To start this section, please watch a 12-minute Youtube film featuring Tallinn, the capitol of Estonia: Estonia 2016: A Short Film.

Language, Geography, and Cuisine

Estonian flag
Flag of Estonia

Estonia, the country in northeastern Europe, is the northernmost of the three Baltic states. The Estonians are a Finno-Ugric people related to the Finns, and not to the Latvians and Lithuanians. The official language, Estonian, belongs to the Finnic branch of the Uralic languages. Estonian is closely related to Finnish. Despite some overlaps in the vocabulary due to borrowings, in terms of its origin, Estonian and Finnish are not related to their nearest geographical neighbors, Swedish, Latvian, and Russian, which are all Indo-European languages.

Estonia’s territory includes some 1,500 islands and islets; the two largest of these islands, Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, are off mainland Estonia’s west coast. The Estonian climate is suitable for agriculture. Mixed forests, with about 90 native species of trees and shrubs, cover almost half of Estonia’s territory. Most widespread are pines, firs, birches, and aspens; less common are oaks, maples, elms, and ash. Scots pine is the most common native tree. Meadows occupy a large area, as do marshes and swamps, where one-quarter of Estonia’s 1,500 plant species are found. About 60 species of mammals live in Estonia. The red deer, wild pigs, bears and lynx, foxes, badgers, otters, rabbits, hare, and—along the riverbanks—mink and nutria (coypu) are fairly common. Birds are numerous and migratory; more than 300 species have been registered.

Sausages on a grill
Sausages at a Christmas Market. Photo by Hasmik Ghazaryan Olson on Unsplash

Fish (cod, herring, salmon, eel, and others) have influenced the Estonian national cuisine. A traditional Estonian open-faced sandwich consists of a slice of rye bread that is topped with a marinated sprat fillet. Traditional Estonian meals are determined by their natural habitat: a rye sandwich with poached or hard-boiled eggs, green onions, fresh herbs, smoked fish, or meat. A popular Estonian salad is prepared with pickled herring and pieces of beets and potatoes and covered by a creamy dressing. The salad often includes onions, pickles, smoked meat, hard-boiled eggs, or apples, while the dressing is usually made with a combination of mayonnaise and sour cream, with the occasional addition of mustard or horseradish. Estonian desserts are often made from curd cheese combined with vanilla, sugar, and whipped cream, and are often covered with fresh berries. A typical winter meal that is usually served during the Christmas festivities is Verivorst: blood sausages are roasted together with potatoes and pork. The sausage is made of barley, onions, spices, marjoram, and blood. All the ingredients are stuffed into a pig’s intestine, and the sausage is typically served with butter, sour cream, and sauerkraut on the side. Another popular Estonian meal is kama. Kama is usually served as a healthy breakfast and is often topped by fruits. Kama is prepared with a combination of roasted and finely milled flour types, usually oat, rye, barley, and pea flour. The mixture is then blended with buttermilk, which makes a creamy dish that can remind one of porridge (1).

Estonian Folklore

Estonian mythology is a collection of myths belonging to the folk heritage of Estonians. Many recorded legends and myths, as in other cultures be it Greek or Russian, describe a supreme sky god (2). There was a thunder god called Ukko (Grandfather) or Taevataat (Grandfather of the Sky). Proto Estonian pre-Christian deities may also have included a sky-god by the name of Jumal, also known as Jumo in Finnish. Estonian legends about giants (Kalevipoeg, Suur Tõll, Leiger) may reflect Germanic, especially Scandinavian, influences. There are numerous legends interpreting various natural objects and features as traces of Kalevipoeg’s deeds. The giant merged together with the Christian Devil, giving birth to a new character, Vanapagan (a giant demon, who lives on his farm, who is rather stupid and easily outwitted by smart people, like his farm hand Kaval-Ants) (3). It has been suggested that a meteorite landed on the island of Saaremaa around 3,000-4,000 years ago: this cataclysmic event might have powerfully influenced the mythology of Estonia (4). The systematic recording of folk heritage started only in the 19th century. A traveler called Wulfstan reported to the king Alfred the Great (971-899) about Estonians’ burial customs that included keeping the dead unburied in the house of their relatives and friends until the day of the cremation. Presumably, it was believed that cremation could make the dead person’s journey faster (5). Some traces of the oldest authentic myths may have survived in runic songs. There is a song about the birth of the world: a bird lays three eggs, one becomes Sun, one becomes Moon and one becomes the Earth (6).

