Useful Notes: Estonia

"There are those of us who want to be Europeans without being Estonians. And regrettably, there are those who want to be Estonians without being Europeans. The former condemn us to a blind future, and the latter condemn us to a situation without a future."
Lennart Meri, President of Estonia

Estonia (Estonian: Eesti), officially known as the Republic of Estonia (Estonian: Eesti Vabariik), is the northernmost of the three Baltic Republics, which were the first to break away from the Soviet Union. The Estonian language is a Finno-Ugric language, closely related to Finnish, more distantly related to Sami (Laplandic) and Hungarian, and not related to any major European languages.

Among its various historical and cultural connections, Estonia feels itself to be more Nordic than anything else, and has joined the European Union, contributing troops to the Nordic Battle Group and stating a desire to join the Nordic Council.

After being conquered during the Northern Crusades, Estonia has been ruled by Danes, Germans, Swedes and Russians throughout history before finally declaring its independence from the ashes of the Russian Empire in 1918. It wasn't to last - the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic states in 1940. When the Germans rolled into town a year later, the Estonians initially greeted them as liberators, before realising that the Nazis were no better than the Soviets.

(For what it's worth, the US and EU never recognised the annexation and Estonia sees itself today as the same state that became independent in 1918)

Finally, in 1991, Estonia regained independence, and had been building up to this during the Glasnost/Perestroika era with a campaign of ... singing. Estonia has always had a strong folk music tradition, and protests expressed themselves universally in song.

Estonia is a land of forests, lakes and islands much like Finland, with various species that have largely disappeared from Europe still surviving, although there are some issues with the occupation-era legacy of environmental pollution.

It has been in many ways the success story of the former Soviet countries in terms of economic growth and westernisation. It is one of the world's fastest growing economies and has recently become known for widespread online services and for several innovative developments, like Skype.

Tallinn, the capital city, possesses a UNESCO protected Old Town that looks like somewhere out of a spy film. If Prague ever gets inconvenient for film-makers, Tallinn (also popular for bachelor parties and booze cruises from Helsinki) is a good alternative.

    A brief summary of history 
Estonians - one of the several Finnic tribes that settled in northern Europe - have been living in the region since the last Ice Age. The Estonian land was split into various subdivisions by the 11th century (although no unified state had been formed yet) and vikings from the islands were occasionally raiding neighboring areas. Estonians, like other nearby pagans, were targeted by the Northern Crusades starting in the 13th century and the people were Christianized, with Estonia taken over by the Germans and Danes (who sometime afterwards sold their part to the Germans and bailed due to an near-successful Estonian uprising in 1343). The Livonian Order, a branch of The Teutonic Knights, created the "Order State" on Estonian and Latvian territory (which was called Livonia at the time) that lasted for the rest of the Middle Ages, during which Tallinn developed into an important trading hub as part of the Hanseatic League.

After the Reformation, the Order fell and Estonia became part of Sweden as a result of the Livonian War in 1561 (with southern Estonia briefly controlled by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). This period is remembered, among other things, for advances in education (like the founding of Estonia's oldest university in Tartu) and for giving common people more rights. In the Great Northern War, Sweden lost its Baltic territory, including Estonia, to the Russian Empire. Under both Swedish and Russian rule, the Baltic German nobility managed to keep most of its privileges, although serfdom ended decades earlier in the Baltic region than in most of the Russian Empire.

In the 19th century, Estonians' national identity and ideas of statehood developed as the "national awakening" period took off, with events like the first Song Festival taking place, the epic Kalevipoeg being published and the flag of the first ethnic Estonian student corporation becoming a symbol (and eventually, the national flag). As a result of the Estonian War of Independence hot on the heels of World War I and The Russian Revolution, a new Estonian state was born; the declaration of independence took place on February 24, 1918 and the Treaty of Tartu was signed with Russia on February 2, 1920.

Estonia became a parliamentary republic, with the parliament called Riigikogu. It went through lots of changes and reforms, like the estates of the former nobility being distributed among the peasants and most people changing their Germanic names to Estonian ones.

Like in several other European states, an authoritarian presidential government, although this one was supposedly more balanced and moderatenote , took power in the 1930s, as a preemptive move against the threat of the nationalist Vaps movement.

After Estonia was included in the Soviet Union's "sphere of influence" in the pre-World War II Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, the USSR threatened Estonia with war if they're not allowed to set up military bases in Estonia, which the government, wanting to avoid casualties, agreed to. After a mass immigration of troops into the country and a rigged election, the Soviet-approved puppet government "requested" to be accepted into the USSR, starting the Soviet occupation.

When the army of Nazi Germany reached Estonia some people hoped to free the country with their arrival, but instead it was made part of the "Ostland" province for the next couple of years. The Baltic Germans were evacuated to Germany and the Holocaust was carried out, with most of the Estonian Jewish population, who had enjoyed cultural autonomy in the independent period, either fleeing the country or killed. The cities of Tallinn and Narva were also seriously damaged by bombing during the war. After the Germans started retreating, Estonians made yet another attempt at restoring independence, but the country was occupied by the Soviet Union again.

