estonianisation of names

Friday, January 22, 2010 @ 11:01 AM Bluebird

In the 1930s, Estonia underwent an estonianisation campaign, one aspect of which was the encouraged changing of names for those whose surnames were not already authentically Estonian. The campaign needs to be placed in context. Firstly, this was a nation state newly independent after centuries of rule by Imperial Russia and, more locally, by Baltic German landowners. Secondly, many of the surnames which had been given to or acquired by the native Estonians were Germanic and dated from the 1820s and 1830s. The estonianisation policy should therefore be viewed primarily as an assertion of national identity. This is not to say that Estonian politics was not moving to the right in the 1930s, or to deny that there were unintended victims such as the Finns and Swedes who also lived within the borders of inter-War Estonia.

Between 1920 and 1934, only 820 names were spontaneously estonianised. Estonianisation of names effectively began in 1935, in which year there were approximately 34,000 name changes; by 1940, there had been about 200,000. Some of the new surnames were translations or equivalents of the old names, but others were simply chosen for their attractive sound, meaning or association.

One example is the common Estonian surname Rebane. In English, this surname means “fox”. Records show that Estonians with, for example, the surnames Fuchs, Fuks and Tokmann took the new family name Rebane in 1938, 1938 and 1936 respectively. Of course, others of those names took different new names: for example, other people named Tokmann became Laiamäe, Rahula and Toim. Therefore, whole blood siblings could suddenly possess different surnames, and conversely Estonians bearing a rare name might be completely unrelated. (This was true also at the time Estonians took family names in the 1820 and ’30s).

Following the Soviet occupation, maybe 45,000 or more russianised ethnic Estonians moved to the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. These Estonians were sometimes called Yeestlased (in English, “Yestonians”) reflecting their characteristically Russian pronunciation. Some of these were immigrants (having been born outside Estonia) and others returnees (having left Estonia at an earlier date). Some went native and estonianised their names to better assimilate in post-War society although, given the Soviet domination of the country, there was little or no pressure upon them to do so – rather the reverse, Estonia was to be sovietised.

Viljandi, known as Fellin in German

Viljandi, known as Fellin in German

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