Some considerations of the identity of Estonian Swedes

Alar Schönberg

Probably it will remain a problem, what made the Swedes come and settle the coast and islands of western and northwestern Estonia. According to different opinions there was not only one reason, neither was there one definite flow of emigration, but the settlement developed over a longer period of time due to several concurrent factors. There are various theories: it is stated that the Swedes were interested in having their own bases on the other coast of the Baltic Sea, also that the Swedes were invited to this territory by the local German nobility, who were interested in more 'civilised' peasantry than the local ones were (especially after the Jüriöö uprising). The latter aspect is also supported by the privileges granted to the Swedes. These privileges shaped their sense of identity through many centuries and were besides the language in comparison with the Estonian peasants the most specific characteristics of the Estonian Swedes.

The mentioned privileges granted the Swedes an alleged freedom, a specific legal status. Under different powers it was in the interest of the Swedes to quickly have the previous privileges asserted to continue their existing order of life. The fight of the 'coastal' Swedes for their privileges can be followed in the collection of documents Antifeodalnaya borba volnykh shvedskikh krestian v Estlandii (1978). These records frequently reveal that when standing for their rights, the Swedes referred to themselves as peasants of Swedish origin, (1) which in its turn gives rise to the question, if proceeding from the special conditions the mentioned Swedes perceived themselves as a separate nationality and how important they considered their ethnic individuality. Yet there is no reason to presume that the Estonian Swedes were ahead of the national ideas and awakening that in Europe started to spread later. It rather seems, like Torkel Jansson in his recent treatment summarises, that it was still a deeply "legal-political", not ethnic identification (Jansson 2000: 455).

But considering how far a, let us say, nation's memory can extend, I would like to see the experience acquired in the Estonian Swedes' fight for their privileges as an important part in their national awakening at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Regardless of the fact that by that time those documents had no practical meaning, because the new Agrarian Reform Laws had created a precondition to raise one's living arrangement to a new legal and more qualitative level than before, the onetime visits to the authorities had still left fixed traces on the identity of the Estonian Swedes. Their self-awareness was revealed even in the fact that despite their legal differences from the Estonian peasants ceased to exist, no intermixing between these ethnic groups occurred. Of course, it can be explained by geographical and language barriers but somehow to this day the Swedes speak proudly of their former privileges.

Often the Estonian Swedes are presented in connection with the mentioned 'good old Swedish time'. Although the territory of the present Estonia belonged mostly to the Kingdom of Sweden in the second half of the 16th and in the 17th century and undoubtedly the immigration of Swedish peasants continued in that period, there is no evidence that the origin of Estonian Swedes dates back to that time, because the beginning of the Swedish settlement goes back far beyond the year 1561. Moreover, the term 'good old Swedish time' was likely to come into use relatively recently, when Estonians sought for a point of contrast or comparison with the supremacy of the Germans or Russians (Jansson 2000: 456).

Studying the arising and essence of the national identity of the Estonian Swedes, we cannot boast of abundant source materials about the earlier time. About later periods, when records were kept, newspapers and books published, the situation is slightly better. I posed myself a question: when did the Estonian Swedes start to recognise their individuality that stems from their nationality and on the grounds of that started to arrange their lives? Estonian Swedes themselves have after World War II studied and written the history of their national development and published a voluminous collection about it - En bok om Estlands svenskar. The chapters of the fourth part of this series (Aman 1992), including a cultural historical survey, offer a framework of events to the history of the Estonian Swedes in the 20th century. This period is called the time of prosperity of the Estonian Swedish culture and also the beginning of a great decline. I interviewed the author of the book, Viktor Aman and another man well informed of the history and activities of the Estonian Swedes, the author of several publications, Elmar Nyman - both Estonian Swedes, who come from Noarootsi, the first from Österby and the other from Kudan (Gutanäs). I wanted to get more closely acquainted with the background of the national movement. I doubted if the emphasis on being Swedish, especially at the beginning of the movement, was not limited only to the initiative of one enthusiastic group? How deep into the soul of the nation did the identification as Estonian Swedes reach?

