Estonia as a nordic country that got occupied by USSR

TallinnPan

Nordic countries formed the Nordic Council due to shared history and culture. While this was happening Estonia was unfortunately occupied by the USSR.

Had Estonia (aka Estland) not lost its independence in WW2 it may have been a natural, undisputed part the Nordic countries just like Finland. Iron Curtain caused much of Estonia’s nordic-like history to become unknown in the West, this blog tries to provide a collection of facts telling that story.

Looking past the 50 years of Soviet occupation one can see thousand+ years of shared history between the Finnic people (Estonians & Finns) and the Germanic. Sea is often seen as a physical divider, but instead it’s a connector, culture has always thrived on coastal areas and sea-routes have been the main way how culture and traditions spread.

As time passes Soviet occupation scars will fade and natural allegiances will prevail.

What is “Nordic”?

The term Nordic is sometimes defined as “the social-democratic countries in the north with a high standard of living”. We see nordic-ness as something cultural, rather than purely polito-economical. Consider this: if one described Estonia as “a little country in the north where people are blonde with blue eyes, love cross country skiing, don’t say much, go to sauna, drink mulled wines at the Yule time (and used to viking)“, it would be factually perfect. But does this sound post-soviet and Eastern-European, …or does it instead paint a picture of a small nordic country?

What does the country feel like when you’re visiting? How do the people sound like if you don’t know their language? How do they interact and how do they behave? This is what plays into how one categorises a country and its people.
In this light we feel that the terms post-Soviet and Eastern-European do not accurately describe Estonia. Eastern-Europe is still often equated to “Russian-sounding language” and slavic culture, which is technically incorrect for Estonians who are Finnic and speak a Finnic language. Post-Soviet is a term that is as loaded as calling France a post-Nazi country due to also being occupied at one point in history.

“What’s wrong with Baltic? Why Estonia wants to be Nordic?”

In the Estonian language, terms “Northern-Europe” and “Nordic” are often both translated poetically as Põhjala, and used as synonyms with no differentiation between the two. Throughout history Estonians have called themselves põhjamaalased (“the northern people”) and Estonia as põhjamaa (“the Northern Land”). The most known occurrence of this can be found in the song “Laul Põhjamaast” (“Song about nordic land”) which is of such importance that it has been proposed as a replacement for the national anthem. This creates a strange situation where Estonians grow up naturally calling themselves nordic (uncapitalised) in their native language, only to learn that they are not actually considered Nordic by the rest of the world.

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While the term “Eastern-Europe” has many negative connotations, this website is not about what kind of brand is good or bad. Equally it is not about what Estonians want. If you stopped one on a street and asked if he felt Nordic he probably couldn’t care less. It is about what is factually correct and what simply makes sense. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being Baltic — but does categorising Estonia as Baltic or Eastern-European make sense? Lets take a look:

  • Folk festivals and organizations that are “Nordic” in nature will promote Finnish culture, but not Estonian culture, even though they are heavily related.
  • The American-Scandinavian Foundation will support scholars that want to study in Turku, but not in Tartu.
  • Finnish language is often lumped in with “Scandinavian studies” in universities, while Estonian is found in the Eastern-European.
  • Despite its Nordic themes and similarities, Estonian poetry will not be included in books of “Nordic poetry”.
  • And Estonian folk music, though it is obviously closely related to Karelian, Sami, and Finnish folk music, won’t be included on Nordic music compilations among its relatives.
  • Estonian contemporary art and design, though visually identical to the Nordic in its simplicity, minimalism and functionality, is more often found next to Balkan  than Scandinavian.

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Cultural similarities between Estonia and other Nordic countries

Quick facts about cultural similarities between Estonia and other nordic countries.

  • Estonians are Finnic people (like Finns and Saami people – both considered Nordic today) and the language is a Finnic language. Latvians and Lithuanians are Balts who speak Baltic languages.

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National Holidays

How people celebrate national holidays is often a good way to seek for similarities connecting nations.

Christmas aka Yule time

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Yule was an indigenous midwinter festival that went through later undergoing Christianised reformulation resulting in the now better known Christmas time.

The Saga of Hákon the Good credits King Haakon I of Norway with the Christianization of Norway as well as rescheduling the date of Yule to coincide with Christian celebrations held at the time. The saga states that when Haakon arrived in Norway he was confirmed a Christian, but since the land was still altogether heathen and the people retained their pagan practices, Haakon hid his Christianity to receive the help of the “great chieftains.” In time, Haakon had a law passed establishing that Yule celebrations were to take place at the same time as the Christians celebrated Christmas

Today, Christmas is still called Yule time in Nordic countries and is equally similarly celebrated by old pagan traditions among which there’s a large feast, mulled wine and yule goat to name a few.

Jul (Sweden), Jul (Denmark), Jul (Norway), Jól (Iceland and the Faroe Islands), Joulu (Finland) and Jõulud (Estonia).