Knowledge Check

  1. How does the Estonian language differ from those of Lithuanian and Latvian? Which one of the Baltic countries’ languages is the closest to Estonian?
  2. What are some favorite Estonian meals?
  3. Which Greek God could remind you of the Estonian God, Ukko?

Estonian History

Wall showing preserved tombstones
14th – 15th Century Tombstones, Tallinn, Estonia. Photo by Eileen Kunkler

The first person to mention Estonia was Tacitus, who, in 100 CE, described the region in “far north” and called its people aesti. Estonia has been dominated by foreign powers throughout much of its history. In 750, Estonian warriors battled together with the Swedes against the Danes; from 1219 until 1346 Estonia was under Danish rule; it was sold to the Teutonic Order and became part of the Ordensstaat. During the Protestant Reformation, the first books in Estonian (the Lutheran Catechism-1535) were published. After the Livonian War, which began in 1558 and lasted for 25 years, Estonia was divided between Poland and Sweden. Estonia came under Swedish rule in the seventeenth century (7). According to Estonian lore, the period of Swedish rule is often called ‘the good old Swedish time’ (8). At the end of the Northern War, Estonia became a part of the Russian empire (9). From 1816 through 1819, Estonian peasants were freed from serfdom (almost 50 years earlier than Alexander II signed the Act of Emancipation in Russia.). Starting in the 1830s, a spirit of national unity inspired and was expressed in the development of Estonian literature; one of the most significant cultural events of the time was the establishment of the nation-wide song festivals in 1869 and the foundation of the Vanemuine Theatre in Tartu. Although Alexander II of Russia initiated the progressive emancipation from serfdom in 1861, he, at the same time, “…urged them (i.e., Baltic provinces) to become an integral part of the “Russian family” and cooperate with his officials in carrying out reforms he considered to be “necessary and useful” (10). During the latter part of the 1880s, the Russian government incorporated the policy of cultural Russification in the Baltic Provinces: the government started controlling schools, making Russian language and Russian history obligatory subjects.

Round tower
Fat Margaret Tower, Tallinn, Estonia. Photo by Eileen Kunkler

The 1905 revolution in St. Petersburg and Moscow sparked bloody clashes in Estonia, as well. Between demonstrators and the military in towns and in the countryside, poor peasants destroyed or vandalized local landlords’ property (11). The Tsarist repressions against the natives prompted the further growth of nationalism. After the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in October 1917 and, at the same time, facing the advancement of the German army, the National Salvation Committee proclaimed the independence of Estonia on the 24th of February 1918. Bolshevik Russia, unable to defeat Estonia by force, renounced all rights over its people, property, and territory, and recognized its independence. However, in December 1924, small groups of pro-Soviet groups attacked government offices, army barracks, and the railway station in Tallinn. Among the participants in the coup were Estonian Bolsheviks, the employees of the local factories, and groups of rebels who had secretly crossed the border from Russia. The attempted coup mirrored the tactics developed by Vladimir Lenin and Leo Trotsky during the October Revolution. The Estonian troops and police were able to crush the rebellion quickly (12).

Knowledge Check

  1. When were song and dance festivals established in Estonia?
  2. What happened in Estonia in 1905 and how did the Tsarist regime respond to it?
  3. When (the year) did the October Socialist Revolution take place? When and how did Estonia gain her independence from Soviet Russia?
  4. How do the tactics of the coup attempt remind you of the tactic that the Russian government used during the annexation of Crimea in 2014? Please read this article:
  5. This (tsar’s name) was called Liberator in Russia; however, he imposed Russification in the Baltic provinces.

