Emergence of parties and the 1905 revolution

The modernisation processes of Estonian society continued in the early 20th century — industrialisation and urbanisation, increase in production and consumption, the use of technological innovations, rapid development of the infrastructure and communications, brisk political activity and growing pluralism. The whole of society was greatly enlivened by the emergence of a new generation of Estonian politicians. In 1904, the Estonians achieved their first major political breakthrough: at the Tallinn municipal elections, the Estonian-Russian bloc gained a majority, defeating the Germans who had so far remained in power unchallenged. A characteristically Western modern social structure gained ground; the Estonian academic intelligentsia and workers employed in big industries grew in number. The general educational and cultural level of the population steadily rose, prosperity increased, and the whole standard of living improved. Newspapers played an essential part in the Estonians’ social and political awareness; societies and associations were also of immense importance — in 1905, there were more than 500 in Estonia.

The Estonian ‘social mentality’ as a whole remained in opposition to the central Russian government; nationalism and socialism were the major political trends. Within the early 20th century national movement, the moderate and radical wings were clearly profiled. The moderates who gathered around the Tartu newspaper Postimees (the first issue was published in 1891), founded by Jaan Tõnisson (1868–unknown) and pastor Villem Reiman (1861–1917), wanted to transform the Russian authoritarian rule into parlamentarian government, i.e. constitutional monarchy. They also demanded citizens’ rights in Russia, modelled upon those in Western Europe. The moderate ideologists relied on liberal reforms and legal, non-violent means of political struggle. They were afraid to suggest direct resistance to Russian authorities that could result in mass repression and destroy the Estonian people.

In opposition to the moderates, the Tallinn newspaper Teataja (1901–1905), its publisher Konstantin Päts (1874–1956) and the lawyer Jaan Teemant (1872–1942), attracted a radical wing of people connected with socialists. The radicals were prepared to resort to revolutionary actions in order to achieve a democratic state; they also demanded an extensive reduction of the land possessed by the manor houses.

Estonian socialists were divided into social-democratic-centralists and social-democratic-federalists. The first belonged to the local, strictly conspiratorial organisations of the illegal Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party (founded in 1898) headed by Mikhail Kalinin (1875–1946) and Friedrich Leberecht (1883–1938). The federalists followed Peeter Speek (1873–1968), editor-in-chief of the Tartu newspaper Uudised (News; banned in 1906). The main force behind the socialist and revolutionary movement were the workers of the huge Tallinn and Narva factories, students at the University of Tartu and secondary school pupils. Political propaganda was distributed in illegally printed leaflets.

The socialists’ short-term aim was to overthrow the absolutist power by armed struggle (peasant revolt); the longer-term aim were socialism, proletarian rule, a planned economy, abolition of exploitation and private property. The centralists relied on the teaching of Marx and Lenin, and in national matters supported the principles of internationalism. As opposed to the centralists who were supported by the North Estonian multi-national working class, the federalists found backing primarily among the Estonian-language South Estonian farm and city workers and intellectuals. The movement propagated the synthesis of socialism and nationalism and stressed the necessity of realising the federalist ideas in reforming the Russian state administration and the build-up of the social-democratic party. The views supporting the federalists’ tolerance of ideas that laid the foundation to the tradition of Estonian democratic socialism, and the usage of democratic methods were, besides Marxism, also shaped by austromarxism and Bernsteinism.

The first Russian revolutionary uprising in January 1905, became a turning point in Estonian history. The revolt that spread over a large part of the empire was caused by the ever widening split between the needs of a modernising society and Russia’s hopelessly out-of-date social order. The often spontaneous rebellions culminated in the opposition between absolutism and people, factory owners and workers, landlords and peasants, the empire’s colonial regime and the discriminated minority nations. In Estonia, the revolution was directed against both the absolutist power and the Baltic German upper classes — demands for democratic reorganisation were provoked by the lack of political freedom, remnants of feudal order and the class-related Baltic German privileges, insufficient land and national oppression. Estonians who had become politically conscious by the start of the century, for the first time stepped forward as an active power in 1905. The freedom movement where social and national elements were tightly intertwined, involved large masses of people and achieved a great deal. For the first time, Estonia witnessed general political strikes, large-scale demonstrations and meetings — and also armed struggle against the government.

The revolution started in St Petersburg on 9 January, now known in history as ‘Bloody Sunday’. This unleashed the first demonstrations and strikes in Estonia only three days later. Besides workers, the mostly tranquil protest movement was joined by students, intellectuals and pupils, but also by farmhands and farmers in the country. Actions of varying extent and duration continued throughout spring and summer; the biggest political demonstration in Estonia took place on 1 May.

After Nicholas II published the manifesto granting the citizens’ rights on 17 October 1905, the first legal parties were established in Estonia: the national-liberal Estonian Progressive People’s Party, the social-democratic-federalists’ Estonian Social Democratic Workers’ Association and the Baltic German conservative Baltic Constitutional Party. The first trade unions emerged at the same time, and the Tallinn Workers’ Deputies Council was elected. Practically all Estonian political trends and movements, whether they formed a party or not, were in opposition to the government. They demanded democratic and civil rights, many also the right to national self-determination, autonomy and local government.

In the ever more tense atmosphere, the revolutionary movement in Estonia reached its height in the autumn of 1905. Over 20 000 industrial workers and railway workers in Estonia, i.e. about three-quarters of their total number, took part in the all-Russian general political strike in October. On 16 October the army opened fire in the Tallinn city centre at the participants of the political manifestation, organised by social democrats. 94 were killed, over a hundred wounded. An all-Estonian congress of people’s representatives took place in Tallinn between 27 and 29 November. This split into two meetings. One demanded constitutional order and threatened the government with passive resistance; the other wanted to overthrow the absolutist power and form revolutionary local governments. In approximately 50 peasant townships, the governments were indeed replaced by peasant committees that in some places were called ‘republics’. In many townships, people established native-language teaching, closed the pubs, boycotted the tsarist officials, refused to pay taxes or provide the Russian army with recruits.

In November–December, the government declared a state of war in the Baltic provinces. Within one week (12–20 December), the bands of workers and peasants, mostly in North Estonia, destroyed, burnt down or looted about 160 Baltic German manor houses (i.e. every fifth) and 40 distilleries. The rebels were urged on by a sort of mass psychosis and an irrational hatred of the landlords as ancient oppressors, as well as a lust for revenge for their ‘700-hundred-year slavery’. The landlords suffered 3.2 million roubles worth of damages; many buildings and items of immense cultural value were destroyed during the riots. Although the rioters included social-democrats, none of the Estonian parties actually publicly approved of these actions.

To suppress the revolution in the Baltics, the government used an army consisting of 19 000 soldiers. Special punitive troops, aided and abetted by the Baltic German landlords, shot over 300 hundred people in 1906; without trial or inquest. The court martial additionally condemned about 300 persons to death. About 600 received corporal punishment, hundreds were imprisoned and sent to Siberia. More than a half of all those executed in the Russian Empire, were inhabitants of Estonia and Latvia. Fearing the repressions, a great part of Estonian political leaders fled abroad. Besides other reactionary punitive measures, the central government vetoed the left-wing parties and organisations, and closed down the trade unions and progressive newspapers. The revolution in the Baltic countries and its brutal suppression attracted attention throughout Europe and brought the situation and problems of the Estonians and Latvians into the limelight.

The revolution also diminished the Baltic German trust towards the Russian authorities. The government’s weakness and inability to protect the landed gentry from the wrath of the people urged the Baltic nobility to seek support in Berlin and discreetly sound out the possibility of uniting the Baltic countries with Germany.

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