Country of the Week: Estonia

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The history of Estonia is closely linked with neighbouring great powers, but today it is developing a reputation as one of the most developed and must-see countries in the region.

  • Capital (and Largest City): Tallinn
  • Population (2015): 1,313,271 (156th)
  • Total Area: 45,227 km² (132nd)
  • Official Language: Estonian
  • Currency: Euro (€) (EUR)

The famous and atmospheric Old Town in Tallinn

History of Estonia

The earliest years of civilization in the country consisted of a variety of hunting and fishing tribes, with the Roman’s even mentioning them in their histories. These tribes faced threats from other Baltic and Scandinavian peoples, though they managed to largely hold their own. During the Viking Age, the Oeselians (a subdivision of Estonians) forged a fearsome reputation as sea raiders, terrorizing neighbouring settlements. The island of Saaremaa was renowned as a major hold of Viking treasures during this time.

By the late Middle Ages, Estonia fell increasingly under the sway of nearby powers, especially during the Livonian Crusade (the German and Danish conquest). After enduring frequent Estonia raids, the powerful nation of Denmark launched an attack on Estonia, claiming it for their king – a claim that was recognized by the Pope. They claimed the city of Reval (now known as Tallinn) as the capital of Danish Estonia. Remnants of Danish influence can still be seen in the city, from the coat of arms to the name itself (Tallinn being a derivative of Taani linna or Danish town). The result of these crusades was strong foreign influence (Danish, Germans, and Teutonic Orders) around the country and conversion to Christianity.

The 1500’s brought more conflict to bear on the small country, with the Livonian War. Fought between the Tsardom of Russia and other regional powers (Denmark-Norway, Sweden, Poland, among others), it resulted in Estonia passing to Swedish sovereignty. The time of Swedish rule was believed to be an improvement over previous eras, with the age sometimes referred to as “the Good Old Swedish Time”.

Of course, this wouldn’t last, as Estonia once again changed hands around the beginning of the 18th century. The Great Northern War had erupted between Russian and Sweden as they fought for supremacy in Northern Europe. After Russia’s victory, Estonia was passed to the Tsardom. During the period of rule by the Russian Empire, serfdom was abolished in Estonia, and nationalist movements along with distinct Estonian cultural works began to take shape. This would start rumblings of independence amongst the populace.

In February 1918, the Estonian Declaration of Independence was released, following which a more than year long war against German and Soviet forces took place. With some aid from the UK, Estonia won their independence, which lasted until World War II. The conflict brought great strife to Estonia once again as they were occupied first by the Soviets (under the terms of the non-aggression pact with Germany) and later the Nazis. The country was used for the Nazi war effort and was also subject to the Holocaust. Many Estonians were drafted into the German army to fight against the Soviets (who had been viewed by the populace as an occupying power before the German’s even arrived).

Towards the end of WWII, Estonia was once again conquered by Soviet forces. Mass deportations were commonplace as Moscow tried to promote Soviet immigration. The decades long period as a member of the USSR also saw militarization of the region, although economic growth was stunted. Many Western countries never recognized the Soviet takeover of Estonia as legal, and refused to consider it part of the USSR.

When the Soviet Union crumbled, Estonia was finally able to achieve lasting independence for the first time in decades. Since then Estonia has sought to become closer to the West, joining both NATO and the EU in 2004. Estonia today ranks very highly in human development, amount of freedom (press, political, economic, etc.), and is one of the most wired countries in the world.


Two Estonian women using a tablet. The country is one of the most wired in the world

Culture of Estonia

Estonian culture incorporates many elements commonly associated with Europe (especially Northern Europe,) and its many past rulers. Traditions and heritage of Sweden, Russia, Denmark and more can be found as a part of Estonian culture. Society is very liberal and prizes liberty while also retaining many of the egalitarian qualities we’ve come to expect from the Nordic countries.

To the question of whether Estonia is a Nordic or Baltic country, most of the population consider themselves Nordic. Shared customs (such as the sauna), conquest by the Danes and Swedes, and a similar language to Finnish all compound this viewpoint.

There’s has also been a degree of push-pull between Western and Eastern Europe in Estonia, which can clearly be seen in historic religious divisions (Catholicism and Protestantism as opposed to the Orthodox Church).

Sport is also popular in Estonia, with the country finding success in athletics, weightlifting, wrestling, and cross-country skiing. The homegrown sport of kiiking is also widespread. This involves a person strapped into a giant swing and attempting to spin around in a full 360 over the fulcrum.

Geography of Estonia

Estonia shares land borders with Latvia and Russia, the later of which is not well defined owing to the decades of Soviet occupation. Estonia also borders the Gulf of Riga, Baltic Sea, and the Gulf of Finland. Along the coast, many bays, inlets, and straits can be found. Overall, the climate in Estonia is wet with moderate winters and cool summers. The interior of the country is very flat, and is characterized by a large amount of bogs and lakes. Its strategic location (both on land and on water) is the prime reason for its history of constant struggle between the great powers of the region.

There are only two cities in the country with a population over 100,000 – foremost among which is the capital Tallinn. Located on the northern coast of Estonia, Tallinn (previously known as Reval) has grown into a cultural, historic, and now, a modern hub. With 32% of the population living within Tallinn’s borders plus the more 1.5 million visitors each year, the city is truly the centre of life in the country.


An Estonian bog, a common sight in the interior

Did you know?

  • Skype was created by Estonian programmers, and is a source of national pride
  • It is the least religious country in the world, with only 14% of the population identifying as such
  • One of the first Christmas trees was put up in Tallinn in 1441
  • Internet use is very widespread in the country and the adult literacy rate is very high
  • There are more meteorite craters in Estonia (per land area) than any other country in the world
  • Almost 50% of the country is covered by forests
  • Estonia was the first country to use online voting for elections
  • Owing to the country’s flatness, Nordic skiing is popular

Kaali crater on the island of Saaremaa

Last Word

Estonia has endured a long history of conquest and reconquest due to its strategic position and more powerful neighbours. Since independence in 1991 however, the country has made great strides and is one of the most advanced, free, and popular countries to visit in Northern Europe.

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