The chapter’s three main messages

  1. The Constitution provides that the preservation and development of Estonian culture is one of the primary goals of the Estonian state. A goal that is quite often interpreted rather strictly at the state level, mostly in the form of state support that is exclusively for professional and folk culture. In today’s open world however, where ideas and people are increasingly migrating into and out of Estonia, Estonian culture requires a much broader view. It’s handling as a comprehensive system for meaning-formation, which encompasses everything about how the people of Estonia understand themselves and give meaning to others, is important. The more means and opportunities we have for meaning-formation, the better we are able to cope with the rapidly changing world, and the more viable and attractive Estonian culture is.
  2. The modern world is characterised by close interconnectivity and active cultural communication, which sets a big task for a small and open culture such as Estonia’s. The question becomes how to diversify the cultural experience of the Estonian people, increase our ability to communicate culturally, and to develop suitable methods of cultural expression and new cultural languages for the digital age. At the same time, it is important to develop our capability for cultural self-analysis, to acquire knowledge about Estonian culture and other cultures, in other words, to increase everyone’s general cultural literacy.
  3. Digital culture is playing an increasingly important role in the development of education, participatory culture, cultural heritage, and other fields. As a result, we must pay more attention and provide greater support to digital culture at the state level in order to maintain e-Estonia’s current level of success and take better advantage of the new opportunities offered by digital technology. Similarly to state e-services, the digitalisation of culture creates better opportunities for the successful functioning of a transnational Estonia. To ensure a leap in development, it is necessary to systematically develop the field of digital culture and to consolidate the current knowledge and experts at the state level.

The Framework

The Estonian state defines itself constitutionally as the preserver of the language and culture of Estonia. Therefore, a comprehensive analysis of the development of, and changes to the state inevitably require an examination of cultural changes and developments; keeping in mind that culture is an ambiguous term, which itself has changed over time (see Raud 2013, Tamm 2016). In this chapter, cultural changes within Estonia over the past couple of decades have been interpreted in the broadest sense of the term. Achievements involving the fine arts or shifts in cultural consumption are not the focus; instead, the goal is to sift through changes in the meaning-formation processes, how we as Estonians define ourselves culturally, what we remember about our past, and how we make sense of the other cultures and the things that surround us.

Here, the basic premise proceeds from the idea that human beings are a meaning-seeking species who are destined to create, mediate, and interpret meanings in their everyday life; that humans are not only the residents of a physical, but also of a symbolic universe. German philosopher Ernst Cassirer has written to the point: “Language, myth, art, and religion are parts of this universe. They are varied threads which weave the symbolic net of the tangled web of human experience. All human progress in thought and experience refines upon and strengthens this net.” (Cassirer [1944] 1954: 43) This “symbolic net” that surrounds people, both individually and as members of society, is a common space for meaning-formation, which creates opportunities for defining oneself, identifying with others and communicating with them, it never stands still, but is instead constantly changing. The pace of change largely depends on the level of the culture’s openness and the changes in the external environment.

In the wake of the general development of the world, large and rapid changes have taken place over the last quarter century in Estonian culture. One of the most important being the explosive growth in the volume of cultural exchanges and transfers. This process has been amplified by globalisation, in particular by the ever increasing interconnectivity of the world due to the progress of information technology. Over the last few years, the circulation of new ideas, forms and inventions across borders has been supplemented by the extensive migration of people, which has provided a basis for discussing the arrival of the global age of migration. As a small, open culture, Estonia is subject to a number of very different influences in terms of the circulation of ideas, things and people, which to a greater or lesser degree are reshaping our current cultural environment. To top it all off, the incredibly rapid development of digital technology has resulted in the elimination of a significant portion of the borders that allowed culture to define itself spatially. Meaning-formation in the digital age differs in several ways from the previous age; it is possible to simultaneously activate an extensive amount of cultural data (digitised cultural heritage) as well as to participate in cross-cultural meaning-formation practices (the Internet and its opportunities).

To help make sense of the cultural changes in Estonia, we can find support from the tradition of the semiotic theory of culture developed in the Tartu-Moscow school. From a semiotic perspective, culture can be regarded as a multilingual system of meaning-formation, in which cultural languages exist alongside the natural languages on which they are based (Lotman 1990, 2002). Language, from a semiotic point of view, is not only a tool of communication, but is a sign system that shapes and models the world. Just as human language (national language) shapes its surroundings in a certain, specific manner by supplying it with different meanings, cultural languages do the same thing (including the languages of art, literature, film, etc.). The changing of cultural languages, and their new relationships, brings along the transformation of our worldview and new ways for understanding our surroundings and ourselves. At the same time, changes in cultural languages rarely mean that one language is replacing another; rather, it involves taking a look at the previous relationships and how the new ways of interconnectedness are developing.

