In 1201, German merchants and missionaries established a trading post in Riga, south of Estonia, in the land of the ethnically kindred Livonians. They noted the region’s wealth and saw vast opportunities. With the blessing of Pope Innocent III, the German bishop Albert assembled a mercenary army to conquer the region. “The Baltic Crusade” was launched on the pretext of bringing Christianity to the heathens.
Attacks on Estonia began in 1208, a time when Estonia’s population was around 175,000. The invasion lasted nineteen years, with Estonia assaulted by German mercenaries from the south, Danes from the north, Swedes from the west, and Slavs from the east. Primarily farmers and fishermen who assembled militias only when needed, the Estonians were no match for four professional armies with superior weaponry. “Baltic Germans”, the descendants of these original occupiers, controlled the land for centuries, even though Estonian rule passed from Germans and Danes to Swedes and Poles, and finally to the Russians in 1721. Throughout these occupations, the Baltic Germans formed the local ruling bureaucracy, while native Estonians essentially remained serfs.
By the 1860s, Estonia’s “Great Awakening” had begun. This period marked a time of increased interest in Estonia’s language, literature, art, and music. During this decade, the national epic “Kalevipoeg” was published, and the poet and playwright Lydia Koidula penned numerous works honoring Estonia. The first song festival (Laulupidu) was held in 1869. “The Great Awakening” expressed an increasing desire among Estonians for national self-determination. That desire built until Estonia declared independence in 1918.
On March 15, 1917, Czar Nikolai II abdicated the Russian throne amid the chaos created by Russia’s involvement in World War I and socialist revolutionary action at home. On October 23 of that year, twelve socialist revolutionaries calling themselves Bolsheviks met in Petrograd and decided forcibly to overthrow Russia’s Provisional Government. They succeeded on November 8, 1917. Vladimir Lenin emerged as “Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars.”
An Estonian Diet (Maapäev) had been formed in Czar Nikolai’s absence. Seeing an opportunity in the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, the Diet declared sovereignty over Estonia on November 28, 1917. The Bolsheviks quickly dissolved the Maapäev and drove pro-independence Estonians underground. But a few months later, as the Bolsheviks retreated from the advancing German army, the underground Maapäev seized the opportunity on February 24, 1918 formally to declare Estonia’s independence.
German troops entered Tallinn the next day, and by March 4, 1918 the German army occupied all of Estonia. However, Germany’s defeat at the end of the World War I forced the German army to vacate Estonia by November 1918. The Russian Bolsheviks invaded again on November 28, 1918. A newly formed Estonian army fought back in a bloody conflict. For a short while, the Estonian army had to fight a war of independence on two fronts. The Baltic Germans, who did not want to give up their power in Estonia, recruited a mercenary army to fight for their interests. They attacked from the south on June 5, 1919, but were soundly defeated at a major battle in Võnnu on June 23, 1919.
Estonia eventually defeated the Russian army. On February 2, 1920, the Treaty of Tartu was signed between Estonia and Soviet Russia. The treaty recognized Estonia’s independence and sovereignty and Russia renounced in perpetuity all rights to the territory of Estonia. Estonians won their independence at a heavy toll. Estonia suffered nearly twice the number of casualties that the United States did during its revolution—even though Estonia’s population was about a one-fourth that of the colonies in 1776.
The environmental issue provided a relatively safe means of seeing whether people could truly speak openly without Soviet permission. Protestors did not suffer significant repercussions, and the mining project was eventually stopped. The first test was a success. A short while later, a more radical demonstration in Tallinn’s Hirve Park openly spoke of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (the secret agreement between Hitler and Stalin that led to the Soviet invasion of Estonia in 1939–40). The KGB observed this event, names were taken, leaders were harassed, but, much to the demonstrators’ surprise, no one was arrested.
It was illegal to own an Estonian flag during these years. Estonians tested this law by flying three separate blue, black, and white banners that effectively became the flag when flown side by side.
In the mid-1980s, six new rock songs became rallying cries for independence. These songs were repeatedly sung in large public gatherings. Soviet authorities wanted to ban them, but weren’t sure what to do in light of glasnost.
Momentum and courage grew. The Estonians calculated that as long as they shed no blood, Gorbachev wouldn’t be able to send in tanks to quash demonstrations. Such blatant censorship would be an international embarrassment to his carefully cultivated image. So people pushed Moscow as far as they could, taking great care to stay non-violent.
In this sense, the Singing Revolution was a strategically non-violent movement.
But there were several different political approaches to gaining independence. These largely fell into three organized groups: The Popular Front, The Estonian National Independence Party, and The Heritage Society. Each group had a different philosophy about how to gain freedom…even how to define freedom.
Many Estonians supported more than one of these organizations; some supported all three. Others felt more loyal to one or the other. There was significant tension among some of the leaders. Those who moved more cautiously felt that the “radicals” would bring Soviet retribution on Estonia, as had happened in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968; the “radicals” felt that working within the Communist system betrayed their country and dishonored those who had died and suffered under Soviet rule.
Matters came to a head in 1991 when Moscow hard-liners staged a coup d’état and placed Gorbachev under house arrest. As troops rolled into Estonia to quell any independence-minded thinking, Estonians decided to escalate their bid for freedom. Unarmed people faced down soldiers and tanks, while political leaders assembled to declare Estonia’s independence.
(Acknowledgment: The history presented here draws from Ago Koerv’s “An Introduction to Estonia”.)