Communist Dictatorship in Estonia. The Soviet Occupation (1940-1941; 1944-1991)

Estonia was part of the Russian Empire until 1917/1918. Estonia declared its independence on 24 February 1918. Estonia’s territory had previously been divided among four guberniyas. The Guberniya of Estonia corresponded to present-day Northern Estonia, which was in turn divided into four counties. The four counties of Southern Estonia and the island of Saaremaa belonged to the Guberniya of Livland together with Northern Latvia. Narva was in the Guberniya of St. Petersburg until 1918. Petseri County had previously been part of the Guberniya of Pskov, and belonged to Estonia in 1920–1944.

The territory of Estonia covered an area of 47 549 km2 in 1920–1944, nowadays it covers an area of 45 339 km2.

Estonia’s population:[1]






































Livland, Estland and Courland were Russia’s Baltic Sea guberniyas, which had their own legal system. Until the Russification campaign of the 1890s, the official language was German. Until 1877, local administrative power in the towns was in the hands of the town councils elected by Baltic German merchant guilds, or by artisan guilds in smaller towns. In the countryside, local administrative power was in the hands of knighthoods of Baltic German nobles until 1917.

Serfdom was abolished in 1816–1819, but several laws passed in the 1850s and 1860s enacted the right to smallholdings for the peasant class and a new local government structure (rural municipalities). In 1877, Russian municipal law was extended to the Baltic Sea guberniyas and town councils elected on the basis of population census (town dumas) replaced town councils based on class. The absolute majority of Estonians and Germans was of the Lutheran confession regardless of attempts by the central state authorities to coax Estonian and Latvian peasants to convert to the Russian Orthodox faith. Russia was a society with restrictions and privileges based on class, confession and nationality until classes were done away with in March of 1917 at the time of the February Revolution.[2]

Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SR’s)

The communist movement shares common roots with other socialist movements and parties. Hans Pöögelmann translated The Communist Manifesto (1848) into Estonian in 1917. Otto Sternbeck translated volume I of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital from French in 1910 and 1914. Das Kapital was translated into Estonian in its entirety by Nigol Andresen in 1936. German was Estonia’s official language and the language of grammar school and higher education prior to 1918/1920. It was replaced by Russian starting in the 1890s. Socialist, Marxist and Bolshevik texts were also read in their original languages.

Marxism, socialism and bolshevism were working class ideologies. Industrial development began in Estonia in the latter half of the 19th century. The Kreenholm cotton mill (1857–2010) in Narva was one of the first enterprises of large-scale industry. Timber and paper mills were started up at the end of the 19th century and the outset of the 20th century. Large machinery factories and shipyards were established primarily in Tallinn. The sinking of the Russian Baltic fleet in the Russian-Japanese War in 1905 gave additional impetus to their rapid growth, along with the building of the artillery positions and harbours of Peter the Great’s Naval Fortress before World War I, a naval defence system which was meant to protect St. Petersburg. Workers from elsewhere in the Russian Empire flooded into Estonia because there was a shortage of available human resources and skilled workers in Estonia for such large enterprises.

Socialist and Marxist ideas reached Estonia from Germany. The house painter Mihkel Martna (1860–1934) is considered the ‘father of Estonian socialism’. In the 1880’s, he already disseminated social democratic and labour movement ideas, which he had obtained from German contacts, in Tallinn and among Estonian university students in Tartu. The Russification of the university in the 1890s brought numerous university students from Russia to Tartu, many of whom were infatuated with leftist ideas ranging to anarchism and bolshevism. Estonian and Latvian university students, most of whom were from the peasant class and the lower urban strata like their fellow students from Russia, also did not remain immune. The same goes for the workers of Tallinn and other larger towns. Socialist ideas also spread among Estonian and Latvian primary school teachers.

All manner of political activity was prohibited in Russia until 1905. Socialist-Marxist groups operated underground. The police and the secret police pursued them. Socialist literature was banned.

Bolshevism set as its objective the seizure of power through violence. It was born before the Revolution of 1905. Bolshevik agitators operated in Estonia in the larger industrial centres in Narva and Tallinn, and among students at the University of Tartu. At the outset of the 20th century, a third faction took shape in the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (RSDWP) alongside the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, namely the federalists, whose aim was to reorganise Russia as a federal republic and to grant autonomy to minorities.

When Tsar Nikolai II issued a manifesto on 17 (31) October 1905 granting civil rights to his subjects, with the aim of reining in the revolution that had broken out in 1905, the federalists founded the first Estonian socialist party, the Eesti Sotsiaaldemokraatliku Tööliste Ühisus [Estonian Social Democratic Workers’ Association]. Estonian Bolsheviks and Mensheviks remained in the RSDWP. They founded the Estonian sub-organisation of the RSDWP in 1907. After the Bolsheviks quit the party, this sub-organisation became the predecessor of the Sotsiaaldemokraatliku Tööliste Partei [Social Democratic Workers’ Party] of independent Estonia (1917).

The leaders of the Estonian Bolsheviks at the time of the Revolution of 1905 were Aleksander Keskküla and Hans Pöögelmann. In December of 1905, Keskküla called on the peasants and workers to commit acts of terror against the nobility (to burn estate manors in the countryside). The reaction on the part of the government was to unleash terror carried out by punitive detachments and their courts martial. Several hundred people from among the peasantry who had gone along with the burning of the manors were executed. An even larger number of people were whipped in public as punishment. Most of the leaders of the Bolsheviks, including Keskküla and Pöögelmann, fled abroad. Keskküla became part of Lenin’s circle of close associates in exile during World War I, but he never returned to Russia. RSDWP activists also fled abroad, including Mihkel Martna and the later head of state of Estonia August Rei, the leader of the federalists Peeter Speek, and others. The court martial sentenced two bourgeois radicals, Konstantin Päts and Jaan Teemant, both of whom were also later heads of state of Estonia, to death in absentia.

