Much War And Little Peace: Estonia’s Long Road To Find An Identity

Travel Story by Eric-Mackenzie Lamb

TALLINN, ESTONIA: Beyond a doubt, there are few places in today’s world where history has imposed so many dark and desperate moments, with so many struggles, as this small, almost picture-postcard country situated on the northeast edge of the Baltic Sea.

Central Tallinn, Estonia
Central Tallinn, Estonia

Medieval cities and villages, traditional rural farms, green rolling pastures, verdant forests, and spectacular offshore islands-all in a corner of the world where, during the summer months, you can still read a newspaper at midnight under the reflected light from the northern skies.

Tallinn: capturing a memory of its medieval city on canvas
Tallinn: capturing a memory of its medieval city on canvas

But it hasn’t always been such a tranquil place. Much like its neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia’s quest for its own identity spans more than a thousand years. And, along with that journey has come a never-ending succession of wars, famines, deadly epidemics, foreign occupations, near-genocide, even a medieval form of virtual slavery. The fact is, the history of Estonia would fill many volumes, most of it deeply disturbing.
As far as has been determined, the first permanent human settlements in what’s now called Estonia date back to around ten thousand years. Estonia, due to its access to the Baltic Sea, was a frequent target for Vikings and other seaborne marauders. Over the following centuries, the country was almost constantly occupied by competing neighboring powers like Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and Russia. There was little, if any, formal religion, only pagan rites which largely identified with nature, an example being the practice of so-called “wind magic”. Much of this was subdued-but not entirely eliminated-after Pope Celestine III called for a crusade to bring Christianity to these “heathen” lands of the far north. In response, Estonia was invaded by forces from Denmark and Germany, among others, all of whom considered it a sacred duty to bring Christianity to these pagan regions. But territorial gain was also a motive. Denmark, as a result, became the “protector” of Estonia.

The medieval city of Tallinn
The medieval city of Tallinn

In 1346, The Danes decided to sell Estonia to the German Knights of the Teutonic Order. Thus began the influx of wealthy German landowners, mostly from the aristocracy, who quickly became the dominating force in a country of “marahvaas”, or country peasants. For the Danes, the timing couldn’t have been more fortunate; by around 1350, their former possession was struck by an epidemic of bubonic plague-the Black Death-which decimated Estonia’s population. When it was over, the few who survived had little choice but to become serfs to the newly-installed German land barons.
Serfdom (derived from the Latin word servus, to serve) wasn’t outright slavery as we in the West Indies would know it; the major difference was that the serf was not considered his master’s property and therefore had certain legal rights.

Treasures of Tallinn
Treasures of Tallinn

Nevertheless, virtually every aspect of his life was influenced and rigorously controlled by the aristocrats on whose estates the serfs lived and worked. In return for a small plot to farm and a roof over his head, a serf was expected to provide a certain period of weeks or months (this also applied to his own family members) dedicated to laboring on behalf of the landowner. This could include crop harvesting, domestic services, road building, tree cutting, even fighting an enemy if required. By law, these same obligations would also apply to the serf’s descendants. And if a female family member wished to marry, she would first have to obtain the landowner’s consent. If the marriage led to her relocation to another estate, the serf had to compensate the landowner by paying him a Marriage Tax. (Serfdom was not abolished in Estonia until 1819).

The medieval city
The medieval city

Sweden took over Estonia in 1561. This brought relative stability and significant improvements-especially in education,social interaction, and the arts. Many Estonians still refer to this period as the Golden Swedish Age.
Unfortunately, this relative tranquility was not destined to last. The larger neighboring countries, especially Russia, regarded Estonia as a mere pawn in a greater struggle for regional dominance. And, as in all wars, it was the innocent who suffered most, particularly when Ivan the Terrible and his brutal hordes of Tatars made several attempts at invasion between 1560 and 1582. In 1721, following the Great Northern War , Sweden was exhausted and capitulated to Russia, with the result that many of the previous social and economic advances under the Swedes were either abolished or reversed. Despite this, the Baltic/German landowners were able to establish good relations with the new Russian administration and were largely left to themselves.  And they continued to prosper.

