Estonia’s favourable location on the trading routes between the East and the West has played a key role in shaping its history. Since the 13th century, various regional powers have competed over the control of the Estonian territory and the ports of the Eastern Baltic often with devastating effects to the local population. Under the Treaty of Nystad in 1721, Russia gained control over Swedish Estonian and Livonian provinces. For the indigenous population, the shift in power was rather distant, as the local German nobility retained its political, economic and social control over the region. The 19th century brought extensive changes for Estonia’s native population as increased educational and social opportunities fostered the formation of Estonian intelligentsia and political elite. Gradually, politics and reform superseded culture as the focus of discourse amongst Estonians, leading to the natives’ social empowerment.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Estonia was a country with two thirds of its population being engaged in agriculture. Since 60 per cent of the rural population did not own any land, the shortage was the most urgent problem for the Estonian society of the period. As most of the land was owned by the small Baltic German nobility, the land issue strongly related to Estonian nationalism. Besides the socio-economic inequalities, the Baltic German nobility possessed the monopoly of power in the local politics, denying the natives the right to speak for themselves in their shared home-lands.
The 1905 revolution was the catalyst for change. Like in other parts of the Russian Empire, the killing of the peaceful protesters in St. Petersburg on 22 January 1905 led to sympathy strikes in Estonia. Labour unrest, mostly initiated by socialists, spread throughout Estonia. The Russian army brutally suppressed the rebellions. The bloodiest event of the 1905 revolution took place on 29 October 1905 when the troops opened fire at peaceful protesters in a street market in Tallinn, killing 94 and injuring over 200 people. As a result of punitive actions about 300 people in the rural areas were killed and about another 600 received corporal punishment.
The body convened in Tartu but from the beginning it was divided between reformers and radical revolutionaries. The congress demanded democratic elections, national autonomy, land reform, abolition of censorship, the end of Russification policies, native-language schooling and the abolition of the privileges of the local nobility. However, the tsarist authorities, having regained their confidence, took resolute measures to suppress the revolutionary movement by military force. Many Estonian politicians, both socialists and nationalists, were either arrested or forced to flee the country. Despite the failure, the 1905 Revolution was an important landmark in the development of the Estonian nation. For the first time ever broad sections of the population became involved in the discussion of political and social issues.
The tsarist regime in Estonia, similarly to other territories of the Russian Empire, ceased to exist after the 1917 February Revolution. This provided the Estonian politicians an opportunity to achieve national autonomy, which had so far seemed unreachable. After intense lobbying by Estonian national leaders and a well-organised protest-march by some 40,000 Estonians in Petrograd, on 30 March the Russian provisional government agreed to unify the ethnographical distribution of Estonians of Estonian and Livonian Governates into a single autonomous unit. For the first time, an ethnic Estonian, Jaan Poska, was placed in charge of his country as the commissar of the Governorate of Estonia.
On November 7 1917, an armed insurgency in the Bolshevik-dominated Petrograd soviet overthrew the Russian provisional government. In Tallinn, the Bolsheviks seized power on 8 November, as soon as they had news of the success of the revolution in Petrograd. Viktor Kingisepp, the leader of Estonian Bolsheviks, usurped power from the Governorate’s Commissar Jaan Poska. In response to the coup, the Estonian Provisional Assembly declared itself the supreme authority in Estonia, but was dissolved by the Bolsheviks only a day later. Elections to Russia’s Constituent Assembly in November 1917 showed strong support for the Bolsheviks in Estonia with 40 per cent of voters supporting the Bolshevik Party. Support for the Bolsheviks was significantly higher in Estonia than in the now-defunct Russian Empire as a whole where they received one quarter of all votes but more or less comparable to that in Petrograd and Moscow. The secret of their success was that they were well versed in all basic concepts of propaganda, since they were prepared at least superficially, to provide simple solutions to the complex collective problems and necessities of the era.
