Estonia: Identity and Independence

By Jean-Jacques Subrenat; David Cousins et al. | Go to book overview

Ea Jansen


The National Awakening of the Estonian Nation

J.J. Rousseau and J.G. Herder are justifiably regarded as the grand old men of the European national movements, who represent the political and cultural concept of nation and ideology, respectively. It is understandable that in old centralised states such as France the political factor was decisive and that the unification of the country was associated with a process of democratisation. It is equally natural that fragmented peoples such as the Germans, or the politically deprived peoples of the large empires of Eastern and Central Europe, would seek support from cultural unity. From the Enlightenment onwards, the influence of Rousseau and Herder were also determining factors in the change of attitudes amongst the Estonians and Latvians, their country then being divided up into Estonia, Livonia and Courland (which was a duchy of Poland until 1795), provinces or gubernii which were regarded as the mere Baltic Provinces of Russia (Ostseeprovinzen Russlands). When, in 1710, the upper stratum of society, consisting of former crusaders and merchants, capitulated to the Russian leader, Peter the First, during the Great Northern War, seemingly voluntarily, this same Czar allowed a measure of autonomy, along with rights for the German language and the Lutheran faith. Powerful corporations of the nobility — the Baltic German knights — governed the land and represented it at the Russian royal court, and the inflexible class society, with its estates, seemed unshakeable. The Estonian (and Latvian) peasantry were the lowest stratum of that society and were not affected by the rights granted by the metropolis via the governing class of Baltic Germans. Peasant serfs had no right to buy land, and were obliged to perform corvée, a day's unpaid work under hard conditions, for the lord of the manor. While it is true that the indigenous peoples were, on paper, freed from serfdom early on, during the 19th century, this did not initially lead to anything new: all the land belonged to the lord of the manor and was sold to individual peasants only under exceptional circumstances. In the main, the economic life of the peasants remained linked to performing corvée for the landowner. The law courts and police were under the control of the nobility, and the separation of powers was unknown. None the less, into this seemingly mediaeval society, the Rousseauesque ideas of equality and citizen's rights penetrated, and it is interesting to note that at the end of the 18th century, Rousseau's works were published in Tallinn. The other major influence came from Herder, who had lived in Riga, which embodied a faith in the ability of the lower strata of

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