The Baltic Landesstaat

The century and a half following the Great Northern War, which ended with the Peace of Uusikaupunki, was a relatively static period in Estonian history with few momentous events. This was the time of the crystallisation of the class system and the culmination of serfdom, when various socio-political and cultural undercurrents were also active, preparing the ground for the emergence of industrial society and the national-democratic movement in the second half of the 19th century.

The 1710 ‘capitulations’ of the corporations of knights and towns, confirmed by subsequent tsars until Alexander II (1855–1881), established the relationships between Estonia, Livonia and the Russian Empire. The Baltic Landesstaat also reached its full development. The tsar’s local contractual partners comprised only the nobility and the townspeople, but according to the class-oriented system of the time, these were held to represent the whole country.

The ‘capitulations’ of the knights, severely restricted by the Swedish absolutist monarchy, restored their rights and even increased them; they established class-based local government by the German nobility, and the court system, and gave free rein to the local evangelical-Lutheran church. Similar freedom of action in the new provinces was naturally granted to one of the most firm ideological pillars of the tsarist empire — the Russian orthodox church; though as the Landeskirche in the Estonian and Livonian territories, the Lutheran church long maintained a de facto predominance.

The most important organ of Baltic German local government was the Diet, consisting of all the noble families who had been ‘selected’ in a list of the eligible. By the mid-18th century, the knighthoods of Estonia, Livonia and Saaremaa included 324 noble families. Although jealously guarding their privileges, the knighthoods still never became entirely closed, but increased their ranks by granting nobles’ rights to new families whose names were inscribed in the peerage roll. Each regional Diet had the right to impose taxes and exercise initiative in legislation; it filled the more important positions and seats in court, and shared in the management of church matters. Between sessions of a Diet, the legislative power of the knighthoods belonged to the Council of the Diet.

The towns were governed by the Town Councils, which supplemented their ranks from among the representatives of merchants and lawyers, thus uniting the legislative, administrative and judicial functions. The citizens and the inhabitants of a town did not coincide — most of the population had no civic rights. The lower class mainly consisted of Estonians.

With contracts advantageous to the Estonian and Livonian nobility, Peter I pursued his own aims: the relatively voluntary nature of the contracts increased the reliability of Russia as a foreign partner in Europe, diminished the danger of revenge from Sweden, and hastened the restoration of the Baltic provinces. To the tsar, these represented a model of Europe whose administrative autonomy, corporations, educational and vocational possibilities must serve as an example during the modernising reforms in Russia. Regional autonomy within the Russian Empire, where certain elements of federalism were clearly existing, was by no means a phenomenon unique to the Baltic provinces. The Ukraine, united with Russia in the late 18th century, also initially retained its autonomy; even more extensive autonomy was granted to Finland, united in the early 19th century. While this special status secured the supremacy of the Baltic knighthood and the German upper classes in towns, it considerably aggravated the legal and social situation of Estonians. With hindsight, it can be said that the pre-nationhood Landesstaat, with its strict social structure, effectively prevented Estonians from becoming Germans.

Considering their relatively small number, the beneficiaries of the Landesstaat were additionally protected by their disproportionally large representation amongst the Russian elite during the following two centuries. Many noblemen of the Baltic provinces had remarkable military careers, the most brilliant being Michael Barclay de Tolly who excelled in the war against Napoleon. Highly-educated and with good language skills, the share of Baltic Germans in the Russian diplomatic corps was considerable; several became ministers and governors general.

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