Rural settlement and the changing village

The spatial dispersal of Estonian rural settlement is quite different from the location of the towns. This has been, first of all, influenced by the differences between Higher and Lower Estonia, which in their turn have been shaped by natural conditions and forms of development. Besides natural conditions, rural settlement has been influenced by political and economic processes, i.e. land and ownership reforms. Estonian villages (approx 4500 in number) are relatively small compared to villages of other European countries: about half of them have populations under 50.

Today’s settlement and administrative divisions have mostly been shaped on the basis of manor houses. Here, too, regional differences play a significant role. North Estonian manor houses were smaller and more numerous; villages clustered around them and were mostly quite compact. South Estonian manor houses were bigger, and the villages were scattered, being to a large extent dispersed settlement areas. The buying of farms proceeded differently in North and South Estonia as well. An important process shaping rural settlement was the land reform that began in 1919, after Estonia became independent. Former manor house lands were covered by a network of scattered agricultural smallholdings.

During the Soviet occupation, homesteads were collectivized by force and, introducing a new economic unit, kolkhozes were formed. As a result, next to the old centers, new ones gradually took shape – urban centers with wealthier kolkhozes and sovkhozes. By building new residences and service facilities, attempts were made to gather rural people into these new living areas, close to agricultural mass-production territories. At first, residences were usually located inside buildings of two to five floors. With the rise in affluence, private residence construction got off the ground, too. The new villages looked really different compared to the ones established during the first Estonian Republic. Instead of mainly wooden residences and some manufacturing buildings, all located quite sparsely, there were groups of apartment buildings, made of silicate and cinder blocks, with kindergartens, schools, big stores, cafeterias, civic centers, and different offices and manufacturing buildings. Many villages that were located farther from the centers became empty or were only used as secondary living areas. Still, even in the smallest villages one could notice buildings that had something to do with kolkhozes: cow barns, grain driers etc, and some -multi-family homes, built as single entities or in pairs. In 2000, 34 per cent of hinterland dwellers were living in apartment buildings of Soviet origin.

​In the 1990s when the impact of the Russian market diminished, villages became considerably poorer. The second land reform, starting after the restoration of independence, returned the land that was illegally expropriated by the Soviet authorities, to the rightful owners. State-supported loans helped set up new farms. Agriculture, however, has not regained its previous significance, and people seeking better jobs keep moving from the country to the towns. Former kolkhoz villages farthest away from towns – the attractive central places of regions – suffer the most. Sometimes houses that were built during this period are unused, in decay and a problem for local citizens and local governments.

In the last couple of decades, there has been a renewed interest in village life, fostering old traditions and renovating old residences. Old central villages have slowly started to restore their importance and, despite the tendency to concentrate characteristic of the Soviet occupation, a mostly straggling pattern of habitation still prevails. In Estonian villages, houses used as secondary residences play an important role; many people spend their summers in village homes and grow their own vegetables.

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