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1710-1918 - Russian Estonia

In his first attempt to conquer Estland and Livland, during the Great Northern War (1700-09), Peter I (the Great) (r. 1682-1725) met with defeat at Narva at the hands of Sweden's Charles XII (r. 1697-1718). A second campaign in 1708 saw Peter introduce a scorched-earth policy across many parts of the area. The outcome was victory for Russia in 1710 and acquisition of a "window to the West." In taking control of Estland and Livland for what would be the next 200 years, tsarist Russia recognized the rights and privileges of the local German nobility, whose members amounted to only a small fraction of the population.

Although the extent of the nobles' autonomy in the two areas was always contested, especially under Catherine II (the Great) (r. 1762-96), the Baltic Germans did develop a strong loyalty to the Russian tsars as guarantors of their landed privileges. German control over the Estonian peasantry reached its high point during the eighteenth century. Labor overtook taxes-in-kind as the predominant means of controlling the serfs. The first real reforms of serfdom, which gave peasants some rights, took place in 1804. In 1816 and 1819, the serfs were formally emancipated in Estland and Livland, respectively.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Estonians were fast developing into an independent society and nation. The number of urbanized Estonians had grown considerably, overtaking what had been German majorities in the cities. Industrialization was also breaking down the old order. An Estonian cultural awakening began in the 1850s and 1860s. Tsarist reaction and a fierce Russification campaign in the 1880s could not extinguish the new Estonian spirit, although for the most part Estonian demands continued to focus on culture. Political demands for Estonian autonomy found strong expression during the Revolution of 1905, and an All-Estonian Congress was organized in Tartu that same year.

Although radical Estonian politicians such as Jaan Teemant and moderate leaders such as Jaan Tõnisson were deeply divided on tactics, there were widespread calls from the Estland and Livland provinces for a unification of Estonian lands and an official end to Russification. Repression of the 1905 movement was severe in Estland, although Tõnisson's moderate Estonian Progressive People's Party survived and went on to participate in Russia's new assembly, the Duma. Amid the turmoil, Baltic Germans also grew apprehensive; they would be upset even more with the outbreak of World War I, which would pit Russia against their co-nationals.

The fall of the tsarist regime in February 1917 forced the issue of Estonia's political future. Vigorous lobbying in Petrograd by Tõnisson and the large Estonian population living there forced the provisional government to accept Estonia's territorial unification as one province and the election of a provincial assembly, the Maapäev, later that year. The election results showed significant support for leftist parties, including the Bolsheviks, Social Democrats, and Social Revolutionaries. Voting was complicated, however, by the presence of numerous military personnel from outside Estonia.

The Bolshevik takeover in Petrograd in November 1917 extended to Estonia as well, until Germany occupied Estonia in February 1918. Most of Estonia's other political parties realized they were caught between the two forces and agreed to begin an active search for outside support. Representatives were sent to the major European capitals to secure Western recognition of an Estonian declaration of independence. As the Bolsheviks retreated from Tallinn and the German occupation army entered the city, the Committee of Elders (or standing body) of the Maapäev declared the country independent on February 24, 1918.

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Page last modified: 06-11-2012 17:15:15 ZULU