Taking the extent and radical nature of Estonia’s cultural changes over the past few decades into consideration, an exhaustive analysis is not feasible here. As such, a deliberate choice has been made for the qualitative study of specific questions, departing from the principle that a more in-depth examination of the individual parts also allows for conclusions to be drawn about the whole. The main goal is understanding and, with the help of select examples, making sense of the more important cultural changes that have taken place in post-Soviet Estonia, paying particular attention to the changes resulting from the rapid opening of society, innovations in information technology, and the growth of foreign influence. It could be reasonably argued that the rapid cultural changes over the last couple of decades are making Estonia a “useful laboratory”, where significant cultural-theoretical topics could be further tested and developed on the dynamics of self-description, the relationship between “self” and “other”, the rising and interconnecting of new cultural languages, as well as the transformation of cultural memory, the renewal of means of meaning-formation, etc.

Summary of articles

Juri Lotman teaches that a culture possesses the innate ability for self-description, which permits a culture to create models of itself and enter into its memory a concept of itself as a whole (Lotman 1999: 42). The “Estonian culture” is not something given or stable; instead, we all create that culture through our daily actions, including through new cultural self-descriptions.

In the chapter’s first article, “Evolving self-descriptions of Estonian culture”, Tõnu Viik analyses cultural definitions circulating among the Estonian public, the relationships between them and changes over time, focusing in particular on how to understand the dilemma of the openness and closeness of Estonian culture. While preserving and developing Estonian culture is a constitutional principle, there is no consensus regarding what should be considered Estonian culture. Thus, the article points out the incompatibility between the current definitions of culture found within official documents, the treatment of culture within the often all too narrow meaning of a professional artistic creation, and not (in a constitutional perspective) as a manner of behaviour and thinking that is unique to Estonians. However, Estonia’s goal should be, namely, the general development of its cultural environment, increasing the means and opportunities for meaning-formation, not simply supporting professional creative work and folk culture.

Our attitudes towards strangers, how we make sense of our past, how we adapt to new technologies, and how we participate in public life – all these practices shape the nature of our cultural environment. The duration and diversity of meaning-formation practices is one of the most important indicators of human development, yet has frequently been relegated to the background in analyses to date. The broader the opportunities of meaning-formation - in order to actively and adequately communicate with other people - cultures, and the changing world around us are, the stronger the Estonian culture is. As a small open culture, the increasing of the ability to translate and interpret, the valorisation of cultural transfers and the development of the capacity for dialogue are very important for Estonia.

In the article “The change and identity of Estonian languages of culture”, Peeter Torop examines the identity and dynamics of Estonia’s cultural languages on the axis of “self” and “other” as well as cultural communication and its relationship to outside influences. As part of the open world, the preservation of Estonia’s cultural identity requires a functioning national and international cultural dialogue. If the dialogue between peoples from different cultures does not function, and mutual understanding is limited, then the result is cultural conflicts, especially in the current age of migration. The article underlines that understanding other cultures requires cultural self-understanding, as well as the ability to describe and analyse oneself. The internal dialogue and openness of Estonia’s culture to the outside is hindered by the insufficient assessment and teaching of cultural criticism, and meagre cultural literacy, which in turn is associated with the low value placed on the humanities in general education. At a time when simpler tasks are increasingly being assigned to robots, the labour market requires people who are more creative and possess the knowledge of other languages and cultures.

Estonian companies are becoming increasingly multinational, which requires better and more extensive cross-cultural communication skills on the part of entrepreneurs as well as employees. The rapid development of cultural language and communication has thus far not been supported by an equally rapid development of critical feedback and cultural analysis. As a result, Estonia’s cultural development may be slowed by the lack of an ability to make one understandable to oneself, including consciously shaping one’s future. One of the challenges facing modern-day Estonia is how to diversify one’s cultural experience, improve the ability to communicate culturally, and develop new languages of culture, while at the same time promoting the capacity for cultural self-analysis, as well as increasing the knowledge of cultural experts and the general cultural literacy of all members of society.

