Crimean Estonians

Veikko Jarmala
M.Soc.Sc., Doctoral Candidate in Contemporary History
University of Helsinki

Crimea is well known for its culturally diverse and rich history. The most dominant civilisations in the history have been Graeco-Roman and Turkic-Islamic (Tatar) cultures whilst Russian dominance forms only about 6 percent of the whole history. However, the era of Russian Empire brought also new smaller minorities in the peninsula, e.g. Estonians, who have been remarkably living there already 160 years ago despite all the hardships, repressions and wars.

In the beginning Russian colonization actually meant even further diversifying of the population in the peninsula. The Russian Empress Catherine II preferred colonisation of Crimea by European settlers, especially Germans, being of that background herself. After the Crimean war (1855-1856) the Russian policy turned towards Russification and deportations. During this period the Russian population quadrupled from 7 to 29 percent, while the Tatars were deported to Turkey. The share of the native main population, the Tatars started to diminish first to the half after the Crimean war and by the end of the 19th century they had lost their place as a majority. This trend of Russification and de-Tatarisation continued through the Imperial and Soviet times culminating with the total deportation of all Crimean Tatars to Central Asia in 1944.

The imperial government in St. Petersburg had a need to resettle the emptied Tatar lands. Also bringing other non-Russian population from other parts of the vast empire in to the Russian-speaking environment would contribute further to their Russification.

With this context in the background, began the settling of Estonians in Crimea. Estonians lived in two gubernias (governorates), Estonia and Livonia, which were under the Baltic German semi-autonomous minority rule recognised by the Imperial government. The population surplus of Estonian governorates, the railway connections, the example of others, the aim to get better life somewhere else and religious movements were among the reasons why Estonians for their part saw the possibility to leave for Crimea. In the case of Crimea, the latter reason was especially important. Juhan Leinberg, so called Prophet Maltvets, was a layman leader of Lutheran sect called Maltvetsian. During the autumn of 1860, Leinberg got an idea to move to Crimea with his successors, as he had heard that the Emperor needed settlers for the empty settlements left from the deported Tatars. For his successors, Crimea would be the Biblical Promised Land and Prophet Maltvets would be the new Moses. In January 1861 the Emperor granted an Imperial permission for Maltvetsians to move for Crimea.

The First Estonian settlers, five families, arrived at Crimea at the beginning of autumn 1861. During the next spring, 700 Maltvetsians arrived at Crimea. However, the Maltvetsian movement did not thrive and the Prophet himself returned back to Estonia with his family in 1865, but the foundation for the Estonian settlement in Crimea had been laid. Despite the hardships of the early phase, hardworking and co-operative Estonians survived and re-established the old Crimean Tatar settlements of Zamruq (Beregovoye) (1861), Kara-Kiyat (Grushevoe) (1862), (Pervomaiskoe) (1863), Dzurchi (Pervomaiskoe) (1863), Konchi-Shavva (Krasnodarka) (1863), Syrt-Karakchora (1864), Kiyat-Orka (Upornoe) (1864) and Uchkuyu Tarkhan (Kolodeznoe) (1879). Yapunca (Vypasnoe) was mentioned in 1864 census as Estonian-Tatar mixed village and mixed population had also Dzhaga-Kushchu (Okhotnikovo). The last Novaya Estoniya (Novoestonia) was mentioned for the first time in 1926.

The preceding and subsequent years of the First World War were the heydays of Crimean Estonians. When the Estonian writer Eduard Vilde visited local Estonians in 1904, he could only praise the settlements. The Estonians had the highest literacy rate, as they had immediately at the very beginning established schools and churches, their houses were built of stone and they were wealthier than other inhabitants.

When the Crimean ASSR was established in 1921, there were 2367 Estonians with the share of 0.4% of the population; this made them as the seventh largest ethnic group of the peninsula.  There were 31 Estonian villages or settlements. A total of 1,570 Estonians (with 97% proficient in the Estonian language) lived in the rural settlements, while 524 Estonians lived in the cities (276 in Simferopol, 218 in other cities). The Leninist oppression started to diminish Estonian population from the beginning of the Soviet rule. As the Estonian population was classified as too wealthy, they lost their election rights. Even though there were no real elections in Soviet Russia/Union, meant losing the voting rights also other socio-economic problems. The worst was to become when the Stalinist purge and repressions started in the latter half of the 1930’s.

In 1939 there were 1,900 Estonians, 1,291 in 1970, 1,048 in 1979 and 985 in 1989. During the Soviet times, some new Estonians moved to Crimea, especially to Simferopol, but the main tendency of the Soviet era was Russification of Crimean Estonians and the dominance of the Russian language. Nowadays there are 500-600 Estonians and about one third of them can speak Estonian. Additional 2000-5000 Crimeans have Estonian roots too.

The only Estonian village left today is Krasnodarka, which is also the place for Estonian Cabin and museum.  Before Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, there were three Estonian cultural societies in Crimea. At least two of them are still working, one in Sevastopol.  In Aleksandrovka (Oleksandrivka in Ukrainian) there was an Estonian school (2002-2014) that was also popular among other nationalities. Estonian Foreign Ministry sent there an Estonian teacher on the basis of an agreement with Ukraine, but after the occupation and annexation by Russian Federation, all official relations between Estonian state and Crimean Estonians ceased.

Currently there is a small conflict of interests between Crimean Estonians and Republic of Estonia. The former have an interest to survive also in the current situation; at least officially they have recognised the new Russian rule. However, the latter needs to hold on the principles of international justice and maintain the policy of state integrity of Ukraine. There has been discussion how Estonians and Estonia could support Crimean Estonians without endangering the rights of Ukraine. Recently through a fundraising in Estonia, Estonian Cabin (Eesti Tare) was renovated in Krasnodarka, which was kind of example how the support could be organised through civil society. However, it needs to be remembered that civil society does not freely exist in Russia, and Kremlin usually tries to lead it to support its own politics. Also it needs to be ensured that the cultural activity is real and not just showing national costumes as the official minority policy of Russian Federation tends to be.


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