Estonian History – in a nutshell

I was making research for my next article “Where Estonia is heading – is immortality possible for a country?” when I understood that in order for us to speak about where Estonia is heading, we also need to understand where we are coming from – here is a brief overview for those who might be interested.

This article is based on a book “101 History Events of Estonia” (“101 Eesti Ajaloo Sündmust”) by M.Laar, 2010 (a great book to get the first overview of Estonian history) together with thorough Internet research but written in my own subjective style.

The land of Estonia was born when the Ice Age started to retreat around 10 000 BC. The first inhabitants arrived here around 9000-8500 BC who were following the reindeer who were escaping from mosquitos.

Estonians are considered to descend from the Finno-Ugric people (together with Finnish, partly Swedes, Hungarians and Siberian tribes but not Latvians & Lithuanians) and the language is mostly evolved from it. But today science proves continuously that the formation of a nation is a lot more complex and Estonian genes are much more mixed with different predecessors.

IV century was the time when people started moving in Europe and although the early Estonians didn’t move anywhere, other nations started moving, pressuring the area. Fights and battles got more frequent. In XI century the early viking countries of Scandinavia and Russia started to expand their territories and were interested to control the land of Estonia. Russia led by Yaroslav the Wise was the first one to conquer Tartu and part of Estonia, but with heavy fights Estonians got their land back and kept Russians away for another half a century.

Estonian Crusade

On the XII century Estonians got more active in warfare by attacking and robbing Swedes, Danes and Latvians – it is also called the time of Estonian Vikings. Obviously it created a lot of bad attention and fury bringing them strong enemies. Estonians were also not very fast to accept the Christianity which was actively preached in the region, although they would’ve probably accepted it eventually with time as the Estonian native religion (Maausk) was very liberal.

By the end of XII century Latvians and Livonians (a nation located between Latvia and Estonia – now extinct) were conquered by Germans who were considering to conquer Estonia. Latvians saw this as an opportunity to revenge Estonians for the harm they had done to them previously. In addition, Estonians happened to rob a very valuable cargo from the German traders that got a lot of attention in the region, and when asked for compensation, Estonians strictly refused.

Ott Kanilaski. Muhu linnuse piiramine. Akvarell 1941.
Siege of the Muhu fortress by Crusaders.

All of those things piled up and were the cause of the first ancient Estonian fight for independence (Estonian Crusade). The war lasted for about 20 years and Estonians with some help of Russians (the only ones Estonians could create an alliance with) won some great battles, but still ended up to surrender to the Crusader troops and violently accept Christianity. This was the beginning of Estonian 700 years of slavery.

During those 700 years Estonians were ruled by Swedes, Danes, Germans and Russians – meaning that the land saw a lot of bloody battles and wars between different countries and interests. Estonian development during that period moved together with the development of Europe (except Russia, whose influence in the Baltic Region was rather small).

Up to XVIII century Estonians had become quite a passive slave nation – it was probably the lowest period of the history in a sense that if it would’ve been continued like this, there wouldn’t have been the country of Estonia in the future. Nevertheless from the beginning of XIX century, the Age of Enlightenment started to reach and influence Estonians – the slave laws started to lighten up and higher education became accessible. It was the national awakening period for Estonians.


Besides the small amount of Estonian activists and the first Estonian publications, probably one of the most important events to bring the self-awareness to the wider audiences was the beginning of the Estonian Song Festival tradition (1869 – the first Song Festival held in Tartu), which brought Estonian people together to think, talk and sing about the future of Estonians.

By the beginning of the XX century Russia started to toughen the rules for the Baltic countries which on the contrary brought the national movement to the next level. In the beginning of the World War I Russian Empire was in the verge of collapse and when the German troops began to reach Estonia, Russian troops flee in a hurry. On the 24th of February 1918 when Russian troops had left the country, and German troops had not yet arrived, Estonia declared its independence – this is the birth of the Republic of Estonia.

The next day German troops entered the country and occupied the Republic of Estonia. Although the country of Estonia existed for only one day it was enough to declare it an independent nation. 9 months later on 19th of November when the German troops left Estonia again, they had to give the power back to the official leaders of the Republic of Estonia. If Estonia hadn’t declared independence on the 24th of February, Germans could have easily handed the power over to the local Germans or even Russians, instead of Estonians.

Map of the Estonian War of Independence. Source: Wikipedia
Map of the Estonian War of Independence. Source: Wikipedia

After the German collapse, Russians acted quickly to attack the west and one week after the “re-independence” Estonian temporary government decided to stand against the foreign troops. By 29th of November the Red Army had taken over Narva and continued fast to the rest of Estonia. With heavy battles Russia managed to conquer about half of Estonia when Estonians finally managed to stop the Russian troops and start pushing them back. Soon Estonians fought back Tartu and continued to the South. The success inspired even more Estonians to join the forces and eventually Estonian troops continued until Riga where they had to fight with strong German troops who had taken over the Latvian national government. Estonians hated both Russians and Germans fiercely, so when the word went out that fight is against Germans, even the wounded soldiers from hospitals joined the battle – for most, it was the revenge for the 700 hundred years of injustice. After a difficult and bloody battle, Estonians managed to win and Latvians got to re-establish their national government.

