Land ownership in Estonia in the 20th century

​In the early 20th century, most of the land in Estonia was divided between large households (manors) and small households (farms). The manors possessed over one half of the entire land, including almost all of the forestland and 20% of the agricultural land. Eighty per cent of the latter was mostly organised as small farms of about 20–30 ha, of which about a quarter were leased.

A radical land reform was carried out at the beginning of Estonian independence. The Land Act, passed on 10 October 1919, and other legislation expropriated almost all of the landed property, which had mostly belonged to the Baltic German nobility, leaving them just over 50 ha each. No compensation was initially paid for the expropriated land; this was done starting in 1925, and at lower rates than the market value. The expropriated land formed the state reserve, which was divided up to form new farms. The land was primarily given to those who had participated in the War of Independence, to set up viable smallholdings.

After Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, the Soviets began introducing a socialist economic system, which also meant abolishing private ownership. On 21 July 1940, the puppet parliament, formed by the occupation powers, declared that all land now ‘belonged to the people’. The land was nationalised and a new reform was initiated that aimed to eliminate large farms. One household was allowed to use a maximum of 30 ha; the rest was registered in the state land fund. Part of the latter was distributed among the ’new settlers’' (poor peasants and rural people without farmsteads), and part lay fallow. By redistributing property, one of the main aims of the reform was to increase social tensions and thus gain firmer control over the population and secure the position of the occupying power.

During the German occupation (1941–44), the right of ownership concerning the expropriated lands was not officially restored, although the former owners were allowed to use their land again and evict the new settlers.

When the Soviet occupation was restored in autumn 1944, the land reform was started again; one farm could now use 20 ha. In total, about 927,000 ha of land was expropriated from 44,000 landowners, including over 242,000 ha of agricultural land. Collectivisation was carried out between 1947 and 1949, causing a new redistribution of property, and the system of farms was completely eliminated.

After Estonia regained independence in 1991, private land ownership was gradually restored. An ownership reform was initiated, stipulating that the legal owners or their heirs were to regain ownership, or be compensated for, lands illegally expropriated after 16 June 1940. The legal owners were people who had owned the land before the occupation, or their heirs.

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