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Estonians have lived along the Baltic Sea for several thousand years. They were organized into loosely federated states when first mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus in the first century A.D. Waldemar II, King of Denmark (1170-1241) invaded Estonia, built the Tallinn (Reval) Castle in 1219, and established the Episcopal See of Reval. In the course of the 13th and 14th centuries, large parts of Estonia, together with Latvian areas to the south, came under German domination and was known as Livonia. The Livonian branch of the Prussian Order of Teutonic Knights extended their influence northward throughout the Baltic area. In 1345 they purchased northern Estonia from the Danish king. Livonia continued to exist roughly from the mid-fourteenth century until 1561-1562.
In 1561 the Order of the Teutonic Knights was disbanded. Tallinn and the nobility of northern Estonia then submitted to the protection of the Swedish crown, and Poland gained ascendancy over southern Estonia, including Tartu. In 1680 Sweden introduced reforms in Estonia which improved the situation of the majority but embittered the nobility. In 1710 Peter the Great conquered Estonia and in 1721 it was formally annexed to Russia by the Treaty of Nystad. The Russian Tsar restored the former privileges of the nobility in Estonia.
Under Swedish rule a system for local church records was established. Consistory archives were created with ecclesiastical reforms introduced at the end of the 16th century. Disasters destroyed two-thirds of the Tallinn consistory archive in 1684 and the Saaremaa archive in 1710. Still, some parish registers dating back to the 17th century have been preserved.
While the Swedish period brought many positive developments in record keeping and preservation, the bitter wars of the period resulted in the destruction and dispersal of many archives. In 1621 Sweden seized most of the archives of the Teutonic Order from Jelgava (Mitau) and transported them to Stockholm. Many were subsequently destroyed by fire in 1796. Swedish officials also took many documents to Stockholm before Livonia was lost to Peter the Great. Russian rule effected considerable changes in record keeping. Archival development in Russia was primitive as compared to Sweden. Archival records were turned over to paper factories or sold to merchants as wrapping paper.
The Estonian peasants were emancipated from serfdom in 1817. However, it was only as a result of agrarian reforms that began in 1849 and continued into the 1860s that a native Estonian property-owning class came into existence. An Estonian cultural revival was aided by the press and nationalist literature began to emerge at the end of the 19th century. Political movements demanding autonomy sprang up in Estonia after the Russian political turmoil of 1905. Russian rule ended with the Russian revolution of 1917 and Estonia proclaimed itself independent on February 24, 1918. Russia surrendered all claims to sovereignty by treaty on February 2, 1920. Subsequently, Estonia received international recognition and became a member of the League of Nations.
A secret protocol between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1939 assigned Estonia to the Soviet sphere of interest. In June 1940 Soviet forces occupied Estonia and the other Baltic republics of Latvia and Lithuania. Rigged elections installed a government of Soviet-supported candidates. Estonia was occupied by German troops during World War II. As the Germans retreated from the country in late 1944, the Russian army returned. Over 60,000 Estonians fled to Sweden and Germany.
On 12 January 1949, the Soviet Council of Ministers issued a decree "on the expulsion and deportation" from Baltic states of "all kulaks and their families, the families of bandits and nationalists", and others. More than 10% of the adult Baltic population were deported or sent to Soviet labour camps. In response to the continuing insurgency against Soviet rule, more than 20,000 Estonians were forcibly deported either to labour camps or to Siberia. Almost all of the remaining rural households were collectivised.
After the Second World War, as part of the goal to more fully integrate Estonia into the Soviet Union, mass deportations were conducted in Estonia and the policy of encouraging Russian immigration to the country continued.
Half the deported perished, and the other half were not allowed to return until the early 1960s (years after Stalin's death). The activities of Soviet forces in 1940–41 and after reoccupation sparked a guerrilla war against Soviet authorities in Estonia by the Forest Brothers, who consisted mostly of Estonian veterans of the German and Finnish armies and some civilians. This conflict continued into the early 1950s. Material damage, caused by the world war and the Soviet era, significantly slowed Estonia's economic growth and resulted in a wide wealth gap in comparison with neighbouring Finland and Sweden.
The democratic reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev did not preclude his suppression of Estonian efforts to regain independence in the period 1989-1990. However, it responded quickly to the power vacuum caused by the abortive coup of Gorbachev and declared independence on August 20, 1991. Its status as a new nation was recognized by the Soviet Union in September and Estonia was accepted as a full member of the United Nations. Free elections were conducted in September 1992 to create a new legislative body--the 101 member Riigikogu.
Before restoration of independence, in 1989, the "Singing Revolution", took place in a landmark demonstration of national renaissance and of aspiration towards greater independence, more than two million people formed a human chain stretching through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, called the Baltic Way. All three nations had similar experiences of military and political occupation and similar aspirations for regaining independence. The Estonian Sovereignty Declaration was issued on 16 November 1988. A nationwide referendum on restoring national independence was held in Estonia on 3 March 1991. It was approved by 78.4% of voters with an 82.9% turnout. On 20 August 1991, Estonia declared formal independence during the Soviet military coup attempt in Moscow, reconstituting the pre-1940 state. The first country to diplomatically recognise Estonia's reclaimed independence was Iceland on 22 August 1991. Soviet Union recognised the independence of Estonia on 6 September 1991.
Estonia joined NATO on 29 March 2004.
After signing a treaty on 16 April 2003, Estonia was among the group of ten countries admitted to the European Union on 1 May 2004.
Today, Estonia is economically deeply integrated with the economies of its northern neighbours, Sweden and Finland. As a member of the European Union, Estonia is considered a high-income economy by the World Bank. The GDP (PPP) per capita of the country was $29,312 in 2016 according to the International Monetary Fund. Because of its rapid growth, Estonia has often been described as a Baltic Tiger beside Lithuania and Latvia.
Beginning 1 January 2011, Estonia adopted the euro and became the 17th eurozone member state.
- Culture of Estonia
- Estonian History and Culture
- A Short History of Estonia
- Chronology of Estonia’s history
- History of Estonia Histrodamus
- The Family History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Family History Record Profile: Estonia,” Word document, private files of the FamilySearch Content Strategy Team, 1994-2002.