The national awakening of Estonian Swedes began in the middle of the 19th century, when the Agrarian Reform Law provided a wider network of schools for peasants. The Swedes were in quite a trouble with this prescription. There were not enough educated people among them who could take the responsibility and bear the heavy load of being a village schoolteacher.

Here as a small deviation from the topic we might ask if there really were no such people among the Estonian Swedes who due to their knowledge could have reached a level higher than the peasant's status and became 'Germanised', as it happened among Estonians. The existence of such a group is quite likely, considering the good skills of Estonian Swedes in the field of seamanship and pilotage. Also it is thought that the later teacher Bengt Adamsson, one of the students of the well-known educator Forselius, had been of Swedish origin, which is suggested by his first name and the fact that his home neighbourhood was settled by both Swedes and Estonians. Probably there were occasions when Swedes reached out of their social rank, but in such case, as a rule, they became Germanised.

Returning to the problem that in the middle of the 19th century no teachers were found for the village schools of coastal Swedes, one of the possibilities were to employ an Estonian-speaking teacher: the Kuuda seminar [school] had already found Estonian teachers. But the Swedes were not interested in education in the Estonian language, like Elmar Nyman states: they held on to their language, it was the greatest fortune of the Estonian Swedes.

The solution to the problem came from Sweden - two Swedish missionaries came to Estonia, one of them was sent to the Vormsi island to work at the village school there and the other, obviously more level-headed and respectable, had the task to organise and teach a teacher training seminar for Estonian Swedish young men.(2) About 30 young men from different regions of the Swedish settlement completed their studies in the seminar and as a rule, after returning they became the village schoolteachers in their neighbourhood.

As an evaluation to the Paslepa seminar, like the seminar for Estonian Swedish young men was called, it may be said that besides quite a good education that they acquired there within two years, most of the young men also experienced a thorough religious awakening. After they had returned to their home villages, they maintained contacts with each other, and besides religious subjects the topic of their Swedish identity probably started to arise. It is proved by the fact that later when a newspaper and library were founded, the graduates of the Paslepa seminar were the central figures who organised these activities.

What was done? Regardless of the strict Russianisation policy and censorship of the Czarist Russia, a library was started on the basis of books that arrived from Sweden, a calendar for the Swedes in Russia (as it was called) was published and a temperance society was founded. In 1909 an Estonian Swedish culture society was founded - SOV (Svenska Odlingens Vänner - 'Swedish Friends of Education'). The aim of SOV was to support and promote Swedish culture in Estonia. Their first priority was the founding of village schools in the marginal areas of the Swedish settlement, where the Swedish language was not just dying out, actually the Swedes were ashamed of their mother tongue.

Founding schools and at the same time dealing with their great mission, quite soon the understanding came that such luxury was relatively expensive. So another large-scale challenge stemmed out of the first assignment. Culture is possible only when one has enough to eat, that is - first the economic conditions must be improved. Records (3) of the first years of SOV reveal lively discussions on how to increase the efficiency of agriculture. Some experiments were made, but to no mentionworthy effect. Like Elmar Nyman also comments, the kind of agriculture that agronomists from Sweden preached, was not suitable for the scanty soil of the Estonian Swedish areas.

Yet it cannot be stated that the experiments made before World War I were completely fruitless. One definite result was the established social activity that functioned well in the new opportunities that were connected with the independence of Estonia. The Swedes continued their social activities and in time they even founded their own national party - Svenska Folkförbundet. At the party congress on March 22, 1919 quite serious and knowledgeable requirements were brought forth. The party demanded:

  1. A position to the Swedish minister in the future government (Hans Pöhl was appointed the minister of the national affairs of Swedes in the Estonian Temporary Government December 12, 1918);
  2. A legal guarantee for the representation of Swedes in the future parliament;
  3. Cultural autonomy, including the right to regulate schools, curricula and textbooks, also the opportunity for the Swedes to study in the Swedish language in government-financed institutions of higher education, and the financing of elementary, vocational schools and cultural institutions on the same basis as the Estonian ones;
  4. Equal rights to the Swedish language in administrative institutions;
  5. Swedish speaking judges in court cases concerning the Swedes.

