Estonia - Encyclopedia Information
Official name Republic of Estonia
Formation 1991 / 1991
Population 1.3 million / 75 people per sq mile (29 people per sq km)
Total area 17,462 sq. miles (45,226 sq. km)
Languages Estonian*, Russian
Religions Evangelical Lutheran 56%, Orthodox Christian 25%, Other 19%
Ethnic mix Estonian 69%, Russian 25%, Other 4%, Ukrainian 2%
Government Parliamentary system
Currency Euro = 100 cents
Literacy rate 99%
Calorie consumption 3129 kilocalories
Not much is known about the ancient history of Estonia, but archaeological evidence suggests that humans began to move into the region as the ice from the last glacial era withdrew 11,000 to 13,000 years ago. The oldest settlement in Estonia, established around 7500 B.C.E., was located on the Pärnu River, near the present town of Sindi. Around 3000 or 2000, Finno-Ugric hunters arrived in Estonia from southeastern parts of Europe and established settlements. They spoke a Finno-Ugric language (which is related to Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian) that belongs to the Uralic language family (languages spoken in the region along the Ural Mountains).
By the first century Estonians had organized themselves into small male-dominated agrarian tribal clans. There were frequent skirmishes over regional dominance between Estonian tribes and neighboring Latvian tribes.
Until the 12th century Estonians had kept Christian Crusaders at bay and held strongly to their pagan beliefs. In 1193 at the instance of Pope Celestine III (r. 1191–98), Christians launched Crusades against the northern European pagans.
In 1217 German Crusaders launched an attack on Latvia and, after establishing their control over the region and forcing many Latvian tribes to accept Christianity literally at the point of a sword, they began raiding the northern parts of Estonia with the assistance of Latvian tribes, who were the Estonian’s archrivals.
Estonians fiercely resisted these attacks. Many tribes joined forces under the leadership of the renowned Estonian commander Lembitu (d. 1217) and launched counterattacks on Latvian territories. However in the Battle of St. Matthew’s Day (September 21, 1217), fought between German Crusaders and Estonian forces, Lembitu was killed. By 1219 Danish Crusaders, led by the king of Denmark Waldemar II (1170–1241) established control over northern Estonia. By 1227 the last of the Estonian tribes was defeated by the Crusaders, and Denmark and Germanic tribes colonized Estonia. Estonians were forced to embrace Christianity and were made to work as laborers. Although there were frequent raids by Russian Imperial forces, the Germanic tribes and Denmark maintained control of the region.
In 1558 Russia invaded Estonia and established its rule over a considerable part of the country. This sparked the Livonian Wars that were fought between Russia and the kingdoms of Poland, Denmark, and Sweden. Eventually in 1561 Sweden took control of northern Estonia and by 1582–83 the southern parts of Estonia had surrendered to Poland. However Sweden invaded the Estonian territories under Danish and Polish control and by 1625 had established control over all of Estonia.
In 1725 during the Great Northern War Russia reclaimed Estonia and established its control over the region again.
In 1819 Russia abolished serfdom (bonded laborers) in Estonia, and the peasants were given ownership of their lands. Also under Russian rule Estonians came together as one people and began rediscovering their cultural roots. The Estonian language was adopted as the language of instruction in schools, and cultural festivals were held on a regular basis starting in 1869. At the beginning of the 20th century Estonians began voicing their demand for independence from Russian rule.
After World War I and the collapse of Imperial Russia in 1918 the Russian Provisional Government decided to give autonomous status to Estonia. As a result Estonians elected leaders to the Maapaev (political assembly of leaders), but due to opposition by some extremists in the region, they were forced to go underground.
On February 24, 1918, the Maapaev declared Estonia’s independence from Russia. Just one day later, however, on February 25 German forces invaded Estonia. They remained in the region until the defeat of Germany at the end of World War I in November 1918. As the German forces withdrew from Estonia, Russian forces declared war on the country and tried to reclaim the region, but Estonian forces held their ground. On February 2, 1920, a peace treaty was signed between Russia and the Republic of Estonia whereby the Soviet Union (Russia) relinquished all claims over Estonia and recognized its independent status.
