History & Background
Estonia is located in Eastern Europe, bordering the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland, between Latvia and Russia. The total land area is 43,211 square kilometers, of which 44 percent is forest and woodland. It is slightly smaller than New Hampshire and Vermont combined. The estimated population in July 2000 was nearly 1.5 million, with the two largest ethnic groups being Estonian (65.1 percent) and Russian (28.1 percent).
The Russians first mentioned Estonia in the eleventh century, but the first signs of human life in Estonia are 10,000 years old. Chronicled history began with the conquest of Estonian territory by German and Danish feudal landlords in the thirteenth century; it may also be regarded as the starting point of schooling in Estonia because the first schools were established in the larger towns. As a result of the Protestant Reformation, the first books in Estonia (the Lutheran Catechism-1535) were published. After the Livonian War, which began in 1558 and lasted 25 years, Estonia was divided between Poland and Sweden. After all of Estonia came under Swedish rule in the seventeenth century, a time of peace and prosperity ensued. In 1632, Tartu Grammar School was reorganized and given the name Academia Gustaviana, which is regarded as the establishment of the first university in Estonia, Tartu University. However, only students of Baltic German, Swedish, or Finnish origin could attend; Estonians were excluded. Public schools were established and, as a result, a majority of Estonians became literate. As a result of the Great Northern War, Tartu University was forced to close in 1710. Estonia became a part of the Russian empire.
The nineteenth century was a period of economic development and urbanization. Estonians were freed from serfdom, and, in the 1860s, they acquired the right to buy farmland. Not only was there an increase in wealth, but there was also a period of national awakening that was interrupted by a resurgence of Russification in the 1880s. In 1802, the University of Tartu reopened with the first native Estonians among its scholars. By the end of the century, 96 percent of Estonians were literate.
Independence came with the declaration of the Republic of Estonia on February 24, 1918. The independence period (1920-1940) resulted in the formation of the Estonian language national culture. The economic improvements during that period resulted in a living standard similar to Estonia's Scandinavian neighbors. As a result of the desire for a well-educated population, new upper-secondary schools and seminaries opened. In 1919, instruction in the Estonian language was introduced at the University of Tartu. In addition, Tallinn Technical University and the Estonian Academy of Music were established in Tallinn.
Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940. During the first year of occupation, Estonian political and social leaders were either killed or deported to Siberia. A second deportation took place on June 14, 1941, when a large number of ordinary citizens, including women and children, were sent to Siberia. On June 26, 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union and also conquered Estonia; however, the Soviet Union reoccupied Estonia in 1944. Rather than live again under Soviet domination, approximately 80,000 Estonians fled to the West. Furthermore, Estonia lost one-third of its population as a result of World War II. The Soviets began a process of forced collectivization of the farms in the late 1940s, which included another deportation in March 1949. The rural life that had been the basis of the economy was destroyed. During the process of industrialization, a migratory labor force was imported from other regions of the Soviet Union with the purpose of inhabiting Estonia with a Russian-speaking population. By the end of the Soviet period, large regions of Estonia were populated almost entirely with Russian-speaking people. It was difficult to have an independent education policy because of the pressure to adopt the Soviet educational structure and curricula. However, the Estonian educational system was permitted to maintain instruction in the Estonian language.
At the beginning of the 1980s, student demonstrations began in Tallinn. Forty members of the Estonian Intelligentsia composed the "letter of the forty," which condemned Soviet policy and demanded cultural autonomy. The period of perestroika and glasnost permitted even more criticism of Soviet policy. The Heritage Protection Movement, the goal of which was to teach the correct history of politics and culture in Estonia, initiated a new wave of national awakening often termed "the singing revolution." On August 21, 1991, independence was restored, and, in 1992, Estonia implemented a new democratic constitution. In 1989, the Education Committee was reorganized to create a new Ministry of Education to administer general, vocational, and higher education. Reorganization in 1993 led to the establishment of the Ministry of Culture and Education, which had control over education policy, higher education, and science. A separate Ministry of Education was reestablished in 1996. Since 1991, extensive reforms have been instituted with the aim of integrating Estonia into the structures of the European Union (EU).
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