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1944-1991 - Soviet Estonia

Two-and-a-half years of Nazi occupation amply demonstrated that German intentions were nearly as harsh as Soviet aggression. Estonia became a part of "Ostland," and about 5,500 Estonians died in concentration camps. However, few Estonians welcomed the Red Army's return to the frontier in January 1944. Without much support from retreating German troops, Estonian conscripts engaged the Soviets in a slow, bloody, nine-month battle. Some 10% of the population fled to the West between 1940 and 1944. By late September, Soviet forces expelled the last German troops from Estonia, ushering in a second phase of Soviet rule. That year, Moscow also moved to transfer the Estonian Narva and Petseri border districts, which held a large percentage of ethnic Russians, to Russian control.

For the next decade in the countryside, an anti-Soviet guerrilla movement known as "the Forest Brethren" existed in the countryside. Composed of formerly conscripted Estonian soldiers from the German Army, fugitives from the Soviet military draft or security police arrest, and those seeking revenge for mass deportations, the Forest Brethren used abandoned German and Soviet equipment and worked in groups or alone. In the hope that protracted resistance would encourage Allied intervention for the restoration of Estonian independence, the movement reached its zenith in 1946-48 with an estimated 5,000-30,000 followers and held effective military control in some rural areas.

After the war the Estonian Communist Party (ECP) became the pre-eminent organization in the republic. Most of these new members were Russified Estonians who had spent most of their lives in the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, Estonians were reluctant to join the ECP and thus take part in the Sovietization of their own country. The ethnic Estonian share in the total ECP membership went from 90% in 1941 to 48% in 1952.

After Stalin's death, Party membership vastly expanded its social base to include more ethnic Estonians. By the mid-1960s, the percentage of ethnic Estonian membership stabilized near 50%. On the eve of perestroika the ECP claimed about 100,000 members; less than half were ethnic Estonians and comprised less than 2% of the country's population. Russians or Russified Estonians continued to dominate the party's upper echelons.

A positive aspect of the post-Stalin era in Estonia was a re-opening in the late 1950s of citizens' contacts with foreign countries. Ties were also reactivated with Finland, boosting a flourishing black market. In the mid-1960s, Estonians began watching Finnish television. This electronic "window on the West" afforded Estonians more information on current affairs and more access to Western culture and thought than any other group in the Soviet Union. This heightened media environment was important in preparing Estonians for their vanguard role in extending perestroika during the Gorbachev era.

By the 1970s, national concerns, including worries about ecological ruin, became the major theme of dissent in Estonia. In the late 1970s, Estonian society grew increasingly concerned about the threat of cultural Russification to the Estonian language and national identity. By 1981, Russian was taught in the first grade of Estonian language schools and was also introduced into the Estonian pre-school teaching. These acts prompted 40 established intellectuals to write a letter to Moscow and the republic authorities. This "Letter of the Forty" spoke out against the use of force against protesters and the increasing threat to the Estonian language and culture. In October of 1980, the youth of Tallinn also demonstrated against toughened Russification policies, particularly in education.

By the beginning of the Gorbachev era, concern over the cultural survival of the Estonian people had reached a critical point. Although these complaints were first couched in environmental terms, they quickly became the grist of straightforward political national feelings. In this regard the two decades of independent statehood were pivotal. The ECP remained stable in the early perestroika years and appeared strong at its 19th Congress in 1986. By 1988, however, the ECP's weakness had become clear when it was unable to assume more than a passive role and was relegated to a reactive position.

Praising the 1980 "Letter of the Forty," Vaino Valjas replaced Karl Vaino as Party Chief and thereby temporarily enhanced the ECP's reputation along with his own. Nevertheless, the Party continued its downward spiral of influence in 1989 and 1990. In November 1989, the Writers' Union Party Organization voted to suspend its activity and the Estonian Komsomol disbanded.

In February 1990, Estonia's Supreme Soviet eliminated paragraph 6 of the republic's constitution which had guaranteed the Party's leading role in society. The final blow came at the ECP's 20th Congress in March 1990 when it voted to break with the CPSU. The Party splintered into three branches, then consolidated into a pro-CPSU (Moscow) and an independent ECP.

As the ECP waned, other political movements, groupings, and parties moved to fill the power vacuum. The first and most important was the Estonian Popular Front, established in April 1988 with its own platform, leadership, and broad constituency. The Greens and the dissident-led Estonian National Independence Party soon followed. By 1989, the political spectrum widened and new parties were formed and re-formed almost daily.

A number of changes in the republic's government brought about by political advances in the late 1980s played a major role in forming a legal framework for political change. This involved the republic's Supreme Soviet being transformed into an authentic regional law-making body. This relatively conservative legislature managed to pass a number of laws, notably a package of laws that addressed the most sensitive ethnic concerns. These laws included the early declaration of sovereignty (November 1988); a law on economic independence (May 1989) confirmed by the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet that November; a language law making Estonian the official language (January 1989); and local and republic election laws stipulating residency requirements for voting and candidacy (August, November 1989).

Although not all non-Estonians supported full independence, they were divided in their goals for the republic. In March 1990 some 18% of Russian speakers supported the idea of fully independent Estonia, up from 7% the previous autumn, and only a small group of Estonians were opposed to full independence in early 1990. Estonia held free elections for the 105-member Supreme Council on March 18, 1990. All residents of Estonia were eligible to participate in the elections, including the approximately 50,000 Soviet troops stationed there. The Popular Front coalition, composed of left and centrist parties and led by former Central Planning Committee official Edgar Savisaar, held a parliamentary majority. Despite the emergence of the new lawmaking body, an alternative legislature developed in Estonia. In February 1990, a body known as the Congress of Estonia was elected in unofficial and unsanctioned elections. Supporters of the Congress argued that the inter-war republic continued to exist de jure: Since Estonia was forcibly annexed by the U.S.S.R., only citizens of that republic and their descendants could decide Estonia's future.

Through a strict, nonconfrontational policy in pursuing independence, Estonia managed to avoid the violence which Latvia and Lithuania incurred in the bloody January 1991 crackdowns and in the border-customs post guard murders that summer. During the August coup in the U.S.S.R., Estonia was able to maintain constant operation and control of its telecommunications facilities, thereby offering the West a clear view into the latest coup developments and serving as a conduit for swift Western support and recognition of Estonia's redeclaration of independence on August 20. Following Europe's lead, the U.S. formally reestablished diplomatic relations with Estonia on September 2, and the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet offered recognition on September 6.

During the subsequent cold winter which compounded Estonia's economic restructuring problems, Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar demanded emergency powers to deal with the economic and fuel crises. A consequent no-confidence vote by the Supreme Council caused the Popular Front leader to resign, and a new government led by former Transportation Minister Tiit Vahi took office.

After more than three years of negotiations, on August 31, 1994, the armed forces of the Russian Federation withdrew from Estonia. Several hundred civilian-clad Russian military remained at the nuclear submarine training reactor facility at Paldiski until September 30, 1995, in order to remove equipment and help decommission the facility.

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Page last modified: 06-11-2012 17:15:19 ZULU