Very few of these demands were satisfied, definitely not because of the passiveness of the Swedes in fighting for their demands. The political representation may have been poor - later the position of Ethnic Minorities' Secretary was established at the Ministry of Culture and from time to time some Swedes became members of the Parliament. The reason was sooner in the fact that the Swedish community was comparatively small and relatively uninfluential, it was poor and the few resources that were raised were used to support the schools.

One of the greatest merits of the party may be the publishing of the newspaper of Estonian Swedes, called Kustbon, which started as the party bulletin. According to Aman the newspaper was accepted enthusiastically, earlier no one could even imagine having their own newspaper. Advertisements, news items, etc. were published. But the financial side became a matter of worry again. The editors mostly worked for free, there were gaps in issuing the paper, and the paper could not compete with Estonian newspapers that provided the latest news. The number of subscribers decreased. Aman adds that there were a total of one-two subscribers in each village, eager supporters of the Swedish movement who because of their views just had to subscribe for the paper. Common Estonian Swedes did not read the Kustbon. At first the quality of the newspaper was high, but it started to fall gradually. The publication of the paper still continued: during the war there was a break but then it resumed in exile in Sweden, fulfilling its task to join the Swedes living far from their homeland.

In 1920 the Pürksi agricultural and folk university was opened. Its aim was to educate the Estonian Swedes in farming, introducing new farming methods through experimental agriculture in the school. The school played a significant role in the creation of the self-determination of Estonian Swedes. Beside the knowledge obtained from the school, both Aman and Nyman point out the aspect that Estonian Swedes from different places came together at Pürksi and lived there for some time. The teachers who were Swedish nationals definitely emphasised the individuality and significance of being an Estonian Swede.

One had to be careful about 'opening the eyes' of the Estonian Swedes. The land where they lived was (and certainly is) relatively meagre, and considering the large families of the Estonian Swedes it is no wonder that quite soon young people started to think about leaving for Sweden and Finland. Income in Sweden was much higher and as Nyman said, jobs were available there. This was the start of the emigration of young Estonian Swedes, but we will return to this topic later.

Already at the beginning of the century when they founded their society Estonian Swedes had said that it was the schools that had to carry the continuity of the Estonian Swedish culture. That is why after the folk university had started to function successfully, they started to think of a gymnasium. This was accomplished, naturally with the contribution of Swedish volunteers again, in 1931, in the rooms of the Estonian gymnasium in Haapsalu. There were doubts that a small group of Swedes would dissolve among the Estonians, but that was not the case, probably because of the special attention that was paid to the Swedish gymnasium. Anyway it was a new important landmark in the development of the culture of Estonian Swedes. Therefore its existence, just like that of Pürksi folk university, had a significant role in joining the Estonian Swedes, although studies in Haapsalu Private Swedish Gymnasium lasted for a markedly shorter period.

Läänemaa Ühisgümnaasium. This building housed the Estonian and the Swedish gymnasiums. Photo: J. Grünthal.

As an interesting circumstance the choice of the place for the gymnasium can be mentioned. The Estonian Swedes' areas were scattered and naturally it gave rise to a competition between different places. As a golden middle the decision was made to found the gymnasium in Haapsalu - the same logics were applied when searching for a location for the Estonian Swedish Museum after Estonia had regained independence.

Such tumultuous development in education could fill the hearts of Estonian Swedish activists in the middle of the 1930s with satisfaction. Really, the targets that were set when forming SOV were achieved. The network of elementary schools was established, they had their own folk university and gymnasium - these were the prerequisites of an educated and self-aware population. But still the satisfaction was not complete - some matters that were not foreseen, arose.