Estonian troops also reached far into Russia on the East and on 2nd of February 1920 Estonia signed a peace treaty with now the Soviet Russia where Russia acknowledged the freedom of the Republic of Estonia promising voluntarily and forever to renounce all rights to the territory of Estonia.

Estonia started building up its new country, focusing strongly on the West and Europe. With a difficult beginning, lot of learning and mistakes Estonia still managed to become a fast growing small European nation.

From 1929, Estonia, like most of the world, suffered from the global economic crises – that also raised tensions in the politics and many European countries went over to authoritarian leadership. It also gained more popularity in Estonia. In 1934 during the local presidential election K. Päts (a well known and respected politician of the time) decided to take over the power in the country and establish an authoritarian leadership that didn’t get too much objection from the people.

World War II

In 1939 when the The Second World War started, Russia forced Estonia to an agreement that would make Estonia hand over the military bases and allow Russian troops in the country. In case of refuse Russia would start a war with Estonia. President K. Päts (who was also the one to decide to fight back the Russians in the First World War) together with the government decided to accept the agreement – probably hoping to win some time. Whether the decision to agree to the Russian agreement was good or bad is a source of endless debates, but it is very likely that if the government of that time would have been democratic, the decision would probably have been to fight back, as it was in Finland.

In 1940 Russia brought in its troops and occupied Estonia. During the occupation about 10 000 people were deported to the Siberian prison camps where most of them died. So when in 1941 German troops reached Estonia, they were welcomed with flowers. Germany occupied Estonia and it soon became clear that one dictatorship was just replaced by another. Still, when in 1944 the Red Army started fighting back, Germans managed to cooperate with the Estonian national leaders who invited people to join the German military. Thanks to the invitation of the democratically elected prime minister, about 40 000 Estonian men joined the German military to fight back the Russians.

1944 brought heavy battles and bombing to Estonia. 40% of Tallinn and the whole city of Narva was destroyed by the Russian bombs. The battle of Narva and the battle of Tannenberg Line (Sinimägede lahing) had the biggest casualties in the Estonian history – the red Army lost around 100 000 – 150 000 men and the joint army of Germans and Estonians lost around 20 000 men.

By September 1944 the German troops had started to retrieve, which for Estonia meant the return of the Soviet occupation. One year under the Russian rule had made it clear what it means for Estonians – particularly for the more active and successful part of the society. About 70 – 80 000 Estonians decided to flee to the West. Those people became the Estonian activists in USA, Canada, Sweden, Germany and in other countries who kept the West from recognizing the Soviet occupation of the democratic Estonia. They also started organising regular meetings and kept the Estonian culture alive while Estonia was behind the “Iron Curtain”. Estonian current president T.H.Ilves is also born in an Estonian refugee family and grew up in USA.

In 1949 about 3% (20 702) of the population were again deported to the Siberian prison camps – many of them died.


In the end of 1980s Soviet Union started to lighten its policies due the pressure of the West and Estonian activist movements started to rise up. In April 1988 Estonian flags (that before were strictly prohibited) were brought out and people started organising gatherings and singing festivals – it was the beginning of the Singing Revolution. For the second time in Estonian history the singing festivals became an extremely important benchmark which brought together tens of thousands of Estonians to sing for Estonia and its freedom. If the Singing Festival can be counted as the most important event for the birth and independence of a country, it also became the most important event for the re-independence of Estonia. This should explain the Estonians’ obsession for Singing Festivals and its invaluable meaning to this country.

In 1989 when Russia didn’t want to accept the Baltics request to confess and revoke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania decided to organise the Baltic Chain or the Chain of Freedom which was a remarkable, more than 600km long human chain spanning through the three Baltic Countries. Approximately two million people joined their hands to show the world that they won’t agree with anything less than freedom. Baltic Chain got to the headlines of the world press and eventually Moscow had to give in to the demands.

After a few years of significant, complicated and intense political negotiations, on 20th of August 1991, Estonia confirmed its independence. On the next day Moscow sent some additional troops to Tallinn that attacked the TV-tower but due to the failed August Coup (August Putsch) in Moscow they didn’t get the final order to start shooting and were forced to retrieve. So the re-independence ended with no blood spilled for Estonia, which was not the case for other Baltic countries or even to most of the former Soviet States.

In 1992, Estonia got its own money (Kroon), a new president, and a new elected government. After more than 3 years of negotiations and pressuring, in 1994 the last armed forces of Russia withdrew from Estonia.

After that the Estonian development has been fast and smart – a lot of the mistakes that were done during the first independence have not been repeated. This time they have overcome the constant pressure from Russia (for example The Bronze Night and the world’s first cyber attack towards another country in 2007) and in 2013 Estonia surpassed the previous independence duration. But they are planning to go even further – in fact so far that it would become pointless to even conquer the land of Estonia. How? More about that in my next article “Where Estonia is heading – is immortality possible for a country?