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In brief video presentations, field experts introduce various topics on Estonian education.


Historical background

“The high levels of literacy that prevailed only in Estland, Livland, and Kurland at the end of the nineteenth century present an especially striking contrast to the situation in the rest of the Russian Empire with the exception of Finland.

In 1897, according to the only tsarist-era census in the empire as a whole, only 28 percent of the total population ten years of age and older had attained the ability to read, and only two sub-regions achieved slightly higher levels than this overall average: 30 percent for the fifty provinces of European Russia, and 41 percent for the Polish provinces. 2 However, the 1897 figures for the Baltic Provinces – 95 percent for Estland, 92 percent for Livland, and 85 percent for Kurland – tell an entirely different story. The Baltic region clearly forms a separate category within the empire as a whole with its closest individual competitor, St. Petersburg province, trailing far behind at 62 percent.3

Although the exceptional situation of the Baltic Provinces with regard to literacy is generally known, it has not been studied in sufficient detail, in part because of shifting political borders in the twentieth century. In the larger European context, developments in Estland, Livland, and Kurland can be viewed as paralleling those in parts of Western Europe such as the Nordic lands, Scotland, and Switzerland, i.e., economically underdeveloped regions which achieved nearly universal reading skills before the onset of modernization and industrialization.

The origins of the high literacy rates in the Baltic Provinces must be sought, first of all, in the Protestant Reformation and its lasting success in the region. In the second quarter of the sixteenth century Lutheranism was embraced by the ruling German elites in the Baltic towns as well as the countryside, and it gradually spread to the Estonian and Latvian peasantry and urban dwellers as well.

Above all, Lutheranism was a religion of the book that stressed the crucial role of each believer’s individual connection with God through the reading of the Bible and other religious literature. The impact of the Reformation on the spread of literacy was enhanced by the role of the printing revolution that had only recently begun in the mid-fifteenth century, and it should be remembered that copies of printed material often had multiple readers.

Although the second half of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth were dominated by destructive wars over the legacy of medieval Livonia, consolidated and largely peaceful Swedish rule in Estland and Livland in the last seven decades of the seventeenth century provided a receptive environment for the initial rise of literacy on a mass basis. This period coincided with an aggressive “literacy campaign” undertaken by the political and religious authorities in Sweden proper, culminating in the Church Law of 1686, which was extended to Estland and Livland in the early 1690s.

Although the Baltic region was only temporarily part of the Swedish state and remained on its periphery, the connection had a lasting and crucial impact on the rise of literacy in the two northern Baltic Provinces. As in Sweden itself, a strong tradition of home instruction developed, permitting the spread of reading skills without the necessity for formal instruction in schools, which were only in the process of formation.


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