Firstly, the already mentioned emigration of the Estonian Swedes, a subject that the Kustbon frequently handled and saw a sign of great danger in it, fearing that Estonian Swedes would die out. At the same time Aman says that it was quite a logical tendency. First, the Swedes had been on the move all the time, remember the earlier Estonian Swedish seamen, and in a less developed 'information society' such emigration to better lands was inevitable. As the second aspect Aman refers to the high birth rate of the Swedes. Often there were many children in the family and the overpopulation of farms was causing problems. New opportunities were found for improving one's living conditions - primarily the development of technology, which would have allowed to take more field area into use. And many who had gone to Sweden had a firm intention to return in a few years, after having collected some money and skills to start applying these resources.

The general disposition in the Europe of the 1930s was definitely a moment in the development of the national identity of Estonian Swedes. Reflections of their own state were not heard, but the possibility of bringing forth the law act of the cultural autonomy of the ethnic minorities in the Republic of Estonia. The latter would have allowed more decision-making in their own area of culture and education. The Swedes did not get their cultural autonomy, like the Germans and Jews did. The reason for this may be the relatively dense concentration of the Estonian Swedish minority in one territory. A more significant reason was according to Nyman again the lack of money. While the Germans got their cultural autonomy for money that was sent from Germany, the Swedes did not get any support for that from Sweden. Nyman states that the Swedes did not have a great nationalistic disposition at that time, it was regarded as something negative. Yet the educational institutions were supported and it cannot be said that there was no interest at all. The Swedish supporters were intellectuals, they were not very numerous and there was not any active support from the state. When the migration of nations started, Sweden was clearly of the opinion that Swedes should be supported just to the extent that they could manage with life in their homeland, i.e. in Estonia. Emigration was not approved of. As an example Nyman points out that in the Kustbon job advertisements into Sweden and Finland were banned.

The Estonianisation campaign certainly left its own mark on the Swedes. The period - the second half of the 1930s may be observed from one angle or another and it still remains a complicated period. For the Swedes the limitations on using their mother tongue at school, in local authorities, place names, etc. had distinctive marks of discrimination. (4) Estonians have always maintained that they have nothing against the Swedes and most probably it is true. Above all, the campaign was orientated on giving some activities to Estonians in the mild dictatorship of that time and was clearly influenced by the predominant moods in Europe. When the topic was raised, the Estonian politicians also referred to the opportunities that the cultural autonomy offered and to the liberal minority politics of Estonia, outstanding in the world. Nyman comments here that Estonians speak and write less about the fact that a delay of several years had preceded the adoption of this law in 1925 and that the law was adopted only after the 1924 attempted rebellion in Estonia, when the frail democracy of the Estonians needed the support of the Baltic Germans and even then the law was adopted only by the majority of one vote. Legislation was to a great extent the job of the Germans and Swedes.

Trying to answer on the basis of this material to the question how deep into the nation the awareness of the Swedes' national identity reached, it evidently started gradually to reach the coastal Swedish farms. The Estonian Swedish areas can by no means be taken as a unified whole, but by regions, taking into consideration the proportion of the Swedes in the population and the geographical borders. Earlier I have interpreted the Estonianisation and the increase in the level of education and the development of communications as a prelude to the emigration that took place during the war, now I have revised this standpoint. Let us observe it closer.

Let us remember that the birth rate of the Estonian Swedes was high, therefore there was no direct risk that the Swedes would have died out due to emigration. The teachers who were Swedish nationals were sent out as a result of the Estonianisation law acts. Although it was a great personal disappointment it was not such a hard blow for the Swedes as it is sometimes thought. There was growing a new, learned generation of young Estonian Swedes, who had all possibilities to continue their educational, cultural and religious tradition in their area. They could also have implemented the cultural autonomy, which would have required a sufficient number of lawyers, according to Nyman. He and Aman both give a firm affirmative answer to my speculative question if the Swedes would have survived the 'crises' if the war had not started. Yet they add that the Estonian language would likely have gradually started to predominate.

