On Feb. 2, 1920, representatives of the Republic of Estonia and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic signed the Treaty of Tartu. The treaty, which went into effect on March 30, ended the Estonian War of Independence, finalized the country’s eastern border and recorded Russia’s unreserved recognition of Estonia’s independence and renouncement in perpetuity of all rights to Estonian territory.
Two years prior, on Feb. 24, 1918, following its first public reading in Pärnu the evening prior, the Salvation Committee of the Estonian Provincial Assembly issued the Manifesto to the Peoples of Estonia, otherwise known as the Estonian Declaration of Independence, in Tallinn. While German troops entered Tallinn the next day as German authorities did not recognize the provisional Estonian government or its claim for independence, representatives of Germany formally handed power over to the provisional Estonian government that November, following the German Revolution.
On Nov. 28, 1918, however, the 6th Red Rifle Division of the Soviet Union’s Red Army attacked the Northeastern Estonian city of Narva, marking the beginning of the Estonian War of Independence.
The defensive campaign of the Estonian Army and its allies, including the White Russian Northwestern Army, Latvia and the U.K. against the westward offensive of the Soviet Union and aggression on the part of the Baltische Landeswehr, or Baltic Territorial Army, lasted for over a year. While peace talks were attempted multiple times throughout 1919, it was talks initiated by the new government of Prime Minister Jaan Tõnisson, which were held through December 1919 even as heavy fighting continued in Narva, which led to a ceasefire that was concluded in late December and entered into force at 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 3, 1920.
Tartu talks lead to peace treaty
Statesman Jaan Poska and Maj. Gen. Jaan Soots represented Estonia in the peace talks, which Poska initiated with an Estonian-language speech on Dec. 15. The talks were held in the building located at Vanemuise 35 — then Aia 35 — which now houses the city's eponymous Jaan Poska High School.
Col. Victor Mutt, economist Aleksander Oinas and engineer Karl Arst accompanied the Estonian representatives as experts, while attorney Rein Eliaser served as the delegation’s secretary and Lt. William Tomingas, the foreign minister’s private secretary, served as communications officer at the Russian Embassy.
Soviet Russia was represented by Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union member Adolf Abramovich Joffe, People’s Commissar for Post and Telegraph Leonid Borisovich Krasin, member of the governing collegium of the People's Commissariat of Foreign Affairs Maxim Maximovich Litvinov, Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union member Karl Berngardovich Radek and People's Commissar of Finance Isidor Emmanuilovich Gukovsky. The Soviet delegation also included a secretary, military experts, a naval expert and a secretary general.
The peace talks were attended by Finnish, Ukrainian, Belarusian and Polish observers.
While the ceasefire reached at the end of December entered into force at the beginning of January 1920, it would be another month before the formal peace treaty was finalized.
Poska: Estonia determining its own destiny for first time
The Tartu Peace Treaty, written in both Estonian and Russian, was finally signed at 12:45 a.m. on Feb. 2. Signers of the treaty representing the Government of the Republic of Estonia were Estonian Constituent Assembly members Jaan Poska, Ants Piip, Mait Püüman and Julius Seljamaa as well as Maj. Gen. Jaan Soots; Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union member Adolf Abramovich Joffe and People's Commissar of Finance Isidor Emmanuilovich Gukovsky signed on behalf of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
Following its signing, Poska told members of the Estonian delegation, "Today is the most important to Estonia in its 700-year history: today, for the first time, Estonia itself is determining its own destiny."
The peace treaty was ratified by the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union on Feb. 4 and by the Estonian Constituent Assembly on Feb. 13. The instruments of ratification were exchanged in Moscow on March 30, 1920, at which point the Treaty of Tartu entered into force.
The treaty, which also served as the first de jure recognition of the Republic of Estonia — which obtained international recognition and joined the League of Nations in 1921 — was later registered with the League of Nations and published in its Treaty Series Vol. IX on July 12, 1922 together with French- and English-language translations of the document.
Treaty recognizes Estonian independence, sovereignty in perpetuity
The Treaty of Tartu consists of 20 articles that not only declare the end of the War of Independence but also address the recognition of the Republic of Estonia, complete with state border, security, economic, social and transport policy and agreements.
Article II of the treaty in particular states that “Russia unreservedly recognizes the independence and sovereignty of the State of Estonia, and renounces voluntarily and forever all sovereign rights possessed by Russia over the Estonian people and territory.”
Estonia’s eastern border was drawn in Article III of the treaty as well, corresponding roughly to the position of the front line at the cessation of hostilities and notably including a strategic strip of territory east of the Narva River as well as the Setumaa region (which formed Petseri County) in the southeast.
Article IV also addressed the issue of citizenship, allowing for persons on Estonian territory to opt for Russian citizenship but requiring them to leave Estonian territory within one year following this decision and persons of Estonian origin living in Russia to likewise opt for Estonian citizenship under the same conditions.
Notably, Russia subsequently failed to fulfill or violated several points of the Treaty of Tartu, including by not returning museum collections belonging to the University of Tartu from Voronezh, which remain in Russia to this day, and obstructing the migration of Estonians to Estonia.
Estonia was also later invaded, occupied and illegally annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II, following the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, which divided large swaths of Europe between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union transferred control of the strip of territory east of the Narva River and much of Petseri County in Southeastern Estonia, territories guaranteed to Estonia by the terms of the 1920 bilateral peace treaty, Estonia to Moscow in 1945.
Editor: Editor: Aili Vahtla