In international politics size and location matter above all else. On both counts Estonia, a northern European country on the Baltic Sea, suffers from severe disadvantages. It is tiny, with a population of just over 1.3 million; and it has a giant neighbor that is ill-disposed to it: Russia. Peoples such as the Estonians seldom manage to achieve, let alone maintain, sovereign independence. Their more powerful neighbors usually gobble them up. What explains the Estonian exception to this rule?
In his play A Streetcar Named Desire, the playwright Tennessee Williams has the character Blanche DuBois say that she has “always depended on the kindness of strangers.” In geopolitics the weak are at the mercy of the powerful and kindness is rare. To secure and maintain independence, those in the position of the Estonians have had to depend, rather, on the mistakes, foibles, distractions—and occasionally on the good will—of stronger neighbors. Since the powerful of the world have usually acted out of self-interest, in order to avoid disappearing from the stage of history the weak must exploit these self-interested actions for their own particular purposes. Estonia: A Modern History, a clearly written and very useful overview of the last eight centuries by Neil Taylor, a British travel writer married to an Estonian who spends part of each year in Tallin, the country’s capital, explains how a small Baltic people has managed to do precisely this.
In keeping with what has been normal in geopolitics, for most of those eight centuries no independent Estonia existed. The Estonian people were largely serfs or, later, peasants, living and working on land owned by Germans. While what is now independent Estonia belonged to Sweden in the seventeenth century, and to the Russian Empire from the eighteenth century through 1918, Germans exercised continuous local economic and political domination.
Stirrings of nationalist sentiment among Estonians began in the nineteenth century, as they did throughout Europe in the wake of the French Revolution. Still, unlike the Italians, the Germans, and the Poles, the Estonians did not seem plausible candidates to achieve political independence, and would not have been able to do so but for one of the peculiar consequences of World War I: both the major powers with an interest in and the capacity for controlling Estonia lost that war. The new Bolshevik regime in Russia submitted to German terms with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918 and left the war. Eight months later, on November 11, 1918, Germany itself surrendered to the coalition of Great Britain, France, and the United States. Taking advantage of the unusual weakness of their giant neighbors, the Estonians declared independence in 1918 and managed, at the end of that year and the beginning of the next, to withstand Soviet efforts to reestablish control over them, with some timely help from the British Navy, whose undeclared mission was to oppose the Bolsheviks rather than to support the Estonians.
During the interwar period Estonia—like the other former imperial possessions in central and eastern Europe that became independent after 1918, including the other numerically small Baltic peoples to their south, the Latvians and the Lithuanians—governed itself, for part of that time in democratic fashion. On August 22, 1939, however, the Nazi and Soviet regimes signed a pact partitioning between themselves the territory stretching from Germany to the Soviet Union’s western border. In June 1940 Soviet troops entered Estonia and in July it was annexed to the Soviet Union. Hitler attacked his erstwhile Soviet ally on June 22, 1941 and the Germans occupied Estonia until August, 1944, when the Red Army drove them out and once again imposed Soviet control. It was to last for 46 long years.
The Soviet authorities not only extinguished Estonian independence, they sought to destroy all symbols and memories of and hopes for it. Moscow tried to impose the Russian language and moved several hundred thousand ethnic Russians into what become, officially, a union republic of the U.S.S.R. Western countries refused to recognize the incorporation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into the Soviet Union and an American Congressional Resolution designated an annual “Captive Nations Week” to call attention to the plight of the Balts and other nations submerged in the Soviet empire. While it undoubtedly helped the morale of the Baltic peoples, however, this custom did nothing to loosen the Soviet grip on them. During the Soviet period, Estonia maintained its sense of national distinctiveness through cultural events such as song festivals. In 1965 limited ferry service across the Gulf of Finland began between Tallinn and Helsinki, providing a small opening to the Western world, and eventually Finnish television became available to many Estonians (the two languages are similar). It was, however, another great upheaval, which the Estonians did nothing to trigger but that they put to good use, that paved the way for the recovery of their independence.
No statue of Mikhail Gorbachev stands in Estonia but he deserves one, for he was the architect—albeit unintentionally—of that recovery. Beginning in 1987, his reforms loosened the restraints on civic and political life throughout the Soviet Union. The Estonians were quick to take advantage of the expanded freedom that became available and worked assiduously and skillfully to expand the boundaries of what the authorities in Moscow, increasingly preoccupied with events in Russia itself, would permit. Estonia initiated, for example, market-based economic activity of the kind traditionally suppressed by the Communist Party. The collapse of communist rule in central and eastern Europe in 1989 made full independence seem feasible, and by 1991 Estonia was functioning as a sovereign state in all but name. In a freely-conducted referendum in March of that year, the Estonians voted overwhelmingly for independence.
The attempted coup against Gorbachev on August 19, 1991 was a dangerous moment for Estonia. Had it succeeded, Taylor writes, “firm Moscow control would have been reimposed” in the Baltic region. Thanks to the resistance led by Boris Yeltsin, however, the coup failed. Yeltsin pushed Gorbachev aside and dissolved the Soviet Union, and Estonia officially regained its independence. For the second time in seventy years the Estonians had slipped through a fortuitous crack created by a great European earthquake.
If achieving independence depended on the actions of others, the Estonians themselves seized the opportunity they were offered to build a solidly democratic political system and a flourishing economy. They have regularly conducted free and fair elections and established institutions and policies that have produced impressive economic growth. The country has put itself at the forefront of cyber-technology: Estonians created the software for Skype. To hedge against renewed threats to its independence by integrating itself into the global community, it has joined as many international organizations as possible, becoming a member of the Western military alliance, NATO, and of the European Union, in 2004. In 2011 it adopted the common European currency, the euro.
Twenty-seven years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, therefore, everything has changed for Estonia—except the two things that in geopolitics matter most: demography and geography. It is still tiny by the standards of sovereign states and still has a border with a much larger neighbor that maintains an unfriendly attitude toward it. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the dissolution of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century. He has invaded two other former Soviet republics-turned-independent-countries: Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. His regime launched cyberattacks on Estonia in 2007 and he has boasted that his troops “could not only be in Kyiv (the Ukrainian capital) in two days, but in Riga, Vilnius (the capitals of Latvia and Lithuania respectively) and Tallinn too.” A 2016 report by the Rand Corporation lent credibility to that assertion by estimating that a Russian invasion force could reach Tallinn in 60 hours.
Estonia has, in theory, a guarantee against Russian aggression in the form of its membership in NATO. A NATO guarantee means in practice the promise of military protection by the United States; but few Americans could find Estonia on a map or know that their country has made a commitment to defend it against nuclear-armed Russia. When the Clinton Administration decided to expand the alliance eastward in the 1990s, it asserted that this would entail no additional expenditure or risk for the United States. Moreover, the current American President has expressed skepticism about the country’s NATO commitments.
None of this means that Estonia is destined to lose its independence again, as it did in 1940. It does mean, however, that the country cannot escape the fate of small, vulnerable peoples everywhere: no matter how brave, clever, and resourceful the Estonians are, their future depends ultimately on what not-necessarily-kind strangers decide to do—or refrain from doing.