The Bolsheviks soon abolished private large-scale land ownership by nationalisation. On 7 November 1917, The Council of People’s commissars issued the Decree on Land, which stipulated “the abolition of private ownership of land without compensation and the transfer of all privately owned land to the agricultural committees for redistribution”. In reality this equalled to the takeover of the property of the land-owning gentry and wealthier peasants. Although the seizure of households in Estonia took place in a peaceful manner, on 28 January 1918 the Estonian Bolsheviks arrested 500 members of the local nobility and deported them to Siberia, as a potentially trouble-making group. This was one of the earliest cases of forced internal migration in Soviet Russia, which later became a usual practice for the communist regime.
In order to accelerate the progress of the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations, Germany and its allies resumed hostilities on February 18, 1918 after a two-month ceasefire. The offensive of the German imperial army in mainland Estonia began on February 19 and by March 3rd, when the Bolshevik delegation in Brest-Litovsk agreed to sign the peace agreement Estonia was entirely under the control of German forces. The retreat of the Bolsheviks (from Estonia), gave Estonian nationalist politicians the opportunity to declare the country’s independence. A new provisional government was created on February 24, 1918, and was headed by Konstantin Päts. This step was not recognized by Imperial Germany, whose troops moved into Tallinn the next day.
Estonia’s occupation by Imperial Germany in February 1918 triggered an outbreak of violence. The people who had violated private property laws during the Bolshevik dictatorship were usually singled out by the Baltic German gentry and local residents wishing to punish them, as well as those who were suspected of sympathising with the “Reds“. According to Soviet historian Siilivask 5,000 people were arrested in Estonia during the German occupation and approximately 400 of them were executed. The nine-month German occupation of Estonia (February 1918 – November 1918) further deteriorated the economic and social situation of the population since Estonia suffered plundering of all resources necessary for waging war. According to later Estonian calculations, the damage caused by Germany reached an estimated 250 million gold roubles, and it was planned to reclaim the sum from the German government.
The Soviet government revoked the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty on November 13 and ordered the Red Army to prepare to advance westward so as to exploit the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of the German forces. The Baltic region was targeted alongside Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. The Red Army’s first attempt to invade Estonia was repelled by the Germans at Narva on November 22 but after the collapse of Germany in the World War it was apparent that the German army was about to leave Estonia. On November 14, the representative of the German administration handed over power to the national Provisional Government of Estonia, a “rainbow coalition” in the modern sense, as it combined right-wing parties with socialists.
The recently-formed national government was initially unable to resist the Red Army. On November 28 the Red Army units seized Narva. Estonian historiography considers this the beginning of the War of Independence. The next day, November 29, 1918, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the Workers’ Commune of Estonia in Narva a Soviet republic. Since the Red Army was responsible for military planning, the primary task of Estonia’s Bolshevik government was the reinforcement of the regime in the territories from which the Red Army had driven out the Estonian national forces. According to the Cheka model, commissions for combating counterrevolution and politicized police departments were set up in major towns and counties seized by the Red Army. The situation in the rear of the Red Army in December 1918 and January 1919 can be aptly described as “comissarocracy”, since anyone’s fate after arrest depended on the discretion of the local commissar combating counterrevolution. A total of 2,500 people were arrested by the commissions for combating counterrevolution in the Bolshevik-controlled territory in December 1918 and January 1919. Between 650 and 700 were killed. The Estonian Bolshevik government, which had evacuated to Russia in January, was disbanded on June 5 since it had lost its use after the Red Army had been driven out of Estonia’s territory. While the Red Army was repelled from Estonia in the winter of 1919, the violence did not end. The number of people that were killed by the Estonian authorities’ repressions during the War of Independence could be estimated at up to 800.
The violence abated with the strengthening of the state authority and the coming to power of a democratically elected representative body in April 1919. Its vigorous moves towards solving the agrarian problem contributed to the stabilisation of the Estonian society. In late 1919, Estonia introduced one of the most sweeping land reforms in post-World War Eastern Europe as the estates of Baltic nobility were expropriated and redistributed among the peasants. After a successful defensive campaign of the Estonian Army and its allies against the continuous offensives of the Red Army, the Treaty of Tartu was signed between Estonia and Russian SFSR on February 2 1920, ending the Estonian War of Independence. Soviet Russia gave an unconditional recognition to the independence of Estonia and pledged to renounce all the claims to its territory.
