The first historical account of Tallinn dates back to Medieval times in the amazing Livonian Chronical of Henry, which describes Danish King Valdermar II and his fleet landing in June 1219 to battle local tribes. Legend says that the flag of Denmark (the Danneborg) fell from the sky during the battle changing fortune towards the Danes. Victorious they established a fortress on Toompea Hill and gave Tallinn its name (Taaani linn, Estonian for ‘Danish Town’).
The city joined the Hanseatic League in 1285, a mercantile and military alliance of Northern European cities, and performed an important role over the next couple hundred years as a channel for trade between the Hanseates and merchants of Russia.
During the Hanseatic period, the city prospered into one of northern Europe’s largest and best-fortified. In the 13th century a number of significant clerical establishments were built including the St Nicholas’ Church, St Olaf’s Church, and the amazing St Mary’s Cathedral (also known as Dome Church). The town wall consisting of 66 defence towers was constructed in the 14th century and a major boom of construction including the Town Hall, Great Guild Building and Olavi Building followed in the next century.
In the mid-14th century, due to internal policy and lack of cashflow, the King of Denmark had sold Northern Estonia to the German Teutonic Knights, under which it remained in the Hanseatic League. But as prosperity faded in the 16th century, the Hanseatic League weakened, and the Russians, Swedes, Danes, and Poles moved in to fight for superiority in the Baltic region clashing in the Livonian War (1558-1583).
With the breakup of the Teutonic Order, the local German aristocracy in 1561 placed Estonia under Swedish protection against Poland and Russia, successfully withstanding two Russian sieges (1570-1571 and 1577). For 150 years the territory was ruled as a Swedish dominion, which under certain limits retained its established political systems and privileges for the elite.
The Swedish made a number of reforms with lasting influence, particularly in education establishing the University of Tartu among other educational institutions, and in religion staunchly promoting Lutheranism and providing translations of the Bible into Estonian.
Imperial Russian Rule
From 1700-1721 Sweden and Russia battled for superiority in the Baltic Sea region. With Tallinn ravaged by plague, Sweden capitulated the city to Peter the Great without fight in 1710. Tallinn maintained most of its earlier privileges administered through the Town Council, with the German rulers remaining culturally and economically autonomous.
But by the 19th century, the Russian emperor incrementally limited the power of the Town Council and the pressures of Russification mounted as Tallinn developed into a key city of Imperial Russian trade and industry. Paper and match factories, and a machinery manufacturing plan were all established in the later half of the 19th century. And in 1870 the Baltic rail road opened connecting Tallinn to St. Petersburg and the rest of Czarist Russia, significantly boosting trade relations.
Turbulent Start to the 20th Century
Tallinn fell under turbulent times during the first half of the 20th century as it struggled for its autonomy. On February 24, 1918, Estonian independence was first proclaimed in Tallinn, taking advantage of the weakening Bolsheviks. However, the very next day German troops moved in and occupied Estonia.
Following Germany’s loss in WWI some months later, political power was handed to the Estonian Provisional Government. But yet again with this the Soviets returned, sparking the Estonian War of Independence for control over the country.
On February 2, 1920, a peace treaty with Russia was signed, creating an independent Estonia with the capital Tallinn. Freedom Square at the southern end of the Old Town and the Cross of Liberty and Monument to the War of Independence within the square commemorates their victory.
However, once more independence was short-lived, interrupted by the outbreak of WWII, falling under control of the Soviets in 1940, then the Nazis from 1941, and back to the Soviets in 1944. Tallinn suffered badly in WWII, with nearly all of the city’s 1,000 Jews killed in the holocaust, and thousands of buildings destroyed during Soviet bombing. Yet, most of the valuable Old Town was preserved.
Under Soviet control Large-scale industry was developed following the war, with booms in machinery construction and electro-technical companies for the Soviet military industry, as well as consumer goods and food industries.
The population of the city expanded rapidly with foreign workers brought in from other parts of the Soviet Union, growing to 480,000 by 1990 from 175,000 in 1937. Large soviet-style settlements were built in the suburbs to house the workers and the Old Town became run-down and mostly abandoned.
August 20, 1991, marks an important date in Estonian history as the nation reestablished its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tallinn quickly become a charming modern European capital during the 1990s, with the Old Town restored and a modern business district established.
In 1997 the Old Town was crowed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2004 Estonia along with Baltic area countries, Latvia and Lithuania, joined the EU. And today Estonia’s tourism industry surges, attracting the everyday tourist to visit Tallinn to experience the interesting and fascinating history and culture as they wander the street through the beautiful Old Town and wooden-house suburbs and stroll through the galleries and museums that capture its past.
Articles on Estonia
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Updated Dec 2020