In 1920 Estonia adopted its first constitution and a parliamentary form of government. Members were elected to the parliament (Riigikogu) for a period of three years. However in 1934 Prime Minister Konstatin Päts (1874–1956), an Estonian freedom fighter, established an authoritarian regime in the country; in 1938 he assumed the office of the president of the Republic of Estonia.
During World War II Germany and the Soviet Union signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact of August 23, 1939, which allowed the Soviets to occupy Estonia (along with Latvia, Finland, and then Lithuania) in exchange for Nazi Germany’s assumption of control over Poland.
An Estonian Socialist Republic dominated by the Soviet Union was proclaimed on July 21, 1940, just a month after Soviet troops began their occupation of Estonia. However Hitler’s Nazi forces violated the nonaggression pact and invaded Russian territories, including Estonia. Russia then declared war on Germany and joined forces with the Allied powers.
For its part Estonia largely supported Germany, and so many Estonian ports, harbors, and cities were bombarded by the Allied forces.
After the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II Russia reclaimed Estonia and maintained a firm grip over the country until the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.
In 1981 the Estonian Communist Party (ECP), which enjoyed the support of the Soviet government, made Russian the official language in Estonian schools. This caused grave concern among Estonians for the survival of their own language, as well as their cultural identity. Estonians began voicing their concerns, and many political parties emerged during this period to bring these issues to the notice of the Soviet government. Eventually Estonians began protesting against Soviet forces and demand total independence. The Supreme Soviet of Estonia, the governing body of Estonia, declared Estonia’s sovereignty on November 16, 1988, and with the approval of the USSR granted official status to the Estonian language.
After the August 1991 coup in the USSR, which saw the ouster of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931), Estonia quickly seized the opportunity and declared its independence from the USSR on August 20, 1991. Russian Federation forces, however, remained in Estonia until August 31, 1994, when they withdrew and recognized the independent status of Estonia in response to mounting international pressure.
Since 1991 Estonia has had 11 governments and 7 prime ministers and is still struggling to maintain political stability. In 2004 Estonia became a member of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
The Republic of Estonia is located in eastern Europe and is flanked by the Gulf of Finland to the north, Russia to the east, Latvia to the south, and the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga to the west. The islands of Saaremaa and Hiuumaa are the largest among Estonia’s more than 1,500 islands.
Topographically Estonia’s land is mostly flat.
The highest point of Estonia is Suur Munamagi, which is 1,043 feet high and located in the southeastern part of the country. The country has more than 1,400 lakes, the biggest of which is Lake Piepsi, which is also the fourth largest European lake, with an area of 2,175 square miles.
The climate here is temperate and is characterized by wet, moderate winters and warm summers, with occasional showers. The annual average temperature of Estonia is 42°F, with an average winter temperature of 23°F, and an average summer temperature of 62°F.
Until 1998, Estonia’s economy was heavily dependent on trade with Russia, and the Russian financial crisis of 1998 had a severe impact on the nation’s economy. In 1999 Estonia joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), and with the help of progrowth policies and economic reforms it successfully revived its failing economy. Privatization of telecommunications, railways, energy, and other public sectors, increasing foreign investments, shifting of routine operations of Scandinavian countries to Estonia, as well as the use of Estonian ports by Russian oil companies as a transit point, all have made Estonia one of the strongest economies among the new countries that have joined the EU.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Estonia has a rich cultural heritage. More than 65 percent of the country’s population consists of native Estonians, while the country is also home to Russians, Finns, Belarusians, and Ukrainians. Estonian is the official language.
The Estonian culture is reflected in its folklore and folk songs, which have been carefully preserved for centuries. The songs, verses, and chants are about love, life, myths, seasonal changes, farming, and harvests and touch every aspect of traditional Estonian life. Rhythmic verses, known as regivarss, are extremely popular.
