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Estonian people

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Estonian people

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Total population
c. 1.1 million
Regions with significant populations
 Estonia: 924,966[1]
Other significant population centers:
 Finland 39,763[2]
 United States 25,000
 Canada 23,930[3]
 Sweden 23,000
 Russia 17,875[4]
 United Kingdom 14,000[5]
 Australia 7,543[6]
 Germany 5,000
 Norway 2,871[7]
 Ukraine 2,868[8]
 Ireland 2,560[9]
 Latvia 2,000[10]
 Belgium 2,000[11]
Estonian, Võro, Seto
Mostly Atheism, and Lutheranism
Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity minorities.
Related ethnic groups
Baltic Finns

Estonians (Estonian: eestlased) are a Finnic people closely related to the Finns and inhabiting, primarily, the country of Estonia. They speak a Finnic language known as Estonian. Although Estonia is traditionally grouped as one of the Baltic countries, Estonians are linguistically unrelated to the Baltic peoples of Latvia and Lithuania.


Prehistoric roots

Estonia was first inhabited about 10,000 years ago, just after the Baltic ice lake had retreated from Estonia. While it is not certain what languages were spoken by the first settlers, it is often maintained that speakers of early Uralic languages related to modern Estonian had arrived in what is now Estonia by about 5,000 years ago.[12] Living in the same area for more than 5,000 years would put the ancestors of Estonians among the oldest permanent inhabitants in Europe.[13] On the other hand, some recent linguistic estimations suggest that Fenno-Ugrian language arrived around the Baltic Sea considerably later, perhaps during the Early Bronze Age (ca. 1800 BCE).[14][15]

The name "Eesti", or Estonia, is thought to be derived from the word Aestii, the name given by the ancient Germanic people to the Baltic people living northeast of the Vistula River. The Roman historian Tacitus in 98 A.D. was the first to mention the "Aestii" people, and early Scandinavians called the land south of the Gulf of Finland "Eistland" ("Eistland" is also the current word in Icelandic for Estonia), and the people "eistr". Proto-Estonians (as well as other speakers of the Finnish language group) were also called Chuds (чудь) in Old East Slavic chronicles.

The Estonian language belongs to the Finnic branch of the Uralic family of languages, as does the Finnish language. The first known book in Estonian was printed in 1525, while the oldest known examples of written Estonian originate in 13th-century chronicles.

National consciousness

Although Estonian national consciousness spread in the course of the 19th century during the Estonian national awakening,[16] some degree of ethnic awareness preceded this development.[17] By the 18th century the self-denomination eestlane spread among Estonians along with the older maarahvas.[18] The Bible was translated in 1739, and the number of books and brochures published in Estonian increased from 18 in the 1750s to 54 in the 1790s. By the end of the century more than a half of adult peasants were able to read. The first university-educated intellectuals identifying themselves as Estonians, including Friedrich Robert Faehlmann (1798–1850), Kristjan Jaak Peterson (1801–22) and Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald (1803–82), appeared in the 1820s. The ruling elites had remained predominantly German in language and culture since the conquest of the early 13th century. Garlieb Merkel (1769–1850), a Baltic German Estophile, was the first author to treat the Estonians as a nationality equal to others and became a source of inspiration for the Estonian national movement, modelled on Baltic German cultural world before the middle of the 19th century. However, in the middle of the century, the Estonians became more ambitious and started leaning toward the Finns as a successful model of national movement and, to some extent, the neighbouring Latvian national movement. By the end of 1860 the Estonians became unwilling to reconcile with German cultural and political hegemony. Before the attempts at Russification in the 1880s, their view of Imperial Russia remained positive.[17]

Estonians have strong ties to the Nordic countries stemming from important cultural and religious influences gained over centuries during Scandinavian and German rule and settlement.[19] Indeed, Estonians consider themselves Nordic rather than Baltic,[20][21] in particular because of a close ethnic and linguistic affinity with the Finns.

After Estonia gained independence from Russia in 1918, based on Tartu peace treaty, ethnic Estonians residing in Russia gained the option of opting for Estonian citizenship (those who opted, were called optandid - 'optants') and returning to the fatherland. The number of Estonians living in Russia in 1920 is estimated to have been 40,000. In sum, 37,578 people moved from Soviet Russia to Estonia (1920–1923).[22]

Recent developments


Many Estonians were subject to the deportations organised by the Soviet regime and the Soviet mass immigration program from Russia and other parts of the former USSR into industrial urban areas of Estonia, as well as by wartime emigration and Stalin's mass deportations.[23]

Since 1991

Estonians became the majority nation in the country after regaining independence, and founded a nation state that due to the small numbers of the population has been wary of embracing multinational identity and has followed strict rules when it comes to acquiring citizenship. Dual citizenship is not allowed in Estonia and individuals who relinquish their status as an Estonian citizen have no right to regain the citizenship.


During World War II, when Estonia was invaded by the Soviet Army in 1944, large numbers of Estonians fled their homeland on ships or smaller boats over the Baltic Sea. Many refugees who survived the risky sea voyage to Sweden or Germany later moved from there to Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States or Australia. Some of these refugees and their descendants returned to Estonia after the nation regained its independence in 1991.

Over the years of independence, increasing numbers of Estonians have chosen to work abroad, primarily in Finland, but also in other European countries, making Estonia the country with the highest emigration rate in Europe.[24] This is at least partly due to the easy access to oscillating migration to Finland.

Recognising the problems arising from both low birth rate and emigration, the country has launched various measures to both increase the birth rate and to lure the migrant Estonians back to Estonia. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves has lent his support to the campaign Talendid koju! (Bringing talents home)[25] which aims to coordinate and promote the return of Estonians who have particular skills needed in Estonia.

Estonians in Canada

The largest permanent Estonian community outside Estonia is in Canada with about 24,000 people[3] (according to some sources up to 50,000 people).[26] In the late 1940s and early 1950s, about 17,000 arrived in Canada.[27] Toronto is the city with the largest population of Estonians outside of Estonia. The first Estonian World Festival was held in Toronto in 1972. Some famous Estonian Canadians include Endel Tulving and Elmar Tampõld.

See also

Notes and references

Further reading

External links

  • Office of the Minister for Population and Ethnic Affairs: Estonians abroad
  • From Estonia To Thirlmere (online exhibition)
  • Our New Home Meie Uus Kodu: Estonian-Australian Stories (online exhibition)

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