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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a nation and the basic population of the Estonian SSR. Of the 1,019,800 Estonians in the USSR (1979 census), 948,000 live in Estonia and the remainder reside in the RSFSR, chiefly in the city of Leningrad and in Leningrad, Pskov, and Omsk oblasts, in the Latvian and Ukrainian SSR’s, and in the Abkhazian ASSR. More than 100,000 Estonians live abroad, mainly in the USA, Sweden, and Canada. They speak Estonian.

The ancestors of the Estonians were Finnic-speaking tribes who probably arrived in the area now called Estonia as early as the third millennium B.C. Over the next several millennia they absorbed first Baltic and to a lesser extent North Teutonic (Scandinavian) elements and later, from the end of the first millennium A.D., East Slavic elements, an ethnic intermingling that affected the language, anthropological type, and material culture of the Estonians. At the beginning of the second millennium A.D., when the ancient Estonian tribal groupings were gradually giving way to territorial communities, the Estonian nationality began to emerge. The self-designation Maarahvas—“people of (our) land”—probably took root among the Estonians at that time; the Russian chronicles called them, along with the other Baltic-Finnic tribes, Chud, and West European sources referred to them as the Aists (Aestii). From the 17th century the self-designation was gradually replaced by the name “Eestlased,” derived from the old West European appellation.

The formation of the Estonian nationality was hastened in the early 13th century by the struggle against German invaders. The subjugation of the country by German feudal lords delayed social and economic development, and down to the 19th century the Estonians, the overwhelming majority of whom were peasants, had no rights whatsoever. In the feudal period the Estonian peasant culture retained many ancient indigenous traits that set it completely apart from the culture of the Baltic German ruling elite. The Estonians were converted to Roman Catholicism in the 13th century and to Lutheranism during the 16th-century Reformation. In 1710, in the course of the Northern War, Estonia was incorporated into Russia. In the middle of the 19th century about 10–12 percent of the rural population converted to Greek Orthodoxy; the Setu, a small group inhabiting southeastern Estonia and the area of present-day Pskov Oblast, had been Orthodox for centuries.

Until the 20th century the main occupations of the Estonians were farming and livestock raising, supplemented by fishing along the coast. The traditional rural house was a dwelling-barn whose main living area, called rehetuba, also served as a place for drying sheaves. From the mid-19th century dwelling-barns were gradually replaced by houses similar to urban dwellings. Many elements of the folk culture were abandoned in favor of general European customs. In the second half of the 19th century the development of capitalism gave rise to an Estonian proletariat and bourgeoisie and ultimately to an Estonian bourgeois nation.

Established between late October and early November 1917, Soviet rule initially lasted 3½ months, until the German occupation. A Soviet republic was founded in November 1918. Nevertheless, as a result of the Civil War and the defeat of the Estonian proletariat in 1919, Estonia became a bourgeois republic. The restoration of Soviet rule in 1940 opened a new era for the Estonians. Socialist construction, carried out in close political, economic, and cultural cooperation with other peoples of the USSR, transformed the Estonian nation into a socialist nation. The Estonian socialist culture, which has achieved remarkable successes, retains and creatively develops many folk traditions, including the native dress worn as a festive costume, usually at singing festivals, and folk dances and songs. (For the history, economy, and culture of the Estonians, see.)


Voprosy etnicheskoi istorii estonskogo naroda. Tallinn, 1956.
Narody Evropeiskoi chasti SSSR, vol. 2. Moscow, 1964. (With bibliography.)
Istoriia Estonskoi SSR, vols. 1–2, Tallinn, 1961–66.
Eesti nōukogude etnograafia bibliograafia [vols. 1–2]: 1945–70. Tallinn, 1967–74.
Abriss der estnischen Volkskunde. Tallinn, 1964.
Etnograafiamuuseumi Aastaraamat [vols.] 16–29. Tallinn, 1959–76.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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