Estonian History


Estonia (ĕstō´nēə), Estonian Eesti, officially Republic of Estonia, republic (2015 est. pop. 1,315,000), 17,505 sq mi (45,339 sq km). It borders on the Baltic Sea in the west; the gulfs of Riga and Finland (both arms of the Baltic) in the southwest and north, respectively; Latvia in the south; and Russia in the east. Tallinn is the capital and largest city. In addition to the capital, other important cities are Tartu, Narva, Parnu, and Viljandi.

Land and People

Despite its northerly location, Estonia enjoys a mild climate because of marine influences. Mainly a lowland, the republic has numerous lakes, frequently of glacial origin; Peipus (Lake Chudskoye), the largest, is important for both shipping and fishing. Along Estonia's Baltic coast are more than 800 islands, of which Saaremaa is the most notable. The republic's rivers include the Narva, Pärnu, Ema, and Kasari.

Estonians, who are ethnically and linguistically close to the Finns, make up about 68% of the population; Russians constitute some 25%, and there are Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Finnish minorities. Estonian is the official language, but Russian, Latvian, and Lithuanian are also spoken. The majority of those practicing a religious faith belong to either the Evangelical Lutheran or the Russian Orthodox church. There are small minorities of other Christians, but most of the population is unaffiliated. Since independence (1991), citizenship has generally been limited to ethnic Estonians, a practice widely criticized because it denies political and civil rights to the many Russian-speaking inhabitants. In 1993 ethnic Russians were officially declared foreigners, raising even stronger objections. Long-term non-Estonian residents can become citizens, but although the process has been eased over time, most of the roughly 15% of residents who are stateless or foreigners are ethnic Russians.


In the years that it was part of the Soviet Union, Estonia provided the USSR with gas and oil produced from its large supply of oil shale. It is still the world's second largest producer of oil shale. The majority of its workforce is involved in industry, which also includes mining, shipbuilding, information technology, and the manufacture of wood products, electronic and telecommunications equipment, textiles and clothing, and machinery. Its efficient agricultural sector employs some 11% of the labor force and produces meat (largely pork), dairy products, potatoes, flax, and sugar beets. Fishing is also important. Peat, phosphorite, clays, limestone, sand, dolomite, marl, and timber are important natural resources.

The country began small-scale privatization in 1991 and during the 1990s auctioned off several larger industries; it has also actively sought foreign investment. Estonia subsequently experienced significant economic growth, but also suffered more than most European Union nations during the 2008–9 global recession. The nation exports machinery and equipment, wood and paper, textiles, food products, furniture, metals, chemicals, fertilizers, and electric power. Imports include machinery, chemical products, textiles, foodstuffs, and transportation equipment. Estonia's major trade partners are Finland, Sweden, Germany, Russia, and its fellow Baltic states, Latvia and Lithuania.


Estonia is governed under the constitution of 1992. The president, who is the head of state but has little substantive power, is elected by parliament for a five-year term and is eligible for a second term. The government is headed by the prime minister, who is nominated by the president and approved by parliament. The unicameral Parliament (Riigikogu) has 101 members who are popularly elected to serve four-year terms. Administratively the country is divided into 15 counties.


To the Nineteenth Century

The Estonians settled in their present territory before the Christian era. They were mentioned (1st cent. AD) by Tacitus, who called them Aesti. In the 13th cent. the Danes and the German order of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword formed an alliance to conquer the pagan Estonian tribes. The Danes founded Reval (now Tallinn) in 1219 and introduced Christianity and Western European culture to Estonia. While Denmark took the northern part of Estonia, the knights occupied the southern portion. In 1346 the Danes sold their territory to the order, and Estonia remained under the rule of the knights and the Hanseatic merchants until the order's dissolution in 1561.

Northern Estonia then passed to Sweden; the rest was briefly held by Poland but was transferred to the Swedes by the Treaty of Altmark (1629), which ended the first Polish-Swedish war. The lot of the Estonian peasants, who had been reduced to virtual serfdom under German landowners, improved somewhat under Swedish rule; but Peter I of Russia conquered Livonia in 1710, and Russian possession was confirmed by the Treaty of Nystad in 1721. Despite some land reforms, the German nobles—the Baltic barons—retained their sway over the Estonian peasantry until the eve of the 1917 Russian Revolution. German burghers controlled most of the urban wealth.

Industrialization proceeded apace during the 19th cent.; the republic became heavily interlaced with railroads, and the port of Tallinn grew in importance. Estonian national consciousness began to stir in the mid-19th cent. but was countered by Russification, which in turn spurred rebellion and considerable emigration (notably to the United States and Canada).

The Twentieth Century

Estonia suffered bloody reprisals for its important role in the Russian Revolution of 1905. In the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Moscow appointed a puppet Communist regime under Jaan Anvelt to rule Estonia; its authority, however, failed to extend beyond Tallinn. An Estonian proclamation of independence in Feb., 1918, was followed shortly by German occupation. After Germany surrendered to the Allies in Nov., 1918, Estonia declared itself an independent democratic republic and repulsed the invading Red Army.

