A Brief History of Estonia

By Tim Lambert

Early Estonia

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.

However, for centuries the tribes of Estonia had little contact with Western civilization. They traded with the Vikings. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Estonians fought the Russians several times and they remained unconquered. Then in the 13th century, the Germans conquered Estonia.

German monks had tried to convert the pagans of the Baltic to Christianity with little success. They then decided to use force to ‘convert’ the pagans of Estonia. In 1202 Albert von Buxhoeveden the bishop of Riga founded an order of crusading knights called the Knights of the Sword to subdue the pagans. In 1208 they invaded Estonia. Lembitu led the Estonians but he was killed in battle in 1217. The Germans then captured southern Estonia.

Then Albert made an agreement with the Danes. In 1219 the Danes invaded northern Estonia. They built a fort, which the Estonians called Taani Linn (Danish town). By 1227 the whole of Estonia had been conquered.

In 1237 the Knights of the Sword were absorbed into another crusading order, the Teutonic Knights. In the 13th century, Estonia was split in two. The Teutonic knights ruled southern Estonia while the Danes ruled the north. Germanic people became the ruling class in Estonia. They remained the upper class until the 20th century.

However, the Estonians did not accept the situation. In 1343-1346 they rebelled in the St George’s Night Uprising. However, 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 forestall 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.

However, when the war ended Estonia recovered. For a time Estonia prospered under Swedish rule. Tartu University was founded in 1632.

However, in 1695-97 Estonia was struck by famine, which killed many of its people. In 1710 plague struck Tallinn and tens of thousands of people died.

Moreover, Sweden and Russia fought another war, the Great Northern War at the beginning of the 18th century. When the war ended in 1721 the Swedes ceded Estonia to the Russians.

Modern Estonia

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. In the late 19th century the Russians tried to ‘Russify’ Estonia by making the Russian language compulsory in schools. However Estonian language books and newspapers were published and interest in Estonian culture and history grew.

In 1905 a liberal revolution broke out in Russia. There was also unrest in Estonia. Manor houses owned by Germans were burned. There were also many demonstrations. However, the Russian army restored order and many Estonians were executed or deported.

Then in March 1917, another revolution broke out. This time the Tsar abdicated. The 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 agreed to it and in July 1917 an Estonian parliament met.

However, in November 1917, the Communists seized power in Moscow. They were not willing to let the Estonians have even limited autonomy and they set up a Communist administration in the country.

However, by the end of 1917, the Russian army was collapsing and the Germans were advancing. In February 1918 the Germans marched into Estonia. The Russian Communists fled and on 24 February 1918, the Estonian parliament declared Estonia independent.

However the next day the Germans entered Tallinn. They then occupied Estonia till the end of the war.

The Germans surrendered to the Western allies on 11 November 1918 and the Russians invaded Estonia. They soon captured most of the country. However, in January 1919 the Estonians fought back under General Laidoner and by 24 February 1919, the Russians were driven out of Estonia.

Meanwhile, a British fleet was sent to Estonia. The British sailors fought several naval battles with the Russians. Finally, on 3 January 1920, the Russians agreed to a cease-fire, and by the treaty of Tartu, signed on 2 February 1920 they recognized Estonia as an independent country.

Like all countries, Estonia suffered severely in the depression of the early 1930s. In 1934, following a referendum a new constitution was introduced, which greatly increased the power of the president and reduced the powers of the Estonian parliament, the Riigikogu. Then in October 1934 President Konstantin Pats dismissed the Riigikogu and replaced it with a bicameral assembly. The lower chamber was elected but the upper chamber 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 Pats introduced a new constitution. He voluntarily gave up some of his powers.

Disaster struck Estonia on 17 June 1940 when the Russians invaded. 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 afterward the Germans invaded Russia. At first, they were amazingly successful and they quickly captured Estonia. German rule was extremely brutal but in the summer of 1944, the Russians invaded Estonia again. On 17 September 1944 Hitler ordered all his forces to leave Estonia. On the same day, a provisional government was formed under Otto Tief (1889-1976). Unfortunately, it met for only 5 days. The Russians captured Tallinn on 22 September 1944 and they dissolved the government.

The Russians then imposed a tyrannical regime. Between 1947 and 1952 farming was collectivized. Under the Communists, industrialization took place in Estonia but it caused terrible damage to the environment. n Meanwhile, in 1949, thousands of Estonians were deported. Some Estonians fled to the forests and fought the Russians. They became known as Forest Brothers.

However, in the late 1980s, Communism began to unravel. The Soviet leader, Gorbachev, introduced policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction). Once again the Estonians began to clamor for independence.

In November 1988 the Supreme Soviet (a kind of parliament) in Estonia declared that Soviet laws would only apply in Estonia if it agreed to them. Also in 1988, Estonia was given some economic autonomy.

Events then moved quickly. In March 1991 most of the population of Estonia voted in favor of independence in a referendum. Then on 19 August 1991, hardliner Communists in Moscow attempted a coup. On 20 August Estonia declared its independence. The coup was defeated and Russia recognized Estonian independence on 6 September 1991.

Communism was then dismantled in Estonia and replaced with a market economy. Today Estonia is a small but prosperous country.

Estonia adopted a new constitution in 1992 and the last Russian troops left the country in 1994.

Today Estonia is a small but prosperous country. In the early years of the 21st century, the economy grew rapidly. Estonia suffered badly in the recession of 2009. However, Estonia recovered and it has a bright future.

In 2005 Estonia joined the EU. Then in 2011, Estonia joined the Euro. In 2024 the population of Estonia was 1.3 million. 

Tallinn, Estonia

Last revised 2024