Independent Estonia

Tall statue of a cross on a pedastal
War of Independence Victory Column in Tallinn, Riga. Photo by Eileen Kunkler

Having lost the Russian market after 1918, it took Estonia a few years to sign new trade agreements with the West. Great Britain and Germany became the biggest purchasers of Estonian bacon, butter, timber, etc. They were responsible for more than half of all Estonian export trade, and for nearly 40% of all Estonian import trade. During the twenty-two years of independence, theatrical, literary, and artistic life in Estonia flourished. The first sound film studio was established, and financially supported by the government, the first documentary and educational films were created. The number of schools increased, and the German-Russian University of Iur’ev became Tartu University — today it is one of the most prominent universities in Europe (13). But, although Estonia, like Latvia and Lithuania, adopted liberal democratic constitutions at the beginning of their independence, “the radical parliamentary constitutions and electoral rules hampered the creation of stable governments.” Thus, some sort of authoritarian regime was bound to evolve. “The moderate Estonian leader considered his system as a transition to a more stable democratic system” (14). The increasing centralization of power was a trend that took place all over Europe.

Before continuing your reading, please watch a documentary about Joseph Stalin. The length of the film is 45 minutes.

First Occupation

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 made Estonia one of the many nations that the Nazis and the Soviets ‘shared’ between themselves. In September 1939, Estonia had no choice but to accept Red Army and Navy bases on its territory. In June 1940, the establishment of the bases was followed by a de facto military overthrow. At the same time as the Nazis took Paris, the Soviets formed a puppet communist government in Estonia. In June 1941, the first echelons of Estonians, arrested as enemies of the people, without trial, were deported to Siberia. The total number exceeded 10,000 people. The Nazis, who invaded the USSR on June 22, 1941, reached Estonia in July 1941. Memories of the recent Soviet atrocities made many Estonians cheerfully greet the Nazis; however, the Nazis had no plans to restore Estonia’s independence. A new wave of repressions was initiated, this time against the Jews and communists.

Holocaust in the Baltic States

In the summer of 1941, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazis gradually occupied Estonia. Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and ethnic German collaborators played a significant role in killing Jews throughout eastern and southeastern Europe.

Memorial at Kalevi Liiva
Kalevi-Liiva Memorial. Kristjan Lust from Estonia, CC BY 2, via Wikimedia Commons

“During the German occupation, Estonia was included in the Reich Commissariat Ostland, a German civilian administration which included the Baltic states and western Belorussia. From early on, the Germans subjected Estonian Jews to harsh measures including confiscation of property and forcing them to wear yellow badges identifying them as Jews. These measures were only temporary as the Nazis prepared to murder all Estonian Jews. German SS and police units, together with Estonian auxiliaries, massacred the Jews of Estonia by the end of 1941. No ghettos were created in Estonia during the German occupation. Starting in 1942, tens of thousands of Jews from other European countries were sent to forced labor camps inside Estonia. The main camp was Vaivara. Jewish forced laborers built military defenses for the German army and mined shale oil. Thousands of foreign Jews were also murdered at Kalevi Liiva. With the advance of the Soviet army in the fall of 1944, the Nazis evacuated the Estonian camps, as well as other camps throughout the Baltics. Some Jews were transferred by sea to the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig. Many thousands were forced on death marches along the Baltic coast” (15). Until the August of 1944, Soviet-Nazi battles continued in Estonia.

Knowledge Check

  1. The Nazi did not build ghettoes for the Estonian Jews. Where did the Nazi send the Jewish prisoners who were not executed at the end of 1941?

