I am currently writing a novel set in Tallinn and based on events relating to the removal of the Soviet War Memorial in Tonismagi which happened in 2007. In order to make sure that I have got the historical aspects of the story correct I have been doing a lot of online research into the history of the country.
At the moment I am looking at the events which led up to removal of the war memorial and the reasons for the removal. The removal of the monument led to demonstrations in both Tallinn and Moscow and the reasons for the public reaction are central to the story I am writing.
In this post, I am sharing some of the information I have cleaned about the Russian/Soviet role in the shaping of modern Estonia.
In 1721 the Swedish forces in Estonia were defeated by the Russian Empire and Russian rule was imposed under the Uusikaupunki Peace Treaty. Under the Russia rule several aspects of the original German-Nordic infrastructure and culture remained such as the legal system, Lutheran church, local and town government and education. The Russians abolished serfdom in 1819 which allowed peasants to own their own land or move to the cities. This created the foundation for the Estonian national cultural awakening which became an important force in the resistance to Communist rule in the 1980s.
The 1905 revolution in Russian led brutal suppression by the Russian Empire as it fought back. However, the Estonians were still able to maintain their culture, language and dreams of independent statehood.
The collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the events of World War 1 presented Estonians with the opportunity to gain national autonomy. The Republic of Estonia was declared on February 24th 1918, just one day before German troops invaded. The German troops withdrew in November 1918 and fighting broke out between the Estonian and Bolshevik troops.
The Treaty of Tartu was signed on February 2nd 1920 by the Republic of Estonia and Soviet Russia in which Soviet Russia gave up the right, in perpetuity, to the territory of Estonia. There followed 22 years of independence and immense social and economic change. The agrarian economy was run on a feudal system with native peasants working on large estates held by ethnic Germans.
After 1920 the state seized control of the large estates, compensated the German landowners and redistributed the land to ethnic Estonians in order to create small farms. At this time the country already had a large industrial sector which was dominated by the world’s largest cotton mill but the economy had suffered from the economic events in Tsarist Russia. During this period Estonia established a parliamentary form of government, traded with Scandinavia and western Europe, introduced the Kroon as its currency, gave cultural autonomy to minority ethnic groups, established Estonian language schools and the culture flourished.
This came to an end in August 23rd 1939 when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact was signed by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. This pact reversed that of Treaty of Tartu and the Soviet Union was able to occupy Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and parts of Finland. The Estonian Socialist Republic (ESR) was declared on July 21st 1940 and in August the country was occupied by Soviet troops.
The Sovietization of Estonia began with the introduction of Stalinist communism, the expropriation of personal property, the nationalisation of the means of production, the introduction of the Russian language and the first deportations of Estonian landowners and private citizens. When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22nd 1941 the situation for Estonians got even worse. The Nazis carried out their own repressions and about 5,500 Estonians died in concentration camps, ports were destroyed, 45% of industry and 40% of railways were damaged, the population decreased by around 200,000 people as over 80,000 people fled to the west and over 30,000 soldiers were killed in battle.
The defeat of the Nazis led to the Soviet seizing control of the Narva and Petseri border districts, arresting anyone who had supported the Nazis or not welcomed the Soviets, deporting 20,722 people to Siberia and introducing ethnic Russians into the country.
The destruction of the ports, industry and the railway system during the war had crippled the Estonian economy. The land which had been redistributed during the period of independence was seized and by mid-1949 more than 56% collectivised and many small farmers were deported to Siberia. On the other hand, industry was allowed relative freedom to grow and prosper.
Things improved greatly after Stalin’s death and Estonia was allowed greater contact with the west. Ties were re-opened with Finland and the Finnish president made a visit to Tallinn. This resulted in the opening up of sea lanes between the two countries and the construction of the Sokos Hotel Viru to accommodate the new tourists and business people. The signal blockers came down from St Olaf’s spire to give Estonians access to Finnish television and radio. All ties with the west were carefully monitored by the KGB from the HQ in Pikk and their listening station in the Hotel Viru but there was much more freedom and Estonian culture was allowed to emerge from the Soviet cultural reform.
Step by step Estonians gained more freedoms and more self-control. This approach contrasted with the violent approach of Latvia and Lithuania, and so Estonia managed to avoid the crackdowns and murders of January 1991. During the August coup of 1991, when Gorbachev was kidnapped, the Estonian government was able to give the West a clear view of the events unfolding in the USSR as it had regained control of its telecommunications systems. On August 20th 1991 the Estonian government reissued its declaration of independence and the USSR Supreme Soviet recognised it on September 6th. Soviet troops formally withdrew on August 31st 1994.
The desovietisation of Estonia was pretty swift with the country quickly opening up ties to the west and demolishing the statues and plagues which represented Soviet rule and the Soviet version of history. Some of these can now see preserved in the basement of the Museum of Occupations.
PS The cotton mill in Narva County went bankrupt and was bought by a Swedish company.