In 1850, there were around 660,000 Estonians living on the territory of Estonia, while the number of Estonians living abroad at that time was estimated at almost 30,000. The communities of Estonians outside of their ethnic homeland have been formed in the course of two larger emigration waves that have ended at this point, and a third one that is still going on. As a result of the first emigration wave, which headed for Russia starting in the mid-19th century and lasting until the First World War, a community in the East was formed. The second mass emigration, caused by the Second World War, headed west. This wave significantly supplemented Estonian communities that had been created earlier in the Western countries, and new destinations were also added. The third, present wave, which started with the restoration of independence and gained momentum after Estonia joined the European Union, is directed westward once again (Tammaru et al. 2010).
The Estonians who travelled abroad with the first and second waves played an important part in the development of their country when they returned to their ethnic homeland. At the end of the First World War, the young, educated Estonians who had gone to universities in Russia, especially in St Petersburg, returned to their homeland, full of vitality, to start building the newly-established state of Estonia. A similar situation occurred in the early 1990’s, before, during and after the restoration of independence, when the homecoming Estonians lent their hand to the process of establishing re-independence. Here the question arises: what happens next with the third wave of Estonians who have emigrated to foreign lands? Will the compatriots who have left in the last almost 30 years form Estonian communities that will remain abroad and support Estonia from afar, or will these communities be part of a ‘transnational Estonia’, tightly connected to their homeland? Is transnational Estonia - thanks to the communities all over the world - a part of open Estonia or is it rather that Estonia is a part of the open world?
We have divided this article into two parts to tackle this question. The first part provides an overview of the three emigration waves of Estonians, focusing especially on the last one. Possible similarities between the emigration waves are also sought in the article. The second part of the article presents and compares developments in the communities of all three emigration waves, looking at the contacts that the Estonians living abroad have had with their homeland and its culture.
The topic of ‘Estonians in the World’ has been thoroughly dissected looking inward from the outside. Therefore, alongside this general focus on migration patterns, we add the perspective of the people involved.
Figure 2.1.1. The share of the diaspora out of the total number of Estonians, 1850–2011
Source: Kulu 1990, Tammaru et al. 2010, Suurkask 2013.
The Formation of the Estonian Community in the East
Before the start of the first emigration wave, it was mostly young men who left Estonia, mostly for countries around the Baltic Sea, less often also for America. They were trying to escape the mandatory 25-year conscription in force at the time in the Russian Empire. A demographic transition started in Estonia in mid-19th century, earlier than in the rest of Russia. In many European countries, the growing rural population headed to towns for the available jobs, but Estonians did not have this chance.
Estonia was an important industrial centre for Russia at the time. Rapid industrialisation on the one hand, and a Russification policy on the other, engineered an immigration of industrial workers from the Russian Empire to the larger industrial towns of Estonia (Kulu 1992; Jürgenson 2002). Also, starting from the middle of the 19th century, unfavourable natural conditions and famine, as well as the adaptation of laws favouring movement of people and the migration-friendly conditions in the Russian Empire, started to influence the emigration of the rural population from its ethnic homeland. The driving forces behind the migration were, in a direct as well as indirect sense, the abolition of serfdom in Estonia and Livonia; the entering into force of the Passport Law in 1863; the connection of Estonia with Russia’s railway network including the railway passing through Siberia; but certainly also the practical impossibility of obtaining a higher education at home. The force of attraction for emigration to Russia was the plan of the central government to colonise the uninhabited regions of the country. Incentives and supports were offered to the settlers to implement the plan (Jürgenson 2002; Jansen 2007).
As a result of the first emigration wave, the number of Estonians living abroad increased to 215,000 by 1917. There were 200,000 Estonians living in the East and 15,000 living in the West according to official data (see Figure 2.1.1, 2.1.2). Over 300 Estonian settlements had been counted all over Russia at the time, including St Petersburg, the largest Estonian community. Most of the Estonians (90%) were living in the European part of Russia, but there were also Estonian villages in Siberia, Crimea and the Far East. During the first emigration wave, the settlers gradually moved further from the initial ‘core settlements’ to the surrounding areas or even to completely new regions of Russia. This movement continued for decades, i.e. several generations. It was common practice during the first emigration wave for Estonians coming from the same region in Estonia to concentrate into the same settlements in Russia, which in turn helped to maintain the Estonian language, sometimes even its dialects, as a language for communicating (Kulu 1992; Tammaru et al. 2010).