 

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Midsummer’s Day aka St. John’s Day

• Like in other Nordic countries, in Estonia one of the most celebrated day of the year after Yule is Jaanipäev, the Midsummer’s day aka St. John’s Day. Parallel to the midwinter holiday of Yule, St. John’s Day is the period of time centered upon the summer solstice and like many other traditions in Northern Europe has it’s origin from pre-Christianization time. The tradition to lit bonfires, leap over them, dance, chant and feast has survived from the Neolithic times.

 

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Shrove Tuesday – Vastlapäev and Semla

In nordic countries one of the traditions to celebrate the Shrove Tuesday is to eat delicious buns with whipped cream. In Estonian it’s known as Vastlakukkel, in Swedish as Semla, in Finnish as laskiaispulla, in Latvian as vēja kūkas, and fastelavnsbolle in Danish and Norwegian.

The oldest version of the semla was a plain bread bun, eaten in a bowl of warm milk. In Finland and Estonia the traditional dessert predates Christian influences. Laskiaissunnuntai and Laskiaistiistai were festivals when children and youth would go sledding or downhill sliding on a hill or a slope to determine how the crop would yield in the coming year. Those who slid the farthest were going to get the best crop. Hence the festival is named after the act of sliding or sledding downhill, laskea. Nowadays laskiainen has been integrated into Christian customs as the beginning of lent before Easter.

Why Estonia wants to become Nordic?

Estonia is culturally nordic-like, but it is currently not seen as such internationally. Even if such a branding paradigm shift was achieved, why push the agenda? Why risk angering both other nordic people and also the balts in a quest of “becoming Nordic”? What’s the reason to further increase collaboration with Nordic Council countries and why would Estonia want to change its title in the Nordic Council from “observer” to a full member? Here we’ve listed a few benefits and reasonings for “becoming Nordic”:

  • Nordic Council level of collaboration with other nordic region countries would benefit the economy and culture. Finland and Sweden are already by far Estonia’s biggest trading partners and further ties might speed up the increase in standard of living. There are many organisations that support pan-Nordic cultural events, Estonia’s traditions are very similar but are currently left out of the loop. Joining Nordic Council may benefit such undertakings by increased funding, more connections and know-how.
  • Becoming a new Nordic country would be an international newsworthy development which may increase tourism and foreign investments due to publicity and increased trust in safety and laws, both from other Nordic countries and internationally.
  • The process of becoming a full Nordic Council member requires Estonia to undertake many changes which may be beneficial to progress on the human development index.
  • Being accepted by the Nordic countries would increase Estonia’s independence safety. Estonia is already in EU and NATO, but being on Nordic Council might further deter the only potential threat and non-ally neighbor, Russia, from attacking — or at the very least it might increase Estonia’s international diplomatic support if an attack does happen.

GDP per capita of Estonia before Soviet Union

Our premise – that Estonia would have been a natural part of the Nordic countries, had it not been occupied by the Soviet Union – relies on the cultural similarities between Estland and other nordic region countries.
However, one of the main arguments against counting Estonia as part of the Nordics is the fact that it is less economically developed and therefore has a lower standard of living, so much so that grouping Estonia together with Norway seems like a fool’s errand. But has it always been so? Has Estonia always fared lower than its Nordic neighbors?

Below is a chart of GDP per capita rankings of Europe in 1922, 1929 and 1938, which shows Estonia ranking higher than Finland before it was occupied by the Soviets. Had history gone differently, perhaps today Estonia’s living of standard would be equal to that of other Nordic countries. Given time, hopefully it becomes so once again.

estonia GDP 1922 - 1929 - 1938
Source: The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe: Volume 2, 1870 to the Present

 

Estonian Vikings

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The dark red areas indicate original Viking settlements – notice the Estonian islands.

  • Estland (Eistland or Esthland) is the historical Germanic language name that refers to the country at the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, and is the origin of the modern national name for Estonia. The largest island of Estonia is called Ösel in Swedish and its inhabitants used to be called Oeselians.
  • The Oeselians were known in the Old Norse Icelandic Sagas and in Heimskringla as Víkingr frá Esthland (English: vikings from Estonia).
  • The Livonian Chronicle describes the Oeselians as using two kinds of ships, the piratica and the liburna. The former was a warship, the latter mainly a merchant ship. A piratica could carry approximately 30 men and had a high prow shaped like a dragon or a snakehead as well as a quadrangular sail.

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  • A battle between Oeselian and Icelandic Vikings off Saaremaa is described in Njál’s saga as occurring in 972 AD.
  • On the eve of Northern Crusades, the Oeselians were summarized in the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle thus: “The Oeselians, neighbors to the Kurs (Curonians), are surrounded by the sea and never fear strong armies as their strength is in their ships. In summers when they can travel across the sea they oppress the surrounding lands by raiding both Christians and pagans.
  • Saxo Grammaticus describes the Estonians and Curonians as participating in the Battle of Bråvalla on the side of the Swedes against the Danes, who were aided by the Livonians and the Wends of Pomerania.
  • From the 12th century, chroniclers’ descriptions of Estonian, Oeselian and Curonian raids along the coasts of Sweden and Denmark become more frequent.
  • The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia describes a fleet of sixteen ships and five hundred Oeselians ravaging the area that is now southern Sweden, then belonging to Denmark. In the XIVth book of Gesta Danorum, Saxo Grammaticus describes a battle on Öland in 1170 in which the Danish king Valdemar I mobilised his entire fleet to curb the incursions of Couronian and Estonian pirates.
  • Perhaps the most renowned raid by Oeselian pirates occurred in 1187, with the attack on the Swedish town of Sigtuna by Finnic raiders from Couronia and Ösel. Among the casualties of this raid was the Swedish archbishop Johannes. The city remained occupied for some time, contributing to the decline as a center of commerce in the 13th century in favor of Uppsala, Visby, Kalmar and Stockholm. [Some have addressed Sigtuna as the then capital of Sweden]

