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Centuries of struggle to retain its identity and achieve independent statehood are the hallmark of Estonia's history. Human habitation in the area dates back to at least 7500 BC, but the first forebears of the present inhabitants were Finno-Ugric hunters who probably arrived between 3000 and 2000 BC.

The region was dragged kicking and screaming into written history by the

The fight to emerge as an independent nation seemed to have been won in 1920 when Soviet Russia signed a peace treaty with the parliamentary republic of Estonia, recognising its independence in perpetuity. But, caught between the ascendant Soviet Union and expansionist Nazi Germany, Estonia soon lapsed from democracy into authoritarianism, and prime minister Konstantin Päts took over as dictator in 1934.

The Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939 secretly placed Estonia under the Soviet sphere of influence and the Soviet authorities began nationalisation and purges that saw up to 60,000 Estonians killed, deported or forced to flee. That's why some Estonians mistakenly saw Adolf Hitler's troops as liberators when they invaded the USSR and occupied the Baltic states in 1941.

Estonia lost around 200,000 people during WWII and lost its independence yet again. The Soviet reoccupation of 1944 ushered in a period of Stalinism highlighted by the collectivisation of agriculture and the killing or deporting of thousands of Estonians.

But throughout the decades of Soviet domination, Estonians still hoped for freedom. In the late 1980s Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gave substance to their hopes and a mixture of pent-up bitterness and national feelings fuelled mass demands for self-rule. In 1988 huge numbers of people gathered in Estonia to sing previously banned national songs in what became known as the Singing Revolution. An estimated 300,000 attended one song gathering in Tallinn.

In November 1988, Estonia's supreme soviet passed a declaration of sovereignty; in August 1989, 2 million people formed a human chain stretching from Tallinn to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, many of them calling for secession. In August 1991 Estonia declared full independence, and the following month the country joined the United Nations and began to consolidate its new-found nationhood.


Estonia's native folklore survived centuries of foreign domination thanks largely to a rich oral tradition of songs, verses and chants on subjects like the seasonal cycle, farming the land, family life, love and myths. The oldest Estonian song type, going back to the first millennium BC, is the runic chant, based on lines of 8 syllables with a theme gradually developing from line to line.

Modern Estonian literature began in the early 19th century with the poems of Kristjan Jaak Peterson. The national epic poem, Kalevipoeg (Son of Kalev), was written in the mid-19th century by Freidrich Reinhold Kreutzwald. The giant of 20th century Estonian literature is novelist Anton Hansen Tammsaare. Novelist Jan Kross and poet Jaan Kaplinski have recently received international acclaim.

Like Finnish, Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language, which sets it apart from Latvian, Lithuanian and Russian (all members of the Indo-European language family). It's a very Nordic-sounding language with lots of deep 'oos' and 'uus'. Lutheranism and Orthodoxy are the main religions, but only a minority of Estonians profess any religious beliefs.

Smoked fish, especially trout (suitsukala) is an Estonian speciality and, when it comes to sausages, you can be excused for thinking that the country caters more to vampires than vegetarians. At Christmas time, sausages are prepared from fresh blood and wrapped in pig's intestine. Blood sausages (verevorst) and blood pancakes (vere pannkoogid) are served in most traditional Estonian restaurants.

No one quite knows what the syrupy Vana Tallinn liqueur is made from. It's sickly sweet, very strong and an essential part of any Estonian table. It's best served in coffee, over ice with milk or, if you feel up to it, with champagne. Estonia's best beers are the light Saku beer and the heavier Saare beer from the island of Saaremaa, while some cafes and bars serve tasty, warming hõõgvein (mulled wine).

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