POPULATION: 1.5 million
RELIGION: Christianity (Lutheran); Russian Orthodox Church
The Estonian people have a long history of residing along the coast of the Baltic Sea in northern Europe. In 1940, the country was officially annexed to the Soviet Union. Estonia remained a part of the Soviet Union, despite a deep desire for independence, until 1991, when it officially declared its independence.
Estonia is located in the northeastern region of Europe, on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. It has been inhabited for more than 5,000 years by the Estonians. Estonia's nearest neighbors are Russia in the east, Latvia in the south, and Finland and Sweden across the Baltic Sea to the north and west.
The climate of Estonia is moderate. The mean daily temperature in the
capital city of Tallinn is –5.3°
) in January and
16.5° C (62° F ) in July. Usually there is snow cover from December to March.
The total population of Estonia is about 1.5 million. It is made up mostly of Estonians. There is a large community of Russians and smaller communities of Ukrainians, Belarusans, and Finns. About 70 percent of the population is urban, and 30 percent is rural. The capital of Estonia is Tallinn (population 434,763).
The Estonian language is related to Finnish. Although Estonian is a distinct language, it also uses words borrowed from Swedish, German, and Russian. It is considered one of the most difficult languages in the world. Many Estonians also speak English, German, or Russian.
Estonian first names for males often end in the letter o (as is also the case with Finnish names). Typical first names include Arno, Eino, Ivo, Jaak, Jaan, Peeter, Rein, and Ülo. Female first names include Aime, Ester, Krista, Leida, and Mari.
Examples of everyday Estonian words include tere (TEH-re, how do you do?), palun (PAH-lun, please), aitäh (EYE-tah, thank you), and head aega (heh-aht EYE-kah, goodbye).
The national epic Kalevipoeg describes the battles and adventures of Kalevipoeg (literally, son of Kalev), the mythical hero and ruler of ancient Estonia. It ends with his violent death and the country's conquest by foreign invaders.
According to Estonian folklore, Kalevipoeg created the Estonian landscape with his own two hands by cutting down the forests to form the plains, uprooting gardens to make the hills, and drawing water to fill the lakes.
There are two popular Estonian legends about the capital, Tallinn. One legend has it that when Tallinn is completely built, it will be flooded. The flood will happen because Jarvevana, the legendary old man who lives at the bottom of Lake Ulemiste (the city's water source), will pull out the plug of the lake. Another legend tells the story of a warrior-maiden who secretly brought in the building stones under cover of night.
Christianity came to the Estonians in the eleventh century AD . Lutheranism is the most widely practiced faith among Estonians today, though there are also Russian Orthodox and Baptist communities.
The national holidays are New Year's Day (January 1), Independence Day (February 24), Good Friday (late March or early April), St. John's Night or Midsummer Day (June 23 and 24), and Christmas (December 25 and 26).
The most beautiful and long-awaited holiday among Estonians is probably Christmas. In winter, there is almost no daylight in Estonia. It is light for only a couple of hours a day. People start decorating their homes and often begin lighting candles at the end of November.
By the beginning of December there are Christmas decorations everywhere, and soon Christmas trees (firs) are brought into homes. It is a tradition in every Estonian family to bake gingerbread. Children look forward to the arrival of Santa Claus, who brings presents. This is traditionally a quiet holiday celebrated with family and close friends. During the Soviet occupation, celebrating Christmas was prohibited. But at home, most Estonians did it secretly anyway.
Another important national holiday is St. John's Day on June 24, the peak of summer. It is the longest and usually warmest time of the year. In fact, it never gets completely dark at night. On June 23, people everywhere light bonfires at night. They drink beer and bake sausages over the fire, sing, and have fun. In the cities, people make small fires in their gardens or in open fireplaces.
Rites of passage are related to family occurrences like births, deaths, and marriages. A child's first day of school and, especially, the day of graduation from high school are also celebrated. Graduation from university is an important event. It is sometimes celebrated for several days among the graduates, as well as with family members and relatives. High school and university reunions are also traditional.
Estonians are generally regarded as shy and withdrawn. They do not communicate with other people easily. However, among friends and family, they are quite friendly and hospitable.
In formal communications, men are referred to as Härra (Mister) and women as Proua (Misses) or Preili (Miss). Usually people shake hands when meeting and departing, and it is polite to look people in the eyes. The polite form of addressing someone in Estonian is teie. This is used when meeting someone for the first time or when one does not know a person well.
In 1994 the annual income of an average Estonian urban family was approximately $1,168. For rural families it was $918. Approximately 60 percent of the Estonian population have hot and cold running water and a telephone. Almost all have refrigerators and television sets and over 80 percent have washing machines. Estonians prefer private one-family houses in the suburbs, but there are also areas of multistoried dwellings.
There are approximately 400,000 automobiles in Estonia, and the number is growing constantly. However, the importance of a car in the family is not as great as in the United States. Public transportation is quite well developed and covers all areas in major cities and throughout the country. For example, city transportation in Tallinn includes buses, trolleys, and streetcars.
Most Estonians get married for the first time when they are in their twenties. Usually people are not engaged before they get married. More than half of marriages end in divorce.
Among Estonians, it is common for both the husband and wife to work full-time. A typical workday ends between 5:00 and 6:00 PM . Watching television and reading books are part of the evening routine.
Schoolchildren normally get home earlier than their parents and have to spend hours alone. It is typical that several generations live together in one house or live close to one another. This allows grandparents to take care of their grandchildren and help in the household. It is also common that children take care of their parents when they are no longer able to live by themselves. Same-sex marriages are neither allowed by Estonian laws nor tolerated by the public.
Estonia is a modern, Western country and the people generally dress as people do elsewhere in the West.
