When the ice from the previous glacial period receded, human habitation in Estonia became conceivable 13,000 to 11,000 years ago. The Pulli village, located on the banks of the river Pärnu near the town of Sindi in south-western Estonia, is the country’s earliest known habitation. It was settled about 11,000 years ago, according to radiocarbon evidence.
The Kunda culture, named after the town of Kunda in northern Estonia, is associated with the first human inhabitation during the Mesolithic era. The land was covered in woods at the time, and people lived in semi-nomadic groups around sources of water. Hunting, gathering, and fishing were subsistence activities. Ceramics from the Neolithic period, known as Narva culture, first emerge about 4900 BC. Beginning about 3200 BC, the Corded Ware civilization emerged, bringing with it new occupations like as rudimentary agriculture and animal husbandry.
The Bronze Age began about 1800 BC, when the first hill fort villages were established. Approximately 1000 BC, a shift from hunting-fishing-gathering subsistence to single farm-based settlement began, and was completed by the start of the Iron Age around 500 BC. The presence of a large number of bronze artifacts suggests that there was active contact with Scandinavian and Germanic tribes.
Following this was a more turbulent and war-torn middle Iron Age, with external threats coming from all sides. Several Scandinavian sagas mentioned significant clashes with Estonians, most notably when the Estonians conquered and murdered the Swedish king Ingvar. In the east, where Russian kingdoms were advancing westward, similar dangers emerged. Tartu was captured by Yaroslav the Wise in 1030; this foothold lasted until Estonians destroyed it in 1061, followed by their own assaults to the Pskov area. Around the 11th century, the Scandinavian Viking period around the Baltic Sea gave way to the Baltic Viking age, with seaborne attacks by Curonians and Oeselians, Estonians from the island of Saaremaa. In 1187, the Oeselians stormed Sigtuna, a significant Swedish city at the time.
Political and administrative subdivisions started to develop in Estonia in the early centuries AD. The parish (Estonian: kihelkond) and the county (Estonian: maakond), which included several parishes, emerged as bigger subdivisions. A parish was governed by elders and was centered on a hill fort; in rare instances, a parish contained several forts. Estonia had eight main counties by the 13th century: Harjumaa, Järvamaa, Läänemaa, Revala, Saaremaa, Sakala, Ugandi, and Virumaa; and six smaller, single-parish counties: Alempois, Jogentagana, Mhu, Nurmekund, Soopoolitse, and Vaiga. Counties were autonomous entities that collaborated only loosely against outside threats.
Little is known about early Estonian pagan religious activities. Tharapita is mentioned as the supreme deity of the Oeselians in Henry of Livonia’s Chronicle. Shamans led spiritual activities, with holy woods, particularly oak groves, acting as sites of devotion.
Pope Innocent III proclaimed a crusade in 1199 to “protect the Christians of Livonia.” When Danish king Valdemar II unsuccessfully attacked Saaremaa in 1206, fighting reached Estonia. The German Livonian Brothers of the Sword, who had previously conquered Livonians, Latgalians, and Selonians, began campaigning against Estonians in 1208, and both sides conducted many raids and counter-raids over the following few years. Lembitu, an elder from Sakala County, was a prominent commander of the Estonian resistance, but the Estonians were defeated during the Battle of St. Matthew’s Day in 1217, and Lembitu was slain. Valdemar II arrived in Lyndanisse in 1219, beat the Estonians in combat, and began conquering Northern Estonia. The next year, Sweden attacked Western Estonia, but were repulsed by the Oeselians. In 1223, a great rebellion drove Germans and Danes from all of Estonia save Reval, but the crusaders quickly renewed the assault, and Saaremaa was the final county to capitulate in 1227.
Following the crusade, the area of modern-day Estonia and Latvia was known as Terra Mariana, although it was subsequently shortened to Livonia. Northern Estonia became the Danish Duchy of Estonia, with the remainder split between the Sword Brothers and the prince-bishoprics of Dorpat and sel–Wiek. Following a severe loss in 1236, the Sword Brothers united with the Teutonic Order, creating the Livonian Order. Several uprisings against foreign rulers occurred in Saaremaa in the following decades. In 1343, the St. George’s Night Uprising began, covering all of Northern Estonia and Saaremaa. In 1345, the Teutonic Order completed crushing the revolt, and the following year, the Danish king surrendered his holdings in Estonia to the Order. The failed insurrection resulted in the Baltic German minority consolidating control. They remained the governing class in both towns and the countryside for the next few centuries.
