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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

From country to borderland, from nation to minority

Taking into account international or even global tendencies of development, it may seem inappropriate to speak of a "nation-state" nowadays. The term has become an anachronism, an atavistic remnant of the last century, and a phenomenon of exaggerated ethnic narrowness. This criticism is definitely justifiable if a "nation-state" is considered to be an "ethnically pure" orientation country.

Methodologically, of course, we need to distinguish between specially systemized communities (the state as a system of political community).1 As a rule, nation and state do not coincide empirically. But, no matter how big the multinational state is, the ethnic centre will still be formed by one group- the dominant nationality in number or in strength. With independent statehood, nationalities have been able to develop multifunctional socio-cultural systems to guarantee their stability, their ability to adapt to changing circumstances and inter national impulses of development. In contrast, ethnic groups that lack a state oriented organization have often become "building material" for the multinational state, frequently leaving no visible traces in the culture of big nations. In this sense, all European state entities can be typified as nation builders. The fact that they are not ethnically "pure" does not lessen the share of the state in the consolidation of an ethnic sense. Empires never managed to create a single nation state with a single religion, language, and mentality. At first glance, it seems that the cause lies in an immanent undemocracy, because a "democratic empire" is a contradiction in terms.

Experience to date, including that of the Soviet Union, indicates that a new democracy may be achieved in relations among nationalities through the state or state like institutionalization of ethnic life. That is especially the case if ethnic separatism is also influenced by specific cultural differences: regional underdevelopment; ethnic history; competition among social groups (particularly the intelligentsia); and an ethnically discriminatory policy.2 Such factors force nationalities out of larger multi-ethnic communities, as has been pointed out by Anthony D. Smithy3 Here, we may note a vigorous nationality's structural and institutional incompleteness, which unavoidably leads to national separation in the creation of structural integrity.

Turning to Western culture, we must presume that Western democracy can, in the process of integration, create relationships and institutions which allow limitless freedom of development to local cultures and ways of life. This idea was not unknown among various Estonian-born scholars in the West, who thought it possible to guarantee the existence of nationality by primarily changing the character of relations with the central government of the Soviet Union. To quote Hain Rebas: "More important than gaining statehood is getting free from colonial exploitation..."4 Tónu Parming has expressed a similar attitude in stating: "In principle there is no reason why the Estonian nation could not live in the Soviet Union, or in some other federal state. But only if it is not accompanied by danger to the endurance and development of the national identity... A nation state, the other extreme, often leads to the stagnation of identity."5

Such a version of development may seem difficult to accept at first, not least for the Baltic nations, burdened by a different experience. The abolition of their national independence endangered the very existence of their nationality. The Soviet government started eliminating the country by breaking up the integral structures of local societies. In the course of a few months after annexation, the Soviet authorities got rid of the local army and the elected organs of local authorities were dismissed and replaced by officials appointed by the new regime. The legitimacy of statehood and local government ceased to exist with the abolition of the legal order of the Estonian Republic and the enforcement of the Russian Federation's code of law in September 1940.6 The enforcement of the laws of the Soviet Union (actually Russia) upon a sovereign Soviet Republic destroyed the last vestiges of Estonia's statehood, its distinct citizenship, and control over its territory and its foreign relations.

Pre-Soviet Estonian society had an admittedly brief experience of national and political democracy. But this was largely compensated by a well developed, many-faceted civil society which played a leading role in the nation's self-organization from the 1860s onwards. Many-sided economic relations between producers and consumers, culture, educational and religious clubs - all this formed a stable foundation which protected society from the shake-up of the political power of the young republic. In 1940, everything was shut down. Almost 16,000 clubs and organizations were subordinated to the Communist Party and the new government.

The break-up of civil society in Estonia broke the intranational connections and interrupted the organic social process of reproduction of nationality. Traditional social structures were replaced by a rigid state-oriented structure, which was given the task of interpreting the superior authorities' directives and guaranteeing their implementation.

To enable the centre's influence to reach as far "downward" as possible, Estonia's traditional territorial-administrative divisions were abolished, while the number of administrative units was increased threefold and that of the first rank (parishes) two and a half times.7 In pre-Soviet Estonia, local authority, national culture, and sports had been based on the support of voluntary cooperation, a very strong factor of national identity. Its positive and constructive role was clearly perceptible and understandable in forms which appealed to individual involvement. State control, regulated from the centre of an alien culture, killed off public life for a long time and led to alienation from broader social objectives. Only in the late 1950s, when the danger of direct repression came to an end, did the traditional substratum of Estonia's cultural life gradually start to reawaken from totally state-oriented forms of life.

Since, in the situation of international crisis in the 1940s, the Soviet Union's occupation of the Baltic countries did not provoke any demands for explanations or sanctions, it could start "rewriting" history without any hindrance. This touched the whole cultural heritage of the nation. Written documents were mercilessly destroyed. For example, out of the books that had appeared in Estonia from 1918 to 1940, ten thousand publications, plus five thousand issues of magazines and newspapers, were removed from public libraries and mostly destroyed.8 The history of the Estonian nation was henceforth to reflect only the empire's history. The 1918-1920 war of independence (in which every tenth Estonian carried a weapon) was degraded to the status of a civil war and Estonia's 20 years of independence were depicted as a period of socio-economic deterioration, ceaseless class struggle, and political dictatorship. A thorough revision also befell the earlier history of the Estonian nation, which attributed a certain messianic role to the Russian empire. Identifying the Russian conquest with the ancient lands of the Russian nation is among the most consistently used Soviet myths, kept alive by official ideology and propaganda till the last moment.

