Contextualizing the Folk History of Rural Estonians in Present Times

Theme: The Cultural Significance of Rural Identity to the Upcoming Generations

by Ms. Nichole Michelle Weimer
HeritageForAll Intern (Call 2019) from Hawaii, USA and lives in Tartu, Estonia
Internship Program “Rural Heritage and Traditional Food”
M.A. candidate in Folkloristics and Applied Heritage Studies Program, Tartu University



This article delves into how rural identity, specifically in Estonia, is constructed. In such, articles on urban-rural narrative, folk history and cultural history of Estonia as well as interviews will help contextualize a glimpse into understanding Estonian rural identity. This article explores the impact of geographical locality, cultural knowledge of the land, the perceptions of rural identity by Others and the importance of protecting and maintaining the rural idyllic, the identity and the culture of the countryside.


Identity is intrinsic to human nature, it defines who we believe ourselves to be as well as how others perceive us. It is of no coincidence, then, that identity is constructed through a variety of external factors and how we operate within them such as the environment, the language, food, societal expectations and beliefs and such. Rural identity is then therefore constructed and contextualized within the framework of geographical locality, cultural and traditional knowledge of the landscape and even the defining aspects in which creates who we are not (Vanderbeck & Dunkley, 2010).

Robert M. Vanderbeck and Cheryl Morse Dunkley, in their article ‘Young People’s Narratives of Rural-Urban Differences,’ capitalized on theories of narrative identity to navigate the construction of rural identity in relation and juxtaposition of urban identity within young people. Vanderbeck and Dunkley draw on young people’s perceptions of what defines “rural” and “urban” and found that, positively, the rural is a place of wide open spaces, expansive fields, forests and nature while urban represented a space in which buildings touch the sky, a “human-made environment” and the concentration of the cosmopolitan (Vanderbeck & Dunkley, 2010, p. 5). However, with this construction of the positive ideals of each space, a negative perception also exists: urban means pollution, congestion and lack of personal space while the rural is a space of boredom and lack of cultural refindness (Vanderbeck & Dunkley, 2010, p. 6).

These judgments then bleed into how the people of these spaces are understood such as the urbanity being cultured but snobbish and the ruralite being quaint but conservative, under-educated and lazy. It should be stated that although there is a preconceived notion of what a ruralite is like, the “positive characteristics ascribed to rural people are often rooted in nostalgia rather than any recognition of the rural as vital, dynamic, and of the present” (Vanderbeck & Dunkley, 2010, p. 8).

The case study of the article mentioned above was conducted in the United States of America yet, the theories and collected data resonates with other’s perceptions of the rural and the urban identity of other places. In this article, I aim to situate the rural identity within the Estonian context but to also delve in deeper into the importance of the Estonian rural identity especially to those of the younger generation.

The Estonian Folk Life and Geographical Locality Impacts

To better understand the present day interpretation of the ruralites in Estonia, we must first refer to the history of the country. Ants Viires, in his book ‘Old Estonian Folk Life,’ formulates a general historical background of Estonia and its people, that “in addition to our original character, the natural and historical environment has helped us become what we are” (Viires, 2004, p. 11). Viires paints an idyllic image of the natural surroundings of Estonia: a land of short summers and long winters, vast forests filled with majestic pine and spruce trees and maritime weather for those situated near the Baltic Sea (Viires, 2004, p. 11).

With the environment being constructed as it is, it fostered two general groups of Estonians: those of the forest and those of the sea. “Accordingly the livelihood of ancient Estonians largely depended on fishing and hunting. But this was in a very distant past. At least during the past two millennia the Estonians have been farmers” (Viires, 2004, p. 11). It is not to claim that other people’s histories have no or little ties to a past intertwined with agriculture or the rural but rather to elaborate on the vital notion of agriculture to Estonians history. An archaic word Estonians utilized to refer to themselves in the past was Maarahvas (Viires, 2004, p. 13) which translates to “people of the land”.