During the crusade, Reval (Tallinn) was built on the location of Lyndanisse as the capital of Danish Estonia. Reval gained full town privileges and accepted the Lübeck Code in 1248. The Hanseatic League ruled over commerce on the Baltic Sea, and four of Estonia’s biggest cities became members: Reval, Dorpat (Tartu), Pernau (Pärnu), and Fellin (Viljandi). Reval served as a commercial middleman between Novgorod and the Western Hanseatic towns, while Dorpat served in the similar capacity with Pskov. During that time, several guilds were established, but only a handful permitted native Estonians to participate. Prosperous towns like Reval and Dorpat, fortified by stone walls and an alliance with the Hansa, challenged other Livonian kings on many occasions. Following the Teutonic Order’s loss at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, and the Livonian Order’s defeat in the Battle of Swienta on 1 September 1435, the Livonian Confederation Agreement was signed on 4 December 1435.
The European Reformation started in 1517, and despite resistance from the Livonian Order, it quickly spread throughout Livonia. In the 1520s, towns were the first to accept Protestantism, and by the 1530s, the bulk of the nobility had embraced Lutheranism for themselves and their serf peasants. Church services were now held in vernacular, which originally meant German, but in the 1530s, the first religious services in Estonian were held.
During the 16th century, the expansionist kingdoms of Muscowy, Sweden, and Poland–Lithuania solidified power, presenting a rising danger to disorganized Livonia, which had been weakened by conflicts among towns, nobles, bishops, and the Order.
The Livonian War began in 1558, when Russia’s Czar Ivan the Terrible attacked Livonia. After the Livonian Order was effectively destroyed in 1560, Livonian factions sought foreign protection. The majority of Livonia accepted Polish-Lithuanian authority, but Reval and Northern-Estonian nobility pledged allegiance to the Swedish monarch, and the Bishop of Sel-Wiek sold his holdings to the Danish king. The bulk of Livonia was progressively captured by Russian troops, but in the late 1570s, Polish-Lithuanian and Swedish armies launched their own offensives, and the terrible conflict concluded in 1583 with Russian defeat. Northern Estonia became the Swedish Duchy of Estonia as a consequence of the war, Southern Estonia became the Polish-Lithuanian Duchy of Livonia, while Saaremaa remained under Danish authority.
The Polish-Swedish War came out in 1600, inflicting much more destruction. The long battle concluded in 1629, with Sweden capturing Livonia, which included Southern Estonia and Northern Latvia. In 1645, the Danish Saaremaa was ceded to Sweden. The conflicts decreased the Estonian population from about 250–270,000 in the mid-16th century to 115–120,000 in the 1630s.
Serfdom was maintained under Swedish control, but legislative changes were implemented that enhanced peasants’ land-usage and inheritance rights; as a consequence, this era became known as the “Good Old Swedish Time” in people’s historical memory. Swedish King Gustaf II Adolf founded gymnasiums at Reval and Dorpat, the latter of which was elevated to Tartu University in 1632. In both places, printing presses were also built. The beginnings of Estonian primary education emerged in the 1680s, owing mainly to the work of Bengt Gottfried Forselius. He also made ortographical changes to written Estonian. Estonia’s population expanded quickly over 60-70 years, until the Great Famine of 1695–97, which killed 70,000–75,000 people, or about 20% of the population.
National awakening and Russian Empire
The Treaty of Nystad ceded Estonia to Russia after the surrender of Estonia and Livonia during the Great Northern War (1700–21). However, the top and upper middle classes remained mainly Baltic German. Estonia’s population was decimated during the war, but it rebounded rapidly. Although peasant rights were first reduced, serfdom was abolished in the province of Estonia in 1816 and in Livonia in 1819.