The views of many young people who had been caught up in revolution and rebelliousness became more moderate after World War I and Estonia’s achievement of independence: the rebel Otto Sternbeck became a major general in the Estonian Army and served as Estonia’s Minister of Transport. His comrade in arms Mart Lepp, on the other hand, became one of the leaders of the movement for restoring the ancient pagan religion of Estonians, the Taara movement. Yet their younger companion Hella Murrik became the Finnish writer and business magnate Hella Wuolijoki. She retained her communist views and contacts with Soviet diplomats and spies for her whole life, but could also consider as her friend Jaan Tõnisson, the leader of Estonia’s liberal nationalists who had served as head of state several times. Hella’s sister Salme married the ideologue and one of the leaders of the British Communist Party Rajani Palme Dutt and was one of the leaders of the party.

The federalist movement faded away after the Revolution of 1905. Viktor Kingissepp, who had studied law in St. Petersburg, Jaan Anvelt, Johannes Käspert, and others, rose to the forefront of Estonian Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks published an underground newspaper named Kiir [Ray of Light] in Narva in 1912–1914. A third socialist party, the Socialist Revolutionaries (SR’s), gained strength in Russia during World War I. As the ideological successors of the 19th century Russian narodniks, they sought the support of the peasantry, who formed the absolute majority of the population of Russia and Estonia. The leaders of the Estonian SR’s were the historian Hans Kruus and the writers Johannes Semper, Jaan Kärner, Gustav Suits, and others.

Support for leftists grew rapidly during World War I. After the February Revolution of 1917, committees of soldiers were established in the army. The Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and SR’s competed for influence in these committees. Two institutions continued to vie for power through the remainder of 1917 – the representative of the Provisional Government in Estonia was Guberniya Commissar Jaan Poska. A local representative body, the Provisional Provincial Assembly was also elected in the summer. Alongside them, the soviets of workers and soldiers with their executive committees wielded a great deal of influence. There was a great deal of support in Estonia for leftist parties in 1917. In addition to the above-mentioned movements, the predecessor of the later liberal bourgeois labour party also had a socialist orientation at that time.

At the time of the Bolshevik coup in November of 1917 in Russia and Estonia, support for the Bolsheviks was at nearly 40% in Estonia. The Bolshevik Military Revolutionary Committee took over power at the time of the coup from Guberniya Commissar Poska, but the democratically elected deputies of the Provisional Provincial Assembly, members of bourgeois, nationalist and several left-wing parties, declared the Assembly to be the supreme authority in Estonia on 15 (28) November 1917. The Bolsheviks disbanded the Provisional Provincial Assembly on the same day.[3]


[1] 1881: Guberniya of Estonia and the Estonian part of the Guberniya of Livland; 1897 (state-wide Russian census): data from more or less within Estonia’s current borders; 1922, 1934 (Estonian censuses) and 1941 (registration of the population during the German occupation): data from within the Estonian borders delineated by the 1920 Peace of Tartu; 1959, 1970, 1979, 1989 (USSR censuses) and 2011 (the last Estonian census): data from within Estonia’s current borders. ‘Rahvaloenduse kaardid läbi aegade’ [Census Maps through the Years], Eesti Statistika [Estonian Statistics], (accessed on 21 February 2019).

[2] See Eesti ajalugu [Estonian History], Vol. V, Pärisorjuse kaotamisest Vabadussõjani [From the Abolition of Serfdom to the Estonian War of Independence], editor-in-chief Sulev Vahtre, executive eds. Toomas Karjahärm and Tiit Rosenberg (Tartu: Learned Estonian Society, 2010).

[3] See Mihkel Aitsam, 1905. aasta revolutsioon ja selle ohvrid Eestis [The Revolution of 1905 and its Victims in Estonia] (Tartu: Ilmamaa, 2011); Toomas Karjahärm, 1905. aasta Eestis: massiliikumine ja vägivald maal [1905 in Estonia: Mass Movement and Violence in the Countryside] (Tallinn: Argo, 2013); Toomas Karjahärm, 1905. aasta Eestis: sotsialistid ja terroristid [1905 in Estonia: Socialists and Terrorists] (Tallinn: Argo, 2013); 1905. aasta Eestis: mälestused [1905 in Estonia: Memoirs], compiled by Toomas Karjahärm (Tallinn: Argo, 2016); Olaf Kuuli, Sotsialistid ja kommunistid Eestis 1917–1991 [Socialists and Communists in Estonia in 1917–1991] (Tallinn: O. Kuuli, 1991), 9–23; Jaak Valge, Punased I [Reds I] (Tallinn: Tallinn University Institute of Estonian Demography, 2014);

Historical overview

Estonia declared itself independent on 24 February 1918. German forces occupied Tallinn the next day. Germany did not recognise Estonia’s independence. The Bolsheviks fled to Russia. After the November Revolution of 1918 in Germany and the end of the German occupation, Estonia’s Provisional Government took power into its own hands. The Red Army launched an offensive to recapture the lands of the former Russian Empire and to start the worldwide revolution. This meant the War of Independence for Estonia. A communist marionette government – the Commune of the Working People of Estonia – headed by Jaan Anvelt, operated in Narva from November of 1918 to June of 1919, and later in Russia. This was meant to create the impression of the Red Army attack as a civil war between Estonian workers and the bourgeoisie. Yet Estonia succeeded in fending off the Red Army’s attacks. The Commune was disbanded and with the peace treaty signed in February of 1920, Soviet Russia recognised Estonia and Estonia recognised Soviet Russia.

During the War of Independence, the communists demanded the incorporation of Estonia into Soviet Russia, and they continued their subversive activity after the end of the war as well. Estonian communist organisations were reorganised in 1920 as the Estonian Communist Party (ECP), which operated underground in Estonia as a section of the Comintern. The Russian Bureau of the ECP Central Committee (ECP CC) and the Estonian sections of the Comintern in Leningrad and Moscow assembled together the Estonian communists who had ended up in Russia. After the suppression of the communist attempt to overthrow the Estonian government in 1924 and the destruction of the communist underground in Estonia, the leading organs of the ECP fled to the Soviet Union. The ECP was banned in Estonia in 1918–1940.

