Plenary session

Ea Jansen

From an Ethnic Community to National Statehood
The Case of Estonians


Our Era is often regarded as an Era of the integration of the nations, although it is not quite clear what integration as a modern catchword actually means. If it means tolerance, mutual understanding, mutual help and collaboration, one can accept it. If it means something like assimilation or uniformity of national cultures, it cannot be accepted and it seems unreal, too. Every single ethnic group or nation is unique; it is a social and cultural entity having the right for existence, self determination and the right to be accepted by other groups as a partner.

From the end of the 18th century, nation as a modern form of human community and nationalism as its ideology became a major ideological and political force in Europe and America, determining the borders of the states. (I do not attribute to the word "nationalism" any negative sense as it is often the case: I mean just national consciousness and ideology).

Since the European revolutions of 1846/49, the right of self determination of the nations is recognized in the international politics: after the first World War and the collapse of Austria-Hungary, Czarist Russia and Ottoman empires, a real boom of the establishment of new nation-states in Europe began. It is true that it also appeared that the principle of national self-determination in an absolute sense is hard to put into practice because of the mixed settlements of different ethnoses. Yet it has remained and evidently will remain one of the basic claims of nationalities and a general directive principle the politicians have to follow.

It is true that particularly in the inter war period nationalism has clearly revealed its "dark sides: its extremist forms with antihuman consequences. It seems that until now the Western public opinion has not recovered from the shock caused by the emergence of the Nazist regime in Germany, just in the heart of democratic Europe, not somewhere nearly in Asia, as for example Stalinist Soviet-Russian chauvinism.

In order to understand, what is actually a nation as a community pretending for the utmost loyalty of people, in the post-war world most intensive research has been going on in various countries. Meanwhile, the collapse of the Soviet empire and the system of its satellites took place, the nation states in Eastern Europe were revived and the nationalism once more demonstrated its force. The new extremist forms of national or ethnic conflicts, particularly the late events in Bosnia and Kosovo, have once more shocked the intellectuals and the public opinion all over the world and brought about pessimistic reflections regarding Nationalism in general.

But whatever we think or fear, one has to accept the fact that the ethnic or national differences actually do exist and despite possible demographic shifts and restructuring, will probably exist for a long time. I still think that Johann Gottfrid Herder two hundred years ago was right when he regarded an ethnos or a nation a natural, organic phenomenon. History tells us that groups of people who have lived long enough together in certain geopolitical conditions have constituted communities with marked ethnic individuality; they may turn into self-conscious modern nations with politics endeavours and political ideologies. How does it occur and why, in many a case, it does not occur, is still a puzzle for the researchers, waiting for more detailed, exact studies.

The Estonians may serve as one example of an ethnic group which - against logical prognoses - did turn into a nation. By the words of the late Ernest Gellner, the Estonians were a modern nation which emerged "from nothing, "ex nihilo". How did the Estonians become in that case a typical nation of the 20th century?


In the late 18th century, the same Johann Gottfried Herder characterised Estonians as the "last wilds" in Europe. Until the Russian revolution of 1905 and even later on, the Estonians were regarded by the dominating German strata of the Baltic provinces of Russia as well as by the high Czarist officials and Russian intellectuals as an underdeveloped people, just people "under age" which had to be hold In tutelage. The Estonians were regarded "people without history", because in contrast to its neighbours, such as Swedes, Lanes. Poles, Lithuanians, they had not had in the Middle Ages their own statehood or high culture, ones own clergy or nobility. In the 13th century, with the German-Danish conquest, the Christianity and the European social estate order with the clergy, noblemen and big merchants at head was introduced into the country of our pagan ancestors. Estonians were pushed step-by-step to the lowest social status - this of the peasants and from the 16th century, just serfs. It is well known that in the eyes of the higher strata they did not have even an identity: the Estonians and also Latvians were just Undeutsch. "non-Germans". About the real character of the ethnic identity of these "non-Germans" we know actually little. During centuries, even after the after the serfdom in the Baltic provinces at the beginning of the 19. century was abolished, the image of Estonians as peasants and as an inferior stratum of society hardly able for higher intellectual endeavours prevailed prevailed among the educated public of the Baltic provinces.

