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The Tartu Peace Treaty – 103 years

February 2nd is the anniversary of the Tartu Peace Treaty.

It is an important day for Estonians, but also for international communities.

As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointed out: “Estonia’s peace treaty with Russia was the first international act that mentioned the right of peoples to decide their own destiny. Therefore, the Treaty of Tartu – as well as other treaties between Russia and its western neighbours that were modelled on it – constituted an important step towards enshrining the nations’ right to self-determination in international law.”

Our annual commemoration of the Tartu Peace Treaty gives pause to reflect on Estonian history, the lives lost in pursuit of freedom, and to appreciate our national and international dignity.

It remembers the birth of a bright nation, after 700 years of waiting. It serves as a reminder for how challenging, yet possible, the journey towards peace is. It marks a day of reflection for the vital quest for autonomy – the right to try, despite flaws and struggles; the free choice and ability to determine one’s own course of action and fate, without external compulsion.

Turbulent times followed in the decades after the peace treaty, and questions to the right of self-determination have again risen in current international politics.

While the course of the future remains unknown, Estonian memories and values are not forgotten. Together, let’s take a moment to remember the journey and significance of the Tartu Peace Treaty.

The birth of a nation – a brief history

On the heels of World War I, trouble continued to stir in the East.

Aboard the Imperial train, about 20 km east of Estonia in Pskov, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne. The Russian Empire had collapsed. The new Russian Provisional Government took over, and in April 1917, declared the autonomous Governorate of Estonia. A series of elections in Estonia followed to form a provincial assembly, colloquially known as Maapäev. This process saw the creation and reorganisation of Estonian national parties, altogether forming a 62 seat assembly with representatives for towns, rural communities, the Baltic German and Swedish-Estonian minorities, and independents.

Then, the October Revolution happened. In mid-November 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, overthrew the Russian Provisional Government and established the world’s first Communist government. Lenin issued the Decree On Peace which called for the immediate end to the War on the basis of a “just and democratic peace”, which was defined as “a peace without annexations or indemnities”; national self-determination in place of the traditional power politics, and the end of secret diplomacy.

In the wake of the revolution, Maapäev refused to recognize the new Bolshevik rule. Instead, Maapäev declared itself the supreme legal authority of Estonia until the convening of the Constituent Assembly. Eleven days later, the bolsheviks dissolved Maapäev by force and drove pro-independence Estonians underground.

In early 1918, the Bolsheviks themselves organised the Constituent Assembly elections in Estonia. Two-thirds of the voters supported the parties who stood for national statehood. Subsequently, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the elections null and void.

Shortly later, using the interval between the Red Army’s retreat and the arrival of the Imperial German Army, Maapäev formed a three-member committee with special powers for a special purpose. On the eve of the German occupation of Estonia, 24 February 1918, this committee issued the Estonian Declaration of Independence and established the Estonian Provisional Government.

Alas, the day-old Estonian government was not recognised, and the occupying German authorities made arrests. In March, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed between Russia and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire), ending Russia’s participation in the Great War and their claim over Estonia. But, WWI was soon coming to an end, leading to yet another opportunity.

Germany was struck by revolt which spread across the Empire within days. The German Revolution led to the proclamation of a republic in early November 1918, shortly thereafter to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and to German surrender. In Estonia, German authorities eventually gave over all political power to the Estonian Provisional Government, albeit falling short on recognizing Estonian independence. The newly established Estonian Police took over power from German forces in Tallinn, new national armies were formed, and mobilisation occurred across the country.

Meanwhile in Russia, plans were drawn to launch a wide westward offensive from the Gulf of Finland to Ukraine, to reconquer lost nations. The bolsheviks had annulled the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk after the German surrender. Approaching the dawn of winter, on 28 November 1918, the red army sieged Estonian territory, instigating the Estonian War of Independence.

Watch an animation of the War of Independence:

Fending off attacks from both bolshevik Russia and Germans for over a year, the Estonian War of Independence finally came to an end on 2 February 1920 with the Treaty of Tartu. Borders were drawn, policies were decided; an agreement to end the state of war was reached, finally signed with a blue-black-white string affixed on top by wax.

Tartu Peace Treaty - Eesti Rahva Muuseum
Image – Eesti Rahva Muuseum
Read the treaty in English here [PDF]

With the treaty, Russia recognised Estonia’s independence for an eternal time forever de jure, voluntarily and forever withdrawing from all sovereign rights that Russia had had for the people and land of Estonia.

Jaan Poska, the Estonian statesman who led the Estonian delegation, said after the signing: “Today is the most important day of the past 700 years for Estonia, because today, for the first time, Estonia alone will determine the future fate of its people”.

People gathered in the streets to greet the Estonian delegation, taking their hats off in respect despite the bitter cold. A woman told Jaan: “You saved our sons”.

In reflection nearly 70 years later, a 1995 Eesti Päevaleht article aptly called the Treaty of Tartu: “Estonia’s birth certificate”. Russia recognised Estonia in law, paving the way for Estonia’s international recognition as a free and independent country. Likewise, the Treaty of Tartu was also the first international act recognising the Soviet government.

In a statement on the 100th anniversary of the Tartu Peace Treaty, the Estonian foreign minister, Urmas Reinsalu, emphasised the “pioneering significance” of the treaty in the global system of international law, since “it was the first international act in the world that explicitly cited the concept of the peoples’ right to self-determination”.

Today, while the Republic of Estonia has restored its independence, the concept and battle for the right to self-determination continues at home and abroad.

Commemorating the Tartu Peace Treaty

In Estonia, the anniversary of the Tartu Peace Treaty (02.02) is a Flag Day. The government and local authority agencies and legal persons in public law hoist the Estonian flag at sunrise and lower it at sunset.

A number of ceremonies take place across the country, including placing wreaths on the War of Independence memorial and the grave of freedom fighter Julius Kuperjanov, and lighting candles at the bas-relief depicting Jaan Poska.

Estonian embassies around the world have their own traditions too. For example, the Embassy of Estonia in Moscow, traditionally places a candle on the grave of Adolph Joffe, who signed the peace treaty on behalf of Soviet Russia, to commemorate “all those who sacrificed the most important thing in their lives for Estonia’s freedom and independence – their life itself”.

As an Australian Estonian, how will you decide to commemorate the anniversary of the Tartu Peace Treaty? What are your reflections of this historical moment?

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