Figure 2.1.2. The relative importance of the Eastern diaspora out of the whole Estonian diaspora, 1850–2015
Source: Tammaru et al.; Population Register.
When Estonia became independent in the beginning of 1918, this put an end to the mass emigration to Russia. Because the demographic transition had ended by that time, the emigration potential had diminished significantly as well. Instead, Estonians started to return to their newly-independent homeland. For Estonians who had obtained higher education abroad, but for all other patriotically-minded countrymen as well, the newly-established Republic of Estonia and the revitalised atmosphere made the homeland an attractive place for self-fulfilment and implementing their acquired knowledge and skills. More people wanted to come to Estonia than expected, so therefore not everyone could be accepted and the Government implemented an age limit as well as other conditions. All in all, about 37,500 persons returned (see Figure 2.1.2). (Tammaru et al. 2010).
The Formation of the Estonian Community in the West and the Second Wave of Emigration
The Estonian community outside of Russia prior to independence was quite small. The largest community of Estonians in the West was in North America, consisting of people from Estonia’s coastal areas; seamen who had defected from Russian war and cargo ships; political emigrants fleeing from the 1905 revolution; as well as people migrating on from Russia. There were also small Estonian communities before the establishment of the Estonian Republic in the neighbouring countries Latvia, Finland and Sweden.
The second extensive emigration wave of Estonians was caused by the Second World War. Compared to the first one, the second wave meant an intensive, largely forced emigration happening in a short period of time. The second emigration wave mostly headed west. During and after the war, a lot of Estonians were also deported east, but a majority of those who managed to survive the harsh conditions there returned to the homeland as soon as they got the chance.
The second wave started as early as 1939, when some Estonians joined the Baltic Germans leaving for Germany through the resettlement program. More Estonians joined the later re-settlers and 1943-1944 saw the Estonian Swedes evacuated to Sweden. During the whole war period, people also went to the German Reich as a result of being recruited as workers or into the German armed forces, including labour service and air force support service. Quite a number of men fled from the mobilisation to Finland, where a separate squadron was formed to help the Finns fight for their independence.
The emigration of Estonians reached its peak in the summer/autumn of 1944. As the Red Army was approaching Estonia and the front was coming closer, civilians fled for Finland and Sweden as well as Germany in large numbers to escape the new Soviet occupation. There were also many men who had served in the German armed units who went west, being forced to leave their homeland together with their retreating troops (Kumer-Haukanõmm 2012).
It is estimated that up to 80,000 Estonians headed west as a result of the Second World War, 6-9% of whom perished or were killed on the way. Over 40,000 Estonians reached Germany and about 26,000 reached Sweden. Slightly over 1,000 refugees reached Austria and Denmark. In all of these countries, refugee and immigrant camps were erected where people lived while awaiting their destiny. A large number of the Estonians who made it to Sweden stayed there permanently, while their countrymen in Germany, Denmark and Austria had to move on after staying in the camp for a period lasting from a couple of years up to seven. The main destination countries included the US, Canada, Australia, England, Brazil and other states overseas.
Figure 2.1.3. Changes in the numbers of Estonians at home and abroad, 1850–2015
Source: Tammaru et al., Population Register.
Note: The numbers concerning the diaspora in 2015 are an estimate, as there is no accurate data.
A portion of the Estonians who had made it to the West or were on the way there, however, returned home immediately after the war for various reasons - around 11,000 civilians and 10,000 (ex)military all in all (Kumer-Haukanõmm 2012). Among the Estonians who ended up in the West after the Second World War were those who had returned to the homeland from Russia after Estonia gained independence, as well as their descendants, and these people played an important role in the formation and leading of the community’s life in the new country.
