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Part 1: Estonian independence proclaimed in Pärnu on Feb. 23

Estonia's declaration of independence celebrated in Pärnu the day after its proclamation the night before. Feb. 24, 1918.
Estonia's declaration of independence celebrated in Pärnu the day after its proclamation the night before. Feb. 24, 1918. Source: (EFA)

In the first part of a special three-part series dedicated to the pivotal events of Feb. 23-25, 1918, Piret Kriivan, host of the Vikerraadio program "Estonia's Story," spoke with Pärnu Museum director Aldur Vunk about the events of Feb. 23, including the details surrounding the first proclamation of Estonian independence that night in Pärnu.

In late February 1918, as World War I continued, Estonia was caught between the advancing German Army and retreating Bolsheviks. Following a period where fighting between the two sides had ceased as treaty negotiations were underway, the Germans decided to ramp up pressure on Soviet Russia to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litowsk by occupying mainland Estonia; the Western Estonian islands of Saaremaa, Hiiumaa and Muhu had already been taken the previous fall.

By Saturday, Feb. 23, the Bolsheviks had already left Pärnu. The Germans were expected to advance from the south, from the direction of Riga, but as it turned out, they were approaching from the islands instead. Northern and Central Estonia were still in the hands of the Bolsheviks, but the latter were preparing to flee toward Narva, taking stolen property with them.

Residents of Tallinn, meanwhile, were preparing as well. The war had been going on for years at this point, but they knew that the German Army was on its way and that the Russians were retreating. Those who could, left; those who stayed shut their doors and windows. The Estonian Salvation Committee, the executive body of the Estonian Provincial Assembly, was in hiding.

The decision had already been made in early January, however — with the exception of the Bolsheviks, all Estonian political parties had agreed that Estonia would finally declare itself an independent republic, and people were ready to take the risk, and even suffer if need be, in the name of this goal.

Hidden manifesto taken to Pärnu

In a train journey lasting twelve hours, Jaan Soop, an official of the Autonomous Governorate of Estonia, traveled from Tallinn to Pärnu via Viljandi on Feb. 23 with two copies of the Manifesto to the Peoples of Estonia printed on velvet paper hidden on his person — one tucked into his coat, and the other hidden in the turned-back seam of his boot. The train had been searched in Harju County, causing Soop a great deal of concern, but he arrived safely in Pärnu just after 4 p.m. that day.

Estonian sentiments were strong in Pärnu at the time, and the Western Estonian coastal port city was under Estonian control. If independence could not proclaimed anywhere else, they said, bring the Manifesto to Pärnu and they would get it done.

Preparations had already begun ahead of Soop's arrival. A meeting was held on the 22nd, at which it was unanimously decided that there was no question — that this was the will of the people, and that Estonian independence was to be declared as soon as the text of the Manifesto arrived in the city. Hugo Kuusner, who would be the one to ultimately proclaim the Manifesto from the balcony of Endla Theatre on the night of the 23rd, was at home, sick in bed at the time.

That it would be Kuusner who would read the Manifesto for the first time was a relatively last-minute decision. There were not very many volunteers for the job at the time, and Kuusner had been Pärnu's representative to the Estonian Provincial Assembly since the previous spring. He was a prominent representative of the city, which had also led to his arrest in late January following a decree by Lenin to arrest all Baltic-Germans, Germans as well as Estonian public figures.

Kuusner's wife Marta had ultimately arranged for his release in Tallinn after a prison doctor issued a medical certificate indicating that Kuusner was terminally ill. Pärnu mayor Jaan Leesment, who had also been arrested, received a similar medical certificate.

Independence proclaimed by torchlight

Soop had arrived in Pärnu with his two copies of the Manifesto at approximately 4 p.m. on the 23rd, and by 8 p.m., Kuusner was already reading the Manifesto on the balcony of Endla Theatre, proclaiming the independence of the Republic of Estonia for the first time.

In the four hours in between, 10,000 additional copies of the text had been printed and distributed, and local schoolgirls had prepared little blue, black and white ribbons and helped people pin them to their chests in the first public display of a unifying symbol of Estonian citizenship.

The city was without power at the time, as the power plant had been bombed, but those gathering in the city bought torches before heading to Endla Theatre. Kuusner only just left home at about 7 p.m. after reassuring his wife he wasn't going anywhere where he was liable to end up arrested again.

Someone else had been considered to read the historic document, but ultimately didn't show up, leaving the task to Kuusner. With a future mayor holding a torch on one side and the young politician Jaan Järve holding another on the other, Kuusner, who later claimed he had had the loudest voice of all his classmates in St. Petersburg, read the Manifesto to the Peoples of Estonia in public for the first time, declaring the independence of the Republic of Estonia.

40 Estonian troops present fired a salute, people sang the Estonian national anthem, and even people who otherwise did not get along turned to one another and embraced with tears in their eyes — something monumental had just happed.

As the war was still going on, no formal banquet or anything of the sort was held that night, but independent Estonia's first parade was held in Pärnu the next day, two photographs of which have survived. In addition to a number of speeches, the crowd moved on to Pärnu Town Hall, where an act was drawn up regarding Estonia's declaration of independence and the implementation of the Estonian people's right to self-determination, signed by representatives of various societies and officials.

Confusion, fighting elsewhere across the country

That night, other parts of Estonia were in turmoil. Not knowing that the Germans had already reached the Estonian mainland, the Soviets wanted to send a unit of troops from Tallinn to Haapsalu on the west coast. The recently assembled Estonian Red Guards of Tallinn and sailors, many of whom had never yet seen battle, were attacked by German forces in Riisipere and Keila, which saw the most fierce battle fought on the Estonian mainland. The Soviets, suffering much greater losses, were forced to retreat.

In Tallinn, it was not yet understood that the morning of the 24th would dawn on an independent Estonia as confusion in the capital city prevailed. An evacuation order was issued to a limited number of recipients on the 23rd, and Petrograd, unaware that the situation was so critical, only just dispatched a train on the 24th carrying 50 sailors to help evacuate fellow Bolsheviks. The train did not make it past Tapa, however, and had returned three hours later, as the railway had been destroyed. Ships were sent in their stead, but they were undercrewed, forcing civilians fleeing on the ships to help operate them.

By the early hours of the 24th, as fighting broke out in different parts of the capital city, it was clear that the Bolsheviks were on the retreat. Amid great confusion, preparations were made to evacuate, including by non-Bolsheviks as well. By Sunday, fleeing the city had become much more complicated.

Meanwhile, another copy of the Manifest had reached Paide, in Central Estonia, and was carried from farm to farm there by writer Jaan Lintrop. A secret meeting was held with local Estonian troops in the middle of the night to deliberate if and how to proclaim the Manifest the next day.

In Rakvere, battles broke out near Püssi and Palmse Manors. The Soviets wanted to begin the disarmament process the next day, and Capt. Hendrik Vahtramäe received orders to disband the 4th Regiment, but also received a secret second set of orders at the same time not to fulfill the official orders.

While the Manifesto was first proclaimed in Pärnu on the night of Feb. 23, and a legal act drawn up regarding the matter the next day, Vunk attributed the discrepancy in the date of the declaration of Estonia’s independence to the fact that Konstantin Päts, a key politician in the fall of 1918 who would later go on to become the first President of the Republic of Estonia, was simply unaware of the events that ultimately transpired in Pärnu on the 23rd.

Vunk conceded, however, that while independence was first proclaimed on the 23rd, the Republic of Estonia officially came to be when the Estonian Provisional Government was formed on Feb. 24.


Part II: "Three Pivotal Days," Part II: Salvation Committee begins issuing orders on Feb. 24

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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