Do all Estonians know one another?

No, they do not.

Because the number of people in Estonia is small, a foreigner who walks around with a native might easily get the impression that he or she knows everybody by sight. However, despite being small in size, Estonian society features a wide array of groups with different cultural, linguistic and religious affiliations.

Estonia has been ethnically diverse for as long as written sources have been available. From the Middle Ages, the towns were largely German-speaking. Typical for the era, the workforce – artisans, traders, teachers and priests – moved freely around. The peasants, who settled in towns and wished to get on in life had to conform to the German ways and, as Estonians, became quite ‘invisible’ for the latter-day students of history.

Today, most Estonians have been living in towns for more than one generation and have had every opportunity to establish a truly Estonian urban culture. Yet, strangely enough, increasingly many choose to abandon the stone civic districts for a more bucolic environment in the outskirts or for the satellite boroughs that have sprung up around larger cities.

Estonia’s industrial northeast and the capital Tallinn have large, mainly Russian-speaking minorities, who settled in Estonia as part of the mass influx of people from the Soviet Union which started in the late 1940s. Russians, an important minority in certain border regions and towns before WWII, now constitute the biggest minority group by far – a quarter of the entire population; the second largest group, Ukrainians, constitute just 2%. Altogether, modern Estonia is home to over one hundred nationalities.

Unfortunately, their list no longer includes several historical minorities, some of whom lived in the country for many hundred years – e.g. the Estonian Swedes on the West Coast, as well as the Baltic Germans. In the turmoil of the war that caused great population loss for the whole nation, these minorities, as well as the Estonian Jews and Roma, were lost to evacuation, exile, deportation and mass killings.

​Estonia was one of the last countries in Europe to be converted to Christianity as a result of the Northern Crusades in the 13th century. Nevertheless, many pagan rituals survived, some up to this day. More a way of life than a faith, Estonian indigenous nature worship, maausk, emphasises the significance of the memory of natural shrines: sacred groves, springs, stones.

As far as religion is concerned, Estonia is reputedly the most indifferent country in Europe. Yet, while less than twenty percent of the people regard themselves as believers according to opinion polls, Estonian society and its value criteria could be regarded as protestant. “Work hard, and love will follow,” is a maxim that is a frequent topic of the final essay exam for Estonian school leavers.

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