Together with earlier emigrants, the estimated size of the Western community in 1945 was over 90,000 people (see Figure 2.1.3). The total size of the Estonian community after the Second World War was around 200,000 persons again (Kulu 1992). At the time of the restoration of Estonia’s independence in 1991, the largest Estonian community (46,000 persons) was still in Russia. By 2000, the number of Estonians living in Russia had fallen to 28,000, which is comparable to the Estonian communities in the USA and Canada (see Figure 2.1.4).
After Estonia became independent, almost a quarter of the community in Russia wanted to return, while only approximately 1,000 Estonians who had been living in Western states turned back in the years 1989 to 2000 (Tammaru et al. 2010). The number of returnees may have been so small for economic reasons or the scant social guarantees the young state could provide, but also because the world was already opening up and travelling was becoming easier.
The Third Wave, Migration to the West Again
The trigger for the third emigration wave was the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which once again afforded a new opportunity for international movement. The restoration of independence in 1991 can tentatively be called the start of a new migration pattern, although the first signs of emigration were visible already before that. Civilian migration of Estonians towards the West, happening simultaneously with the return of the Russian military towards the East, was negligible in the 1990’s compared to the next decade. After the restoration of independence, the migration flows were dominated by a return migration of people originally from the republics of the Soviet Union: around 144,000 persons, i.e. a quarter of all ethnic minorities left Estonia (Anniste 2014).
From the early 1990s the Western states, unattainable until now, were just a visa and a plane-flight or ship-journey away for Estonians. Such freedom inspired people to look for work, for self-fulfilment, for challenges and a new home in the countries of Western Europe. Emigration to the West, however, remained moderate and the size of the community in the West hardly changed at all. The total number of people living in the Western countries during the first decade after the restoration of independence may have been approximately 85,000 (see Figured 2.1.3). The aging of the people who had left in the second wave was compensated for by the newcomers from Estonia.
After Estonia joined the European Union in 2004, however, the emigration picked up considerably. Western European countries became the main destinations - first of all Great Britain, Ireland, Finland and Sweden, with emigration to these countries growing up to eightfold between 2000 and 2008 (Anniste 2014). In 2014, major changes also took place in the list of countries with a community of Estonians. Historically, the largest community had been in Russia until then, but by 2014 Finland had become the most popular foreign country among Estonians for settling in. As before, countries with a large Estonian community included Russia, Sweden, Germany, USA, Canada and Australia (Tiit 2015).
Figure 2.1.4. Number of Estonians in main destination countries, 1990, 2000 and 2015
Source: Tammaru et al. 2010, Population Register. Data for 2015 is from Statistics Estonia, and do not reflect the actual number of Estonians registered abroad
Figure 2.1.5. Migration between Estonia and Finland, 1991–2015
Source: Statistical databases of Statistics Finland
Emigration from Estonia to Finland was significant already in the early 1990’s, because Finland allowed persons with Ingrian roots to return to their homeland. Knowledge of the Finnish language and the geographical proximity of the two countries, however, became motivations for many Estonians to emigrate there as well. In the next years, emigration dwindled and started to increase again after the economic recession of the late 1990’s and the joining of the EU in 2004, reaching its peak during the economic crisis that started in 2008. Finland is still the most popular country among emigrants, as almost half of all those who leave Estonia go there and approximately 50,000 Estonian citizens are living there permanently (Tiit 2015). There is at least another 15,000 commuters who live in Estonia permanently while working in Finland who should be added to the number of Estonians who have a connection with Finland (Krussel 2013). Another aspect that should be noted in the case of migration from Estonia to Finland is the return migration, which has increased simultaneously with the emigration (see Figure 2.1.5).
The workers who went to Finland during the crisis were often seen in the media as following the course of least resistance, as convenience refugees, seekers of the easy life and senseless kids blinded by the lure of money. Looking at the statistics, however, it transpires that the majority of those that sought jobs in the Nordics were men in their thirties from rural areas of Estonia who had to find a way to support their families after being laid off.
