protests against Soviet rule (1987). The Estonian Soviet legislature declared sovereignty (1988). This began the process toward independence. The Estonian independence movement became known as the "Singing Revolution" because its protests and rallies are peaceful and orderly, commonly accompanied by singing. The Soviet Estonian legislature declared a transition to independence (1990). Sovietv authorities begin to crck down on the Baltics (1991). The Estonian people show incredible courage, but the crackdown fails primarily because Gorbechev limits the use of force. Hardliners in the Kremlin concerned about Gorbechev's preceived weakness attemp a coup (August 1991). The coup unravels when Boris Yeltsin and the people of Moscow resist. One of the results was opening the path for independence in the Baltics and other Soviet republics.

Independent Republic (1992- )

Estonia joined NATO (March 2004). Estonia joined the European Union (May 2004). Today Estonia is both democratic and prosperous with a free enterprise economy. A sharp contrast to the path that President Putin has chosen for Russia.


Christiansen, Eric. The Northern Crusades (Second Edition).

Lieven, Anatol.


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