Estonian history

Estonia celebrates the independence day

As Estonians around the world are gathering to cheer for their homeland and celebrate the country’s independence day on 24 February, it’s appropriate to recall how the independent country was born, the independence maintained, lost and restored again.*

A quest for independence

Starting with the Northern Crusades, Estonia became a battleground of foreign powers from the 13th century onwards. Denmark, Germany, Russia, Sweden and Poland fought their many wars over controlling the important geographical position as a gateway between the East and the West.

Being first conquered by Danes and Germans in 1227, Estonia was subsequently ruled by Denmark, by Baltic German ecclesiastical states of the Holy Roman Empire, and by Sweden. After Sweden lost to Russia in the Great Northern War in 1710, Russian rule was imposed on Estonia. However, the legal system, the Lutheran church, the local and town governments, and education remained mostly German-influenced until the late 19th century and partially until 1918.

The Estonian people didn’t stop dreaming of establishing a state free from foreign domination. The estophile enlightenment period from 1750–1840, when Baltic German scholars began documenting and promoting Estonian culture and language, led to the Estonian national awakening in the middle of the 19th century when Estonian arts, literature and a sense of identity started to flourish.

The 1917 Russian revolution and the generally unstable situation in Russia created the opportunity for Estonia to gain its independence. The impetus for independence was provided by the National Front, Estonia’s main ideological movement, which based its ideas on US President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination.

On 8 April 1917, 40,000 Estonians held a demonstration in St Petersburg in support of Estonian self-government. The peaceful demonstration achieved its goal when, on 12 April, the Russian Provisional Government signed the Law on Estonian Autonomy, which united the Livonian counties of Tartu, Võru, Viljandi, Pärnu and Saaremaa with Estonia. For the first time, an Estonian, Jaan Poska, was appointed as a provincial commissioner of Estonia.

A six-member Provisional National Council, the Maapäev, was formed. The Maapäev appointed a national executive that began to organise and modernise local government and educational institutions. Prior to its forceful dissolution by Bolshevik authorities and the impending invasion of Estonia by the German forces (as the First World War was still in full force), the Maapäev took a decisive step toward sovereignty by declaring itself the supreme authority in Estonia on 15 November 1917.

Independence proclaimed

In February 1918, after the collapse of the peace talks between Soviet Russia and the German Empire, mainland Estonia was occupied by the Germans. The Bolshevik forces retreated to Russia. Between the Russian Red Army’s retreat and the arrival of advancing German troops, the Salvation Committee of the Estonian National Council issued the Estonian Declaration of Independence on 23 February 1918.

The manifesto of Estonian independence was first read to the people from the balcony of Endla Theatre in Pärnu at eight o’clock in the evening.

Endla theatre

On 24 February 1918, Estonia was publicly proclaimed as an independent and democratic republic.

This was not yet a happy ending, however. On 25 February, the German troops entered Tallinn. The German authorities recognised neither the provisional government nor its claim for Estonia’s independence, counting them as a self-styled group usurping the sovereign rights of the German-Baltic nobility.

But with the First World War coming to its crushing end and forcing Imperial Germany to capitulate in November 1918, Germany formally handed over the political power of Estonia to the Estonian Provisional Government. The provisional government immediately called for voluntary mobilisation and began to organise the Estonian Army, which initially consisted of one division.

Russia attacks again

On 28 November 1918, the communist Red Army resumed its attack on Estonia when it took the offensive against the units of the Estonian Defence League (consisting partly of secondary school students), deployed in the defence of the border town of Narva. This marked the beginning of the Estonian War of Independence.

The Red Army attack came in an extremely difficult time. The Estonian administration and defence forces had very little experience. The army lacked sufficient weapons and equipment. Food and money were scarce; the towns were in danger of starvation. Although the majority of the population did not support Soviet Russia, their faith in the survival of national statehood was not high. People did not believe that Estonia would be able to resist the attacks of the Red Army.

Armoured personel carrier

People’s fear was not unfounded. The Red Army captured Narva and opened a second front south of Lake Peipus. But the Estonian government nevertheless decided to oppose the Russian aggression.

The Estonian military forces at the time consisted of 2,000 men with light weapons and about 14,500 poorly armed men in the Estonian Defence League. By the end of December, however, the young republic managed to reorganise its armed forces and recruit an additional 11,000 volunteers.

Estonia’s Baltic German minority, fearful of the communist Red Army, also came to Estonia’s rescue, by providing a sizable troop of volunteer militia.

Estonia fights back

The country also managed to build three armoured trains and called for foreign assistance. In this hour of need, Estonia’s call for help was heeded. When the Soviet army had advanced to 34 kilometres (21 miles) outside of the Estonian capital in December 1918, a British Royal Navy squadron arrived in Tallinn, bringing guns, food and fuel.

The squadron also captured two Russian destroyers, Spartak and Avtroil, and turned these over to Estonia, which renamed them Vambola and Lennuk. The United Kingdom remained Estonia’s main supplier of arms and equipment during the war.

The flagship of British Admiral Kelly in Tallinn Harbour

Furthermore, in January 1919, Finnish volunteer units, consisting of about 3,500 men, arrived in Estonia. Danish and Swedish volunteers also participated on the Estonian side.

The strengthened Estonian Army, now totalling 13,000 men, with 5,700 on the front facing 8,000 Soviet soldiers, stopped the advance of the 7th Red Army in early January 1919 and went on counter-offensive.

When the country celebrated its first Independence Day in 24 February 1919, the Estonian forces consisted of 19,000 men and Estonia had become the first country to repel the westward offensive of the Soviet Union.

Estonian soldiers

Forcing the enemy out of the country increased faith in the authority of the young republic and enabled another mobilisation that was crucial in continuing the fight against a much bigger Red Army – at one point during the war, it had committed about 80,000 soldiers against Estonia.

By May 1919, the Estonian troops already contained about 75,000 men. The Estonian government and the army command were feeling so confident that they set a goal to push the front as far from Estonia’s borders as possible. In May, the Estonian troops started an offensive towards Petrograd (St Petersburg) and conquered a large territory east of Lake Peipus. Later in the year, however, the troops retreated in order to protect Estonia’s borders.

Independence ensured

The War of Independence continued with heavy battles throughout 1919, with the Soviet forces repeatedly attempting to regain their lost ground. By the end of the year, the number of Estonian troops had increased to 90,000. With Estonia’s strong resolve to defend its independence proven on one hand and the still relatively fragile Soviet Russian government attempting to ensure its Bolshevik revolution within the Russian borders on the other, Russia officially offered a peace agreement to Estonia.

LRSR_nr_6

Estonia emerged victorious, secured its borders and signed the Tartu Peace Treaty with Soviet Russia on 2 February 1920.

The country’s losses in the War of Independence were relatively small – about 2,300 killed and 14,000 wounded. Their sacrifice ensured that Estonia could enjoy freedom until 1940 and then again from 1991 onward.

Estonia in interwar period

After becoming an independent nation in 1918 and signing the Tartu Peace Treaty with Russia in 1920, Estonia’s first constitution was promulgated, establishing a parliamentary system. In 1921, the country became a member of the League of Nations.

With a political system in place, the new Estonian government immediately began the job of rebuilding. As one of its first major acts, the government carried out an extensive land reform, giving tracts to small farmers and veterans of the War of Independence. The large estates of the Baltic German nobility were expropriated, breaking its centuries-old power as a class.

At first, agriculture dominated the country’s economy. Thanks to the land reform, the number of small farms doubled to more than 125,000. Although many homesteads were small, the expansion of landownership helped stimulate new production after the war.

The land reform, however, did not solve all of Estonia’s early problems. The Estonian agriculture and industry (mostly textiles and machine manufacturing) had depended heavily on the Russian market. Independence and Soviet communism closed that outlet by 1924, and the economy had to reorient itself quickly toward the West, to which the country also owed significant war debts. The economy began to grow again by the late 1920s, but suffered another setback during the Great Depression, which hit Estonia during 1931-34. By the late 1930s, however, the industrial sector was expanding anew, at an average annual rate of 14 per cent. Industry employed some 38,000 workers by 1938.

Independent Estonia’s early political system

Independent Estonia’s early political system was characterised by instability and frequent government turnovers. The political parties were fragmented and were about evenly divided between the left and the right wing. The first Estonian constitution required parliamentary approval of all major acts taken by the prime minister and his government. The Riigikogu (the State Assembly, the Estonian parliament) could dismiss the government at any time, without incurring sanctions. Consequently, from 1918 to 1933, a total of twenty-three governments held office (in comparison, in 27 years after restoring its independence in 1991, just 16 governments have held office).

The country’s first big political challenge came in 1924 during an attempted communist takeover. In the depths of a nationwide economic crisis, leaders of the Estonian Communist Party, in close contact with the Communist International leaders from Moscow, believed the time was ripe for a workers’ revolution to mirror that of the Soviet Union. On the morning of 1 December 1924, some 300 party activists moved to take over key government outposts in Tallinn, while expecting workers in the capital to rise up behind them. The effort soon failed, however, and the government quickly regained control. In the aftermath, the Estonian political unity got a strong boost, while the communists lost all credibility. The relations with the Soviet Union, which had helped instigate the coup, deteriorated sharply.

By the early 1930s, Estonia’s political system, still governed by the imbalanced constitution, again began to show signs of instability. As in many other European countries at the time, pressure was mounting for a stronger system of government. Several constitutional changes were proposed, the most radical being put forth by the protofascist League of Independence War Veterans.

In a 1933 referendum, the league spearheaded replacement of the parliamentary system with a presidential form of government and laid the groundwork for an April 1934 presidential election, which it expected to win. Alarmed by the prospect of a league victory and possible fascist rule, the caretaker prime minister, Konstantin Päts, organised a pre-emptive coup d’état on 12 March 1934. In concert with the army, Päts began a rule by decree that endured virtually without interruption until 1940. He suspended the parliament and all political parties, and he disbanded the League of Independence War Veterans, arresting several hundred of its leaders.

The subsequent “Era of Silence” was initially supported by most of Estonian political society. After the threat from the league was neutralised, however, calls for a return to parliamentary democracy resurfaced. In 1936, Päts initiated a tentative liberalisation with the election of a constituent assembly and the adoption of a new constitution. During elections for a new parliament, however, political parties remained suspended, except for Päts’s own National Front, and civil liberties were only slowly restored. Päts was elected president by the new parliament in 1938.

