Language and Culture
The Estonian language belongs to the Finno-Ugric family of languages, closely related to Finnish and more distantly related to Hungarian. It is among the most difficult languages in Europe, with fourteen cases for the declension of nouns and complicated rules for their use. There are no articles, however, nor any grammatical gender in Estonian. Indeed, the same word is used for both "he" and "she": tema . Over the years, the language has been standardized, but many dialects and accents remain, especially on the islands. Most of the foreign words used by Estonians come from German. Russian, Finnish, and English also have influenced Estonian, especially in the formation of slang.
Estonian culture developed in earnest during the nineteenth-century period of national awakening. Elements of Estonian peasant culture, such as songs and folktales, were brought together by the country's first cultural elite after 1850. Between 1857 and 1861, Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald compiled and published the Estonian national epic, Kalevipoeg (Son of Kalev), which was based on various folklore themes. Written in verse, the epic tells the story of Kalevipoeg, the mythical ancient ruler of Estonia. Another achievement of this period was the establishment of Estonia's first regularly published Estonian-language newspaper, Perno Postimees , originally published in Pärnu by Johann Voldemar Jannsen in 1857. In 1878 Carl Robert Jakobson established the newspaper Sakala , which would soon become a major promoter of the cultural renaissance. Jakob Hurt, a schoolteacher and Lutheran minister, organized a collection of folk songs in the 1880s and gave several speeches extolling the value of Estonian culture.
The national literature had an earlier beginning, in the 1810s, with the patriotic poetry of Kristjan Jaak Peterson. In the second half of the nineteenth century, romanticism and love of country found equal expression in the poetry of Lydia Koidula, Estonia's first woman poet and a key figure of the cultural awakening. The first Estonian song festival was organized in 1869 in Tartu, attracting some 800 participants and about 4,000 spectators. This event would become a major tradition in Estonian cultural life and was held roughly every five years. At the end of the nineteenth century, Estonian theater also got its beginnings in Tartu with the formation of the Vanemuine theater group.
During the first independence period, Estonian culture thrived. During 1926-33 writer Anton Hansen Tammsaare published his five-volume epic novel, Tõde ja Õigus (Truth and Justice), which covered the period 1870-1930. Lyrical poetry grew with the works of Marie Under, Henrik Visnapuu, and Betti Alver. In 1919 the Pallas art school was founded in Tartu, giving rise and expression to several new artistic currents. Architecture became a new mode of expression for Estonians as the first architects were educated in Tallinn. Their works came to include the parliament building on Toompea Hill and several functionalist buildings in the resort town of Pärnu. The Estonian Drama Theater was established in 1926, complementing the already existing Estonia Theater, which featured operettas and ballet. By 1940 Estonia had eleven professional or semiprofessional theaters.
The return of the Red Army in 1944 after the German occupation caused much of Estonia's cultural elite to flee the country. Many writers and poets settled in Sweden, where they continued to issue works through their own publishing cooperative. Under Stalin, Estonian culture was subordinated to the propagandistic needs of the regime. In 1950, as the Estonian Communist Party was being purged, so too was Estonian culture. Many writers and artists were accused of "formalism" (adherence to bourgeois standards) or nationalism and were dismissed or deported. It was only in the 1960s, during the thaw under Khrushchev, that Estonian culture regained vibrancy, the result of increased foreign contacts and the arrival on the scene of a new generation of writers, artists, composers, and poets. The last category included Paul-Eerik Rummo (appointed minister of culture in 1992), Jaan Kaplinski (elected a member of parliament in 1992), and Hando Runnel. Novelist Jaan Kross made his debut during this period as a writer of historical works; his 1978 book, The Czar's Madman , was published in English in 1993 to critical acclaim. Graphic art became popular in Estonia during the 1960s, as did abstractionism among painters. The Estonian music scene saw the coming of age of Arvo Pärt, who would emigrate in 1980 to West Germany; Veljo Tormis, a composer drawing on themes from Finno-Ugric folk music; and Neeme Järvi, who emigrated in 1980 and later became director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Song festivals still were held continuously, often providing a popular outlet for national feeling. In the place of the banned national anthem, the song My Fatherland Is My Love , based on a poem by Lydia Koidula and music by composer and conductor Gustav Ernesaks, became Estonians' de facto an-them.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Estonian culture again felt some of the cold drafts of official control, but by 1986 the influence of glasnost began to stir cultural activity anew, this time far into the realm of politics. One of the first groups to mobilize in 1987 was the Estonian Heritage Society, which led volunteer projects to restore many of Estonia's cultural landmarks. At a 1986 writers' conference, the first complaints were publicly aired about censorship and Russification. In the main literary publications--Sirp ja Vasar , Vikerkaar , and Looming --an unprecedented number of articles began to appear dealing with hitherto banned topics. In April 1988, during a two-day public forum, nearly fifty of Estonia's most prominent cultural figures met to voice their concerns about the state of Estonia's culture, language, and people. Open criticism was leveled against the old-guard party leadership of Karl Vaino, and demands were made for real political reform. The forum was an awe-inspiring event for the hundreds of thousands of Estonians who listened on radio; yet it was only a prelude to the "singing revolution" that would follow that summer.
During the next several years, many of Estonia's artists, poets, and writers would become involved in politics. Thirteen cultural figures were elected to the Supreme Soviet in 1990, nearly twenty to the Riigikogu, the new legislature, in 1992. Culture suffered, however, because of economic decline. Paper shortages in 1990 and 1991 limited the number of books and literary journals that could be published. Art supplies, in high demand, often were available only in exchange for hard currency. Still, foreign contacts opened up completely with opportunities to view new creative works and to spread Estonian culture abroad. With independence again in hand, Estonia could look forward to another era of free cultural development in a common European home.
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