According to the Statistics Estonia, in 2015 up to 120,000 citizens of Estonia were estimated to be living abroad, i.e. roughly 10% of all Estonians (Tiit 2015), see Figure 2.1.3. In 2014, the number of Estonians living abroad was estimated at 200,000 persons (Praxis 2015). One reason why the numbers are different is that not all Estonians have changed their place of residence in the Estonian Population Register, but have registered in the destination country. In addition, the source and destination countries have different counting methods. We consider the number based on the data of Statistics Estonia too conservative and the estimated number of Estonians living abroad should be somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000, which means that approximately 15% of all Estonians are living outside of Estonia.
Figure 2.1.6. Number of Estonians in main destination countries, 1930’s and 1950’s
Source: Kumer-Haukanõmm 2012.
Comment. The data of Statistics Estonia do not show the actual number of Estonians living abroad. According to Estonia’s statistics, there were 364 citizens of Estonia living in Switzerland in 2015, while official Swiss statistics say there were 716. Similarly, the Estonian officials working in Brussels do not show up in the official census data of Belgium, but they are still considered members of the Estonian community in Belgium.
The general and widespread understanding is that with the first wave, it was predominantly peasants who left for abroad, the second wave took away the elite of Estonia and the third consists mainly of doctors and low-skilled workers. Looking at the situation more closely however, we see that all of the migration waves have been socially diverse. In the beginning of the first wave, it really was mostly peasants who emigrated, but already by the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, the share of intellectuals among the Estonians living in Russia was higher than it was back in Estonia. The main reason for this was the opportunity to study in the University of St. Petersburg and other higher educational establishments, but certainly also the career opportunities for military staff and officials in the Russian Empire. In the whirlwinds of war, the second wave took a good many writers, professors and politically-active people abroad. But looking at the education levels of all Estonians who fled, we see that basic education dominated.
As with the first and second migration waves, the majority of the third one was also made up of working-age men, then came young people and then families with children. Statistics of the third wave show that people in the age group 20-39 have been most likely to leave Estonia. However, in terms of the social and economic differences, the third wave is especially diverse compared to the earlier ones.
International mobility is no longer just for businessmen or high-level politicians. Today it is common for little children to travel with their parents or for the grandparents to visit family members abroad. Settling down in another country is usually motivated by a desire to improve one’s general wellbeing, which may mean earning a higher salary in Norway, going to Finland to get a supplement for the pension, studying in Western European universities or just broadening one’s general worldview (Tiit 2015).
Just as in the 19th century, an advancing transportation system is an important factor facilitating movement today as well. In 1870, the Tallinn-St Petersburg railway line started operating, followed by the trans-Siberian railway line to Omsk in 1894. In the modern world, cheap flights also fulfil this same function as does the active and affordable ferry traffic connecting the Nordic countries. People often go abroad when they are about to start an independent life, looking for new challenges, but also in the family-building age, which makes it more likely that they will stay abroad permanently. This especially affects the women who have emigrated, they are more likely to remain abroad.
Although salary earned abroad is seen as the main motivator of the third emigration wave, people are increasingly motivated to change their residence or employment country by the higher living standards of other countries that have a social welfare system that provides security, and better working conditions (Telve 2015). Climbing up the career ladder is not the most important thing for most people, and the most common jobs when working abroad are those of artisan or skilled labourer, while top-level specialists form approximately 5% of all those who work abroad (Krusell 2013).
Compared to the first two emigration waves, the main difference in the third wave is the diversity of migration patterns and destination countries as well as the appearance of an international mobile lifestyle. People change their countries of employment more often, cross-border travel related to keeping up family ties is more common and re-migration also plays an important part in migration patterns. Employment-related commuting to the West is also a noticeable trend in the migration patterns of the last two decades, the peak of which was achieved during the economic crisis that started in 2008 (Telve 2015).