In 1920, by the Peace of Tartu, Soviet Russia recognized Estonia's independence. Political stability, however, eluded the republic, which had 20 short-lived coalition regimes before 1933, when a new constitution gave the president sweeping authority. Political parties were abolished in 1934, and President Konstantin Päts instituted an authoritarian regime. A more democratic constitution came into force in 1938; but the Nazi-Soviet Pact of Aug., 1939, placed the Baltic countries under Soviet control, and the following month the USSR secured military bases in Estonia.

Complete Soviet military occupation came in June, 1940. Following elections in July, Estonia was incorporated into the USSR as a constituent republic. Over 60,000 persons were killed or deported during the occupation's first year. Estonian irregulars fought Soviet troops in June, 1941, as part of the German invasion, and their support of the Nazis continued through 1944. Occupied by German troops during much of World War II, Estonia was retaken by Soviet forces in 1944, who, as in 1940, killed or deported thousands of Estonians. Collectivization of agriculture and nationalization of industry began in the late 1940s, and the Estonian economy was steadily integrated with that of the USSR despite strong resistance.

In Mar., 1990, amid increasing liberalization in the USSR, the Estonian Supreme Soviet declared invalid the 1940 annexation by the USSR. In 1991, during the attempted hard-line coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Estonia declared its independence from the USSR. A new constitution was ratified and went into effect in 1992; Lennart Meri was elected president and Mart Laar, a radical free-market advocate, became prime minister. The last Russian troops were withdrawn from Estonia in Aug., 1994.

Laar lost a vote of confidence in 1995 and was replaced by Tiit Vähi, who headed two centrist coalition governments and survived a vote of confidence early in 1997, but resigned shortly thereafter. He was replaced by Mart Siimann, head of the Coalition party and Rural Union, but Laar again became prime minister in Mar., 1999. In Sept., 2001, Arnold Rüütel was elected to succeed Meri as president; Meri was barred from seeking a third term. Laar resigned in Jan., 2002, and Siim Kallas, of the center-right Reform party, succeeded him.

Parliamentary elections in Mar., 2003, gave the leftist Center party and conservative Res Publica party with an equal number of seats. Res Publica formed a coalition with the Reform party; Juhan Parts, of Res Publica, became prime minister. In 2004 Estonia became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. Parts' government fell in Mar., 2005, and Andrus Ansip, of the Reform party, formed a new coalition government the following month. Rüütel failed to win a second term in Sept., 2006, when Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a former foreign minister, was elected president.

The Reform party won a plurality of parliamentary seats in the Mar., 2007, elections, and Ansip remained prime minister, leading a new coalition government (re-formed in 2009). The relocation of a Soviet war memorial (and the soldiers buried there) from downtown Tallinn the following month sparked several days of rioting by ethnic Russians, thinly disguised economic retaliation by Russia, and cyberattacks against government and other Estonian computer facilities. The country adopted the euro in 2011. In Mar., 2011, Ansip's coalition won the parliamentary elections, and he remained prime minister. President Ilves was reelected the following August.

Ansip's government resigned in Mar., 2014; he had planned to step down as prime minister before the 2015 elections. Taavi Rõivas, a member of the Reform party and the social affairs minister, became prime minister of a Reform–Social Democratic government. The Mar., 2015, elections left the government with only a plurality, but the conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) joined the coalition; Rõivas remained prime minister.

Kersti Kaljulaid, who previously served on the European Court of Auditors, was elected president in Oct., 2016; she was the first woman to hold the office. The following month Rõivas's government collapsed over economic issues. The Center party, which had strong support among ethnic Russians and had been regarded as too close to Russia by other Estonian parties after a cooperation pact (2004) with its ruling party, formed a coalition with the Social Democrats and IRL; Center's new leader, Jüri Ratas, became prime minister.


See R. J. Misiunas and R. Taagepera, The Baltic States: Years of Dependence, 1940–1980 (1983); A. Roos, Estonia: A Nation Unconquered (1985); T. U. Raun, Estonia and the Estonians (1987).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Estonian History: Selected full-text books and articles

Estonia: Return to Independence By Rein Taagepera Westview Press, 1993
Estonia: Identity and Independence By David Cousins; Eric Dickens; Alexander Harding; Richard Waterhouse; Jean-Jacques Subrenat Rodopi, 2004
Key Moments in the History of Estonia Demokratizatsiya, Vol. 11, No. 4, Fall 2003
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Between Utopia and Disillusionment: A Narrative of the Political Transformation in Eastern Europe By Henri Vogt Berghahn Books, 2004
Librarian's tip: See especially "Estonia — the Singing Revolution," which begins on p. 20
Estonian Life Stories By Tiina Kirss; Rutt Hinrikus Central European University Press, 2009
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