The post-revolutionary situation and World War I (1907-–1917)

The defeat of the revolution was followed by general reactionary onslaught; the previous promises and freedoms were cancelled. On 3 June 1907, the oppositional II Duma was dissolved and a new election law came into force that was favourable for the government. The Russian political situation had nevertheless undergone an essential change: the Tsar accepted the assembling of the first parliament in 1906. In the empire’s parliament — the Russian Duma (which was regularly assembled from 1906 to 1917) — Estonia was represented by 20 deputies. Of these, 13 were Estonians who formed a bloc with the Russian Constitutional Democrats’ Party (cadets). Although the Duma was unable to solve the acute Baltic problems, it was nevertheless a means of making the Russian public and the world aware of them.

The state of war in the Baltic countries lasted until August 1908 when it was replaced by a ‘state of fortified vigilance’ (until 1911). The special council formed at the provisionally appointed general governor of the Baltic provinces worked out reform drafts that focused primarily on the interests of the Baltic German landlords. Ignoring these plans, the Russian central authorities pursued the policy of increasing the Russian influence and diminishing the German influence in the Baltic region. At the same time the authorities attempted to dwarf the widening of the political rights of local people — Estonians and Latvians.

The reaction brought along another wave of Russification which reached the Baltic countries in 1907. Encouraged by the new Russian prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, the government officials devised grand-scale plans to strengthen the central government and force the Russification of Estonians and Latvians — even contemplating the colonisation of the whole region with Russian peasants. But the St Petersburg government lacked both the power and the time to realise these plans.

By the early 20th century, Estonia had become one of the economically and culturally most advanced areas of the whole empire with grand-scale industrial and agricultural production orientated at all-Russian markets. More than half of Estonia’s national income before the First World War was created in industry. Good communications (railway, ports) and an advanced infrastructure enhanced the importance of the Baltic region in Russia’s economy and international work distribution. The local population’s generally high cultural and educational level made an intensive economy possible; the Baltic region had turned into a connecting road and a transit passage between West Europe and Russia. This triangle witnessed a lively movement and exchange of people and ideas.

The young Estonian intelligentsia and national culture developed under the overpowering pressure and influence of the two large nations — the Germans and Russians. German-language education prevailed in the 19th century, the Russian-language in the early 20th century. In 1906, the tsarist government finally granted permission to establish private schools with Estonian, Latvian and German as the teaching medium. Inspired and encouraged by this new chance, Estonians were now among the first in the world, as regards the growing rate of the number of academic intelligentsia. The chief places to study were Tartu, St Petersburg, Riga, Moscow and Helsinki. Estonian culture became ever more professional and Estonian scientific terminology developed rapidly. Several scientists of Estonian origin attracted world-wide attention within the institutional framework of Russian science.

Estonian high culture developed under the direct impact of the St Petersburg academic and modernist cultural life. The group called Noor-Eesti (Young Estonia), founded by young writers Gustav Suits, Friedebert Tuglas and others, called upon the Estonians to create European culture without any German and Russian mediation, and in creating culture, to move from the national to the universal. The members of this group sought direct contacts with Western Europe, with Romance, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian cultures. Especially tight relations were established with another Fenno-Ugrian nation, the Finns, who were often taken as an example of how to organise and manage the nation’s cultural life.

The first decade of the century saw the emergence of professional theatres in Tallinn, Tartu and Pärnu. In 1907, the Estonian Literary Society was founded, in 1909 the Estonian National Museum.

But the new Estonian elite did not brush aside the old one. The Baltic German upper classes still played a significant part in society, economy and culture in the Baltic countries. This old class of society possessed a large share of real estate and land; in 1917, before Estonia became independent, the eight hundred Baltic German landlords owned 58% of all Estonian land.

In search of a better life and work, and due to the shortage of land (one third of the peasants were landless), huge numbers of Estonians emigrated to Russia and America. In 1917, one fifth of Estonians lived outside Estonia (250 000); 50 000 of them lived in Petrograd (the Russian capital was renamed Petrograd in 1914). Altogether 40% of university-educated Estonians worked in Russia. Estonian colonists were the pioneers of modernisation in the expanses of the empire, introducing Western agricultural technology and work morale. Educated Estonians made excellent careers in Russia, becoming university professors, generals and estate stewarts.

From the point of view of the defence of Petrograd, the Baltic countries had a specially important place in Russian military planning. Before the First World War, numerous military installations were erected in Estonia: the Russian Baltic navy port and the shipyards in Tallinn; the grand fortified naval base on the Northern coast bearing the name of Peter I. When the war broke out, the Estonian economy was totally subjected to the needs of the Russian war machine. About 100 000 men were forced into the Russian army; 10 000 of them were killed. In the Russian-German conflict the Estonian politicians supported the Russian side, because unification with Germany meant in their opinion the disappearance of the nation through Germanisation. In return for their loyalty, the Estonians expected the Russian government to give them more rights and the long-awaited self-government. The Russian government, however, did not trust the Baltic nations and suspected them (for which there was good cause) of planning to split away from Russia.

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