Day 21 - Tallinn (EE)

Then came World War I and the Russian Revolution and on February 24 1918, Estonia took advantage of the weakening Bolsheviks and proclaimed independence. The next day German troops occupied Estonia but this was short lived and when Germany lost the war, Estonia became independent until World War II.

Independence Day in Estonia is a national holiday and commemorates the Estonian Declaration of Independence which was published in the capital city Tallinn on 24 February 1918. The country then became the Republic of Estonia.

More aggression was to come in the form of the Estonian War of Independence or the Estonian Liberation War. The Red Army invaded the Estonian border town of Narva on November 28, 1918 marking the start of the war with the help of its allies, most notably the United Kingdom, Estonia eventually won and finally became completely independent of Russia in the 1920 Treaty of Tartu

In Freedom Square is the monument to the War of Independence and over the years, the square has gone by many names: Heinaturg (Hay Market), Peetri Plats (Peter’s Square), and Võiduväljak (Victory Square) among them. It was first named Freedom Square in 1939, remaining so way until 1948. The name was readopted in 1989.


The Soviets occupied the city in the summer of 1940 and then on 28th August 1941, German troops took the city.  In the night of March 9th to March 10th Tallinn was bombed by the Soviet army - more than 500 civilians were killed and 5073 buildings destroyed or damaged and yet most of the valuable old town of Tallinn was preserved. The Soviet army occupied Tallinn again on September 23, 1944.

Cold War facts

Hotel Viru is a Soviet hotel built in 1972 and where foreign dignitaries and journalist stayed. They were wined and dined on the 22nd floor in Tallinn’s finest restaurant but no foreign visitors knew that there was a 23rd floor. There was no lift to this floor, just a short flight of stairs, leading up to an invisible floor and rooms where KGB officers would sit each day, intercepting radio waves from Helsinki and sending cables to Moscow.

It was also where information from the 60 or so hotel rooms that were routinely bugged would be processed. Transmitters were even attached to the underside of dinner plates and ashtrays. In the old town there was also the feared KGB headquarters. The Soviets even used St Olaf's Church and its spire (highest point in Tallinn) as their main radio and TV-jamming station. When the authorities turned the St Olaf’s jamming station on, it was so powerful that it briefly blocked the reception in Helsinki itself. 

The Estonian Song Celebration (Laulupidu) is a unique event, which every five years brings together a huge choir of 25,000 people for a weekend in July. More than 100,000 spectators enjoy the concerts and sing along to the most popular songs.

The first Estonian Song Celebration was held in Tartu with 878 male singers and brass musicians. Choral singing remained the only cultural activity conducted in Estonian, as the Russian emperor required all official matters and education to be handled in Russian.

Twice the song celebrations have led to Estonia’s independence:

  • In the 19th century, the choirs and song celebrations were at the core of the national awakening of Estonian peasants, who discovered the value of their own language and cultural heritage through singing. The national awakening and establishment of identity led to Estonian independence in 1918.
  • After WWII, during the Soviet occupation, the song celebrations helped keep the national identity alive. In 1988, several hundred thousand people gathered at the Song Festival grounds and sang for freedom for many days and nights. The Singing Revolution indirectly helped end the Soviet rule.

After 47 years of Soviet occupation, Estonia declared formal independence during the Soviet military coup attempt in Moscow and on the evening of 20 August 1991, Estonian politicians declared the nation’s independence. Soviet tanks started then rolling through the countryside to quell the independence movement but ordinary Estonian people surrounded the TV tower and members of the Estonian Defence League were ready to protect the strategically important buildings, such as the parliament at Toompea and the Estonian Public Broadcasting facilities. Luckily for Estonia, the attempted coup d’état in Moscow failed and the more liberal forces, led by the leader of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, Boris Yeltsin, regained power, starting the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Estonia was finally free again.