Some considerations of
the identity of Estonian Swedes
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
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
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:
- 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);
- A legal guarantee for the
representation of Swedes in the future parliament;
- 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;
- Equal rights to the Swedish
language in administrative institutions;
- 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
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
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
References from text:
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
For more particulars see Schönberg 1998. Back
ERA, f 1108 n. 8 s. 4 (lk. 32), 8 (lk. 57), 14 (lk. 90-91), 53
(lk. 39). Back
For further information see Schönberg 2000. Back