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, former President of Estonia

Estonia (Estonian: Eesti), officially known as the Republic of Estonia (Estonian: Eesti Vabariik), is the northernmost of the three Baltic states, 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 in the 13th century, 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 realizing that the Nazis were no better than the Soviets.

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

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 several 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 westernization. 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, has an UNESCO protected Old Town that looks like somewhere out of a spy film. If Prague ever gets inconvenient for filmmakers, 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 northeastern 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. In the 13th century the Northern Crusades with the goal to Christianize Estonians and other nearby pagans led to Estonia, after a long resistance, being taken over by the Germans and the Danes (the latter ended up selling 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 (collectively known as Livonia) 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 found itself as 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 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 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.

By the 19th century Enlightenment ideas, as well as educated Baltic Germans' interest in Estonian cultural heritage, gave way to the "national awakening". Events like a movement for Estonian-language education, publication of the epic Kalevipoeg and the first Song Festival developed the Estonian national identity and eventually led to a demand for an independent state. Hot on the heels of World War I and The Russian Revolution, elections for a provisional government and the following declaration of independence on February 24, 1918 resulted in Estonians fighting - and winning - the War of Independence, with a peace treaty signed with Russia in 1920.

The new Estonian state became a democratic parliamentary republic, occasionally struggling at first. One of the first in several changes and reforms was the distribution of the estates of the former nobility among the peasants (and the war veterans). There was a communist coup attempt in 1924 that was foiled.

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

Before World War II broke out, the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union included Estonia in the Soviet "sphere of influence" and so the USSR threatened Estonians with war if they're not allowed to set up military bases in Estonia. The government, wanting to avoid casualties, was forced to agree. A transfer of troops into the country and a rigged election later, the Soviet-approved puppet government "requested" that Estonia be admitted into the USSR.

When the Nazis reached Estonia some people hoped that the country would be freed 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 independence 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, masses of Estonians were deported to Siberia and a guerrilla movement called the "Forest Brothers" attempted to fight back against the Soviets. Things somewhat normalized after Khrushchev came to power; Estonia's first TV channel, ETV, started broadcasting in 1955 and both Tallinn and other regions saw quite a bit of development. On the other hand, the Moscow-endorsed immigration of a number of mostly Russian-speaking people from other Soviet states to Estonia (both as workforce and due to the "Sovietization" policy) also took place. 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 USSR.

Mikhail Gorbachev's attempts to reform the Soviet Union and the resulting freedoms (with similar developments in other satellite and occupied states) fueled a wave of pro-independence protests, ranging from spontaneous singing festivals to a human chain of 2 million people - the Baltic Way - through all three Baltic states. In 1990 free parliamentary elections were held and in 1991 a referendum showed strong support for restoring independence, which was made official on August 20 simultaneously with the hardliner coup against Gorbachev. Since the annexation was always considered illegal, it was seen as the re-establishment of the pre-war Estonian state.

Being free again, the 1990s were a period of rapid modernizing and making up for lost time while reclaiming Estonia's place in Europe. It 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, Estonia more or less got through the Great Recession and has carved itself a niche as a "wired" and tech-savvy country.

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

    Random trivia 
  • The other larger cities besides Tallinn are Tartu, the "intellectual center" of the country, Narva, a city on the river bordering Russia, and Pärnu, a beach resort in southwestern Estonia.
  • Estonian symbols include the cornflower, the barn swallow and the Tall Hermann (a tower of the Toompea Castle) flying the national flag.
  • Estonia doesn't really seem to have a "national" sport (with the possible exception of cross-country skiing), instead there are periods when one or two athletes' successes make whatever discipline they're competing in popular (even sumo wrestling!).
  • It 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 equivalent of 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 inspiring several myths.
  • Estonia won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2001 back when it still took the contest reasonably seriously, setting off a wave of "new" countries winning.
  • 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 and Estonians in media
Associated tropes
  • Estonia Is Only Tallinn: Nearly a third of Estonia's population lives in Tallinn or surrounding areas, so it's expected.
  • 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 where it's located). 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 makes even more sense in a small country.


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.