In order to build a sovereign statehood, Estonia went through many political, economic and social reforms. The most important event in Estonian political life was the adoption of the first constitution in 1920, which established a parliamentary form of government. The Estonian political system up to 1934 could be characterised by a strong legislature, a weak executive power and a proportional representation system in the parliament. The multiparty coalitions proved to be very short-lived, as between 1920 and 1934, Estonia had 21 governments. The Estonian political arena was completely dominated by the right and centre parties. The Social Democrats and the underground Communist Party had support in the urban areas, but as a whole, they lacked the strong social base in an overwhelmingly agrarian Estonia where conservative parties were focussed on resolving agrarian issues.
As global markets crashed in 1929, the Estonian economy slumped and continued to struggle throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s. However, it managed to recover, and by the late 1930s, the living standards in Estonia were higher compared to other Eastern European countries. The main political outcome of the global economic crisis in the 1930s was the rise of the far-right League of the Veterans. The movement used the increased subsistence difficulties to discredit their opponents and promote the establishment of a strong executive power following the contemporary political trends in Europe. The League gained vast popularity and their candidate was expected to win the first presidential election in April 1934. However, on 12 March 1934, the acting head of state Konstantin Päts carried out a pre-emptive military coup and established authoritarian rule. The League of the Veterans was banned and its leaders were arrested. The dictatorship of Päts is characterised in Estonian historiography as the Era of Silence because political parties were banned and the Estonian parliament was not in session between 1934 and 1938. In 1938, the new constitution came into force heavily empowering the newly created institution of the president while marginalising the bicameral parliament. In April 1938, the lower chamber of the parliament elected Päts as the first president of Estonia but Estonia remained an authoritarian country until its loss of independence in 1940.
As the international situation in the late 1930’s tensed due to German expansion into Eastern Europe, the threat to Estonia’s security became serious. The efforts to build an Anglo-French-Soviet Anti-Nazi coalition reached a stalemate in 1939. The British were against appeasing Moscow by serving the Red Army the right to occupy the Baltic States in case a wide-scale conflict with Germany was to break out. At the same time, the Soviets opened a more fruitful secret dialogue with its main ideological and geographical enemy Germany. The talks between Germany and Russia culminated on 23 August, 1939, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, officially titled the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union, was signed in Moscow. Its notorious secret protocol divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence, creating spheres of conquest.
Estonia ended up in the Soviet sphere of influence. After occupying eastern parts of Poland, the Soviets pressured Finland and the Baltic states to conclude mutual assistance treaties. Soviet Union used the escape of the Polish submarine Orzel from the port of Tallinn on 18 September, where it was interned, as an argument to question Estonia’s ability to sustain its neutrality. A week later, on 24 September, Estonian foreign minister Karl Selter was presented with an ultimatum by Soviet Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Vyatcheslav Molotov, demanding the establishment of the Soviet military bases in Estonia and threatening to use force if the demand was not met. Concurrently, a force six times the size of the Estonian army was lined up on the border. As the other Great Powers of Europe were not willing to risk a war over the fate of Baltic countries, Estonian officials were compelled to yield to the ultimatum on 28 September.
According to the Soviet–Estonian Mutual Assistance Treaty 25,000 Red Army soldiers were based in Estonia to support the Soviet naval units. Although the Soviet government promised to respect the sovereignty of Estonia, the promise was soon violated. As Finland refused to satisfy the Soviet demands for substantial territory, the bases in Estonia were used during the Soviet aggression against Finland, which began on 30 November 1940.The Estonian foreign minister protested several times against these operations, only to be ignored by the Soviets who did everything possible to cover up the fact that the bomber units used against Finnish cities regularly took off from Estonia.
