Estonia - Background information

Rakvere Castle, Estonia by Visit EstoniaThroughout its history, the castle at Rakvere has changed hands many times © Visit Estonia

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Estonia: the Bradt Travel Guide

Centuries of occupation 

From around AD1200, Estonian history was dominated by the constant struggle against invaders, forcing the country to look east, south or west, depending on who the occupying power was. For the next 500 years, the country’s fate was in the hands of the Danes, Germans and Swedes. From 1721 until 1991, the Germans and the Russians sometimes shared control, sometimes fought over it, but never, except between 1920 and 1939, relinquished it. Different enemies would even repeat the same battles. In 1227 the German crusaders finally defeated the Danes on Saaremaa Island. Seven hundred years later, in 1944, Saaremaa saw the last and most bitter battle between the Nazi German and Soviet forces.

From around AD1200, Estonian history was dominated by the constant struggle against invaders, forcing the country to look east, south or west, depending on who the occupying power was.

In 1201, the German Bishop Albert, having established a diocese in Riga, subdued the Latvian countryside in the following few years and then turned his attention to Estonia. After three years of bitter fighting between 1208 and 1211, the Teutonic Knights subdued Estonia. The Germans were sufficiently concerned about possible renewed Estonian resistance and attacks from Russia that they formed an alliance with the Danes. In 1219, a small Danish force landed on the Estonian coast and built a fortress to secure their new base. The Estonians called this settlement Tallinn – meaning Danish castle (or city) – and the name was never changed. Halfhearted attempts were made by the Danes to broaden the territory under their control, but none succeeded.

Bishop Albert died in 1229 and the initial crusading fervour of the Teutonic Knights was soon to fade, together with their three traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They ran the country as autonomous feudal barons, with no central authority. Religious domination gave way to economic domination. Estonians in the countryside were reduced to vassal status working the estates, although in the towns they had greater freedom to operate small businesses.

One major revolt took place during the two centuries of German occupation. It began on St George’s Day (23 April) 1343, when in a single evening 1,200 Germans were massacred, and finished two years later, by which time a tenth of the Estonian population had been killed, reducing it from 150,000 to 135,000. Fighting took place throughout the country and when it was finally over, the Danish king Valdemar IV was more than happy to sell Tallinn and the surrounding countryside to the Teutonic Knights. They could keep control relatively easily; the Estonians lacked size and national leadership, the Swedes had to struggle to maintain control of Finland, the Russians were defending their eastern borders against the Mongolians and the Lithuanians were conquering the Ukraine. Therefore, until the middle of the 16th century, Estonia was to remain a German colony. No major rebellion ever took place again.

If the aim of Estonia’s invaders was usually economic, a religious excuse could always be found. Ivan the Terrible, coveting the port of Narva to support his foreign trade, justified his invasion in 1558 on the grounds that the Germans had abandoned Christianity and were burning Russian icons. Viljandi and Tartu fell soon afterwards. Three years later, the Swedes seized Tallinn to prevent further Russian expansion. The remains of the bastions they built in Tallinn, Narva and Pärnu can still be seen. They were never used in subsequent battles, which usually took place in the countryside.

Therefore, until the middle of the 16th century, Estonia was to remain a German colony. No major rebellion ever took place again.

The 1570s saw constant warfare in Estonia between the Swedes and the Russians, which finally came to an end in 1582 with a Swedish victory following their seizure of Narva. The population by then had fallen to 100,000. Although the Germans had lost formal sovereignty, and were not to regain it until 1941, they maintained their economic grip on the country. The nominal justice system stayed in their hands, as did the local police forces. Ironically, the Swedes allowed the Baltic Germans, as they came to be known, to impose a far harsher regime on the local Estonian peasants than was ever allowed in Sweden itself. However, as it was distanced from this day-to-day control, the Swedish occupation is still regarded as the most tolerable in Estonian history. During the recent Soviet period, it was often surreptitiously described as a ‘golden era’.

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Estonia: the Bradt Travel Guide

The Baltic Sea

The Baltic Sea has played a key role in the history of Estonia. As a main travel route it was important not only for trading, but also for its wealth in fish, an important resource for the people living on its shores. The fish are a mixture of species of freshwater and marine origin. The salinity of the Baltic surface water is only five to seven parts per thousand. Due to decreasing salinity from south to north, the number of species varies from 40 in the south to 20 in the Gulf of Finland and the Gulf of Bothnia.

The Baltic Sea is a sanctuary for the grey seal; their breeding numbers in Estonia are greater than in Finland or Sweden.

In the open sea there are three main marine species: herring, sprat and cod. Herring and sprat are the most important commercial fish species for Estonia. Smelt, sea trout, eel, vimba and salmon migrate between fresh water and the sea. There is also a tradition here of catching lampreys during their migration upriver. Freshwater fish are found in the coastal areas, but rarely penetrate into the open sea. Perch, roach, pike, pike-perch, ide, bream, silver bream and ruff are also common in inland water bodies.

The Baltic Sea is a sanctuary for the grey seal; their breeding numbers in Estonia are greater than in Finland or Sweden. The most important nursing colonies for the whole Baltic are the coasts of the western islands. By the end of winter the pups are born at the edge of the ice or on the rocky shores of the islands west of Saaremaa. Pup mortality is high due to pollution, lack of food and injuries. The worst enemies of grey seals are fishermen, who hold them responsible for depleting the fish stocks. In fact, industrial overfishing has been taking a serious toll on the fish stocks for many years, with a consequent effect on the availability of fish for both seals and man.