Ivar Paulson also offers to further this notion of rural identity in Estonians in his book “The Old Estonian Folk Religion.” He states that even though Estonians may no longer substantiate majority of their livelihoods from the forest and sea in present day, “the images and customs originating from the old fishermen-hunter environment- from the forest and its animals, from the water and its fish- have left such deep imprints in Estonian folk tradition that they have reappeared in more recent times…” (Paulson, 1971, p. 57). It has been indicated in this chapter that Paulson contextualizes the paramount aspects and roles which the forest plays within the Estonian folk identity. During the times of peasantry, the forest was a place that provided material goods and sustenance but also, spurred on religious and spiritual essence, that the peasant, to some degree, had to associate themselves “one way or another with the forest and its creatures. His associations with animals and birds, or with the secret supernatural forces, powers, and beings (such as forest spirits), that governed the forest, were both on the physical and spiritual level” (Paulson, 1971, p. 60). Folk culture of Estonia has been deeply influenced by the natural landscapes, forests and sea which therefore lends to the cultivation of an identity that is born and shaped by the environment itself.

Cultural heritage spaces such as those situated in rural environments including farms are means of proclamation to the shared historical and folk memory as well as the knowledge shared between man and nature, community member to the next, from one generation to the following and “further, cultural heritage is seen as a source of local added value, trade and agricultural development, particularly when based on knowledge of tradition” as stated in the article “Agriculture as an Upholder of Cultural Heritage? Conceptualizations and Value Judgments- A Norwegian Perspective in International Context” (Daugstad, Rønnigen & Skar, 2006, p. 71). These spaces are not divorced from the environment they reside it therefore, transmuting the simplistic landscape into a cultural landscape. These cultural landscapes are protected by different NGO and governmental sectors as well as by the rural inhabitants with the threat of “disappearance, particularly in the face of the uniformity frequently brought about by globalization” (Daugstad et. al., 2006, p. 74). Without these rural spaces, which are also co-producers with the urban spaces, food, culture, traditions and the guardianship for the sense of the past would be lost in the deterioration of the rural population and landscape (Daugstad et. al., 2006, p. 74).

A popular book in Estonia is Andrus Kivirähk’s work, “The Man Who Spoke Snakeish”, which is a tale of the last of the Estonian forest dwellers in the face of the “iron men” who came to conquer and civilize them. The first opening line of the book is “the forest has been left empty” (Kivirähk, 2007, p. 1) which signifies a movement akin to the current affairs of modern day where the rural countryside is becoming more and more depopulated, and raising concern for what that may entail for the future. Kivirähk’s story is steeped in Estonian folk culture and the relationship shared between the last of those who spoke Snakeish and the forest and her creatures. It draws on fantastical imagery, much like a fairy tale yet maintains an air of melancholy due to the death of the people’s way of life, their heritage, language and culture. This book facilitates to contextualize the importance of the forest to Estonians through a tale that captures the essence and imagination of the younger generation.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk. Photo Source: ©Amazon

So what is the cultural significance of rural identity to the upcoming generations within Estonia? And why is it important to maintain?

As previously discussed, Vanderbeck and Dunkley (2010) stated that there is a notion of the rural idyllic which is shared by those who do not reside in the countryside but also, a negatively con-notated stigmas regarding the ruralites. Through conducting a few interviews with both rural and urban young Estonians, I test the theory and conclusion of Vanderbeck and Dunkley as well as pose the question of why the rural identity is important to Estonians.

Two urban Estonians were interviewed between the ages of 19 and 26 years old. Oskar[1], a 26 year old, explained how the countryside is “important, really important because how we interact with the world, other people and ourselves is shaped by nature itself.” (O. Tamm, Interview, August 14, 2019). He believes that there is immense importance in regards to the rural identity as “without it, who would we be?” (O. Tamm, Interview, August 14, 2019). Oskar carries on to explain that Estonians are the forest people, Maarahvas, and that it was only later that they became cosmopolitan urbanizes. However, the rural is to not be forgotten since the modern urban Estonian has a beginning, spanning a few generations back, to those of the rural. “I think, also, it’s about how we understand the world as it is today. The Earth will always be here but maybe not the cities or these man made places. And there really isn’t a lot of Estonians who want to stay in the rural areas; they all want to come to Tallinn and Tartu but what about these places that are being left behind? We can’t leave them empty” (O. Tamm, Interview, August 14, 2019).