Estonia first experienced communist terror during the War of Independence: Chekists murdered hundreds of civilians in parts of Estonia that were under Red Army control from December of 1918 to the spring of 1919. The common grave of 82 people who fell victim to the Red Terror in the Palermo woods near Rakvere became the symbol of mass murder.

Estonia’s Constituent Assembly was elected in April of 1919. The Bolsheviks boycotted the election but the socialist parties won: out of 120 seats, the Estonian Socialist Workers’ Party (ESWP) gained 41 mandates, the Labour Party 30, and the SR’s seven. Estonia’s Constitution was adopted in 1920. The communists participated by way of front organisations in elections for the 100-seat Riigikogu (Estonian parliament), which were to be held every three years: the Central Council of Tallinn’s Trade Unions (1920), the Working People’s United Front (1923), the Estonian Workers’ Party (1926 and 1929), and Leftist Workers and Proletarians (1932), winning 5–10 seats in each of those elections. Estonia’s political police monitored the activities of the ECP and its front organisations. It was no secret that these movements operated in the interests of the Soviet Union and were steered and funded by the USSR.

Around a hundred communist activists were sentenced to long terms of forced labour in November of 1924. They were released under the terms of the amnesty of 1938. After the attempted coup in December of 1924, the communists lost their support in Estonia once and for all. The shrill speeches of the representatives of the ECP’s front organisations in the Riigikogu were treated as jokes.

The SR Party fell apart at the outset of the 1920s. Members of its left wing joined the camp of the underground Bolsheviks, while its right-wingers joined the ESWP. The left-leaning liberal Labour Party merged with the nationalist liberal People’s Party to form the Nationalist Centre Party for the 1932 election. After the disintegration of the SR’s, Estonia’s only socialist party was the ESWP, which won 22 mandates in the 1932 election. The Bolshevik front organisation, the Leftist Workers and Proletarians election coalition won five mandates.[1]

In 1934, Prime Minister Konstantin Päts established an authoritarian system of government in order to prevent right wing radicals from winning the presidential election, and the following year the activities of all political parties were suspended. The ESWP split. Its right wing had supported Päts also because the coup drove the main competitor of the socialists, the right wing radical War of Independence veterans’ movement out of political life. Members of its left wing sought contacts with the underground ECP and the Comintern with the aim of creating a joint antifascist front, and founded the Marxist Working People’s Association. Leftist socialists, who unofficially continued their activities, coordinated their undertakings with Estonian Bolsheviks and representatives of the Comintern, and with leftist socialists in Scandinavia and Finland.

The majority of the leaders of the Estonian communists who lived in the Soviet Union fell victim to Stalin’s purges in the latter half of the 1930s, including Hans Pöögelmann and Jaan Anvelt. (The Estonian Defence Police caught Viktor Kingissepp in 1922 and he was executed by decision of a court martial.) Liaison was severed between the underground ECP and the Comintern, which had similarly been decimated by Stalin’s purges. Financial support was halted. Starting in 1933, the ECP Central Committee Secretariat (later Orgburo) that operated in Sweden and Denmark, and was headed by the Soviet Union’s foreign intelligence and Comintern agents Leo Looring (alias Johannes Meerits) and Karl Säre, became the guiding organ for Estonian communists. In 1938, Säre used the amnesty declared in Estonia and returned to his Estonian homeland, developing contacts with left wing socialists that he had already made earlier. The amnesty did not extend to those who participated in the attempted coup of December, 1924 and Looring-Meerits could not return to Estonia. Soviet authorities ordered him to travel to Estonia in 1940 but he feared that he would fall victim to the NKVD, and thus refused. Instead he turned himself in to the Finnish state police. In 1947, Denmark extradited him to the Soviet Union, where he was sentenced to death and executed in 1952.

The Estonian communists who were released from prison by the amnesty of 1938 founded an illegal underground Bureau. Relations between its leaders (Johannes Lauristin, Hendrik Allik and others) and Karl Säre were tense.[2]


[1] Eesti ajalugu, vol. VI, Vabadussõjast taasiseseisvumiseni [From the War of Independence to the Regaining of Independence], editor-in-chief Sulev Vahtre, executive eds. Ago Pajur, Tõnu Tannberg (Tartu: Learned Estonian Society, 2005); Mart Laar and Toomas Hiio, Eesti riigi 100 aastat [100 Years of Estonian Statehood], Part I, Maapäevast Otto Tiefi valitsuseni [From the Provincial Assembly to the Otto Tief Government] (Tallinn: Post Factum, 2018); Toomas Hiio, ‘The Communist coup attempt in Estonia on 1 December 1924: the last but one attempt at world revolution’ – Om læring og indsigt fra krig, Bd. 2, Verdun 1914 til Libanon 2006, ed. Michael Hesselholt Clemmesen (Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2018), 113–158.

[2] Meelis Maripuu, Peeter Kaasik, Toomas Hiio, Argo Kuusik, Aivar Niglas, ‘The Role of the Estonian Communist Party in the Summer of 1940’ – Estonia 1940–1945: Reports of the Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes against Humanity, eds. Toomas Hiio, Meelis Maripuu, Indrek Paavle (Tallinn: Estonian Foundation for the Investigation of Crimes against Humanity, 2006), 65–77; Lühiülevaade Eestimaa Kommunistliku Partei ajaloost [Brief Overview of the History of the Estonian Communist Party], editor-in-chief Aleksander Panksejev (Tallinn: ECP Central Committee Institute of Party History, 1983); Sotsialistid ja kommunistid Eestis 1917–1991, 24–78.