The ringed seal has declined to one-tenth of its historical population during the last century, mainly due to overhunting. Heavy pollution in Riga Bay, leading to sterility in females, has, together with other factors, kept the reproduction rate low so that the population is not able to recover. The nursing areas are on the edge of the ice. Mothers give birth in early spring. They maintain breathing holes sheltered by ice floes, where the pups are hidden during their first weeks. In May ringed seals become more social: they gather in groups to change their fur and bask in the sun.

Coasts and islands

Estonia is a land of islands. About 1,500 small and large islands are scattered along the shore of the mainland to the west and north of the country, taking up one-tenth of its area. The largest and most attractive islands are Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, Muhu and Vormsi. The rocky, stony or sandy coasts allow a great variety of natural habitats. Together with the relatively undisturbed coasts in the northwest they are an important stronghold for breeding and migrating birds. In the north of Estonia the rocky shelf of the continent shows on the surface. Steep and brittle limestone clint cliffs developed in the Ordovician period, 500 million years ago.

These limestone formations are so special to Estonians that limestone has been declared the ‘national rock’. The most outstanding clint cliffs are found near Ontika and are 56m high. Between Ontika and Toila, the Valaste Juga waterfall with its 20m height might not be the world’s most impressive cataract, but it is Estonia’s highest and worth seeing. Some smaller Silurian clint cliffs can be visited on the northern shore of Saaremaa near Panga and Muhu.

Estonia is a land of islands. About 1,500 small and large islands are scattered along the shore of the mainland to the west and north of the country, taking up one-tenth of its area.

A special type of habitat is the stony alvars on the shores of western Estonia and the islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. The limestone bedrock with its thin topsoil and fragile plant communities is unique. Between the grey pebbles small plants struggle to find a hold. When the soil turns a bit richer junipers start to grow. In the past grazing kept the juniper bushes down; nowadays they are threatening the fragile vegetation by simply overgrowing it.

When the glaciers retreated from Estonia after the Ice Age, the land started rising when relieved of the pressure. This process is still continuing; today the coast is rising at an average of 2mm per year and new coastal meadows are permanently developing. The new land, used by man from the start, has evolved into a new type of landscape: wooded meadows, a habitat that holds the highest number of plant species per square metre in the whole of Europe. Carpets of flowers change their colours successively and in early summer several species of orchids grow among hundred-year-old oaks. The reintroduction of grazing is now being encouraged, since vegetation that is not grazed or mowed will be quickly overgrown by reeds or bushes and the diversity and richness of species would be lost forever.

A lynx in a snowy forest, Estonia by Visit EstoniaA lynx in a snowy forest © Visit Estonia

Wild forests

Almost half of Estonia’s territory is covered by forest and woodland. Estonia is located on the border where the coniferous Euro-Siberian taiga meets the northern part of Europe’s deciduous forests. Scots pine is the most common tree, followed by silver birch and downy birch, Norway spruce, grey and common alder and aspen. Botanists distinguish 23 different forest types. On sandy soils dry pine forest is most common, whilst other forest types include temperate spruce forests, hardwood–spruce mixed forests and dry heath pine forests. Where the soil is moist there can be found transitional swampy forests, bog pine forests, fen birch forests or swampy black alder forests. A speciality on the poor soils of the seaside is alvar forest.

The largest patch of forest can be found in northeast and mid-Estonia, from the northern coast to the Latvian border. On Hiiumaa and in the northeast, large tracts of primeval forests have been preserved. Estonia’s forests are managed less intensely than those in western Europe and their drainage has been less efficient. Biological diversity in the forests is therefore often higher than elsewhere.

In autumn, thousands of people go to the woods to gather berries and mushrooms; mushrooms are even exported. Usually there are two peaks of mushroom growth: late summer and mid-autumn, depending on the weather, especially on rainfall. Due to their inaccessibility, peat bogs and forests are a vital stronghold for many species. Most of Estonia’s mammals and many bird species live in these habitats.

People and culture

In the first independence period, from 1920 to 1940, ethnic Estonians made up over 90% of the population of 1,100,000. Estonia lost nearly 20% of its population between 1941 and 1945. Many of those deported to Siberia died there or en route. Military and civilian casualties were high during the fighting and then many fled as refugees to Sweden before the return of the Soviet army in 1944. By 1945 the population had dropped to 900,000 and although it would increase again to 1,400,000 by 1989, only 60% were then ethnic Estonians.

The Night Song Festival 2008, Estonia by Visit EstoniaThe crowd at the 2008 Night Song Festival – music is an essential part of Estonian life, and the country hosts a number of music festivals each year © Visit Estonia

Most of the remainder were Russian immigrants allocated as workers to the new factories along the northeast coast. The census carried out in 2012 reported a worrying drop in the population to 1,286,000, caused by later marriage and a very high divorce rate. (Primary schools around the country are closing because of this lower birth rate.) Ethnic Estonians represent 65% of this number and Russians 28%. Ukrainians and Belarussians make up most of the remainder. It is expected that the population will stay at around 1,300,000 in 2014 and the years following.

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