Estonia has become a country with one of the largest numbers of commuters in Europe. There are 15.8 commuters per thousand inhabitants in Estonia. It is also a noteworthy fact that in 2013, 14% of the working-age population of Estonia had an experience of working abroad, while the average in Europe is just 9%. Migration potential also illustrates an openness to working abroad: in 2013, 5.9%, i.e. approximately 51,600 working-age persons, had thought of going to work abroad and made specific preparations for it (Tarum 2014). These numbers are very eloquent, showing the openness of Estonians to international mobility.
In the 21st century, Estonians are characterised by a network-based migration. They tend to prefer countries where there already are other Estonians and thus getting used to life in the new country is easier. The exceptions here are the new destination countries - Singapore, one of the global leaders of modern international trade and banking and an enticing destination for specialists because of the professional challenges, and Brussels and Luxembourg, important destinations because of the institutions of the European Union and the jobs there. While there are less than 100 Estonians in Singapore, the Estonian communities in Belgium and Luxembourg are much larger. These environments also function as springboards where one can obtain the contacts and experience needed for starting an international career.
High mobility gives rise to transnationalism, a situation where a person’s everyday activities bridge several countries. Home in Estonia, job in Finland, friends in Norway - this has ceased to be a strange situation for Estonians a long time ago. There are the state and cultural borders, but acquaintances, networks built over decades and personal experience help make foreign countries more home-like. The e-state services and e-residency offered by Estonia facilitate transnationalism further, making it easy to carry out daily activities and be an active citizen anywhere in the world where there is an internet connection.
E-Estonia or e-state, e-government, e-citizens, e-residency, e-learning, e-school, e-medical history, digital prescriptions - this is just a short list of things that may have started off as crazy ideas, but have now become functional technical tools supporting transnationalism. With its almost ubiquitous internet connection and its smart web solutions, Estonia sets an example to many other countries all over the world.
A Comparison of the Three Migration Waves
Analysing the developments of communities in the three emigration waves, we can generalise that the common trait of all three is the retention of the Estonian language, traditions and contacts with compatriots living in the same country. Looking at each wave distinctly, we can observe specific links connecting the community, forming a basis for coordinating community life: activities meant for children, communications within the community (including various kinds of support and help for one another) and the organising of cultural events.
For the first wave, it can be seen clearly that the connecting link was the church (see Figure 2.1.7): the religious, educational and community centre. There was no need for a proper church or building - a prayer room was enough. Estonians living in various parts of Russia often used the churches of Germans or Finns. Later, when the economic standing of Estonian communities improved, they were able to build their own churches with the auxiliary buildings. School premises were usually also built along with the church and children were taught Estonian there. The legislation and benefits applicable in the Russian Empire at those times soon made it possible to give children a five-year education in their mother tongue (Jürgenson 2002).
The school teacher could be the vicar, a learned farmer or later also a teacher invited from Estonia. Keeping up the mother tongue was supported not only by the school and the village community of compatriots, but also church services and the written word in Estonian. In the 1930s, holding church services and school activities in the mother tongue was prohibited, and consequently the knowledge of Estonian started to decline in the community (Jürgenson 2002).
The church and the vicar were also an important part of social life. Educational and cultural associations (choirs, writers’ association) were established first, then economic activities began as well. The vicar was also the author of stories about life in his community for home-Estonians, or even local community newspapers. A notable phenomenon of the first wave was St Petersburg, where there were not only cultural societies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but also student organisations and budding political organisations (Jansen 2007, Jürgenson 2002).
Figure 2.1.7. The three links connecting the members of the national community during the three migration waves: church, associations and organisations, and virtual communities
Source: author’s drawing.
During the second wave, the role of the church in the community diminished significantly, being limited to church services, baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals and offering moral support to refugees. In the second wave, the connecting role in the community was taken over by associations and various (central) organisations (Figure 2.1.7). Estonians started to establish organisations from the very beginning, already in the refugee camps. As in the first wave, providing an education for the children in their mother tongue became the first priority. Schoolwork in Estonian was started using the community’s own means, often even without any permission. The Estonian language, history, and culture in a broader sense were taught in the Estonian schools operating on weekends in the refugee life that started after the camps, but also in the children’s and youth camps during school holidays. The Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides definitely played an important role in promoting education and the Estonian spirit. The only difference compared to the associations and organisations established during the first wave was that besides maintaining the Estonian language, culture and spirit, the fight for a politically free Estonia became very important.