After the Nazis

Estonian Forest Brothers
Estonian Forest Brothers. Julius Jääskeläinen, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After the Nazi withdrew, the Red Army re-occupied the whole of Estonia. Anticipating the reestablishment of the Communist regime, tens of thousands of Estonians escaped overseas. Thousands resisted the second Soviet occupation: the guerrilla war by the Forest Brothers started immediately and lasted until the early 1950s.  As Anatol Lieven wrote, “In Latvia and Estonia, the partisans were no less brave [than in Lithuania], but a good deal less organized” (16). Upon the reoccupation of Estonia, arrests and deportations to Siberia were resumed from the pre-WWII Soviet occupation. In many cases, people were given only one hour to collect their belongings before the vans took them to the train stations. The massive ideological campaign of rewriting the collective memory started and was successfully promoted on TV, radio, and textbooks at schools and universities.  As David J. Smith wrote,

During the Soviet period, the officially sanctioned collective memory of these events referred uniquely to the liberation of Soviet Estonia from fascism: there was no public space for the articulation or commemoration of any alternative narrative of the past. Privately, however, most ethnic Estonians adhered to a different view: for them, the Soviet rule [that was established in 1940], had no legitimacy, and, therefore, 1944 spelled not liberation, but the replacement of one occupying regime by another (17).

The main instrument for maintaining Soviet power was the re-population of Estonia, which took place under the pretext of industrial development. Thousands of laborers were moved from the Soviet Union to work in the factories and mines of Northern Estonia. As a result, the proportion of Estonians fell from the prewar 88% to 61% in 1990.

Knowledge Check

  1. Why was the Estonian liberal regime replaced by an authoritarian government in the mid-thirties?
  2. Why did the Estonians warmly greet the Nazis?
  3. Which nationalities did the Nazis target as the subjects of complete elimination?
  4. Who were The Forest Brothers?

 Postwar Stalinism (1945-1953)

The overall control from Moscow was exerted through the establishment of communist party bureaus in all three Baltic states. The First Secretary of the Communist Party Bureau was an Estonian native; a Russian was assigned as the Second Secretary and the Moscow “ombudsman.” Next in rank were “the Chairmen of the Councils of People’s Commissars (renamed Council of Ministers in 1946)” (18).  Deportations continued, and it had become obvious that Soviet power was there to stay. The Estonian Communist membership started to grow in the fifties, as a means of survival and a path to building a successful career. Soviet propaganda was consistently spread through radio programs, schools, and factories’ weekly political information meetings, and editorials in the newspapers. All these methods, previously tested in the USSR, attempted to solidify the regime. The deportations made people fear any active opposition to the system. It became clear to many that the Soviets were there to stay, and there would be no help from the West coming any time soon to salvage Estonia’s independence. Therefore, collaboration with the Soviets became a “must”. During all years of the Soviet occupation, the secret slogan was to try to corrode the system from the inside, and to survive by partially or completely collaborating with the Soviets. More people joined the Komsomol and the Soviet militia (19). In 1949, forceful collectivization started in Estonia (under collectivization rules, Estonian peasants were forced to give up their individual farms and join large collective farms kolkhozy). Property of the wealthy farmers was confiscated. In March 1949, nearly 60,000 individuals were deported from Estonia (20). At the same time, industrialization started, and large contingents of Russians and other nationalities were brought to all three Baltic countries.

Knowledge Check

  1. Why did the Soviets force farmers to join the collectively operated farms?
  2. What were the destinies of successful farmers in Soviet Estonia at the time?
  3. Why did some Estonians decide to join the Komsomol and the Soviet Militia?

