The Russian Minority Question In Estonia (I)

A historical overview and Estonia’s minorities

Estonia (Eesti, Estland) is a Baltic state that was colonized by the German Teutonic Order of Knights from 1346 being, therefore, dominated politically and economically by a German-speaking landowning aristocracy, which succeeded to maintain its social and economic position even during the Swidish occupation of the territory of present-day Estonia from 1561 to 1721 and for most period of subsequent Russia’s administration since 1721 to 1915. From 1855 the ethnic Estonians received the right to possess the land. Migration increased the Estonian population in the cities during the time of the Russian administration. It is something that from the 1880s an Estonian nationalism became developed which was accelerated after the Japanese-Russian War in 1904−1905 followed by the Russian Revolution of 1905.

Several important national symbols of Estonia date from the late 19th century as, for instance, the blue-black-white tricolor, introduced as the banner of the Estonian students’ society in 1884. As a matter of curiosity, the original 1884-flag miraculously survived the turmoil of the 20th century. It is important to emphasize that after 1914, the Estonian independence movement became crucially dominated by anti-Russian Bolsheviks. During the German occupation in 1915−1917, a nationalist puppet Estonian government was established. For Estonians of whom about 100.000 fought in the WWI and about 10.000 fell, the final impetus towards a formal independence was the Bolsheviks’ establishment of a dictatorship in late 1917. Estonia has never been independent until 1918.

Seizing the opportunity offered by the withdrawal of the Bolshevik red militia ahead of the advancing German troops, the National Salvation Committee of the Estonian Diet (Parliament) proclaimed Estonian state’s independence on February 24th, 1918 (Lithuania did the same a week before on February 16th). After Germany’s collapse in November 1918, Estonia had to defend its independence against both the Red Army and the Landwehr, a militia formed by the Baltic German nationalists. However, an essential military aid was provided by the UK’s fleet, which arrived in Tallinn at the most crucial moment of the war, the end of December 1918. Finally, the Estonian government successfully fought the Bolsheviks, with a great foreign help especially from Finland,[i] the UK, and Denmark and as a consequence, Estonia signed the Tartu Peace Treaty on February 2nd, 1920 with the Lenin’s government in Moscow.[ii]

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral Tallin Estonia
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral Tallin Estonia

The proclamation of the Republic of Estonia was in 1920 followed with immense land reform which expropriated the wealthy landowners, mostly German,[iii] and, therefore, the state’s authorities received a critical support of the mass of the common people who received small portions of land. At that time, the Estonian society was relatively homogeneous with 88% of ethnic Estonians followed by mainly Russian-speakers as the most numerous ethnic minority. Such ethnic breakdown led the country in the interwar period to an atmosphere of interethnic toleration for the very reason that the ethnic Estonians could afford to appreciate the cultural and linguistic distinctiveness of Russians, Germans, Swedish, and Jews as minorities.[iv] Estonian authorities allowed every minority group which was composed of more than 3.000 members to constitute itself into a corporate body. Such minority had a right to elect their own cultural delegation to deal with minority’s schools, clubs, and other organizations of their own.

However, Estonia, like many other countries, suffered serious economic and social dislocations at the time of the Great Economic Depression in 1929−1933 what had a negative impact to its political life as the popularity of the Fascist movement and ideology increased. In order to prevent the Fascists to take power in the country, the President Konstantin Päts, dissolved Parliament and declared martial law in 1934 which, in principle, did not have big negative consequences for Estonia’s minority as their rights left mainly unchanged.[v]

As a consequence of the terms of a secret protocol of the Hitler-Stalin Pact (August 23rd, 1939), Estonia became incorporated into the USSR on August 6th, 1940 while in June 1941 was occupied by Nazi Germany till 1944 when became reintegrated into the Soviet Union once again.[vi] In the 1950s, the ethnic Estonian population in Estonia was reduced to some 60% in comparison to the pre-war time due to the war and forced deportations organized by both Germans and Soviets. After the war, there was a big influx of the working power from other Soviet republics to the Baltic states particularly to Estonia and Latvia.[vii] Soviet Estonia was the wealthiest of all three Baltic republics whose each of them separately had been among the leading Soviet republics taking into consideration an average income per capita. The political and economic reforms (Perestroika and Glasnost) introduced by M. Gorbachev („Terminator of the Soviet Union“) in the late 1980s resulted with the declarations of independence by the three Baltic States.[viii] The second Estonian state’s independence was declared on March 30th, 1990, and recognized by Moscow (Boris Yeltsin) on August 28th, 1991.

However, Estonian (and Latvian) minority’s policy after 1991 had nothing in common with the prie-WWII one as the government’s policy against minorities, i.e., the Russians, was harsh, anti-democratic and even racist at least until 1995 when the government accepted a suggestion by the EU to improve to certain degree the position of the minorities as one of the crucial conditions for Estonia’s accession (in 2004). Now, all residents who had lived in Estonia for a minimum of five years, followed by some other conditions, could become citizens if they want.[ix] After Estonia’s accession to the EU, the citizenship conditions became from some points of view accommodated to the general EU’s requirements and standards but, however, both Estonia and Latvia, in principle, prefer more nationalistic the Jus sanguinis (right of blood) instead of more democratic Jus soli (right of soil) principle dealing with the question of the citizenship rights.