With this kind of geopolitical thinking, there could be no acceptance of the independence of nations which had been under the control of the empire, but only the established status of borderland. The abolition of Estonia's national independence for almost half a century changed the place of Estonians in the surrounding ethno-cultural area. The year 1940 saw the severance of cultural communication with the Europe toward which the young professional culture had become oriented and under whose influence it had modernized. Those of the intelligentsia who did not manage to emigrate in 1944 became victims of repression.

Estonia was transformed into a periphery of Soviet Russian-centred cultural hierarchy. One vivid example in this case is the "geography" of translated books. Of the books printed in Estonia from 1945 to 1955, translations from Russian made up over 94 per cent, with works from other languages (not Soviet nations) accounting for only 3.6 per cent. From 1945 to 1985 over 80 per cent of translated books printed were Russian.9 A similar development affected mass communication; the repertory of theatres and hobby clubs was Russian-directed as well. Thus, the Estonian ethno-cultural system lost its natural mechanisms of associating with other cultured nations and was instead forced to accept the transplantation of the elements of another culture system.

Estonia's fall into subordination to the most centralized great power was accompanied by a major demographic denationalization.

Ethnic composition of population in Estonia

% of total population

Rate of growth






1959-1989 (%)


















- 0.5


















- 15.1











































Sources: Itogi fsesojuznoi perepisi nacelenja SSSR 1959 goda. Estonskaya SSR. p. 94; The Population of the Counties, Cities, and Market Towns of the Republic of Estonia. 1: Collection of Statistics (ESA, Tallinn, 1990), p. 32.

During the last century, Estonia had traditionally about one million inhabitants. In 1939, 83.2 per cent of these were Estonians. Naturally, this number of inhabitants has influenced the balance of social and natural environment, the ways of communication between individuals, and their adaptation to one another. In 1945 there began a period of unprecedented colonization, which led to fundamental changes in the ethnic situation in Estonia. Suddenly, Estonia was inhabited by a large group of people who knew nothing about the indigenous people, their history, or their culture. Especially when we recall the fact that in the 1940s and 1950s, more than 40,000 people were deported from Estonia,10 while the immigrant flow from the Soviet Union was as much as 200,000 (1945-1958),11 the colonist character of such a population turnover is incontestable. In the course of 45 years of Soviet rule, the relative proportions of native Estonians to newcomers fell from 97.3 per cent to 61.5 per cent.

With the annexation of land for the establishment of Soviet military bases in Estonian military areas, the native inhabitants began leaving. For nearly half a century, much of the Baltic coastline and the islands were off limits to civilian inhabitants, or a so-called permit into a border zone was required. Denial of access to the sea and the ban on fishing meant the death of the centuries-old coastal culture and way of life, which had been a factor in the traditional "horizontal" ties between the different parts of the nation's territory and the units of local subcultures.

Nowadays, immigrants of other nationalities inhabit strategically important areas. Half of them are centred in and around the capital; over one-third are in the metropolitan area of north-east Estonia; while in the "border towns" of Narva and Sillamae (in several workers' settlements there, as in the town of Paldiski) practically no Estonian population has remained. 12 The result is that three-quarters of the non-Estonian population are concentrated in towns, where they make up an ethnic majority. This fairly compact alien enclave has pressed the Estonian republic's little settled area between "palisades" and forced it to draw closer to regions bordering Russia and away from the western border, away from areas rich in natural resources and important centres of communication.

Research still in progress may indicate whether this breakup of the ethnic territory of Estonia was in line with the conscious aims of the Union centre's policy. But surely it is not coincidental that the biggest concentration of immigrants was in places forcibly occupied by the Soviet military as demanded in the ultimata of 27 September 1939 and 16 June 1940.13 The units of the Soviet army in Estonia have methodically adopted the civil structures of alien inhabitants, in some cases organically uniting into closed micro-societies.

No matter what the pragmatic aims of the Soviet Union's central powers were - directing the inhabitants of other Soviet republics into Estonia or favouring migration - the result was typical settlement colonization. Foreign immigration supplemented the urban population (and over 90 per cent of the immigrants are townspeople). Almost three-quarters of the aliens live in either multifunctional or industrial towns with more developed urban facilities, for these towns have enjoyed priority in social policy. By contrast, almost 40 per cent of Estonian town-dwellers live in small towns with relatively limited functions. The heavy concentration of non-Estonians has meant a fundamental change in the ethnic mosaic of cities. As a result, over half of the townspeople of Estonian nationality became a minority in their own areas.14

Estonia has actually never been closed to other nations, not even while under Soviet rule. Its geographical position kept Estonians in the stream of development of the neighbouring nations - whether voluntarily or forcibly. But the events from 1940 onwards marked such an abrupt turning point, indeed a return to pre-civilization, that overcoming their consequences is tantamount to establishing a new society.