Campaign of Estonianising family names

The Estonian peasantry got their permanent family names at the beginning of the 19th century after the abolition of serfdom. Before that a person’s full name consisted of the name of the farm, patronymic and the first name (e.g. Pakri Hansu Jüri). Whether anyone acquired a surname or not was controlled by the Baltic German landowners, who relied on their own taste and the names were thus often German.

Estonianising foreign-sounding family names was initiated in 1921, although the results were rather modest at first. The situation changed after Konstantin Päts established his authoritarian regime in 1934, and the process acquired a political dimension. Getting an Estonian name became the main cornerstone of demonstrating a person’s national unity and purity, and the relevant propaganda was officially financed.

In September 1934 the government founded the Central Committee of Estonianising Names (from the end of 1935 the League of Estonianising Names). Among other tasks, the Committee stipulated that the Estonian state and nation can be represented abroad only by people with an Estonian-sounding family name; the same was true for the Riigikogu (parliament) and the boards of civic associations and societies; all officers and students had to bear an Estonian name, as well as the choir members singing at song festivals, and similar public events.

To achieve better results, the State Propaganda Bureau initiated an extensive campaign with the rallying cry „An Estonian name for every Estonian!“. This was supported by people working at state, local government and educational institutions, also by the Defence League and the Fatherland Union, and youth, women’s and other organisations. Active propaganda was carried out in the press and radio, postcards and leaflets were printed, calling upon people to "get rid of the 100-year-old occupation of German names". The Tallinn main post office stamped letters with the main rallying cry, which was additionally shown before films in the cinema, etc.

To facilitate the change of names the linguists worked out special guidelines and published sample lists of new names. Various methods were recommended: translating names from a foreign language directly into Estonian, e.g. Rosenberg – Roosimäe (Rose Hill), Grünfeldt – Haljaspõld (Verdant Field) etc. In most popular cases, only the foreign word ending was changed: Reiman – Reimaa, Tõnisson – Tõnissoo. A large part of new names was derived by suffixes, e.g. Urbla, Ojaste, Kivistik etc. Another method was to form names of compound words, e.g. Pärnakivi (Linden Stone), Laanepõld (Wood Field) etc. Although the linguists thought the names should be serious and "free of sentiment", in reality the new names were often more poetic, such as Tõeleid (Find of Truth), and Õnnela (Place of Happiness).

Large-scale propaganda naturally yielded good results; the State Elder’s decree additionally made changing names quite simple and free of charge. The campaign became so widespread that the organisers condemned those who did not give up their ‘foreign’ name by calling them ‘outdated’ and ‘nationally stagnant’. Moreover, it was indicated that such people working in state institutions might encounter difficulties.

As the campaign took place during the period of increasing economic prosperity, and Päts’ popular government shrewdly played on Estonian national sentiments and abandoning the ‘legacy of foreign rulers’, the whole undertaking proved hugely successful. In 1935, over 30,000 people Estonianised their surnames, and by 1940 the number had reached about 200,000. In 1940 about 100,000 people still had a ‘foreign’ surname, i.e. two thirds of the people with such names had gone along with the campaign.

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