Estonian Independence Day: Why Does It Have Two?

If you’ve ever looked at a calendar of Estonian holidays, you may notice that Estonian Independence Day appears twice. If a country declares independence, shouldn’t it only have to do so once? Not necessarily—political and historical events have made it necessary for Estonia to declare independence more than once.

So what are the reasons why Estonia has two independence days?

First, it’s important to look at what Estonia’s independence days are called. Their names offer clues to why Estonia had to declare independence more than once and why both days are national holidays.

Estonia’s first independence day is on February 24 and is considered Estonia’s Independence day or National Day. This day recognizes the first time Estonia declared itself an independent country.

The second independence day Estonia celebrates is called the Restoration of Independence Day and occurs on August 20. This was the day that Estonia’s independence was “restored” after the country freed itself from the hold of the USSR.

Let’s take a look at the history behind Estonia’s two independence days and why they’re important.

The words "Independence Day" written out on an Estonian flag
Photo 98519211 / Estonia Independence Day © Ruletkka | Dreamstime.com

Estonia’s Fight for Independence

Unlike Lithuania, which had crowned a king Middle Ages and therefore identifies its independence from that moment, Estonia had a greater struggle to be recognized as an independent nation and gain sovereignty.

Its land had long been fought over by various powers, including Sweden, Russia, Germany, Denmark, and Poland. These countries left an impression on Estonia. One of these that is easily detectable even today is that of the Baltic Germans, who owned land and manor houses throughout what is now Estonia—some of these manor houses can be visited today. The Baltic Germans also left their influence with religion and culture, for example, through Lutheranism.

And while the German elites left their mark on Estonia, it was nearby Russia that ruled it from the early 18th century after the Great Northern War. Sweden lost the Estonian territory to Russia, and Estonia fell under the rule of the Russian Empire, where it would remain for more than two centuries. Policies of russification would affect Estonia in this era as well as in the future.

Estonia’s National Awakening

However, despite being ruled by Russia, in the 19th century, what is known as the national awakening began. This national awakening was a period when Estonians began to be interested in preserving and cultivating a culture that had marked them as one people—regardless of the origin of the ruling power—for generations. As an article from 1944 explains:

The Estonians belong to the Finno-Ugrian family of peoples. They speak their own language. Eighty-eight percent of the population are Estonians. The Estonians have lived in their present territory over two milleniums. They were a free people, governing and defending themselves under the leadership of elders elected from the people of the most capable among themselves.

In part, the national awakening was made possible by rising living standards, more favorable property laws, and increased education. Literature and literacy also played a significant role: the publication of Estonian-language writing meant that Estonian thought was accessible to fellow Estonians more broadly than it had been before. The languages of the Baltic countries were important in national movements that led to independence.

The culmination of the expression of national identity came to a climax in 1917, when proponents of Estonian sovereignty saw that the destabilized situation in Russia—as a result of the Russian Revolution—could lead to an establishment of an independent nation. A peaceful demonstration in St. Petersburg proclaimed Estonians’ desire to rule themselves.

The Russian provisional government of the time signed into law the right of Estonians to rule themselves. However, Estonia was not completely free—WWI was still underway, and eventually Estonia was occupied by Germany.

First Declaration of Independence – Estonian Independence Day

The end of WWI enabled the seeds of sovereignty that had been planted the year before to sprout. Estonia’s provisional government declared independence on February 24, 1918, which is why the first Estonian Independence Day is celebrated on this date every year.

A defeated Germany, which had entered Estonia at the end of the war, recognized Estonia’s independence.

War of Independence

Unfortunately, Estonia would have to fight to maintain its independence before being able to rule without interference from other countries. The fledgling nation was attacked by the Russian Red Army several months later that same year. What followed is known as the Estonian War of Independence.

Though its defensive forces were ill prepared and had only a small membership, Estonia had help from Finns, the British, and the Baltic Germans still residing in Estonia. This team effort was able to put a halt on advancing Soviet forces.

The war continued until 1920 when Estonia signed the Tartu Peace Treaty with Soviet Russia, which secured the country’s borders.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

After 20 years of economic and political development as a free nation, Estonia fell victim to Soviet Russia through the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop act between Stalin and Hitler, which awarded both dictators parts of Europe. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia went to Stalin, and so Estonia came under the shadow of the USSR.

In 1940, Estonia, along with Lithuania and Latvia, were occupied and annexed to Soviet Russia.

Estonia as a Soviet Republic

Estonia was now the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, or Estonian SSR. Though the annexation was not officially recognized by most countries, including the UK and the US, this lack of recognition did little to help the Baltic countries during this time.