But may-be it was just the isolation, the rare chances of upward mobility that contributed to the preservation of a strong ethnic identity of the Estonians. It is true that there was always a number of Estonians who succeeded in moving socially upward and were germanized. But their number was small. The mass of Estonians spoke Estonian, practiced ancient customs and usages, held to old pagan beliefs, mixed with Christianity. Of course, one cannot deny the permanent influence of German culture. But in a broad sense, the Estonian peasantry lived for centuries in a world of a traditional oral culture of their own. Physically, the Estonians were several times on the verge of a demographic catastrophe: in the 13. century, in the beginning of the 16. century and after the Great North War at the beginning of the 16th century. But somehow they survived. It was a luck no mass colonization from neighbouring countries took place: neither the Germans in South nor the Russians In the East, interested in the Baltic area, had a surplus of the population able to colonize our territories. (The real danger in this sense arouse only in the 1960s- 70s). It is true that in the middle of the 19th century, when the Modernization of the Baltic society brought about a considerable increase of the social mobility of Estonians, a strong tendency of Germanization was revealed. But it declined.


In contrast to many a contemporary researcher of nationalism I still believe that strong ethnic identity is also a solid basis for the emergence of a nationality in the modern sense, and that the most effective medium in this process is the common language - the most important element of the shared culture of an ethnic group.

A well-known theorist has said that "...language is less a prior determinant of nationality than part of a complex process of cultural innovation.." The data about Estonian cultural history prove that it was both: the cultural innovation and Nation-building of Estonians proceeded hand-in-hand. In the 17th century, the construction of Estonian literary language by the German pastors began; they acted according to the principle of the Lutheran church that one should be able to read Bible in one's own language. In early 18th century, Bible in Estonian was published, symbolizing the progress and perspectives on Estonian literary language. From the beginning of the 19th century, the enthusiastic intellectuals-Estophiles, again, mostly Germans, began to improve the Estonian language according to the needs of European civilization. But they all stressed the continuos need to learn "real Estonian" from the common peasants and did it in practice. In the second half of the 19th century. Estonians became a people of general literacy and hand in hand with continuing perfection of the literary language by -instead of the former Estophiles of the German origin - the nationalistically minded Estonian intellectuals. An expansion of the printed word in Estonian began and the poets. Journalists etc. made a point of the enhancement of the national feelings of the Estonians. The common language, the mother tongue, fatherland, old folklore, the golden past of Estonians before the German conquest began to be celebrated as particular values and found a wide echo. The mother tongue was not only just a "means of communication", it was a symbol of the community of Estonians.

There is one aspect more related to the language as an instrument of nation-building: although the relationship of the Estonians with the Finns was known long ago, now. through written word, also the common Estonians learned that they belonged to the big Finno-Ugric linguistic family. They were not quite alone among the Indogermans, facing the mighty Baltic German nobility and Czarist authorities, big German and Russian families. The problem was not only the depressing dominance of the educated and rich strata of Baltic Germans; during the second half of the 19th century, the Russian Slavophile intellectuals began to voice the assimilation of the Estonians and Latvians to the great Russian family - as they put it. From late 1880s, purposeful Russification policy was carried out by the Czarist Government; the German schools and the Estonian rural elementary schools, the only type of schools with Estonian as the language of instruction, were Russified.

Regarding the Finno-Ugric relatives, the Estonians quite naturally began to look to the North and step-by-step, Finland became a national model. From 1860s, the cultural relations were forced from both sides, and the more advanced modern national culture of the Finns began to act as an stimulating factor for national initiatives of the Estonians. One example of the meaning of Finnish impact: in 1860-70s, in the Estonian literary language instead of the "unnatural" so called "old orthography" on German model. Finnish orthography was adopted, more natural and convenient. The statistics regarding the publications in Estonian prove that it did stimulate the progress of the written and printed word.


The mother tongue communication - the printed word in general and nationalist journalistic in particular - was the main instrument contributing during the second half of the 19th century among the Estonians. Nationalist poets and journalists became, in their turn, authorities and were often looked upon as the symbols of the nation. The popular leaders, engaged in national agitation, were joined by "simple" village school teachers or just peasants inspired by national feelings.

