Identity, including national identity, can be studied through various research traditions and methods; it is a topic for historians, ethnologists, linguists, and psychologists. Identity is an emotional topic for people related to giving meaning to and evaluating their past, origin and continuity: in essence, connecting yesterday, today and tomorrow. Identity is also changing and changeable; it can be influenced by personal life events, education, and media, but also by political manipulation. All of this makes identity a complex object of study, which is not easy to define unequivocally. In this article, I will use the definition of social identity (Tajfel 1981: 225) which, if developed further, could sound like this: National identity is a part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from his/her knowledge of his/her membership of a national group together with the value and emotional significance attached to the membership. In other words, national identity is an answer to the question “who am I by national belonging”, and to answer it, one has to consider, why is it important, what is it good to be like, and who are other people. These subjects are all in focus when we answer the questions raised in this article: How has national identity changed for Estonians living in Estonia, and abroad during the last 20 years? What did ‘being Estonian’ mean to the different generations in Estonia 20 years ago and what does it mean now? Where does Estonian identity lie in relation to other narrower and broader regional group affiliations?


Ethnic pride and belonging (shortly ‘ethnic pride’) are measured by agreement with statements like “I respect the traditions of my ethnic group”, and ethnic differentiation with statements like “It is more pleasant to communicate with people who have the same origin as myself”.

State pride is measured by agreement with statements like “I am proud that Estonia is known as a successful small country”, and multicultural (Estonian) identity with statements like “In my opinion someone cannot simultaneously be a representative of Estonian and of some other culture.” (inverted) and “It does not disturb me that people of different origin live in Estonia”.

In the original version of the work, we use capitalisation to differentiate between ‘Eestlane’, a person connected to the state of Estonia from ‘eestlane’, which is a narrower concept.

This article focuses on the national identity of Estonia, which for ethnic Estonians is a mix of ethnic and state identities. However, we have distinguished between the ethnic and state identities in earlier studies (see e.g. Valk, Karu 2001, Valk et al 2011), the former describes a certain ethnic group, while the latter should be attainable for various ethnic groups living in one state. To explicate the reasons for open and closed nationalism and the changes happening to identity, we have (Valk, Karu 2001) further distinguished two parts of ethnic identity: (1) Ethnic pride and belonging and (2) ethnic differentiation. The former is related to positive phenomena only, like higher subjective well-being and life-satisfaction while differentiation also relates to negative attitudes towards other groups. To denote the state identity that would be easy to appropriate for people of various ethnic backgrounds living in Estonia, we offered (Valk et al 2011) the term Estonian open identity with a subsection - state pride - which combines ethnic pride for ethnic Estonians, but is not so characteristic of other ethnic groups living here. Another subsection - multicultural (Estonian) identity - on the other hand is an understanding of Estonia and being Estonian - a person living in Estonia - that is more common for other groups.

A key question for the identity of Estonia as a small state and nation, is the change that is caused by other cultures and broader political factors – such as the occupation or the ascension to the European Union (EU). Therefore, a large part of identity studies is related to intergroup relations, multiculturalism, integration and other similar topics. Also important are the questions of differentiation from and/or opposition to others, threats to identity, and sharing different identities. In the 1999 Estonian Human Development Report (Kirch 1999), the main identity-related topic was related to the ascension to the EU and the threats related to it. The question was - “Will the new dimension added to the identity mean that old ones will start to blur or the other way round, will they emerge with a new quality; and what changes will the ascension to the EU bring to the not-clearly-developed identity of non-Estonians.” A 1998 study by Saar Poll referred to in the same report points out that when answering the question “Which region of Europe does Estonia belong to primarily?”, a clear majority of the respondents (60% of Estonians and 71% of non-Estonians) placed us into the Baltic region, with the second place being the Nordic region (27% and 20% respectively). Seven years later (and two years after joining the EU) - in 2006, Lauristin (2007) points out in the Human Development Report that there are not many of those who see the fading away of the nation and the disappearance of unique national characteristics as threat to the development of Estonia (22% and 12% of all respondents respectively). As shown in the present article, today, Europe is an opportunity, not a threat - also an opportunity to find common ground in the identity of Estonians and Russians living in Estonia - and the importance of being a Nordic country has risen to an equal level with the Baltic identity among young people.

