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Estonian culture is that of a nation of a little more than one million people. Along with the language, this culture is the main vehicle for Estonian identity, hence the respect which Estonians feel for it.

The most striking example of the culture of ancient Estonians is their regivärss, i.e. rhythmic verse, as well as their aural tradition of folk song where each line is repeated several times with variations on a theme. Nowadays, such ancient culture is rarely encountered, exceptions being the island of Kihnu and the Setu border region, but such culture is nonetheless preserved and research is carried out on it. Estonians have one of the biggest collections of folk songs in the world, with written records of about 133,000 folk songs.

In the early 13th century, the Teutonic Order sent their crusaders here. The knights were followed up by priests. What remains of that epoch are mainly small country churches with tarred spires, situated near the coast.

The German colonists made their mark on Estonian spiritual, material and everyday culture. By way of this culture, Estonia entered the mainstream of the Occident. The Germans, who lived in manor houses and towns, did not mix with the indigenous population and for several centuries, Estonian and German culture developed in parallel. Over time, the Germans developed their own brand of specifically Baltic German sub-culture.

Through the centuries, Estonia has also been under the tutelage of Denmark and Sweden. The latter nation built the city of Tallinn on the spot once occupied by an Estonian stronghold. Northern Europeans can feel at home with the Gothic architecture of this structure which has been well preserved. Sweden founded the University of Tartu in 1632, which incidentally is four years older than Harvard.

Russian cultural influence has been relatively small, barring a couple of waves of Russification by the authorities.

The breakthrough for the Estonian people came simultaneously with that of their cousins the Finns in the mid-19th century. Estonia even has the tune of its national anthem in common with that of Finland, and the national epics of the two countries exhibit common features.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Catholicism vied with Protestantism, the latter winning the ultimate victory. This has led to the focus of Estonians on a literary culture and the written word.

A writer would not merely be the author of books, but also a spiritual leader for his people. Culture has thus been a tool of political struggle, since direct manifestations of the political will of the common people were prohibited. Estonia's greatest writers are Anton Hansen Tammsaare, Eduard Vilde, Marie Under, Betti Alver, Friedebert Tuglas and Karl Ristikivi. The Estonian author most well known throughout the world is Jaan Kross. The most popular contemporary authors are Jaan Kaplinski, Andrus Kivirähk and Tõnu Õnnepalu.

During the 1860s, the national movement began to make its presence felt in the first newspapers written in Estonian, and theatrical and musical associations sprang up throughout the country. Cultural activity was also brought to the towns. National song festivals were organised, a tradition which survives to this day. Every fifth year, tens of thousands of singers from all over the land come to sing for countless listeners.

In 1944, a large number of Estonians fled to the West. During the first few decades following the Second World War, a great deal of valuable Estonian culture ended up being in exile. Back home, most cultural people practiced what could be termed silent opposition. Cultural development was relatively separate from the powers that be. During the period under Russian tutelage, the Baltic states, i.e. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were regarded as the "Soviet West", since it was there that Western culture trickled through the Iron Curtain. Since the mid-1960s, half of Estonia was able to watch Finnish television. Poetry became important then, during the 1970s, theatre and in the 1980s architecture and fine art were given central stage.

Since Estonia regained independence (1991), Estonian cultural life has evolved rapidly, largely in a similar way to that of the rest of Europe. The new media and virtual art have made their breakthrough.

Our ticket to the outside world is, however, music, on account of the lack of language barriers. World-famous conductors include Neeme Järvi and Tõnu Kaljuste, while composers Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis and Erkki-Sven Tüür are well known abroad.

At an institutional level, there are many private initiatives such as small theatres, dance groups and especially publishing houses. Estonians like theatre and go to see a play at least twice a year.

A large number of cultural institutions such as theatres, museums and libraries are financed by the state, as are cultural periodicals, whose editions are very large, given the size of the population. Cultural efforts are supported financially by the Kultuurkapital fund, which derives its revenue from duty on the sale of alcohol and on gambling.

As well as society as a whole, generations have changed since the early 1990s and this evolution has not always been painless. The aims of society have changed. The task now facing us is to ward off globalisation and guard against the whims of market forces so as to keep our own national culture retain our specific cultural features even as a Member State of the European Union.


Written for the MFA by Mihkel Mutt, writer and columnist


More information:

Culture-related English Language Internet Sites

Estonian Institute