During the Stalinist era, Estonia saw several mass deportations to Siberia, as well as a guerrilla movement called the "Forest Brothers" attempting to fight back against the Soviets. After Khrushchev came to power things somewhat normalised, with Estonia's first TV channel, ETV, starting broadcasting in 1955 and various developments in Tallinn and other places, but also the relocation of a lot of mostly Russian-speaking people from other Soviet states to Estonia both as workforce and as part of the "Sovietization" policy. During the 1980 Olympic Games, the sailing events were held in Tallinn - a controversial move since several states didn't recognize Estonia as part of the Soviet Union.

The attempts by Gorbachev to reform the Soviet Union and the removal of communist governments from USSR's satellite states coincided with, as well as encouraged, various new political movements and pro-independence protests. These ranged from spontaneous song festivals to a human chain of 2 million people - the Baltic Way - through all three Baltic states. Local political structures gained actual power and quickly made several legislation changes giving Estonia more autonomy. An idea developed that instead of declaring itself a newly independent country, Estonia should, due to the occupation having been illegal, reclaim its independence as a continuation of the pre-war Republic. In 1990 legitimate parliamentary elections were held and in 1991 a referendum showed strong support for independence. Simultaneously with the hardliner coup against Gorbachev, on August 20, 1991 independence was declared and by that time the chain reaction of the Soviet Union's collapse had started. Iceland was the first country recognising Estonia's restored independence.

The 1990s were a period of rapid modernizing in Estonia when the Baltic states took a course towards making up for lost time and reclaiming their place in Europe. Estonia opened talks with the European Union and NATO and joined both in 2004, as well as the Eurozone in 2011. After a long period of economic growth, it has more or less gotten through the Great Recession and carved itself a niche as a "wired" and tech-savvy country.

    Some notable Estonians 
  • Kerli, singer
  • Hannah Ild, house and trance artist
  • Neeme Järvi, conductor, has worked with several orchestras around the world
  • Arvo Pärt, composer
  • Lennart Meri, writer, politician and the second President of Estonia, involved in the restoration of independence
  • Sven Lõhmus, music producer
  • Metsatöll, folk metal band
  • Ilon Wikland, artist, has illustrated most of Astrid Lindgren's books
  • Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, Baltic German explorer, led the expedition that discovered Antarctica
  • Mena Suvari, actress of partial Estonian descent
  • Vanilla Ninja, pop group that achieved reasonable success in Europe during the mid-2000s
  • Kristina šmigun-Vähi, skier, multiple time Olympic champion

    Random facts 
  • Estonian symbols include the cornflower, the barn swallow and the national flag on top of the Tall Hermann tower of the Toompea Castle.
  • Estonia doesn't really seem to have a "national" sport (with the possible exception of cross-country skiing), instead there are periods when a particular athlete or two becomes successful and therefore makes whatever discipline they're competing in popular (even sumo wrestling!).
  • Estonia is one of the least religious countries in the world, along with the Czech Republic.
  • Lotte is a popular cartoon character from several movies who's well on her way on becoming the Estonian Spongebob or Mickey Mouse with the amount of merchandise (and apparently, a theme park!) involving her.
  • Estonian historic currency, before adopting the euro, was the kroon.
  • The largest island in Estonia, Saaremaa, was hit by a meteorite several thousand years ago leaving a set of craters and possibly influencing several mythologies.
  • Despite being similar to countries like Switzerland or the Netherlands by area, Estonia is much smaller by population, with about 1,3 million people.
  • Estonia won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2001 during a time when it still took the contest reasonably seriously, setting off a wave of "new" countries winning.
  • The other larger cities besides Tallinn are Tartu, the "intellectual center" of the country, Narva, a city on the river that forms part of the Russian border, and Pärnu, a beach resort in southwestern Estonia.

Estonia and Estonians in media
Associated tropes
  • My God, You Are Serious: The reaction of most people when they learn that The Singing Revolution was exactly that. It was the cutest revolution imaginable, succeeding without a shot being fired, and aided by the suspicious convenience of the Soviet Putsch collapsing within hours of Estonia declaring independence.
  • Please Select New City Name: Most cities have historical German (and occasionally Russian) names, with Tallinn being known as Reval for most of its existence (which, confusingly enough, is derived from the Estonian name Rävala, the historical region around it). Similarly, the islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa are also known by the Scandinavian names Ösel and Dagö.
  • Surprisingly Good English: Seems to be common in northern Europe in general, and in a small country does make even more sense.

The Estonian flag
Various interpretations had been attributed to the flag's colors, of which one of the most popular is that by poet Martin Lipp: blue symbolizes the skies; black both the soil and Estonia's troubled history; and white purity and commitment.