Estonia’s integration policy in the last 20 years has mainly focused on teaching Estonian to the Russian community living here, and to the topics related to citizenship. There are positive results in both areas: Estonian language skills are much better among the younger (less than 30) non-native Estonian speakers than among those that are over 50 (Zabrodskaja, Kask 2017, this Report) and the number of people without Estonian citizenship has been declining slowly but steadily (Kallas 2017, this Report). At the same time, many Estonian Russians perceive integration policy as a pressure to assimilate, which does not produce a wish to assimilate or integrate but instead gives rise to a reactive identity (Vetik 2006) and decreases the feeling of belonging with the state.

The Estonian State and Ethnic Identity in Various Groups Earlier and at Present

In 1997, we studied the strength and meaning of identity of Estonians living at home and in abroad (specifically the 1944 refugees to Sweden and their descendants) with Kristel Karu (Valk & Karu 2000). The study showed that ethnic differentiation is more important for Estonians than it is for Estonians abroad. A study of young Estonians (Valk & Karu 2001) revealed the same: Ethnic differentiation is stronger among ethnic Estonians than among Estonian Russian youth. Both studies showed that ethnic pride was also significantly statistically stronger among Estonians than among Estonians abroad and Estonian Russians respectively, but this difference was small. Both pride and differentiation were stronger among older people, and ethnic differentiation was stronger among men. For homeland Estonians, ethnic pride was then related to differentiation, which shows that the ethnic identity was closed, i.e. that the feelings of pride and belonging were based on a sort of confrontation: The stronger the differentiation between oneself and others, the stronger the pride in one’s ethnic group. In the case of Estonian Russians and Estonians abroad, these two parts of identity were independent from each other.


The quantitative analysis is based on 1856 questionnaires on the topic “Music and Identity”, 955 of those have been collected from Estonian-Estonians (average age 28), 588 from Russians living in Estonia, and 310 from Estonians living outside of Estonia (partly supported by the Compatriots Program). We divided the Estonians abroad who participated in the survey into “old” (145 respondents) and “new” (160). The first group is comprised of Estonians who became refugees during the Second World War and their descendants (average age 40) and the second of Estonians who have settled abroad in the course of the last 20 years (average age 36). The Russian-speaking respondents were also divided into two, depending on their self-identification as either Russians or Estonian Russians. The latter made up around 1/3 of respondents and their responses to various identity-related questions were clearly distinguished from those of the “Russians”. The survey was supported by the SF0030068s08 grant to the Estonian Literary Museum.

Studying the same topic over approximately 10 years later (Valk, Karu-Kletter, & Drozdova 2011) among Estonians, Estonian Russians and Estonians abroad, one of the main changes that can be seen is the rise of ethnic differentiation among the so-called “old” Estonians abroad. Another trait that can be seen, is that compared to Estonians abroad and Estonian Russians, ethnic differentiation is no longer stronger among homeland Estonians than in other groups. Also, differentiation is no longer related to feelings of pride and belonging among Estonians (nor among other groups), which indicates that confrontation with others is no longer a prerequisite for considering oneself Estonian and being happy about it.

In addition to ethnic identity, we also studied cohesion with the Estonian state in 2011, distinguishing between state pride and multicultural (Estonian) identity. For Estonians at home as well as Estonians abroad, state pride and ethnic pride have approximately the same strength and are clearly correlated to each other, i.e. for Estonians, the Estonian state is largely a state of ethnic Estonians. It is very positive that among Russians, state pride is not confronted with ethnic pride: there is no correlation between these two among Russians and the correlation is even slightly positive among Estonian Russians. This shows that belonging to two groups simultaneously - Estonians and Russians - is possible. Ethnic differentiation is the strongest among the “old” Estonians abroad and the weakest among Estonian Russians. Across all groups, ethnic differentiation is in negative correlation with multicultural (Estonian) identity. In both groups of Russians, ethnic differentiation is also in negative correlation with state pride, indicating that a prerequisite for a strong belonging with the state is that no rigid lines should be drawn between ethnic groups. In the groups of Estonians, there is no correlation between these phenomena.

