I missed a very important anniversary recently. On February 2, 2020, Estonia turned 100 years old. But their independence was declared (but didn’t actually “take”) on February 24th, 1918, so by that count, I guess you could say that today they are 102 years old in spirit.
Yeah, I know. You probably go months or years without thinking about Estonia. But to its 1,328,360 people, I’m sure this anniversary was a big deal. It’s no mean feat, being the 153rd largest country in the world, especially when you border Russia.
Estonia is not even 3/4ths of the size of the State of West Virginia, but hey, at least they’ve got universal health care and free education for all, so they’re a heck of a lot more civilized than we Americans are. Something I didn’t know is that its territory includes 2,222 islands as well. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
Don’t get me wrong. It hasn’t been easy being an Estonian throughout history. Since the place thawed out and human settlement reached the area 13,000 years ago, it has been occupied, fought over, or at least invaded by Scandanavian and Germanic tribes, the Danes, the Germans, the Russians, the Swedes, and the Polish-Lithuanians, with all the devastation and famine such wars and occupations can cause. Then Russia stood on their neck, basically, until around 1850, when people started looking around and saying, “Hey, we have a national culture and identity, here.”
After decades of struggles, crackdowns and revolutions, World War I, and invasions back and forth between Russia and Germany and Russia again, And that unsuccessful independence declaration in 1918, Estonia and Soviet Russia signed the Tartu Peace Treaty on February 2, 1920, and Soviet Russia “permanently gave up all sovereign claims to Estonia.” Happy birthday!
But you knew it wouldn’t be that clean cut, didn’t you? Of course not. Constitution after constitution, the Great Depression, and then, blam, World War II, which placed Estonia back into the Soviet sphere of influence, causing it to be officially occupied by them. Again. Whew. I’m tired, just reading this, aren’t you?
Then came a period of oppression, deportations to Siberia, and war, where part of Estonia was captured by Germany. Then the Soviets invaded. Again. And the Estonians didn’t want to be on either side of this conflict, and therefore got caught in the middle. The Estonians resisted the Soviets after the war, so the soviets responded with a campaign of Russification, which encouraged Russians to settle the area. By 1989, Estonians only comprised 62 percent of the population.
So why do we consider 1920 to be the establishment of this poor battered country? Because many Western countries considered the annexation of Estonia by the Soviets to be illegal, and so a government-in-exile was established. Their independence was restored on August 20, 1991, and that’s a national holiday to this day. But they also celebrate February 24th as their independence day since that was the date they first declared independence in 1918. The last of the Russian army left Estonia in 1994. If I were them, though, I wouldn’t rest very easy, because, well, Putin, and clearly they can’t count on help from Trump.
Through it all, though, Estonia has trundled on, and has even managed to develop a very strong IT sector. Estonia is where Skype was born. And it was the first post-Soviet republic to legalize civil unions, too. Good for them!
So I’m thinking, if any country needs birthday wishes and a slice of cake, even if it is belated (or not, depending on how you look at it), it’s Estonia. Happy birthday! You sure have earned it, a thousand times over.
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