In summer 1940, as international attention was focused on the Nazi conquest of the Low Countries and the fall of France, the Soviets decided to take advantage of the disorder and occupy the Baltic States. An intense defamation campaign was launched against the Baltic States accusing them of violating the mutual assistance treaties. On 14 June 1940, Lithuania received an ultimatum to form a Soviet-friendly government and ensure the access of the Red Army to the country. Estonia and Latvia received similar demands two days later. The assembly of the Red Army on the border for possible military action against the Baltic States began at the end of May and by mid-June about half a million Soviet troops, along with 3000 tanks and 2500 planes were ready to take military action. By that time, the Balts were completely isolated from the rest of the world because of the on-going Soviet military blockade and thus no foreign military assistance was in sight. On the morning of June 17, General Johan Laidoner, the commander-in-chief of the Estonian army signed an order which permitted the passage of Soviet troops into Estonia. In the next two days Estonia was occupied by 115,000 Red Army soldiers who were garrisoned at the most important strategic locations in Estonia.
After the Soviets had established their military control over Estonia, Andrei Zhdanov, one of Stalin’s closest associates arrived in Tallinn in order to complete the annexation. Zhdanov had a meeting with president Päts on June 19 where he demanded the formation of a new pro-Soviet cabinet. Two days later a demonstration in favour of a new pro-Soviet government took place in the central square of Tallinn under the protection of the Red army. Among the demonstrators were many Russians including Soviet workers imported to the military bases and those living in the border areas. On the evening of the 21 June, president Päts confirmed the new people’s government. This mostly consisted of leftist intellectuals who had opposed Päts’s regime in the 1930’s. The leader of the new cabinet was a doctor and poet, Johannes Vares, who had not been involved in politics earlier.
On July 4, Zhdanov ordered Päts to announce new parliamentary elections within ten days. This action violated the Estonian constitution, which mandated a period of 35 days for election preparations. The Soviet-style elections were rashly organized, and although other candidates were permitted at first, by July 11 only the pro-communist bloc had been approved. All the non-communist candidates were either disqualified or bullied into drawing back their candidature. The elections on 14-15 July took place in a coercive atmosphere and the results were very often falsified. This way, the Communists were able to receive about 93 per cent of the vote.
President Päts remained in office until 22 July when his duties as the head of state were taken over by Vares. On 21-23 July, the new parliament unanimously affirmed the petition to join the Soviet Union disregarding the promises of Prime Minister Vares to maintain the country’s sovereignty. The new parliament also issued initial resolutions on the nationalisation of land, banks and large industries. During the last week of July, much of the country’s former political and economic elite were arrested. The final act of Estonia’s inclusion into the USSR took place in Moscow, on 5 August 1940 when the Supreme Soviet formally agreed to accept Estonia’s petition to join the Soviet Union as its 16th republic. As the Western Powers saw the decisive role of the Soviet Army behind these events, they refused to recognise the Soviet annexation.
After the incorporation, the new regime began the rapid sovietisation of the Estonian society. The Communist Party became the centre of political power despite the fact that according to the Constitution of Soviet Estonia the ultimate political power should have been in the hands of the Supreme Soviet, which was basically the new Soviet model parliament. All land holdings were declared to be “the property of the people“, whereas a maximum of 30 hectares of land could be used by a family, the lands which were acquired by the cuts were mostly distributed to the landless peasants. The Soviet authorities also introduced a plan for compulsory deliveries of agricultural products with fixed low prices, which led to the decrease of living standards. During the first months of the occupation, all social and cultural activities were subordinated to the ideological control of the Communist Party. As such, totalitarian norms and models quickly became visible.