Although the period of authoritarian rule that lasted from 1934 to 1940 was a low point of the Estonian democracy, in perspective its severity clearly would be tempered by the long Soviet era soon to follow. The clouds over Estonia and its independence began to gather in August 1939, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact (also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), dividing Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. Moving to capitalise on its side of the deal, the Soviet Union soon began to pressure Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into signing the Pact of Defence and Mutual Assistance, which would allow Moscow to station 25,000 troops in Estonia.

President Päts, in weakening health and with little outside support, acceded to every Soviet demand. In June 1940, the Soviet forces completely occupied the country, alleging that Estonia had “violated” the terms of the mutual assistance treaty. With rapid political manoeuvring, the regime of the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, then forced the installation of a pro-Soviet government and called for new parliamentary elections in July. The Estonian Communist Party, which had only recently re-emerged from underground with fewer than 150 members, organised the sole list of candidates permitted to run. Päts and other Estonian political leaders meanwhile were quietly deported to the Soviet Union or murdered.

With the country occupied and under total control, the communists’ “official” electoral victory on 17-18 June with 92.8 per cent of the vote was merely window dressing. On 21 July, the new parliament declared Estonia a Soviet republic and “requested” admission into the Soviet Union. In Moscow, the Supreme Soviet granted the request on 6 August 1940. The independent Estonia was finished. After a brief German occupation from 1941-1944 and the failed attempts to restore an independent Estonia, the Soviet Union occupied the country again; the occupation lasted until 1991.

The crisis in the Soviet Union opens a window of opportunity for Estonia

By the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union’s economy was in a critical situation, largely caused by a lack of technological development compared with the West, the inefficient socialist planned economy based on extensive production, and the preferred development of military industries. In the arms race with the main enemy, the United States, the Soviet Union turned out to be the loser, having exhausted its potential.

The Soviet export of oil and gas suffered seriously after fuel prices fell on the world market. At the same time, the Soviet Union increasingly depended on imported grain, which was unable to meet the demands of the domestic market. The increasing lack of food products and basic necessities (footwear, clothes etc.), plus escalating prices, caused bitter resentment among the population.

The Soviet foreign policy had reached a dead end as well, as it had been expansionist for decades, trying to extend Soviet power throughout the world. The war against Afghanistan started in 1979 and proved much more complicated than initially estimated. This brought about foreign policy complications and further strained the country’s economy.

The Soviet leadership did not publicly acknowledge the crisis. Therefore, many people, including most Estonians, were initially cautious of Mikhail Gorbachev, the new leader of the Soviet Union, who started his innovative policies in 1985. The keywords glasnost and perestroika (openness and reconstruction) seemed like empty slogans, and it was not clear what kind of reforms and changes the new Soviet leader was actually pursuing.

The first signs of radical changes in society emerged in Estonia in spring 1987, when the Soviet plans to establish phosphorite mines in northern Estonia were revealed. This unleashed an extensive protest campaign, the “phosphorite war”. This also marked the kick-off of the process of regaining Estonian independence, as the environmental issues were soon supplemented by political topics.

In August 1987, the Estonian Group on Publication of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was founded (the Estonian abbreviation: MRP–AEG). The group organised a mass meeting in Hirvepark in Tallinn the same month, where people demanded that the secret protocols of the 1939 pact be made public. The meeting was not forcefully disbanded, as would have happened before, which showed that civil rights had expanded and the regime had softened – the authorities even granted permission to hold the demonstration.

The Estonian society awakens

The Estonian society became politically active in 1988. A joint plenum of the creative unions (writers, artists, architects and theatre and film people), which focused on Estonian national culture and the threat of intensifying Russification, expressed dissatisfaction with the activity of the Soviet Estonian leadership.

In mid-April, the Estonian Popular Front in Support of Perestroika was founded. This moderate, but clearly innovative movement wanted to make the Soviet Union more democratic and demanded political and economic autonomy for Estonia within the Soviet Union. The moderate aims of the Popular Front were enthusiastically supported by the Estonian population and it quickly became a powerful mass organisation.

The early summer of the same year witnessed a series of concerts and joint singing, soon to turn into a large-scale popular movement, and later called the Singing Revolution. Besides the moderate course, a more radical national movement emerged in 1988, which was clearly directed at restoring Estonia’s independence. The Estonian Heritage Society, established at the end of 1987, used totally un-Soviet rhetoric. In August 1988, the first Estonian political party was founded: the Estonian National Independence Party (the Estonian abbreviation ERSP). Its core was made up of the MRP–AEG members.

In the summer, the Supreme Soviet of Estonia adopted the blue-black-white flag of the Republic of Estonia once again as the Estonian national flag. On 16 November, the Estonian Supreme Soviet passed the Declaration of Sovereignty, which confirmed the supremacy of laws passed by the Soviet in the Estonian SSR. The document also declared that the basis of the relations between the central authorities of the Soviet Union and a Union republic must be an agreement that would establish the rights and duties of both sides, achieved by negotiations. Moscow declared the declaration null and void, but was unable to halt the process of restoring independence.

A special mass undertaking by independence-seeking forces in the Baltic countries was the Baltic Chain, which attracted keen interest in the foreign press. On 23 August 1989, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, about two million people formed a living chain from Tallinn via Riga to Vilnius, thus eloquently demonstrating their wish for independence.

Estonia regains its independence

In the spring of 1990, the Estonian SSR Supreme Soviet declared the authority of the Soviet Union in Estonia illegal. A transition period was announced, which, in cooperation with the Estonian Congress, would lead to the restoration of the Republic of Estonia. In May, the name Estonian SSR was abolished and replaced by the Republic of Estonia.

However, independence had not yet been achieved. The Soviet Union still considered Estonia and the other Baltic republics to be Union republics subordinated to Moscow, and was prepared to use extreme force to maintain its power, as seen in the violent events in January 1991 in Vilnius and Riga. In both capitals, the Soviet special troops tried to seize the media centres controlled by national forces, and dozens of people were killed. Estonia was spared violence, apart from the attack at Ikla border control point by special militia units of the Soviet Union in June 1991.

Finally, Estonia took the advantage of the attempted coup d’état (the ‘August putsch’) in Moscow in August 1991. On 20 August 1991, the Estonian Supreme Soviet, in agreement with the Estonian Committee (the executive organ of the Estonian Congress) proclaimed Estonian independence, thus restoring the Republic of Estonia, which had been legally established in 1918 and illegally occupied in 1940 by the Soviet Union. This decision was quickly followed by the restoration of diplomatic relations and recognition of the Republic of Estonia by many countries, including Russia and the Soviet Union (which ceased to exist four months later).

The Republic of Estonia was restored on the basis of legal continuity – it was first established on 24 February 1918 – and that is why the country is celebrating 102 years of independence this Monday.

Since restoring the independence, Estonia has introduced many reforms, joined the EU and NATO, and is one of a handful of countries closest to becoming a digital society. In many aspects, the country is punching above its weight internationally and it is constantly becoming more prosperous. It has proven in the last 29 years that it can do very well as an independent country.

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Sources: Estonica, Estonia.eu, Estonian World. Pictures: Estonian World and Estonian War Museum. Cover image by Arne Ader. * Please note that this article was originally published on 24 February 2015 and considerably amended on 23 February 2018 and lightly edited on 23 February 2019.

A hundred facts about Estonia

As a gift for Estonia’s centenary on 24 February 2018, Estonian World compiled, with the help of its co-authors, a list of a hundred facts about the country – some known, but some perhaps even surprising.*

1. Estonia has one of the lowest population densities in the world (28 per sq km; 72.5 per sq mi) – placing it 188th in the world.

2. Estonia is slightly bigger than Denmark and has a coastline fragmented with 1,521 islands.

3. Estonia has the fourth smallest population in the European Union, and the eighth smallest land area.

4. The country is flat as a pancake – its highest peak is 318 metres (1,043 ft) above sea level – and it’s also the highest in the Baltic states.

5. According to the largest ever study of height around the world, Estonian men and women are the third tallest people on Earth.

6. One of the biggest meteorites to hit the Earth in the recent history landed in Saaremaa, in what today is the village of Kaali.

7. Saaremaa is also where, according to one measurement, the centre of Europe is located.

8. Oleviste (St Olaf’s) church in Tallinn was the highest building in the world from 1549 to 1625.

9. Estonia has the highest number of supermodels per capita.

10. In modern Estonia, it is possible to do practically anything online – to pay for parking, to do business, to declare your taxes, to vote, and almost anything else.

11. Estonian women had the right to vote as early as in 1917.

12. The sauna culture is believed to have begun 4,000 years ago, but the oldest public sauna in Tallinn was opened in 1310 on Nunne street and eventually called Stockeri saun. The words we still use today in Estonian – saun and wicht (now viht) – were first recorded in the 13th century.

13. The sauna in the traditional Estonian society was a mini health and hygiene centre where Estonians witnessed the beginning, the middle and end of their lives. These days, Estonia’s town of Otepää hosts the largest sauna marathon in Europe.

14. The world’s most performed living composer, Arvo Pärt, is an Estonian.

15. Estonians are world champions in wife carrying, an international sport with a category in the Guinness Book of Records.

16. Estonia has the best environment for building digital trust.

17. Estonia ranks third in having the most startups per capita in Europe.

18. Finnish TV served as a window to the free world during the Soviet occupation and practically every Estonian has been to Finland.

19. Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana” could have very well been titled, “Our Man in Tallinn”, as the action in one of the first versions of the famous book took place in a pre-war capital of a Baltic state, very similar to Tallinn.

20. In “To Have and Have Not”, Ernest Hemingway casually mentioned that “No well-run yacht basin in Southern waters is complete without at least two sunburned, salt bleached-headed Esthonians”. This has become probably the most misquoted lines among Estonians, most commonly paraphrased to, “In every port in the world, at least two Estonians can be found”. There is, however, a big difference between the yacht basins in Southern waters (in the novel meant as the waters between Florida and Cuba) and every port in the world.

21. Lots of famous people have visited Estonia at one point or another. But probably the most fascinating ones are John F. Kennedy, who visited the country in 1939, long before he became president; Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon who came to Estonia for a brief visit at the end of the 1970ies; and Billy Graham, one of the most well-known Christian evangelists and preachers in the world, who in 1984 gave a sermon at Tallinn’s St Olaf’s church.

22. The Estonian capital, Tallinn, was the home of the first publicly displayed Christmas tree in 1441.

23. Out of the nearly 200 countries in the world, Estonia ranks number two in adult literacy (after Latvia) with its rate of 99.8 percent (North Korea claims a 100% literacy rate, but let’s face it, it’s North Korea).

24. Estonia has considerably more women than men – for every 100 females, there are 84 men. Only the Northern Mariana Islands has a smaller percentage of men.

25. Estonia is one of the least religious countries in the world with only 16% of the population saying religion has any importance in their lives. At the same time, 69% believe that trees have a soul.

