To be able to call a country one’s own is truly a privilege. Independence has always been greatly coveted throughout history, and continues to be so even today. My name is Valev Laube, and my country is one that truly recognizes the value of this independence. I have lived in Estonia my whole life. I was born in a small village called Varstu in Võru County and later moved to Tartu City. The opportunity to live in different places and to be a part of different communities has truly opened my eyes to the various aspects of Estonia; political, cultural, and many others. Estonia is a Northern-European country. Its neighbors are Sweden, Finland, Latvia and Russia. Since it is a relatively small country situated between countries that are significantly larger and more well-known, Estonia has been rather overshadowed, so to speak. People usually don’t know where it is located or what it is like. To the masses, Estonia is simply known as a country that was once a part of the USSR. A common misconception is that Estonians are the same as or very similar to Russians—but we are our own people, with our own culture and traditions. I will therefore attempt to acquaint you with my homeland: Estonia.
Let’s start with a quote from an Estonian President, Lennart Meri. He once said that while the history of Estonians extends over the past fifty centuries, the history of the Estonian state can only be traced back to 1918. This shows just how old the traditions and the spirit of Estonia are, while simultaneously showcasing how long the Estonians had to wait to attain independence.
People settled in Estonia after ice from the last glacial era melted, but Estonia was only officially recognized as a country in 1920. So, what took us so long to create our own country? The answer is anything but simple. The origins of Estonian occupation by foreign powers can be traced all the way back to the Middle Ages, when there were a lot of countries who wanted to occupy Estonia. Estonian land was considered very attractive. This was because it provided access to the sea, which Russia craved. Estonia was also located in the middle of many powerful and large countries who wanted to use its land to create military bases. In the 13th century, the Crusaders came to Estonia to promote Christian views. Later Estonia was occupied by Russia, Sweden and Germany. In the 19th century, a lot of Estonians began to be better educated. Before, during the time of Swedish and Russian occupation, an education was extremely expensive and thus considered unattainable by most people. Higher education was mostly carried out in either Latin, German or Russian– based on the dominant country’s priorities at the time. As a result of being better educated, Estonians began to contemplate the idea of independence. People started to create Estonian nationalist movements. Estonia had a lot of problems with its neighbors, but its people persevered. After winning the Estonian War of Independence against Soviet Russia and Germany, its independence was made official. The Tartu Peace Treaty was signed on the 2ndof February 1920 between Estonia and Soviet Russia, and Konstantin Päts became the first ever Estonian President. After the Second World War, Estonia was once again occupied; this time by the Soviet Union (from 1940-1941). Soon after the first mass deportations from Soviet Union, Germany occupied Estonia (during 1941-1944). Following this, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, allowing the USSR to again take control of Estonia. It dominated the country from 1944 to 1991. “We sang our country free!” – That’s a common phrase used to illustrate the way in which Estonia gained independence. Song Festivals were national meetings held during Estonian occupation where Estonians sang together. During the reign of the Soviet Union, all songs had to be ones that praised the Soviet system. Although Song Festivals began with the singing of such songs, they did not end in the same fashion. Rather, people would break out into Estonian songs, which were usually prohibited by Soviet rule. There are still some singers alive today who are known as “independence singers” – Ivo Linna, Tõnis Mägi, Jaak Joala, Boris Lehtla, Artur Rinne, Heli Lääts, Anne Velli, Anne Veski and many more. They represent a generation of singers who were instrumental in keeping national spirit alive in Estonia. Estonia’s first President after independence was Lennart Georg Meri, and its second was Arnold Rüütel. Toomas Hendrik Ilves is the current President. Following its declaration of independence in 1991, Estonia has gained a lot of attention with its high-tech solutions and has proved tough competition to West-European countries on all fronts. In 2004 Estonia was accepted as a part of the European Union and, as of 2011, its currency is the Euro.