The Thaw

Statue of a man popping out of a wall
Memorial to Voldemar Panso. Photo by Eileen Kunkler

The era following Stalin’s death marked the end of the brutal terror. Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), the new Secretary General of the Communist Party, initiated de-Stalinazation, although without revising the fundamental principles of Soviet socialist society. In a long speech in February 1956, once Joseph Stalin’s loyal friend, Khrushchev criticized Stalin for arresting, deporting, and killing his opponents, as well as for incompetent wartime leadership. Although it was a secret speech, by June 1956 the U.S. State Department had published its complete text. In 1961, the city of Stalingrad was renamed back to Volgograd and Stalin’s remains were removed from Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square. Thousands of the deportees started to return home, and the process of restoring the good names of the millions, the so-called enemies of the people began. Khrushchev’s reforms gave many people the hope of building “socialism with a human face”. This occurred in Estonia just the same as in the other countries from the socialist bloc in Europe, deportees returning home and possible rehabilitation. At the same time as de-Stalinization, one very important new economic reform took place that allowed every republic to pursue individual economic planning. The changes in political climate generated the Thaw in art, literature, theatre, film, and music, which inspired new trends in every republic’s culture. Socialist realism  was no longer the only permitted style in the USSR (21). The move towards the publication of Estonian pre-war writers started. Estonian culture reemerged in a variety of styles and genres between the years of 1957 and 1968.

Knowledge Check

  1. How did Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization affect the lives of those Estonians who were deported to Siberia?
  2. Why was it important for Estonia to have its individual economic planning?
  3. Why was Socialist realism no longer the leading style/methodology in literature, film, theatre, and after the Thaw was announced?

Short Biographies of Famous Estonian Writers of the 20th-Century

Rudolf Sirge

Rudolf Sirge
Kirjanik Rudolf Sirge, ERM Fk 2644:6060, Eesti Rahva Muuseum

Sirge [pronounced as SIRG-E] (1904 -1970) war born in Tartu and educated in Võru County and Tartu. After dropping out of middle school and then out of university, he lived in various places and worked odd jobs. In the beginning of the 1930s, he wrote as a journalist for different journals and magazines. From 1937-1940, he was the press consultant for the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and after this, he was the head of the Estonian News Agency (when Estonia became one of the Soviet republics). After the German invasion, Sirge was arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned for 8 months for his collaboration with the Bolsheviks. From 1944 to 1945, he worked as a secretary of the Writers’ Union, and in 1946, 1951-1958, and 1965-1968 he held different positions at the Looming editorial board. He was a deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR).  Initially sympathetic with the Bolshevist movement and socialism, Sirge’s beliefs were shaken after witnessing the deportations of Estonian farmers.  Sirge’s main work is Maa ja rahvas (Land and People, 1956). It is one of the most important novels of 1950s Soviet Estonian literature, describing the turbulent time of 1940-1941 in an Estonian village. Sirge recreated the life of an old farmer, Logina Petri, and events leading towards his deportation. For the first time in Soviet literature, the Estonian deportations of 1941 were described. A well-travelled person, Sirge wrote many travelogues. In his book Meretaguste juures (Visiting Across the Sea, 1968) he described his traveling adventures in the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Sirge successfully worked as a translator from Russian and English. Sirge’s translation of Robinson Crusoe into Estonian was published in 1950 (22.)

Ellen Niit: female poet, writer, and children’s books author

Cover of bookEllen Niit was born in Tallinn in 1928. She graduated from secondary school in 1947. While at school, she published the poem Õnn (Happiness), which became a song for mixed choirs at the first Stalinist era song festival. During the harshest years of the Stalinist era, she was a student at the University of Tartu, specializing in Estonian language and literature. For her graduate thesis, she decided to write about Estonian children’s literature. Her topic was rejected, and she was accused of “tendencies towards bourgeois nationalism” (a popular accusation at the time). Instead of the topic she had chosen, she was required to write about the development of Soviet Estonian children’s literature. Reluctant to compromise, she left the university without a Ph.D.  and with a stigma of being ideologically unacceptable. In 1956, after the Thaw began, Niit became one of the members of a group of young Estonian women poets who were called the Spring Maidens. She was one of Estonia’s authors who fought for the freedom of writers’ self-expression. She did not understand, for example, why she was not allowed to use free verse in her poetry. Ellen Niit gradually became one of the most famous Estonian female poets and children’s book writers. Niit’s first collection for adults, The World is Full of Discovery, was published in 1960. In the introduction to her book published in Finland in 1994, Niit wrote: “Disrupted human relations, forbidden contacts, ridiculed convictions, derided ethical values, destroyed continuity and torn roots – all this has been an inescapable part of everyday reality for my generation. In such a situation, everyone had to find his own balance; in order to survive, we had to pull ourselves together and try to remain true to ourselves. To me, poetry has always provided balance and strength” (23). Ellen Niit wrote for children for over sixty years; she published more than forty books of poetry and prose. Characters created by her, especially Pille-Riin and Krõll, are beloved by several generations of Estonian children (24).