In the nineteenth century, a strong Estonian nationalism movement arose as a consequence of the end of serfdom and the availability of education to the native Estonian-speaking people. On a cultural level, it started with the creation of Estonian language literature, theater, and professional music, and progressed to the construction of Estonian national identity and the Age of Awakening (Estonian: rkamisaeg). Although Estonian national consciousness developed during the course of the nineteenth century, some level of ethnic awareness existed in the educated middle class prior to this. By the 18th century, the self-denomination eestlane, along with the earlier maarahvas, had spread among Estonians in the Russian Empire’s then-provinces of Estonia and Livonia. In 1739, the Bible was translated, and the number of books and pamphlets produced in Estonian rose from 18 in the 1750s to 54 in the 1790s. More over half of adult peasants could read by the end of the century. In the 1820s, the first university-educated intellectuals identifying as Estonians rose to prominence, notably Friedrich Robert Faehlmann (1798–1850), Kristjan Jaak Peterson (1801–1822), and Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald (1803–1882). Since the early 13th century invasion, the ruling elite’s language and culture had remained mainly German. Garlieb Merkel (1769–1850), a Baltic German Estophile, was the first author to consider Estonians as a nationality equal to others; he became a source of inspiration for the Estonian national movement, which was modeled on the Baltic German cultural world prior to the mid-nineteenth century. However, by the mid-century, the Estonians, led by Carl Robert Jakobson (1841–1882), Jakob Hurt (1839–1907), and Johann Voldemar Jannsen (1819–1890), had become more ambitious in their political aspirations and had begun to look to the Finns as a successful model of national movement.
The publishing of the national epic, Kalevipoeg, in 1862, and the organization of the first national song festival in 1869 were both significant achievements. In reaction to the Russian Empire’s Russification in the 1890s, Estonian nationalism took on increasingly political overtones, with intellectuals initially advocating for greater autonomy, and then for full independence from the Russian Empire.
Following the Bolshevik takeover of power in Russia following the October Revolution of 1917 and German victories against the Russian army, the Committee of Elders of the Maapäev issued the Estonian Declaration of Independence in Pärnu on 23 February and in Tallinn on 24 February 1918, between the retreat of the Russian Red Army and the arrival of advancing German troops.
German forces seized the nation, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed, in which the Russian government renounced all claims to Estonia. The Germans remained until November 1918, when the war in the west ended, and the soldiers returned to Germany, creating a vacuum that enabled Bolshevik forces to come into Estonia. This triggered the 14-month-long Estonian War of Independence.
The Tartu Peace Treaty was signed on February 2, 1920, after Estonia won its war of independence against Soviet Russia and subsequently the German Freikorps, who had previously fought with Estonia, were incorporated in the Baltische Landeswehr as volunteers. Finland recognized (de jure) the Republic of Estonia on 7 July 1920, Poland on 31 December 1920, Argentina on 12 January 1921, the Western Allies on 26 January 1921, and India on 22 September 1921.
Estonia remained independent for the next twenty-two years. Originally a parliamentary democracy, the parliament (Riigikogu) was dissolved in 1934 as a result of political instability brought on by the worldwide economic crisis. Following that, the nation was governed by decree by Konstantin Päts, who was elected president in 1938, the year parliamentary elections were reinstated.
Second World War
The German–Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and its Secret Additional Protocol of August 1939 determined Estonia’s destiny in World War II. Estonia’s World War II fatalities are believed to be about 25% of the population. It is believed that 90,000 people died as a result of the war and occupation. These include the 1941 Soviet deportations, the German deportations, and Holocaust survivors.
According to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and its Secret Additional Protocol, Joseph Stalin obtained Adolf Hitler’s consent in August 1939 to split Eastern Europe into “spheres of particular interest.”
On September 24, 1939, Red Navy vessels arrived off the coast of Estonia, and Soviet bombers started a patrol over Tallinn and the surrounding countryside. The Estonian government was compelled to enable the Soviet Union to set up military facilities and deploy 25,000 soldiers on Estonian territory for “mutual defense.” The Soviet Baltic Fleet was issued the command for a complete military blockade of Estonia on June 12, 1940.