Looking at the division of the facets of state identity and ethnic identity across age groups, a fact that has been found in various earlier studies becomes evident: the feeling of pride and belonging (state as well as ethnic) grow stronger as a person gets older. This is true in almost all groups, only among the “old” Estonians abroad is ethnic identity - and among the “new” Estonians abroad and Estonian Russians, state identity - not related to age. The latter shows a positive tendency among the younger people who identify themselves as Estonian Russians, which is unfortunately not evident among those who identify themselves as Russians. Ethnic differentiation is in a positive correlation with age among Estonians and “old” Estonians abroad, i.e. it is weakest among young people. Multicultural (Estonian) identity is not unequivocally related to age.

Figure 4.5.1. Comparison of the facets of ethnic identity and state identity across five groups. Average results on a scale of -2 (unimportant, very weak) to +2 (important, very strong).

Sources: Valk, Karu-Kletter, Drozdova 2011; dataset from the project “Music and identity”.

Note: Russians –inhabitants of Estonia who self-identify themselves as Russians; Estonian Russians –inhabitants of Estonia who self-identify themselves as Estonian Russians.


Here, being from Estonia does not mean being of Estonian origin, it rather means that a person agrees with the statement “I like to say that I am from Estonia”.

In the same study (Valk et al 2011) we also tried to find parts in the Estonian state identity that would be common to Estonians, Estonian Russians, and Estonians abroad. Although the important topics for Estonians in the Estonian state identity (pride in the Estonian flag and history, in being from Estonia, affiliation with speakers of Estonian) are largely different from what is important to the Russians living here, we can still point out where there is more common ground. Among these are: Estonia’s nature, the image of a small and successful state, the importance of Estonian citizenship, and celebrating Estonian holidays, as well as most of the topics related to a multicultural state and people, like a simultaneous connection with Estonia and Europe or viewing the situation where a person belongs to several cultures as positive.

Looking for ways to bring Estonians and Estonian Russians together at an identity level (here, both Russian and Estonian Russian identifiers are looked at together), the state identity has to be mutually acceptable. Trying to understand what could be related to the development of the open Estonian identity, we carried out a number of linear regression analyses in various groups (see Table 4.5.1). For Estonians as well as Estonian Russians, the open Estonian identity is related to high ethnic pride and low ethnic differentiation, i.e. the development of a shared state identity is fostered by a feeling of pride in one’s heritage regardless of which it is, while ethnic belonging must not be based on confrontation with other ethnic groups. Open Estonian identity is also related to a higher life-satisfaction and a higher relevance of considering oneself European. In the case of Estonian Russians, open identity is further facilitated by Estonian language skills and a sense of unity with the speakers of Estonian and with the citizens of Estonia, while for Estonians it is a sense of unity with all people living in Estonia and with multicultural people. It can be said in conclusion that common ground between different ethnic groups in Estonia will grow if we maintain their various ethnic identities while not antagonising them with each other, if we consider ourselves Europeans, if we increase life satisfaction, and we speak Estonian.

A conclusion drawn from the results is that the identity of homeland Estonians has become more open over 20 years – and that pride in being Estonian no longer means a strong differentiation from other groups and preferring Estonians. There is a clearly distinguishable group of people among the Russians living in Estonia accounting for approximately 1/3, who identify themselves as Estonian Russians. Their ethnic pride in being Russian is in positive correlation with (Estonian) state pride. Alongside them, however, there are those who identify themselves as Russians and for whom ethnic differentiation is much stronger and state pride weaker. The challenge for Estonia is to develop a state identity that would not be related to a narrow Estonian ethnic identity and could be accepted by various groups connected with Estonia. Estonia’s nature, the image of a small and successful state, the importance of Estonian citizenship and celebrating Estonian holidays, also being European, are what should be focused on.

Changes in the Meaning of Being Estonian

Estonians have seen their identity as something where clear borders are emphasized, and have supported the constancy of identity, i.e. the birth-given nature of it - “I am an Estonian and I always will be, once I was created Estonian” as the popular song goes. Being an Estonian in Estonia has not been a choice of free will, but rather an inevitability - therefore something that one should not waste too much time thinking about. The ethnic identity of Estonians is closely intertwined with state identity, which makes it more complicated for people who come here, or people with a different ethnic background who are born here, to accept the state identity. Thanks to challenges related to emigration and return migration as well as integration in the society, the above-mentioned presumptions of identity have been increasingly questioned over the last decades.

