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Estonia Table of Contents


Interwar Independence, 1918-40

In contrast to its later peaceful return to independence in 1991, Estonia's first modern era of sovereignty began with a fifteen-month war (1918-20) against both Russian Bolshevik and Baltic German forces. In the end, the War of Independence took the lives of about 3,600 Estonians and left about 14,000 wounded. In the Tartu Peace Treaty, which was concluded with Russia in February 1920, Moscow relinquished all claims to Estonia in perpetuity. A year later, Estonia gained international recognition from the Western powers and became a member of the League of Nations. In June 1920, Estonia's first constitution was promulgated, establishing a parliamentary system.

With a political system in place, the new Estonian government immediately began the job of rebuilding. As one of its first major acts, the government carried out an extensive land reform, giving tracts to small farmers and veterans of the War of Independence. The large estates of the Baltic German nobility were expropriated, breaking its centuries-old power as a class.

Agriculture dominated the country's economy. Thanks to land reform, the number of small farms doubled to more than 125,000. Although many homesteads were small, the expansion of landownership helped stimulate new production after the war. Land reform, however, did not solve all of Estonia's early problems. Estonian agriculture and industry (mostly textiles and machine manufacturing) had depended heavily on the Russian market. Independence and Soviet communism closed that outlet by 1924, and the economy had to reorient itself quickly toward the West, to which the country also owed significant war debts. The economy began to grow again by the late 1920s but suffered another setback during the Great Depression, which hit Estonia during 1931-34. By the late 1930s, however, the industrial sector was expanding anew, at an average annual rate of 14 percent. Industry employed some 38,000 workers by 1938.

Independent Estonia's early political system was characterized by instability and frequent government turnovers. The political parties were fragmented and were about evenly divided between the left and right wings. The first Estonian constitution required parliamentary approval of all major acts taken by the prime minister and his government. The Riigikogu (State Assembly) could dismiss the government at any time, without incurring sanctions. Consequently, from 1918 to 1933 a total of twenty-three governments held office.

The country's first big political challenge came in 1924 during an attempted communist takeover. In the depths of a nationwide economic crisis, leaders of the Estonian Communist Party (Eestimaa Kommunistlik Partei--EKP), in close contact with Communist International (Comintern--see Glossary) leaders from Moscow, believed the time was ripe for a workers' revolution to mirror that of the Soviet Union. On the morning of December 1, some 300 party activists moved to take over key government outposts in Tallinn, while expecting workers in the capital to rise up behind them. The effort soon failed, however, and the government quickly regained control. In the aftermath, Estonian political unity got a strong boost, while the communists lost all credibility. Relations with the Soviet Union, which had helped to instigate the coup, deteriorated sharply.

By the early 1930s, Estonia's political system, still governed by the imbalanced constitution, again began to show signs of instability. As in many other European countries at the time, pressure was mounting for a stronger system of government. Several constitutional changes were proposed, the most radical being put forth by the protofascist League of Independence War Veterans. In a 1933 referendum, the league spearheaded replacement of the parliamentary system with a presidential form of government and laid the groundwork for an April 1934 presidential election, which it expected to win. Alarmed by the prospect of a league victory and possible fascist rule, the caretaker prime minister, Konstantin Päts, organized a pre-emptive coup d'état on March 12, 1934. In concert with the army, Päts began a rule by decree that endured virtually without interruption until 1940. He suspended the parliament and all political parties, and he disbanded the League of Independence War Veterans, arresting several hundred of its leaders. The subsequent "Era of Silence" initially was supported by most of Estonian political society. After the threat from the league was neutralized, however, calls for a return to parliamentary democracy resurfaced. In 1936 Päts initiated a tentative liberalization with the election of a constituent assembly and the adoption of a new constitution. During elections for a new parliament, however, political parties remained suspended, except for Päts's own National Front, and civil liberties were only slowly restored. Päts was elected president by the new parliament in 1938.