So it might have been but the fact is that during World War II about 7000 Estonian Swedes evacuated from Estonia to Sweden. Presently there are disputes about the terminology, but in my opinion 'evacuation' is the most suitable word - they left because of great danger, hoping to come back when circumstances change, yet several Swedes have said that they already had a premonition that there would never be a return. The Estonian Swedes adjusted to the Swedish society quite quickly due to certain advantages and together they solved their biggest worries. They set an aim to create considerable archives of the items and memories they had brought along, so as to leave a significant trace of their culture. According to different estimates 1000-3000 Swedes stayed in Estonia, depending on whom we consider a Swede, but the Estonian Swedes here were not organised. On the contrary, the Swedes thought it better not to reveal their origin and often they talked to the children in Estonian already.

As the Soviet Union broke up and Estonia regained its independence, the Estonian Swedes got new ideas. The Association of Estonian Swedish Culture was formed, with several hundreds of new members. Contacts were made with Estonian Swedes in Sweden and that was definitely a short period of national awakening, local festivals were organised, etc. The association started to create a network of institutions that would ensure the continuity of Estonian Swedish culture. They decided to found their own folk university, gymnasium and museum. It must be admitted that all these institutions have been set up in co-operation with the Republic of Estonia and the Estonian Swedes in Sweden. Noarootsi Gymnasium specialises in Scandinavian studies, Paslepa Folk University is functioning (in Haapsalu) and the Estonian Swedish Museum is opened.

The reprivatisation of land and property has brought about an interesting situation. The Swedes have actively applied to get back their former lands. Regardless of some twenty new summerhouses the lands have not been taken into active use. To some extent there are seen some disagreements between the Swedes and the people who settled the area in Soviet years. The latter often ask why 'those Swedes' escaped during the war and left their land and they do not wish to listen to the Swedes' explanations.

I dare not predict today if the Swedish settlement and culture will remain in Estonia or not. It is sure that nobody will restore the situation as it was before World War II. Therefore people live their everyday life and on that basis the Estonian Swedish institutions make their plans for future. The nostalgia that has ruled for the last decades has been replaced by practical plans for future, giving evidence of the Swedes' continuing interest in Estonia.

Translated by Ann Kuslap



ERA - Estonian State Archives.


Estonian Swedish Museum: Elmar Nyman, January 25.01.2001, in Stockholm
Estonian Swedish Museum: Viktor Aman, 29.11.2000, in Stockholm.

Aman, Viktor 1992. En bok om Estlands svenskar. Kulturföreningen Svenska Odlingens Vänner. Stockholm.

Jansson, Torkel 2000. Estlandssvenskhet före Estlandssvenskheten. Kustbornas identifikation före nationalmedvetandets födelse. - Stat - kyrka -samhälle. Den stormaktstida samhällsordningen i Sverige och Östersjöprovinserna. Studia Baltica Stockholmiensia. 21. Stockholm.

Schönberg, Alar 1998. Lärarseminariet i Pasklep. Diploma thesis. Tartu. Manuscript in the Chair of Scandinavian Studies of the University of Tartu.

Schönberg, Alar 2000. Rannarootslastest ja Eesti Vabariigi eestistamiskampaaniast. - Paras, Ülla (toim.). Läänemaa Muuseumi toimetised IV. Haapsalu, lk. 103-112.

Vahtre, Sulev & Piirimäe, Helmut & Einpaul, Aleksander 1978. Antifeodalnaya borba volnykh shvedskikh krestian v Estlandii XVII-XIX v.v. Sbornik dokumentov. Tallinn.


References from text:

(1) July 3, 1722, document no 4. Vahtre, S., Piirimäe, H., Einpaul, A. Antifeodalnaya borba volnykh shvedskikh krestian v Estlandii XVII-XIX v.v., 1978. Back

(2) For more particulars see Schönberg 1998. Back

(3) ERA, f 1108 n. 8 s. 4 (lk. 32), 8 (lk. 57), 14 (lk. 90-91), 53 (lk. 39). Back

(4) For further information see Schönberg 2000. Back