Estonia. A Modern History

Taylor, Neil
London 2020: Hurst & Co.
Anzahl Seiten
296 S.
£ 17.99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Lars Fredrik Stöcker, Research Centre for the History of Transformations (RECET), University of Vienna

Just in time for the centenary of Estonian independence in 2018, Neil Taylor published his concise twentieth-century history of Estonia as the first monograph on the topic to be published in Britain since the 1940s, with an updated paperback edition following two years later.[1] The accessibly written book aims at a primarily Western audience with little prior knowledge of Estonian history and appears at the right time to provide the non-expert reader with a better understanding of the country’s transition from Soviet-occupied periphery to the EU’s pioneer of e-government and digitalization. Since the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Estonia’s Independence Day, the small Baltic state has been making global headlines. The government of Estonia, the world’s largest per capita supplier of military aid to Kyiv, is headed by a female prime minister whose tough stance on Moscow has earned her the label of “Europe’s new iron lady” and who, together with her Finnish counterpart, emblematises a modern, progressive antithesis to Vladimir Putin’s revisionist, backward-looking Russia. Taylor’s historical account offers some answers to why Estonia became the state that it is today, despite a brutal and often bloody history of occupation and oppression from both East and West. Sprinkled with numerous anecdotes and interesting trivia, the book provides a fact-filled overview of the gaining, loss and restoration of independence in the short twentieth century as the key formative experience of present-day Estonian society.

Taylor begins with a sweeping account of “700 years of occupation”, alluding to an oft-cited theme in older Estonian historiography that frames the traditional Baltic German hegemony in the lands of contemporary Estonia as a centuries-long “night of slavery” (orjaöö). Highlighting the Baltic German and Russian imperial masters’ “authoritarianism, racism and elitism” (p. 45) vis-à-vis the autochthonous peasantry, the book outlines an antagonistic history of conflict, which is reinforced by the core themes of war and great power politics that reveal the author’s particular interest in Estonia’s political history. Chapter Two jumps ahead to the two decades of interwar independence. Particular attention is dedicated to the series of military conflicts following the 1918 armistice up to the Estonian-Russian peace treaty of 1920, which ultimately determined Estonia’s state borders. The book was written with the Western reader in mind, which explains the emphasis on the drawn-out consolidation of Estonia’s independence and a periodization that differs from the conventional focus on 1918, 1945 and 1989 as the key turning points in European twentieth-century history.

The narrative continues with the dire consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact for the country. Taylor writes engagingly about the build-up of tensions that preceded Estonia’s annexation by the USSR in 1940 and the network of lies and deceptions used by Moscow, which uncannily reminds of the smokescreen of disinformation prior to Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2022. Chapter Four describes the subsequent Soviet and German occupations, which virtually wiped out the entire pre-war political elite. The author does not tone down the pro-German moods in Estonia during and after the war, which are often misunderstood in the West. Instead, he gives ample space to the formative impact of Stalinist terror and mass deportations during the “Red Year” of the first Soviet occupation, which have been covered up by the martyrdom of the Great Patriotic War that continues to manipulate Western public opinion until today.[2] A quote by a Soviet security chief, who in a December 1944 report deplores the lacking support and enthusiasm for the new order among Estonian society, sets the tone for the next chapter. The account of the decades of Soviet rule reproduces a totalitarian imagery of oppression and resistance, which, however, does little justice to the complex landscape of opposition, collaboration and passive acceptance that makes the Soviet era such a controversial topic in Estonian historiography. Chapter Six, which addresses the national awakening at the dusk of Soviet power, offers a more nuanced perspective. Taylor at least partly acknowledges the role of the moderate reformers with a Party membership card, who worked towards greater autonomy inside the USSR and have been denounced as collaborators and even traitors by the nationalist camp after 1991. Nevertheless, he cannot quite hide his contempt for the former nomenklatura, which shines through in the rather unflattering portrayal also of widely respected figures such as former president Arnold Rüütel. The book ends with an outlook on the post-Soviet period, navigating the reader through the crises of the 1990s and the political rivalries that rooted in the perestroika era and continue to shape political debates in present-day Estonia. The choice to structure the concluding chapter chronologically according to presidencies is odd, given that the target readership might not be familiar with any of Estonia’s post-Soviet heads of state. Yet, it is in line with the author’s general focus on Estonian domestic politics as a guideline for the organization of his narrative.