Enn Vetemaa, one of the most internationally well-known Estonian writers, and a popular Estonian playwright

Enn Vetemaa
Enn Vetemaa

Vetemaa’s works have been translated into 23 languages. He was born in 1936 in Tallinn. He graduated from the Tallinn Technical University with the degree of a chemical engineer. However, he later studied composition in the musical academy as well. He worked as a chief editor of literature and art television programs on Estonian Television, as a publishing house director, and as a poetry consultant for the Estonian Writers’ Union. Vetemaa was a member of the Estonian Writers’ Union since 1966. He made his literary debut as a poet in 1962, but at the end of the 60s he started writing plays. His play Õhtusöök viiele (Dinner for Five) was first performed in 1972. His comedy Püha Susanna ehk Meistrite kool (Saint Susanna or the School of Masters) was first performed in 1974. “His plays are the shining examples of Vetemaa’s uniquely sharp eye and witty lines; his are the plays without which Estonian Theatre History would not be complete” (25). Vatemaa has written film scripts, several opera libretti and composed music. Unofficially, he is called the master of the Estonian Modernist short novel. His texts always mixed a realistic approach with modernist undertones; his plays are filled with irony over the mediocrity of domestic Estonian city life. His novel Kalevipoja mälestused (Memoirs of Kalevipoeg, 1971) is a fusion of the Estonian national epic, scientific facts, and contemporary life.

In his most internationally well-known novel The Monument (1966), Vetemaa followed the footsteps of Max Frisch’s famous novel Homo Faber (1957), where the story is told by a character lacking ethics. The narrator, a young successful sculptor Sven Voore, returns from Moscow to Tallinn, and is commissioned to work on a memorial to fallen Soviet soldiers. From the very start, Sven is disappointed that all he has to create is the pedestal. The sculpture itself was assigned to a different young sculptor, Ain Saarema. Ain is portrayed as an artistic genius, disorganized, unpractical, and deprived of scheming tactics. Unlike Sven, who is a member of the Communist party, Ain is a private person, not associated with official politics. Sven finished the sketches of the pedestal on time while Ain kept working on his sketches without any results. Ain finally came up with one, breathtaking sketch of two human hands, as if trying to reach contemporary people from the grave. Although Sven greatly admired Ain’s sketch, it did not even need the pedestal! Deeply offended, Sven uses a political argument to get rid of his competitor Ain. Sven is not alone in his fight with non-traditional art. Supported by an old Stalinist sculptor, he claims that Ain’s sketch is not patriotic enough and not respectful towards the fallen soldiers. The Stalinist sculptor and Sven win. Together they make the sculpture of a gigantic, realistic soldier, who is standing on the massive pedestal. Ain loses his commission and he goes back to the island where he was born and lived for many years. In Sven’s success, the Soviet system celebrates its victory, but the readers’ sympathy is with the loser and the real artist, Ain. The novel was first forbidden, then published, and later received the USSR Writer’s Union prize for the best novel. In 1978 the novel was dramatized. The play The Monument was directed by Valery Fokin in Moscow at the Sovremennik Theatre.