In a comparison of identities of Estonians living at home and abroad conducted almost 20 years ago (Valk & Karu 2000, data collected in 1997) it appeared that for homeland Estonians, land was the first thing related to being Estonian - either Estonia as a whole or a plot at the home of the respondent or their parents. The language, standing up for independence, and being distinct from other nationalities were highlighted by the homeland Estonians as the next most important traits related to being Estonian. Among Estonians abroad, people (relatives, parents and friends), and the Estonian language were named first. To study changes in the meaning of identity, I sent the three central questions used in the interviews in 1997 to three generations (under 30, 30-59 and over 60) of homeland Estonians once again. For practical reasons, only homeland Estonians participated in the survey this time, unlike 20 years ago.

What does it mean to be Estonian?


Here and below, the respondents have been marked by their generation and gender: 1 - aged 60+, 2 - aged 30-59, 3 - aged up to 30; M - male, F - female.

First, we asked: “When you think about the fact that you are Estonian, what is the first thing that comes to mind in relation to being Estonian?” Exactly like the survey conducted in 1997, the land and the language were the first things that came to mind for homeland Estonians in relation to being Estonian. Third, were culture and various traditions. It is noteworthy that in relation to culture, there is no pervading phenomenon, activity or tradition that stands out as important to everyone. Among the examples named were Baltic herring, dark bread, and curd snacks, as well as Kalevipoeg, the cornflower, the swallow, the Song Festival and national costumes; as well as the sauna, Midsummer Eve, and in more general - literature, music, theatre, and also IT and education. Standing up for independence and confrontation with others, central topics in the late 1990’s, have lost importance these days. There were only a few respondents who mentioned them, and in a rather indirect manner: “The feeling of unity that was expressed during the occupation and found a special culmination during the days of the Singing Revolution” (M1); “… my life and destiny have rolled out in an environment where you would be kicked hard for sticking to Estonian, so hard that you would not be able to move for a couple of days” (M1); “… a very small nation that has been able to establish its own state twice” (M1). “The first thing that comes to mind is a perception of historical injustice that I felt travelling in Western Europe when I was younger. … Then I felt how we as Estonians do not belong to the old rich Europe, nor to the Soviet-mentality East Europeans (if there is such a thing at all). I felt that we as Estonians want to somehow antagonize both of these directions, we want to be in our own unique manner” (F1). Although the sample of respondents was very small, it is probably not a coincidence that the majority of people who brought this up were men of the older generation.

Speaking of generational differences, the question is certainly important whether and how the responses of the youngest generation of homeland Estonians differ from the others, as most of these people have grown up in independent Estonia. Has a shift taken place in the meaning of identity? The responses received do not show a significant change. The importance of land may be a bit less prioritized, as indicated for example in this response: I consider as a trait of being Estonian “speaking the Estonian language. And that’s it I guess. An Estonian can live anywhere in the world, eat anything he or she likes and..” (M3), but this is certainly not a pervading attitude among young people. One of the most classic interpretations of being Estonian also arises from the same generation, speaking of land, language, people and traditions: “The first things that come to mind in relation with being Estonian are Estonian land, the Estonian language and my family/relatives. I also think of the traditions of Estonians, like going to the sauna and owning a summer home in South Estonia.”

As mentioned above, grand state-related topics like fighting for independence and confrontation with others are losing ground in the Estonian identity compared to 20 years ago. At the same time, people (family, relatives, friends, random Estonians met somewhere in the world) and their specific nature (hardworking, peaceful and non-intrusive) - even if these contain negative traits (jealousy, success-focus, closed-ness) and feeling good amongst these people, are not things that were brought out by homeland Estonians earlier (1997), while they used to be prominent in the identity of Estonians abroad. Now, at least half of the homeland Estonians, most often by young people, mention it as an important point.

How important is it to be Estonian?

