The Russian Revolution's Effects on Estonia &

Estonia's Movement Towards Independence

By Hanna C. Sanchez



The start of a revolution in Russia in 1905 ignited nationalism and spread revolutionary ideas in Estonia.  Prior to 1905, Estonia was subjected to extensive programs of Russification.  For example, education was taught in Russian instead of the native language of Estonian, and attempts at Estonian self-government met opposition from the central government as well as the German nobility residing in the Baltic areas.  In Estonia, there was a rise in social activism and interest in democracy, as political parties were formed and strikes and demonstrations took place. 

The Revolution of 1905 brought a significant change to Estonia in that nationalist goals now included cultural and political autonomy.  Cultural autonomy pertained to conducting education in Estonian instead of Russian.  Political self-determination consisted of issues such as autonomous self-government with universal suffrage.  There also existed concern regarding poverty and socio-economic freedom.  Although these objectives were not all met in 1905 with the revolution, changes were made in the way people thought and provided the attitude and atmosphere for the ensuing decade. 


For the last few months of 1905 when Estonia possessed the freedoms of speech and press, the Estonians made it known that they rejected both cultural and administrative Russification.  Between 1905-1917, the development of Estonian high culture achieved a significant amount of progress and there were advances in the area of political participation.  The first professional Estonian theaters were created in this period, along with a national ethnographic museum, a trend towards modernism in literature, and a growing group of native composers and painters.  The growing strength of the Estonian middle class was demonstrated in the political control they attained in four more cities between 1906-1914 and the State Duma aided in the formation of political factions and parties.  There appeared to be three schools of opinion during this period: moderates, radicals, and social democrats.  However, after 1906, little more progress would be seen for the Estonians and other non-Russian peoples.  In June 1907, there was a change in the Duma electoral law and a rightist, Russian-dominated majority emerged within it.  That led to tsarist policies becoming increasingly Russian and nationalistic towards countries on the borders of Russia. 

At the end of 1905 after the tsarist regime's crackdown, the Estonian moderates dominated the political scene as their would-be opponents on the left were either forced to leave the country or go underground.  Jaan Tonisson was the founder of the Estonian Progressive People's Party, which would be the only remaining legal party until the February 1917 revolution, and it had the newspaper Postimees as its access to public opinion.  The moderate Estonian press was optimistic for the future in 1905, but this positive attitude diminished as political reaction increased.


The Estonian moderates viewed education as one of the major issues.  They did not believe that the use of a foreign language, Russian, provided a true education for Estonians.  The moderates pointed out that after 1906, when Estonians were permitted to learn in their native language, the citizens' knowledge of Russian improved.  Consequently, they believed that for Russians and non-Russians to be unified, the minority cultures and languages had to be recognized.

The Estonian radicals were the political group between the moderates and the social democrats.  They had less influence in forming public opinion than the two other political groups.  The radicals did not have the institutional foundations like the other groups nor did it have the support of an all-Russian party, so it effected a much smaller amount of people.  Despite this small support base, they would be able to gain significant support after February 1917, and most of the support came from the urban areas with the radical middle class citizens as well as some working class people.

The radicals held cultural issues as one of their important arguments during 1905-1917.  For example, the Young Estonian group was concerned with a literary movement.  The leadership of the radicals consisted of the university-educated people.  The main spokesperson for the radicals was Gustav Suits, who believed that political and social liberation would not be possible if cultural liberation was not also accomplished.  Suits' argument was an attempt to dissipate the divisions between the elite with their high culture and the rest of the masses.  Cultural and political autonomy were another issue that the Estonian radicals represented.  They wanted a democratized national culture in which all groups and classes would have a part in creating.  They believed that even the small nations could participate in the fight for political change within the Russian Empire. 


The Estonian social democrats experienced the most repression after the Revolution of 1905.  As a result, the Estonian Social Democratic Workers' Party collapsed completely and members were forced to go underground.  The support for the social democrats came mostly from the industrial workers in the urban areas, but also came from the landless laborers in the rural areas.  The social democrats consisted of both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, and the differences between the two were not clearly defined prior to 1912.

Being strict Marxists, the Bolshevik social democrats held nationality as a temporary historical incident.  All social democrats typically believed that Estonian high culture was intended for the small group of elite for its own benefit, such as the Young Estonia movement, or was simply class-based.  Since they felt that nationalism would pass as a mere fad, they did not concern themselves with the details of either cultural or administrative Russification.  The social democrats that were Mensheviks differed slightly in their opinion on nationalism in that they believed the Russian nationalist policies would be replaced when Russian Empire's revolution met successful.  All social democrats felt the system under Russian rule would eventually cease to exist.  Consequently, they wanted full Estonian participation in the all-Russian movement for liberation, just like the radicals did.

The Revolution of 1905 influenced the mood of public opinion for approximately the next decade until the end of the tsarist regime, and it prepared the Baltic country for its brief period of independence beginning in 1918.  All Estonians opposed Russification, particularly the policies that concerned culture.  Cultural and political autonomy was the goal of the moderates, radicals, and Mensheviks, while the Bolsheviks supported all-Russian and centralist views.  Interestingly, none of the political groups demonstrated any intentions to separate from Russia before 1917, regardless of the support and influence of the group.



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Raun, Toivo U.  "The Estonians and the Russian Empire, 1905-1917."  Journal of Baltic Studies.  Vol 15, No 2-3, Summer/Fall 1984: 130-140.



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