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  • Viking-age treasures from Estonia mostly contain silver coins and bars. Compared to its close neighbors, Saaremaa has the richest finds of Viking treasures after Gotland in Sweden. This strongly suggests that Estonia was an important transit country during the Viking era.
  • Estonia constitutes one of the richest territories in the Baltic for hoards from the 11th and the 12th centuries. The earliest coin hoards found in Estonia are Arabic Dirhams from the 8th century.

Sources.

Estonia as a Nordic country in international media

  • Swedish ambassador to Estonia, Mr. Dag Hartelius held a speech on the Estonian Independence day, in February 24, 2009, where he considered Estonia “A Nordic Country“. It gathered a lot of attention in the country and was widely considered as a great compliment.
  • Sir Malcolm Bruce: Estonia is clearly a Nordic country:
    “I enjoy going to just Estonia – Estonia on its own, not as the last leg of a Baltic states tour,” Sir Malcolm tells me. This leads me nicely into a question about the term “Eastern Europe” – dead or not? His response is unequivocal: “It is absolutely dead. The concept of Eastern Europe is politically dead and almost culturally dead. It conjures up images of Soviet oppression and misery and ignores a real pre-Soviet democratic tradition that existed in Estonia and elsewhere.”
    Wanting to take it one step further, I ask him where he would classify Estonia if he were in charge of naming European regions. “It is clearly Nordic – it has a shared history with Finland, Sweden and Denmark and it is good that the European and international media are finally beginning to realise this.”
  • In 2003, the Estonian foreign ministry hosted an exhibit called “Estonia: Nordic with a Twist.”
  • Prime Minister of Estonia in January 2015:
    Estonia must become a New Nordic Country, ie a world leader in terms of personal and economic freedoms, a country with a Nordic standard of living and level of safety, while being socially and technologically more dynamic and flexible than the “old” Nordic countries.”

Baltic vs Nordic – Why Estonians are not Baltic

The term Baltic originally included Finland in-between the World Wars after the 4 countries gained independence from Russian Empire under similar circumstances. At the end of WW2 as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were occupied by the USSR, Finland was left as the odd one out and started to move towards the Nordics.

The terms Balts and Baltic people are actually very specific and refer to just Latvians and Lithuanians. Now that the 3 countries are independent again Estonia is left as the odd one out because calling Estonia Baltic is accurate only in a geographical sense, not ethnically or linguistically. Estonians and Finns are Finnic people and speak Finnic languages. Finnic people are Uralic, same as Saamis and their language does not belong to the Indo-European language family. This means Swedish and Latvian are more connected to Punjabi than to  Estonian and Finnish.

Furthermore, the original use of the word Balt appears in the 19th century referring only to the Germans living in the region.

Given the potential confusion that can come from this mix usage of inaccurate terminology, we propose that the term Baltic should be used to refer either A) just Latvians and Lithuanians (like it is for ethnic and linguistic references), or B) all the countries around the Baltic sea (as it should be geographically).

So if Estonia is not really Baltic, question arises: what is it? And if Finns and Saamis are both considered culturally Nordic, why aren’t Estonians?

Estonian Swedes

The Estonian Swedes or Coastal Swedes (Swedish: estlandssvenskar, Estonian: rannarootslased) are a Swedish-speaking linguistic minority residing in the coastal areas and islands of western and northern Estonia. The beginning of the continuous settlement of Estonian Swedes in these areas (known as Aiboland) dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries.

In 1561, Sweden established the Dominion of Swedish Estonia, which it would formally hold until 1721. Swedish, along with German and Estonian, was one of the official languages.

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At the end of the Teutonic period, the total population of Estonian Swedes was roughly 5-7 thousand, some 2-3% of the population of what is now Estonia.

The 1922 census shows Estonian Swedes majority in some places, such as Ruhnu (Swedish: Runö), Vormsi (Swedish: Ormsö), Riguldi (Swedish: Rickull). Towns with large pre-war Swedish populations include Haapsalu (Swedish: Hapsal) and Tallinn (Swedish: Reval).

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There was not a unified Estonian-Swedish dialect, but several. The Estonian-Swedish dialects are subdivisions of the Eastern varieties of Standard Swedish. The dialect of Hiiumaa is still spoken by a few in Gammalsvenskby (which is called Gammölsvänskbi in the Hiiumaa/Gammmalsvenskby dialect).

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Almost all of Estonia’s Swedish-speaking minority fled to Sweden during World War II, and only the descendants of a few individuals who opted to stay are permanently resident in Estonia today.