26. Even though Estonia is considered to be one of the Baltic states, the country has no cultural or linguistic relation to Latvia and Lithuania – its culture and language are, instead, closely related to those of Finland.

27. The Estonian language is one of the hardest to learn for a native English speaker.

28. Estonia is one of the greenest countries in Europe – fifty per cent of its area is covered with forests.

29. Skype was invented in Estonia by Estonian developers, even though the company was owned by Swedes.

30. The country has permanently been invaded from the outside since the 13th century and for the most part of the country’s history, Estonians have been under foreign sovereignty (Danish, German, Polish, Swedish, Russian and Soviet).

31. Tallinn is one of the most well-preserved medieval cities in Europe.

32. Even though most Estonians (or at least those who are religious) are Lutheran Protestants, Estonia’s first president, Konstatin Päts, was Christian Orthodox.

33. Estonia’s history could’ve taken quite a different turn, had the Vaps Movement (the organisation of the veterans of the Estonian War of Independence that had nationalist leanings similar to the Italian fascists and German nazis) succeeded in coming to power in 1934. On the other hand, their potential rise to power was thwarted by Konstatin Päts, then the State Elder (the title of the head of state at the time), by imposing an autocratic rule that lasted until 1940 – when the Soviet Union occupied Estonia for the first time. The period from 1934 to 1940 is called the Era of Silence and it’s one of the few smirches on the history of the Republic of Estonia.

34. Estonia is celebrating its centenary this year despite the occupation by both the Soviets and the nazis, because according to the international law, it was occupied illegally. Legally, the Republic of Estonia has existed from 24 February 1918 onwards, and during the periods of occupation, the state maintained continuous existence through its government in exile. After Estonia restored its independence in 1991, the government in exile handed over its power to the duly elected government that carried on the republic that was proclaimed on 1918.

35. The second president of Estonia, Lennart Meri, was, before becoming president, mostly known as an author and a filmmaker. He only entered politics in 1990, at the age of 61, when he became foreign minister in the transitional government. He was elected president in 1992 and served two terms, until 2001.

36. One of the most significant statesmen Estonia has witnessed was Mart Laar, who in 1992, at the age of 32, became the first prime minister of the post-occupation Estonia. Under his lead, Estonia was the first in Europe to introduce the flat tax, privatised most national industry in transparent public tenders, abolished tariffs and subsidies, stabilised the economy, balanced the budget, and perhaps most crucially, restored the pre-occupation currency, the kroon, and pegged it to the stable Deutsche mark. He served his second term as prime minister from 1999-2002.

37. The Estonian national flag, the blue, black and white tricolour, represents the sky, the soil and the Estonians’ pursuit of light and happiness. In 1884, the Estonian Students’ Society adopted the flag as its own, and after Estonia declared its independence in 1918, it became the national flag.

38. On 23 August, 1989, Estonians took part in the Baltic Way, together with Latvians and Lithuanians, to form a human chain across the three countries, consisting of two million people, to commemorate the tragedy that ensued from the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact that was signed 50 years ago that day. The protest was designed to draw global attention by demonstrating a popular desire for independence for these countries.

39. Estonians, like Mexicans, put sour cream (a version of crème fraîche that contains less fat) on almost everything. And anyone who’s had Mexican food knows it’s not as disgusting as it sounds – it’s actually quite delicious.

40. At Christmas, Estonians eat something called “blood sausage”, a mixture of pork, barley, animal blood and spices. This, again, is not as disgusting as it sounds – in fact, it’s quite similar to the English black pudding, albeit with a distinct Estonian touch.

41. The Estonian cuisine is a mixture of the German, Russian and the Scandinavian cuisines. But in spite of that – or maybe because it’s such a mixture – it’s not really that similar to either of these.

42. As a largely non-religious nation, Estonians divorce 50% of their marriages. By the divorce-marriage ratio, Estonia is 12th in the world. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s healthy that people can change their minds and do so when it’s called for without having to face the scrutiny of the society.

43. Tallinn can be regarded as an Olympic city since in 1980, when the summer Olympics took place in Moscow, the Olympic regatta was held in Tallinn.

44. Estonians were one of the last pagans in Europe, before Christianity was brought to the country in the 13th century.

45. Estonia is so close to the Arctic circle that it’s shortest day is only six hours long – and that happens in around Christmas. Its longest day, on the other hand, is 18 hours and 40 minutes long – around the Midsummer day in June.

46. Estonians have the longest paid maternity leave in the OECD – 435 days. Moreover, the amount of the compensation is 100% of the average salary the mother used to earn the year before going on the maternity leave. This, also, applies to the paternity leave, if only one parent is on leave.

47. It’s possible for it to snow in Estonia in June, in the middle of the summer. The last time that happened was in 2014 – but it has definitely happened before.

48. Estonians invented their own sports – kiiking. In English, it would translate as swinging, but in not the word’s traditional, sexual sense. It actually involves a swing with its arms made of steel to enable a person to swing 360 degrees going over the fulcrum of the wing. In the sports, the person able to swing over the fulcrum with the longest swing arms is the winner.

49. Estonia was the first country to establish online voting in 2005, and in the last election, the local election in 2017, almost 17% of the people voted online.

50. Estonia was the first country in the world that established e-residency, a programme to allow non-Estonians and non-EU citizens to gain access into the Estonian e-society, giving them access to the EU single market by allowing them to establish a company in Estonia, by which they would also gain access to banking, payment processing and other business benefits of Estonia, and therefore the European Union.

51. The defensive end of the Indianapolis Colts football team is Margus Hunt, an Estonian born in Karksi-Nuia, Estonia. His nickname is the Estonian Giant – because he’s 6 ft 8 in (2.03 m) tall. And, he’s one of the tallest players in the National Football League.

Margus Hunt. Photo by the Indianapolis Colts

52. Mena Suvari, the American actress, is the descendant of a Greek mother and an Estonian father. She’s probably the best known from the movie, American Beauty, where she played opposite Kevin Spacey. Her father was from Pärnu, the Estonian summer capital.

53. Encino Man, the 1992 American movie that starred Brendan Fraser, Sean Astin and Pauly Shore, discovered a caveman frozen in a back yard. They brought him back to life and introduced him to everyone as an exchange student from Estonia – most probably because the caveman was from the stone age and Estonia sounded like something from the stone age. Needless to say, in 1992, everyone outside Estonia thought it was a made-up country.

54. James Murdoch, the CEO of 21st Century Fox and the former CEO of News Corp, has Estonian roots. His mother is Anna Maria Murdoch Mann, formerly Tõrv, a daughter of Jacob Tõrv, an Estonian-born merchant seaman, and Sylvia Braida, a Scottish drycleaner. He’s the fourth offspring of Rupert Murdoch, the media magnate who owns News Corp.

55. The longest ice road – conditions permitting – in Europe is the Rohuküla-Heltermaa ice road with a length of 26.5 kilometres (16 miles), stretching for across a frozen expanse of the Baltic Sea. The road links Estonia’s mainland port of Rohuküla on the continent with Hiiumaa island. The longest known ice road originating from Estonia was located between Saaremaa island and Lübeck (a city in Germany) in 1323.

56. Estonia is a space nation. The country conducted its first space mission in 2013, when a tiny one-kilogramme satellite, called ESTCube-1, was rocketed off to orbit the Earth from the European Space Agency’s launch site in French Guyana. ESTCube travelled 680 kilometres (423 miles) from the Earth, where it tested solar sail technology, which the scientists believe may allow space travellers one day to move faster and across greater distances.

57. The first meal consumed in space was prepared in Estonia. A factory in Põltsamaa became the caterer to the Soviet space programme in 1962 and started packaging ready-made food into tin tubes, the only available means at the time.

58. The world’s oldest rye variety still cultivated is Sangaste rye. The robust yielding, long straw and frost-resistant variety was developed in 1875 by Count Friedrich Georg Magnus von Berg, the German-Baltic owner of Sangaste manor in Estonia. Years later, the same variety was developed into Kodiak rye in Canada and used to make Canadian Gold whisky.

59. Paiste, the world’s third largest manufacturer of cymbals, gongs and metal percussion, was founded in 1906 by the Estonian musician, Michail Toomas Paiste. His descendants are still in charge of the company, although it’s now based in Switzerland. Paiste’s equipment has been used by such rock legends as Roger Taylor, Phil Collins, Charlie Watts, Keith Moon, Mick Fleetwood, Jeff Porcaro, Larry Mullen and Nick Mason.

60. In Japan, there’s a manga character called Estonia. Estonia is a supporting character in the series “Hetalia: Axis Powers” and he is a simple-looking boy with square glasses and a narrow face, with dark blond hair and blue eyes. He is portrayed as mild-mannered, peppy and carrying himself well. He is skilled at information technology and economics andappears to have good relations with most of the other nations (other characters). However, he tends to work at his own pace and doesn’t pay much attention to his surroundings, so he often goes unnoticed by others, despite his status as an ace student.

61. The world’s first underwater draughts tournament was held in January 2011 in Valtu, near the Estonian town of Rapla. The event was attended by 52 Estonian divers and made it into the Guinness Book of Records.

62. Andrei Tarkovsky, the iconic Russian filmmaker, directed one of his movies, the science fiction art film, Stalker, in Estonia. The movie that ranks #29 on the British Film Institute’s “50 Greatest Films of All Time” poll, was shot at two deserted hydro power plants on Jägala River; at the former chemical factory in the centre of Tallinn, next to the old Rotermann salt storage; and the electric plant, now a cultural centre called “Kultuurikatel”. Some shots were also filmed in Maardu, next to the Iru powerplant, and in Lasnamäe.

63. Neil Tennant, the singer of the Pet Shop Boys, was inspired to write a song called “Between Two Islands” after a visit to Estonia. The song’s lyrics mention the “Island of Lovers” and the “Island of Whores”. In the summer of 2000, Tennant was staying at a small luxury resort on the island of Muhu, when his host organised a boat trip to another nearby island. But a sudden severe storm forced the party to abandon their excursion mid-course and return to the safety of the resort; this harrowing experience inspired Tennant to write the song.

64. Estonians have one of the biggest collections of folk songs in the world, with written records of about 133,000 of them.

65. The first jazz concert in the Soviet Union by an American artist took place in Estonia, when in 1967, Charles Lloyd, Keith Jarrett, Ron McClure and Jack DeJohnette were allowed to perform at the Tallinn Jazz Festival. The performance at the Kalev Sport Hall was recorded and later issued by Lloyd as an album, “Charles Lloyd in the Soviet Union”. After the concert, jazz festivals were banned in the Soviet-occupied Estonia.

