Professor Emeritus, Tallinn University
Every nation has their share of fateful dates, traces of historic events which, being partly mythicized or canonized, have later become the markers of national identity. These were called annals in the ancient Rome, but annals as historical records of noteworthy events were also kept in the medieval monasteries. For the English such a fateful date was no doubt June 15 in 1215 and the signing of the charter of rights known as Magna Carta Liberatum. For the French the fateful dates include the Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, as well as August 26, 1789 when the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was proclaimed by the National Assembly – the document that still serves as an example of the human rights in the entire world. For the Germans and in a wider perspective for every nation in Europe the first annus mirabilis was 1517, when Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses started the Reformation. Next German „annals“ were 1866 and 1871 when Otto von Bismarck formed the first German national state (Deutsches Reich). Later, based on the historical perspective we possess now, the Germans had to recreate their country all over again. What I mean by that is the reunification of Germany on October 3, 1990. For the Russians their fateful events have been the two victorious Great Patriotic Wars of 1812 and 1945, as well as the Russian Revolution of 1917, which influenced greatly the fates of both Russians and their neighboring nations.
I have listed here the fateful dates of four big nations, but smaller nations have theirs too, which often depend on the ambitions of the big nations. Big always wants to be bigger, and small needs to navigate in the name of its existence between those great forces, so as not to become swallowed up by them. Estonian history on the whole reminds of the Bible story of Jonah, who was thrown from a ship on a stormy sea and was then swallowed by a whale. Jonah waited patiently for his hour of escape, he did not despair, stood firm in his faith and eventually reached his freedom.
The first fateful year for Estonians, Livonians and Latvians was 1201, when during the Livonian crusade the Bishop Albert began to build the city of Riga. From that stronghold he targeted violent campaigns against Estonian and Latvian tribes, in order to forcefully convert them to Christianity. These events were documented in the Livonian Chronicle of Henry (1224-1227). Conquering Estonians lasted nearly thirty years and resulted in dividing the land between the Danes in North Estonia and Germans in South Estonia and North Latvia. In 1227 the last Estonians to surrender were on the island of Saaremaa. From that moment on Estonians and Latvians mostly lived as serfs under the Baltic-German rule, in essence until 1918. However, it was an unconventional colonization as even though the land belonged to the Baltic-Germans, it was not populated with German peasants. The intent was there originally but was never carried out due to enormous bogs and forests that separated Germany from Estonian and Latvian territories (today it is known as the Suwalki corridor). Therefore, even though the land connection was there, Estonia and Latvia were like overseas colonies for Germans. The fateful element in this situation was that Estonians and Latvians remained directly connected to their lands, even though they were no longer the ruling power in these areas. The relative detachment of the colonizers from the people they ruled, and their small number (barely 2% of the population) made it possible to keep alive both the Estonian and Latvian languages. In the hindsight we can view in positive light the fact that by colonizing Estonians and Latvians these areas became connected to the Western European cultural space, where after the Reformation the nation states began to emerge.
The next fateful years for Estonians were 1816 and 1819 when the Russian Empire, where the Baltic-Germans had maintained their privileges, abolished their serfdom. Fifty years later, in 1869, Estonians celebrated the anniversary of this freedom with their first song festival. The organizer of the event was the father of Estonian journalism, Johann Voldemar Jannsen (1819-1890). Even though the format of the song festival tradition was borrowed from the German cultural sphere, Estonians and Latvians (and later also Lithuanians) developed this into a tradition that sustains the national identity through the joint singing. When hundreds and thousands of people sing choir songs on the song stage, in four voices and in their native language – the record being the song celebration anniversary in Tallinn in 2019 with the joint choir of 34 thousand singers – then precisely in this action the Estonians have shown their greatness. In addition to the singers there are also 150,000 spectators. Thus, in every five years more than one tenth of Estonian population gathers to affirm their belonging through singing. Both Estonian and Latvian song festivals have by now been included in the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The end of the First World War and the Russian Revolution see the creation of many small nation states in 1917-1918, including the republics of Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, although Finland had used the autonomy within the Russian Empire already for 200 years.
