Darkness before dawn
Archived Articles 05 May 2006 Eva VabasaluEWR
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In the pursuit of literacy in Estonia during Swedish rule (beginning in 1645) the challenge was to take our oral language and put it into a written format in either the vernacular of the spoken conversation or according to the old German-Latin rules. The differences of dialect between the North and South (Livonia) Estonian provinces raised fear that if the written language was not unified it would divide Estonians into two tiny ethnic peoples. In 1686 the New Testament appeared in the South-Estonian dialect. Two years later, thanks to Bengt Gottfried Forselius‚ phonetic spelling was officially adopted, simplifying Estonian reading and spelling. Forselius died in his prime crossing from Sweden to Estonia in a Baltic storm, but not without leaving an invaluable contribution to Estonian literacy.

A bleak period began in 1695, when one in five Estonians perished during the great famine, a dearth caused by two successive years of crop failure. Especially in the central parts of Estland and Livland, as the provinces were then known, peasants could only dream about rye bread and salted herring. There was no rye for making bread or enough seed grain for a new rye crop. It was too cold or rainy to grow anything. People began dying in 1696. Prolonged starvation, which is a month or two with little or no food, causes the body to turn on its fat and muscle for energy. As the body weakens, organ damage occurs along with diarrhea, anemia, pain in the limbs, tissue swelling, serious skin rashes, confusion and dementia, not to overlook mental anguish. The cold and dampness of the Estonian climate contributed greatly. Out of desperation many hungry people trekked to the larger towns hoping to find food only to be disappointed. Groans and begging pleas were heard in town streets and on country roads. After the winter’s snow melted there appeared horrific views of dead corpses many of whom had been defenseless orphans and elders. Such sights and sounds haunted the survivors for the rest of their lives.

On the heels of the famine with only a two-year reprieve came the Great Northern War (1700-1721) with the Swedes losing out to the Russians under Peter I. Less than half the population of Estonia survived, its numbers being reduced to what it was in the thirteen century - about l30,000 souls. And though the law of averages should have dictated that life couldn’t possibly get worse, it did: the era of slavery began. In 1737, Jaan, from Virumaa wrote to the Empress Anna I (ruled 1730-1740) complaining about his landlord. An answer, the Rosen Declaration arrived from Otto Fabian von Rosen, a Livonian district magistrate, stating that peasants were property of the manor and like all property the landlords could "sell peasants, bequeath, exchange," - in reality they could even impose appalling cruelties.

In 1739 Anton Thor Hells translated the complete Bible into Estonian for the first time. Snippets of Estonian journalism appeared in 1766, followed by the publication of calendars and almanacs with articles on science, education and the ideas of humanism. Catherine II (r. 1762-1796) revolutionized the political, administrative and taxation systems to accord with democratic principles, but did not make sure such reforms were carried out by German nobility. George Browne, the governor-general of Riga secured new rights for the Baltic peasants, and Tsar Alexander I, (r.1801-1825) abolished serfdom in 1816. Peasants who had been known by their Christian and farm names, were now assigned surnames by their landlords - usually German ones. Estonians were also able to seek some justice through local courts though these courts were controlled by the Baltic Germans.

Advances by the early 19th century allowed Estonians to have more freedom in publishing their own printed matter.

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