In the third article of the chapter “Transnationalisation of the Estonian memory culture”, Eneken Laanes addresses the changes in Estonian cultural memory based on the example of specific films and works of art, placing the focus on the opening of Estonian cultural memory due to global changes. The article points out the problems that accompany a lack of cultural literacy in the open society, be it related to the holocaust or the current migrant crisis in Europe. It is well known that a culture’s ability to remember, record, and process different types of meaningful information helps to ensure the consistency and coherence of the culture. “In that regard, the cultural space can be defined as a kind of common memory space, e.g. a space, within the confines of which some common texts may be preserved and actualised”, as Juri Lotman has written (2013: 1731).

The most important media for cultural memory are literature, film, art, architecture, and writing of and on history. The study of the logic of cultural memory and subsequent changes to it provides the opportunity to understand why some past events attract attention and valuation in culture, while others do not. As indicated in the article, the recent layers of Estonian cultural memory, especially in connection with the traumatic events of the 20th century – such as deportations and imprisonment – are characterised by an outwards direction, with attempts having been made in different ways to translate the tragic experiences of the past into something that can be understood by the wider world. This shift has been supported by global changes in memory culture across ethnic nationalities, primarily through a greater emphasis on the commemoration of victims and crimes against humanity, be it Estonians fleeing to the west in 1944 or the civil war currently taking place in Syria, which has led to today’s European refugee crisis.

The mutual understanding of memory traumas is the basis for communication between people of different origins. During the course of this shift, interacting with other transnational forms of memory, Estonia’s cultural memory has acquired a new nature: its centre has shifted from emphasising resistance and heroism to the suffering of the individual, caused by deportations and other forms of repression. The very last development that can be cited is the new directing of cultural memory inwards – the growing interest and need to make sense of the internal problems in Estonian society in a global context, including human suffering related to the refugee crisis. The most recent challenge that has arisen is the need to enrich Estonia’s cultural memory with the memories of different cultural and ethnic communities, to create new and diverse opportunities for dialogue on the basis of different experiences from the past, cultural languages, and the communication between cultures.

In the fourth article “Estonian digital culture policies in international space: development and barriers”, the focus of attention is on the digitalisation of Estonian culture as the central cultural change that has occurred over the last few years. As Indrek Ibrus demonstrates in the article, the arrival of the digital age has created entirely new perspectives for the development of cultural memory. As in the still foreseeable future the plan is to digitise as much as Estonia’s cultural heritage as possible, the actuality of doing so will make it conveniently available to everyone while also opening it up for new interpretations and further development. The influence of the digital revolution on the opportunities and means for meaning-formation practices, however, is of course greater and more profound than simply valorising cultural heritage and ensuring access to it.

By its very nature digital culture is a cross-border phenomenon, as a result of which it could contribute to the expansion of Estonia’s cultural space and support the virtual meaning-formation and identity making practices for Estonian language diaspora communities. In the same way, digital culture can help in diversifying a culture’s forms of expression, the intertwining of cultural languages, the synthesising of texts, sounds and pictures, increasing opportunities for participatory culture, and expanding opportunities for the distribution of cultural products, etc. However, as the article shows, digital culture options at the state level require greater attention and awareness.

It is likely that the digital revolution in the field of culture has been so fast and extensive that state plans and policies have simply been unable to keep pace. The opportunities that a digital culture offers education, the creative industry, cultural heritage, and participatory culture, etc., are still awaiting use and development in Estonia, especially in a meaningful cooperation between the state and the private sector. The first step is bringing together the relevant competencies, establishing a development centre for a digital culture that would allow for the systematic and knowledge based development of the field. It is important to participate in European Union discussions, and to ensure that developing the digital common market will also ensure cultural diversity and the access to cultural services in small countries such as Estonia.

In the fifth article of the chapter “Emigration and the changing meaning of Estonian rural life”, Aet Annist analyses the change in meaning of the social peripheries through the eyes of the people living in rural areas and its connection to emigration by Estonians. Rapid changes in society over the past few decades have played around with social roles, given new meaning to the relationships between rural and city life, as well as the relationships between Estonians at home and abroad. Following the restoration of independence, the attitude towards rural life changed completely within Estonia’s landscape of meaning. The transition to a free market economy had a negative effect on outlying areas and the situation did not change for the better with the implemented regional policy measures. Therefore, rural residents feel “symbolically dispossessed” of the positive changes and developments in Estonia, the most obvious result of which is that over the last few years nearly twice as many people from rural areas have migrated abroad as people from the city.

