The Republic of Estonia (Eesti Vabariik), is a country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. It is bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland, to the west by the Baltic Sea, to the south by Latvia, and to the east by Lake Peipus and Russia. Across the Baltic Sea lies Sweden in the west and Finland in the north. The territory of Estonia consists of a mainland and 2,222 islands and islets in the Baltic Sea, covering 17,505 square miles (45,339 square kilometers) of land, and is influenced by a humid continental climate.
The territory of Estonia has been inhabited since at least 6500 BCE, with Finno-Ugric speakers — the linguistic ancestors of modern Estonians — arriving no later than around 1800 BCE. Following centuries of successive Teutonic, Danish, Swedish, and Russian rule, Estonians experienced a national awakening that culminated in independence from the Russian Empire towards the end of World War I.
Following the Bolshevik takeover of power in Russia after the October Revolution of 1917 and German victories against the Russian army, between the Russian Red Army’s retreat and the arrival of advancing German troops, the Committee of Elders of the Maapäev issued the Estonian Declaration of Independence in Pärnu on February 23 and in Tallinn on February 24, 1918. On February 25, the German occupation authorities gained control over the Tallinn Post Office and liquidated the former postal service. The country was occupied by German troops, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed, whereby the Russian government waived all claims to Estonia. The Germans stayed until November 1918 when, with the end of the war in the west, the soldiers returned to Germany, leaving a vacuum which allowed the Bolshevik troops to move into Estonia. This caused the Estonian War of Independence, which lasted 14 months.
On November 13, 1918, the Commander of the Estonian Defense League Colonel Johan Unt appointed Hindrek Rikand with a directive as the Commandant of the Tallinn Post and Telegraph Office and ordered him to take the Office under his guard. The Estonian Postal Administration considers this date as its date of organizational establishment.
The first Estonian stamps were put into circulation in November 1918. On November 22 and 30, the first stamps bearing a flower ornament and having the nominal values of 5 and 15 kopecks were issued. These first issues were printed by the Bölau Printing House in the town of Nõmme (now a district of Tallinn). The perforated 15 kopecks of the Flowers Issue was a perforation trial ordered by the Postal Authorities. The trial was made on sheets of printers waste from the first and second printings (perforated 11½). The marginal stamps were not perforated on the outside. Therefore, there are stamps perforated only on three or two (corner stamps) sides. The trial was not considered successful and therefore not repeated. The total number of the perforated stamps is not known and very likely it will remain unknown.
After winning the Estonian War of Independence against Soviet Russia and later the German Freikorps included in the Baltische Landeswehr as volunteers, who had earlier fought alongside Estonia, the Tartu Peace Treaty was signed on February 2, 1920. The Republic of Estonia was recognized (de jure) by Finland on July 7, 1920, by Poland on December 31, 1920, by Argentina on January 12, 1921, by the Western Allies on January 26, 1921, and by India on September 22, 1921.
Estonia joined the Universal Postal Union (UPU) on May 19, 1922. In addition to the ordinary mail (based on road transport), Estonia also had a ship and air mail services. Naval transport was used for sending mail to Helsinki and Stockholm. In 1923, Aeronaut Airlines began to carry mail six times a week to Helsinki and Riga. Before the start of the Second World War (in 1939) and the Soviet annexation (in 1940) a total of 163 stamps and four stamp blocks were put into circulation.
Estonia maintained its independence for twenty-two years. Initially a parliamentary democracy, the parliament (Riigikogu) was disbanded in 1934, following political unrest caused by the global economic crisis. Subsequently, the country was ruled by decree by Konstantin Päts, who became president in 1938, the year parliamentary elections resumed.
The fate of Estonia in the Second World War was decided by the German–Soviet Non-aggression Pact and its Secret Additional Protocol of August 1939. World War II casualties of Estonia are estimated at around 25% of the population. War and occupation deaths have been estimated at 90,000. These include the Soviet deportations in 1941, the German deportations and Holocaust victims.
On August 6, 1940, Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union as the Estonian SSR (Эстонская Советская Социалистическая Республика ЭССР). The provisions of the Estonian constitution requiring a popular referendum to decide on joining a supra-national body were ignored. Instead the vote to join the Soviet Union was taken by those elected in the elections held the previous month. Further, those who had failed to do their “political duty” of voting Estonia into the USSR, specifically those who had failed to have their passports stamped for voting, were condemned to death by Soviet tribunals. The repressions followed with the mass deportations carried out by the Soviets in Estonia on June 14, 1941. Many of the country’s political and intellectual leaders were killed or deported to remote areas of the USSR by the Soviet authorities in 1940–1941. Repressive actions were also taken against thousands of ordinary people.
When the German Operation Barbarossa started against the Soviet Union, about 34,000 young Estonian men were forcibly drafted into the Red Army, fewer than 30% of whom survived the war. Political prisoners who could not be evacuated were executed by the NKVD. Many countries, including the UK and US, did not recognize the annexation of Estonia by the USSR de jure. Such countries recognized Estonian diplomats and consuls who still functioned in the name of their former governments. These diplomats persisted in this anomalous situation until the eventual restoration of Baltic independence.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Wehrmacht crossed the Estonian southern border on July 7. The Red Army retreated behind the Pärnu River – Emajõgi line on July 12. At the end of July the Germans resumed their advance in Estonia, working in tandem with the Estonian Forest Brothers. Both German troops and Estonian partisans took Narva on August 17 and the Estonian capital Tallinn on August 28. After the Soviets were driven out from Estonia, German troops disarmed all the partisan groups.
The Soviet forces reconquered Estonia in autumn 1944 after battles in the northeast of the country on the Narva river, on the Tannenberg Line (Sinimäed), in Southeast Estonia, on the Emajõgi river, and in the West Estonian Archipelago. In the face of re-occupation by the Red Army, tens of thousands of Estonians (including a majority of the education, culture, science, political and social specialists) chose either to retreat with the Germans or to flee to Finland or Sweden, from where they sought refuge in other western countries, often on refugee ships such as the SS Walnut.
On January 12, 1949, the Soviet Council of Ministers issued a decree “on the expulsion and deportation” from Baltic states of “all kulaks and their families, the families of bandits and nationalists”, and others. More than 10% of the adult Baltic population were deported or sent to Soviet labor camps. In response to the continuing insurgency against Soviet rule, more than 20,000 Estonians were forcibly deported either to labor camps or to Siberia. Almost all of the remaining rural households were collectivized.
After the Second World War, as part of the goal to more fully integrate Baltic countries into the Soviet Union, mass deportations were conducted in the Baltic countries and the policy of encouraging Russian immigration to the Baltic states continued. Half the deported perished, and the other half were not allowed to return until the early 1960s (years after Stalin’s death). The activities of Soviet forces in 1940–41 and after reoccupation sparked a guerrilla war against Soviet authorities in Estonia by the Forest Brothers, who consisted mostly of Estonian veterans of the German and Finnish armies and some civilians. This conflict continued into the early 1950s. Material damage caused by the world war and the following Soviet era significantly slowed Estonia’s economic growth, resulting in a wide wealth gap in comparison with neighboring Finland and Sweden
Militarization was another aspect of the Soviet state. Large parts of the country, especially the coastal areas, were closed to all but the Soviet military. Most of the coast and all sea islands (including Saaremaa and Hiiumaa) were declared “border zones”. People not actually residing there were restricted from traveling to them without a permit. A notable closed military installation was the city of Paldiski, which was entirely closed to all public access. The city had a support base for the Soviet Baltic Fleet’s submarines and several large military bases, including a nuclear submarine training center complete with a full-scale model of a nuclear submarine with working nuclear reactors. The Paldiski reactors building passed into Estonian control in 1994 after the last Russian troops left the country.
Immigration was another effect of Soviet occupation. Hundreds of thousands of migrants were relocated to Estonia from other parts of the Soviet Union to assist industrialization and militarization, contributing an increase of about half a million people within 45 years.
Mikhail Gorbachev introduced “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring) in 1985, hoping to stimulate the failing Soviet economy and encourage productivity, particularly in the areas of consumer goods, the liberalization of cooperative businesses and the service economy. Glasnost rescinded limitations on political freedoms in the Soviet Union which led to problems within the non-Russian nations occupied in the build-up to war in the 1940s.
Hitherto unrecognized issues previously kept secret by the Moscow government were admitted to in public, causing dissatisfaction within the Baltic States. Combined with the war in Afghanistan and the nuclear fallout in Chernobyl, grievances were aired in a publicly explosive and politically decisive manner. Estonians were concerned about the demographic threat to their national identity posed by the influx of individuals from foreign ethnic groups to work on such large Soviet development projects as phosphate mining.
Access to Western émigré communities abroad and, particularly in Estonia, informal relations with Finland and access to Finnish TV showing the Western lifestyle also contributed to widespread dissatisfaction with the Soviet system and provoked mass demonstrations as repression on dissidents, nationalists, religious communities and ordinary consumers eased substantially towards the end of the 1980s.
Massive demonstrations against the Soviet regime began after widespread liberalization of the regime failed to take into account national sensitivities. It was hoped by Moscow that the non-Russian nations would remain within the USSR despite the removal of restrictions on freedom of speech and national icons (such as the local pre-1940 flags). However, the situation deteriorated to such an extent that by 1989 there were campaigns aimed at freeing the nations from the Soviet Union altogether.
From 1987, a cycle of mass demonstrations featuring spontaneous singing eventually collected 300,000 Estonians in Tallinn to sing national songs and hymns that were strictly forbidden during the years of the Soviet occupation, as Estonian rock musicians played. On May 14, 1988, the first expression of national feeling occurred during the Tartu Pop Music Festival. Five patriotic songs were first performed during this festival. People linked their hands together and a tradition had begun. In June, the Old Town Festival was held in Tallinn, and after the official part of the festival, the participants moved to the Song Festival Grounds and similarly started to sing patriotic songs together spontaneously. From August 26 to 28, 1988, the Rock Summer Festival was held, and patriotic songs, composed by Alo Mattiisen, were played. On September 11, 1988, a massive song festival, called “Song of Estonia”, was held at the Tallinn Song Festival Arena. This time nearly 300,000 people came together, more than a quarter of all Estonians. On that day citizens and political leaders expressed, through the voice of Trivimi Velliste (Chairman of the Estonian Heritage Society at the time), of their ambition to regain independence.
On November 16, 1988, the legislative body of Estonia issued the Estonian Sovereignty Declaration. In 1990, Estonia was the first Soviet republic to defy the Soviet army by offering alternative service to Estonian residents scheduled to be drafted. Most Estonians, however, simply began avoiding the draft.
The Singing Revolution lasted over four years, with various protests and acts of defiance. In 1991, as Soviet tanks attempted to stop the progress towards independence, the Estonian Supreme Soviet together with the Congress of Estonia proclaimed the restoration of the independent state of Estonia and repudiated Soviet legislation. People acted as human shields to protect radio and TV stations from the Soviet tanks. Through these actions Estonia regained its independence without any bloodshed.
Independence was declared late in the evening evening of August 20, 1991, after an agreement between different political parties was reached. The next morning Soviet troops, according to Estonian TV, attempted to storm Tallinn TV Tower but were unsuccessful. The Communist hardliners’ coup attempt failed amidst mass pro-democracy demonstrations in Moscow led by Boris Yeltsin.
On August 22, 1991, Iceland became the first nation to recognize the newly restored independence of Estonia. Today, a plaque commemorating this event is situated on the outside wall of the Foreign Ministry, which itself is situated on Islandi väljak 1, or “Iceland Square 1”. The plaque reads; “The Republic of Iceland was the first to recognize, on 22 August 1991, the restoration of the independence of the Republic of Estonia”, in Estonian, Icelandic and English. Some other nations did not recognize the annexation of Estonia by the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union recognized the independence of Estonia on September 6, 1991. The last units of the Russian army left on August 31, 1994. Estonia joined NATO on March 29, 2004. After signing a treaty on April 16, 2003, Estonia was among the group of ten countries admitted to the European Union on May 1, 2004.
Estonia celebrated its 90th anniversary over the period November 28, 2007 to November 28, 2008.
Pictured today is a 1 euro self-adhesive stamp released in 2014 and recently received on a postcard from Tallinn. In Estonian, the national flag is colloquially called the “sinimustvalge” (literally “blue-black-white”), after the colors of the three equal horizontal bands. The flag became associated with Estonian nationalism and was used as the national flag (riigilipp) when the Estonian Declaration of Independence was issued on February 24, 1918. The flag was formally adopted on November 21, 1918. December 12, 1918, was the first time the flag was raised as the national symbol atop of the Pikk Hermann Tower in Tallinn.
The invasion by the Soviet Union in June 1940 led to the flag’s ban. It was taken down from the most symbolic location, the tower of Pikk Hermann in Tallinn, on June 21, 1940, when Estonia was still formally independent. On the next day, June 22, it was hoisted along with the red flag. The tricolor disappeared completely from the tower on July 27, 1940, and was replaced by the flag of the Estonian SSR. During the German occupation from 1941 until 1944, the flag was accepted as the ethnic flag of Estonians but not the national flag. After the German retreat from Tallinn in September 1944, the Estonian flag was hoisted once again. When the Red Army arrived on September 22, the red flag was just added at first. Soon afterwards, however, the blue-black-white flag disappeared. In its place from February 1953, the Estonian SSR flag was redesigned to include the six blue spiked waves on the bottom with the hammer and sickle with the red star on top.
The Estonian flag remained illegal until the days of perestroika in the late 1980s. October 21, 1987, was the first time when Soviet forces didn’t take down the flag at a public event. On February 24, 1989, the blue-black-white flag was again flown from the Pikk Hermann tower in Tallinn. It was formally re-declared as the national flag on August 7, 1990, little over a year before Estonia regained full independence.