1940–1952: Estonian Communist (Bolshevist) Party, the Estonian SSR branch organisation of the All-Russian Communist (Bolshevist) Party

1952–1990: Estonian Communist Party, the Estonian SSR branch organisation of the CPSU

The ECP had 133 members in 1940 before the occupation of Estonia. Thereafter the number of party members grew rapidly. Workers, trade unionists, farm labourers, a number of leftist intellectuals, and others joined the party. They were motivated by opposition to the spirit of the preceding era of the authoritarian system of government, sincere faith in communist ideals and the influence of propaganda, or also opportunism and the desire to forge a career.

On 8 October 1940, the ECP was incorporated into the All-Union Communist (Bolshevist) Party (AC(B)P) as its Estonian section. At that time, 2,285 members belonged to the party, over 90% of whom had joined the party after the occupation of Estonia. On 1 July 1941, 3,751 people were on the EC(B)P membership list. Many of them participated in carrying out the mass deportation of 1941 and joined the NKVD destruction battalions after the start of the war. Almost all of the communists who remained in Estonia when the German occupation began or were left behind to conduct ‘underground work’ fell into the hands of the German Security Police and were executed.

The Estonian communists who were evacuated to the rear area in the Soviet Union were mobilised into the Estonian national units of the Red Army or operated in the rear area in civilian posts. In addition to the men mobilised from Estonia in 1941, Estonians who had lived in the Soviet Union before 1940 and members of other nationalities of the Soviet Union belonged to the Red Army 8th Estonian Rifle Corps that was formed at the end of 1942. Thousands of Estonians in the Rifle Corps were recruited as communists. The Corps suffered heavy losses in battles, but in addition to its military role, the Corps was also treated as trained human material for continuing Estonia’s sovietisation after the end of the war. There were 4,765 members in the Estonian Rifle Corps party organisations in July of 1945.

There were only 2,409 members on the EC(B)P list on 1 January 1945. The Estonian Rifle Corps was demobilised by the end of 1946, and a large proportion of people who had been evacuated to the rear area in the Soviet Union returned to Estonia. A number of Estonians from Russia and members of other nationalities of the Soviet Union also came to Estonia. On 1 January 1953, there were 22,320 members on the EC(B)P list, and 30,516 members were on the list on 1 January 1959. Statistics were kept in the Soviet Union according to both social status and nationality. In 1959, 35.2% of party members were workers and 13.6% were peasants.

The remainder were officials, intellectuals, and others. After the war, less than half of ECP members were Estonian, while in 1959, 47.8% of its membership was Estonian. It is not known how large a proportion of them were Estonians from elsewhere in the Soviet Union. The majority of the remaining party members was Russian (42.1% of the total number), followed by Ukrainians, Jews and Byelorussians. Later on, slightly over half of party members were Estonian: 112,925 members in 1988, that is 50.2% Estonians.[1] The ECP remained the trustworthy extension of the communist regime in the annexed territory to the very end. The majority of ECP members were not from Estonia.

The ECP was one of the tools for bringing Estonian society into line. In a society that the Communist Party monitored and controlled completely and where there was no private property, private enterprise or educational and cultural institutions born from private initiative, even the position of primary school principal required membership in the party.

Most leading positions were part of the so-called nomenklatura, in other words the list of positions, the filling of which was decided by the CPSU CC, the ECP CC or the municipal or district committee in accordance with the importance of the position. Most Estonian members of the ECP joined for pragmatic considerations, not out of sincere conviction of the truth of the idea of communism. This is indicated by the mass exodus from the party of Estonian members of the ECP in 1990 before the restoration of Estonia’s independence, and by the marginal support for the ideological successors of the ECP in later elections.

The members of the leadership of the Estonian branch of the CPSU were to the very end of the ECP men who had grown up, acquired their education, and worked in the Soviet Union. Karl Säre, the 1st Secretary of the ECP CC in1940–1941, was left behind in Estonia to organise underground struggle. He soon fell into the hands of the Germans and died in a concentration camp in Germany at the start of 1945. The 2nd Secretary, Nikolai Karotamm, took his position over. Karotamm had gone from Estonia to the Soviet Union by way of Holland in the 1920s. Many so-called prison communists (men and women who had been in prison in Estonia for communist subversive activity) and so-called June communists who joined the ECP in 1940 immediately after the occupation of Estonia, including the former leftist socialists Hans Kruus, Nigol Andresen and others, belonged to the Estonian SSR leadership in the latter half of the 1940s. The AC(B)P CC Politburo decided to replace the leadership of the Estonian SSR at the end of the 1940s.

The change was carried out at the 8th EC(B)P CC Plenum in March of 1950 and most leading positions went to Estonians from the Soviet Union and party employees sent to Estonia from elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Karotamm was replaced by Johannes (Ivan) Käbin, who led the ECP until 1978. His successor was Karl Vaino (in office 1978–1988), another Estonian from the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev appointed Vaino Väljas, who was born, raised and educated in Estonia, to replace the conservative Vaino. Väljas led the party until 1990. Starting from the end of the 1950s, the proportion of local people in the leadership of the party’s municipal and district committees, and of the ECP Central Committee started increasing gradually.[2]


[1] Коммунистическая партия Эстонии в цифрах 1920–1980: сборник статистических данных, editor-in-chief Aleksander Panksejev (Tallinn: ECP Central Committee Institute of Party History, 1983), 39–46, 63–67, 108–109 ff;  ‘Eestimaa Kommunistlik Partei’ [Estonian Communist Party], Eesti Entsüklopeedia (EE) [Estonian Encyclopaedia], 12, Eesti A–Ü (Tallinn: Estonian Encyclopaedia Press, 2003), 70.

