After a quarter of a century of declining population, Estonia’s population increased slightly in 2015-2016. During the period 1990–2014, the population shrank by one-sixth due to large emigration and birth deficits.
Before and after Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it was mainly Russian-speaking people who left the country, whereas after the 2004 EU entry, it was mainly ester (Estonian-speaking) who emigrated to other EU countries. The emigration increased during the financial crisis of 2008-2010 and the population decline then became one of Estonia’s most difficult political problems. The countryside lost residents to both abroad and the growing capital of Tallinn.
- COUNTRYAAH.COM: Key populations estimated size and data of Estonia, including population density of how many people per square mile. Also included are facts for population and language.
The reason for the trend break in 2015 was mainly that an increasing number of Estonians returned from work abroad. However, birth deficits still prevailed, that is, more citizens died than were born.
Large population movements
Before World War II, Estonia had an ethnically relatively unified population. The Estonians were in the clear majority while the Russians made up about a tenth of the population. In addition, there were smaller groups of Germans, Swedes, Latvians and Jews.
In 1940, Estonia was forced into the Soviet Union with a violent social transformation as a result. Over 60,000 people were deported or killed in a single year. As a result of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Estonia in 1941–1944, the country’s approximately 4,000 Jews were killed (the majority in Klooga concentration camp) or fled east. After the second Soviet occupation in 1944, some 70,000 ester fled west, including Sweden. In total, Estonia lost around a quarter of its population during the war years.
The political terror during the communist era (1944–1991; see Modern History) also required many victims. Between 1945 and 1953, up to 80,000 esters are estimated to have been deported to remote parts of the Soviet Union. Many of them were executed.
During the Soviet era, more than half a million Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Belarusians immigrated to Estonia. Estonia’s share of the population fell to 61 percent in 1989, while the total population increased due to immigration from the east.
Since many Russian-speaking people left the country after independence, the Estonian share of the population has increased again. In 2016, they represented 69 percent, while the Russians’ share was 25 percent. In addition, there were small minorities of Ukrainians, Belarusians and Finns.
Estonians predominate in the countryside, in the cities of Tartu and Pärnu and on the large islands. Of Tallinn’s residents, 55 percent are ester (2015). Russian speakers dominate the industrial and mining cities of Narva (over 90 percent), Sillamäe and Kohtla-Järve in the northeast.
Conflict over the citizenship of the Russians
Since independence, the issue of the status of the Russian-speaking minority has been conflict-ridden. The state granted citizenship to all residents (and their descendants) who were citizens of independent Estonia prior to the Soviet invasion of 1940. This meant that almost all Estonians were granted citizenship while almost all Russians were lost, since most Russians came to Estonia during the Soviet era. They must pass language tests in Estonian and inquire about the constitution in order to obtain citizenship. Exceptions were made for a group of Russian speakers who actively participated in the liberation from the Soviet Union.
From 1992, about a third of Estonian residents lacked citizenship, which created discontent and worry, mainly in the Narva area. Human rights organizations accused Estonia of discrimination and the country’s quest to become a member of the EU and NATO forced relief in the Citizenship Act.
In 1999, all children born from 1992 were entitled to citizenship when the parents lived in Estonia for at least five years. Passed primary school grades in Estonian and social studies (with supplementary questions) now give the right to citizenship. Anyone who has completed compulsory school, upper secondary school or university with Estonian as a language of instruction does not need to take a language test for citizenship. Also, anyone over the age of 65 does not need to write a written language test. From 2016, children of stateless parents automatically receive citizenship at birth.
Today, 85 percent of the residents have citizenship, while 6 percent are stateless and 9 per cent are citizens of another country, mainly Russia (2016). Prohibition of dual citizenship has prevented Russian citizens from becoming citizens of Estonia as well. The desire among stateless Russians to seek Estonian citizenship diminished after the relocation of the Bronze Soldier and the riots in Tallinn 2007 (see Modern History).
The country’s official languages are Estonian which, like Finnish, Karelian and another half a dozen small languages, belong to the Baltic-Finnish branch of the Oriental language family. Estonian is therefore not related to the Baltic languages Latvian and Lithuanian.
The government has rejected demands for Russian to be recognized as an official language in addition to Estonian. The decision is justified by the fact that bilingualism would create a fragmented society and that the Russian minority must learn Estonian in order to be integrated into society.
Setukeser (setu) is a people group living in southeastern Estonia and on the other hand the Russian border. The group protects its own culture and language, which experts refer to as a local dialect of Estonian. In Estonia, there are about 10,000 setukes.
From Sweden and Finland came Swedish-speaking immigrants in the Middle Ages to the coast and islands of northwestern Estonia. The so-called coast Swedes were around 10,000 in number, but during World War II most of them fled to Sweden. The Swedish language is taught at a high school in the old Swedish countryside.
Estonian pronunciation guide
The Estonian alphabet contains almost the same letters as the Swedish alphabet, and is pronounced basically the same. As in Finnish, a duplicate letter, both vowels and consonants, means that the sound is extended.
The only special character is O, a long vowel sounds like a cross between island and u.
Only in loan words and foreign name is the heading S = SCH; Z = toning s; Ž = toning zj.
FACTS – POPULATION AND LANGUAGE
ester about 69%, Russians about 26%, Ukrainians about 2%, Belarusians, Finns etc. about 3%
Number of residents
1 315 480 (2017)
Number of residents per square kilometer
Percentage of residents in the cities
68.7 percent (2017)
Nativity / birth
10.7 per 1000 residents (2016)
Mortality / mortality
11.7 per 1000 residents (2016)
0.0 percent (2017)
1.6 number of children born per woman (2016)
Percentage of women
53.1 percent (2017)
78 years (2016)
Life expectancy for women
83 years (2016)
Life expectancy for men
73 years (2016)
Estonian is officially language 1
- Russian is largest minority language