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close this bookEthnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)
close this folder7. From centre-periphery conflict to the making of new nationality policy in an independent state: Estonia
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentFrom country to borderland, from nation to minority
View the documentAn ethnically divided society
View the documentThe language issue
View the documentWho has been the minority since august 1991?
View the documentConclusion

(introductory text...)

Klara Hallik

Having been subjugated by strong neighbouring countries, Estonia has had the status of being a borderland to others. At one time it was the easternmost province of an empire: at another time, the westernmost. In both cases Estonia was a peripheral entity whose existence depended on powerful centres beyond its own borders. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Estonia was in fact a double borderland. In religion and culture it was dominated by German culture as a Baltic-German subculture. Administratively and politically it was dominated by Russia. During the final decades of the nineteenth century, Russia started tying Estonia to the empire also through its policy of flagrant "Rustication." This was pursued even more vigorously after the incorporation of Estonia into the Soviet Union.

There was, however, one exception: the short period of Estonia's national independence (1919-1940). That period saw the reorganization of Estonian society, during which time Estonia's own administrative, political, economic, and intellectual centres were developed. The principle of the nationalist movement, "Let's stay Estonians, but become Europeans," was the dominant idea of Estonia's cultural policy during this period. A main thrust of the cultural and educational policy was aimed at liberation from the overbearing influence of German and Russian cultures. There was a notable approach to the Scandinavian countries and cultural centres recognized by Europe. The international ties of ethnic culture proceeded from the inner needs of Estonian development, including a need to withstand "foreign" cultures. This major change in cultural orientation stopped resettlement and put an end to the provincial status of Estonia's young ethnic culture.

Possessed of an independent ethnic culture system, Estonia was then able to preserve its cultural identity even under the later pressure of Sovietization. Looking at the broader implications of the Estonian experience, it is worth noting that during the 1920s and 1930s Estonia became a part of a multicentred Europe, and this favoured the preservation of its own identity. As today's united Europe remains culturally and intellectually multifarious, the example of Estonia suggests that other small nations may also be able to find an equal place there. There is also a reverse argument: as economic and political integration standardizes cultures, it is primarily the small post-socialist nations who will fall into Europe's cultural periphery.

This article deals with ethnic relations in the Estonian republic during the period of Soviet rule as well as when it gained its independence. It also takes up questions of ethnic relations and conflicts.