The Soviet military blockade of Estonia entered into force on June 14, when the world’s attention was focused on the fall of Paris to Nazi Germany the day before. Two Soviet bombers shot down the Finnish passenger aircraft “Kaleva,” which was traveling from Tallinn to Helsinki with three diplomatic pouches from the US missions in Tallinn, Riga, and Helsinki. The Soviet Union invaded Estonia on June 16, 1940. On June 17, the Red Army left its military positions in Estonia. The next day, a further 90,000 soldiers arrived in the nation. To prevent bloodshed in the face of overwhelming Soviet troops, the Estonian government surrendered on June 17, 1940. By the 21st of June, Estonia had been completely occupied by the troops.
The majority of the Estonian Defence Forces surrendered on instructions from the Estonian government, feeling that resistance was futile, and were disarmed by the Red Army. On June 21, only the Estonian Independent Signal Battalion stood up against Red Army and Communist militia “People’s Self-Defense” troops in front of Tallinn’s XXI Grammar School. The conflict continued many hours until dusk when the Red Army came in reinforcements backed by six armored combat vehicles. Negotiations eventually brought an end to the military opposition, and the Independent Signal Battalion surrendered and was disarmed. On the Estonian side, there were two dead Estonian soldiers, Aleksei Männikus and Johannes Mandre, as well as many injured, and approximately ten killed and more wounded on the Soviet side.
The Soviet Union seized Estonia as the Estonian SSR on August 6, 1940. The clauses of the Estonian constitution mandating a public vote to determine whether or not to join a supranational organization were disregarded. Instead, the vote to join the Soviet Union was cast by those elected in the previous month’s elections. Those who did not fulfill their “political duty” of voting Estonia into the USSR, particularly those who did not get their passports stamped for voting, were sentenced to death by Soviet courts. The Soviets carried out large deportations in Estonia on June 14, 1941, which triggered the repressions. In 1940–1941, the Soviet authorities murdered or exiled many of the country’s political and intellectual leaders to distant regions of the USSR. Thousands of ordinary people were also subjected to repressive measures.
When the German Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union began, about 34,000 young Estonian men were forcefully recruited into the Red Army, with less than 30% surviving the war. The NKVD killed political detainees who could not be evacuated.
Many nations, notably the United Kingdom and the United States, did not recognize the USSR’s de jure annexation of Estonia. These nations recognized Estonian diplomats and consuls who were still acting on behalf of their previous governments. These ambassadors remained in this strange position until the Baltics’ independence was restored.
According to the official Soviet and contemporary Russian versions, Estonians willingly handed away their sovereignty. The anti-communist partisans of 1944–1976 are referred to as “bandits” or “Nazis,” despite the fact that the Russian viewpoint is not recognized worldwide.
The Wehrmacht breached the Estonian southern border on July 7, 1941, after Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. On July 12, the Red Army withdrew behind the Pärnu River – Emajgi line. The Germans continued their advance in Estonia towards the end of July, operating in unison with the Estonian Forest Brothers. Both German soldiers and Estonian partisans seized Narva on August 17 and Tallinn on August 28. After driving the Soviets out of Estonia, German forces disarmed all partisan organizations.
Although most Estonians hailed the Germans as liberators from the USSR and its oppressions, and expectations for the restoration of the country’s freedom were aroused, it was quickly realized that the Nazis were just another occupying force. The Germans exploited Estonia’s resources for their war effort, and Estonia was integrated into the German province of Ostland for the length of the occupation. The Germans and their accomplices also perpetrated The Holocaust in Estonia, where they built a network of concentration camps and killed thousands of Estonian Jews and Gypsies, as well as other Estonians, non-Estonian Jews, and Soviet prisoners of war.
Unwilling to openly support the Nazis, several Estonians joined the Finnish Army (which was aligned with the Nazis) to fight the Soviet Union. The Finnish Infantry Regiment 200 (Estonian: soomepoisid) was established in Finland from Estonian volunteers. Although many Estonians were recruited into the German military forces (including the Estonian Waffen-SS), the bulk of them did so only in 1944, when a fresh Red Army invasion of Estonia was imminent. In January 1944, Estonia faced another Red Army invasion, and the last legal prime minister of the Republic of Estonia (according to the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia) issued a radio speech calling for all able-bodied males born between 1904 and 1923 to report for military duty. The call resulted in about 38,000 additional enlistments, and several thousand Estonians who had previously served in the Finnish Army returned to join the newly created Territorial Defense Force, which was tasked with defending Estonia against the Soviet assault. It was anticipated that by participating in such a conflict, Estonia would be able to gain Western support for its independence.
