Where did the Estonians get their name from?

​The first humans arrived in Estonia at the end of the last Ice Age, some 11 000 years ago. Although some words from their language, such as the name of the largest Estonian lake, Peipsi, have allegedly survived, it is not known what they called themselves or the land they inhabited.

What can be taken as the first account of Estonians originates from classical authors: the Greek explorer Pytheas mentions ostiatoi around 320 before the Common Era, followed by the Roman historian Tacitus, who writes about the amber-rich aestii at the end of the first century in the Common Era.

Around 800 CE, the Viking Age of Northern Europe, Estonia became known as Austervegr, ‘the eastern route’ to the riches of Constantinople and the Caliphate. Later, the Latin rendition of Estonia was introduced by clerical writers, e.g. the chronicler of the Northern Crusades, Henry of Livonia.

​In the Late Middle Ages, Estonia was a part of the loose union of feudal states and Hanseatic merchant towns known as the Confederation of Livonia.

With the northern half of the country swearing allegiance to the King of Sweden during the Livonian War in 1561, the Duchy of Estland emerged. The unification of the nation and the advances in public education have earned the following era, albeit war-ridden, the name of ‘good old Swedish times’ in Estonia. Following the Northern War that raged at the beginning of the 18th century, Estonia became part of the Baltic Provinces, Russia’s ‘window to the west’. Over the following two hundred years, the local Baltic German nobility played a key role in the military, civil and academic achievements of the Russian Empire.

​For Estonia’s indigenous people, the 18th century meant the worst of feudal oppression and the loss of any influence in the government of their country. The identity of Estonians diminished to their parish or dialect area.

It was the enlightened Baltic Germans who initiated the social, economic, and political emancipation of Estonians. Known today as the National Awakening, it led to the formation of the idea of the Estonian nationhood, and in the wake of the Russian revolutions and WWI, to the Estonian declaration of independence on 24 February 1918.

The Republic of Estonia carried out an extensive land reform and realigned the economy from Russian to Western markets. New state administrative structures were founded, Estonian-language university education and science were established, and the conditions for a range of cultural activities created.

​In direct consequence of the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, Estonia disappeared from the political map of Europe. The secret supplementary protocol to the Pact led to the Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia in June 1940 – a move that the major Western powers never acknowledged de jure. The Soviets set out to dismantle the Estonian society with the policy of mass arrests and deportations. The Nazi occupation that followed in 1941–44 brought more human losses.

Even though the armed resistance to the Communists who invaded again in 1944 was largely curtailed by the mid-1950s, Estonians’ will for freedom never was. For decades, native culture provided a refuge. When the weakening of the Soviet regime opened an opportunity, a mass movement for the restoration of independence emerged in the 1980s. The dream came true on 20 August 1991.

In two decades, Estonia has undergone major reforms and development across the whole society. From 2004, Eesti Vabariik has been a member of the European Union and NATO.

Details about this article