66. Estonia holds the fifth place in the world in a ranking of total opera performances per million residents.

67. The world’s first 3D animated film, “The Souvenir”, directed by Elbert Tuganov, was produced by the Estonian studio Nukufilm, the oldest and largest stop‑motion film studio in Northern Europe.

68. Pete Shelley, the singer-songwriter of the legendary English punk rock band, Buzzcocks, married an Estonian-Canadian and relocated to Estonia in 2009. “A couple of years ago we got married and we only had a small flat in London which was getting a bit crowded. We came over [to Tallinn] visiting relatives and it was such a beautiful place. It’s a world heritage site and it’s nice and quiet. In the place I was in in London at three in the morning it would be a siren corridor. This is a lot more tranquil and it’s only a three-hour flight to the UK, so we’re not cut off,” Shelley said in an interview in 2013.

69. Marzipan is one of the oldest sweets made in Estonia, first used as a medicine as it was thought to have healing properties. There are still six marzipan painters left in Estonia, thought to be some of the last professional marzipan painters in Europe.

70. Raeapteek in Tallinn is the oldest town council pharmacy in Europe and the oldest continuously operating medical institution in Estonia.

71. Estonia’s first spa, providing mud treatments, was founded in Kuressaare in 1840. There is now one spa for every ten residents in the town.

72. Louis Kahn, one of the most influential architects of the 20th century, was born in the Estonian town of Pärnu. He spent his early childhood on the island of Saaremaa, before his family emigrated to the US.

73. Estonia has the largest number of museums per person in the world, at one museum for every 5,300 Estonians. On average, Estonians visit a museum twice a year.

74. Estonia has more coastal meadows than any other European country.

75. Estonia is not only home to Estonians. The other large ethnic groups are Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Finns and the country is increasingly becoming more diverse, attracting people from around the world. According to the 2011 census, Estonia is home to 180 different ethnic groups.

76. The Tallinn Zoo has the world’s largest selection of rare chamois and wild sheep.

77. During the Soviet occupation, the seatbelts for Soviet cars were manufactured in the Estonian factory, Norma. The belts’ construction was a brainchild of an Estonian engineer, Leonid Teder, who came up with the design in 1971.

78. Estonia is Europe’s largest exporter of wooden houses.

79. The Tallinn Town Hall is Northern Europe’s only preserved Gothic city hall.

80. According to the 2016 statistics, Estonians are the fifth keenest beer drinkers in the world, consuming 104 litres (220 US pints; 183 Imperial pints) of beer per capita a year. And recently Estonia has been witnessing something of a beer revolution, as many small producers have entered the market with exciting beers – there are now 2,081 different beers brewed in the country.

81. Estonian general Johan Laidoner solved the Turkish-Iraq border conflict in 1925. As the head of a League of Nations special mission to Iraq, he led a report that played an important role in demarcating the border between Turkey and Iraq.

82. According to a legend, Odin, the supreme god of the ancient Scandinavians, is buried in the Estonian island of Osmussaar. The island’s Swedish name, Odensholm, derives from the word Odin.

83. The world’s first modern refracting telescope is in the Tartu Observatory. The telescope was manufactured in 1824 and for decade was the world’s largest and best of its kind. It was used for a hundred years.

84. Sterile rubber gloves and orthopaedic cast, made of gypsum, were first introduced in the 19th century at the University of Tartu’s faculty of medicine.

85. The world’s oldest compound eye was discovered in a 530-million-year-old fossil that was found in Estonia.

86. Over 50,000 Estonians, comprising about 5% of the population, have a personal gene map, providing hints about risks of hereditary diseases, as well as many other ailments. Furthermore, the Estonian Genome Centre now aims to collect the genetic data of 100,000 people and integrate it into everyday medical practice.

87. The covers of Guns N’ Roses’ hugely successful albums, Use Your Illusion I and II, were designed by Mark Kostabi, an Estonian-American artist and composer. Since the combined sales of the two albums is 35 million copies, it’s fair to say that Kostabi’s art has reached to more people than by any other Estonian artist.

88. Lactobacillus fermentum ME-3, the bacteria discovered in 1995 by the University of Tartu research teams, led by professors Marika Mikelsaar and Mihkel Zilmer, are unique in the world because of their combination of antimicrobial and antioxidative effects. They protect human health by attacking harmful microbes and contributing to physical well-being. The ME-3 can rightfully be called the first Estonian probiotic lactic acid bacteria and the EU patent permits it to be used in the food industry in 15 European countries.

89. The Russian tsar, Peter the Great, reportedly said that had he conquered Tallinn ten years earlier, he would have not needed St Petersburg. He visited Tallinn nine times and fell in love with it. His legacy is a baroque palace in Tallinn, named Kadriorg (in German, Catharinenthal) in honour of his wife, Catherine I.

90. At the end of the 17th century, Russian Orthodox Old Believers fled from Russia to the shores of Lake Peipus in Estonia to escape religious persecution. About 15,000 Old Believers still live in Estonia.

91. The Võru smoke sauna tradition is in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. The tradition, known as “suidsusannakombõ” in the local dialect, is an important part of the everyday life of the Võru community, a 75,000-strong inhabitation located in southern Estonia.

92. Estonia’s land area (45,227 square kilometres; 17,462 square miles) is bigger than Taiwan’s (36,197 sq km; 13,976 sq mi), but the population of Taiwan (23.55 million) is multiple times larger than Estonia’s (1.316 million).

93. Linnahall, a former concert and events hall in Tallinn, is reportedly among the structures in the world that is visible from space. Fans of the neglected building compare it with the ancient Babylon Ziggurats and the Mexican Pyramid of the Sun.

94. One of the most influential semioticians in the world was Yuri Lotman, the founder of the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School. Born in Russia, but unable to find an academic position in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) due to anti-Semitism, Lotman settled to Estonia in 1950 and worked at the University of Tartu for the rest of his career.

95. Approximately fifth of the Soviet Union’s uranium, 100,000 tons, were produced between 1946 and 1990 in the Estonian town of Sillamäe. Produced for both civilian and military use (to build nuclear weapons), Sillamäe’s output was exceeded in only two other sites in the whole Soviet bloc.

96. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a premier global metric for education, the results of Estonian 15-year-olds are the best in Europe and third in the world.

97. Karl Ernst von Baer, a world famous naturalist and biologist, was born in Estonia to a Baltic German noble family. He is considered a founding father of embryology, having discovered the mammalian ovum in 1826.

98. Estonia once manufactured cars. Between 1957 and 1999, a Tallinn-based state-owned factory called TARK produced over 1,300 vehicles, which were similarly designed to Formula 3 racing cars. In addition, another factory in Tartu manufactured vans and minibuses. Mind you, these were more similar to shoeboxes on wheels than anything else out there.

99. When Estonians express that something is good, they instead use the word “normal”.

100. Despite being screwed by foreign powers for hundreds of years, Estonians have managed to survive and ultimately build up a fairly successful independent country.

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Cover: Dolls in Estonian national costumes (Shutterstock). * Please note that this article was originally published on 23 February 2018.

Remembering the once vibrant Jewish community of Estonia

On the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, the victims of Nazi atrocities are also remembered in Estonia. We look back at the history of the once vibrant Jewish community in Estonia.*

Prior to the WWII, Estonia had a small but flourishing Jewish community. There are, in historical archives, records of individual Jews being in Estonia as early as the 14th century. But the permanent Jewish settlement of Estonia did not begin until the 19th century, when they were granted the right to enter the region by a statute of Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1865. Jews with higher education, or who were skilled artisans or successful merchants, were allowed to settle in Estonia and other parts of the Russian Empire.

Jewish cultural associations were established, as were, of course, Jewish congregations and houses of worship. The largest synagogues were built in Tallinn in 1883 and Tartu in 1901. Both of these were eventually destroyed in World War II during the Soviet bombing raids of March 1944.

In 1913, there were 5,000 Jews living in Estonia, of whom 2,000 lived in Tartu and 1,100 in Tallinn. At least 180 Estonian Jews, 70 of them volunteers, fought in the War of Independence (1918–1920) to help establish the Republic of Estonia.

The creation of the Republic of Estonia in 1918 marked the beginning of a new era in the life of the Jews. From the very first days of her existence as a state, Estonia showed tolerance towards all the peoples inhabiting her territories.

The Jewish cultural autonomy

In 1925, the Act of Cultural Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities was enacted in Estonia, giving minority groups consisting of at least 3,000 individuals the right of self-determination in cultural matters. Financial support was provided by the state. Thus, in 1926, the Jewish cultural autonomy was declared – first of its kind in the world. For its tolerant policy towards Jews, a page was dedicated to the Republic of Estonia in the Golden Book of the Jewish National Fund in 1927.

In the 1930s, there were over 4,300 Jews living in Estonia. In 1939, there were 32 different Jewish organisations active in Estonia. Sadly, the history took a wrong turn.

With the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940, Jewish cultural autonomy, in addition to the activities of Jewish organisations, was terminated. The teaching of Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as lectures on Judaism and Jewish culture, were banned. All Jewish schools were closed and 414 Estonian Jews (10 percent of the Jewish community) were deported to Siberia in the course of the mass deportations of June 1941.

Holocaust

Worse was to come. During the German occupation (1941–1944), the Nazis murdered approximately 1,000 Jews who had failed to flee Estonia (most had escaped to the Soviet Union before the Nazi occupation). In addition to the aforementioned Estonian Jews that were murdered by the Nazis, about 10,000 Jews were transported to Nazi concentration camps in Estonia from other parts of Europe. Only handful of them survived.

In early 1942, Estonia became one of the very few countries that was called “Judenfrei” (free of Jews) by the Nazis. This was a term to designate an area “cleansed” of Jewish presence during the Holocaust.

Sadly, there were also some Estonians who collaborated with the Nazis and participated in the unprecedented atrocities committed against the Jewish people. At the same time, there were also many who risked their own lives to save the Jewish people from the Nazis, one notable example being an Estonian writer and academic Uku Masing.

Klooga concentration camp entrance

Escaping Soviet anti-Semitism

During the second Soviet occupation (1944–1991), many Jews, among them many intellectuals such as Yuri Lotman (founder of the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School), migrated to Estonia to escape the anti-Semitism prevalent in many parts of the Soviet Union. Jews, for instance, often had difficulties gaining admittance to institutions of higher learning, especially in bigger cities. If young Jews were unable to find chances for furthering their education or for obtaining suitable employment in their home towns, they did not encounter such problems in Estonia.