Vetemaa continued to work successfully in the 21st century. In 2001 Vetemaa wrote a sci-fi thriller about cloning humans, titled Neitsist sündinud (Born to a Virgin). In 2011, Vetemaa published a monumental novel, Akadeemik Gustav Naani hiilgus ja viletsus (The Glory and Misery of the Academician Gustav Naan), which is based on the life of a Soviet Estonian physicist and philosopher, Gustav Naan, a supporter of the communist system. The novel takes its reader through the tragic, grotesque, and purely farcical situations of Soviet life. Enn Vetemaa died in Tallinn in 2017.

The Vanemuine and Kaarel Ird

Vanemuine Theatre
Vanemuine Theatre. Ivo Kruusamägi, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Vanemuine Theatre in Tartu played the most vital role in the overall cultural development of the country (26). Established as a musical society in 1869, in became the first theatre that performed in the Estonian language. Theatre Vanemuine is called “the three genres theatre,” combining opera, ballet, and drama under the same roof. In December 1944, the Vanemuine re-opened. After the war, Kaarel Ird became the theatre’s director and then in 1966, Ird became the Vanemuine’s artistic director — he led the theatre for 40 years.

Ird Kaarel
Ird Kaarel

Kaarel Ird (1909-1986) was born in Riga, Latvia. He studied theatre in the Tartu Drama Theatre Society’s Studio and at the Pärnu and Tartu Workers’ Theatre. During the years 1939–1940, he sang in the Vanemuine choir. After the war and the change of regime, he became the long-time theatre director of the Vanemuine Theatre. From the Soviet officials’ point of view, Ird’s working class background made him the best candidate for the theatre director’s position at the Vanemuine. For Kaarel Ird, the Vanemuine became his life. In 1966, he wrote in a letter to a friend: “For me the Vanemuine theatre was part of Estonian culture […], valuable and sacred as the Museum of Literature, Museum of Ethnography, the library of a university […]. I know that if I left the Vanemuin now there wouldn’t be a single person who could sustain the theatre’s level. And I even don’t know whether I can do that. Especially under the circumstances when we receive little to no help at all”. In one of his books he wrote, “Art is work, work and more work. And it is not right that we are ashamed to talk about it as work. Talent is a natural resource. And the community has the right to demand that a person who has been given that natural resource, would handle it properly. But in order for an artist to properly handle his talent, he has to never stop working” (27).

In 1956, the Vanemuine performed in Moscow, and soon was awarded the status of Estonia SSR National Theatre, fully subsidized by the government. In Estonia and abroad, the Vanemuine was renowned for performing with equal mastery opera, ballet, and drama. In the 60s, Kaarel Ird founded theatre studios at the Vanemuine, where he started training a new generation for the company. A new theatre building for the Vanemuine was completed in 1967. About that time, the Vanemuine became the center of new directorial trends. The newly trained younger generations staged plays in non-realistic directions, freely interpreting classical texts and experimenting with post-modernist staging, which was also very popular in Europe. One of the best examples was the play written by the well-known Estonian poet and writer Paul-Eeric Rummo called The Cinderella Game. The play was banned after the dress rehearsal by a censor. Kaarel Ird spent a year fighting fiercely for permission to put the play in the theatre’s repertoire. Kaarel Ird, although a traditional director himself, encouraged young Estonian playwrights and directors to have experimental staging of new plays at the Vanemuine. In the 70s, the theatre traveled to the German Democratic Republic and Hungary, and in 1979 was selected to represent the Soviet theatre at the BITEF-festival in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Overall, nearly half of the Vanemuine repertoire consisted of Estonian plays. In 1978–1981, visitors to Vanemuine set a record of 256,000 spectators a year.

Opposition and Protests against the Soviet Occupation

The tragic events of the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 brought about the hardening of the regime’s ideological pressure once again (28). For the occupied Baltic countries, culture became a refuge. The natives expressed their disapproval of the system by filling literary texts, artifacts, and performances with a subtext that related to their mutual understanding of the Soviet Socialist reality — the most important things were not said but squeezed between the lines. Hidden allusions were sought in theatre and art, and meaningful verses were quoted by the entire nation. Although long queues and empty shops were part of everyone’s daily life in the Soviet Union, Estonian art continued to blossom, educating artistically and aesthetically young generations of Estonians.

