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Counting the Milestones of Being Estonian: on Anniversaries once again

The 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia coincides with relatively prosperous times. Estonians like history and histories, and since the beginning of 2017, more than 200 books dedicated to anniversaries have been published. Most of them are dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia.

But the year 2019 seems to be extraordinary in one further aspect. In the possible belief that history runs its course in the incontestable pattern of the Gregorian calendar’s decimal system, one might argue that years ending with the numbers four or nine are somehow especially connected to the fate of Estonians. This current year brings numerous important anniversaries that we are celebrating. Such anniversary celebrations often lead us to lose sight of the importance of the same days or years in the history of neighbouring nations or the whole world. True, Estonia is a small country and Estonians are a small nation, and our historical events can easily be overshadowed by events in the history of bigger nations or the world in general.

15 June 2019 was the anniversary of a battle 800 years ago, when the Estonian force was defeated by Danish crusaders in Tallinn. It was celebrated – yet somehow hesitantly – as the anniversary of the first mention of Tallinn in historical records. Hesitantly because according to another theory, Tallinn was first mentioned already 865 years ago on the map of the Arabic geographer Muhammad al-Idrīsī, who served at the court of the Norman King of Sicily, Roger II. This last opinion is largely contested, but it offers us the opportunity to avoid celebrating the anniversary of our capital on a day which simultaneously is the anniversary of our defeat. For the Danes, 15 June is the anniversary of their national flag Dannebrog. According to legend, God sent the red flag with a white cross namely during the battle in Tallinn. This gave the Danes new powers for defeating the Estonians.

This year the 700th anniversary of the Tallinn Cathedral School (Domschule) is being celebrated as well. During the 19th century, the school, which belonged to the Knighthood of Estland, the organisation that united the province’s Baltic-German nobility, became to a stronghold of German-language secondary education for the elites of the Estonian Guberniya. Its 550th anniversary was celebrated expansively some days before St. John’s Day in June of 1869. On the same weekend, Estonians gathered in Tartu for our first all-Estonian song festival. Baltic-Germans were forced to leave Estonia in 1939 and their school was closed; but in 2019, Estonians celebrated the 150th anniversary of the first song festival with the 27th song festival in Tallinn, where almost 100,000 people participated.

200 years ago, in 1819, serfdom was abolished in the province of Livland. In same year, a Russian ship set sail to circumnavigate the globe under the leadership of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen. In Russia – but in Estonia, too – Bellingshausen has always been honoured as the discoverer of Antarctica. He is honoured in Estonia because he came from the island of Saaremaa and belonged to an old Baltic German noble family from the Knighthood of Saaremaa. 200 years later, his voyage is being commemorated with an Estonian expedition by sailing ship to Antarctica, although Bellingshausen, a Russian explorer from Estonia, was not Estonian but Baltic German and most probably not even the first sailor to see the Southern Continent.

100 years ago, the Estonian Constituent Assembly was elected, the Baltic German Landeswehr and the German Freikorps troops were defeated in the Battle of Cēsis by the Estonian Army, ownership of large landholdings was abolished by the Estonian Land Act – one has keep in mind that most large landowners were Baltic Germans – and the University of Tartu, formerly the German-language University of Dorpat and the Russian-language University of Yur’ev, was opened as the Estonian-language university of the Republic of Estonia. 23 June, the date of the Battle of Cēsis, is celebrated in Estonia as Victory Day of the War of Independence despite the fact that most of the war was fought against the Red Army of Soviet Russia, not against Germans. One can also wonder about the capability of the Estonian state and its society, which during wartime and only five months after the end of the German occupation held free democratic elections where leftist parties won nearly an absolute majority, at the same time as the army fought against the Bolsheviks at the front. The importance for a small nation of having its own university, but also the difficulties connected to it, can never be underestimated, even today. Beside such important historical events in Estonia, the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War, but among other things also sowed the seeds of the next war, where Estonia lost its independence, and likewise the creation of the League of Nations, could easily be forgotten. The fate of the large generation of young men born exactly a century ago was to become cannon fodder for the next world war.

And finally, 75 years have passed since the battles at the Sinimäed Hills in Northeast Estonia, where thousands of Estonian soldiers in different uniforms of German armed forces participated in fending off the attacks of overwhelming Red Army divisions. The Sinimäed battles have become the symbol of the bravery of Estonian soldiers, but understandably with transitions in Estonian internal as well as foreign politics since the 1990s. In September, the government led by Otto Tief, the cornerstone of Estonian legal continuity, operated in Tallinn for a few days, and tens of thousands of Estonians succeeded in escaping from Estonia. They founded vigorous Estonian refugee communities in Western countries. Their importance in keeping the Estonian spirit alive and their support in building up Estonian statehood in the 1990s can never be underestimated.

The year 2019 could be euphemised as a ‘year of Estonian anniversaries’. It gives us an opportunity to look back on our achievements, victories and defeats, but it gives account of our self-definition as well. The choice of celebrated historical events demonstrates, whom we identify ourselves with and whom not.