Media had developed significantly compared to the times of the first emigration wave. Thus, an Estonian newspaper was published in every larger community, even radio broadcasts in Estonian were started in some countries. The radio broadcasts as well as the newspapers brought information of local community events as well as news of what was happening in other Estonian refugee communities. News from the homeland also played an important role.
During the first wave, Estonian communities abroad were eagerly ordering various texts from the homeland, while the Estonians who had ended up abroad with the second wave did not have that chance for political reasons. That’s why in the West, a search for opportunities to print Estonian schoolbooks and reference books for schoolchildren started immediately after the war. As the economic standing improved, community publishing houses were established and besides educational materials, other types of literature were printed as well, including new editions of books published before the war and original literary works. In fact, until the second half of the 1950’s there were more books in Estonian published abroad than there were in Estonia. Many Estonian writers escaped to the West during the war, and their influence on the publishing activities was significant.
As could be expected, an active cultural life persisted among the foreign Estonian communities, such as what they had been used to earlier in Estonia. In addition to choirs, theatre companies and orchestras, a number of new hobby groups were established.
The main connecting link for the communities of the third migration wave is the internet (see Figure 2.1.7) and the digital communications based on it. Virtual environments function first of all as information banks where one can give and get help in the mother tongue about life in the new country, but they are also an important means of establishing and maintaining relationships with compatriots abroad. Web communities are important in various stages of migration. They may include people interested in migration, people who have just arrived, those that have been living in another country for some time and also Estonians who came with the previous wave. Therefore, social media pages can be considered the most extensive environments for bringing together communities abroad, and a kind of proof of the existence of Estonians in an open world.
In principle, a homepage is an information bank reflecting the activities of Estonians in each country, with references to community activities and practical information about moving to a country and the way life is organised there. More detailed homepages may also contain information about the history and main events of Estonians in a particular country, sometimes illustrated by image galleries.
Church is of little importance for third wave emigrants. Although Estonian congregations still exist, church has lost the importance it used to have in the community culture of earlier migration waves. Another thing that can be noticed over the last two decades is the decreasing activity of nationalism-based associations and congregations in the foreign Estonian communities, compared to the level of associations from the time of the first wave. On the one hand, this is a result of the aging of the Estonian community from the second wave, and on the other hand the people who make up the third wave tend to be less interested in community activities. The fact that people maintain their connection with Estonia may be a reason why activities focused on culture production are decreasing. There are programs aimed at introducing Estonian culture worldwide, and these programs take Estonian theatre performances, concerts and exhibitions to the foreign communities.
Another source for the culture from ‘back home’ are the web broadcasts of Estonia’s Public Broadcasting Service, as well as other internet platforms publishing news about cultural life. The Estonians who moved abroad with the third wave are still within the information area of Estonian news and read web-based newspapers regularly. E-services, including e-elections are also making it possible for Estonians abroad to participate actively in their homeland’s social life. Instead of joint amateur culture activities, the communal life of the third wave has mostly been reduced to celebrating national holidays together and keeping up the cultural traditions. The cultural education of children and youth is still a priority, expressed in creating an Estonian cultural sphere and providing communication possibilities in Estonian outside the home.
Keeping and developing the Estonian skills of Estonian children living abroad is still the most important thing, just like it was with the first and second waves. For instance, hobby groups for little children are very important for the communities of Estonians who moved abroad with the third migration wave. The most popular ones include groups for singing and language practice as well as general toddlers’ groups. It is the groups for toddlers that have formed the basis of Estonian supplementary schooling in the last decade.