In 1940-1941, the new regime executed about 2,500 and deported approximately 19,000 people. About 9,300 of them were rounded up and forcibly taken to Siberia on 14 June 1941. This procedure of eliminating counterrevolutionary, anti-Soviet elements was approved by Ivan Serov, deputy head of NKVD: the men were sent to the labour camps and the women with children were exiled to under-populated remote areas of the Soviet Union. According to modern estimations, 11,500 people, who were deported in 1940-1941, perished in the Soviet Union. The Soviet deportations were aimed against the Estonian elite: against former civil servants and high ranking state officials, military officers, landowners and businessmen, members of the clergy, and the family members of all the above.
The Soviet rule in Estonia came to an end when Nazi Germany began its attack on the Soviet Union. The German troops reached Estonia on 5 July 1941. As in other areas which were occupied by the Soviets in 1939-1940, the German army was widely greeted as liberators, especially after the mass deportation in mid-June. At the same time, similarly to Latvia and Lithuania, a pro-independence partisan movement emerged engaging the retreating Red Army and Soviet paramilitary forces. The Germans captured Tallinn on August 28 and by the October 1941 the last Soviet strongholds on Estonian islands were evacuated on the orders of their High Command.
Estonia, among the other Baltic States and much of Belarus, constituted the Reichskomissariat Ostland, which was administrated by German civilian officials. A puppet government, the Estonian Self-Administration, was set up to serve as their local counterpart. The goodwill towards Germans dissipated within first months; it became clear that the Nazis had no intention of restoring Estonia’s independence. Instead, the Germans sought to exploit local resources to support their military production. Like in other occupied territories, the Nazis put their racial policies into practice. Virtually all the Estonian Jews who had not used the opportunity to escape to the Soviet Union (up to 1,000 people) were killed by the German killing squad Einsatzgruppe A and its local collaborators before the end of 1941. In total, about 7800 Estonian citizens, most of them Jews, Gypsies, Communists or alleged Communists, were either executed or perished in concentration camps. Further Nazi plans envisaged the Germanisation of the occupied territories: 50 per cent of Estonians were deemed racially worthy to be mixed with the German colonists, while the other half would be deported eastwards to Russian territory. However, these plans were never realised.
By January 1944, the German situation on the Eastern Front worsened and the Red Army began to move towards the Estonian border. With the help of new recruits, including tens of thousands of Estonian draftees, the Soviet advance was successfully halted for about half a year. However, as the Soviets broke through the German front in Belorussia in late July 1944, the German High Command decided to draw back from Estonia in September. On September 21, a day before the Red Army reached Tallinn, Estonian national leaders proclaimed independence, a national government led by Otto Tief was formed and Estonian soldiers had clashes with the retreating German forces. Nonetheless, as Red Army units captured Tallinn, the hopes to restore independence did not materialise. Up to 75,000 people, who were afraid of the return of the Soviet terror, fled from Estonia, becoming war refugees in Sweden and Germany.
The end of the Second World War did not mark the end of violence. On the contrary, the return of the Soviet regime marked the beginning of a new brutal era in Estonian history. According to various estimations, about 25,000-30,000 people were imprisoned in 1944-1953, of whom 11,000 perished in prisons and countless labour camps. The return of the Stalinist terror also sparked the Anti-Soviet partisan war in Estonia during 1944–1953. Up to 15,000 Estonians took part in this desperate fight. The Soviet regime answered with harsh repressions. In order to eliminate the insurgency, on January 29 1949, the Council of Ministers of Soviet Union approved a new mass deportation from the Baltics. The operation later received the codename “Priboj”-“Beachcomber”. The Soviets planned to force the rural households, which were seen as the main supporters of the anti-Soviet insurgency, to work in remote collective farms. On 25 March 1949, more than 20,000 people were deported to far-flung parts of the Soviet Union, mostly to Siberia. From the Soviet point of view, the operation was a success, as most individual farmers in Estonia joined the collective farms during the next months in the fear of further deportations. The resistance movement lost its bases and was disbanded in the early 1950s. However, the collectivisation had negative effects for agricultural production: it decreased by 9.3 per cent between 1951 and 1955, compared to 1946-1950.
