Estonia was first settled in approximately 2,000 b.c. and remained an independent nation until the thirteenth century, when it was overrun by crusading Danes and Germans. The Swedes controlled Estonia from 1561 to 1710, when the Russian empire took over. Estonia gained its independence in 1918, but in August 1940, thanks to the Soviet-German Nonaggression Pact of the year before, it was taken over by the Soviet Union.
The Cold War was a difficult period for Estonians. Estonian politics, society, and the economy were all controlled by Moscow. Contact with the outside world was sharply limited, and arrests and the sudden disappearance of people—which had actually begun with the mass deportation of Estonians in 1941 to prison camps in Serbia—were common.
During the time Estonia was under Soviet rule, unemployment rates remained astronomically high, approaching the entire population in some areas. Politics greatly affected job opportunities. In Estonia's industrial plants, both raw materials and workers were brought in from other parts of the Soviet Union, and the vast majority of finished goods were exported. In 1947, Moscow began a policy of forced collectivization, along with the liquidation of what remained of the private sector. Russian culture predominated. In 1953 Estonian partisans carried out attacks in retaliation for the collectivization and the deliberate destruction of Estonian cultural treasures.
After Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's 1953 death and especially during 1956–1968, Moscow allowed some economic liberalization and decentralization. Guaranteed prices enabled farmers to receive monetary payments instead of payments in kind, which slightly improved the economy. Estonians who had survived earlier deportations were allowed to return, and attempts were made to restore some Estonian culture. Society also became a bit more open.
Moscow, however, made several attempts to reinforce more orthodox policies in Estonia after 1968. As a result, the economy began to stagnate, and foodstuffs and consumer goods became increasingly scarce. During the tenure of reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1985–1991) and his glasnost and perestroika policies, a movement for independence quickly gained ground in Estonia. By late 1989, a free press had been established, new political parties had been formed, and free elections had taken place. On 11 March 1990, the Estonian Supreme Court declared that Soviet rule in Estonia was illegal; one day later, Estonia announced its independence. Although Moscow initially resisted this move, it was practically powerless to stop it and came under considerable international pressure not to do so. In September 1991, Moscow officially recognized Estonia's independence.
Estonia is now a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and on 1 May 2004 it became a member of the European Union (EU). In April 2004, Estonia became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Since its independence Estonia has rapidly transformed itself into a pro-Western democracy fully engaged in regional and global politics, although difficulties remain, especially with the substantial Russian minority.
Arthur M. Holst
Smith, Graham, ed. The Baltic States: The National Self-Determination of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Basingstroke, UK: Macmillan, 1994.; Taagepera, Rein. Return to Independence. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993.