After engagements on the Narva River, the Tannenberg Line (Sinimäed), in Southeast Estonia, on the Emajgi River, and in the West Estonian Archipelago, Soviet troops reconquered Estonia in fall 1944.
In the face of Red Army re-occupation, tens of thousands of Estonians (including the majority of education, culture, science, political, and social specialists) chose to retreat with the Germans or flee to Finland or Sweden, from which they sought refuge in other western countries, often on refugee ships such as the SS Walnut. On January 12, 1949, the Soviet Council of Ministers issued a decision “on the expulsion and deportation” of “all kulaks and their families, bandits and nationalists’ families, and others” from Baltic republics. Over 10% of the adult Baltic population was deported or transported to Soviet labor camps. In reaction to the ongoing rebellion against Soviet authority, almost 20,000 Estonians were forcefully deported to labor camps or Siberia. Almost all surviving rural families were collectivize.
Following WWII, large deportations were carried out in the Baltic nations as part of the aim of more completely integrating the Baltic countries into the Soviet Union, and the policy of promoting Russian immigration to the Baltic republics was maintained.
Half of those deported died, and the remaining half were not permitted to return until the early 1960s (years after Stalin’s death). The actions of Soviet troops in 1940–41 and following reoccupation prompted a guerrilla struggle against Soviet authority in Estonia by the Forest Brothers, a group made up mostly of Estonian veterans of the German and Finnish armies as well as some civilians. This battle raged on until the early 1950s. Material damage from World War II and the subsequent Soviet period severely hampered Estonia’s economic development, resulting in a large income disparity with neighboring Finland and Sweden.
Another element of the Soviet state was militarization. Large swaths of the nation, particularly the shoreline, were off-limits to everyone except the Soviet troops. The majority of the shoreline and all sea islands (including Saaremaa and Hiiumaa) have been designated as “boundary zones.” Traveling to them without a permission was prohibited for anyone who did not really live there. Paldiski, a famous closed military facility, was completely restricted to any public access. The city was home to a support station for the Soviet Baltic Fleet’s submarines, as well as many major military sites, including a nuclear submarine training center equipped with a full-scale model of a nuclear submarine with operational nuclear reactors. After the last Russian soldiers departed the nation in 1994, the Paldiski reactors facility came into Estonian hands. Another consequence of Soviet occupation was immigration. Hundreds of thousands of migrants were moved to Estonia from other areas of the Soviet Union to help with industrialization and militarization, leading to a population growth of almost half a million people in 45 years.
Return to independence
The annexation of Estonia by the USSR was deemed unlawful by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and the majority of other Western nations. They maintained diplomatic contacts with representatives of the independent Republic of Estonia, but never recognized the existence of the Estonian SSR or Estonia as a legal component part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s internal regime problems loosened the Soviet Union’s grip over its outside empire, allowing Estonia to regain independence. As the 1980s proceeded, a movement for Estonian independence arose. Initially, this was done to gain greater economic freedom, but as the Soviet Union crumbled and it became clear that nothing short of complete independence would suffice, Estonia embarked on a path toward self-determination.
During the “Singing Revolution,” a historic protest for more independence, more than two million people created the Baltic Way, a human chain extending across Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. All three countries have comparable occupation experiences and ambitions for freedom. On November 16, 1988, the Estonian Sovereignty Declaration was published. During the Soviet military coup attempt in Moscow on August 20, 1991, Estonia proclaimed official independence, restoring the pre-1940 state. On September 6, 1991, the Soviet Union recognized Estonia’s independence. Iceland was the first nation to recognize Estonia’s regained independence diplomatically. The Russian army’s final troops departed on August 31, 1994.
Estonia became a member of NATO on March 29, 2004.
Following the signing of a contract on April 16, 2003, Estonia was one of ten nations admitted to the European Union on May 1, 2004.
Estonia commemorated its 90th anniversary from November 28th, 2007 to November 28th, 2008.