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Culture & People

The culture of Estonia incorporates indigenous heritage, as represented by Estonian language from the Finno-Ugric languages and the sauna, with mainstream Nordic and European cultural aspects. Due to its history and geography, Estonia's culture has been influenced by the traditions of the adjacent area's various Finnic, Baltic, Slavic and Germanic peoples as well as the cultural developments in the former dominant powers Sweden and Russia. Traditionally, Estonia has been seen as an area of rivalry between western and eastern Europe on many levels. An example of this geopolitical legacy is an exceptional combination of nationally recognised Christian traditions: a western Protestant and an eastern Orthodox Church. Like the mainstream culture in the other Nordic countries, Estonian culture can be seen to build upon the ascetic environmental realities and traditional livelihoods, a heritage of comparatively widespread egalitarianism out of practical reasons, and the ideals of closeness to nature and self-sufficiency.


The first Estonian book was published in 1535. However, the foundations of Estonian literature were laid in the beginning of the 19th century, and by the end of the century it is said that 100% literacy was achieved in the country. The poet and philologist Kristjan Jaak Peterson wrote the first original verse in the Estonian language in the beginning of the 19th century.

From 1860 to 1880, a national awakening of the Estonians was reflected in the language, intellect, honour and conscience of the society, when the epics of Friedrich Reinold Kreutzwald were published. Estonian literature in the beginning of the 20th century is known within the context of European modernism. The first literary group to bring about new trends and movements influenced by French Symbolism, European art and the Neo-romantic cult of personality was 'Noor-Eesti', or 'Young Estonia'. One of the most distinguished Estonian novelists in the first independence period included Anton Hansen Tammsaare. His masterpiece Truth and Justice is a saga of farm life. Juhan Liiv is a legendary 19th-century poet, and his poems are cited today by many Estonians. Jaan Kross is the most highly acclaimed contemporary writer in Estonia, who has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Kross’s historical novels and short stories present an allusive analysis of the present times and explore the relationship between the individual and power.

Visual Arts

Estonia has long-standing traditions in art. The earliest pieces of art are metal ornaments and animal figures. Wood carvings and polychrome wooden altars date from the 14th and 15th centuries. The oldest secular pieces of art include the 14th and 15th-century benches in the Tallinn town hall. Foreign masters created most of the pieces of art in the Middle Ages, however, most of the stone masons were Estonians. Michel Sittow was the first representative of Estonian Renaissance, who created his pieces in Tallinn. Arent Passer was a famous sculptor who belonged to the Fontainebleau school. Wood carving flourished in the Baroque period, with the most distinguished masters including Elert Thiele and Christian Ackermann. The drawing school of Tartu University was the first art school in Estonia, founded in 1803. The founders of Estonian national art, in the late 19th century, include Johann Koler and Amandus Adamson, who studied at St. Petersburg, and the sculptor August Weizenberg. In the beginning of the 20th century, local artistic life flourished, and interest in Modern Art and exploration of national subjects increased. Symbolism and National Romanticism were represented by Kristjan Raud, while the Young Estonia generation was attracted to Nordic art.

After World War II, artistic development was in crisis because of the Soviet occupation. Many artists fled the country, others were killed, and others who remained did not work in the sphere of arts. In the 1960s, Estonian art experienced revival and began to develop in diverse trends as responses to the international trends of art. Non-figurative art was represented by colourists Alexander Vardi and Elmar Kits, as well as the graphic artist Avo Keerend. Classical Modernism was represented by Olev Subbi and Tiit Paasuke. Pop Art, Conceptualism and Hyperrealism were the grounds of the works of such artists as Ando Keskkula, Leonhard Lapin and Juri Okas. Other artistic trends, such as Surrealism, Symbolism and Neo-expressionism were also developed. Some Estonian artists found inspiration in ancient folklore, while some sculptors specialised in the grotesque, the abstract and Pop Art, such as Ulo Oun and Edgar Vjies.

Performing Arts

Social and political changes in the second half of the 1980s brought about changes in Estonian art which rivaled Western art. The 1990s were marked by the recognition of photography as an independent art form, while video became a popular and significant means of expression. The first Estonian films were shot and produced in the beginning of the 20th Century. After World War II, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, when the systematic production of films began. The earlier high point of film production was the first decade of the independent statehood. Between 1932 and 1944, not a single film was shot and some 17 films were produced after the Soviet occupation, which provided an overview of the emerging national mentality and romantic ideology. The 1990s saw 26 feature films produced.

The traditions of Estonian theatre date back to the end of the 19th Century. National plays were performed in drama societies. The first years of the 20th Century saw the start of professional theatres. Today, some 21 professional theatres exist in Estonia, with the Estonian National Opera at the forefront of opera and ballet. The institution Eesti Kontsert coordinates music events, with such a wide range of music styles as Jazz, symphonic, chamber, electronic acoustic and children’s music.

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