Another change that seems to have taken place in being Estonian during the last 20 years is a shift towards a more conscious and considered identity. According to homeland Estonians, nationality is no longer a given inevitability that you cannot choose. This has probably been facilitated by travelling as well as the migration and refugee issues of recent times, but not exclusively. A total of 2/3 of the homeland Estonians participating in the survey 20 years ago, as well as a part of the older generation of Estonians abroad saw being Estonian as a natural part of their life that cannot be changed and that they have not carefully thought it through for themselves. The question whether and why it is important to be Estonian usually received a vague answer: “No, I don’t know. Perhaps If I could have a choice in this matter, but it’s impossible, isn’t it” (1997, EM1). There were similar responses this time as well, for example: “It is not important for me. I cannot consider myself somebody else and I have never even thought about wanting to belong to a different nationality” (F1) or “I do not put special importance on being Estonian. It is a natural state for us, it was given to us when we were born and we have been carrying it with us throughout our lives” (F2)

Such responses formed a clear minority this time and something else has popped up next to them that is called achieved identity in the identity development theory - a well-considered, balanced image of one’s belonging(s). Remarkably, this consideration is based on various factors: the experience of living abroad, communications with other nationalities, studying one’s roots, and feeling the value of a free state. Various responses/reasons to the question “How important is it for you to know that you are an Estonian? Why is it important or not important?” are the following:

  1. In relation to having lived abroad: “The identity of being Estonian took first place in this list more often when I was living abroad. Over there, being Estonian was something that distinguished and united people in a group or in a situation. In Estonia, I don’t think about being Estonian to tell the truth. Probably, it is just something that I am, just as naturally as I speak the Estonian language without thinking how I learned to speak or use it as a child. Sometimes I felt that the saying “living abroad, you are more of an Estonian than you are living back home” was true in my case. Being away, I noticed that I knew more about the cultural life in Estonia than my friends living here” (F2).
  2. Because of communicating with other nationalities: “I consider nationality/cultural belonging still somewhat important in human relations, especially with others (i.e. people from another cultural space); it is first of all interesting and enriching, and at the same time knowing the nationality or origin of the other person helps to understand them somewhat better and maybe also to shape one’s own behaviour and to understand that of others” (F2).
  3. In relation to studying one’s roots, and feeling the continuity: “It is important for me to feel Estonian-ness through my roots, through history. For me, being Estonian is increasingly related to studying the life and activities of the forefathers. One of the most important places in Estonia is the birthplace of my forefathers, where there are trees growing that were planted by my grandfather, and houses that were built by my ancestors” (F2) or “It is very important for me. … He (my father) always said that this is the land of our forefathers and he was ready to die here, they did not want to leave. Out of respect towards my parents, I want to be and am an Estonian in Estonia. I am very happy with the fact that all three of my children have remained in Estonia, they have obtained an education here and they, as well as I, think they are good and successful people. While they have studied and lived in various places around the world, they have established their family and home in Estonia, as Estonians” (M1).
  4. Feeling the importance of a free state: “A free person in his or her own country/state - this knowledge is extremely important” (M1).

As stated above, an achieved/considered identity is more often achieved by those who live in several cultures simultaneously, which is also explicated by the better-considered identity of Estonians abroad 20 years ago. Unlike in the case of the Estonians abroad back then, who saw the sensing of the importance of their Estonian identity in the context of living in several cultures and having a choice of identity, the responses of present-day homeland Estonians were submitted by people who were clearly monocultural. Not one of the respondents doubted their self-identification as an Estonian or said that they have difficulties in deciding what their national belonging was. In addition to the reasons given above, there was also a more general perception of the importance of national identity and its central position in one’s self-image: “It is definitely important, because this is my only nationality and thus a pillar of my identity. If you take that away, not very much is left. I am of course comforted by the fact that it’s impossible to take it away; I can always carry it with me. Thus it is not an important aspect of being Estonian whether I live on Estonian soil or not” (M2).

The last response points at a topic that distinguished the younger generation from others in this question. There were no respondents among the young people who would have considered being Estonian very important, the “strongest” answer was “Of average importance” (F3).** At the same time, young people are not ashamed of being Estonians and they value different things about living here: “It is nice to live in Estonia - it’s relatively calm, there’s a lot of nature, a lot of opportunities for development” (F3), “… I can do more here (it’s easier) and my contribution is worth more (than it would be elsewhere)” (M3), “… the concept of declaring myself a citizen of the world is not alien to me. However, there is a big Estonian flag on the wall at my home” (M3), “… I like Estonian culture and being Estonian, and I’m definitely not ashamed of it, but neither do I see a reason to consider myself better than others because of my nationality” (M3). The last viewpoint, emphasizing the equality of nations and the importance of being a human being, and in a sense also of being a citizen of the world, can be seen in the responses of many young people, most clearly in this one: “I myself do not consider a specific citizenship or society important. A feeling of unity is more important. While I am an Estonian, I try to act and be like Estonians do, and should I move somewhere else, I would try to blend in with their culture and society. Cultures are different, but all people are equal” (M3).