Tallinn skyline
Tallinn, Estonia. Photo by Eileen Kunkler

Silent opposition was always felt by every Russian who visited Soviet Estonia. Many Estonians refused to answer simple questions in Russian. There were also small political gestures when the Estonians cheered the Finish or Czech hockey teams during sports events and not the USSR’s. The colors of the pre-war Estonian flag could be seen in souvenir shops. In the 70s, pop and rock concerts gathered big crowds of young Estonians and often turned into spontaneous protests against the Soviets. Hence, in Tartu, in December 1976, a particular concert was banned, and a “crowd of students, estimated at about 1,000, streamed through the town shouting anti-Soviet slogans” (29). In October 1980, there were large scale student demonstrations in Tallinn in reaction to the interruption of another pop concert, which was to follow a soccer game. Several thousand students marched towards the city center in Tallinn, several were beaten, and 200 were arrested (30). In October of the same year, 2,000 high school students went on a peaceful demonstration towards the city center. Again, many were beaten and briefly arrested (since they were high school students, their actions fell under hooliganism and were treated less severely). Demonstrations spread to Parnu and Tartu, where the participants carried the slogans “Russians, get out!” Estonian samizdat, by publishing open letters, news, documents, and magazines showed the growing demand for changes (31). A new major phase in Estonians’ continuous struggle for independence happened in October 1980. 40 Soviet Estonian writers, artists, and scholars signed an open letter to the newspaper Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist party (it was not published). The letter expressed concerns over the forceful Russification of Estonia, appointments of people from Moscow who were not familiar with Estonian culture, and the increasing shortage of Estonian language journals and books. Due to the fact that the signees were prominent figures in Estonian society, they were not arrested or blacklisted.  However, less prominent public figures (such as Enn Tarto) were sentenced to ten years of hard labor in 1984 for signing the so-called anti-Soviet, anti-nuclear weapon letter, which was published by the Estonian underground journal Lisandusi (32).

People standing in long line side by side
By L. Vasauskas – Europeana 1989, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In February 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev announced glastnost’ (see the beginning of the module), which allowed open discussions of various previously suppressed issues. Massive demonstrations followed. In 1988, Estonia started its final fight for autonomy. At the end of 1988, Estonia became the first republic of the USSR to proclaim sovereignty, though not officially recognized for several more years. During the next 17 months, until February 1989, there were occasionally severe clashes with the Soviet militia, such as the demonstration in Tartu in February 1988 to commemorate the Soviet-Estonian treaty of 1920, which was brutally attacked (33). On April 13, 1988, Edgar Savisaaran Estonian politician, proposed the creation of a Popular Front for the Support of the Restructuring of the USSR, which soon was renamed as the Popular Front of Estonia. It called for economic sovereignty, the legalization of private enterprises, control over immigration, and the protection of the environment. The approval by the Kremlin of the dismissal of the leading communist party leader, Karl Vaino, caused celebratory gatherings in which over 150,000 people participated. The Popular Front of Estonia called for a song-and-speech meeting on September 11, 1988, in which 250,000 Estonians participated. Although in November 1988 the Presidium of the Supreme Court of the USSR declared the Estonian legislation of sovereignty unconstitutional, the Estonian Supreme Court stood firm. The most powerful demonstration took place on the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 23, 1989. A human chain was created, which consisted of nearly 1 million people holding hands. It stretched from Tallinn to Vilnius and was approximately 380 miles long.

In early 1990, Estonia formally declared the restoration of her independence. The Estonians, along with the Baltic people from Latvia and Lithuania, managed to save their culture and to reestablish their long-awaited sovereignty.

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