The emigration of Estonians and the diaspora’s role in preserving Estonian statehood

  • The museum corner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs displays the furniture of the Estonian Consulate General in New York. It was in use up to the restoration of the Republic of Estonia in 1991, and symbolises the continuity of the Estonian state. The first wave of emigration from Estonia occurred from the mid-19th century onwards to the east, mainly motivated by economic concerns (as well as the availability of higher education, population growth etc.).
  • The second wave of mass migration was caused by the events of the Second World War, when people fled the Soviet occupation (known as the Great Flight of 1944). Around 80 000 Estonians fled to the West to escape Soviet terror. As a result of the Great Flight, various organisations for Estonians were established in many countries, and they worked with the Estonian diplomats who had remained in the West and the government in exile to preserve Estonian culture and fight for the restoration of Estonia’s statehood. This was the beginning of resistance to Soviet rule that extended from the territory of Estonia to foreign countries. In the post-war years, larger Estonian communities developed in the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom in addition to Germany and Sweden.
  • The third wave of migration was related to the restoration of Estonia’s independence and accession to the European Union, and mainly involved economic motives, although people have also moved abroad for family reasons. As of 2021, the largest Estonian communities are based in Finland, Russia, United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden and North America.

Estonians in exile did not only preserve Estonian culture abroad, they were also integral to perpetuating the continuity of Estonian statehood and spirit throughout the years of occupation. They included diplomats like Johannes Kaiv and Ernst Jaakson in the United States, and August Torma, Ernst Sarepera, August Bergman and secretary Anna Taru in London. This also applies to all our compatriots who protected the interests of Estonians between 1940 and 1991 and kept Estonia in their hearts. They include many famous writers, artists, musicians and cultural figures, such as Marie Under, Artur Adson, Karl Ristikivi, Bernard Kangro, Helga and Enn Nõu, Herman Talvik, Roman Toi, Eerik Haamer, Karin Luts and many others.

Estonians in exile were also crucial for restoring Estonia’s independence (including Estonia’s foreign service) in 1991.


Resistance to the Soviet occupation. Estonians demonstrating with the representatives of Latvia and Lithuania in front of the UN building in New York in 1970. Photo: National Archives of EstoniaThe policy of non-recognition. Consul General Ernst Jaakson shaking hands with US President Roland Reagan in the White House in 1982 as the official representative of the Republic of Estonia – at a time when Estonia was deep into the Soviet rule and it would be 9 more years before the restoration of independence. Photo: Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs


















Last updated: 5 July 2022

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