By 1960, 5,500 Jews were living in Estonia, about 80 percent of them in Tallinn. There was, however, no rebirth of Jewish cultural life, because of the Communist Party’s hostile policies towards the Jews. From 1940 until 1988, the Estonian Jewish community, as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, had no organisations, associations nor even clubs.

Jewish community awakens again

At the end of the Soviet occupation the situation changed for the better again. In March 1988, the Jewish Cultural Society was established in Tallinn. After the restoration of Estonia’s independence in 1991, the Jewish Cultural Society was reorganised and the Jewish Community was established in 1992. The Tallinn Jewish School was re-opened in 1990, being the first school for a national minority to be established in the restored Republic of Estonia.

Currently, the Jewish Community in Estonia consists of about 2,000 people. In 2007 a new synagogue was opened in Tallinn – it was the first synagogue to open in Estonia since the Second World War.

New synagogue in Tallinn

Remembering all the victims

The International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 27 January, is a worldwide memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust, the genocide that resulted in the annihilation of six million Jews, two million Gypsies, 15,000 homosexual people and millions of others by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. The date marks the day on 1945, when the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated by the Soviet troops.

Estonia has been officially observing the International Holocaust Day since 2003 and the main remembrance ceremony usually takes place at the site of former concentration camp in Klooga near Tallinn, where 2,000 people lost their lives.

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Cover: Tartu synagogue, built in 1899, destroyed in 1944. * Originally published on 27 January 2016.

Remembering Estonia’s WWII refugees

In the autumn of 1944, fearful of the advancing Red Army, approximately 80,000 Estonians left their country behind and escaped to Germany and Sweden, later moving also to the UK, the US, Canada and Australia; it’s time to look back and remember the plight of our Estonian parents and grandparents who fled their homeland to escape the terror and brutality of the Soviet occupation.*

In August and September of 1944, during the Second World War, tens of thousands of people were desperate to get onto any ship that stayed afloat, including tiny wooden fishing boats, to flee war-ravaged Estonia that would be occupied by the Soviet Union until 1991. Many countries generously opened their doors to take in these refugees who went on to lead productive lives in their new adopted countries.

People fearing the Soviet Union

Estonians started fleeing to Sweden already in the spring of 1943, but the exodus intensified in August 1944 and achieved its peak from 19-23 September 1944, when it became clear that the German front was collapsing and the Soviet military forces were about to occupy Estonia again. The overwhelming majority of Estonians did not favour any occupying force – the country had simply been sandwiched during the Second World War between the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union had briefly occupied Estonia from 1940-1941 and caused more suffering to the population than Nazi Germany – which explains why so many Estonians feared the communist state more. The Soviet Union had deported over 10,000 people to Siberia and executed or imprisoned many of the Republic of Estonia’s former politicians, ministers, judges, priests, business people and land owners. Large property and businesses had been confiscated. The NKVD, the feared Soviet secret police that was known for extrajudicial executions, had committed at last one prisoner massacre also in Estonia (in Tartu), killing 193 detainees.

Not all the Estonian refugees made it. The stormy seas and enemy fire claimed the lives of up to 9% of the refugees, it is estimated. Of the people who managed to flee Estonia by 1944, the majority of them took refuge in nearby Sweden and Germany. Thousands found themselves in displaced persons’ (DP) camps in Germany, which became their temporary home for a number of years.

In war-torn Europe

After WWII Europe was in a state of total ruin. Approximately sixty million people had been killed; nations torn apart and between 11 million and 20 million Europeans were left displaced. Germany was occupied by the allies and divided into four sectors – British, American, French and Soviet. Millions of people were left homeless and had to rely on foreign aid for survival. Germany had approximately 200,000 Baltic people registered as displaced persons in 1945 with 33,000 of them being Estonian.

dpcampmapIn 1945 the military missions in the British, American and French sectors established DP camps to provide temporary shelter, nutrition and health care to refugees. Hundreds of camps existed all over Germany and in parts of Austria and Italy. Later in 1945, the running of the camps was handed over to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and then later to the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) in 1947.

The original plan for the DP camps was to repatriate people to their country of origin as quickly as possible. By the end of 1945, the military authorities managed to repatriate over five million displaced persons, but they soon realised it was not possible to do the same with the Baltic peoples. Even though the war was over, their countries were still occupied by the Soviet Army and returning home would mean persecution, deportation or even death.

Life in DP camps

When people first arrived at one of these DP camps they often experienced a sense of relief. The camps offered a degree of security; a roof over their heads, regular meals and the possibility of being reunited with their lost loved ones.

But people couldn’t afford to be complacent; they lived in daily fear of being extradited to the Soviet Union. Many Estonians had hoped the US Army might go and liberate Estonia from the Red Army, but this never happened; in fact it was never on the Americans’ agenda. For the Estonians living in the displaced persons’ camps, all they could do was wait and see what their future would hold. They had no choice but to get by the best way they could.

Estonian refugees celebrating Independence Day in DP camp in 1948

People were grouped together according to nationality in DP camps. Upon arrival people registered their details and were given a DP identification number. For example, this writer’s grandmother Hertha’s number was 064057. Accommodation varied from camp to camp, buildings such as military barracks, schools, hospitals, private homes, hotels and even airports were used to house people.

Camp life was culturally very rich, in particular for the Baltic peoples. As many of the DPs who fled the Baltic states were intellectuals, farmers, craftsmen and artists, they brought a lot of useful skills with them to the camps. They established their own newspapers, workshops, theatres and training centres that created a sense of community within the camps. The workshops produced some very fine handcrafted goods made from wood, leather and textiles.  Embroidery was also very popular.

In the beginning, when DP camps were first established, the living conditions were quite dire. Sometimes DPs had to use accommodation that was previously used by forced labourers or that was either very basic or substandard. Overcrowding was often an issue, food shortages were common and if camp life wasn’t challenging enough, people were faced with a new peril – the outbreak of tuberculosis.

Zoo camp

Tuberculosis was rife is some camps. In particular, Zoo Camp that was located in Hamburg, had many cases of tuberculosis which resulted in numerous deaths. The buildings these people lived in were originally built by the Blohn & Voss Company (a shipping and engineering firm) to house forced labourers who worked in their factory during the war. The timber structures were often damp and cold, prime conditions for tuberculosis to set in. The Baltic University had its origins at Zoo Camp until the students were relocated to nearby Pinneberg where the stone buildings were much better.

Not all DP camps struggled with health and welfare issues, for example, Geislingen Camp, located near Stuttgart (American sector) was described as “the Hilton of DP camps”. This writer’s distant relatives, Heino and Aili Lestal, lived at Geislingen after the war and said the conditions were very good. Aili, now a spiritedly 91-year-old woman living in Canada, remembers that Geislingen was a purely Estonian DP camp, consisting of approximately 2,000 people who lived in confiscated German houses. Each family occupied one room, Aili says, enabling them to have at least some privacy. There were 17 people living in the house where Aili lived; her future husband Heino lived in the house next door.

Finding new home

Many people found love while living in the camps, which would have come as a welcome distraction considering the perils they faced. This writer’s Estonian grandparents met and fell in love while living at Zoo Camp in Hamburg. They married shortly after arriving in Australia in 1949. Heino and Aili married at Geislingen and spent their “honeymoon” and New Year’s Eve on board the “Vollendam” as she sailed to Australia in 1948.

The announcement of new mass emigration programs offered by countries experiencing labour shortages triggered an out flux of people living in DP camps during 1948 and 1949. Belgium was the first country to offer large scale immigration, seeking 20,000 coal miners. The UK and Canada also offered a number of opportunities but required sponsorship.

The Australian program, known as the “DP Group Resettlement Scheme”, was viewed favourably by the IRO and DPs for several reasons. Unlike other schemes, which required DPs to have personal sponsorship from a friend or relative already residing in the prospective country, the Australian government took on the role of sponsor itself, hence making the process a lot easier for applicants.

In addition, Australia not only accepted single men and women into the programme but also welcomed families too. This provided peace of mind for those who feared being separated from their loved ones. The United States was late to adopt a refugee policy and had several exclusions. For example, they wouldn’t accept anyone who suffered from tuberculosis or who had served in the German Army. Many DPs preferred the Australian resettlement scheme for one very distinct reason – the country was very far away from Europe and its turmoil.

Upon departing DP camps people were issued with a “Good Conduct Certificate” stating their name, date of birth and the date they first started residing at the camp. The certificates also confirmed they had not been convicted of any crime or misdemeanour.

Land of tomorrow

Australian Government poster displayed between 1949 and 1951 in reception rooms and dining halls at various migrant reception centers in Australia.This writer’s Estonian grandmother Hertha had dreams of immigrating to America but unfortunately her application was rejected. She later joined her husband in Australia and it was there where they started their new life together. When they first arrived in Australia they had to stay at the migrant reception centre in Uranquinty in rural New South Wales. There they learned about the Australian culture and to speak English.

All migrants had to fulfil a two-year work contract to the Australian government; then, once that was complete, they were granted residency and had complete freedom of movement. Many migrants later took up Australian citizenship and permanently settled in Australia while others left and were reunited with family members in other countries.

The mass migration schemes after WWII were a great success. They enabled people not only to rebuild their lives and live in peace but also to contribute positively to society. They brought with them their skills, knowledge, culture and cuisine. Things we still enjoy today.

Australia has benefitted greatly from its migrant population and everyone lives in relative harmony. Many countries took in refugees, here are the total resettlement figures: Venezuela 17,000; Belgium 22,000; Brazil 29,000; Argentina 33,000; France 38,000; UK 86,000;  Canada 157,687; Australia 182,159; United States 400,000.

Cover: Estonian refugee children in Hamburg ca. 1945. Photos courtesy of Tania Lestal and Estonica.org. * Please note that this article was originally published on 14 September 2015 and amended on 19 September 2019.

Estonia celebrates the day of restoration of independence

On 20 August 1991, Estonia declared formal independence during the Soviet military coup attempt in Moscow, reconstituting the pre-1940 state; every year, 20 August is celebrated as the day of Restoration of Independence.*

In the evening of 20 August 1991, Estonian politicians declared the nation’s independence – even as Soviet tanks were rolling through the countryside to quell the independence movement and the Soviet paratroopers were taking charge of the Tallinn TV tower, preparing to cut off communication channels.

The fate of Estonia was on peril. Yet, most Estonian politicians and the greater part of the public showed great resolve in the face of this danger. Estonian volunteers surrounded the TV tower and wouldn’t let themselves to be intimidated by the Soviet troops. Members of the Estonian Defence League – the unified paramilitary armed forces of Estonia – were ready to protect the strategically important buildings, such as the parliament at Toompea and the Estonian Public Broadcasting facilities.