[2] Kõrgemad võimu vahendajad ENSV-s: Eestimaa Kommunistliku Partei Keskkomitee sekretärid 1940–1990 [The Highest Ranking Mediators of Power in the ESSR: the Secretaries of the Estonian Communist Party Central Committee in 1940–1990], ed. Enn Tarvel (Tallinn: Kistler-Ritso Estonian Foundation, 2000); Olev Liivik, Eestimaa Kommunistliku Partei Keskkomitee aparaat 1945–1953 [The Apparat of the Estonian Communist Party Central Committee] (Tartu: University of Tartu Chair of Estonian History, 2006); Olev Liivik, Raili Nugin, Eestimaa Kommunistliku Partei kohalikud organisatsioonid 1940–1991 [Local Organisations of the Estonian Communist Party], compiled by and ed. Enn Tarvel  (Tallinn: Kistler-Ritso Estonian Foundation, 2000); Lühiülevaade Eestimaa Kommunistliku Partei ajaloost; Nomenklatuurisüsteem Eesti NSV-s = A Brief Overview of the History of the Estonian Communist Party: the nomenklatura system in the Estonian SSR (theme issue), Ajalooline Ajakiri Nr. 4 (2015); EKP KK büroo istungite regestid [Regests of ECP CC Bureau Sessions] I (1940–1954), II (1954–1971), III (1971–1991), compiled by Tõnu Tannberg (Tartu: Estonian History Archive, 2006, 2011, 2011); Kaljo-Olev Veskimägi, Kuidas valitseti Eesti NSV-d: Eestimaa Kommunistliku Partei Keskkomitee büroo 162 etteastumist 1944–1956 vahemängude ja sissejuhatusega [How the Estonian SSR was Ruled: 162 Performances of the Estonian Communist Party Central Committee Bureau in 1944–1956 with Interludes and an Introduction] (Tallinn: Varrak, 2005).


The elite of Estonian society fell victim to communist terror, starting with politicians, state officials, military officers and police officers, and extending to businessmen, owners of farms, intellectuals and public figures. Members of Russian White Guard organisations living in Estonia and Polish citizens who came to Estonia in 1939–1940 were also among the first to be arrested.

Over 6,000 people were imprisoned in Estonia from June of 1940 to the autumn of 1941 and sent to GULAG prison camps in Russia in the spring and summer of 1941. Approximately 400 people were executed locally. Another 10,000 people were deported to Russia on 14 June 1941. The heads of families were already segregated from these people at the railway stations and sent to the GULAG. Women, children and the elderly were sent into forced banishment.

The sentences for persons imprisoned on political charges were mostly determined by the NKVD Baltic District Forces Military Tribunal. After the start of the war with Germany in June of 1941, the military tribunals of Red Army groupings of troops and of the Baltic fleet stationed in Estonia also started determining such sentences. Local tribunals in the GULAG camps or also the NKVD Special Counsel in Moscow continued conviction proceedings. The basis for deportation was not the individual verdict of a tribunal or a court, but rather a secret joint decree, that is an administrative decision, issued by the C(B)PSU Central Committee and the USSR Council of People’s Commissars.

The first death sentences were delivered at the end of 1940 and they started being carried out at the outset of 1941. Most of those who were sent to the GULAG in 1941 were executed or died in prison camp. There were more survivors of forced banishment. Approximately another 2,000 people were murdered or fell victim to acts of warfare from July to October of 1941.[1]

Germany occupied Estonia in 1941. An estimated 8,000 Estonian citizens and residents were murdered in Estonia during the German occupation, including all 1,000 Jews who remained in Estonia and over 300 gypsies. Three quarters of the victims were Estonian, the vast majority of whom were accused of belonging to the Communist Party or NKVD destruction battalions, holding communist views, collaborating with the Soviet secret police, or participating in deportation operations.[2] Thousands of people were imprisoned and some of them were sent to concentration camps in Germany.

Approximately 70,000 people fled from Estonia ahead of the advancing Red Army in the autumn of 1944.

The Soviet Union’s state security agencies the NKVD and the NKGB (starting in 1946 the MVD and the MGB), the Red Army and naval fleet Smersh departments, tribunals of groupings of troops and of various institutions, and other such agencies were brought to Estonia together with the returning Red Army in 1944. In addition to continuing ideologically motivated terror, they also fought against the armed Estonian resistance movement. Over 35,000 people were imprisoned in Estonia on the basis of political accusations in 1944–1953.

Most of them were sent to GULAG camps in Russia and Kazakhstan. Additionally, 407 Germans were deported to Siberia in 1945 together with the members of their families, nearly 21,000 people primarily from the countryside were deported in 1949, 282 Jehovah’s Witnesses were deported in 1951, and many others. It is not known how many farm owners were imprisoned for not fulfilling quotas that were beyond their capacity to meet. They served their sentences mostly in Estonian prisons and prison camps.

After the end of World War II, conditions of imprisonment and the food provided in prison camps and in forced banishment improved, and consequently the death rate decreased. Yet until the temporary abolition of the death penalty in 1947, hundreds of people imprisoned for political reasons were executed in Estonia and in GULAG camps.

After Stalin’s death, imprisonment based on political accusations decreased – there were less than a thousand in total of such imprisoned persons in 1954–1990. This does not mean that the Soviet regime started tolerating the resistance movement. On the one hand, by that time much of the resistance had been stamped out by force, and on the other hand, Estonians saw that liberation from Soviet rule could not be expected anytime soon. Starting in 1954, the sentences of political prisoners and deportees started being shortened and these people started being released gradually. Until the start of the 1960s, nearly 28,000 imprisoned and deported persons from Estonia returned to their Estonian homeland. Yet the last Estonian political prisoners sentenced in the 1950s to 25 years of imprisonment gained the right to return to their homeland only at the end of the 1980s.[3]


[1] See ‘Terrori rakendamine’ [Implementation of Terror], – Sõja ja rahu vahel, 437–470; in English see Estonia 1940–1945, 309–494.

[2] Eesti rahvastikukaotused, II/1, Saksa okupatsioon 1941–1944: hukatud ja vangistuses hukkunud = Population losses in Estonia, II/1, German occupation 1941–1944: executed and died in prison, compiled by Indrek Paavle, ORURK 17 (Tartu: National Commission for Investigating the Repressive Policies of Occupying Regimes, 2002).