The fateful dates in Estonia during the 20th and 21st centuries have been 24 February 1918, 23 August 1939, 17 June 1940, 20 August 1991 and 1 May 2004. The creation of Republic of Estonia can be compared to a process that began in 1870’s. After ceasing to be the property of the manor owners, Estonian peasants started to buy their own farmsteads, although previously they had already been renting these places from the manor owners. One of the best known Estonian literary classics Anton Hansen Tammsaare has depicted this period and the painful process of becoming land owners in his epopee „Truth and Justice“ (1926-1933). The sentiment there is similar to the English saying „My home is my castle“. Already in 1879 Jakob Pärn, writer of the Estonian national awakening period, published a short story „My place, my choice“. To be a master of your own home also meant being in charge of your own future. The Estonian dream of freedom and sovereignty, which became a reality on February 24th, 1918, had then and has had later in history very existential meaning. Our own country was seen as the home of our nation.
Unfortunately, our home did not remain our castle for long. On August 23rd, 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed the Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact), which included a secret protocol detailing the rearrangement of the territories belonging to Poland a week after signing the pact in the Second World War (September 1st, 1939), and giving the Baltic States and Finland to the Soviet Union. Finland managed to protect its sovereignty in the following Winter War, but the Baltic States were obliterated from the world map for the next fifty years.
In summer of 1940 the so-called socialist revolutions were staged in all three Baltic States. But even this staged scenario was unable to stay true to its script meant for deceiving the world audiences, as in support of this „revolution of the people“, additional troops from the Soviet Union entered Estonia already on June 17th, 1940 while Estonia was legally still an independent country. Before that already tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers had come to Estonia in the autumn of 1939, following the forced signing of the Bases Treaty between the Republic of Estonia and the Soviet Union. Precisely because of this it is possible to talk about the occupying of Estonia as an independent country and incorporating it into the Soviet Union a few months later. In the Second World War, in the escape waves to the West in 1944, in two mass deportations to Siberia in 1941 and 1949 and in the Soviet repressions that destroyed to a large extent the intellectual and political elite, Estonia lost nearly fifth of its population, thus placing Estonians among the most suffered nations in Europe.
But history gave Estonia and other Baltic States a chance to restore their independence during the same century. Mikhail Gorbachev’s coming to power in Moscow in 1985 triggered the „Perestroika“. Genie was out of the bottle, as the democratization of the Soviet regime and the reforms were bound to bring out the imperial fundament of the entire system, and the Soviet Union’s founding on violence and totalitarian ideology.
The decrease in military opposition between the East and the West, the end of the Cold War – as we can see now, it was only a temporary process – gave Eastern European countries the chance to free themselves from the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. This led to the demolition of the Berlin Wall and German reunification. 1988 saw the beginning of demonstrations in the Baltic States in support of „Perestroika“. These in turn grew into autonomy demands and claims to remedy the historical injustice by abolishing the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and restoring the independence of the Baltic States. In Estonia the demonstrations turned into the Singing Revolution. The central meeting place of the people became the Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn, where on September 11th, 1988 the local movement of The Popular Front of Estonia organized a peaceful protest with national songs and motivational speeches. This became the largest protest in the history of Estonia, bringing together nearly 150 thousand Estonians.
On August 23rd, 1989 – on the anniversary of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact – the national movements (Rahvarinne in Estonia, Tautas Fronte in Latvia and Sajudis in Lithuania) of the three Baltic States that at the time still belonged to the Soviet Union organized for the first time in history a living human chain stretching from Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, through Latvian capital Riga to Lithuanian capital Vilnius. This human chain, linking hands on the evening of the 23rd August at 7 p.m., was 680 km long and consisted of nearly 2 million people, and as an expression of extraordinary demonstration it was included in the Guiness World Records. The people who joined hands in this human chain repeated as a mantra the one word, which is and has always been the most treasured talisman of the Baltic nations – Freedom. The memory of freedom had been kept alive through all the suffering, and all the generations in between had been preparing both mentally and spiritually for achieving that ultimate goal.
Two years later, on 20th August 1991, using the political confusion and power vacuum in Moscow, the Supreme Council of the Republic of Estonia proclaimed Estonian independence, thus restoring the Republic of Estonia. From this moment on a rapid and miraculous return to Europe and the free world began. Seven hundred years ago Estonian and other Baltic tribes had been incorporated into the European collective sphere. On May 1st, 2004 it happened again when Estonia joined the European Union – this time voluntarily and with a clear understanding of what is the future goal.
The famous Bible passage about faith, hope, and love, a passage that often symbolizes the basis of Christian belief, has for Estonians carried a very explicit meaning throughout our history. It has been a question of survival of a nation no larger than one million strong. For Estonians their Holy Trinity has always been their land, independence and culture, as this is where our greatness lies. These two, culture and independence, have also been inextricably joined in the constitution of the Republic of Estonia, the preamble of which sets forth the main purpose of Estonia as a country – to protect and develop the Estonian language and culture.