Luckily for Estonia, the attempted coup d’état in Moscow failed and the more liberal forces, led by the chairman of the Russian SFSR Supreme Soviet, Boris Yeltsin, prevailed – thus starting the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Estonia was free again. The first country to diplomatically recognise Estonia’s reclaimed independence was Iceland, on 22 August. The  Soviet Union finally recognised the independence of Estonia on 6 September 1991.

Soviet soldiers by the Estonian TV-tower on 20 August 1991. Photo by U.Ojaste

This is the brief look back at the history of Estonia’s independence movement, culminating with the events of 20 August 1991.

The crisis in the Soviet Union opens a window of opportunity for Estonia

By the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union’s economy was in a critical situation, largely caused by a lack of technological development compared with the West, the inefficient socialist planned economy based on extensive production and preferred development of military industries. In the arms race with the main enemy, the US, the Soviet Union turned out to be the loser, having exhausted its potential.

The Soviet export of oil and gas suffered seriously after fuel prices fell on the world market. At the same time, the Soviet Union increasingly depended on imported grain, which was unable to meet the demands of the domestic market. The increasing lack of food products and basic necessities (footwear, clothes etc.), plus escalating prices, caused bitter resentment among the population.

The Soviet foreign policy had reached a dead end as well, as it had been expansionist for decades, trying to extend Soviet power throughout the world. The war against Afghanistan started in 1979 and proved much more complicated than initially estimated. This brought about foreign policy complications and further strained the country’s economy.

The Soviet leadership did not publicly acknowledge the crisis. Therefore, many people, including most Estonians, were initially cautious of Mikhail Gorbachev, the new leader of the Soviet Union, who started his innovative policies in 1985. The key words glasnost and perestroika (openness and reconstruction) seemed like empty slogans, and it was not clear what kind of reforms and changes the new Soviet leader was actually pursuing.

In 1986, the situation began to change. On 26 April 1986, a nuclear reactor accident occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, which became the test of the new policy of openness. The attempts of the central powers to suppress or minimise information about the disaster in a densely populated area caused indignation in the population.

The Baltic Chain 9

The first signs of radical changes in the society emerged in Estonia in spring 1987, when the Soviet plans to establish phosphorite mines in northern Estonia were revealed. This unleashed an extensive protest campaign, the ‘phosphorite war’. This also marked the kick-off of the process of regaining Estonian independence, as the environmental issues were soon supplemented by political topics.

In August 1987, the Estonian Group on Publication of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was founded (Estonian abbreviation: MRP–AEG). The group organised a mass meeting in Hirvepark in Tallinn the same month, where people demanded that the secret protocol of the 1939 pact be made public. The meeting was not forcefully disbanded, as would have happened before, which showed that civil rights had expanded and the regime had softened – the authorities even granted permission to hold the demonstration.

11 September 1988 12

Simultaneously with the increasing political freedom in society, Estonians started demanding economic reforms and the right to make their own decisions.

IME was first proposed by activists Edgar Savisaar (first left), Siim Kallas (first right) and journalist Tiit Made (far right) and scientist Mikk Titma (far left)In autumn 1987, the idea of self-managing Estonia (Estonian acronym IME) was enthusiastically discussed in the Estonian society. The plan was to make Estonia economically independent (adopt a market economy and establish Estonia’s own currency, tax system etc.).

Although formally it was no more than a suggestion to grant the republic greater decision-making power to better manage the economy, many people nevertheless hoped Estonia would gradually manage to separate itself from the Soviet Union, or at least achieve greater autonomy. The proposal failed to get a positive reply from Moscow, although the Soviet Union now allowed private enterprise.

The Estonian society awakens

The Estonian society became politically active in 1988. A joint plenum of the creative unions (writers, artists, architects and theatre and film people), which focused on Estonian national culture and the threat of intensifying Russification, expressed dissatisfaction with the activity of the Soviet Estonian leadership.

In mid-April, the Estonian Popular Front in Support of Perestroika was founded. This moderate, but clearly innovative movement wanted to make the Soviet Union more democratic and demanded political and economic autonomy for Estonia within the Soviet Union. The moderate aims of the Popular Front were enthusiastically supported by the Estonian population and it quickly became a powerful mass organisation.

The early summer of the same year witnessed a series of concerts and joint singing, soon to turn into a large-scale popular movement, and later called the Singing Revolution. Besides the moderate course, a more radical national movement emerged in 1988, which was clearly directed at restoring Estonia’s independence. The Estonian Heritage Society, established at the end of 1987, used totally anti-Soviet rhetoric. In August 1988, the first Estonian political party was founded: the Estonian National Independence Party (Estonian abbreviation ERSP). Its core was made up of the MRP–AEG members.

11 September 1988 10

In summer 1988, under public pressure and in order to avoid the popular movement getting out of control, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev replaced Karl Vaino, the conservative head of the Estonian Communist Party, who was extremely unpopular among the Estonians. However, the new leadership under Vaino Väljas, perceiving the support and pressure of the mass popular movement, began making increasingly radical decisions in the interests of Estonia and defending them in the Moscow corridors of power.

In the summer, the Supreme Soviet of Estonia adopted the blue-black-white flag of the Republic of Estonia once again as the Estonian national flag. On 16 November, the Estonian Supreme Soviet passed the Declaration of Sovereignty, which confirmed the supremacy of laws passed by the Soviet in the Estonian SSR. The document also declared that the basis of the relations between the central authorities of the Soviet Union and a Union republic must be an agreement that would establish the rights and duties of both sides, achieved by negotiations. Moscow declared the declaration null and void, but was unable to halt the process of restoring independence.

Popular Front in 1988

In opposition to the Estonian national mass movement, forces mainly representing the Russian-speaking population began rallying in 1988, regarding the Estonians’ aspirations for freedom to be illegal.

In the summer, the heads of the huge Soviet factories in Estonia formed the International Movement of Soviet Estonian Workers and, in the autumn, the Council of Working Collectives, both with the aim of defending the united and inseparable Soviet Union. They protested against the Language Act passed in January 1989, which declared the Estonian language to be the only official language in the territory of the Estonian SSR. They were also against replacing the flag of the Estonian SSR with the blue-black-white flag on the tower of Tall Hermann, a symbol of local power.

A special mass undertaking by the independence-seeking forces in the Baltic countries was the Baltic Chain, which attracted keen interest in the foreign press. On 23 August 1989, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, about two million people formed a living chain from Tallinn via Riga to Vilnius, thus eloquently demonstrating their wish for independence.

The Baltic Chain 10

By 1989, two trends had emerged within the Estonian independence movement.

In February 1989, people united around the Estonian National Independence Party and the Heritage Society started the movement of Estonian citizens’ committees. The main aim was to restore the Republic of Estonia on the basis of legal continuity. In 1990, the Estonian citizens who were registered by the committees elected the Estonian Congress. On 11 March 1990, the Congress approved a manifesto that announced the wish of the Estonian people to restore the Republic of Estonia on the basis of legal continuity and the Tartu Peace Treaty (1920).

The other trend was represented by the Popular Front, which became the strongest political power in Estonia at a time when the Communist Party was falling apart and losing its monopoly on power. In March 1989, the Popular Front was successful in the election of the Congress of Representatives of the Soviet Union – the first multi-party candidate election. As a result of elections in March 1990, the Popular Front had the largest number of representatives in the Supreme Soviet of Soviet Estonia. By that time, the Front had already abandoned the idea of a union agreement and supported full independence for Estonia, not on the basis of legal continuity, but relying on the principle of declaring a new Estonian state (the ‘third republic’).

Estonia regains its independence

The two trends came together in spring 1990, when the Estonian SSR Supreme Soviet declared the authority of the Soviet Union in Estonia illegal. A transition period was announced, which in cooperation with the Estonian Congress, would lead to the restoration of the Republic of Estonia. In May, the name Estonian SSR was abolished and replaced by the Republic of Estonia.

However, independence had not yet been achieved. The Soviet Union still considered Estonia and the other Baltic republics to be Union republics subordinated to Moscow, and was prepared to use extreme force to maintain its power, as seen in the violent events in January 1991 in Vilnius and Riga. In both capitals, Soviet special troops tried to seize the media centres controlled by national forces, and dozens of people were killed. Estonia was spared violence, apart from the attack at Ikla border control point by special militia units of the Soviet Union in June 1991.

Ikla border control point after the attack on 14 June 1991

An important role in the January events was the support of the central Soviet Union republic, the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic, for the Baltic states. On 13 January, the chairman of the Russian SFSR Supreme Soviet, Boris Yeltsin, arrived in Tallinn, and with the leaders of the Baltic countries he signed a joint declaration, recognising one another’s sovereignty.

Boris Yeltsin and the representatives of the Baltic States at Toompea in the late evening of 13 January 1991

After the January crisis, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to keep the Baltic countries in the Soviet Union. Moscow planned a referendum to preserve the Soviet Union. Estonia refused to take part. In an independence referendum in Estonia, 77.8% voted in favour of the Estonian independence.

The Soviet tanks entering Tallinn on 20 August 1991

The restoration of Estonian independence was de facto boosted by the attempted coup d’état (the ‘August putsch’) in Moscow in August 1991.

On 20 August 1991, the Estonian Supreme Soviet, in agreement with the Estonian Committee (the executive organ of the Estonian Congress) proclaimed Estonian independence, thus restoring the Republic of Estonia, which had been legally established in 1918 and illegally occupied in 1940 by the Soviet Union. This decision was quickly followed by the restoration of diplomatic relations and recognition of the Republic of Estonia by many countries.

The Soviet tanks retreating from Estonia on 23 August 1991 Photo by T. Veermäe

Russia and the Soviet Union recognised Estonia as a new country within the Estonian SSR borders, which differed from the borders established by the Tartu Peace Treaty in 1920. This border issue has ever since caused constant disagreement between Estonia and Russia.

Toompea

Responding to the failure of the August putsch, all Soviet Union republics achieved independence. The Soviet Union essentially ceased to exist, and at the end of the year, this became official. Earlier that year, the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance and the Warsaw Pact Organisation, had been disbanded. Thus ended the fifty-year struggle in Eastern Europe and in the world – and Estonia was free again.

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Source: Einar Vära/Estonica and Estonian World. * This is the amended and enhanced version of the article originally published on 20 August 2014.

Estonian Song Celebration timeline

The Estonian Song Celebration (Laulupidu) is a unique event, which every five years brings together a huge choir of 25,000 people for a weekend in July. More than 100,000 spectators enjoy the concerts and sing along to the most popular songs.*

The festivals have become the main anchor of Estonian identity. Twice the song celebrations have led to Estonia’s independence.

