Much of the global media’s attention will no doubt focus on a rather confused groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but let’s pause for a moment to remember that tomorrow, February 2nd, marks 90 years since the signing of the treaty, between Russia and Estonia, that ended the Estonian War of Independence and, for the first time in modern history, legally established the Republic of Estonia as a sovereign state.
Estonia had been a province of Imperial Russia since 1710, and had been subject to some sort of foreign hegemony since the 13th century. Then, in the late 1910s, amidst the turmoil of World War I and the Russian Revolution, chaos ensued: foreign armies (Bolshevik, White Russian, German, even British) came and went, and political institutions were suddenly more vulnerable to change than they had been for centuries.
Estonia formed a provisional government and, on 24 February 1918, declared a fragile independence which lasted for only about 24 hours: German troops occupied Tallinn the very next day. But after the First World War ended on 11 November, the Germans left and Estonia revived its provisional government to challenge the Tallinn Soviet that had been established by the Bolsheviks. The Red Army invaded Estonia less than two weeks later, igniting the Estonian War of Independence.
The war attracted a diverse lot of participants. Estonian efforts were augmented by White Russian soldiers, by Finnish, Swedish, and Danish volunteers, and by a British naval presence; Estonia also fought a bloody battle on its southern border against a Baltic German military force. There was a great deal of battlefield realignment, and front lines moved dramatically as each side’s fortunes rose and fell: at one point, Soviet forces came within 35 kilometers of Tallinn; at another, Estonian forces conquered Pskov and got quite close to St Petersburg (then called Petrograd). By the time it was over, the 14-month war had claimed 3,588 Estonian lives and left 13,775 Estonians injured.
Estonian and Soviet Russian negotiators met in Tartu, Estonia’s second-largest city, to negotiate peace. In the resulting Tartu Peace Treaty, signed on February 2nd, 1920, Soviet Russia recognized Estonian independence and forever renounced claims on Estonian territory. The Soviets also agreed to pay Estonia restitution in the amount of 15 million gold rubles.
Tartu was an apt choice for the peace negotiations, because it was the site of one of the decisive battles, two centuries earlier, of the Great Northern War, which resulted in Russia gaining the Estonian territory from Sweden. In 1707, Russia implemented a brutal scorched-earth policy which resulted in the destruction of every major building in Tartu.