Street performers, Tallinn
Street performers, Tallinn

But it’s the grim events of the Twentieth century which most modern-day Estonians remember when they try to tell you about their country’s turbulent history.
And with good reason.  After the conclusion of the First World War, followed by yet another armed struggle (with Estonia pitted against both Russia and Germany this time) the country finally attained its independence. But few in Estonia could have anticipated the horrors of what was to come only twenty-two years later.  Despite the country’s first Declaration of Independence on 24 February, 1918, followed by two decades of significant social and economic progress, any dreams Estonians may have had for their future were shattered when Hitler and Stalin agreed to their infamous secret pact of 1939, with the result that Estonia was virtually handed over to the Soviet regime on a silver platter, to do with it as they wished. A lucky few, mostly Jews and intellectuals who had managed to read the writing on the wall, succeeded in escaping to the West.
By 1940, buckling to repeated threats from Russia, and aware of its own weak position, the Estonian government was forced to “invite” Soviet troops into its country. Once in place, the Communist authorities lost no time in establishing a virtual reign of terror in which thousands were killed or deported to Siberia.

Medieval Tallinn
Medieval Tallinn

It was not a surprise when, by 1941, the secret Molotov/Von Ribbentrop treaty was jettisoned by Hitler. Germany invaded Estonia and quickly drove out all Soviet forces. Some of the local population who’d suffered under the Russians decided that payback time had finally arrived, and immediately volunteered to join the incoming SS battalions. Others were forcibly conscripted into the Wermacht. Thousands more managed to flee the country.
But, as was soon revealed, Germany had not come to liberate the Estonians; instead, thousands of suspected potential adversaries, including politicians, teachers, intellectuals, religious advocates, or members of ethnic minorities, were sent to concentration camps. By September, 1944, when the war had come full circle and German forces were in hasty retreat before the advancing Soviet army, it was estimated that at least 75,000 people had been executed or had  simply disappeared. (If anything, this figure would be much higher if one counts the notorious extermination camps built by the Germans to accommodate those who were forcibly brought to the Baltic states from other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe. We will never know).
For those who remained, a new nightmare of carnage was about to begin with the imminent return of the Russians.  In an ominous sign of things to come, there was first a systematic bombing of the cities of Tallin and Tartu by the Soviet Air Force, in which hundreds of civilians were killed. Then came the Russian boots on the ground. The Soviet equivalent of the German Gestapo, the NKVD, immediately launched a systematic program of reprisal against anyone whom they suspected-often without a shred of evidence-of having collaborated with Hitler’s forces during the German occupation. Even today, no one is certain how many Estonians were executed or sent to perish in the forced labor camps of Siberia. Meanwhile, the Russian government lost no time in encouraging its own citizens to emigrate to Estonia, by then annexed as an official member of the Soviet bloc. (Today, more than a quarter of Estonia’s population of 1.3 million are Russian speakers-a language which Estonia refuses to recognize as a national tongue, and which, as a consequence, has created a great degree of friction between native Estonians and those who speak only Russian).
Finally, after the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union, Estonia regained full independence in 1991. With past lessons learned and its own vulnerability undoubtedly in mind, It wasted little time in joining NATO and the European Union.
But Estonia’s story isn’t only about tragedy and suffering. It’s also about an outstanding example of human courage, determination, and sheer resilience. Today, walking through Tallin’s historic streets alongside thousands of other visitors, it’s hard to imagine the darkness of the past. Everywhere you look, there are bustling sidewalk cafés, museums, art galleries, trendy boutiques, and much more. Tallin’s first Song Festival took place in 1869 and quickly became an annual celebration of the country’s unique culture. Originally meant as a peaceful expression of protest against Soviet occupation, the event in 1985 drew more than a quarter of a million participants and became known as the Singing Revolution.  In1989, over two million people formed a virtual human chain connecting the capitals of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, again in protest against continuing Russian occupation. This amazing feat  quickly became known as the Baltic Way and was featured in news programs right around the world. (And Estonia’s talent for outsized showmanship doesn’t end there. Have you ever heard 18,000 voices singing at the same time, and in perfect harmony? Move over, Las Vegas).
Today, Estonia can boast of having one of the world’s highest per capita literacy rates: 98.6 percent.
And Estonians are highly skilled in multiple fields, especially when it comes to IT technology, art, manufacturing, and design. (Would it surprise you to learn that Skype was invented in Estonia? Well, it was). Estonia was also the first country in the world to approve elections of parliamentary candidates through the Internet, in 2007.
A fascinating and upbeat country in every sense of the word. And an inspiration as well.