Green stamp from the Estonian SSR with a view of Tallinn
Photo 156177663 / Estonia © Sergei Nezhinskii | Dreamstime.com

Mass Deportations

The Soviet Union’s oppression of Estonia included mass deportations, which are a tragic part of Estonian history as well as Baltic history in general. The mass deportations took place in waves, starting in 1941 and continuing through to the start of the 1950s.

Estonians were sent to Siberia and other locations remote from their homeland via boxcar. Many times, entire families were sent. Members of the elite, the intelligentsia, and what were called “class enemies” were some of the first people to be deported as a way of destabilizing leadership and silencing voices of dissent.

However, anyone who may have been suspected of dissent or associated with partisans or those speaking out against the regime may have been deported. When history shows us that neither infants nor the elderly were safe from deportation, it’s clear that the Soviets did not need a justifiable reason to send people away on a terrifying journey that often ended in death.

Of course, deportations were not the only way that the USSR controlled Estonian society. People were also executed, imprisoned, and tortured.

Barbed wire and wall of a Soviet prison in Estonia
Photo 53474866 / Estonia © Ross Rheinbach | Dreamstime.com

Soviet Repression of Society and Culture

Soviet attempts to eliminate Estonian culture were felt at every level. Books were banned, teachers in schools were replaced with those amenable to the regime, artistic life was stifled, and Soviet propaganda flourished. Religion, including Baltic paganism, was squashed as well, the traditional spirituality of Estonians repressed because of its connection to identity and nationalism.

Estonia’s Second Independence – Restoration of Estonian Independence Day

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Estonia began to gain steam to launch its second fight for independence. A growing unhappiness with the regime as well as the death knells of the Soviet Union provided those in favor of Estonian independence ways to make their voices heard. They were able to use political and legal means to lead Estonia into breaking away from the USSR.

Notebook reads "Estonian independence Restoration Day" with August 20 calendar
Photo 191927651 / Estonia Independence Day © Sergei Babenko | Dreamstime.com

Peaceful Resistance Movements

Estonia’s peaceful form of resistance is reflected in its Singing Revolution. Estonians, taking up the tradition of generations past, gathered for large song festivals focusing on folk and national songs with strong ties to cultural identity. Music festivals, a non-violent form of protest, played a strong part in the lead-up to Estonian independence.

Another event that links Estonia with its Baltic neighbors is the Baltic Way. This 1989 event saw Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians create an unbroken chain of human beings from Old Town Vilnius to Tartu. This peaceful protest was a way for these countries to show the world they desired to be free and rule themselves.

The Phosphorite War

Cracks were also appearing in the Soviet Union along environmental lines, precipitated in part by the Chornobyl nuclear reactor disaster of 1986. What is known as the Phosphorite War occurred due to Estonia protesting the opening of phosphorite mines in Viru County, a significant threat to water supplies and the health of people in the surrounding area. Protests erupted and media outlets became a channel for public outcry. The plans for the mines were eventually shelved.

August 20, 1991, Declaration of Restoration of Estonian Independence

Of course, many factors contributed to Estonia being able to gain independence once and for all. Once the government finally got on board with public opinion about such a move, Estonia was ready to take the next step.

The events of August 1991 were dramatic. Mikhail Gorbachev, then the leader of the Soviet Union, had been softening the government’s stance through the policies of glasnost and perestroika. Many in his government opposed these policies—which had enabled the Baltic states to have more say in their own leadership.

The August coup, which lasted for three days from August 19 to 21, prompted the Estonian government to sign a declaration of independence. Members of what was known as the Estonian Supreme Soviet maintained that the original declaration of February 24, 1918, was still legal and which, through the August 20 declaration, would be restored.

Though Lithuania had declared independence earlier that year, Latvia joined Estonia in proclaiming its freedom from the USSR.

What followed was international recognition of independence by countries around the world—including, eventually, the Soviet Union.

Estonian Parliament Building in Tallinn
Photo 121861128 / Estonia Independence © Phichak Limprasutr | Dreamstime.com

Estonian Independence Day Celebrations

Celebrations of Estonian independence include fireworks, a parade, and a speech by the president of Estonia. If you visit Estonia during this time, you’ll see Estonian flags widely flown, and you’ll also have the opportunity to attend related events and concerts.

Whenever you visit Estonia, whether as a part of larger travel to the Baltic countries or other Nordic countries, you can always learn more about Estonia’s independence and culture. For example:

  • The Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom in Tallinn offers insight into Estonia’s history for its fight for independence.
  • Take a tour of Toompea Castle, the seat of the Estonian Parliament in Old Town Tallinn, to see where history continues to be made.
  • Spend a day at Estonia’s Open-air Museum to learn about traditional Estonian culture.
  • Include in a day trip to Tartu a visit to the National Museum, whose goal is to help preserve national heritage.

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