402 days to freedom

  • 2005-02-23
  • By Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - This week Estonians will celebrate the 87th anniversary of their declaration of independence, an event that precluded a prolonged war that took approximately 3,600 Estonian lives. Coming after the Great War, this would seem like an insignificant conflict, yet compared with the size of territory under dispute, Estonia's struggle for independence had a tremendous impact that is still felt today.

Indeed, had it not been for the country's resolve, which allowed it to fend off attacks from two different enemies, Latvia's own independence movement, one that was far less organized, might have taken a dramatically different course.

But looking back, Estonia's drive for sovereignty had been fraught with insecurities from the get-go. Historian Lauri Vahtre, author of a textbook used by many high schools, says that for economic reasons many Estonians had been reluctant to sever ties with the decrepit Russian empire. Admittedly, the prospect that the Bolsheviks or Baltic Germans would run the show was even worse.

Even though one of the first decisions of the Maapaev (a popularly elected assembly that was soon forced underground, and proclaimed itself the national authority in November 1917) was to abrogate Estonia's subordinacy to St. Petersburg, no strong independence movement materialized. Politicians wanted to leave the door open to joining a federation of post-empire states if the conditions were acceptable.

Then, in the beginning of 1918, knowing that German troops were about to invade, the Maapaev proclaimed full independence. The plan was complex, but in a nutshell they hoped the Triple Entente would win the war and recognize Estonia as an independent state occupied by Germans 's thus giving Estonians all rights to ostracize Germans troops and avoid a possible Bolshevik invasion.

An emotional and brief independence manifesto was quickly put together by Feb. 21, 1918, but Maapaev leaders wanted to be circumspect in how they promulgated it. As things subsequently turned out, Parnu was the most suitable place, and residents of the seaside city were first acquainted with the legendary declaration on Feb. 23.

The next day it was distributed in Tallinn in the form of leaflets, and since then Feb. 24 has been a red-letter day on Estonian calendars.

Vahtre points out that though a number of romantic painters later depicted the event as a grand, bombastic event, nothing of the sort in fact happened. Under pressure of time and fearing invasion, independence leaders either forgot or neglected a pompous presentation, Vahtre explains.

Sure enough, German troops wasted no time, and they entered Tallinn on Feb. 25. A week later, on March 3, with the Germans already occupying Narva, Soviet Russia signed a peace treaty with Germany in Brest, according to which Estonia was to become part of German rule. Still, England, France and Italy acknowledged Estonia's independence de facto, though some historians considered this to be a symbolic gesture in order to portray Germany as an aggressor.

Months later, in November, German troops stationed in Estonia welcomed the revolution in their homeland that overthrew the kaiser, and they ceded power to Estonians.

It was then that the War of Independence began. On Nov. 28, 1918, Soviet troops invaded Estonia in order to prevent a non-communist state 's a "potato republic" in the words of red generals 's in the near abroad. By January 1919 Estonia had lost half its territory, and the situation looked increasingly desperate. Soon, however, robust reforms in the army, a wave of Finnish, Danish and Swedish volunteers and the use of top-notch military equipment 's such as armored train cars 's helped the Estonians throw the Soviets back to Narva, Pechory and beyond.

Estonian organization and morale became such a decisive force that later in the year their troops were called upon to bail out Latvia, where the Landeswehr 's an army of Baltic Germans 's had managed to oust President Karlis Ulmanis. While the Latvian leader took refuge on board a British ship anchored at Liepaja, Estonian troops marched into Cesis and, after a series of battles, defeated the Landeswehr. Later, two armored trains from Estonia helped secure the defense of Riga after a group of Baltic Germans led a revolt on the southern bank of the Daugava River in Riga.

The peace treaty signed between Estonian officials and Russia's representative in Tartu on Feb. 2, 1920 is considered the "birth certificate" of the Estonian Republic since it's the country's first international agreement.


The core of the Estonian army was culled together using the experience of Estonians who served in the Russian army. Thirty-four-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Johan Laidoner was one of outstanding figures of the effort. Reflecting on the war years in October 1934, Laidoner (then a general) said the War of Independence had been the single most important event in the history of independent Estonia. "We passed the War of Independence, we fought on two or three fronts at the same time, we were not big in number. The equipment left much to be desired too. But we had the will to defend ourselves and win our independence. I think in the future Estonians will value this event more than we do now," he said.

Similarly reflecting, Konstantin Pats, who headed the young government, praised the generous assistance from Finland. "At the fatal moment, when Estonia was standing at the very edge of an abyss from where there was no return, when [Estonia's] hope for freedom was about to fall victim of wild violence, Asian barbarity and chaos, the brotherly Finnish people reached their hands across the gulf," he said in a speech to Parliament.

