Archaeological evidence suggests that present-day Estonia was peopled by 6000 B.C. and probably earlier. The Neolithic transition had little effect on the region, save for small changes in stoneworking and the introduction of pottery; agriculture was not adopted here as elsewhere. Moreover, neither the Bronze Age nor the early Iron Age had much effect on the people of the region because it is poor in metal resources and because trade with southern peoples was insubstantial. Instead, the people made tools of stone, bone, and wood, and most continued a hunting, fishing, and gathering life-style. During the later Roman Iron Age the ancestors of modern Estonians began extensive overland trade with peoples to the south and sea trade with the Goths. It was during this period as well that hunting, fishing, and gathering were replaced by agriculture, animal husbandry, and trade, and people left the valleys to settle on more arable lands. During the Middle Iron Age Estonia and most other regions of Europe experienced economic distress as a repercussion of the fall of the Roman Empire.
During the Later Iron Age ( A.D. 800-1200) Estonia prospered, owing in large part to its strategic location between western and northeastern Europe. In addition to animal husbandry and agriculture, the peoples of the area became skilled in handicrafts and ironworking. Society at this time was stratified. The small farmers were freemen but had less influence than the nobility, who were called "betters." There were also slaves, people who had been taken from other countries. Political affairs were run by the "elders," one or more of whom controlled each state. During foreign wars, several or all of the states would form a confederacy. These confederacies were responsible for a successful repulsion of the Russians and, during the period of AD. 1000-1200, for successful raids on Sweden and Denmark.
The Estonians, who were politically and militarily uncentralized, lost their independence in 1227, when they were conquered by Christian forces. Along with the Latvians, the Estonians had opposed conversion to Christianity since that would have meant relinquishing political control to the church. In 1202 Bishop Albert of Riga formed the crusading Order of the Military Brothers of Christ, to conquer Estonia. In their long war with the Estonians, this order, also known as the Knights of the Sword, were allied with the Danes after 1219.
Northern Estonia came under the rule of the Danes. Southern Estonia was controlled by the Knights of the Sword and, later, by the Order of Teutonic Knights. The Danes sold northern Estonia to the Order of Teutonic Knights in 1346, largely because of Estonian rebelliousness. The Teutonic Knights put down the insurrections, taxed their Estonian subjects heavily, and created large landed estates, which they rented to tenants. The tenants gained increasing legal control over the lives of the peasants and gradually transformed them into serfs and, later, slaves.
Ivan IV began a war against the Teutonic Knights in 1558, and the Muscovites rapidly took Estonia. The Teutonic Knights, the city of Tallinn and the northern Estonian nobles took an oath of loyalty to the king of Sweden in 1561. Sweden fought the Muscovites and removed them from Estonia by 1582. The reign of Gustavus Adolphus, beginning in 1625, saw numerous reforms including the abolition of landowners' jurisdiction over criminal legal cases, the creation of courts in which peasants could take action against their landlords, and the founding of schools.
Peter the Great of Russia went to war and took Estonia in 1710. He obliterated the reforms of the Swedes and returned to the German nobles their control over the lives of the peasants. In 1740 the Russian judiciary ruled that serfdom was legal. Estonians later rioted. Czar Alexander I supported protections for the serfs, however, and in 1816 Estonian serfs were freed. The former serfs courted the czar's protection from the Lutheran landlords by becoming members of the Orthodox church. Land reform ensued in 1856: peasants were given the right to buy and own freehold estates. Czar Alexander II made a law in 1866 removing the authority of landowners over peasant communities and in 1868 decreed the payment of rent by service abolished. The liberal influences of the Russian czars also led to the availability of schooling for all, with the result that by 1870 the Estonian literacy rate was 95 percent.
An Estonian nationalist movement began in the 1860s, and by the 1870s it had split into two factions. The more moderate faction, composed mostly of university-educated people, favored a slow pace for reform, whereas the majority of people adhered to a more extreme program that sought immediate equality with the German upper class. Czar Alexander III responded by attempting to Russify Estonia, making Russian rather than German the official language of the courts, the schools, and the police. In the 1890s, Tartu University students initiated the next significant wave of nationalism, which led to slow but peaceful reforms. In 1905, however, the Russian Revolution took place, and some Estonians took this as an opportunity to attack German landowners. Russia responded by establishing martial law from 1905 to 1908. The February Revolution of 1917 brought into power a liberal Russian government, which in April 1917 granted Estonian unification and autonomy. In June the Estonians elected a national council, but this was quickly and forcefully dissolved by the Bolsheviks. On 24 February 1918 the Estonian Council of Elders declared Estonian sovereign independence, but the next day a German occupation force dissolved the new provisional government. The German Revolution put an end to German designs on Estonia, and on 9 November 1918 Germany recognized Estonian rule over Estonia.
What followed is known as the Estonian War of Independence, which began 28 November 1918 with a Bolshevik attack. The Estonians were aided in their defense by British weapons and naval forces and by Finnish troops. After many difficult battles the Estonians prevailed, and the Soviets concluded a peace treaty on 2 February 1920. Following the war, Estonia gradually rebuilt its industry and economy.
Unfortunately for Estonia, the country and its people were annexed by the USSR in 1940 under the secret provisions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. On 6 August 1940 Estonia became a Soviet republic. The Soviets nationalized businesses and industries without compensation and deported 60,000 people. Most of the men were sent to perform hard labor (e.g., cutting timber) in Siberia, where many died; a few were conscripted by the Red Army. Germany captured Estonia in 1941 and drafted into its military those young men who had not managed to escape to Finland. In 1944 the Soviets reconquered Estonia. The Soviets then proceeded to collectivize Estonian agriculture. When the process looked to be going too slowly to suit the Soviets, they punished Estonia by deporting Estonians to Siberian labor camps; from 1944 through 1949, an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Estonians were forcibly removed from their homeland. In 1955 those who survived were allowed to return to Estonia. The Soviets carried out a policy of cultural and social Russification after World War II, despite encountering guerrilla resistance well into the 1950s.
As the Soviet Union began to crumble, Estonia pressed for its independence. Resentment of Soviet control took the form not only of anger over political domination but also of outrage over the pollution and despoliation caused by Soviet-style industrialization. After Lithuania declared independence in 1990, the Estonian congress renamed the country and adopted its pre-Soviet coat of arms. After the attempted coup against Gorbachev, Estonia formally declared independence on 20 August 1991, which the USSR recognized on 6 September of that year. Eleven days later, Estonia joined the United Nations. The postindependence period has thus far been characterized by political and economic instability.