How Estonia regained its independence

Source: Raigo Pajula, Visit Estonia

How Estonia regained its independence

The Republic of Estonia celebrates its thirty-first anniversary of restored independence this year. The Singing Revolution and the human chain connecting Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (also known as the Baltic Way) were pivotal events leading up to Estonia's second independence. Every year celebrations take place all over the country to commemorate the occasion.

Early Estonian Independence

Despite being ruled by foreign powers for centuries, the Estonian people never stopped striving for their nation's independence. Independence first came on February 23rd, 1918. From the balcony of the Endla Theater in Pärnu, a manifesto declaring Estonia to be a sovereign state was read out to the people. The nearby crowd sang out Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm (My fatherland, my happiness, and joy) in unison. This song would later become Estonia's national anthem.


The First Anniversary of Independence in 1919

Photo by: Wikimedia Commons

The next day, news of the manifesto reached Tallinn, and the document was published for the general public to see. After the War of Independence and peace negotiations, a new independent Estonia emerged. Now February 24th is celebrated as Estonian Independence Day. 

However, independence was short-lived. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact on August 23rd, 1939, placing Estonia under the Soviet "sphere of influence" and paving the way for the annexation of Estonia to the Soviet Union in 1940. From 1941-1944 Estonia was occupied by Nazi Germany. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union reoccupied Estonia until the tumultuous events of the late 1980s. Visitors interested in learning more about life in Estonia during the Soviet occupation should visit Vabamu in Tallinn. This museum combines personal narratives with informative exhibits on Estonia's recent past.

A new wave of nationalism

During the late 1980s, feelings of national sentiment and independence began to gain strength and momentum. The policy of Perestroika meant more liberal reforms were taking place within the Soviet Union. On September 26th, 1987, a proposal for Estonia's economic autonomy within the Soviet Union was published in the Tartu newspaper Edasi (Estonian for forward).

The Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, where the Singing Revolution Began

Photo by: Aivar Pihelgas, Visit Estonia

The Singing Revolution

Events known as the Singing Revolution began to unfold during the summer of 1988. In May, Five Patriotic Songs premiered at a music festival in Tartu, and then in June, the Old Town Festival was held in Tallinn. After the official festival, numerous mass singing events occurred at the Tallinn Song Festival Ground, with participants focusing on patriotic songs.

Estonians have always found strength and solidarity in singing

Photo by: Jaanus Ree, Visit Estonia

On September 11th, 1988, roughly 300,000 Estonians (almost one-third of the population) came together in Tallinn for the National Song Festival. For the people of the Baltic States, choral singing has always been a source of strength and national unity. That year, the sense of nationalism was high, and singing became a means of expression and a way to protest Soviet hegemony.

The Baltic Chain

Along with the Singing Revolution, the Baltic Chain (also called the Baltic Way) was instrumental in Estonia regaining its independence. On August 23rd, 1989, nearly two million people from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania took to the streets, clasping hands to form a chain of people that extended for 670 kilometers.

The date of the Baltic Chain was chosen to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The actions were hugely successful at gaining attention from around the world and Soviet Moscow in particular.

The Baltic Chain stretched about 670 km, connecting the capital cities of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania

Photo by: Jaan Künnap, Wikipedia, License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Independence restored

In 1991, the culmination of events came to a head. The widespread push for restoring Estonia's independence continued. Following the August Coup in Moscow, Estonia declared independence on August 20th, 1991, when the Supreme Council of Estonia established de facto independence. August 20th is now a national holiday known as Restoration of Independence Day.

Events and special exhibits

Most museums, restaurants, and shops are open on August 20th. However, some may have limited hours, so it's best to check before making plans. Of course, you can find plenty of exhibitions and events to get into the spirit and learn more about Estonia's history. (Links in Estonian)

The Estonian National Museum in Tartu

Photo by: ERM - BTH Studio


Last updated : 17.08.2022

In category: History & culture, Events