Pats, who in the 1930s seized power and established a dictator-like regime, acknowledged Estonia's economic weakness in 1919 and campaigned for developing agriculture as the engine of future growth. This strategy turned out to be true, as Soviet Russia quit contracting Estonia's industrial enterprises and closed most trade. Agricultural output had shifted to markets in England and other West European states.

Still, Pats advocated good relations with Russia, saying that one should be able to maintain a happy face while "walking arm-in-arm with the devil's grandmother" if the interests of the state and the nation demanded so. At no costs did he want to repeat the mistake of Georgia, which allowed the Bolshevik movement to flourish and eventually take over the country.

In a brief letter to the Finnish ambassador written shortly before his deportation to Russia in 1940, President Pats outlined his views on the post-war Baltic region. "Estonia should join Finland as a federative state," he wrote, adding that it would be better to have a common head of state, unify basic commercial regulations and introduce two official languages while leaving the court systems separated. All those reforms should be taken into account with the victors to the Baltic region's post-war development, he explained.

Pats also suggested that Latvia and Lithuania "reinforce their rear" by joining Poland.

Nowadays, however, Parts' immaculate role no longer exists. Historian Magnus Ilmjarv pointed out in research published in the late 1990s that Pats, who was captured by Soviet troops in 1940, might have been a Soviet agent. He eventually perished in Kalinin (Tver), Russia in 1956.

Tartu University professor of political science Andres Kasekamp explains that Ilmjarv's book changed perceptions about Pats' 1930s regime, but not the whole idea of the Independence Day celebrations. "Independence celebrations commemorate 1918. Look how popular the film "Nimed Marmortahvlil" [Names in Marble] was a couple of years ago 's that shapes popular conceptions more than Ilmjarv," says Kasekamp.


Estonians have several festive events to let out their spirit of solidarity and patriotism planned for Feb. 24. Only one of the massive holiday events 's the morning parade at the Vabaduse Square in Tallinn 's is open to the public, and for many young men living in Estonia this holiday is about meeting their army buddies after watching the parade.

(Ironically ethnic Russians celebrate Feb. 23 as Soviet Army Day 's or Defenders of the Motherland Day 's and many of the young Russians listening, hats off, to the Estonian anthem will have congratulated their fathers and grandfathers the day before.)

Andres Kasekamp says the live-broadcast of the presidential reception and ball are the celebration highlights for most people as they enjoy celebrity appearances and costumes. "It's not only the silliness of a new state 's the same thing happens in Finland," he adds.

One day prior to this, the president hands out decorations to individuals who have done something for the good of the republic. Nevertheless, the hundreds of medals awarded each year raise a skeptical eyebrow with historians. "The first Constitution of the Estonian Republic approved in 1920 banned decorations in Estonia. [President Konstantin] Pats reinstalled them [after seizing power in 1934. 's ed.] because he knew they were a good 's and cheap 's reward for loyalty," Kasekamp remarks.

Last year, 180 decorations were awarded. In 2003 the number of decorations given at the Independence Day barely exceeded 100. This year the President will hand in over 440 decorations of various degrees. It would be fair to add, however, that the list has become so long mostly because of the people who participated in the January 2005 storm and flood rescue operations.

This year among the recipients of the highest decoration, the Maarjamaa Cross of 1st degree, are former U.S. President George Bush, former British Foreign Minister Robin Cook, ex-President of the European Parliament Patrick Cox, ex-commissioner Christopher Patten and Commissioner Gunter Verheugen.

Estonia during the first republic

In the late 1920s, despite growing urbanization, Estonia had positive population growth, as the annual number of births exceeded the death rate by 1,500. About 20,000 children were born in 1928 (compare this to 13,000 in 2004).

About 60 percent of working aged people were employed in the agriculture sector, 18 percent worked in the industry sector.

An average working class family spent 58 percent of its income on food, 15 percent on clothes and 13 percent on housing.

The spirit monopoly introduced in the 1920s provided about 17 percent of the total budget revenues. Annual alcohol consumption per capita in 1921 stood at 3.87 liters of pure alcohol (compared to over 9 liters in 2003). Estonian smugglers delivered alcohol to Finland using high-speed motor boats.

Estonia had about 21,000 kilometers of passable roads.

There were three regular air connections (Tallinn-Helsinki, Tallinn-Riga-Konigsberg and Tallinn-Riga-Warsaw). About half the flights served the Tallinn-Helsinki line.

In the 1920s and 30s Latvian tourists were the most frequent guests in Estonia, followed by Finns and Germans.

Food prices in the 1930s saw a tremendous drop compared with 1913, which was partially caused by the global economic crisis. The price of housing, clothes and leisure, however, grew almost 200 percent.

By 1931, only 1.1 percent of the population had higher education although the literacy rate stood at about 97 percent.

Source: Central Statistics Bureau publication "Eesti arvudes 1920-35"