Estonia has been populated by the native Finno-Ugric Estonians since prehistory. They were organised into economically self-sufficient clans with few differences in wealth or social power. By the early Middle Ages most Estonians were small landholders. Estonian government was decentralised, with local political and administrative subdivisions emerging only during the 13th century A.D, which was also the period of Estonia's Christianisation.
Although the Estonians' resistance to the Teutonic Knights lasted some twenty years, the lack of a centralised political organisation as well as inferior weaponry brought down the Estonians in 1227. The people were Christianised, colonised and reduced to serfdom. Despite attempts to restore independence, Estonia was divided among three domains, and small states were formed. The 14th century in Estonian history was a period of tension between local landlords. It was marked chiefly by the struggle between the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order and the bishops for lands and spheres of influence. Despite successful Russian raids and invasions in the 15th century, the local German barons continued to rule Estonia and preserved Estonia's commitment to the Lutheran Church.
In the 16th century, while northern and western Estonia was submitted to Swedish control during the Livonian Wars, southern Estonia was incorporated into the Polish-Lithuanian Union. The name of Livonia, formerly denoting all of present-day Estonia and Latvia, was now applied to Polish-controlled South Estonia and Latvia; while `Estonia' began to denote the Swedish controlled areas of North and West Estonia. This division of Estonian lands would last until 1917. Until the early 20th century, the term `Estonia' designated the northern part of present-day Estonia. Under Swedish rule, Estonia was united for the first time in history within its present borders by a central authority. In Estonian oral tradition this period is called `the good old Swedish time'.
After Sweden's defeat by Russia in the Great Northern War at the beginning of the 18th century Russian rule was imposed in what was to become modern Estonia. Nonetheless, the legal system, Lutheran church, local and town governments and education remained mostly German until the late 19th century, and partially until the beginning of the 20th century. The attempts to russify Estonians were far from successful. Centuries-old German cultural tradition withstood the russification period. 90 percent of the population was Estonian.
Estonia remained an essentially agrarian country. Germans and Russians dominated the intellectual, political and economic elite of society while the lower ranks, peasants and workers, remained predominantly Estonian. Thus like the Latvians, the Estonians had to engage in a political campaign on two fronts. The first was against the German monopoly of political, social and economic power. In this, they were aided by the process of russification, which undermined the power of the Ritterschaften. At the same time they did not wish to replace the German grip by tsarism, which represented the second political front.
Estonia's first modern period of sovereignty began in 1920. Estonia underwent a number of economic, social and political reforms. Yet the establishment of the independent state did not result in an improved standard of living, but rather in discontent against political parties, parliamentarianism and democracy as such. This favoured the emergence of an authoritarian regime that lasted from 1934 to 1939. In 1940, Estonia was annexed by the USSR. After the German occupation (1941-1944), the Soviet Army again occupied Estonian territory. The severe process of sovietisation significantly reduced the share of ethnic Estonians in the total population of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1970 ethnic Estonians accounted for 57 percent of the population, in comparison with a pre-war figure of over 75 percent. Concern about the threat posed by cultural russification to the Estonian language and national identity reached a critical point in the 1970s.
In the mid-1980s Estonia seized the opportunity of the more tolerant political atmosphere inaugurated by the new Soviet policies of perestroika and glasnost.
In May 1990, the name of the Republic of Estonia was restored, and in September 1991 Estonia's independence was recognised by the Soviet Union.
In 1994 the last Russian armed forces withdrew from the country.