Population: ethnic and social structure

Systematic pillaging by Russian forces at the time of the Northern War, and the 1710–1711 plague epidemic, caused a huge demographic catastrophe. Historians remain divided on the numerical estimates, but on balance it is thought that after the Northern War there were no more than 150 000–170 000 Estonians left. The early 18th-century post-war crisis marked the lowest ebb in the Estonian population during the last thousand years. But due to a high natural population growth and partly also to immigration, the number of Estonians began to rise rapidly. In 1725, the Estonian population was 220 000, in 1750 it was 335 000, and in 1765, 400 000. Thus the population level of the Swedish time, before the Great Famine, was restored. In the following years, the number of people increased further, if at a slower rate: in 1782 the Estonian population was 485 000, in 1800 it was 500 000, and in 1858, 750 000.

Throughout the period under observation, Estonia was mainly an agrarian society. The townspeople formed a modest 5 per cent of the whole population. By 1782, their number had grown to 23 000. The biggest town was Tallinn with a population of 10 700; in Tartu the number was 3400, in Narva 3000 and in Pärnu 2000. Some smaller towns (Rakvere, Paide), mercilessly plundered in the Northern War, lost their civic status for many years. Townspeople had to fight hard with the neighbouring landlords who considered them as inhabitants of their manors; the first therefore managed to restore municipal law only during the reign of Catherine II, in the second half of the century. The new Russian metropolis St Petersburg, founded in 1703 at the mouth of the Neva River, steadily diminished the importance of Estonian harbours (especially Tallinn and Narva). In the first half of the 19th century, the population in towns was still growing very slowly: in 1862 the number of townspeople was 64 000, which formed only 8.7 per cent of the population living on Estonian territory.

Unlike the ethnic structure of the rural population, where the manor houses and vicarages formed tiny German islands in the surrounding sea of Estonians, the Germans had a majority in the towns. As late as the first half of the 19th century, 40–50% of the town population was German while 30–40% was Estonian, and the percentage of other nations 10.

Throughout the period, a strict social structure was maintained in Estonia. From the demographic point of view, the Estonian population in 1782 was divided according to social class as follows: nobility 0.6%; the clergy, townspeople, and other free people 4.2% (excluding the Swedish ‘free peasants‘ of the coast and islands, resident since the 13th century); peasants, of whom most were serfs, 95.2%. The split between social classes in Estonia was further deepened by the virtual coincidence of the borders between social class and nationality. The most important category in determining one‘s social allegiance was the differentiation Deutsch and Undeutsch.

The first comprised the German nobility, intelligentsia, or litterati — as this relatively homogeneous social group could be called in the Russian Baltic provinces — merchants and artisans. The total proportion of Germans was 3–5%. The somewhat disparaging label Undeutsch referred to the Estonian and Latvian peasants and the lower ranks of townspeople. But neither the Estonians nor the Baltic Germans formed a separate integral national group in that pre-national era. Nobility quite clearly reigned supreme over other Baltic Germans, primarily because of its lands and political privileges.

The German townspeople, who since the Middle Ages had belonged to professional associations (guilds), were also socially divided. The highest stratum was the merchants, whose representatives formed the Town Council. The merchants, too, were stratified in a complex social hierarchy and it was by no means easy to move from one rank to the next. Even greater social and institutional exclusivity held sway among the well-paid German artisans, who monopolised their professions from within various associations, forbidden to the indigenous people. Estonians in towns were either workers or represented professions requiring lesser qualifications (bricklayers, carpenters, furriers), trades not considered a handicraft worthy of an association.

Nor did rural Estonians think of themselves as a nation: they rather considered themselves peasants whose identity was largely influenced by regional loyalty. The name they often used while referring to themselves — ‘country people‘ — also seemed to be a sign of social self-determination.

Climbing the social ladder in a society with a fixed class system was possible only for the very few. For an Estonian, this automatically meant Germanisation and the loss of ethnic identity perhaps even within one generation. Such a process of individuals revising their ethnic adherence, which had begun in the Middle Ages and continued until the early 20th century, is a highly characteristic feature of Estonian history.

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