The peculiar aspect of most Estonian folk songs is that they repeat particular lines several times, though with slight variations in the theme. The fiddle, accordion, and concertina (a free-reed instrument with features similar to an accordion) are the musical instruments widely used in Estonia.
The island of Saaremaa is known for its sculptures, many of which depict the daily life of peasants in ancient Estonia.
Estonians adhere to different denominations of Christianity, including Evangelical Lutheran, Russian Orthodox, Estonian Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Seventh-day Adventist, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, and Word of Life. Some ancient equinoctial heathen (pagan) traditions are still held in high regard, and the summer equinox (Jaanipäev) is a time of great celebration and festivities. Among neopagans the ancient deity Taara (related to the Norse god Thor) is again being worshipped. Estonia is also home to about 3,000 Jews, although as a result of Hitler’s “final plan” few Jews survived the Holocaust of World War II, from a prewar population of about 6,000.
Pork, garden vegetables (beans, peas, carrots), and potatoes form the core of a traditional Estonian meal.
Delicacies include smoked fish and suitsukala (trout).
During the Christmas season restaurants serve a variety of sausage made from the fresh blood of pigs.
Verevorst (blood sausages) and vere pannkoogid (blood pancakes) are also served across Estonia.
In Estonia preferred beverages include hoogvein (mulled wine), Saare beer and Saku beer (varieties of strong and light beers made on the Estonian island of Saaremaa), tea, and coffee.
In Estonia pregnant women in villages are assisted in childbirth by elderly village women known as babushka or bapka. The bapka massage the woman’s belly and give her sweet or soda water to facilitate the expulsion of the placenta. For the actual delivery many Estonian women prefer to lie on the strawcovered floor because they believe that it makes delivery less painful, although the woman may kneel on the floor if it is an easy delivery. The future of a newborn was predicted by observing birth omens and the child. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday were thought to be good days on which to be born; children born on Sundays were supposed to be very happy. After the birth the baby’s face is covered with a piece of the amnion (the caul), and Estonians believe the caul can be “read” to predict the child’s fortune. For example a red caul indicates good luck where a black one portends misfortune for the child.
If one sees an eagle on the caul when holding it up to the sun, it means the child will have good luck. At one time the umbilical cord was kept wrapped in a piece of cloth near the cradle or under the child’s pillow.
Amulets are tied around the child’s arms to ward off evil and bring good fortune.
Estonian women in villages are reluctant to deliver their children in hospitals, since they fear that their children may not be given their cauls or that the children’s cauls may be stolen. The dried caul is kept wrapped and hidden lest someone steal it. They believe that if a caul is lost or stolen, then the child will be robbed of his or her good luck and misfortune will befall him or her. Some adult Estonians wear their cauls in a small bag hung around their necks for important meetings or other events they want to go favorably.
In earlier times men from the suitor’s family would arrive at the house of the prospective bride with a marriage proposal. They rode on horseback and carried with them beer and a red, sweet alcoholic drink for the bride’s family. The horses were generally wellgroomed stallions, adorned for the occasion in order to reflect favorably on the status of the suitor’s family.
One of the married men would make the proposal on the suitor’s behalf and place the bottle of beer and the red alcoholic drink on the table. If the father of the bride drank from the bottle, it meant the proposal had been accepted. If this was the case the groom’s family presented gifts to the bride’s family; these generally included a knife, a scarf, and an apron for the bride, an apron for the bride’s mother, scarves for the bride’s sisters and brothers, and a pipe or a cap for the father. Also the amount of bride price was decided and paid in silver to the bride’s family as a token of thanks to the bride’s family for her upbringing.
If the bride’s family called off the marriage, all the gifts and the amount of the bride price had to be repaid to the suitor’s family. However if the suitor’s family called off the marriage, then the bride’s family was allowed to keep the bride price as well as the gifts as compensation for breaking off the marriage.
