Estonians in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s

​By 1918, approximately 230,000 ethnic Estonians were located in the future Soviet territory. Roughly 190,000 were immigrants who had moved eastwards beginning in the late 19th century; the others were soldiers of the former tsarist army or war refugees. Estonian rural settlements (‘colonies’) were located in European Russia, especially near Petrograd, in the Caucasus, in the Crimea, in Siberia, and in the Russian Far East. The importance of urban Estonians, who were skilled workers, employees or of the middle class, should not be underestimated; the capital Petrograd housed 50,000 of them.

According to the Tartu Peace Treaty of 1920, ethnic Estonians in Soviet Russia possessed the right to opt for Estonian citizenship and return to their homeland. 50,000 applications for citizenship for 106,000 persons were filed, but only 40,000 people were allowed to leave. The difficult conditions during and after the Russian Civil War and the danger of persecution of the usually above average educated and better-off Estonians were obviously the main reasons for returning to Estonia. Those applying for citizenship and not allowed to leave Soviet soil had a black mark placed on their files, which was used against them during the later repressions.

In the period of ‘korenizatsiya’ (indigenization) in the 1920s, Estonians in the Soviet Union benefited from national village councils, native language instruction in schools or national kolkhozes. ‘National in form, socialist in content’ was the motto of Stalin’s nationalities’ policy. In the 1930s, the situation turned less favourable for ethnic minorities. Some contacts between Estonians inside the Soviet Union and in Estonia existed as smugglers’ networks across the border or in connection with the Party or culture. Nevertheless, any private contacts with relatives became nearly impossible due to strict postal censorship and the fact that the Soviet borders were closed.

Depending on their social and educational status, individual Estonians could find career employment in the Soviet state and Party apparatus, while others were singled out as ‘kulaks’, ‘enemies of the people’ or ‘former people’. During the Great Terror in 1937-1938, Estonians became members of an ‘enemy nation’, as did other diaspora groups. In the ‘Estonian operation’, 5,680 persons were arrested and 4,672 of them were shot, including the majority of Estonian Comintern employees and the leadership of the Estonian CP. No exact numbers are known, but it can be estimated that more than one tenth of the Estonians in the USSR became victims during different episodes of state violence. Due to terror and assimilation, the number of Estonians declined; some of them were later used as agents of Sovietisation in Estonia.

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