[3] See Estonia since 1944: reports of the Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes against Humanity, eds. Toomas Hiio, Meelis Maripuu, Indrek Paavle (Tallinn: Estonian Foundation for Investigating Crimes against Humanity, 2009), especially including Meelis Saueauk, ‘Data on the Persons Arrested in Estonia during the Soviet Political Repressions in 1942–1990’, 307–309, Meelis Saueauk, ‘Mass Repression in Estonia during the Late Stalinist Period’, 311–320, Aigi Rahi-Tamm, ‘Deportation of Individuals of German Nationality from Estonia in 1945’, 415–428, Aigi Rahi-Tamm, Andres Kahar, ‘Deportation Operation Priboy in 1949’, 429–460 and Aivar Niglas, ‘Release ahead of Time of Estonian Citizens and Residents Repressed for Political Reasons by the Soviet Authorities and their Rehabilitation from 1953 to the 1960s’, 461–489; Indrek Paavle, ‘Vili ja munad režiimi teenistuses. Sundandam 1940. aastate Eesti külas’ [Grain and Eggs in the Service of the Regime. Forced Tribute in Estonian Villages of the 1940s], Ajalooline Ajakiri 1/2 (2009): 213–229; Viktor Niitsoo, Vastupanu 1955–1985 [Resistance in 1955–1985] (Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 1997).


Rapid sovietisation began after the annexation of Estonia but was interrupted by the German occupation. Sovietisation continued immediately after the recapture of Estonia in 1944 and it was based on the three dogmas of building communist society: industrialisation, collectivisation and cultural revolution. Estonia was incorporated into the rhythm of five-year plans of the Soviet Union’s planned command economy.

Industrialisation consisted of the preferential development of industry compared to other spheres of economic and community life. Greater attention had started being paid to developing industry in Estonia in the era of the authoritarian system of government in the 1930s. This was cut short by World War II and the occupation of Estonia by the Soviet Union.

Estonia’s advantage compared to the rest of the Soviet Union was the high level of education of the population, yet its shortcoming was its lack of natural resources, and the absence of a heavy industry tradition and a large labour force. Yet heavy industry in particular was considered the mainstay of industrialisation. Estonia’s location on the Soviet Union’s western border caused a high level of militarisation and together with this the preferential development of branches of industry meant for meeting military needs.

The mining of oil shale and the production of oil that had been rapidly developed during the German occupation in Northeastern Estonia was continued in the latter half of the 1940s. The beginning of the nuclear arms race provided a new impetus for this. Dictyonema shale, which is found together with oil shale deposits, contains small amounts of uranium. The Soviet Union had no uranium deposits after World War II and a uranium enrichment plant was built at Sillamäe to enrich the uranium extracted from the dictyonema shale.

The Soviet Union soon gained control of uranium deposits with a richer ore content and mining at Sillamäe was discontinued.[1] Estonian oil shale was used initially for extracting oil shale gas, which started being used to heat Leningrad (the pipeline was completed in 1948), and also Tallinn in 1953. ‘Communism equals Soviet power plus electrification,’ is a sentence that is ascribed to Lenin. The Estonian SSR also started being rapidly electrified. Estonia became part of the energy networks of Northwestern Russia. Two large oil shale burning electric power stations were built here, Balti SEJ (1959) and Eesti SEJ (1969).

These in and of themselves positive undertakings brought negative consequences. First of all, environmental pollution, and secondly a massive influx of manpower from other parts of the Soviet Union, which turned Estonians into a minority in Northeastern Estonia. Machinery factories, electronics factories and radio technology factories were started up again in Tallinn, and new factories were built. A large chemical plant was started up near Tallinn in Maardu. The raw material for this plant was local phosphorite. A number of new textile enterprises were built in addition to the hitherto existing large textile mills – the Kreenholm textile mill, the Baltic textile mill, and others.

The worsening in the situation concerning food supplies starting in the 1970s brought with it the development of the food industry, including the development of the meat processing industry, the primary market for which was Russia’s large cities. The timber and paper industries were traditionally strong in Estonia. There were a number of drawbacks in developing industry: first of all, a large proportion of it was oriented to satisfying the limitless Soviet market and military needs as the first priority, paying little attention to local needs. This also brought a scientific-technical level of production and a drop in quality because there was no cooperation and competition with the rest of the world. A second problem was the uncontrolled influx of non-Estonian manpower, and the third problem was serious environmental damage.[2]

Agriculture was rapidly collectivised starting in 1949 after the deportation carried out in March. The land, livestock and agricultural equipment of individual farms were combined into kolkhozes (collective farms). Kolkhozes initially struggled – the reason for this was the shock of the recent deportation, the unwillingness of the farmers who were forcibly incorporated into kolkhozes to go along with the new system, the rigid planned economy, which did not take local weather conditions and features of nature into consideration, and incompetent management. People with no experience in agriculture, but who had earned the party’s trust, were often appointed as kolkhoz chairmen.

Their task was to make sure that state plans were fulfilled without any objections raised. The economic condition of the kolkhozes started improving in the latter half of the 1950s. The former single village kolkhozes were combined to form larger units, and the competence of their managers improved. The Estonian Agriculture Academy was founded in 1951 as the successor to the University of Tartu Faculty of Agriculture with the aim of supplying farms with trained personnel. There already were collective farms in Estonia in the 1970s and 1980s with farm labourers whose income exceeded Estonia’s average income by far. Regardless of this, the typical range of food consumed by Estonians in the 1980s was rather one-sided because a large proportion of production was shipped out to satisfy the needs of other regions of the Soviet Union.[3]

Collective farms quickly disintegrated at the end of the 1980s and the outset of the 1990s. Land was returned to its pre-war owners or their heirs. The Estonia of small farms was nevertheless not restored: starting in the latter half of the 1990s, modern large-scale farming was built up with numerous different forms of ownership.