Hanna, another interviewee age 19, shares similar perspectives of Oskar’s but also, spoke of how the rural people, and therefore what she perceives as their identity, is not always that of educated people, “their choice of words are different and you know, there are things they don’t do or have interest in like stuff that’s happening outside of Estonia” (H. Rebane, Interview, August 16, 2019). She grew up in the capital city and has not lived in a rural environment before, however, she has and does visit her grandparents frequently in the countryside. “I like it because it’s simple there. It’s quiet and I don’t feel very stressed out when I am with them. But I suppose for most younger people who live in cities, the rural side of Estonia is more linked to grandparents and childhood and wholesome life but then again, if you look at the other side of the coin, rural life symbolizes sometimes ‘the Second Estonia’ or the underside or the part of society which is stuck in its ways, ambition-less, plain stupid and just literally plebs” (H. Rebane, Interview, August 16, 2019) Between the two responses given by Hanna, she expresses concern that the rural inhabitants may not be as cosmopolitan than those of urban spaces and lack the progressiveness that so often cities are commonly imagined to be but she also draws in the rural idyllic (Vanderbeck & Dunkley, 2010) of wholesome and carefree childhood. In this, she has mentioned that there is some importance of having these people live in these spaces because it’s part of her cultural heritage as an Estonian, “but not me. I don’t think I could or would want to live in the countryside forever” (H. Rebane, Interview, August 16, 2019).

Oliver, a 22 years old, lives in a farm in the countryside. He shared his ideas of what it means to have a rural identity and why it is of importance to him by drawing on the past historical and environmental factors that Paulson (1971) and Viires (2004) described in their works. “I think it’s important because it’s who we are. Sure, some people from Tallinn and other places don’t get why anyone would want to live out here but they can’t deny that they don’t participate somehow with the rural idea” (O. Pärn, Interview, August 17, 2019). When prompted with a follow up question of interacting with the rural idea, Oliver explained that it’s quite popular to utilize the social media as a way to express your “Estonian-ness” such as to go into the forest picking mushrooms and berries or to go hiking or camping in the forest. But much of the time, according to Oliver, these people may not know how to survive if left to the forest because they have unlearned these vital skills (O. Pärn, Interview, August 17, 2019).

Chanterelles in Southern Estonian forest. Mushroom picking is still very much an important aspect and lifestyle to Estonians. Photo Source: ©Author

Through the conducted interviews and drawing from historical works done by the elder Estonians, the cultural significance of rural identity can be presumed to act as a cardinal concept in the maintenance and remembrance of the Estonian cultural heritage, landscape and past while ensuring the future. The rural areas may be facing depopulation in the face of globalization but there still are those who choose to return to the land, to the country, to their roots.

A walk on a late summer day in Võrumaa county. Photo Source: ©Author

[1] All names of interviewee’s have been changed as per personal preference to remain anonymous.

Reference List

  • Daugstad, K., Rønnigen, K., & Skar, B. (2006). Agriculture as an Upholder of Cultural Heritage? Conceptualizations and Value Judgements- A Norweigian Perspective in International Context. Journal of Rural Studies, 22, 67-81.
  • Kivirähk, A. (2007). The Man Who Spoke Snakeish. New York: Black Cat.
  • Paulson, I. (1971). The Old Estonian Folk Religion. Bloomington: Indiana University Publications.
  • Vanderbeck, R. & Dunkley, C. M. (2003) Young People’s Narratives of Rural-Urban Difference, Children’s Geographies, 1:2, 241-259.
  • Viires, A. (2004). Old Estonian Folk Life. Tallinn: Ilo Publishing House.

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