Estonia declared its independence on 24 February 1918 after the collapse of the Tsarist regime in Russia and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks. However, in order to secure its independence, the Estonian provisional government had to beat back an invasion by the Red Army during the winter of 1918/19. A peace treaty between Estonia and Soviet Russia was signed at Tartu on 2 February 1920, whereby the latter renounced all claims on Estonian territory and recognized Estonian independence in perpetuity.
Nevertheless, the Soviets did not leave Estonia in peace. On 1 December 1924, an attempted communist coup d’état, instigated from Russia by the Comintern, was put down by the Estonian authorities. The Communist conspirators failed because Estonian workers rejected their call for an anti-government insurrection.
The Republic of Estonia established liberal democratic institutions which lasted until 1934 when Prime Minister Konstantin Päts imposed a more authoritarian form of rule. After a 1919 land reform redistributed farmland from the aristocratic Baltic German landowners to the peasantry, Estonia became one of Europe’s most egalitarian societies. Among the Republic’s most noteworthy achievements was a law on cultural autonomy for national minorities which was widely recognized as one of the most progressive in contemporary Europe. Estonia’s two decades of independence, during which living standards increased and the national culture flourished, came to an abrupt end in 1939.
On 23 August 1939, the USSR and Nazi Germany unexpectedly concluded a Non-Aggression Treaty (known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty after the foreign ministers who signed it). The Treaty included a secret protocol which divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence between them, with Estonia assigned to the Soviet sphere. The treaty gave Hitler the green light to invade Poland on 1 September 1939, thus launching the Second World War. Stalin also did not wait long to cash in on his side of the bargain. Though Estonia had declared its neutrality, on 24 September the USSR issued an ultimatum to Estonia to immediately allow Soviet army, naval and air force bases to be established on Estonian territory. Hoping to avoid war, President Päts complied with Stalin’s demands. The 25,000 Soviet troops brought into Estonia outnumbered the Estonian regular army.
While the world’s attention was riveted on the German invasion of France in June 1940, the USSR issued a new ultimatum, accompanied by a total air, sea and land blockade, demanding that Estonia open its border for Soviet troops and install a pro-Soviet government. With Red Army soldiers already based in strategic locations across the country, President Päts had little choice but to acquiesce on 17 June 1941. With the Red Army fully occupying the country, on 21 July Päts appointed a new government dictated by Stalin’s special emissary, Leningrad Communist Party boss and USSR Politburo member Andrei Zhdanov.
Though the Soviets later claimed that this regime change was the result of a spontaneous ’Socialist revolution’, the role of the Red Army in ensuring Estonian compliance with Zhdanov’s demands is evident. The Estonian Communist Party, which had only 133 members at the beginning of 1939, could hardly have been capable of leading a popular ’revolution’. Nor was there any evidence of popular support for the Soviet takeover, other than some staged rallies, hastily organized by the occupiers. Furthermore, the fact that developments in summer 1940 were closely synchronized with those in Latvia and Lithuania, demonstrated that directions from Moscow determined the course of events, and that the local initiatives were staged for propaganda purposes.
Following Zhdanov’s directions, single-party elections were hastily staged in July in contravention of the existing constitution. The new puppet parliament declared Estonia a Soviet Socialist Republic on 22 July. Thereafter, President Päts was no longer needed to give a sheen of legality to the liquidation of the institutions of the once independent republic. On 30 July he and his family were deported to Russia (where he died in captivity in 1956). Estonia was incorporated into the USSR on 6 August 1940.
Over the next months, the Sovietization of Estonia proceeded rapidly. Enterprises and private property were nationalized. Civil society, from the Salvation Army to the Boy Scouts, was dismantled. Marxist-Leninism was introduced as the fundamental principle in science and education.