Estonia is well known for its culture and longstanding traditions. Tunes known as runo songs have been a part of everyday life for many centuries. In my country, music has been a mission to unite people and to help them raise their voices, as well as being a source of great entertainment. There are two universities in Estonia where young musicians can study traditional Estonian music, a highly valued field. One can study Estonian folk instruments such as the violin, a type of diatonic accordion, the Estonian bagpipe, and the bowed harp, among others. A lot of young musicians learn new tunes and techniques by listening to old recordings. The oldest recordings for the violin date all the way back to 1910. In the 19th century it was common for treasured family tunes to be passed on to the next generation of family members, but the line of teaching was discontinued. Musicians today are using these recordings in an attempt to bring this tradition alive once again. Estonian music schools for children provide even a special method of learning, where students study Estonian folk music instruments. There are also a lot of summer camps where people of any age can learn about the spirit of true Estonian music. The biggest folk music camps are the Estonian Ethno camp in Viljandi County and the Folk Music Camp in Võru County. More than 100 students take part in each camp every year. Both camps are extremely popular in Estonia, as well as in Scandinavia and in foreign-Estonian communities.
Estonian traditional ornaments are widely used in designing posters, public newsletters and souvenirs. Designers take inspiration from old instruments, dresses or even buildings. There are common symbols and colors that are used in some parts of Estonia. Nowadays designers use the ornaments from skirts to create things such as wallpapers- innovative, indeed!
Estonia is divided into 15 counties: Harju, Hiiu, Ida-Viru (Eastern-Viru), Jõgeva, Järva, Lääne (Western), Põlva, Pärnu, Rapla, Saare, Tartu, Valga, Viljandi and Võru County. Estonia is a unitary country. South-Estonia is well known due to its cultural background. A lot of old musical recordings are from South and Western Estonia. South Estonians speak their own dialect, which in turn is split into two other different dialects – Võru and Seto. Northern Estonia is well known as a modern financial center. Tallinn is the capital city of Estonia, and so a large number of most well-renowned Estonian universities are situated there, as well as the biggest organizations and their headquarters. Western Estonia and Islands are well known for their traditions. Western Estonian music has been greatly influenced by Swedish music. Western Estonians are known as kind and funny people, mainly because a lot of them pronounce some Estonian letters differently. However, they take it in their stride and are proud of their accent, as we all should be.
Different researchers have shown that Estonians are not a very emotional people and are generally afraid to show their feelings. A common misconception is that this attitude is the reason why there is something of a conflict between Estonians and Russians. However, that’s mainly because after the USSR split up, a lot of foreigners, many of them Russians, stayed in Estonia, but weren’t granted citizenship. Even Estonians had to prove that their parents or grandparents were from Estonia. As a result, the Russians feel that they were discriminated against, because they haven’t been granted Estonian citizenship even now. The problem is that they don’t want to go back to Russia. They consider themselves Estonians because their parents or grandparents moved to Estonia during the reign of the USSR. It is complicated situation, but in many aspects it creates a wrong understanding of Estonia. It is also wrong to say that Estonians are rude or unemotional. People tend to have certain preconceived notions about Estonians, one of them being that they don’t invite people to their homes, because they don’t like guests and prefer to be alone. This, I can say with confidence, is nothing but a misconception. In South Estonia, guests are always supposed to be invited home and given the very best food the hosts have to offer. This is an old tradition. Even if the host family was not very well off, they would still give the guests the best food they had to offer. It was also common practice to give presents to guests before they left the house. These traditions truly show that kindness and friendliness are extremely valued in Estonian culture.
Education and student activism
Estonia is home to some of the best educational institutions. This has been confirmed by PISA-tests. Based on the 2006 results of these tests, Estonia is in the 5th place for scientific literacy, the 14th place for mathematical literacy and the 13th place for functional reading. All of these results are higher than the averages for OECD-countries.
Estonia also stands out because of its student democracy projects. In Estonia, 90% of the schools have a student council. The mission of these student councils is to protect students and try to improve school life based on what the student body wants. Student councils work mostly in a democratic fashion. Every student council member has been voted into power by the student body. There are also similar organizations for university students called Eesti Üliõpilaskondade Liit.nt councils are members of the Estonian School Student Councils’ Union. ESCU is a prestigious umbrella organization that represents students on a more public and national level.