The wedding ceremony began with a party during which the bride’s hair was covered with a closefitting cap (a coif). The young people’s cauls were carefully stored in chests; at the time of marriage, they were sewn into the brim of the bride’s headdress (the kirkirka) and the groom’s wedding coat.
On the actual wedding day the groom’s guests (saajarahvas) and bride’s guests (saunjarahvas) gathered at the houses of the groom and bride, respectively.
Then the saajarahvas went to the bride’s house to claim her. However prior to their arrival, the bride would be covered with leafy birch twigs and secretly taken to the steam and sauna room, where she would be dressed for the wedding. Then the groom would arrive and take his bride home in a simple ceremony.
The next day the saunjarahvas arrive at the groom’s house with the dowry chest and ask to meet the bride. After exchanging greetings the headdress of a married woman would be placed on her head, and she would be proclaimed a married woman. The most important rite of the wedding ceremony, it took place in a secluded area (a sauna or barn) and was only attended by the female relatives of both sides of the families. After donning the headdress the bride was given an apron to wear, since Estonian tradition required that any married woman wear one.
During the “patching the apron” ritual that followed the bride would meet guests, and they would throw money into her apron to wish her happiness and prosperity. Next the bride danced either with the groom or any of his relatives. Singing, dancing, feasting, and drinking followed. The next day the bride presented gifts to the guests as tokens of thanks for participating in the celebrations. The guests estimated the value of the young wife by the number of gifts, intricacy of workmanship, and beauty of the patterns and ornaments. Ribbons and belts were also tied to cattle as a gift from their new mistress.
The traditional way of announcing the end of a wedding ceremony was to serve cabbage soup or a cabbage dish to the guests. Lack of meat during feasts was considered the end of the wedding ceremony; if the guests still did not take the hint, the bride would enter the room filled with guests with a spinning wheel and start spinning the wheel in the middle of the room.
Earlier in their history Estonians believed that the best time to die was either in autumn, when the old leaves fell, or in spring, when the trees were covered with new leaves because they believed that dying during these seasons was easier.
They thought that only evil people and witches died during the winter blizzards. Someone who died during the day and when the weather was good was considered to have died a good death.
After someone died his or her body was placed on a ladder covered with straw or on a bier, then washed with soap and water, dressed in white clothes, and the limbs were tied to the body to keep them in place. Then the straw or the bier was burned. As long as the body remained in the house, no one was permitted to take anything out. Because people feared it might anger the deceased and a member of the family might have an accident. The body was not left alone at night; while family members kept watch over the dead body they were fed boiled peas and beans sprinkled with salt. Estonian Lutherans in general no longer adhere to this practice, but it is still common among Orthodox Christians.
Before the funeral the body was placed in a coffin, and people made sure that not a single teardrop fell into the coffin, because Estonians believed that the person whose tears fell inside the coffin would also die soon. For the main funeral people were not invited, but many volunteered to participate in the ceremony. The body was carried from the house feet first, then the house was swept clean, and all garbage was thrown out immediately. In many parts of Estonia people even burned incense sticks to cleanse the air and to ensure the soul of the deceased did not return to haunt them.
The coffin was then placed on a carriage and driven across a long, winding road to ensure that the soul of the departed could not find his or her way back home. After the burial the relatives of the deceased organized a feast (a wake) in the person’s honor. It was believed that, if the feast was not held, then the soul of the deceased would seek revenge, and great misfortune would befall the family. Animals had to be slaughtered for the feast, because Estonians believed that, otherwise, the animals reared by the family would die, and death and disease would strike the family. If there were any leftovers from the feast, they were poured on the ground during the wake as a mark of respect for the deceased.
The wake was followed by a period of mourning, during which relatives wore silver jewelry.
Uttering the name of the deceased during this period was forbidden.
Estonian custom established the mourning period for widows at six months; for widowers it lasted six weeks.