The Soviet Era, 1940-85

Although the period of authoritarian rule that lasted from 1934 to 1940 was a low point in Estonian democracy, in perspective its severity clearly would be tempered by the long Soviet era soon to follow. The clouds over Estonia and its independence began to gather in August 1939, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact (also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), dividing Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. Moving to capitalize on its side of the deal, the Soviet Union soon began to pressure Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into signing the Pact of Defense and Mutual Assistance, which would allow Moscow to station 25,000 troops in Estonia. President Päts, in weakening health and with little outside support, acceded to every Soviet demand. In June 1940, Soviet forces completely occupied the country, alleging that Estonia had "violated" the terms of the mutual assistance treaty. With rapid political maneuvering, the regime of Soviet leader Joseph V. Stalin then forced the installation of a pro-Soviet government and called for new parliamentary elections in July. The Estonian Communist Party, which had only recently reemerged from underground with fewer than 150 members, organized the sole list of candidates permitted to run. Päts and other Estonian political leaders meanwhile were quietly deported to the Soviet Union or killed. With the country occupied and under total control, the communists' "official" electoral victory on June 17-18 with 92.8 percent of the vote was merely window dressing. On July 21, the new parliament declared Estonia a Soviet republic and "requested" admission into the Soviet Union. In Moscow, the Supreme Soviet granted the request on August 6, 1940.

For all the ups and downs Estonia's independent government experienced during the interwar period, its termination by Stalin in 1940 was clearly not among the range of solutions favored by most Estonians. Yet, chances of holding off the Soviet onslaught with an army numbering about 15,000 men were slim at best. Thus, Estonia's only real hope for the future lay in continued Western recognition of its de jure statehood, which other European countries and the United States declared in 1940. Over the next fifty years, this Western policy of token recognition nearly fell into desuetude. Yet, the policy's survival into the late 1980s would allow it to become a rallying point for Estonia's new drive for independence. Thanks to this continuing Western recognition, Estonia's calls for sovereignty from Moscow by early 1990 could not be considered merely secessionism. Rather, they represented demands for the restoration of a state still existent under international law. This appeal to international legality dating to 1940 would frustrate the attempts of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to control Estonia and the other Baltic states in the late 1980s.

Estonia's absorption into the Soviet Union as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic was interrupted in June 1941 by the German invasion. Still, that one year of Soviet rule left a deep mark on the Estonians. In addition to the takeover of their country and the rapid nationalization of their capitalist economy, on June 13-14, 1941, before the German invasion, Estonians also saw the mass deportation of some 10,000 of their countrymen to Siberia. Of those seized during the one-night operation, over 80 percent were women, children, or elderly people. The purpose of this action seemed to be to create terror rather than to neutralize any actual threat to the regime. The 1941-44 German occupation witnessed more repression, especially of Estonia's Jewish population, which numbered about 2,000. In September 1944, as the Red Army again neared Estonia, the memories of Soviet rule resurfaced vividly enough to prompt some 70,000 Estonians to flee the country into exile. These émigrés later formed ethnic communities in Sweden, the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere, continuing to lobby for Estonia's rights during the next fifty years. Altogether, from 1939 to 1945 Estonia lost over 20 percent of its population to the turmoil of Soviet and German expansionism.

After the war, the Sovietization of Estonia resumed. The republic's war-ravaged industry was rebuilt as a component of the centrally planned economy. Agricultural collectivization was enforced, climaxing in March 1949 with another, more brutal wave of deportations involving some 25,000 people. The Estonian Communist Party was purged in 1950 of many of its original native leaders; they were replaced by several prominent Russified Estonians who had grown up in Russia. After Stalin's death in 1953, Nikita S. Khrushchev's liberalization also touched Estonia. Efforts at economic reform were undertaken, and repression was eased. By the late 1960s, consumerism had taken root, and intellectual life was relatively vibrant. Following the Soviet Union's suppression of Czechoslovakia's "Prague Spring" reform movement in 1968, the trend toward openness suffered a reversal, but Estonia continued to maintain a standard of living well above the Soviet average. In 1980, during the period of stagnation under Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev, some 2,000 schoolchildren demonstrated in the streets of Tallinn against a major Russification campaign launched from Moscow. Several dozen Estonian intellectuals later came together to write their own protest letter, but to no avail. Karl Vaino, the Russified Estonian leader of the Estonian Communist Party at the time, was particularly hostile toward dissent of any kind.

Data as of January 1995

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