Brief history of Estonia summarized
An entertaining journey through the history of Estonia, the northernmost Baltic country, and with strong ties to Finland.
The Estonians are a Finno-Ugric people related to the Finns. A first century Roman writer named Tacitus mentioned the Estonians. He called them the Aesti. Amber was exported from Estonia to other parts of Europe.
Despite this, for centuries the Estonian tribes had little contact with Western civilization. They often traded goods and items with the Vikings. Between the 11th and 12th centuries, the Estonians fought several times against the Russians and remained undefeated. Then in the 13th century the Germans conquered Estonia.
German monks had tried to convert the Baltic pagans to Christianity with little success. So they decided to use force to convert the pagans of Estonia. In 1202, the Bishop of Riga, Albert von Buxhöveden, founded an order of crusading knights called the Livonian Brothers of the Sword to subdue the pagans. In 1208 they invaded Estonia. Lembitu led the Estonians but was killed in battle in 1217. The Germans captured southern Estonia.
So Albert made an agreement with the Danes. In 1219, the Danes invaded northern Estonia. They built a fort, which the Estonians called Taani Linn (meaning “castle of the Danes”). By 1227 all of Estonia had been conquered.
In 1237, the Livonian Brothers of the Sword were absorbed into another Crusader order, the Teutonic Knights. In the 13th century, Estonia was divided into two. The Teutonic Knights ruled southern Estonia while the Danes ruled the north. The Germanic people became the ruling class of Estonia. They remained in the upper class until the 20th century.
However, the Estonians did not accept the situation. In 1343–1346 they revolted in the Saint George’s Night Rising. This uprising would not succeed and the rebellion was crushed.
In the 16th century, both Sweden and Russia coveted Estonia. In 1558, the Russians invaded Estonia. However, the Swedes captured Tallinn in 1561 to preempt the Russians. The Swedes and the Russians then fought a long and terrible war over Estonia. The Swedes finally drove out the Russians in 1582.
Estonia began to recover when the war ended. For a time, Estonia prospered under Swedish rule. The University of Tartu was founded in 1632.
Between the years 1695-97, the country suffered the Great Estonian Famine that wiped out a fifth of its population (70,000-75,000 deaths). In 1710, the plague struck Tallinn and tens of thousands of people died.
In 1816 serfdom was abolished in Estonia.
During the 19th century, nationalism was a growing force in Estonia, as it was in the rest of Europe. At the end of the 19th century, the Russians attempted to “Russify” Estonia by making the Russian language compulsory in schools. However, books and newspapers continued to be published in the Estonian language and interest in Estonian culture and history increased.
In 1905 a liberal revolution broke out in Russia. There were also riots in Estonia. The manor houses of the Germans were burned. There were also many demonstrations. However, the Russian army restored order and many Estonians were executed or deported.
In March 1917 another Russian revolution broke out. This time the Tsar abdicated. Estonians clamored for independence. The Russians were not willing to grant complete independence, but they were willing to grant some autonomy. In March 1917 the Russian parliament approved it, and in July 1917 an Estonian parliament was formed. However, in November 1917 the communists seized power in Moscow. They were unwilling to let the Estonians have even limited autonomy and established a communist administration in the country.
At the end of 1917, the Russian army was collapsing and the Germans continued to advance. In February 1918 the Germans marched into Estonia. The Russian communists fled, and on February 24, 1918, the Estonian parliament declared Estonian independence. However, the next day the Germans entered Tallinn. They then occupied Estonia until the end of the war.
The Germans surrendered to the Western Allies on November 11, 1917, and the Russians invaded Estonia. They soon captured most of the country. However, in January 1919 the Estonians defended themselves with General Laidoner and on February 24, 1919 the Russians were expelled from Estonia.
Meanwhile, a British fleet was sent to Estonia. British sailors fought a series of sea battles with the Russians. Finally, on January 3, 1920, the Russians agreed to a ceasefire and by the Treaty of Tartu, signed on February 2, 1920, they recognized Estonia as an independent country.
Like all countries, Estonia suffered severely from the depression of the early 1930s. In 1934, following a referendum, a new constitution was introduced, greatly increasing the power of the president and reducing the powers of the Estonian Parliament, the Riigikogu.
In October 1934, President Konstantin Päts dismissed the Riigikogu and replaced it with a bicameral assembly. The lower house was elected, but the upper house was appointed by the president and the chambers of commerce.
Pats ruled as a virtual dictator until 1938, and under him the economy recovered. However, in 1938 the Pats introduced a new constitution. He voluntarily gave up some of his powers.
Disaster struck Estonia on June 17, 1940 when the Russians invaded the country. Soon Estonia was absorbed into the Soviet Union and a communist regime was imposed. In June 1941 thousands of Estonians were deported to Russia.
However, shortly afterwards Germany invaded Russia. They were incredibly successful at first and quickly captured Estonia. The German government was extremely brutal, but in the summer of 1944 the Russians invaded Estonia again. On September 17, 1944, Hitler ordered all his forces to leave Estonia. On the same day a provisional government was formed under Otto Tief. Unfortunately it worked for only 5 days. The Russians captured Tallinn on September 22, 1944 and dissolved the government.
The Russians then re-imposed a communist regime. Between 1947 and 1952, agriculture was collectivized. There was a communist industrialization, but it caused terrible damage to the environment.
Meanwhile, in 1949, thousands of Estonians were deported. Some Estonians fled into the woods and fought the Russians. They came to be known as the Brotherhood of the Forest.
Already in the late 1980s, communism began to crumble. Soviet leader Gorbachev introduced policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction). Once again Estonians began to clamor for independence.
In November 1988, the Estonian Supreme Soviet (a kind of parliament) declared that Soviet laws would only apply in Estonia if they were accepted. Also in 1988 Estonia was granted some economic autonomy.
Events unfolded rapidly. In March 1991, the majority of the Estonian population voted for independence in a referendum. Then, on August 19, 1991, hardline communists attempted a coup in Moscow. On August 20, Estonia declared its independence. The coup was defeated and Russia recognized Estonia’s independence on September 6, 1991.
Communism was dismantled in Estonia and replaced by a market economy. Estonia adopted a new constitution in 1992 and the last Russian troops left the country in 1994.
Today, Estonia is a prosperous country. In the early years of the 21st century the economy grew rapidly. Estonia suffered a lot in the recession of 2009. However, Estonia recovered and has a bright future.
In 2005, Estonia joined the EU. Then, in 2011, Estonia joined the euro. Today the population of Estonia is 1.3 million.
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