History of russians in estonia

Russians in Estonia
Total population
320,000 (est.) (24% of total population)
Regions with significant populations
Tallinn, Ida-Viru County

The population of Russians in Estonia is estimated at 320 000. Most Russians live in Estonia's capital city Tallinn and the major northeastern cities of Narva and Kohtla-Järve. Some areas in eastern Estonia near Lake Peipus have a centuries-long history of settlement by Russians, including the Old Believers' communities.


Early contacts

The Estonian name for Russians vene, venelane derives from an old Germanic loan veneð referring to the Wends, speakers of a Slavic language who lived on the southern coast of Baltic sea.[1][2]

Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kievan Rus' raided Tarbatu (Tartu) in 1030, burning down the Ugaunian stronghold.[3] The Kievan foothold Yuryev, built on the ashes, survived until 1061 when the Kievans were driven out by the local tribe.[4]

A medieval proto-Russian settlement was in Kuremäe, Vironia. The Orthodox community in the area built a church in the 16th century and in 1891 the Pühtitsa Convent was created on its site.[5] Proto-Russian cultural influence had its mark on Estonian language, with a number of words such as "turg" (trade) and "rist" (cross) adopted from East Slavic.[6]

In 1217, an allied Ugaunian-Novgorodian army defended the Ugaunian stronghold of Otepää from the German knights. Novgorodian prince Vyachko died in 1224 with all his druzhina defending the fortress of Tarbatu together with his Ugaunian and Sackalian allies against the Livonian Order led by Albert of Riga.

Orthodox churches and small communities of proto-Russian merchants and craftsmen remained in Livonian towns as did close trade links with the Novgorod Republic and the Pskov and Polotsk principalities. In 1481, Ivan III of Russia laid siege to the castle of Fellin (Viljandi) and briefly captured several towns in eastern Livonia in response to a previous attack on Pskov. Between 1558 and 1582, Ivan IV of Russia captured much of mainland Livonia in the midst of the Livonian War but eventually the Russians were driven out by Lithuanian-Polish and Swedish armies. Tsar Alexis I of Russia once again captured towns in eastern Livonia, including Dorpat (Tartu) and Nyslott (Vasknarva) between 1656 and 1661, but had to yield his conquests to Sweden.

17th century to 1940

The beginning of continuous Russian settlement in what is now Estonia dates back to the late 17th century when several thousand Russian Old Believers, escaping religious persecution in Russia, settled in areas then a part of the Swedish empire near the western coast of Lake Peipus.[7]

In the 17th century after the Great Northern War the territories of Estonia divided between the Governorate of Estonia and Livonia became part of the Russian Empire but maintained local autonomy and was administered independently by the local Baltic German nobility through a feudal Regional Council (German: Landtag).[8] The second period of influx of Russians followed the Imperial Russian conquest of the northern Baltic region, including Estonia, from Sweden in 1700–1721. Under Russian rule, power in the region remained primarily in the hands of the Baltic German nobility, but a limited number of administrative jobs was gradually taken over by Russians, who settled in Reval (Tallinn) and other major towns.

A relatively larger number of ethnic Russian workers settled in Tallinn and Narva during the period of rapid industrial development at the end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century. After the First World War, the share of ethnic Russians in the population of independent Estonia was 7.3%.[9] About half of these were indigenous Russians living in Ivangorod, the Estonian Ingria and the Petseri County, which were added to Estonia territory according to the 1920 Peace Treaty of Tartu, but were transferred to the Russian SFSR in 1945.

In the aftermath of World War I Estonia became an independent republic where the Russians, comprising 8 percent of the total population among other ethnic minorities, established Cultural Self-Governments according to the 1925 Estonian Law on Cultural Autonomy.[10] The state was tolerant of the Russian Orthodox Church and became a home to many Russian émigrés after the Russian October Revolution in 1917.[11]

World War II and the Estonian SSR

After the illegal Soviet incorporation of Estonia in 1940,[12][13] repression of ethnic Russians followed. According to Sergei Isakov, almost all societies, newspapers, organizations of ethnic Russians were closed in 1940 and their activists persecuted.[14] The country remained illegally annexed to the Soviet Union until 1991. During the era the government initiated a population transfer. Thousands of citizens were deported to inhospitable areas and various Russophone populations were located to Estonia. Between 1945–1991 the Russian population in Estonia grew from about 23,000 to 475,000 people and the total Slavic population to 551,000, becoming 35% of the total population.[15]