As the children reach school age, a need appears for cultural education in the mother tongue for this age group as well. Estonian-language supplementary schools, the so-called Sunday schools offering lessons a few times per month are the most common in foreign communities. There are also bilingual schools providing education in the mother tongue (e.g. the Latokartano primary school in Helsinki) as well as European schools and a few Estonian general education schools (the Estonian School in Stockholm). The Global School of the Association of Education in Estonian is an interesting venture providing children outside of Estonia with an opportunity to participate in Estonian e-courses. The courses are based on Estonian study curricula and they offer the children of Estonians abroad a chance to participate in the education program of the homeland. This in turn supports integration into a transnational way of life, i.e. children are taught to live in two places at once since a very early age.
The homepages of Estonian schools abroad also function as valuable study environments. They offer reading materials in Estonian, links to cultural events in Estonia, newspaper articles, etc. As with earlier emigration waves, we can still see the importance of schools in the communities of Estonians living abroad. Schools are often the meeting places for local Estonians and the hubs of social networking. The Dutch Estonian School is a great example, offering not just education in Estonian, but also organising events that are important for Estonian culture, like the celebration of Midsummer’s Eve and festivities on the Anniversary of the Estonian Republic.
While conducting research for this article, the author discovered a new version of the saying that is often used to describe Estonians: ‘Two Estonians, three churches’ - now after the Second World War the maxim has morphed into: ‘Two Estonians, three central organisations.’ In a few years from now will Estonians characterise themselves by saying ‘Two Estonians, three Internet communities’?
Looking at the back-and-forth movement of Estonians, we see that migration is a process extending over centuries, not always aimed at permanently settling down abroad. At the end of 2015, there were 1.3 million inhabitants of Estonia and at least another 150,000 Estonians scattered worldwide. The total size of the communities in the East and West has also been estimated at 200,000 persons.
Describing and comparing the three migration waves of Estonians, what stands out is a similarity between the first and the third wave concerning first of all the causes of emigration, but also the factors supporting it. The main vehicles for migration are economic by nature in both cases, the leavers tend to be people in active working age who retain close connections with their homeland despite living abroad. Education for the children in the mother tongue has been equally important in both cases, as is the carrying on of Estonian culture, and participation in it.
At those times just like today, emigration was facilitated by a number of bureaucratic factors as well as developments in transportation. For example, just as the first emigration wave was supported by the Passport Law and the support Russia’s central government offered to settlers, the third wave got a strong push from the expansion to Estonia of the Schengen visa-free zone and the accession to the European Union. The first migration wave to the East was stimulated by the newly-established Tallinn-St Petersburg and trans-Siberian railway lines; today it is the ferry and flight traffic between Estonia, Finland and Sweden that makes travelling easy.
Analyses of migration patterns shows clearly that when leaving, Estonians have always taken their language, culture (first of all their songs and dances) as well as their traditions with them and kept them alive for generations. We also saw that a connecting link that joins the members of the national communities develops in every migration wave. For the first wave, it was the church, for the second, associations and organisations played the role, and for the third wave, virtual space has become the connector of the community. It is especially clearly visible today that the foreign communities use the internet, active cultural relations and personal networks to keep in touch with the homeland. A large portion of the emigrants of the last wave also actively communicate with Estonians within the local community. Another common characteristic of the three waves is the importance of maintaining one’s Estonian identity, regardless of the causes for emigration.
People who have lived abroad have obtained a lot of valuable experience there and they would probably be ready to apply it in their homeland if the conditions were favourable for this. Based on the experience from the first and second waves, we can say that Estonians living abroad are also a human resource on standby, ready to return to Estonia and apply their knowledge to the development of life here when suitable circumstances appear.
However, Estonia will have to change before re-migration picks up - our salary systems and public social guarantees will have to reach Western European levels. Estonia will also have to be able to offer jobs to Estonians living abroad that meet their education and their skills.
Estonian communities all over the world are a sign of the opportunities provided by today’s open world and a transnational Estonian identity. The Estonian communities that were formed during the first and second waves, however, will not turn into transnational communities overnight. The process of transition from communities to a transnational Estonia is happening right now. The Estonians scattered all over the globe today form a Big-Estonia in today’s open world.
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