Saturday, June 7, 2014


There are a few countries that are tucked away in the mysterious corners of Europe, popping up after the massive creation of independent countries during the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Estonia is one of those countries that I only recognized as breaking away from Russia and that its capital Tallinn was mentioned in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series as a trafficking destination.  Despite those dismal attributes, I’m finding there are other far cooler things worth mentioning about this fascinating country. 

The name for the country in the Estonian language is Eesti, which is derived from the Ancient Roman word for the area Aesti.  Although other Scandinavian and Germanic names refer to the area as Eistland and Estland, later Latin versions of Estia and Hestia more likely lent its name to Estonia, as it’s called in English. Estonia lies in the northeastern corner of Europe, with Russia to the east, Latvia to the south, Finland directly to the north across the Gulf of Finland, and Sweden to the west farther across the Baltic Sea.  In fact, the distance between the capital Tallinn and the Finnish capital of Helsinki is merely a 51-mile ferry ride.  There is actually a proposal to build a tunnel for freight-only between the two cities (the shortest distance would be about 50 km/31.1 mi), which would make it the longest tunnel in the world (far longer than the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in Virginia that I traveled as a kid, which is 37 km/23 mi). 

The earliest peoples moved into the area after the last glacier melted, about 11,000 years ago.  The oldest settlement dated, the Pulli Settlement, is on the river Pärnu. Historians and anthropologists have noted the changes as the Aestii people moved through the Bronze and Iron Ages, utilizing tools and moving into a more agrarian society, often considering them the ancestors of Baltic peoples. Estonia also had its own Vikings, called the Oeselians, who mostly lived on the island of Saaremaa in the Baltic Sea.  This island is also known for being the site of a major meteor crash that formed the Kaali Crater. 

During the 12th century, Denmark set its sights on Estonian lands and took it as its own.  They set up their capital in Reval (later known as Tallinn). Estonia, and more specifically the Livonian Confederation, was quite receptive to Martin Luther’s Reformation. The Livonian War of the mid-1500s, was drawn on religious lines among other things and ended up reducing their population by almost half. After the war, control of the country was handed over to Sweden, and the population boomed once again – until the plague hit, followed by the Great Famine three decades later. Roughly 20% of the population wouldn’t make it through those.

Russia later took control of the area, and after WWI and the Estonian War for Independence, they declared independence in 1918 from Russia.  However, Russia took it back during WWII, where it remained under their control until Germany invaded Russia and eventually reached Estonia. Then, to add to the tug-of-war occupation, Russia took it back several years later toward the end of the war where it remained occupied until 1991.

The capital city of Tallinn, is an important port city on the Baltic Sea.   Not only is it the capital but also the largest city in the country.  The old town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It’s also listed as one of the world’s most digital cities. Estonia on a whole can enjoy bragging rights for having one of the fastest Internet speeds in the world.  Tallinn, which used to be known as Reval, has very strong ties to the information technology industry, called by some as the Silicon Valley of Estonia.  In fact, much of the development for Skype and Kazaa was done in Estonia. Tourism is also an important industry in Estonia, famous for its castles, zoos, museums, cultural and historical arts centers, shopping, and sports venues. 

Estonia is considered a high-income country. It also has a low ratio of government debt to GDP as well.  Oil shale mining supplies roughly 90% of electricity for the country.  The country used to be dependent on agriculture, but in modern times, that has given way to food, construction, and electronics-based industries. The strongest trading partners tend to be other Scandinavian countries, as well as Russia, Germany, the UK, and the US. 

Most of the people here speak Estonian, a language closely related to Finnish, although there are strong borrowings from other Germanic languages. Many of the older Estonians may still also use Russian as a secondary language, left over from the previous Russian occupation.  The most commonly studied foreign languages in schools are English, Russian, German, and Finnish. 

Tere means Hello in Estonian.
Clearly, Lutheranism took a strong hold in Estonia from the early days just after Martin Luther hung his famous Ninety-Five Theses.  However, since then, other Christian denominations are also found in Estonia, as well as many followers of various earth-based religions, Islam, and Buddhism. Many Estonians also consider themselves to have no religion at all, or at least some kind of open preference for no one religion in particular. According to some polls, while many Estonians do technically list a religion when asked, many of those also feel somewhat blasé about the whole religion issue, causing Estonia to be listed as one of the least religious countries in the world.

Sounds like my kind of place: saxophones, coffee cups, silverware, martinis, WiFi, and more.

While small and somewhat unassuming, Estonians are doing some fairly progressive and cool things.  They were the first country to try online voting in national elections. They also have one of the largest catalogues of their own folk songs: coming in with over 133,000 written records. Another cool thing for residents of Tallinn is that they get to enjoy free public transportation. (I’m adding this to my list of reason why I should move to Tallinn.) Another thing that I like is that Estonia puts responsibility on pedestrians and bike riders alike in the requirement that if you are walking/riding at night, you have to wear reflective gear.  Makes sense.  All Estonian schools are hooked up to the Internet, and they also have super high literacy rates as well. (Adding this to the list as well…) I have my issues with the flat tax system, but they were the first country to enact this. It hasn’t worked in other countries that tried it after the economic crisis, but it seems to work in Estonia. Another thing that works for me about Estonia is their food. I’m already craving the recipes I picked out. So, without further ado, let’s go explore Estonia.

Up next: holidays and celebrations

1 comment:

  1. Nice article! I need a relaxing little getaway for weekend and Tallinn is such a great place for it! There is some cheap plane tickets to Tallinn so I definitely need to come here! Thanks :)