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Estonia: A Modern History

Neil Taylor


One hears a lot from time to time, at diplomatic gatherings or literary receptions where a distinguished foreign guest is to be welcomed, of the links – deep, historic, culturally significant – that “have long united our two countries”, even in circumstances where much of the audience might be quite at a loss to tell us what these links between Ireland and Cyprus, Ireland and Bulgaria, Ireland and Finland actually consist of.

Not many of us could fill half an A4 sheet on the links between Ireland and Estonia, and while there must undoubtedly be some we must await an appropriate event and the ingenuity of our diplomatic corps researcher/scriptwriters to hear about them. If there are no very obvious connections, however, there are some similarities in the histories of the two countries, since unhappy nations – which is to say small nations with large neighbours – can tend to be unhappy in fairly similar ways.

If we look at the map of Europe, or of the EU, we will see that both countries seem decidedly peripheral: Ireland in the extreme northwest with its back to the Atlantic, Estonia in the northeast with its back to the huge territorial mass of Russia. We tend to think of ourselves as a small country, but we are nowhere near being the smallest in the EU (70.27 km2 and 4.8 million population compared with Estonia’s 45.23 km2  and 1.32 million, and there are a few that are smaller still). But we have certainly suffered from our geographical peripherality. With the growth of towns in the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period a zone of prosperity emerged which stretched from north central Italy across the Alps into southern Germany, then up the Rhine to the Low Countries and across the narrow waters to southeastern England. This extended area, dense with trade and manufacturing centres and with good transport links, remains, more or less, the wealthiest part of the continent today.

Estonia’s peripherality was somewhat attenuated by its inclusion in the system known as the Hanseatic League or Hansa, an association of trading cities which dominated, and dictated the rules for, the thriving trade across the Baltic Sea from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century. Two Estonian cities, Reval (now the capital, Tallinn, and Dorpat, now Tartu, in many ways the country’s cultural capital) were Hansa trading posts, providing a link between Russian Novgorod and the dominant German cities of the western Baltic, like Lübeck and Rostock. Not that this wealth was necessarily of much benefit to the Estonians as such: they remained a rural and largely uneducated people. Business matters, and urban life and culture, were dominated by Danes and Germans, and later Swedes.

The Baltic peoples as a whole were in the late medieval period subjected to a series of crusades (Chaucer’s knight from the Canterbury Tales was a participant), the purpose of course being to civilise them. Henry of Livonia, quoted by Neil Taylor, wrote in 1225 or 1226 that the invaders, knights and merchants, “brought with them priests who led the barbaric and uncultivated people to humanity and cognition of the divine”. And those who did not see the benefit of this – and indeed, one may guess, many who were just standing by – suffered the fate that is normally reserved for “uncivilised” peoples when more advanced races arrive to bring them the benefits of true religion and make their lands more fertile.

Estonia passed from Swedish into Russian hands in the early eighteenth century. Peter the Great’s field marshal Boris Sheremetev wrote to him in 1709 boasting that not a cock crowed between Lake Peipsi and the Gulf of Riga, so complete had been his destruction. The population of Estonia in 1712 is estimated to have been well under half what it was twenty years earlier, as a result of first famine and then war. Under Russian rule, the country remained under the dominance of the large Baltic-German landowners, who had no problem about serving the imperial state, there being little aggressive Russification until the 1880s. Nineteenth century travellers who might have expected the same standards of comfort they had met with in German-speaking lands were disappointed. The noted critic and art historian Lady Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake, writing in 1841, remarked:

The Estonian peasant is a dull brute indeed, insensible to a kindness which he mistrusts, careless of improvement and as improvident as an Irish man, but without his wit.

If the Baltic-German landowners were indifferent to the concerns of their Estonian peasants the same was not true of the clergy, who took the trouble to learn Estonian and publish biblical texts and other works in the language. Eventually this was to contribute to a national cultural revival, with the Young Estonia (Noor-Eesti) movement, founded in 1905, looking forward to the day when their country might take its place among the nations of the earth, but articulating this desire in a particular way. Their most famous slogan was “Let us be Estonians, but let us also be Europeans.” Nevertheless, political independence at this time seemed an unlikely prospect. A later prime minister of independent Estonia, Mart Laar, has written: “Until the beginning of World War I, the idea of independent Estonia seemed a fantasy.”

Estonia was to become an independent state in the twentieth century interwar period, though it ceased to be a democracy in 1934. Like all the states in the region it was buffeted by the to and fro of German and Russian forces during the Second World War and it lost about a quarter of its population. Incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940, it regained its independence in 1991, joined both NATO and the European Union in 2004 and adopted the euro in 2011. Polled in 2017 on whether they thought their membership of the EU was “a good thing”, 69% of the Estonian sample said yes (other interesting figures, for the purpose of comparison, were 81% for Ireland, 70% for Poland and 61% for Hungary but only 39% for Italy and 34% for the Czech Republic).

Neil Taylor’s Estonia is a clear and splendidly accessible account of the history, chiefly the modern history, of this small but fascinating Baltic nation.