National awakening

The development of Estonia in the second half of the 19th century is characterised by general modernisation; the reorganising of a static agrarian society into a modern European society, industrialisation, urbanisation and the success of the newly emerged nationalist awareness. The liberal politics of Tsar Alexander II (1855–1881) and the emancipation of the Russian peasants (1861) gave a new impetus to the reforms carried out in the Baltic provinces. The new passport regulation (1863) which gave the peasants their first identification documents, increased their freedom of movement and encouraged emigration to Russia. With the abolishment of corvée (1868), the estates began collecting monetary rent and paying wages. The 1866 peasant township law freed the peasants’ local government councils from the landlords’ authority and granted them extensive rights to decide their own economic and social affairs.

In the 1860s, Estonian peasants began buying farmsteads from the estates, at free market prices. Due to the shortage of land and the large number of buyers, the prices were much higher than in Russia. The peasants made use of long-term bank credits, which they later paid back from income received from growing flax and potatoes (the flax prices went up because of the American Civil War and the consequent drop in cotton imported to Europe). By the end of the 19th century, the peasants in South Estonia (Livonian province) possessed over 80% and in North Estonia (Estonian province) 50% of the available farmland. Some of the farms were rented and farm owners comprised the major economic power in Estonian society at the time, they were also its most active and vital group.

Influenced by the French Revolution, the ideas of Romanticism and the newly emerging German national consciousness, the mid-19th century also witnessed the national awakening of the Estonians. On the whole, this proceeded along the same lines as in other small East European nations (the Czechs, Finns, Latvians, etc.) who lacked the experience of independent statehood in their recent past. The leading force in the Estonian national movement was the new elite — primarily the emerging intellectuals aspiring to better their social position, the middle layer consisting of civil servants, merchants and artisans, and, increasingly, the ethnic Estonian clergy. The low social status and the lack of the right to make any decisions, a result of the Russian central power and the Baltic German-dominated cultural situation, motivated the elite of the ‘awakened peasants’ to build up their own independent nation and national society. This was to be separate from the existing German and Russian ones.

In 1857, the founder of the first Estonian-language newspaper Perno Postimees, Johann Voldemar Jannsen (1819–1890), replaced the term ‘country people’ with the word ‘Estonians’. Patriotic intellectuals encouraged Estonians to participate in public life, determined the legal and cultural requirements of the emerging nation, and organised the extensive sending of petitions to the Russian authorities (1864, 1881). The national movement that originated from liberal ideas was first of all directed against the current social order, the social and national pressure of the German–Russian upper classes and the Germanisation and Russification of their own countrymen. The leaders of the movement considered the most significant guarantee for the ethnic survival and national development of Estonians to be the establishment of a European-style Estonian-language high culture.

At its height, in 1860–1880, the movement was governed by a politically moderate trend with their specific ethnic-linguistic aims. The trend stressed the need to develop national culture and education in Estonian. Pastor and linguist Jakob Hurt (1839–1906), founder of the Estonian national ideology, was convinced that the mission of a small nation can only be of a cultural and not of a political nature; what counts is national identity, not statehood as such. The movement’s radical wing was headed by Carl Robert Jakobson (1841–1882), a pedagogue, writer and journalist, founder of Sakala, the first political newspaper in Estonian (published 1878–1882). Jakobson formulated the economic and political programme of the Estonian national movement, demanding equal political rights for Germans and Estonians (representation of peasants and urban dwellers at diets, abolishment of the Baltic Landesstaat and the privileges of the Baltic German nobility). He regarded the Russian central government as the main anti-German ally.

The prevailing national-romantic tendency in Estonian art and literature was based on the ideas of the Enlightenment and idealised ‘ancient non-stratified’ society. Patriotic poems and songs extolled the beauty of Estonian nature and expressed ardent love for the native soil. Inspired by the folklore of the neighbouring Finns, a ‘picture of the ancient Estonian world’ was constructed. Its numerous mythological characters were later developed into legends. Historical fiction sang high praises of the times of past freedom, and an image of 700 hundred years of slavery was implanted in the nation’s memory.

Estonian societies, founded all over the country after the example of German societies, played an important part in the national awakening; choirs and orchestras were established in parishes. The money-raising operation which began in Viljandimaa (Kreis Fellin) turned into an all-Estonian mass organisation with its own chief committee (1870–1884) which arranged various cultural events and agitation activities. This collection was intended for the setting up of the first Estonian-language higher popular school (called Estonian Alexander School in honour of Alexander I). The Society of Estonian Literati (1872–1893), founded in Tartu and consisting of Estonian intellectuals, advanced the Estonian written language, organised the gathering of folklore and ethnographic material, and published literature in their native tongue. The song and drama societies (i.e. theatrical association) forming Vanemuine laid a foundation for an Estonian national theatre (the first performance took place in 1870) and, following the German example, organised the first song festival in 1869. One thousand singers-musicians and an audience of 12 000 participated in the event. The tradition, still maintained today, occupies the central part in shaping Estonian national consciousness.

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