[1] Ello Maremäe, ‘Sillamäe uraanitehaste asutamine ja töö aastatel 1946–1952 (1973): Eesti diktüoneemakilda kasutamine’ [The Establishment and Work of the Sillamäe Uranium Plant in 1946–1952 (1973): the Use of Estonian Dictyonema Shale], Akadeemia 3 (2000): 476–513.

[2] See also Maie Pihlamägi, ‘Policy of transition: industry in the Estonian SSR during the first post-war five-year plan (1946–1950)’, Acta Historica Tallinnensia 15 (2010), 146–166; Maie Pihlamägi, ‘Administrative shakeup in industry and construction: the 1957–1965 Sovnarkhoz reform in the Estonian SSR’, – Wandel und Anpassung in der Geschichte Estlands 16.–20. Jahrhundert = Change and adaptation in Estonian history 16th–20th century, 237–261, Nordost-Archiv, Neue Funde 22/2013 (Lüneburg, 2014).

[3] Indrek Paavle, ‘Sovietisation of Agriculture’, Estonia since 1944, 37–78; Indrek Paavle, ‘Administrative sovietisation of the ESSR at the local level in 1944–1953’, Estonia since 1944, 17–35.

Society and culture

After occupying Estonia, communist educational and cultural officials sent to Estonia from the Soviet Union planned to start liquidating illiteracy. Estonia’s full literacy and modern educational system came as a surprise to them. Starting in 1944, the work of forcing Estonian education and culture into the Soviet framework continued. First and foremost, this involved teaching Russian and introducing courses in Marxism-Leninism at all levels of education.

Textbooks were translated from Russian or new ones were written. Schools and institutions of higher education were purged of teachers and lecturers who were not considered to be trustworthy. In the 1940s, Estonia’s educational system was harmonised with the system that was in effect in the Soviet Union: compulsory 7-grade incomplete secondary school, followed by a 3-grade secondary school. An 8+3 school system was adopted in Estonia and the other Baltic states at the start of the 1960s. Teaching in the Estonian language continued at university and in other institutions of higher education. Russian-language departments were opened in some subjects for university students whose mother tongue was Russian.[1]

Propaganda belittled national cultural achievements (intellectuals and artists were under the threat of being accused of ‘bourgeois nationalism’) as well as what was referred to as ‘grovelling before the degenerating West’. Over five thousand titles of books that were published before 1944 were banned and sealed off in special collections or destroyed. Nearly half a million volumes in total were removed from libraries. Total precensorship applied to the press, periodicals, literature and artistic works. This censorship was gradually done away with in 1987–1990.[2]

The only valid artistic movement was socialist realism, a schematic Soviet elaboration of the critical realism of the end of the 19th century, which in its Soviet incarnation was loyal to the powers that be. The first wave of Russification began at the end of the 1940’s. Among other things, several chairs of studies in Estonian subjects (Estonian history, archaeology, and others, but also classical philology, for instance) were shut down at the University of Tartu.

On the other hand, one of the postulates of communist propaganda was the ‘unprecedented blosoming of the cultures of nationalities under the conditions of socialism’. In this light, mainly folklore was promoted, but also literature, art and architecture, which were supposed to be ‘socialist in content, nationalist in form’. Starting in the latter half of the 1950s, the reins of censorship were slackened in the fields of both figurative art and literature.

Starting in the 1950s, the first Soviet citizens were allowed to travel abroad on tourist trips. Foreign tourists also visited Estonia. Estonian Television began operating in 1955, but Finnish Television became the window to Europe for Estonians. To the chagrin of party officials, Finnish broadcasts could also be watched in Northern Estonia.[3] After the 1977 Soviet Constitution was passed, which among other things established the Communist Party’s leading role in society, and the creation of the Soviet people, the policy of increasing the relative importance of the Russian language in society was once again adopted in connection with the latter objective.

This led to the protest movement and resentment among intellectuals.[4] The communist regime did not succeed in achieving the birth of art, literature and other creative expressions in Estonia that were socialist in content and nationalist in form. The educational system remained Estonian-oriented and continued to operate in the Estonian language. Knowledge of Russian did not progress regardless of the efforts of the authorities.[5]

The Soviet regime treated more or less obedient scientists and creative people generously. Their salaries and royalties were high compared to the average wage. Artistic creation was important for both domestic and foreign propaganda, but also for ‘letting off steam’, and first-rate science was necessary for developing the state’s economic and military power. The inferiority complex of the leaders of the ‘workers’ paradise’ when faced with scientists, writers, artists, composers, architects and other creative persons also played its role. This is also inherent to politics in general.


[1] Eli Pilve, ‘“Aga vene ajal pidi igas õppetunnis siduma õppematerjali poliitikaga”: ideoloogiline kasvatus nõukogude koolitunnis hilisstalinistlikus Eesti NSV-s’ [‘But Teaching Materials had to be Tied to Politics in Every Lesson in the Soviet Era’: Ideological Upbringing in Soviet School Lessons in the late-Stalinist Estonian SSR], Tuna, 4 (2010): 54–71; Eli Pilve, ‘Nõukogude noore kasvatamisest paberil ja päriselt: ideoloogiline ajupesu Eesti NSV kooli(tunni)s 1953–1991’ [On the Education of Soviet Youth on Paper and in Real Life: Ideological Brainwashing in School (Lessons) in the Estonian SSR in 1953–1991], Tuna, 3 (2013): 82–100; Universitas Tartuensis 1632–2007, eds. Toomas Hiio and Helmut Piirimäe (Tartu: University of Tartu, 2007); Tallinna Tehnikaülikool 1918–2018 [Tallinn University of Technology 1918–2018], compiled by and executive ed. Tõnis Liibek (Tallinn: Tallinn University of Technology Press, 2018).