In 1953, the future of Estonia looked glum. However, the death of Joseph Stalin and the Kruschev Thaw brought some relief. The repressions in Soviet Union were reversed in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Still, the country’s economy and everyday life continued under the strict control of the ruling communist party. The Stalinist terror had created an atmosphere of fear for decades, though the open campaigns of repression and persecution ceased. Under the communist rule, Estonia was economically more developed than other parts of Soviet Union. However Soviet-style economy management, which was based on a system of state ownership of the means of production and central planning, had negative effects on Estonian economy. This can been seen when comparing living standards in Finland (market economy) and Estonia (command economy), which were more or less the same in 1950s. However, in 1989 the Finns enjoyed incomes almost 8 times higher than their southern neighbors and Finnish GDP per capita was at least four times that of Estonia.
The Soviet regime also posed serious cultural threat to such a small nation. In the late 1970s, during the so-called Brezhnev Stagnation, Estonian society grew increasingly concerned about the threat of Russification. In 1944 Estonians made up 90 per cent of the population but by 1989 their percentage had dropped to 62. In the 1970s, the Soviet regime also launched a systematic campaign of Russification of Estonian culture in order to eradicate the national consciousness. The growing pressure led to general resentment towards Soviet policies.
Through the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of openness and restructuring led to greater political freedom in the Soviet Union. The National Awakening started with environmental demonstrations against the plans of the central government to mine phosphate in northern Estonia. This step would have meant the arrival of tens of thousands of new immigrants and great damage to the local environment. Consequently, the phosphate-mining plans were abandoned.
However, the environmental protests had galvanised the Estonian masses. On 23 August 1987, up to 5,000 people protested against the consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This event, organised by Estonian dissidents, emboldened the local society. On the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, on 23 August 1987, more than million Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians linked hands in a human chain that stretched from Tallinn to Vilnius. This action was condemned by the central government but solidified the efforts for Estonian and Baltic independence.
In 1988, the massive protests led to removal of the unpopular leader of the local Communist Party, Karl Vaino who during the 1970’s had become the symbol of the Russification policies. The new general secretary of the Communist Party of Estonia, Vaino Väljas, was greeted by a mass demonstration, attended by 300,000 Estonians, who sang national songs and hymns, which not so long ago had been strictly forbidden. These kinds of gatherings mixing the political speeches with mass singing of popular and traditional songs shaped the image of the so called Singing Revolution.
On 16 November 1988, despite the condemnation from Moscow, the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic issued the Estonian Sovereignty Declaration. In 1989, the public opinion moved towards complete political independence. After the first free >Supreme Soviet elections in 1990, the new government declared a transition period to independence.
These moves were rejected by Gorbachev, who in January 1991 gave permission to use force against the peaceful demonstrators in Riga and Vilnius. Protesters in Tallinn pre-emptively set up barricades to resist the attacks of the Soviet Army. However, Gorbachev withdrew because of the pressure from the Russian democrats. During the communist coup in Moscow on 18-22 August 1991, the Estonian Supreme Soviet together with the Congress of Estonia proclaimed the restoration of the independent state of Estonia on 20 August 1991. People acted as human shields to protect radio and TV stations from the Soviet armoured fighting vehicles. Through these actions Estonia regained its independence without any bloodshed. On 22 August 1991, Iceland and Lithuania became the first nations to recognise the newly restored independence of Estonia and were soon followed by other Western governments. On 6 September 1991, Estonia’s independence was recognized by the Soviet Union and on 17 September Estonia and its Baltic neighbours were admitted to the United Nations.
Since regaining independence Estonia has embraced a multi-party democracy and shifted to a free market economy. Through the last two decades Estonia has become integrated with the social, economic and political institutions of Western Europe. The Estonian Government achieved its long-term aim of joining the European Union and NATO in 2004.
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 M. Spill, Estonia (New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 1999), 29.
 Miljan, Historical Dictionary of Estonia, 166.
 K. Bühler, State succession and membership in international organizations: legal theories versus political pragmatism (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2001), 178.
 Spill, Estonia, 29.