Table 4.5.1. Factors Forming Estonian Open Identity

  Russian-speaking population Estonians
Self-reported Estonian language skills 0,05*  
Feeling of unity with Estonian-speakers 0,07**  
Estonian citizen (1 – yes, 0 – no) 0,03  
Feeling of unity with Estonian citizens 0,12***  
Feeling of unity with multicultural people   0,05***
Feeling of unity with all residents of Estonia   0,06***
Ethnic pride 0,12*** 0,23***
Ethnic differentiation –0,20*** –0,20***
Feeling of unity with Europeans 0,05* 0,01*
Age 0,01* 0
Satisfaction with life 0,06* 0,05**
Self-esteem 0 0
R2 0,47 0,37

*** statistically important at level p < 0.01; **important at level 0,01 ≤ p < 0.05; *Important at level 0,05 ≤ p < 0.1

Note: Parameters that varied sufficiently between various groups and did not overlap have been included in the analysis. Therefore, language skills and citizenship have been left out for Estonians as well as the feeling of unity related to them, and other categories have been selected to replace them.

In sum the Estonian identity is no more or less important for homeland Estonians than it was 20 years ago. The most significant change is that there are more people among homeland Estonians now for whom nationality is not an absolute and a given, but rather something dependent on context. This may be more important for those living abroad or who have contacts with other cultures. Young people consider it important to value being Estonian, but also to stress the equality of different nationalities.

Who are Estonians?


“Kevade” (Spring) and “Suvi” (Summer) are classical texts by Estonian author Oskar Luts. “Siin me oleme” (Here we are) and “Mehed ei nuta” (Men don’t cry) are well-known Estonian comedies.

No significant changes can be discerned over the last 20 years in the criteria for being Estonian (“What is it that makes an Estonian, Estonian? Whom do you consider an Estonian?). Just like 20 years ago, the most important criterion is still language skills, which do not have to be perfect, but “an Estonian [should] speak Estonian, at least to some extent” (F2). In connection with language skills, the role of the command of the language as a key to understanding Estonian culture and Estonians themselves was stressed repeatedly: “For me an Estonian is someone who speaks Estonian well enough to be acquainted with our core texts and who understands expressions that we all know from the books “Kevade” and “Suvi”, from the films “Siin me oleme”, “Mehed ei nuta” (F2). After language skills, the next most important criteria mentioned were knowledge of/interest towards the culture and self-determination as Estonian. One-third of the respondents emphasized the importance of origin as a determining factor of Estonian-ness; and a similar amount stressed shared behaviours or ways of thinking (“who thinks in Estonian” (M1), “understanding a lot of things without explanation” (F1)). And the idea that it cannot always be expressed in words: “Being Estonian cannot always be expressed in words, but it sometimes offers moments of recognition, like, yes, exactly, that’s so Estonian!” (F2). Surprisingly little attention is paid to living here when defining the essence of Estonian-ness, only every sixth respondent mentioned it, and even then quite softly: I consider Estonians “everyone, for whom Estonia is the most important, own place” (M1). This is a good reflection of today’s reality where people travel to and from Estonia, and one’s place of living can be a much more temporary thing than a sense of identity. There were no differences between age groups in this.

In light of the discussions of recent years, the issue of skin colour was mentioned several times when talking about this topic. The prevalent view was that skin colour does not determine nationality: “White skin colour is definitely not a determining factor of being Estonian” (M2); “A black Muslim living in Viljandi and speaking Estonian is an Estonian in my eyes, while a white person on the market of Viljandi speaking Russian does not qualify as an Estonian to my mind” (M1). “I find that it is everyone’s deeply personal choice whether they consider themselves Estonian or not. The person’s skin colour, birthplace, or the origin of their parents is not a determining factor in my view. Maybe it’s only the language that counts and determines” (F2). However, there were also more hesitant approaches to this topic: “I confess that I would be at a loss internally with seeing a person as an Estonian, even if they speak perfect Estonian, but are clearly not from Estonia and neither are their parents - for example a black person (with no Estonian forebears) but brought up here. They would qualify in some kind of “grey zone” for me; I would not be able to define them” (F2).

