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 over 150,000 people and remained the last corner of medieval Europe to be Christianized.
Estonia also managed to remain nominally independent from the Vikings to the west and Kievan Rus to the east, subject only to occasional forced tribute collections.
However, the Danes conquered Toompea, the hilled fortress at what is now the center of Tallinn, and 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.
By 1236, the Sword Brethren allied with the Order of the Teutonic Knights and became known as the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Knights. Finding upkeep of the distant colony too costly, the Danes in 1346 sold their part of Estonia to the Livonian Order. 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 1582/3 southern Estonia (Livonia) became part of Poland's Duchy of Courland.
In 1625, mainland Estonia came entirely under Swedish rule, and in 1645, Sweden bought the island of Saaremaa from Denmark. 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. The Swedish defeat resulting in the 1721 Treaty of Nystad imposed Russian rule 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, spurring 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.
More importantly, activists who agitated for a modern national culture also agitated for a modern national state.
As the 1905 Revolution swept through Estonia, the Estonians called for freedom of the press and assembly, for universal franchise, and for national autonomy. The 1905 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 24 February 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-the Soviet Union's first foreign peace treaty-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 twenty-two 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. Loss of markets in the east led to considerable hardships until Estonia developed an export-based economy and domestic industries. Estonia's principal markets became Scandinavia, Great Britain, and Western Europe, with some exports to the United States and Soviet Union.
During its early independence Estonia operated under a liberal democratic constitution patterned on the Swiss model. However, with nine to 14 politically divergent parties, Estonia experienced 20 different parliamentary governments between 1919 and 1933. The Great Depression spawned the growth of powerful, far-rightist parties which successfully pushed popular support in 1933 for a new constitution granting much stronger executive powers. In a preemptive move against the far right, Estonia's first and also then-president, Konstantin Pats, dissolved parliament and governed the country by decree. By 1938 Estonia ratified a third, more balanced, and very liberal constitution, and elected a new parliament the following year.
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 Non-aggression 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 Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed on July 21, 1940, one month after Estonia was occupied by Soviet troops. The ESSR was formally accepted into the Soviet Union on August 6.
Soviet occupation was accompanied by expropriation of property, Sovietization of cultural life and the installation of Stalinist communism in political life. Deportations also quickly followed, beginning on the night of June 14, 1941.
That night, more than 10,000 people, most of them women, children and the elderly, were taken from their homes and sent to Siberia in cattle cars. When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, most Estonians greeted the Germans with relatively open arms.
Two-and-a-half years of Nazi occupation amply demonstrated that German intentions were nearly as harsh as Soviet aggression:
Estonia became a part of "Ostland," and about 5,500 Estonians died in concentration camps. However, few Estonians welcomed the Red Army's return to the frontier in January 1944. Without much support from retreating German troops, Estonian conscripts engaged the Soviets in a slow, bloody, nine-month battle. Some 10% of the population fled to the West between 1940 and 1944. By late September, Soviet forces expelled the last German troops from Estonia, ushering in a second phase of Soviet rule. That year, Moscow also moved to transfer the Estonian Narva and Petseri border districts, which held a large percentage of ethnic Russians, to Russian control.
For the next decade in the countryside, an anti-Soviet guerrilla movement known as "the Forest Brethren" existed in the countryside. Composed of formerly conscripted Estonian soldiers from the German Army, fugitives from the Soviet military draft or security police arrest, and those seeking revenge for mass deportations, the Forest Brethren used abandoned German and Soviet equipment and worked in groups or alone. In the hope that protracted resistance would encourage Allied intervention for the restoration of Estonian independence, the movement reached its zenith in 1946-48 with an estimated 5,000-30,000 followers and held effective military control in some rural areas.
After the war the Estonian Communist Party (ECP) became the pre-eminent organization in the republic. Most of these new members were Russified Estonians who had spent most of their lives in the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, Estonians were reluctant to join the ECP and thus take part in the Sovietization of their own country. The ethnic Estonian share in the total ECP membership went 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. Russians or Russified Estonians continued to dominate the party's upper echelons.
A positive aspect of the post-Stalin era in Estonia was a re-opening in the late 1950s of citizens' contacts with foreign countries. Ties were also reactivated with Finland, boosting a flourishing black market. In the mid-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.
By the 1970s, national concerns, including worries about ecological ruin, became the major theme of dissent in Estonia. 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 was also introduced into the Estonian pre-school teaching. These acts prompted 40 established intellectuals to write a letter to Moscow and the republic authorities. This "Letter of the Forty" spoke out against the use of force against protesters and the increasing threat to the Estonian language and culture. In October of 1980, the youth of Tallinn also demonstrated against toughened Russification policies, particularly in education.
By the beginning of the Gorbachev era, concern over the cultural survival of the Estonian people had reached a critical point. Although these complaints were first couched in environmental terms, they quickly became the grist of straightforward political national feelings. In this regard the two decades of independent statehood were pivotal.
The ECP remained stable in the early perestroika years and appeared strong at its 19th Congress in 1986. By 1988, however, the ECP's weakness had become clear when it was unable to assume more than a passive role and was relegated to a reactive position.
Praising the 1980 "Letter of the Forty," Vaino Valjas replaced Karl Vaino as Party Chief and thereby temporarily enhanced the ECP's reputation along with his own. Nevertheless, the Party continued its downward spiral of influence in 1989 and 1990. In November 1989, the Writers' Union Party Organization voted to suspend its activity and the Estonian Komsomol disbanded.
In February 1990, Estonia's Supreme Soviet eliminated paragraph 6 of the republic's constitution which had guaranteed the Party's leading role in society. The final blow came at the ECP's 20th Congress in March 1990 when it voted to break with the CPSU. The Party splintered into three branches, then consolidated into a pro-CPSU (Moscow) and an independent ECP.
As the ECP waned, 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.
A number of changes in the republic's government brought about by political advances in the late 1980s played a major role in forming a legal framework for political change. This involved the republic's Supreme Soviet being transformed into an authentic regional law-making body. This relatively conservative legislature managed to pass a number of laws, notably a package of laws that addressed the most sensitive ethnic concerns. These laws included the 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 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 Council 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.
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. Following Europe's lead, the U.S. formally reestablished diplomatic relations with Estonia on September 2, and the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet offered recognition on September 6.
During the subsequent cold winter which compounded Estonia's economic restructuring problems, Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar demanded emergency powers to deal with the economic and fuel crises. A consequent no-confidence vote by the Supreme Council caused the Popular Front leader to resign, and a new government led by former Transportation Minister Tiit Vahi took office.
After more than three years of negotiations, on August 31, 1994, the armed forces of the Russian Federation withdrew from Estonia. Several hundred civilian-clad Russian military remained at the nuclear submarine training reactor facility at Paldiski until September 30, 1995, in order to remove equipment and help decommission the facility.