In the 19th century, the choirs and song celebrations were at the core of the national awakening of Estonian peasants, who discovered the value of their own language and cultural heritage through singing. The national awakening and establishment of identity led to Estonian independence in 1918.

After WWII, during the Soviet occupation, the song celebrations helped keep the national identity alive. In 1988, several hundred thousand people gathered at the Song Festival grounds and sang for freedom for many days and nights. The Singing Revolution helped end the Soviet rule and indirectly led to Estonia’s independence once again in 1991.

The timeline below highlights the most important instances of this unique Estonian tradition.

Song Celebration timeline

1869

The first Estonian Song Celebration was held in Tartu with 878 male singers and brass musicians. All of the songs were in Estonian.

The publisher Johann Voldemar Jannsen initiated the Song Celebration as part of the Estonian national awakening movement. Simple peasants discovered that their traditions could be part of high culture. Jannsen’s daughter, Lydia Koidula, whose sobriquet means “Lydia of the Dawn”, was the author of lyrics for two Estonian songs, “Sind surmani” and “Mu isamaa on minu arm”, both of which are still in the repertoire today. Lydia Koidula, also referred to as Koidulaulik – “Singer of the Dawn”, was also involved in the preparations of the scores and fund-raising; quite an unusual role for a woman at that time.

1880

The third festival was held in Tallinn for the first time. A year later, Finland arranged its first nation-wide song and music celebration.

1891

At the fourth festival, mixed choirs participated for the first time. In spite of the efforts by the Russian czar to ensure the dominance of Russian language in public life, more than half of the songs were in Estonian, among them songs by Miina Härma, Estonia’s first female composer. Singers spontaneously joined in today’s Estonian anthem “Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm” by Fredrik Pacius. In the years to come, choral singing remained the only cultural activity conducted in Estonian, as the Russian emperor required all official matters and education to be handled in Russian.

1894

For the first time, choirs from Estonian settlements in Russia participated at the fifth festival in Tartu. The anthem by Pacius was sung again.

1896

Starting with this the sixth Laulupidu, the festivals have been held in Tallinn.

1910

The festival was held in Tallinn with children’s choirs among the performers for the first time. Mihkel Lüdig, whose “Koit” (Dawn) is the current opening song, was the artistic director of the celebration and offered a complicated repertoire.

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1923

The eighth festival and the first one in independent Estonia, was held on a permanent stage in Tallinn, which accommodated 12,000 singers. The first aerial photograph was taken and the first film of the celebration was shot. With the Song Celebration of 1923, the tradition of holding the festival every five years was started.

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1928

The ninth festival was the first one held in today’s Song Festival grounds in Tallinn; the new stage designed by the architect Karl Burman accommodated 15,000 singers.

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1933

Female choirs participated for the first time; the first radio broadcast from the festival.

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1938

In the eleventh Laulupidu, Gustav Ernesaks conducted the choirs for the first time, and his music was performed. In 1944, he wrote the music for “Mu isamaa on minu arm”, with the lyrics of Lydia Koidula, during his deportation to Russia. Five days later, the Soviet army bombed Tallinn and destroyed the Estonia opera house, the national broadcasting centre and the conservatory, among many other buildings. In 1944, more than 70,000 Estonians fled the country to the west, among them many well-known musicians. In 1946, the first large Estonian Song Festival was held in Germany; later they were held in Sweden, the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK.

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1947

The twelfth and the first post-war song festival, with Gustav Ernesaks as one of the artistic directors. In spite of massive Soviet propaganda, the repertoire was mostly traditional. People were arrested even at the Song Festival grounds. Ernesaks’s “Mu isamaa on minu arm” was performed for the first time. In 1950, another wave of Soviet repression swept up the Song Celebration artistic directors Alfred Karindi, Riho Päts and Tuudur Vettik.

1950

The darkest chapter in the Song Celebration history. In the thirteenth Laulupidu, Soviet propaganda songs dominated the repertoire; choirs of Soviet miners and the army choir were among the participants. During the dark era of Soviet oppression, choir singing remained one of the few areas where private initiative and trust were still present. This helped keep the longing for freedom alive. In spite of the schizophrenic situation, most Estonians held the Song Celebration dear as the most important national event.

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1960

ErnesaksBy the fifteenth festival, the new Song Festival stage, by the architect Alar Kotli, had been built. Before the concert, “Mu isamaa on minu arm” was removed from the programme. However, choirs started to sing it spontaneously and, after a moment’s hesitation, Ernesaks climbed up to the conductor’s stand and started to conduct. Since then, the song has been the most anticipated and the “compulsory” finale of the celebration.

 1969

The first centennial of the song celebrations with the flame being lit for the first time in Tartu, the birthplace of the celebrations, and carried through Estonia to Tallinn. The repertoire of the seventeenth festival was a lot more traditional compared with the Soviet propaganda-filled celebrations before and after. “Koit” (Dawn) by Mihkel Lüdig became the traditional opening song.

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1972

Exiled Estonians organised the first ESTO, with a worldwide Estonian Song celebration as its focus, in Toronto, Canada. Estonian dissidents sent a letter to the United Nations demanding the restoration of Estonia’s independence. At the end of 1970s, the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan and many Estonians were drafted.

1980

The nineteenth festival was part of the cultural programme of the Moscow Olympic Games, which were boycotted by most of the free world. The Soviet authorities increased pressure on dissidents, and the well-known Estonian musicians Arvo Pärt and Neeme Järvi emigrated to the West.

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1985

The twentieth festival saw the participation of male, mixed, female, boys’ and Russian choirs, as well as brass orchestras, violin ensembles and choirs of Russian war veterans. Of the 82 songs on the programme, only 48 were written by Estonian composers.

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1988

Alo Mattiisen’s “Five Patriotic Songs” were performed at the Tartu Pop Music Days in May. The Singing Revolution started at the Tallinn Song Festival grounds in June. Thousands of people flocked to the spontaneous singing gatherings night after night; in the end, there were many hundred thousand people.

1990

Although formally still in the Soviet Union, the twenty-first Song Celebration was dominated by traditional symbols and repertoire. The concert finished with “Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm”, the former and current Estonian anthem, which was banned by the Soviets. Estonia’s independence was restored a year later, on 20 August 1991.

1994

The first celebration after the restoration of independence. The festival celebrated its 125th anniversary.

1999

Young children’s choirs participated for the first time. President Lennart Meri was quoted as saying, “The Song Celebration is not a matter of fashion. The Song Celebration is a matter of the heart.” Even though Estonia was independent now and the cultural identity was not threatened by foreign powers, people still considered the Song Celebration a matter of pride and joy ,which needed to live on.

2003

The Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Song and Dance Celebrations were listed as UNESCO oral and intangible heritage.

2004

The statue of Gustav Ernesaks was unveiled at the Tallinn Song Festival grounds. Due to heavy rain, the official procession was cancelled, but singers and dancers still spontaneously joined the march following the call of the maestro Eri Klas.

Gustav Ernesaks sculpture

2004

The American filmmakers, Maureen and James Tusty, started a documentary about Estonian song festivals and the Singing Revolution. On 1 December 2006, The Singing Revolution premiered at the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Estonia.

The authors said: “We had made the film for the rest of the world, but we could think of no better venue for our international premier. We were deeply touched by the fifteen-minute standing ovation the Estonian audience gave us. It is not just a story about Estonia – it’s also a story about humankind’s irrepressible drive for freedom and self-determination.”

2009

“To breathe as one”: beginning with this festival, besides music a message of values was established, with the first being the connection between generations. “Breathing as one” became a new idiom in the Estonian language.

Singers started a wave of raised hands travelling from the top of the stage to the last row of the audience, resulting in an ecstatic melting together of the performers and audience.

Photo by Mait Jüriado III

Photo by Toomas Tuul

2014

“Touched by Time. The Time to Touch.” A record-breaking number of participants – 42,000 singers, dancers and musicians – filled three days of celebration with dance and music.

The first concert of the Song Celebration, on 5 July, took the audience on a musical journey through the history of the celebrations, from 1869 to present day. The second concert, on 6 July, presented classical pieces along with new repertoire commissioned for this celebration in a seven-hour musical marathon.

Photo by Mait Jüriado

2019

The XXVII Song and XX Dance Celebration is entitled “My Fatherland is My Love”. Participating in the Song Celebration are 1,020 choirs, which include over 35,000 singers. The youngest participant is Emma Kannik (5) from Musamari Koorikool (Tallinn) and the oldest is Aino (90) from the New York Estonian Choir.

The smallest choir of 12 singers is Kauksi Primary School Choir and the largest is the European Estonian Choir, with 123 singers. The latter is not the only expat choir – 25 Estonian choirs from abroad and 17 foreign choirs are performing at the celebration.

The Dance Celebration involves 713 dance groups – including 15 Estonian expat groups – with 11,500 dancers. This is the largest Dance Celebration of all times.

Cover: The Song Celebration in 2014. * This article was originally published on 4 July 2014, in collaboration with Life in Estonia magazine. It was lightly edited and amended on 4 July 2019.

Estonian beliefs and rituals carried on by Jaanipäev

Along with Christmas, Jaaniõhtu (Midsummer Eve  23 June) and Jaanipäev (Midsummer Day, St John’s Day  24 June) are the most important holidays in the Estonian calendar – people around the country will gather with their families, or at larger events to celebrate with singing, dancing and lighting the bonfires, as Estonians have done for centuries.*

The short summers with brief nights hold special significance for Estonians. Jaaniõhtu and Jaanipäev follow the longest day – 20-21 June – of the year, or the summer solstice, when night seems to be non-existent.

Following pagan rituals

Jaanipäev was celebrated long before the arrival of Christianity in Estonia, although the day was given its name by the crusaders. The arrival of Christianity, however, did not end the pagan beliefs and fertility rituals surrounding this holiday.

In 1578, Balthasar Rüssow, one of the most important Estonian chroniclers, wrote in his Livonian Chronicle with some disgust about Estonians who placed more importance on the festival than going to church. He complained about those who went to church, but did not enter, and instead spent their time lighting bonfires, drinking, dancing, singing and following pagan rituals.

The Jaanipäev celebrations were merged with the celebration of Võidupüha (Victory Day) after the War of Independence, when the Estonian forces defeated the German troops on 23 June 1919. After this battle against Estonia’s traditional oppressors, Jaaniõhtu and the traditional lighting of bonfires became linked with the ideals of independence and freedom.

Folkloric roots

Traditionally, Jaanipäev marked a change in the farming year, specifically the break between the completion of spring sowing and the hard work of summer hay-making. Hence, some of the rituals associated with Midsummer Eve and Midsummer Day have very deep folkloric roots.