We can say, in conclusion, that looking at this picture we seem to be very close to an open nationalism, which does not set limits purely on the basis of skin colour, parents’ origin, birthplace or some other very limiting factor. In order to be accepted as Estonian by Estonians, one has to speak (some) Estonian and use it to participate in the culture, and one has to want to be Estonian. The latter is definitely a critical condition. This picture may have emerged partly thanks to so-called social desirability, i.e. as a result of trying to provide the “right” answers, although the questionnaires were anonymous. Maybe social norms had not yet formed on this topic 20 years ago. Remarkably, a wide scale of definitions about being Estonian were produced. For example, it was demonstrated that one can be Estonian in a wide variety of ways, places and degrees: “In one end of the scale of Estonians, there could be a person living in Estonia who has Estonian citizenship, speaks Estonian, knows and values Estonian culture, nature and life, and in the other end there could be a person who also considers themselves Estonian (among other identities) and values Estonian-ness in some respect (e.g. an Englishman who has learned to prepare meat jelly from his daughter-in-law and offers it with pride to his English friends, or a person born and living on the Caribbean Islands who keeps an eye on the doings of Estonian skiers and considers himself a fan of Estonia because of that)” (F2). Asking the same questions 20 years ago, we did not receive such answers, the group of persons who would qualify as Estonians was clearly much narrower back then.

Being Estonian in an Open World: Estonian-ness and Other Identities

This sub-chapter focuses on other identities besides Estonian. Unlike 20 years ago, the importance of being Estonian is understood in a much wider context by homeland Estonians today - in addition to being Estonian, you can also be someone else or live somewhere else than in Estonia. While in 1997 almost a 100% of the descriptions of typical Estonians compared/confronted Estonians with Russians, today the basis for comparison is much wider. In addition, the skills and characteristics of not just the people living here or related to this country are evaluated when drawing the lines of being Estonian. In an opportunity-rich situation like that, a key issue is the borders of the “we-group” - could Russians living in Estonia also qualify as Estonians for example - and common ground with others, i.e. is there anything we share with our neighbours, and if yes, what is it?


400-500 youngsters from each of the four countries participated in the study ‘Different Nations - Shared Experiences’, with an average age of 17-18, amounting to a total of 1763 pupils. The study was supported by the Central Baltic Interreg IVa programme 2007–2013.

We studied this in the 2010-2013 (Valk et al 2013) project ‘Different Nations - Shared Experiences’ led by Foundation Unitas, which examined the identity, attitudes, awareness, and knowledge of history of high school students in Estonia, Latvia, Finland and Sweden. A clear distinction between the identities of Estonian-speaking and Russian-speaking pupils was shown by the study, which is why these two groups are presented as distinct on Figure 4.5.2. In the identity of Estonian-speaking pupils, just like in those of Sweden, Finland and Latvian-speaking pupils in Latvia, the most important element is being a citizen of the country. This is followed in Estonia by the identity of being a citizen of the European Union; in Finland by the identity of a Nordic person; in Sweden by the identity of being a Scandinavian; and in Latvia by the identity of being a Baltic person. For the Russian-speaking youths of Estonia, the identity of a citizen of Europe took first place, while for the Russian youths of Latvia it was of the regional identity. For the Russian youths in Estonia, being a citizen of Estonia is sadly not very important, just 42% considered it important, while 62% of Latvia’s Russian youths saw being a citizen of Latvia as important. As shown by the analysis of the meaning of identity above, the identity of being a world citizen holds an important place for young people, being important for an average of 43% of youths in the four countries together, while amounting to up to 52% for Estonians in Estonia. The image that Estonian youths have of their identity is rather similar to that of the Finns as far as the identities of being a citizen of one’s own country, a Fenno-Ugric person, or a Nordic person are concerned, while our identity as a citizen of Europe is common ground between us and Latvians - being stronger here than it is among the young people of Finland and Sweden.

