The history of Estonia – and indeed of the other Baltic States – has been one of constant struggle to maintain independence and national integrity against the predatory instincts of larger neighbors. The Vikings passed through the territory in the ninth century. Over the next few centuries, both the Danes and Swedes tried and failed to force Christianity upon the Livs tribe, which dominated the region. Eventually, at the turn of the 13th century, Estonia became Christian. During the Middle Ages, Danish influence was at a peak in the Baltic region. After the Livonian War of the 1550s (Livonia was the area covering modern Latvia and the southern part of Estonia), a period that involved Denmark, Sweden, Poland and Russia in a disputed succession and rival territorial claims, Estonia was taken by Sweden. The 16th and 17th centuries marked the high point of Swedish imperial power. The Russians were determined, however, to secure a ‘window onto the Baltic’ for economic as well as strategic reasons. Estonia was duly acquired by the Russians from Sweden in 1721.
Russia remained in control of Estonia until shortly after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. The new Soviet government at first refused to recognize Estonian independence but gave way in February 1920. The new state – along with its Baltic neighbors, Lithuania and Latvia – enjoyed just two decades of independent statehood before the Soviet Union took control under the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. Soviet ownership lasted barely 12 months before Estonia was conquered in the German invasion of the Soviet Union. It was retaken by the Red Army in 1944, after which Estonia was constituted as one of the 15 Soviet Socialist Republics. Four decades passed before the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev offered the prospect of change for the Baltic States. A key part of the perestroika (economic reform) program was the devolution of power to the republics. Estonia led the way among the Baltic States, assisted by the collaboration between nationalist groups and the Communist Party, who joined together in a People’s Front (analogous bodies emerged in Latvia and Lithuania) to orchestrate change.
In March 1990, the Estonian Communist Party voted in favor of full independence from the Soviet Union but allowed for a six-month transitional period before making the decision final. President Gorbachev was strongly opposed but ultimately powerless – barring military intervention – to prevent the Estonian drive for independence. Rapid international recognition of Estonia as a sovereign state, followed by admission to the United Nations, completed the transition to full nationhood. In June 1992, Estonia scored two more firsts with the introduction of its own currency, the Kroon, and of a new post-Soviet constitution. The constitution was first put to the test in September 1992.
Successive Estonian governments have been careful to maintain good relations with Russia while its main priorities have lain to the west: specifically, securing membership of NATO and the European Union obtained in May 2004.