The best-known ritual is the lighting of the bonfire and jumping over it. This is seen as a way of guaranteeing prosperity and avoiding bad luck. Likewise, to not light the fire is to invite the destruction of your house by fire. The fire also frightened away mischievous spirits who avoided it at all costs, thus ensuring a good harvest. So, the bigger the fire, the further the mischievous spirits stayed away.

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Midsummer’s Eve is also associated with romance. In Estonian fairy tales and literature, there is a tale of two lovers, Koit (dawn) and Hämarik (dusk). According to the tale, these two lovers see each other only once a year and exchange the briefest of kisses on the shortest night of the year.

Earth-bound lovers go into the forest looking for the fern flower which is said to bloom only on that night. Also on this night, single people can follow a detailed set of instructions to see whom they are going to marry.

Free spirit

Jaaniõhtu and Jaanipäev were so dear to Estonians that even during the occupation, the Soviet Union made no attempt to stop the celebrations, even though it represented the nation’s free spirit. Jaanipäev, therefore, always reminded Estonians of their independence in the past, despite the Soviet attempts to eliminate such ideas.

The tradition before the Soviet occupation, which has now been restored, was for a fire to be lit by the Estonian president on the morning of Victory Day. From this fire, the flame of independence was carried across the country to light the many bonfires. In 1992, following the restoration of independence of Estonia, Jaanipäev became an official national holiday.

On these days, people all around the country will gather with their families, or at larger events to celebrate this important day with singing, dancing, drinking, eating and lighting the bonfires as Estonians have done for centuries. Thousands of Estonian expats, meanwhile, usually celebrate it a week or two in advance – and those who can, travel to Estonia for the proper one.

Alternative perspective

Lennart Meri, a legendary writer and film director, and the Estonian president from 1992-2001, provided another perspective on Jaanipäev in his book, Hõbevalge (Silverwhite, 1976).

Meri suggests the Jaanipäev traditions re-enact the fall of the Kaali meteorite in Saaremaa. The meteorite’s fall is also said to be the inspiration for Nordic and Baltic mythological stories about the sun falling onto the earth. This idea suggests that the present day bonfires and celebrations actually symbolise Estonia’s connection with its ancient past.

If in Tallinn, check out the Jaaniõhtu event programme by the Estonian Open Air Museum.

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* Originally published on 23 June 2013, considerably amended and lightly edited on 22 June 2017. Sources: Estonia.eu and Estonian World. Cover: Bonfire in Kuressaare (Andrus Unger/VisitEstonia.)

An exhibition about communist crimes opens in Tallinn

The Estonian Institute of Historical Memory opened an exhibition about the international crimes of communism at the former Patarei prison in Tallinn.

The exhibition, “Communism is Prison”, educates visitors on the ideology and international crimes of communism as well as giving hindsight into the history of the former Patarei prison complex – a sprawling concrete and brick structure, close to the Tallinn city centre – that used to house hardened criminals and political dissenters alike. Originally built as a sea fortress in 1820, Patarei was used as a prison until 2004.

The exhibition area covers 1,200 square metres (13,000 sq ft) in the east wing of the building, where the authentic prison interior and the prisoners’ walkways in the courtyard have been preserved.

“The exhibition is based on Patarei’s multi-layered and tragic history. It was used by the Soviet Union’s communist regime and, for a shorter period, Germany’s Nazi regime to imprison thousands of innocent people,” Sandra Vokk from the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory said in a statement. “The aim of the exhibition is to raise awareness of the inhuman nature of communist regimes.”

Among other displays, the exhibition includes pictures of the Gulag – the Soviet forced-labour camp-system that was set up under Vladimir Lenin and reached its peak during Joseph Stalin’s rule from the 1930s to the early 1950s – by the imprisoned Jewish artist Solomon Gerschow. It also tells the stories and the destinies of the repressed and the arduous everyday life of an occupation-era prisoner in Patarei complex.

Serving the future

“The exhibition area, which is focused on the past, actually serves the future and reaches far out of Estonia, as we can truly appreciate the value of freedom and human dignity only when the ideologies and regimes that disregarded them are thoroughly known in the world,” Vokk said.

The exhibition is the first manifestation of the International Museum for the Victims of Communism that will be established in the former Patarei prison. Until the museum project is finished, the exhibition area is open to visitors during the warmer months.

The communist terror was responsible for over 22,000 Estonian deaths – people who were murdered or died due to inhuman living conditions in imprisonment.

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Cover: The exhibition’s entrance (pictures courtesy of the International Museum for the Victims of Communism).

30 pictures of the Soviet-era street scenes in Tallinn

Estonian World takes a glimpse into an increasingly forgotten era – the street scenes of the Soviet Union-occupied Estonia (1944-1991) and, specifically, the country’s capital Tallinn at the time.

The Hungarian-made Ikarus bus was the backbone of the Tallinn public transport system in the 1970s and 80s, all the way up to the 1990s.

The corner of the Telliskivi and Kopli street in the past; the area has in the last ten years been transformed into a trendy area, full of cafes and shops.

Soviet-built cheap panel housing and tower blocks.

A family wearing the latest Soviet fashion and driving the latest Lada model.

The Baltic train station.

Wait, is that really a cow on the street?

Can I have some potatoes and a compote, please? Well, “please” and “thank you” were not that common words in the state-run grocery stores and shops on those days, actually.

A Soviet-built war memorial in Pirita.

A zebra crossing without the zebra.

Street scene in Kalamaja, another area that has been transformed into a trendy and an expensive area in the 21st century. The former bread shop on the left now houses a bohemian café, Tops; the houses on the right have been since demolished and given way to modern urban housing.

The neglected and dirty Old Town, with almost non-existent pavements. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s when restorations began to renovate the Old Town to its shining glory again.

A run-down and dirty courtyard in the Old Town.

The old Tallinn Airport, with an Aeroflot plane parked in front. From 1945-1989, only Aeroflot served the Tallinn Airport, with destinations only within the borders of the Soviet Union.

The most modern cinema in Tallinn at the time, “Kosmos” (Space). Opened in 1964, it’s one of the two still functioning Soviet-era cinemas in Tallinn. Naturally, it’s refurbished and modernised now.

Jackets and shorts.

That chap was bluntly moved from the spot two days after Estonia regained independence, on 23 August 1991.

The “Kalev” sports hall. One of the few sports halls at the time, it also hosted concerts, in addition to sports events.

Climate change? What climate change?

The proletarians of all countries, unite!

The former candy factory of “Kalev”, the most loved confectionery brand in Estonia.

A communist parade decoration.

A communist parade.

Restaurant Pegasus, one of the few restaurants established during the Soviet era that is still running – albeit now offering a great service and modern Estonian cuisine.

Restaurant menus were not very exciting during the Soviet era. It wasn’t unusual to find just ice cream on the dessert menu.

Not as many people could afford a private car, but taxis were relatively cheap and affordable.

The trains at the Baltic station.

People rushing into the sole department store in the capital, Tallinna Kaubamaja (literally, the Tallinn Department Store). Before the doors opened in the morning, many people queued outside – and practically ran inside once the store opened, in the hope of finding something “deficit”, a decent dress or a pair of shoes that there was always a shortage of.

Shall we get married?

Marshrutka stop in Viru square. The marshrutkas, usually Latvian-made RAF minivans, were fixed-run taxis.

Pirita road in Tallinn.

Still empty Lasnamäe district as it was being built, with Laagna road in the middle.

Mustamäe district.

The brand new Tallinn Airport, built in 1980. The building is completely refurbished now.

A pair of Aeroflot’s Tupolev Tu-134s parked at the gate at the Tallinn Airport.

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Images courtesy of Boriss Gorsky (Facebook).

Queen Margrethe to visit Estonia for the 800th anniversary of the Danish flag

Queen Margrethe II of Denmark will pay a visit to Estonia in June, in conjunction with the 800th anniversary of the Danish flag that has a mythical connection to Tallinn, the Estonian capital.

The Danish legend says the country got its flag, known as the Dannebrog, during the battle that took place in Lindanise – Tallinn’s name at the time – in 1219.

The legend has its roots in the Battle of Lindanise that took place on 15 June 1219. The battle was fought during the Livonian Crusade between the Kingdom of Denmark and various German allies on one side and Estonian tribes on the other.

Led by the Danish king, Valdemar II, the crusaders sailed to the northern Estonian province of Revalia at the beginning of June 1219. The crusading army camped at Lindanise and built a castle there, named Castrum Danorum, which the Estonians called “Taani-linn” (which Tallinn later got its name for), meaning Danish castle.

The flag “fell from the sky”

On 15 June 1219, the Estonians attacked the Danes near the castle. They advanced from five different directions and completely surprised the crusaders, who fled in all directions. However, the crusaders managed to counterattack and stop the Estonian advance.

According to the Danish legend, in the Danes’ hour of need, the Dannebrog “fell from the sky” and gave them renewed hope. As the Estonians attacked the Danish stronghold, the Danes were hard pressed. The legend says that “Anders Sunesen, the Archbishop of Lund, raised his hands to the sky in prayer, and the defenders held tight as long as his hands were raised. As Archbishop Sunesen became exhausted, he eventually had to lower his arms, and the Estonians were on the verge of victory. Then, a red flag with a white cross fell from the sky and gave the Danes the victory.”

The Danish victory in the battle was bad news for Estonians as it helped the Danish king win the dominion over Lindanise and northern Estonia.

Strong relations

Queen Margrethe’s visit will coordinate with this anniversary and will also include commemorations for Estonia’s independence, the Danish Royal House said in a statement. The queen, who will arrive on the royal yacht Dannebrog, will open a dedicated exhibit at the Kadriorg Art Museum, participate in the opening of the Danish Queen’s Garden, and will present research scholarships during her visit.

Queen Margrethe’s visit will wrap up with a service at St Mary’s Cathedral, which was founded in 1219 shortly after the Danish conquest.

After Iceland, Denmark was the second country to re-establish diplomatic relations with Estonia after the latter regained independence in 1991. From 1992-2003, Denmark also provided Estonia with a financial assistance, worth €147 million. The otherwise good relations were dealt a blow in 2018, when it emerged that Danske Bank had failed for years to prevent money laundering through its Tallinn branch. In early 2019, Estonia’s Financial Supervision Agency ordered Danske Bank to leave the country, saying the Danish bank’s USD230 billion money-laundering scandal had marred the reputation of Estonia’s financial market.

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Cover: Margrethe II of Denmark. Photo by Johannes Jansson (CC BY 2.5) via Wikimedia Commons.

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