Around 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, the Balto-Finnic ancestors of the Estonians arrived on the shores of the Baltic Sea, probably from the middle Volga region of present-day Russia. They had early contacts with Baltic tribes to the south, Scandinavians to the west, and Slavs to the east. Estonian emerged as a separate language around AD 500. The Estonian lands remained independent until the 13th century.
In the early 1200s, southern Estonia came under assault from German crusaders seeking to impose Christianity, and German merchants who sought control over the Baltic trade routes. In the north, the king of Denmark, Waldemar II, built a fortress on the site of Tallinn in 1219 and established the episcopal see of Reval. After an uprising from 1343 to 1345, the Danish crown sold its territories in northern Estonia to the Livonian Order, which was an integral part of the Teutonic Knights. At that time, the Knights were the most formidable power in central and eastern Europe and already controlled the southern part of Estonia. The Knights protected the German merchants of the Hanseatic League, a commercial federation of European cities. The league’s coastal trading centers in the Baltic region prospered.
After the middle of the century peasants were granted the right to purchase land, and the system of forced labor was suppressed. At the same time, Estonian national consciousness was aroused. Vigorous cooperative and educational movements sprang up after the Russian Revolution of 1905, and national feeling in Estonia was further developed by the press and modern literature.
Estonia gained self-government after the Russian monarchy was toppled in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Local leaders proclaimed the independent Republic of Estonia on February 24, 1918. The new government was unable to assume power until the end of World War I in November, when German forces withdrew from Estonia. The Bolsheviks, socialist revolutionaries who had seized power in Russia, subsequently attempted to retake Estonia and its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania, through military force. However, the Red Army was repulsed in Estonia with the intervention of British and Scandinavian forces. Finally, in 1920, Russia recognized Estonia’s independence and renounced any rights to its territory in the Treaty of Tartu. In 1922 the Bolsheviks formed a federation called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), commonly called the Soviet Union.
In January 1921 legal recognition was accorded the new republic by the major Western powers, and Estonia became a member of the League of Nations. The three Baltic states signed a mutual defense pact, the Baltic Entente, in 1934. Estonia continued to have a democratic political system until March 1934, when the prime minister, Konstantin Päts, led a bloodless coup and established authoritarian rule. In 1938, however, a new constitution provided for a presidential system of government with a bicameral legislature. In April 1938 Päts was elected president.
The Soviet Union concluded a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany a week before the German invasion of Poland launched World War II in September 1939. By the secret terms of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, the USSR claimed the Baltic states as within its sphere of influence. In June 1940 Soviet forces occupied Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In elections held the following month, only Soviet-approved candidates were permitted to participate. On August 6 Estonia was officially incorporated into the USSR as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. Despite the nonaggression pact, however, Germany attacked the USSR in June 1941, and Nazi troops occupied Estonia in July. An estimated 90,000 Estonians died during the war, about 60,000 during the Soviet occupation and 30,000 during the Nazi occupation. In September 1944, when the Germans retreated from the country and Soviet forces returned, more than 60,000 Estonians fled to Sweden and Germany.
Patriotic groups made a short-lived attempt to reinstate Estonian independence, but the Soviet Army prevailed and Estonia was reincorporated into the USSR. Cultural and political institutions immediately began to be reorganized to conform to Soviet models. Estonian language and culture were suppressed, and all political groups other than the Communist Party were banned. The Estonian national elite was imprisoned, executed, or exiled. Tens of thousands of Estonians suspected of opposing the regime were deported to the Gulags (Soviet concentration camps) in Siberia and Central Asia until the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953. A group of pro-independence guerrillas known as the Forest Brethren agitated against the Soviet regime until the mid-1950s.
Estonia’s economy underwent rapid change as well. The Soviet government abolished private property and forced privately owned farms to merge into huge state-owned farms. This process, known as the collectivization of agriculture, was nearly complete by the end of 1949. The postwar years also saw the rapid expansion of heavy industries throughout the Soviet Union. Many new factories were built in Estonia, primarily in the northern cities. People from elsewhere in the Soviet Union, especially Russians, immigrated to work in Estonia’s new industries.
After Stalin’s death, a thaw occurred under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The Estonian Communist Party gained some control over its own affairs and over Estonia’s economy. Most importantly, a cultural rebirth took place that restored a measure of confidence and hope to the population. However, Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev, reasserted centralized authority and enforced tight controls on public debate and expression of ideas. As a result, political dissent appeared in Estonia, especially after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The goals of the dissent ranged from a demand for the restoration of independence to specific concerns about the declining status of the Estonian language in education and public life.
Given their memory of independence in the 1920s and 1930s, Estonia and its Baltic neighbors were in the best position among the Soviet republics to take advantage of reforms introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. He called for the comprehensive perestroika (rebuilding) of society and economy and declared that glasnost (candor or openness) had to be fostered in the mass media and in governmental and party organizations. In 1987, Gorbachev came out in favor of demokratizatsiia (democratization) of the Soviet regime, a process that took on an increasingly sweeping character.
Estonia became the first Soviet republic to declare independence, on August 20, 1991.
Skyline of Tallinn, capital of Estonia.
In the 16th century Russia, Poland, and Sweden chipped away at the Knight’s Baltic possessions. In 1561 Tallinn and the nobility of northern Estonia submitted to the protection of the Swedish crown. The Knights were expelled from Livonia, their last remaining territory in the Baltic region, in 1591. Poland temporarily retained the southern part of Estonia, including Tartu, but by 1645 all of Estonia was under Swedish rule. In the 1670s and 1680s Sweden introduced reforms that improved life for the majority of people but embittered the nobility.
Sweden ruled Estonia until 1721, when it was ceded to Russia by the Peace of Nystadt at the end of the Great Northern War between the two countries. Russian emperor Peter the Great restored former privileges of the nobility. Between 1816 and 1819 Russian emperor Alexander I abolished serfdom in Estonia.
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