From the Baltic Landesstaat to the Diet of Estonia (1721 - 1917)

Many factors influenced the birth and development of Estonian statehood, factors such as its earlier history, the prevailing legal order, the activities of the Estonian national movement, as well as the concept of the power of a nation, and its sovereignty, which had taken root among liberal intellectuals by the beginning of the 20th century. Estonia, and the other Baltic provinces had belonged to the Russian Empire from as early as 1721, but their situation was markedly different from that which existed elsewhere in Russia. They did not have the status of distinct, vassal states, as did the Kingdom of Poland or the Grand Duchy of Finland, and neither were they protectorates. The Baltic provinces, though incorporated into greater Russia, were governed in accordance with the Treaty of Nystadt, which required that a so-called ‘special regime’ should continue to apply. Thus the existing administrative system, autonomy of the noble orders, and the Baltic legal order were maintained. The language of public administration in the Baltic governments was German and the dominant religion was Lutheranism. In the 1880s, however, the Russian Empire began to restrict the Baltic provinces’ autonomy, Alexander III, being the first czar who, on his accession, did not confirm their privileges. Nevertheless, the agreements guaranteeing the autonomy of the Baltic provinces were not prorogued. This erosion of their privileged status caused annoyance amongst the Baltic Germans and increased their separatist sentiments. Baltic German circles did not envisage that separation would lead to independence, their views leaning more towards separation of the Baltic states from Russia and their union with Germany.

The Estonians embraced the idea of independent statehood relatively late in the day. Only after the outbreak of the First World War could the idea of an independent state be remotely conceivable. Until then, even the most ambitious aspirations of self determination did not extend beyond a desire to unite all Estonians within a single nation which would then enjoy considerable autonomy. The first draft of a proposal for Estonian self-government, prepared in 1906 by Konstantin Päts, Jaan Teetman, Otto Strandman and others, envisaged that Estonia, whilst still part of greater Russia, would have its own Diet, an administration presided over by a vice-regent, a court system, and a minister or secretary of state who would represent Estonia in the Russian Council of Ministers. All other responsibilities would remain with the central government of Russia. This draft was never considered by the Russian Duma.

The idea of Estonian autonomy was actively promoted after the Russian revolution of February 1917. Soon after this event, on 30th March 1917, the Russian Provisional Government approved a draft statute for local government in Estonia. Though this resulted in little, effective devolution of responsibilities, much more significant was the fact that the areas in which the Estonians lived, (with the exception of Setumaa), were unified into a single, local government unit. At that juncture, the autonomy which Estonian leaders sought did not extend to the creation of a state but merely embraced a local form of government whose authority would be even less than that which the Baltic states enjoyed under the ‘special regime’ conditions. It was only at the National Congress, which began on 3rd July 1917, that greater ambitions were voiced and, on the initiative of Jüri Vilms, a federal, rather than an autonomous, administrative structure was advocated.

The first, significant step towards achieving an autonomous the state of Estonia, was taken on 28th November 1917 when the Estonian Provincial Assembly, (or Diet), declared itself to be the supreme power in Estonia. Again this was largely a symbolic gesture, as no overt claims were made for the creation of a new, Estonian state, and no mention was made of Estonia’s withdrawal from greater Russia. Nevertheless, the fact that the supremacy of the Russian government over the Diet was denied, implied the creation of a new, state order. In fact, the Diet did not assume the power which it declared to itself, as it fell under the control of the Bolsheviks who supported the indivisibility of Russia.

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