Tallinn, Estonia – From Europe’s Trophy State to its Silicon Valley, An Introduction

We sat around at a bar in a less touristy part of Tallinn chatting while we put our beers and Varenyky away.

The conversation turned towards the military (we all happened to come from military serving countries), “…so there was this brochure that the Swedish government sent out to everyone last year, about how the Swedish government and people will never surrender and to never believe fake news about surrender… and then they reinstituted national service, they really are afraid of the Russian threat it seems…”

“well, we here are very worried about the Russian threat,” said my beer partner as she looked straight at me, her eyes conveying a steely resolve.

The intention behind her words bore with it the weight of recent history. Re-emerging as an independent state only in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the history of Tallinn is one of occupation by almost every major neighbour around it. Tallinn is the capital of Estonia, the northeastern-most country of the Baltic states (including Latvia and Lithuania) and the European Union. Despite its far-north location, it is situated at the centre of a confluence of competition in Europe – a plain of control between Northern European (Sweden and Denmark), Central and Western Europeans (Prussia) and Eastern Europe (Russia). The lands of Estonia were first historically recorded in the 13th century, but the political control of the lands have only been in Estonian hands for a combined total of less than 50 years in the last century.* Baltic yet Nordic, Soviet but Western, the capital of Estonia, Tallinn is a city infused with all these influences.

The first settlers in the lands of Estonia today were found possibly around 13000 years ago, and its first contact with the outside world came in the Iron Age when Estonia came into conflict with Scandinavians and then later on with Kievan Rus warlords from the east. Estonian mythology and religiosity is unsurprisingly strongly related to this Viking and Rus interaction. Then in 1199, the with the Popes of the Catholic Church in crusading calling mode, Pope Innocent III called for a crusade to “protect the Christians of Livonia”. The crusade took some twists and turns but in 1227, the Baltic lands had surrendered and were under either Danish (northern parts of modern Estonia) or German Teutonic (southern parts of modern Estonia) control.

It was during the crusades that the town of Reval was founded, Reval was the name that Tallinn went by until the 20th century. And it was from Reval that the major events in Estonian history from now on would be recorded.

The German Teutonics, eventually bought the northern parts of Livonia from Denmark and the city of Reval (now Tallinn) was brought into the fold of the Hanseatic League, becoming the last Western European trading point before reaching Novogrod in Russia. Under both German and Danish control it was these individuals who held control of political and economic power in Reval, local native Estonians were made serfs whose only role was to work the menial tasks the elite Germans did not wish to do.

This state of affairs persisted for a good three centuries, when the Reformation in the Hanseatic areas of control weaked the German Livonian Order considerably (it was around that time that Lutheran worship services were found in the Reval, Sweden had become a strong state with a Lutheran religion as had Denmark and the other Prussian states). 1560 marked the beginning of two decades of wars over control of Livonia (encompassing Latvia and Estonia) by the expanding states – Tsarist Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Poland-Lithuania and Prussia. The wars ended in an eventual Swedish victory and Reval belonged to the Duchy of Estonia (under Sweden – beginning what is nostalgically recalled as the “Good Ol Times”.

Don’t get me wrong, the Estonians don’t want to go back to Swedish rule, life was still harsh under Swedish rule, but something positive happened, the first inklings of Estonian independence were seeded in this era. Estonian serfs were given expanded land and inheritance rights, schools and universities were begun during the Swedish era (including the University of Tartu), and printing presses were established in the major cities of Swedish Estonia. An Estonian script was reformed and elementary education was introduced to Estonians by the Swedish Estonian Bengt Gottfried Forselius.

Then came the 18th century and the Great Northern War, which saw a powerful Swedish Empire overstretch itself and eventually lose control to a new rival the Russian Empire. Russian rule was bad for local Estonians as it reintroduced control to the Baltic Germans and took power away from the local Estonians. It was this harsh rule perhaps that watered the seeds of independence among the peoples and began what was to be the Estonian Age of Awakening in the mid 19th century.

As more and more people developed a sense of Estonian national pride, the Tsarist leadership decided that the best way to deal with it was to engage in a process of Russification, by promoting Russian culture and language while suppressing Estonian culture and language.

To add insult to injury the the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built in 1894 over the site where a statue of Martin Luther (Reval and the people of the area had been Lutheran for a few centuries) used to stand, directly opposite the legislature of the Estonian Duchy. It was named after Saint Alexander Nevsky, who defeated the the Baltic Germans in the 1200s – almost as if to say, your local religion is not as important as ours, your political power is merely a powerless plaything we allow and we will defeat all of you again if we have to.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral sitting directly opposite the Parliament House of Estonia even today
Tsarist Russia was however weak on the inside and an initial revolution across Russia directed at the Tsar occured in 1905. It was to be the harbinger of a later Revolution which would overthrow the Tsar and introduce a Soviet-Marxists state in its place.

Estonians took advantage of the 1905 revolution to set up political parties and set up a national congress. This was however brutally put down by the Tsar. Violence does not beget peace however and the ambers of independence were merely waiting for another tinder to light, this came in 1917 when the Tsar was overthrown in Russia and Estonia declared its independence in 1918 The Bolsheviks wanted freedom for themselves but they wanted power over others and so, like the Tsar, they marched on Estonia only to be defeated by an Estonian led defence force. German forces tried their luck and were similarly pushed back. And in 1920 a permanent peace was established with the Treaty of Tartu between Estonia and Soviet Russia with the latter giving up all claims to Estonia.

The national anthem of Estonia (video below)

Not that it helped much, since the peace of paper was useless to stop World War II, or the cold-blooded agreement between the Nazis and Soviets to split Eastern Europe up into spheres of influence.

Deal signed, Soviet Russia decided that they needed to establish bases in Estonia to protect the Estonians from “hostile forces”, under pressure the Estonians had to accede. The Soviets then decided that full passage was required and a pro-Soviet government was required in these pressing moments. On 6th August 1940, Estonia was annexed into Soviet Union as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. This was a terrible period, much like how the period under Tsarist Russia was terrible for the Estonians. Hope turned to despair after Hitler’s Wehrmacht marched into Tallinn and continued the oppression of the people. Occupation hands switched back to the Soviets in 1944, and remained in Soviet hands until 1991. When the peaceful singing revolution was the final straw that threw off the shackles of foreign control.

But there are many more layers to the Tallinn and Estonian story that the historical narrative. There were stark challenges that awaited the Baltic Sisters when they regained their freedom in 1991 as this 1992 documentary (screeened on the BBC and SBS Australia) shows. Estonia has done a phenomenal job since regaining their freedom and independence.

When it comes to rankings of education standards, the common tired story is that the East Asian/Confucian societies are leaving the rest far behind, there are occasional mentions about how Finland is the best performing non-Confucian society (although that has begun to slide too). Peer a little deeper and there is a story that is even more fascinating, that of the phenomenal rise of Estonia.

Then there’s the fact that Estonia has one of the fastest internet speeds in the world and can claim to be the authentic Silicon Valley of Europe.

It is home to the most unicorns per capita (tech companies worth more than 1 Billion USD) including Skype, Taxify, Paytech and Transferwise. The world’s first e-government and digital residency too.

If this is what a merely 28 years of re-independence can see Estonia, do I want to see what even more time can do. Things are not perfect but they certainly seem to be on the up.

In the meantime, join me as I explore Tallinn, the capital of Estonia and the Silicon Valley of Europe!

* It is really important to note that when in Estonia, stay away from the term ‘former-Soviet nation’. While that term is something that many not seem like a big deal to people from other parts of the world, for many Estonians the era from 1940 to 1991 was an illegal Soviet occupation.

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