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Although they have a shared history with the Lithuanians and Latvians, Estonians are ethnically related to the Finns. The FinnoUgric tribes from which Estonians are descended migrated into the present-day Estonian Republic thousands of years ago. They maintained a separate existence and fought off invaders until the thirteenth century, when they were subdued by Germans and Danes. With the Danish presence in Estonia more nominal than real, German control of Estonia lasted into the sixteenth century. Estonian nobility was Germanized, and the peasantry was enserfed. Attempts by German clergy to Christianize the Estonian peasantry were firmly rebuffed, and it was not until the eighteenth century that most of the Estonian population was finally converted to Lutheranism.
During the sixteenth century, Russians, Swedes, and Poles fought for control of Estonia. Victorious Sweden held Estonia until the beginning of the eighteenth century, when it was forced to cede Estonia to Russia. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Estonia, granted autonomy under its own nobility, abolished serfdom and enjoyed a period of national reawakening that lasted for most of the century. In 1880, when the Russian government introduced a Russification policy for Estonia, the national consciousness had progressed too far to accept it. In 1918 Estonian nationalists, after fighting both the Germans and the Russians, declared the independence of Estonia. With the exception of a four-year period of dictatorship, Estonia flourished as a democracy until 1940, when the Soviet Union absorbed it along with the other two Baltic states. The Estonians suffered the same fate as the Lithuanians and Latvians. The Estonian peasantry was collectivized, and the Estonian national elite was imprisoned, executed, or exiled. Altogether about 10 percent of the Estonian population was deported eastward. The remaining population was subjected to a policy of Russification, made easier by the large influx of Russians into the republic.
In 1989 Estonians were numerically the smallest nationality to have their own republic. According to the 1989 census, just over 1 million Estonians lived in the Soviet Union, fewer than nationalities without their own republics, such as the Tatars, Germans, Jews, Chuvash, Bashkirs, and Poles. Almost 94 percent of the Estonians lived in the Estonian Republic, the smallest and northernmost of the three Baltic republics. In 1989 it had a population of almost 1.6 million, of which Estonians made up just over 61 percent. The largest national minority in the Estonian Republic was the Russians, constituting over 30 percent of the population. A small Estonian population resided in the Russian Republic.
Estonians, like Finns, speak a language that belongs to the Finno-Ugric group of languages. Like the other two Baltic nationalities, Estonians use the Latin alphabet. Of the three Baltic nationalities, Estonians have been the most tenacious in preserving their own language. In the 1989 census, 95.5 percent of the Estonians in the Soviet Union and 98.9 percent of those residing in the Estonian Republic considered Estonian their first language.
Estonians, the majority of whom live in cities and towns, ranked as one of the most urbanized peoples in the Soviet Union. In 1989 the Estonian Republic was the second most urbanized republic, with over 70 percent of its population residing in urban areas. However, only two cities in the Estonian Republic had a population of over 50,000: Tallin (482,000), the capital of the republic, and Tartu (115,000).
The Estonian Republic ranked sixth among the republics in the number of citizens with secondary and higher education per thousand people. Within the Estonian Republic, the percentage of Estonians among the educated elite was very high, particularly in cultural and educational fields. Estonians also ranked high in the number of scientific workers. Whereas Estonians have dominated the cultural fields in the republic, Russians have held political power out of proportion to their share of the republic's population. Only 52 percent of the party members in the Estonian Republic were Estonians. In the past, Russians have not held the top posts in the Estonian Republic's party leadership, but many of the top Estonian leaders in the party were highly Russified.
Data as of May 1989
Soviet Union Table of Contents