[2] Argo Kuusik, ‘Tsensuur Eesti NSV-s’ [Censorship in the Estonian SSR], manuscript in the possession of the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory.

[3] Marek Miil, ‘Kommunistliku Partei propagandastrateegiad ja “kodanliku televisiooni neutraliseerimine” Eesti NSV-s 1968–1988’ [Propaganda Strategies of the Communist Party and the Neutralisation of Bourgeois Television in the Estonian SSR in 1968–1988], Ajalooline Ajakiri = The Estonian Historical Journal, 1 (143) (2013): 79–110.

[4] Sirje Kiin, Rein Ruutsoo, Andres Tarand, 40 kirja lugu [The Story of the Letter of 40 Intellectuals] (Tallinn: Olion, 1990).

[5] See also Võim & kultuur [Power & Culture] (collection of articles), compiled by Arvo Krikmann and Sirje Olesk (Tartu: Estonian Literary Museum, 2003); Toomas Karjahärm, Helle-Mai Luts, Kultuurigenotsiid Eestis: kunstnikud ja muusikud 1940–1953 [Cultural Genocide in Estonia: Artists and Musicians in 1940–1953] (Tallinn: Argo, 2013); Piret Lotman, ‘Nigol Andresen ja Eesti raamatukogud sõjajärgsel ajal’ [Nigol Andresen and Estonian Libraries in the Postwar Era], Tuna, 4 (2007): 78–85; Piret Lotman, ‘Hävitatud raamat ja eestlase identiteet’ [Destroyed Books and Estonian Identity], Tuna, 2 (2000): 95–103; Linda Kaljundi, Tiina-Mall Kreem, Ajalugu pildis – pilt ajaloos: rahvuslik ja rahvusülene minevik eesti kunstis = History in images – image in history: the national and transnational past in Estonian art (Tallinn: Art Museum of Estonia, 2018).


After World War II, the Soviet Union was one of the world’s two superpowers. Its army was one of the world’s largest and a large proportion of its gross domestic product was spent on its military might. Estonia was occupied in 1940 by threatening it with military force. The large contingents of Red Army and Baltic Fleet troop groupings stationed in Estonian territory starting from the autumn of 1939 in accordance with the mutual assistance pact that was forced on Estonia now received even further reinforcement. The former Estonian Army was taken under the firm control of Red Army officers and political leaders after the occupation of the country.

It was purged of independence-minded officers and non-commissioned officers, and incorporated into the Red Army as a territorial rifle corps. The Corps was destroyed at the front in the summer of 1941 and was disbanded in early autumn. Another more than 50,000 Estonian residents were mobilised into the Red Army in the summer of 1941, the autumn of 1944, and the spring of 1945. They belonged to the new Estonian Rifle Corps consisting of two divisions that was formed at the end of 1942.

After World War II, the national military units that had been left intact in the Baltic and Transcaucasian union republics were disbanded in 1956. Until that point, a large proportion of Estonian conscripts performed their compulsory military service in national military units in Estonia, although they were part of the Soviet Army, which was led by officers and political leaders of the Soviet Army and where orders were given in Russian. Starting in 1956, Estonian young men were sent to perform their compulsory military service mostly outside of Estonia.

Compulsory military service in ground forces lasted three years, and five years (later four) in the navy. Starting in 1968, the compulsory term of military service was two years in ground forces and three years in the navy. Nearly 300,000 Estonian residents in total rendered compulsory military service in the Soviet Army in 1947–1991. There were chairs of military training at the University of Tartu and in some schools of higher learning, where one day a week over the course of three years was devoted to military training. University students who completed this training became reserve officers without having to go through compulsory military service.

Estonia was one of the Soviet Union’s westernmost strongholds and it was very militarised. Ground forces, air defence, naval, naval air force, and strategic air force units were stationed here, and starting in the early 1960s there were also four nuclear medium-range ballistic missile bases. There were large numbers of Soviet border guard forces under the command of the KGB in Estonia due to its long sea border. In addition to army units, there were military units of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs (interior forces) in Estonia, along with many institutions and organisations that were subordinated to the army and provided the army with a wide variety of services

The soldiers who served in Estonia were from other parts of the Soviet Union. While soldiers rendering their compulsory military service mostly left for their homeland after the end of their term of service, many officers and conscripts who voluntarily extended their military service stayed on with their families to live in Estonia, thus contributing to the growth of the relative proportion of non-indigenous residents in the population. Large tracts of land were at the disposal of the Soviet Army, which were used as military bases, airfields, firing ranges, military settlements, and other such uses. The army was a major source of environmental pollution.

Although Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union for nearly half a century and a large proportion of Estonian men had rendered compulsory military service in the Soviet Army, the people treated it as an army of occupation until the end of the Soviet Union.[1]


[1] Peeter Kaasik, ‘Eesti rahvusväeosade formeerimisest Nõukogude armee koosseisus aastatel 1940–1956’ [On the Formation of Estonian National Military Units within the Soviet Army in 1940–1956], – Väeteenistusest Eestis ja eestlastest väeteenistuses = Military Service in Estonia. Estonians in Military Service, Eesti sõjaajaloo aastaraamat = Estonian yearbook of military history, 1 (7) (2011), 102–151;  Kristjan Luts, ‘Eestlastest ajateenijad Nõukogude Liidu relvajõududes külma sõja perioodil’ [Estonian Conscripts in the Soviet Armed Forces in the Period of the Cold War], – Sõjaväe ja tsiviilelanike suhted = War and civilians, Eesti sõjaajaloo aastaraamat = Estonian yearbook of military history 2 (8) (2012), 145–180; Kristjan Luts, Eesti ja külm sõda [Estonia and the Cold War] (Tallinn: Eesti Päevaleht, 2007); Nõukogude okupatsiooni poolt tekitatud keskkonnakahjud [Environmental Damage Caused by the Soviet Occupation], compiled by Anto Raukas (Tallinn: Estonian Encyclopaedia Press, 2006).