Russification period

To oppose the ever-increasing demands of the right for self-determination voiced by the ethnic minorities in the Russian Empire, Russian nationalism in the second half of the 19th century became stronger, as did the leading elite’s wishes to create a modern unitary nation state. The systematic Russification of the empire’s western border territories started in Poland and Lithuania during the first half of the 19th century and intensified in the 1860s after another Polish uprising. The worst Russification period in Estonia and Latvia occurred between 1880 and 1890; Finnish autonomy was restricted in the late 19th century.

The Russian press took up the topic of German influence in the Baltic provinces. As early as the 1860s, the Slavophiles demanded the end of the autonomy in the Baltic provinces and a standardised administration. The unification of Germany (1871) and its subsequent development into a Great Power during the reign of Wilhelm II (1888–1918) considerably increased the military-strategic importance of the Estonian and Latvian territories which bordered the Baltic Sea, between the extensively autonomous Finland and the rebellious Poland-Lithuania. The security of the capital St Petersburg became a serious issue for the Russian Empire. Tsarist Russia’s government circles were afraid of the Baltic Germans’ possible orientation towards Germany; especially worrying was the thought that by Germanising the Estonians and Latvians, the Germans could become the majority nation in the Baltics.

The first decisive steps in diminishing the Baltic German influence were taken at the end of the rule of Alexander II who was assassinated by the terrorists. In 1877, a Russian urban reform was enforced in the Baltic provinces that abolished the class-based German municipal government, imposed an electoral system that was founded on taxation census, and the right to participate in the elections. The Russian central power became especially militant with the ascendance to the throne of Alexander III (reigned 1881–1894). As proof of his anti-German sentiments, the tsar refused to confirm the privileges of the Baltic nobility that formed the basis of local autonomy.

In 1882–1883, in order to plan further steps, the Russian senator Nikolai Manassein organised a revision in the Baltic provinces. It showed that the Baltic Germans still had total authority in administrative, economic and cultural spheres. The very same year, central power started a systematic Russification policy that culminated during the last decade of the century.

In 1888, the Baltic police system was reorganised in accordance with the all-Russian one: the former German class-based courts were abolished, and the principle of legal equality prevailed; the trials became open and advocacy was established. Through the new peasant institution rule, the authorities appointed peasant commissars to supervise the peasant governments. The administrative reform transformed more than a thousand peasant townships into less than four hundred vital, dynamic and solvent townships. This kind of administration survived in general terms until the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917.

Changing the Baltic administrative system so that it conformed with the Russian one, shattered the medieval class-based way of life and facilitated the modernisation of society. The rights of the indigenous people, however, were not greatly extended — having escaped their Baltic German landlords, the Estonians instead found themselves under the direct pressure of the Russian bureaucratic regime. Instead of Germans, the high positions were now filled with Russians: these had no knowledge of the Estonian language, nor were they familiar with the local situation. The tsarist government nevertheless did not carry out political legislative reforms to the full. The local government land reform was never realised, and the undivided power of one of the cornerstones of Baltic German autonomy — the nobility’s class-based corporations in the provinces’ local government - remained unchallenged until 1917. The local Lutheran church, too, remained under the supervision of the knighthoods.

Attempts at Russification were most painfully felt in the field of culture — language, education, religion and the church, journalism and the activities of various cultural societies. By the end of the 19th century, the entire Estonian and German-language educational system, from primary schools to the University of Tartu, functioned in Russian. In the course of this undertaking, numerous Estonian teachers who were also key figures in the national awakening process, were sacked because of their insufficient knowledge of Russian. This radical change constituted a heavy blow to the level of education amongst Estonians: 98% of recruits conscripted from Estonia in 1886 could read, whereas in 1901 the figure had dropped to 80%.

Russian also became the language of administration in government and local government institutions and courts — almost all German and Estonian employees were replaced with Russians without knowledge of any other language. Getting a job in a government office became increasingly difficult for non-Russians. Many educated Estonians were compelled to leave their country and seek work in Russia: by the early 20th century, several Estonian colonies had formed in Russian towns, the biggest being in St Petersburg. The central power tightened its censorship and control over both German and Estonian national organisations; some societies and newspapers were closed down. Besides the farmers’ societies propagating innovative work and land cultivation methods, the authorities only allowed temperance, educational and fire brigade societies.

By Russifying the Baltic peoples, the central power aimed to eliminate the dominating German influence in that area; prevent the separatism of the indigenous peoples and the Germanisation of their elite; replace the prevailing Western civilisation and Germanic culture with Orthodox Slavonic civilisation and Russian culture. The ascendancy of Nicholas II in 1894 in no way changed this state of affairs.

Despite two centuries of Russian power, the dominating religion in the late 19th century in Estonia and Livonia was still Lutheranism; on the territory of today’s Estonia, the number of Orthodox believers was less than 15%, among Estonians only 12.7%. The tsarist power regarded expanding the extremely loyal Orthodox church as one of the main means of gaining effective control in the border provinces. A most fanatical promoter of the Russification programme, Estonia’s governor Prince Sergei Shahhovski, considered the conversion of the peasantry to be especially important. Converting from Orthodox to Lutheran was forbidden. Like during previous religious conversion campaigns, encouraged by central powers, the Estonian peasants’ reasons for deserting the Lutheran church were mainly of an economic nature: the essential thing for a peasant was to get his own piece of land in return, and be freed from being dependent on the manor lords.

The attempts to Russify Estonians were far from successful: Estonian ethnic identity, based on its ancient national culture, had strengthened during the awakening period to the extent where massive-scale re-nationalisation was no longer possible. Centuries-old German cultural tradition withstood the Russification period, maintaining the general German outlook in the Baltic provinces. With its brutal policy, the tsarist government lost the support of the Estonian national movement. Liberal and socialist anti-monarchy ideas reached Estonia both from the West and East and began spreading rapidly. Workers’ movements emerged and the first strike was organised in the Narva Kreenholm factories (1870). On the initiative of politically radical students who had come to (the now Russian-language) Tartu University from all over the tsarist empire, the first Marxist organisations sprang up in the 1880s.

During the ever more vigorous period of industrialisation in the second half of the 19th century, large textile, metal and machine works, as well as timber, paper, cellulose and foodstuff enterprises and factories were established in Estonia. A railway network connecting Estonia with the domestic market of the Russian Empire was built (the Russian capital’s closest ice-free port was in Estonia). The Tallinn–St Petersburg line was completed in 1870. The railway network considerably advanced the development of trade and industry. Russian, German, French, Belgian, Swiss and Baltic German businessmen invested in Estonian industry; the share of Estonian national capital was, however, small.

The population of Estonia in 1897 was 958 000; slightly more than 90% were Estonians, 4% were Russian and 3.5% German. Every fifth person lived in the rapidly growing cities; two-thirds of them were Estonian. The cities attracted the Estonian national intelligentsia and were the places where the elements of modern society emerged and the new cultural and political diversity found its expression. The late 19th century Estonia nevertheless remained an essentially agrarian country: about 65% of the population was involved in agriculture; 14% worked in industry and construction business, and 14% in transport, communication and the service sector. Germans and Russians still dominated in the intellectual, political and economic elite of society; the lower ranks, peasants and workers, were predominantly Estonian.

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