1918-1940 - Independent Estonia
As the 1905 Revolution swept through Estonia, the Estonians called for freedom of the press and assembly, for universal franchise, and for national autonomy. The 1905 uprisings were brutally suppressed and Estonian gains were minimal, but the tense stability that prevailed between 1905 and 1917 allowed Estonians to advance the aspiration of national statehood.
With the collapse of the Russian empire in World War I, Russia's Provisional Government granted national autonomy to Estonia. A popularly elected assembly (Maapaev) was formed but was quickly forced underground by opposing extremist political forces. The Committee of Elders of the underground Maapaev announced the Republic of Estonia on 24 February 1918, one day before German troops invaded. After the withdrawal of German troops in November 1918, fighting broke out between Bolshevik and Estonian troops. On February 2, 1920 the Treaty of Tartu-the Soviet Union's first foreign peace treaty-was signed by the Republic of Estonia and Soviet Russia. The terms of the treaty stated that Soviet Russia renounced in perpetuity all rights to the territory of Estonia.
Independence lasted twenty-two years. Estonia underwent a number of economic, social, and political reforms necessary to come to terms with its new status as a sovereign state. Economically and socially, land reform in 1919 was the most important step. Large estate holdings belonging to the Baltic nobility were redistributed among the peasants and especially among volunteers in the War of Independence. Loss of markets in the east led to considerable hardships until Estonia developed an export-based economy and domestic industries. Estonia's principal markets became Scandinavia, Great Britain, and Western Europe, with some exports to the United States and Soviet Union.
During its early independence Estonia operated under a liberal democratic constitution patterned on the Swiss model. However, with nine to 14 politically divergent parties, Estonia experienced 20 different parliamentary governments between 1919 and 1933. The Great Depression spawned the growth of powerful, far-rightist parties which successfully pushed popular support in 1933 for a new constitution granting much stronger executive powers. In a preemptive move against the far right, Estonia's first and also then-president, Konstantin Pats, dissolved parliament and governed the country by decree. By 1938 Estonia ratified a third, more balanced, and very liberal constitution, and elected a new parliament the following year.
The independence period was one of great cultural advancement. Estonian language schools were established, and artistic life of all kinds flourished. One of the more notable cultural acts of the independence period, unique in Western Europe at the time of its passage in 1925, was a guarantee of cultural autonomy to minority groups comprising at least 3,000 persons, and to Jews.
Estonia had pursued a policy of neutrality, but the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-aggression Pact on August 23, 1939 signaled the end of independence. The agreement provided for the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia, part of Finland, and later, Lithuania, in return for Nazi Germany's assuming control over most of Poland. After extensive diplomatic intrigue, the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed on July 21, 1940, one month after Estonia was occupied by Soviet troops. The ESSR was formally accepted into the Soviet Union on August 6.
Soviet occupation was accompanied by expropriation of property, Sovietization of cultural life and the installation of Stalinist communism in political life. Deportations also quickly followed, beginning on the night of June 14, 1941. That night, more than 10,000 people, most of them women, children and the elderly, were taken from their homes and sent to Siberia in cattle cars. When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, most Estonians greeted the Germans with relatively open arms.
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