One-minute lecture: How old is Estonia?

This seemingly simple question often causes much confusion – when tested on students, we usually get conflicting answers: Estonia is an ancient land where we have lived for millennia, but as a state it is very young, says the professor of cultural history at Tallinn University, Marek Tamm.

So what do we know from the beginning of Estonia? Not much, to be honest. We don’t know when the name was coined, even though we can suggest it happened around a thousand years ago in Nordic languages. We don’t know what the name “Eesti” means, even though it is possible to connect it to the East (austr in Icelandic, öst in Danish, öster in Swedish etc.).

We don’t even know when Estonian was first spoken in this area or when did our ethnic predecessors settle here. We do know, however, that in written Estonian, the word “Eestimaa” is first mentioned by Heinrich Stahl in the 17th century as a translation from German, and the name “Eesti” is first published in the middle of the 19th century by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald.

Collective birthdays are social agreements

But how old is Estonia as a country? This is not an easy question, either. We are used to celebrate 24 February 1918 as the birthday of our sovereign state. At the same time, we could celebrate 28 November (15 November according to the old calendar) 1917, when the Estonian Provincial Assembly declared itself as the sovereign power of Estonia. Or, perhaps, 2 February 1920, when Russia became the first country to recognise the independence of Estonia, according to the Tartu Peace Treaty.

As we prepare for the centennial celebration of Estonia next year, the jubilee is not as straightforward as we might think – everyone knows that for over half of that time, Estonia has not been an independent country.

The birthday of a state or country is not the same as that of a person. Collective birthdays are social agreements, part of a tradition that we value commonly. Thus, let us know our history with all its nuances and conflicts, but let us not underestimate the power of tradition!


This lecture was originally published by the Tallinn University. Cover: The picture of Äntu Red Hill – the town hill of ancient Estonians. Courtesy of Tiiu Tagametsa, Visit Estonia.

1 thought on “One-minute lecture: How old is Estonia?”

  1. During the Viking Age (between the late 8th to late 11th centuries) Estonia was called Eastland (Estland) by Nordic seafarers and this is where it might have had its name. Eastland->Estland->Estonia

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