Estonian culture is unique in its’ East-meets-West character.
More than hardly any country in the world, Estonia has been a meeting point of so many different people, tribes, nations. Historically, it has been marked by wars, foreign domination, struggles for independence, and so much more. With the past so rich in rivalries, it is no wonder Estonian culture today is remarkably diverse, complex, and honestly, quite hard to understand for a foreigner.
But luckily, we can give you some clues!
The influences that shaped Estonian culture
Let’s go way, way back into the past. The original settlers of these lands were Finno-Ugric speaking tribes, that arrived thousands of years BC. This is way too long ago for us to say who exactly those people were, but there is evidence to suggest that contemporary speakers of Finno-Ugric languages are genetically related.
To this day, Estonians speak a language that belongs to this group (just like Finns, Hungarians, and Mordvins do). Does this mean they are far away cousins of Hungarians? Quite possibly, yes. Is Estonian culture similar to the culture of Hungary? Not so much. Which brings us to a very important point.
The significance of language
Can you point Estonia on the map? Say you can (and if you can’t — look it up, you will need that visual).
The countries that surround it are Latvia and Russia. In Russia, they speak a Slavic language, and Latvian is a Baltic language. Neither of those has much to do with Finno-Ugric languages like Estonian. This meant Estonians were in a way isolated, a.k.a. characterized by their language.
When you think about it, an ethnic or national identity is based on what makes us different. This was also the case for Hungarians and Finns, both of which are nations to which language has an incredibly huge importance. Thus, it is very characteristic of Finno-Ugric people to out language in the center of their national identity.
To put it plainly, Estonians really love and value their language!
Yes, but what about the actual foreign influence?
Geographically, Estonians have had plenty of reasons to communicate a lot with neighboring Slavic, Baltic, and Germanic people. Naturally, you can see a lot of influence from these in Estonian culture. More importantly, though, it has twice been dominated by foreign powers. Between 1558 and 1710 it was a part of the Swedish empire. Then it got independent for a while, but soon enough the Russian Empire devoured it.
But as nicely as the Russian Empire was doing, at a certain point, it got overthrown by the Bolsheviks. Then, Germans occupied Estonia and subsequently helped it reach independence once again. But that did not last either. It was twenty-two years until World War II, some truly atrocious actions by both the Russians and the Germans (which claimed around 1/4 of the country’s population), and once again, Estonia was under a foreign rule. The Soviet Union.
The word union would suggest that the different republics had some independence, but is that really what you associate with the USSR? In reality, there was violent Russification. Not only did the secret police make sure to get rid of anybody that protested the new rule (or defended his or her national identity more openly), but there were also a lot of Russians sent to live there. Many of the deported Estonians perished in the labor camps (is it really a surprise that Soviet labor camps were an awful place to be?).
To this day, there is a Russian minority in Estonia and one that is in a very difficult position, due to the turbulent past.
Nowadays Estonia is free and independent. It is one of the fastest developing countries in Europe (nicknamed the Baltic Tiger), and also one to implement wonderful innovations everywhere. For instance, it has the second best public WiFi in the world. This basically means that you get free, high-speed WiFi practically everywhere in the country. Some other cool things are that they were the first to implement online voting, they have E-residency since 2014 (and were also the first to introduce it).
Also, Skype was created in Estonia. Just a little fun fact for you.
But before we jump into food, customs and traditions, and dating, there is one influence on Estonian culture that we failed to mention. Those are the Baltic German tribes that ruled over these lands during the middle ages. It is really interesting to see how much of the traditionally Baltic German town layout is still present in Estonian cities. There are also plenty of buildings that look typically Germanic.
Now, for food.
An average traveler does not become friends with an Estonian family or marry an Estonian lady (although we will cover these in a little while). One of our first encounters with any foreign culture is always the food. So let’s take a minute to review typical Estonian cuisine (and maybe mention the origins of these dishes, too).
First off, thinking of what Estonia looks like, there are a lot of forests, lakes, and a very, very cold sea. The climate is chilly-ish, so it makes sense that Estonians would look toward richer, heartier foods. And indeed, Estonian food is very much meat and carb based, with potatoes and rye bread being the carb staples in the diet. The meat of choice is definitely pork, with fish and seafood also being very popular, especially in coastal regions.
Something you should definitely taste during a trip to Estonia is their fabulous black rye bread. I’m saying fabulous, but the reason it is so popular is not it’s low glycemic index and how good it is for your body, but because wheat was expensive and it didn’t grow particularly well in these lands. Hence, rye bread it was. The joke is on the medieval rich guys because the poor were actually eating much healthier.
If you think you love bread, try the wonderfully weird leivasupp, that is bread and apple based (yup, you read right). It is sweet, cinnamon-flavored, and very hearty due to the added sour cream (a very Scandinavian seasoning). You can also see it made with other fruits, like prunes, pears, plums, or cranberries.
While we are at it, another signature Estonian dessert is kama. This is a classic example of Scandinavian (or more like Finnish and some don’t consider that Scandinavian) influence. It is a mixture of finely ground barley, rye, oat, and (weirdly enough) pea flour. In the past, kama was a way for travelers to have something that will not perish and turns into a filling meal with just some water (and maybe butter if you wanted to be fancy).
Today, kama is a beloved dessert and breakfast food in both Estonia and Finland (where it is known as talkkuna). The most typical way to prepare it is with buttermilk or half-and-half, topped with blueberries and sweetened with honey. There is a variety of ways to prepare it though, and even a kama-dedicated place in Tallinn — the infamous Kamahouse.
When it comes to savory dishes, mulgipuder is a simple, warm, and comforting porridge made with groats and potatoes. It is quintessentially Estonian, without an equivalent in any other cuisine. The trouble here is that it’s mostly a peasant dish, meaning that you will find it in some traditional taverns, but not necessarily in most restaurants. Be sure to check the menu to make sure you will get to try it. Also, did I mention it’s served with bacon on top? Yup, it is perfect.
Finally, a suggestion for the bravest of foodies is süit — a jellied pork pudding, that looks weird and doesn’t smell too pleasant either. It is a local favorite though. Show some bravery and try it out, you will discover it’s actually pretty dang yummy. Just try not to think of how it’s made out of pork legs, ears, and heads. Aand now this is all you’re going to think about.
Etiquette and customs
Estonian culture is very tolerant and forgiving of others. At the same time, there are plenty of historical reasons for Estonians to hold their identity dear, so they can be easily offended in that area. Other than that, as I mentioned, they are incredibly accepting and even curious about others. Another common feature of Estonian culture is the eagerness of people to show off their motherland and their heritage.
Estonians are very proud of what they have and love to boast their cool nature, architecture, art, food, etc.
When it comes to working, they are quite well-dressed (think nice watch and blazer for men for nightlife), diligent and punctual. The traditional Protestant work ethic is very strong to this day. Plenty of companies are in the IT sector, so in that sense, Estonians embrace new technology and urban lifestyle. Still, they have the hard-working mindset of their ancestors that mostly worked in agriculture.
As for family, this is hardly a conservative country. With divorce rates of over 60%, it is no surprise that single parents and unusual families, composed of children from different marriages is practically the norm.
People love to spend time in nature together, many have family cottages that they bring their kids to. They have a powerful relationship with their past, but today’s values and way of life are drastically different.
For that reason, you can expect people here to be very open-minded when it comes to dating. They have a quite positive outlook on open relationships.
To sum up Estonian culture
Estonia has a rich and dramatic history. It has only been a few decades of independence for Estonians, but they are embracing their national identity, as well as the values of modern-day life. Now that you know a bit more about them — off you go!
Explore this beautiful country, live it, and love it!