24 February 2007

Estonian independence day

On this date in 1918, the modern Republic of Estonia was born. Its eighty-nine years of life since then serve as a microcosm of the tumultuous history of twentieth-century eastern Europe.

Estonia had been part of the Russian Empire for almost two hundred years. In 1917, when the Tsarist regime collapsed under the stresses imposed by the struggle with Germany in World War I, Estonia fell under the domination of the Communists; however, the Estonians elected a popular assembly which met in secret. On 24 February 1918 the assembly declared Estonia an independent republic. The next day, the Germans, who were still fighting the Communists for control of the territory of the fallen Russian Empire, invaded Estonia. After the surrender of Germany in November 1918, The Russian Communists invaded. The Estonians successfully defended their territory, however, and in 1920 the newly-formed Soviet Union signed a treaty recognizing Estonian independence. During the next two decades Estonia set up a democratic parliamentary government, redistributed land from the aristocracy to the peasants, established a modern educational system, and experienced a tremendous cultural revival after the centuries of Tsarist repression.

But the country could not escape the existential problem of its location between two much larger and more powerful countries with expansionist ambitions. In June 1940, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact dividing eastern Europe between the USSR and Nazi Germany, the Soviet regime invaded Estonia, held a sham election, and proclaimed the country a constituent republic of the USSR. Thousands of politicians and other politically-active people were arrested; many were executed, others deported to Siberia. By the time Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941, reaching Estonia the next month, most Estonians were ready to welcome the Germans as liberators. Contrary to their hopes, the Germans did not allow Estonia to re-establish independence; they also began rounding up Estonia's Jews (who had had full civil rights under independence), ultimately killing almost all of them, the only survivors being those who had escaped to other parts of the USSR before the Germans arrived. Despite this, as the tide turned and the Red Army pushed westward, many Estonians volunteered to fight alongside the Germans -- eventually enough to form a full-size division. Their efforts were in vain, however, and the Soviets re-occupied the country in 1944, though about one-tenth of Estonia's population escaped to the West. Arrests, deportations to Siberia, and executions resumed on a huge scale, targeting suspected "collaborators" and "traitors". A guerrilla resistance movement remained active for several years, but was ultimately crushed.

After the death of Stalin, the brutality of Soviet rule gradually eased. Ethnic Russians migrated to Estonia in substantial numbers. The United States, to its great credit, never recognized the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states (including Estonia) as legal. In the late 1980s Estonia recovered some limited autonomy due to Gorbachev's reforms, and in 1991 it re-established full independence from the disintegrating USSR, though the last Russian troops were not withdrawn from the country until 1994.

Today Estonia is the most economically successful of the ex-Soviet-bloc countries, with a per-capita income of about $17,000. The ethnic Russian population (28% of the total) seems to have come to terms with its minority status. Perhaps most important, Estonia has been a full member of NATO since 2004. So despite some continuing tensions with its giant neighbor to the east, its independence seems at last to be secure.

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