Tallinn is the capital of and the largest city in Estonia. The population of the city is almost 0.5 million (2012). It is well known in history. Tallinn (then known as Reval) was a member of the Hanseatic League, joining in 1285. The Historic Centre of Tallinn is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage list. Humans settled in Tallinn about 5000 years ago, but in 1050 the fortress of Toompea was built. Nowadays, the Toompea fortress is where the 101 members of the Estonian parliament congregate and work. It is also a tourist attraction. The Tall Hermann tower is situated near this fortress, and is also a popular attraction. Tallinn represents, essentially, a seamless blend of the old and the new. After the collapse of Soviet Union in 1992, a lot of tall, modern skyscrapers have come up, making the Tallinn skyline look modern. Tallinn is also a centre for different organizations and developers. One of the best-known products, Skype, was developed there by the Estonians Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu and Jaan Tallinn. Today, a lot of Microsoft’s Skype developing still takes place in Tallinn. The symbol of Estonia and Estonian culture is the Song Festival that takes place in Tallinn. It is a longstanding tradition. The first ever Song Festival took place in 1869 in Tartu. However, ever since the 6th Song Festival, it has been organized in Tallinn. A National Song Festival is held once in every 5 years. The biggest Song Festival ever was held in 1950, when there were as many as 31 907 singers! Since 1932, organized Nation Dance Festivals, where people dance Estonian dances, have also been held regularly. However, the Big Nation Song Festival is certainly not the only singing festival in Estonia. Every 5 years since 1962, a national youth singing festival has been held at the same venue. Singing festivals are also organized in almost every county. Tallinn is also the hometown of the famous Estonian discus thrower Gerd Kanter, who has won gold medals at the World University Games in 2005, the World Championships in 2007, and at the Olympic Games in 2008, amongst many other victories.
Tartu is known as the University City. It is so named because the oldest university in all of Estonia, the University of Tartu, is located in this city. This university was established by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in 1632. It is one of the oldest universities in Northern Europe. Tartu is the hometown of many famous Estonians such as Kristina Šmigun-Vähi and Kerli Kõiv. Kristina Šmigun-Vähi is an Estonian cross-country skier. She won twice at the Olympic Games of 2006. She also won the World Championships in 2003, in addition to a host of other wins. Kerli Kõiv, on the other hand, is an Estonian recording artist. She has born near Tartu in Elva, but is currently living and working in Los Angeles, California. Tartu (then known as Dorpat) was a member of the Hanseatic League, having joined around 1280.
Pärnu is called “The Summer Capital”. This is due to the fact that it is a popular tourist summer destination. Pärnu was also a member of the Hanseatic League. As for famous people from Pärnu, the most successful Estonian male cross country skier, Andrus Veerpalu, was born near to this city. He won the Olympic Games in his category in both 2002 and 2006. He has also won World Championships in 2001 and 2009, and many other medals.
Viljandi is known as the city where everybody plays some kind of Estonian folk instrument. Viljandi is home to the Estonian Traditional Music Center, the University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy and to the Theatre of Ugala. This is an exceptional combination that has produced some of the best young Estonian musicians.
Every summer, since 1992, the Viljandi Folk Music Festival is held in this city. It’s the oldest folk music festival in Estonia. It attracts about 20 000 visitors on average, who come to enjoy the spirit of folk music, imparted by about 200 musicians from all over the world. The Viljandi Traditional Music Center organizes concerts, workshops and courses year-round. Võru
Võru is a small city known mostly for its Võru Folk Festival and the Võru diatonic acoordion, a popular instrument.The Võru Folk Festival is a folk music and dance festival, which has been happening ever since 1995. It is renowned for its famous street dance traditions. Every year, the whole city comes together to dance a couple of Estonian dances on the street. During the 1995 festival, the length of dancing line was 2183 meters! Another defining aspect of the festival is the diatonic accordion playing competition, where (since 2012) only the Võru diatonic accordion is allowed to be played. The Võru diatonic accordion comes from this very city, and was first created by the instrument maker August Teppo. It soon became a phenomenon and a lot of other instrument makers also started to develop similar instruments. It is popularly known as the “hell organ”, because it has a strong and loud tone, and is perfect to play music for dances on. Since 2008, the Uma Pido has been held in both Võru and Põlva. It is a singing festival where all the songs are sung in the South Estonian (Võru) dialect. Võru is also the hometown of Estonian politician and decathlete Erki Nool. He won the gold medal in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, as well as various other medals in World Championships, World Indoor Championships, European Championships and European Indoor Championships.that’s
Otepää is a small town in South Estonia. There are a lot of sport centers in this town, ranging from ski slopes to golf ranges.