Estonian cuisine has been influenced by its neighbors—Scandinavians (people from Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark), Germans, and Russians. A typical breakfast would consist of a Scandinavian-style open-faced sandwich and a cup of rich, good coffee. The sandwich is a slice of black or white bread with butter and cheese or sausage, slices of fresh tomato, radish, or cucumber. Coffee is the most popular drink in Estonia. It is served in offices in the morning and during lunch, as well as at home to guests.
In Estonia, lunch is the biggest meal of the day. Workers leave their offices for an hour sometime between 12:00 noon and 3:00 PM . They eat their lunch in cafés, restaurants, or bars. A typical meal consists of meat and potatoes with gravy and a fresh salad. Although pizza and hamburgers are becoming increasingly popular, fast food is not popular with Estonians. Children are served lunch at school.
In general, Estonians are quite health-conscious. Most people try to supplement their diet with fresh fruits and vegetables. Snacks like potato chips and popcorn are not popular.
Estonians start school when they are six or seven years old. Primary education lasts for four years. Secondary education is divided into two parts: basic education (grades five to nine) and upper secondary education (grades ten to twelve). Primary and basic education are compulsory.
There are two main options after basic school—upper secondary school or vocational school. The secondary school certificate gives a student the right to continue his or her education either in universities or in other institutions of higher learning. About 40 percent of the graduates from secondary school continue their studies at institutions of higher education, and about 25 percent attend vocational schools. There are six universities in Estonia. Tartu University is the oldest (founded in 1632). Undergraduate academic studies in universities last four to six years. Most Estonians learn two languages in school in addition to Estonian. The most common foreign language is English, and the second is usually Russian, German, or French.
Traditional folk song festivals are popular events dating back to 1869. These festivals are held every five years, with male, female, children's, and boys' choirs all giving performances.
The first book in the Estonian language was produced in 1525. An Estonian edition of the New Testament of the Bible was published in 1686. A complete translation of the Bible appeared in 1739. The national epic, Kalevipoeg , was written during 1857–61 by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald (1803–82).
In 1944, most of Estonia's prominent writers and poets fled the country because of the Soviet Union's invasion and occupation. Estonian literature was tightly censored during the Soviet era (which lasted until 1991), and any material that was critical of the Soviet system was not published. Furthermore, some writers whose ideas were seen as threatening by the government were imprisoned.
The highest salaries in Estonia are in finance, followed by higher-than-average wages in transport, power engineering, and public administration. The lowest wages are in agriculture and in the public sector (education and health). The average monthly wage in 1996 was approximately $225. The unemployment rate was about 2 percent.
Most people work between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM or between 9:00 AM and 6:00 PM . Most workers receive a fixed monthly salary. They are not paid for the work they do past forty hours a week. People are entitled to a paid vacation after they have worked for an employer for one year. The length of the vacation varies from twenty-one to thirty-five days. The retirement age is sixty-five for men and sixty for women.
Estonians are especially fond of basketball. Skiing, volleyball, soccer, and motor sports are also popular. Joggers or runners are becoming a common sight in the suburbs, especially in summertime. For years, aerobics has been a popular way of keeping in shape for women. Also, public health clubs with their body-building facilities are widely used by both men and women.
Public indoor swimming pools are open to everyone for a moderate fee, and there are swimming pools in some schools. During recent years, bowling, golf, and squash have become popular. As Estonia is a sea country, there are many yachting clubs. Spectator sports are not greatly admired by Estonians.
One of the most popular forms of entertainment in Estonia is the theater. There are ten professional and a few private theaters across Estonia. Many people also go to motion pictures. Television is still the most accessible form of entertainment, especially for elderly people. Almost all Estonian homes have TV sets.
Many Estonians, especially women, enjoy gardening. Collecting things (like stamps, coins, beer bottles, postcards, etc.) is also widespread. Younger people prefer going out to discotheques. Dancing is popular among young people of both sexes.
Travel is a relatively new and increasingly popular form of recreation. During the Soviet occupation the borders of Estonia were closed. It was impossible for the average person to travel abroad. Now, travel is common, with many Estonians visiting the close-by Scandinavian countries or Germany.
Estonian folk art traditions date back to ancient times when clothes, tools, footwear, utensils, and toys were made by hand. During long and dark winter nights, Estonian women wove fabrics for national costumes. Striped, multicolored skirt fabrics were made of yarn dyed with herbs. Blouses were made of linen and embroidered by hand. Woolen sweaters, cardigans, mittens, and socks were knitted with elaborate patterns. Each county had its own characteristic patterns. Traditional Estonian jewelry is made of silver. Estonian craftspeople were already known for their skills during the Middle Ages.
Even today, many Estonian women enjoy knitting and embroidering, and prefer hand-made craft items to those made by mass industry.
During the Soviet occupation, there were tensions between Estonians and ethnic Russians living in Estonia. After Estonia became independent in 1991, these tensions increased. Russians who wish to become Estonian citizens must learn to speak Estonian. This is an extremely difficult language and Estonia's insistence on citizens knowing it has drawn international criticism. Russians have enjoyed economic success in Estonia; many of them have lived there for decades and want to stay.
More serious problems in Estonia include lack of financial resources for social spending. In many cases, wages and salaries for unskilled or low-skilled workers are small. Some people are barely able to make ends meet.
Alcoholism and crime are also major problems in Estonia. Efforts are being made by the government to increase safety and people's trust in the police. Unemployment is still relatively low (about 2 percent) and does not pose a social problem.
Rank, Gustav. Old Estonia, the People and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.
Raun, Toivo. Estonia and the Estonians. 2d ed. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1991.
Taagepera, Rein. Estonia: Return to Independence. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993.
Vesilind, Priit J. "The Baltic Nations." National Geographic ( November 1990): 2–37.