[by Max Gordon]
Estonia is somewhat distinct from the other two Baltic States, for its language is not actually Baltic. It is not, in fact, an Indo-European language, but rather a Finno-Ugric, or Uralic, language which is closely related to Finnish, and less so to many Siberian tribal peoples living in Russia. Estonians are, likewise, closely related to Finns, and settled in modern Estonia some 4,500 years Map for ESTONIAago (Lieven, 38), though it was certainly inhabited long before that. Little is known of Estonian culture prior to the arrival of Christianity, however, though it ‘originally seems to have been relatively egalitarian…without any centralized authority’ (Lieven, 40). Without any strong authority to hold Estonians together, and indeed speaking many languages which differed from tribe to tribe, there was no coherent sense of an Estonian nation. Culture was based largely upon oral tradition and folklore, and little brought the people of Estonia together beyond tribal affiliation. For thousands of years they practiced a shamanistic religion, one that is possibly related to the shamanistic, animistic tribal religions of those Siberian tribes still alive today (for which reason these tribes are of anthropological interest to the Estonians).
Christianity came to the region in a series of invasions, most importantly by the Teutons and Scandanivians in the Northern Crusades of the 13th century, though others such Yaroslav I of Novgorod had earlier expanded onto Estonian territory (Wikipedia). Following the end of these Crusades in 1227, Estonia and the other Baltic states were ruled by Germany and Denmark until 1561, when Sweden took control (Lieven, 422). Again power switched hands in 1721 following Tsar Peter I victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War (Hosking, 187). A two-decade hiatus occurred when Estonia won independence following the Russian Revolution in 1918, only to be occupied again, first by Nazi Germany and then by the Soviet Union, from 1940-1991.
The foreign presences in Estonia exerted a great deal of influence on Estonian culture. Linguistically, Estonian shares much of its vocabulary with the Scandinavian and Germanic languages, as well as with Russian, although there have been over the years many efforts to ‘purify’ the Estonian language. Major cities such as Tallin have long been inhabited by disproportionate numbers of foreigners, especially Germans, Russians, and Jews, who began to arrive in the Baltics in the 14th century (Lieven, 422). The Baltic Germans contributed significantly to the Enlightenment in Estonia, and there was a flowering of Jewish culture in the late 1800s. Whereas the German and Jewish populations have virtually disappeared following World War II, the Russian population has grown to comprise some 30 percent of the entire nation as of 1989 (Lieven, 434).
- Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians. A History (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001).
- Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993).