Figure 4.5.2. Various affiliations for Estonian, and Estonian Russian young people compared to the averages of the young people of four countries (Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and Sweden). The Figure shows the share of pupils who consider the respective group or category important or very important for themselves.

Source: Data collected by the SA Unitas project “Different Nations – Shared Experiences”, calculations by the author (Valk et al 2013); 379 Estonians and 131 Russians living in Estonia participated in the survey.

As identity is formed in the course of mutual communication through a recognition of each other’s group affiliation, we also studied the perceptions of the young people of various countries about each other. The most significant contradictions between the identities important for the young people themselves and how others saw Estonians concerned being a Nordic person and a citizen of the former Soviet Union. 43% of Estonian youths consider the Nordic identity important for themselves, while a significantly smaller percentage of youths from the other countries (Finland, Sweden and Latvia) consider this a characteristic of Estonians. Latvian Latvians are more likely to see Estonians as Nordic people. Just 7% of the youths see themselves as persons with a post-Soviet Union background, while Estonians in general would be characterised by this category by 59% of Estonian youths and 52% of the youths of other countries, most notably Latvian Latvians and Finns (Figure 4.5.3.).

Figure 4.5.3. Regional and Estonian-related identities in three views: how Estonian youth perceive themselves (I am …), Estonians in general (Estonians are …), and how youth from the three neighbouring countries perceive Estonians. The Estonian youths include Estonians as well as Russians living here.

Source: Data collected by the SA Unitas project “Different Nations – Shared Experiences”


This article has provided an overview of the changes in the identity of Estonia and Estonians over the last 20 years, analysing the strength of identity as well as its meaning for various groups related to Estonia (Estonians, Estonians abroad, Russians living in Estonia) and across various generations. The most evident change, compared to the second half of the 1990’s, is the opening up of the identity of homeland Estonians. To be Estonian and proud about it, no longer requires to be confronted against something or somebody other. The identity of Estonians is still related to language and land, while fighting (for independence) and differentiation have been replaced by valuing its culture and people. It is remarkable and probably also thought provoking that the latter topics are fragmented. Meaning that there is no “great narrative” related to them (like there is with language and land) - there is no shared concept of a single culturally important phenomena, topic or people. It has to be emphasized that opening does not mean a weakening of the national identity or a lesser valuing thereof, rather - awareness of it has grown. This has happened not only because of living in other countries or coming into contact with other cultures. Looking at the generational differences, the only perceivable change is a decrease of the importance of land - the fact of living in Estonia - in the identity of young people, one can be Estonian regardless of the place of residence. Besides being Estonian, being European and a citizen of the world are also important. Another significant change compared to 20 years ago is the appearance of a new group to study - the so-called “new” Estonians abroad, i.e. people who have emigrated after Estonia joined the EU. Comparing their identity with that of homeland Estonians, they are stronger supporters of multicultural Estonian identity and they put less emphasis on ethnic differences, while stressing the European side of their identity. A third of the Russians living in Estonia call themselves Estonian Russians and represent, in many ways, the ideal image of a person with an open Estonian identity. Regardless of ethnic belonging, they consider their origin, as well as Estonian citizenship, being a person living in Estonia, and a European - important. Unfortunately, there is no reason to hope that the percentage of people with such an identity would be larger among the younger generation than it is among the older one. In addition to the changes that have taken place with regard to the Estonian identity, we are also much more open to other group affiliations, and the world has become a lot larger and more multicultural even when one lives in Estonia. We are more Nordic today and much more confident as Europeans than we were a couple of decades ago. Nordic, Baltic and world citizen identities are important for half of the high school youths, while 2/3 consider it important that they are citizens of the European Union. In this context, being Estonian is no longer an inevitability but rather one affiliation among several.

The most critical question concerning the future of Estonian identity is how we can create and keep a joint understanding of what it means to be Estonian for various groups connected to Estonia, without turning the traditional essence of Estonian-ness inside out and allowing for several parallel affiliations simultaneously. The “new” Estonians abroad and the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Estonia who identify themselves as Estonian Russians show us an example how Estonian identity could open up. The Estonians living in Estonia are also more open than they used to be. In terms of identity and connection with the state, the most problematic group is the 2/3 of Russians living here who identify themselves as Russians exclusively. In this group, there is also no reason to expect the young people to be more closely connected with Estonia.


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