In 1939 ethnic Russians comprised 8% of the population, however following the annexation of about 2,000 km2 (772 sq mi) of land to the Russian SFSR in January 1945, including Ivangorod (then the eastern suburb of Narva) and the Petseri County, Estonia lost most of its inter-war ethnic Russian population.[16]

Most of the present-day Russians are migrants from the recent settlement, and their descendants. Following the terms of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Union occupied and annexed the Baltic States illegally in 1940. The authorities carried out repressions against many prominent ethnic Russians activists and White emigres in Estonia.[17] Many Russians were arrested and executed by different Soviet war tribunals in 1940–1941.[18] After Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, the Baltics quickly fell under German control. Many Russians, especially Communist party members who had arrived in the area with the initial occupation and annexation, retreated; those who fell into the German hands were treated harshly, many were executed.

After the war, Narva's inhabitants previously evacuated by the Germans were for the most part not permitted to return and were replaced by refugees and workers administratively mobilized from western Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.[19] By 1989, ethnic Russians made up 30.3% of the population in Estonia.[20]

During the Singing Revolution, the Intermovement, International Movement of the Workers of the ESSR, organised the indigenous Russian resistance to the independence movement and purported to represent the ethnic Russians and other Russophones in Estonia.[21]

Current situation

Today most Russians live in Tallinn and the major northeastern cities of Narva, Kohtla-Järve, Jõhvi, and Sillamäe. The rural areas are populated almost entirely by ethnic Estonians, except for Lake Peipus coast, which has a long history of Old Believers' communities.


The restored republic recognised the pre-occupation citizens or descended from such (including the long-term Russian settlers from earlier influxes, such as Lake Peipus coast and the 10,000 residents of the Petseri County)[22] The Citizenship Act provides relatively liberal requirements for naturalisation of those people who had arrived in the country after 1940,[23] the majority of whom were ethnic Russians. Knowledge of Estonian language, Constitution and a pledge of loyalty to Estonia were set as the conditions.[24] The government offers free preparation courses for the examination on the Constitution and the Citizenship Act, and reimburses up to 380 euros for language studies.[25]

Under the law, residents without citizenship may not elect the Riigikogu (the national parliament) nor the European Parliament, but are eligible to vote in the municipal elections.[26]

Between 1992 and 2007 about 147,000 people acquired the citizenship, bringing the proportion of stateless residents from 32% down to about 8 percent.[26]

Language requirements

The perceived difficulty of the language tests became a point of international contention, as the government of Russian Federation and a number of human rights organizations objected on the grounds that they made it hard for many Russians who had not learned the language to gain the citizenship in a short term. As a result, the tests were somewhat altered, due to which the number of stateless persons steadily decreased. According to Estonian officials, in 1992, 32% of residents lacked any form of citizenship. In May 2009, the Population register reported that 7.6% of residents have undefined citizenship and 8.4% have foreign citizenship, mostly Russian.[27] As the Russian Federation was recognized as the successor state to the Soviet Union, all former USSR citizens qualified for natural-born citizenship of Russia, available upon mere request, as provided by the law "On the RSFSR Citizenship" in force up to end of 2000.[28]

Notable Russians from Estonia

Noteworthy modern Russians who at some point lived in Estonia include:

See also


External links

  • The Russian Diaspora in Latvia and Estonia: Predicting Language Outcomes
  • Amnesty International report on Estonia, 2007.
  • Amnesty International report on Estonia, 7 December 2006.
  • Edward Lucas, condemning Amnesty International, December 14, 2006
  • Vetik, Raivo (1993). Journal of Peace Research 30.3, 271–280.
  • Andersen, Erik André (1997). The Legal Status of Russians in Estonian Privatisation Legislation 1989–1995. Europe-Asia Studies 49.2, 303–316.
  • Park, Andrus (1994). Ethnicity and Independence: The Case of Estonia in Comparative Perspective. Europe-Asia Studies 46.1, 69–87.
  • Vares, Peeter and Olga Zhurayi (1998). Estonia and Russia, Estonians and Russians: A Dialogue. 2nd ed. Tallinn: Olof Palme International Center.
  • Lauristin, Marju & Mati Heidmets (eds.) The Challenge of the Russian Minority: Emerging Multicultural Democracy in Estonia. Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus, 2002.

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