According to the article, the reasons for the migration should be sought not only among socio-economic factors but also in the transformation of the meanings associated with the living environments of people, the consequence of which is the desire to improve one’s symbolic position through migration. Migration has offered the opportunity to associate one’s life with places that have a positive meaning, even if on the social front people’s standard of living abroad has not necessarily improved. The world is changing and the image of immigrants in several European countries, especially the United Kingdom where the author of the article gathered research material, have been negatively impacted. The decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, which was taken during the writing of the Human Development Report, does a good job of characterising the change in the attitude towards immigrants. As such, a threat is developing that many of the people who have migrated from Estonia will be standing face to face with a new “symbolic dispossession” of negative labelling. Estonia is faced with the challenge of how to become a place that is able to value the experiences of migrants in the broadest extent possible and be sufficiently attractive to make the negative migration balance the positive.


Following the restoration of independence and the “return to the West” (Lauristin et al. 1997) Estonia has increasingly integrated into the broader world, which has in turn, over the last few years, become increasingly interwoven and concentrated, above all, due to information technology, economic changes, and the arrival of the age of migration. In this dual level process, that was previously entrenched cultural beliefs, the meaningful relationships between “self” and “other”, new and old, past and future, rural and urban in Estonia have changed very quickly. In this chapter of the Human Development Report, those transformations in the meaning-formation practices are referred to as “cultural changes” and analysed from five specific perspectives.

If we are looking for an in-depth understanding of the changes in Estonian human development, then there is no escaping the explanation of the most important changes in meaning-formation processes. It can be seen, through the chapter’s articles, that over the last couple of decades a change has taken place in how we as Estonians define ourselves culturally, how we interact with other cultures, what the relationship is between cultural languages, how we remember our past, what the meanings we give to rural life, urban life or life abroad are. The discussion of all of these very different topics shows how important it is to improve our cultural literacy and ability to communicate, not only in the strict sense of preserving Estonia’s culture, but more broadly in terms of supporting social coherence, a transnational lifestyle, cross-border economics and the development of technology.

As a small open culture, it is of vital importance that Estonia is able to adequately respond to the new challenges offered by the modern world, while at the same time preserving the awareness of one’s cultural peculiarities as well as continuity. Clearly referenced within the chapter’s articles is the fact that the sustainability of each culture and its capability for dialogue depends on the ability of the culture to understand itself, its inner confidence, and the diversity of the means and opportunities for meaning-formation. The Estonian culture needs a policy in which, next to support to professional and folk culture, a contribution is also made to sustaining the analysis of culture (cultural expert knowledge), the systematic development of new opportunities for meaning-formation (digital culture), the growth of cultural diversity and the capability for dialogue.

Any sort of cultural analysis, including the chapter herein covering the changes in Estonian culture, is simultaneously a self-analysis of culture; part of the so-called auto-communication of culture (Lotman 1973). Peeter Torop (2011:8) has succinctly outlined the importance of cultural analysis to the development of society: “A culture can only understand itself through continuous self-description and ceaseless self-interpretation. One of the missions of the humanities and social sciences as feedback sciences is to ensure that the culture possesses the ability for cultural self-understanding. Without the ability for self-understanding, the culture would lack an identity, and without an identity, it is difficult to create a dialogue with the surrounding world, other cultures – to be at the same time capable of dialogue and mentally independent.” This chapter can be considered to have fulfilled its objective, if it helps even a little bit to improve the (self)understanding of Estonian culture, and the greater capacity for dialogue in a rapidly changing world.


Cassirer, E. (1954). Essay on Man. An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture. New York: Doubleday.

Lauristin, M., Vihalemm, P., Rosengren, K. E., Weibull, L. (eds.) (1997). Return to the Western World: Cultural and Political Perspectives on the Estonian Post-Communist Transition. Tartu: Tartu University Press.

Lotman, J. (1973) – Ю. М. Лотман, О двух моделях коммуникации в системе культуры. – Труды по знаковым системам 6, 227–243.

Lotman, J. (1990). Kulturisemiootika. Tekst – kirjandus – kultuur. Tallinn: Olion.

Lotman, J. (1999). Semiosfäärist. Tallinn: Vagabund.

Lotman, J. (2002). Kultuuri fenomen. – Akadeemia, 12, pp. 2644–2660.

Lotman, J. (2013). Mälu kulturoloogilises valguses. – Akadeemia, 10: 1731–1735.

Raud, R. (2013). Mis on kultuur? Sissejuhatus kultuuriteooriatesse. Tallinn: Tallinna Ülikooli Kirjastus.

Tamm, M. (koost.) (2016). Kuidas uurida kultuuri? Kultuuriteaduste metodoloogia. Tallinn: Tallinna Ülikooli Kirjastus.

Torop, P. (2011). Tõlge ja kultuur. Tartu, Tallinn: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus.