Estonian National Identity

Ty Huynh


Estonia is located in Eastern Europe bordering the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland between Latvia and Russia. Its total land area is 43,211 sq km. Estonians have settled on this land for 5,000 years. Locating the oldest known settlement in Estonia, which is located on the banks of the Parnu River and observing the artifacts there, it is clear that the artifacts belong to the Kunda culture. The Kunda culture also existed in northern Lithuania and in southern Finland during this period known as the middle stone age. However, the ethnic origins of the people of Estonia are not clear, since the Kunda tribes were small and scattered all around the area. The exact trace of where they originated from still remains unanswered. It is an assumption that the Kunda tribes may have come from the south and southeast and spoke a tongue belonging to some early European language group.  


Before the cultural influence of other nations, Estonia had its own traditional social structure, national language, and religious beliefs. A large part of Estonia's economy was through agriculture, and so, a large part of the population was made up of peasants. Peasants were free to move and own their own land. Most people had equal status, and the decisions on internal affairs were made democratically. Most of their religious beliefs were in the powers of nature. Nature was perceived as being a living and spirited whole that had a force much stronger than mankind. Estonians were living at peace and enjoying their independence up until the 13 century. For the next seven centuries though, they would endure many invasions and their territory was dominated by Danes, Germans, Poles, Swedes and Russians at one or different points in time. The other larger nations wanted to attach and conquer Estonia, since it was a strategic location bordering the Baltic Sea between Europe and Russia. Also, since Estonia was never totally unified as a nation and their small militia was made up of mostly peasants, caused them to be an easy target for other stronger nations. Being controlled by these other nations, the basic political power structure and the feudal system were enforced on the peasantry way of life . Much like the rest of medieval Europe, manors were created in Estonia. The peasants' freedom to move around was restricted and they became serfs in bondage to the lords of the manors. They were taxed heavily and gave free labor to the conquerors. Their religion was changing gradually. Christianity had more and more influence as Sweden and Poland established Catholic and Protestant churches in the north and south of Estonia. "Traditional cremation was more and more often replaced by Christian burial, with the head pointing west. As a result of the Swedish government's energetic church policy, Estonia was finally made into a Protestant country. Church leaders and parish priests put much effort into publishing Estonian-language literature, thereby contributing to the development of written Estonian. The new testament was not translated and printed until 1739."  ( ) After services and books written and spoken in Estonian language, gradual reformation of the Estonian culture was more successful.  


Though the Swedes and Poles had their influence in religion within Estonia, the Germans controlled the trade and business aspect of the country. The Germans had a strong hold in Estonia ever since the early part of the l3~ century before Russia, Poland or Sweden. "During seven centuries of foreign rule, the highest authority changed time and time again, while the Germans maintained their prominence among the local nobility and clergy and the wealthy merchant and artisan class." ( Between 1881-1894, Estonia was under Russian control and Alexander III took the thrown. He started enforcing an intense russification policy. The purpose of this policy was to break the power that the Germans had in the territory and also putting an end to Estonian national aspirations. The policy was to ensure that Russian was the primary language in local administration, courts and schools. School children were forbidden to speak Estonian among themselves. Benefits were promised to people who would switch to the Russian Orthodox Church. All these measures were taken in order for russification, but it did not seem to work. At the turn of the century, there was a cultural revolution called "the national awakening" of the Estonians. There were the development of the nation-wide circulation of Estonian publications, song festivals, first productions in the Estonian theatre, and schools to educate and practice national self-consciousness. "A new generation of Estonian intellectuals emerged and set new professional standards for cultural development. The slogan proposed by the "Young Estonia" group- "Let us be Estonians, yet become Europeans" ( This slogan was proposed as a conscious effort to have Estonian culture be in harmony with the other European cultures like the German culture. After the revolution in Russia, the nation was granted official rights to the Estonian language. Also in 1925, a law was passed called "the law on cultural autonomy" which gave the national minorities in Estonia guarantees for the preservation of their national culture.  


After two and a half decades of independence, Estonia was once again controlled by foreign powers. Between 1941-1944, Estonia was occupied by Germany and from 1944-1991 it was under the Soviet Union. "The Soviet regime conducted a campaign of  demographic genocide to colonize Estonia, to russify and assimilate the people." ( During this period under the Soviet regime, thousands of Estonians were arrested and killed. Every Estonian political and social infrastructure was destroyed and replaced with Soviet institutions. The Soviet regime tried to force Estonians to follow and believe in the Communist ideology. No independent thinking under the Soviet regime was allowed. Estonians still continued to resist and persevered in keeping their cultural identity and family values. "Traditional song festivals organized every five years, offered an opportunity to express national unity. Various underground political activists and groups appealed for the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Helsinki Accords." (  

The Soviet Union eventually reached a political and economic downfall, and so, implemented a new system called Glasnost. "Glasnost offered an opportunity for various democratic forces to begin voicing protests against environmental damage, forced industrialization, russification and the repression of national culture." (http// Including Estonia and many other members of the Soviet Union, pressured the Soviet leaders for independence. The national movement in the Baltic States became stronger and on September 6, 1991, the Soviet Union recognized the independence of all three Baltic States. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became members of the United Nations.  


In conclusion, Estonia has suffered centuries of foreign rule and enjoyed a very short period of independence. However, that short period of independence was enough time for the people of Estonia to identify what unites them culturally as a nation. They found pride in themselves and kept this pride even through years of repression of their national identity by Sweden, Poland, Germany and Russia. Now that Estonia is independent, it can look forward to restore its statehood. In 1992, a new democratic constitution was approved by national referendum, and the first fully free democratic national parliamentary and presidential elections were held.



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