Taylor’s enthusiasm and sympathy for Estonia is tangible throughout the book. Already in 1992, he started working as a tour operator for Estonia and has even authored a travel guide on the country, which might explain why the tone of his book occasionally reminds of the numerous Visit Estonia campaigns of recent years. Portraying contemporary Estonia as Western-oriented and “totally detached from its Soviet past” (p. 199) mirrors Estonia’s long-cultivated Nordic self-stylization and the determination to escape the post-Soviet stigma. Overcoming the bitter memoryscapes of the twentieth century and the trap of self-victimization by developing a future-oriented identity as the world’s first digital, borderless nation is doubtlessly a remarkable achievement. Beyond the newly refurbished, Scandinavian-style urban landscapes and seaside resorts, however, the situation looks quite differently. Rural areas are still struggling with the burden of the Soviet past, and the numerous Russian-speaking enclaves are a living proof that the links to Putin’s Russia are still strong and not “minimal” (p. ix), as Taylor claims. The ambiguities of Estonia’s transformation are conveniently omitted in the book, as is the looming existential threat from the East. The riots of 2007 following the removal of a Soviet monument from downtown Tallinn and the subsequent Russian cyberattack against the entire country cast first doubts whether Estonia really would turn into the “normal boring country” (p. 206) that president Lennart Meri once envisioned. At the latest after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 most Estonians knew that their country would become a front state in case of a conflict between Russia and the West, which disproves Taylor’s closing words that “(i)t is fortunate that what happens in Russia now matters less and less to Estonia” (p. 212).

In the preface to the book, Taylor states his intention to challenge Estonian mainstream historiography by devoting greater attention to controversial figures that compromise the grand narrative, such as the homegrown interwar communist leader Viktor Kingisepp or the well-known Nazi puppet Hjalmar Mäe (p. x). Yet, while Rein Taagepera in his similarly designed synthesis of Estonia’s recent history indeed swims against the tide of received opinion by acclaiming Edgar Savisaar, leader of the moderate camp during the Singing Revolution from 1987 to 1991 and political pariah in his later years, as one of the three greatest Estonian statesmen in history[3], Taylor’s account might upset but the most ardent nationalist apologists. The book follows a rather conservative, ethnocentric reading of Estonia’s history as a history of the Estonian people, which largely reproduces the essentially Manichean perspective on a small nation’s struggle to survive in the shadow of imperialist neighbours. At the end of the day, however, Taylor does not claim to be a professional historian and his target audience is not the expert reader. His accomplishment is an elegantly written survey of Estonia’s turbulent twentieth-century history, based on a solid body of mostly English-language scholarship on the topic. History is not dead in most of Eastern Europe, as Russia’s aggressive historical revisionism has proven, and Taylor succeeds in bringing it to life through his vivid and often humorous depiction of the historical personalities that shaped the nation’s fate. His book has the potential to acquaint a broad international readership with the history and mindset of one of the lesser known nations on NATO’s eastern flank, which, particularly in our present time, would be no insignificant achievement.

[1] Another English-language monograph and still a standard reference on Estonian history is Toivo U. Raun, Estonia and the Estonians, updated 2nd ed., Stanford 2001 [1987].
[2] Maria Domańska, The Myth of the Great Patriotic War as a Tool of the Kremlin’s Great Power Policy, OSW Commentary 316 (December 2019), (25.08.2022).
[3] Rein Taagepera, Estonian Politics: 100 Years, Tallinn 2017.