By this time, the 'common Estonian" was already somewhat changed: due to the new agrarian reforms from the middle of the 19th century and industrialization and urbanization processes, more and more Estonians climbed upwards the social ladder: they proceeded in crafts, small industry and trade or as independent peasants-farmers. The prestige of education was most high among Estonians. And although the economic and social tops, occupied by the Baltic Germans, were still far and high enough, or maybe, just because of it - because of the feeling of injustice - Estonians were ready for social mobilization under nationalist banners. The instruments for the mobilization were along with the nationalist word or ideas and communication the changes in the social organization of Estonians the appearance of voluntary associations. The models were the organizations of Baltic Germans and in Germany proper, but also in Finland. A boom of the foundation of societies began with 1870s. the real expansion with the beginning of the 20th century. The associations of mostly low-class Estonians, although concentrated on cultural activities, were treated with suspicion and strictly controlled by the Czarist authorities as well as the local Baltic German ones.

But it soon appeared that the border between cultural and political endeavours is most arbitrary. The presence of an organizational basis among the compatriots gave to the most politically-minded" and courageous national leaders the feeling of support they needed: already in the turn of the 1880s. the dream of the formation of a national "popular party" and more realistic endeavours for political reforms were revealed, in a false hope that the Czarist authorities could accept the idea to cut the privileges of the Baltic Germans in the favour of the Estonians. The idea of Estonians was first of all a share In the self-government of the Baltic provinces, still dominated by the Baltic German aristocracy. In this spirit, 17 Estonian societies in 1881 presented a memorandum to the Czarist government.

The first modest attempts of Estonians to participate in politics were and could not yet be a success. In 1880s. political reaction in Russia set in, implemented by the Slavophile-minded government of Alexander III. Several privileges of the Baltic nobility were as cut, but the '"rights of Estonian people" there was so much talk of in Estonian newspapers, were not taken in consideration at all.

Nevertheless, significant was the emergence and expansion of a strong organized national movement among Estonians - just nearly exclusively low-class people with a weak intelligentsia, actually used to the domination of Baltic German strata. The majority of Estonians constituted the peasants, a stratum usually regarded as conservative and impassive.

I would explain it first of all with the rapid progress of the tradition of the participation of the so-called common men and women in public life. Despite Czarist reaction and more strict control, this tradition did not decline during the last decennia of the 19th century. It was interesting that now, along with the main national centres as Tartu and Tallinn, local centres of national-cultural life took shape; a parish, a rural township (vald). a small town or a borough could turn into such a centre. The local public life was promoted by the national newspapers and music, temperance, agricultural, mutual aid and other societies, expanding at the countryside. There was also a tradition of big all-Estonian cultural festivals and campaigns, beginning already with the first Estonian singing festival in 1869. In 1880-90a, mass collections of old Estonian folklore, the runo-songs and dialects took place, also several singing festivals with a growing number of participants. And if these festivals were outwardly most loyal and "Boshe, Tsarja hrani" was sung at least thrice, the Estonian and Finnish patriotic songs were also sung. (Particularly popular became the Maamme-song of Fr. Pacius.)

The continuing active participation was a precondition for a new awakening of Estonians in the beginning of the 20th century, and it was already a political awakening. In the more liberal atmosphere at the beginning of the new century, new ideological and political trends among Estonians and the first political parties, social democratic and nationalist-liberal took shape. The Estonian middle strata expanded due to the economic cooperation, the Estonian intelligentsia strengthened due to the prestige of education and eager endeavours for higher education among Estonian youth. By the way, a new national centre of Estonians now emerged: it was St. Petersburg. due to the large number of Estonians among the inhabitants and politically active Estonian youth studying at the University, Conservatory and Academy of Arts.

A strong stimulus for the national and political endeavours of Estonians was, of course, the revolution of 1905. The liberating effect of this Revolution to all the peoples of Russian is hard to overestimate. In the end of 1905. a body of the representatives of Estonian people, mostly representatives of different societies, already claimed for a national-territorial autonomy. It was actually a watershed. Despite following political reaction and the attempts of the Czarist government to establish its former positions, they never could be restored. The authority of the Baltic German nobility also crushed, and their formal ancient rights they appealed to were not any more taken into consideration by the Estonian public opinion. The idea of the national self-determination of the Estonians as the indigenous population was accepted by ail the Estonian strata. During the revolutions of 1917 it was put into practice - firstly, in the form of national-territorial autonomy: in a short time, a radical shift from the idea of autonomy to the independence took place and the Estonian nation-state was established.