Here we have to keep in mind that the citizenship is a juridical status granting a sum of rights and duties to members of a specific political entity/community.[x] The citizenship policy is today understood as a pillar of a modern state that is of an extreme importance in the process of integration or disintegration of the minorities. The notion of citizenship is, however, unlike that of subjection as the subjection implies a personalized relation of obedience and submission of subjects to the sovereign. Nonetheless, the notion of citizenship involves a relation of reciprocial loyalty between an impersonal institution (state) and its members (not subjects). A subjection belongs to the traditional (feudal) and charismatic political systems and social relations. In other words, the notion of citizenship fits to „institutionalized state“ while the notion of subjection fits to „personalized state“.

Russian youth against education reform
Russian youth against education reform. Demonstration in front of Estonian parliament.

Citizenship, in essence, is giving to someone the political rights concerning the exercise and control of political power, to vote and create political parties. That was, basically, the main reason for the post-Soviet policy of discrimination on ethnic bases in Estonia and Latvia concerning the question of citizenship as both Tallinn and Ryga wanted to deprive their considerable Russian-speaking minorities from political rights as they have been being understood as „politically dangerous“. Estonia and Latvia, in fact, literally understood and brutally applied the principle of „staatsnation“ („ein sprache, ein nation, ein staat“), a German term of the French origin, after 1991: each nation (ethnocultural-linguistic group) must have its own state with its own territory and each state must comprise only one nation (no place for minorities, i.e., for the others at least from the political point of view).

According to common sense and most theoretical representations, a „staatsnation“ is, in fact, „kulturnation“ – community whose members share the same cultural origin and features. The problem is that the principle of „staatsnation“ requires the formation of politically sovereign monocultural and monoethnic territorial spaces of the political entity (state). Furthermore, the idea of „staatsnation“ is founded on cultural and ethnic purity and, therefore, the others have to be either assimilated (if it is possible) or cleansed (if the first option will not work properly) in order to make the national state as much as ethnically and culturally homogeneous. In practice, the politics of ethnocultural recomposition in the name of the brutal realization of the principle of „staatsnation“ is resulting in boundary revisions, forced assimilations, banishments, planned immigrations or forced deportations.

The political association based on the principle of „staatsnation“ is offering limited opening towards the others or the foreigners as not everyone can indiscriminately belong to a specific national state. Surely, national state is an association partially open towards the outside. Such view, like in Estonia and Latvia, is calling for the creation of institutional mechanisms of social selection that regulate affiliation and exclusion like the institution of citizenship which together with the notion of nationality represent the fundamental tools for the national state to define who has the complete right to belong to such state (ethnic Estonians or Latvians) and who is excluded from it (a Russian-speaking minority).[xi]

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[i] The Estonians, Hungarians and Finns are belonging to the same linguistic group of the Ugro-Finns.

[ii] Estonian History in Pictures, Tallinn: The Estonian Institute (without a year of publishing and numeration of the pages).

[iii] Dr Alan Isaacs et al (eds.), A Dictionary of World History, Oxford−New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, 203.

[iv] Jan Palmowski, A Dictionary of Contemporary World History from 1900 to the Present Day, Oxford−New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 202.

[v] The list of authoritarian regimes established in Europe in the interwar period of time is presented in Robert Bideleux, Ian Jeffries, A History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change, London−New York: Routledge, 1999, 502.

[vi] On the issue of communism comes to East-Central Europe, see in Andrew C. Janos, East Central Europe in the Modern World: The Politics of the Borderlands from Pre- To Postcommunism, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2000, 229−232.

[vii] Jeroen Bult, “Everyday Tensions Surrounded by Ghosts from the Past: Baltic-Russian Relations since 1991” in Heli Tiirmaa-Klaar, Tiago Marques (eds.), Global and Regional Security Challenges: A Baltic Outlook, Tallinn: Tallinn University, 2006, 131.

[viii] Paul Robert Magocsi, Historical Atlas of Central Europe, Revised and Expanded Edition, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002, 221.

[ix] On the history of Estonia and the Estonians, see more in Toivo U. Raun, Estonia and the Estonians, Updated Second Edition, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2001; Neil Taylor, Estonia: A Modern History, London: Hurst, 2018.

[x] On political communities, see in Max Weber, Economy and Society. An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, Vol. II, Berkeley−Los Angeles−London: University of California Press, 1978, 901−940.

[xi] On citizenship, see in Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, Oxford−New York, Clarendon Press, 1996; Herman R. van Gunstern, A Theory of Citizenship: Organizing Plurality in Contemporary Democracies, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998; Richard Bellamy, Citizenship: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford−New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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