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Estonia, The People of Estonia

Lydia Koidula, Estonian National Museum, Kalevipoeg, Estonian culture, population of Estonia

The population of Estonia, estimated at 1,415,681 in 2002, is the smallest of any republic of the former USSR. Population density is 31 persons per sq km (81 per sq mi); the northern portion of the country is more densely inhabited. Estonia is highly urbanized. Some 69 percent of the people live in cities or towns, with nearly one-third of the total population residing in the capital, Tallinn, located on the northern coast. Other important cities include Tartu, an industrial and cultural center, and Parnu, Estoniaís leading seaside resort. Russians mostly reside in urban areas, especially in the northeast. The city of Narva, in the northeastern corner of the country, is inhabited almost exclusively by Russians. Estonians cherish the countryside, however, and even urban dwellers maintain strong rural ties.

Ethnic Estonians are 64 percent of the people. They are ethnically and linguistically close to the Finns. Russians make up the largest minority with 29 percent of the total population. Other minorities include Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Finns. Before Soviet annexation in 1940, Russians made up only 4 percent of the total population within the countryís current borders. They immigrated in large numbers to Estonia during the period of large-scale industrialization after World War II.

After Estonia regained its independence in 1991, only those citizens and their descendants who lived in Estonia before Soviet occupation received automatic citizenship, regardless of ethnicity. Russians who came to Estonia during the Soviet era have been slow to pass the citizenship exam, which involves knowledge of the Estonian language. As of 1998, about 22 percent of Estoniaís residents were not Estonian citizens (about 9 percent Russians, about 13 percent stateless). In December 1998 the government eased citizenship regulations to allow children of stateless residents to become citizens.

About 46 percent of the people of Estonia are practicing Christians, including Lutherans, Methodists, and Orthodox Christians. Estonia also has very small numbers of Jews and Muslims. During the Soviet period, religious activity was strongly discouraged and at times banned by the officially atheistic Communist government. In the late 1980s, however, most Soviet restrictions regarding religion were lifted, stimulating a revival of religious practice.

The official language of the republic is Estonian, which with the Finnish language belongs to the Finno-Ugric subfamily of Uralic languages. Estonian was adopted as the state language in 1989 as part of the movement toward independence from the Soviet Union. Members of minority ethnic groups often speak their own native languages, especially Russian, and in some places Estonian is rarely heard.

Estonia has an adult literacy rate of nearly 100 percent. Education is compulsory for 9 years beginning at the age of 7. Schools offer instruction at all levels in both Estonian and Russian. Estonia has several institutions of higher education. The oldest is the University of Tartu, founded in 1632 by King Gustav II of Sweden. Another major university is Tallinn Technical University, founded in 1936.

Folk songs are an important part of Estonian culture. During the Soviet period, many signs of national culture, such as the Estonian national anthem and other songs, were suppressed. The independence movement of the late 1980s was known as the Singing Revolution because huge song festivals were held in which previously banned songs were again publicly heard.

A literary tradition began to develop in Estonia in the early 19th century with the poems of Kristjan Jaak Peterson. In the mid-1800s a national epic poem, Kalevipoeg (Son of Kalev), which incorporated hundreds of Estonian legends and folk tales, was written by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald. The most notable poet of the late 1800s was Lydia Koidula, whose works represent Estoniaís national awakening. The foremost literary figure of Estonia was early 20th-century novelist Anton Hansen Tammsaare, who wrote a five-volume saga, Tode ja oigus (Truth and Justice), written between 1926 and 1933. The Estonian works probably known best abroad include Jaan Krossís 1978 novel, Keisri hull (The Tsarís Madman) and the late 20th century poetry of Jaan Kaplinski.

Cultural events in Estonia include ballet, opera, and drama performances; most troupes are based in Tallinn. Estonia has two symphony orchestras that perform at the Estonia Concert Hall in Tallinn. Spectator sports such as basketball and ice hockey are popular. Museums include the Estonian Museum of Art and the Estonian History Museum, both located in the capital, and the Estonian National Museum, located in Tartu.

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