The Enlightenment directly involved only the educated spheres of society.
After Pietism and the Moravian movement, the next spiritual trend to arrive in Estonia in the mid-18th century was the Enlightenment. Its ideas were propagated in the Baltic provinces by the German Enlightenment movement which sought support from absolutism and relied heavily on the Protestant church. The Enlightenment soon turned into an extensive socio-cultural movement, involving the higher and more educated ranks of Baltic German society (nobility, pastors, aldermen, doctors and teachers). The chief media in Estonia were books and the press; the first institutional forms of expression were the clubs, societies and freemasons’ lodges of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. One of the most significant items on the Enlightenment agenda was religious toleration. The higher ranks too now experienced a secularisation process and the spread of religious apathy. During the Enlightenment, the Lutheran church, under Baltic German control, also adopted theological rationalism which relied on human reason in interpreting the Bible, and reduced Christianity to the status of mere moral teaching.
The Enlightenment directly involved only the educated spheres of society; the less educated, ‘unenlightened’ masses could only serve as the object of Enlightenment. The popular literature of the time directed at the peasantry was the foundation of secular literature in the Estonian language. The purpose of Enlightenment literature was to offer the peasants, in an easily understandable form, some practical advice and knowledge: especially in the field of medicine. The popular medical magazine Lühhike öppetus (Brief Instruction), published in 1766, denotes the start of journalism in the Estonian language. The part of the Enlightenment movement directed at the peasants was by far the most conservative: peasants were simply exhorted to obedience; the ideal of a practical, neat and tidy household was in reality unthinkable.
The Enlightenment greatly contributed to raising social awareness of the problem of serfdom, and encouraging open debate. Most of the publicists, however, retained a cautious position, considering the abolition of serfdom premature. They usually limited themselves to demands of fixing or reducing peasants’ rates; while at the same time improving the schools, because emancipating the serfs should be preceded by a long-term task of enlightened education.
Against the background of such political moderation, two critics of serfdom clearly stand out. They represent two generations of the Livonian Enlightenment — pastor Johann Georg Eisen (1717–1779) and the man of letters Garlieb Merkel (1769–1850). Eisen was not merely concerned with the Baltic provinces, but he was the first to demand the abolition of serfdom and the peasants’ right to land throughout Russia. He laid his hopes on enlightened absolutism, trying to convince the empress Catherine II and the Russian high nobility of the social-economic inefficiency of serfdom.
The most remarkable achievement in public criticism of serfdom is Merkel’s pamphlet published in 1796 in Leipzig Die Letten, vorzüglich in Liefland am Ende des philosophischen Jahrhunderts (The Letts, especially in Livonia, at the End of the Philosophical Century), which primarily attacked the Baltic German nobility. Merkel treated the ancient Livonian and Estonian peoples, or Latvians and Estonians, not only as suppressed peasants, but as nations forced into serfdom whose development had thus been artificially hampered. The idealised picture of the life of Latvians and Estonians before the crusaders conquered the land, depicted in Merkel’s literary works, considerably influenced the treatment of history by the ideologues of the Estonian and Latvian national movements during the second half of the 19th century.
Catherine II (1762–1796), on the whole, favoured the Enlightenment. Her politics of enlightened absolutism aspired to modernise and unify the entire Russian Empire. The special status of the Baltic provinces was greatly reduced: the customs barriers between Estonia and Livonia and Russia were eliminated and an all-Russian tax system (poll tax) enforced. In connection with this, Russia’s first census was organised in the same year.
In 1783, the Russian guberniya system spread to the Estonian territories. It was called the ‘regency’ (Statthalterschaft), and signified a policy compromise by enlightened absolutism towards the Baltic German nobility. Catherine II partly curbed the nobility’s class privileges: the peerage roll lost its former significance, and the Councils of Diet were abolished. In return, the Empress extended the Baltic German landlords’ right of ownership, giving the manors the status of private property. At the same time, the Statthalterschaft was characterised by egalitarian tendencies — the new regulations took no account of ethnic provenance and thus offered people from the lower ranks a chance to better their position. It was also characterised by reorganisation which could be almost democratic; the basis of civic administration, for example, was expanded, replacing Town Councils which had been co-opted for life with councillors elected for a fixed duration. The Statthalterschaft extended townspeople’s rights also to non-Germans, allowing urban Estonians to get a foot on the social ladder and limited participation in politics. The majority of non-German citizens were still unable to take the new opportunities, both because of their low educational standard, and because the Statthalterschaft: was altered soon afterwards.
Paul I (1796–1801), a descendent of Catherine, annulled most of her reforms (except the poll tax and common customs zone), and restored the Baltic Germans’ class privileges in their previous form. In 1797, Estonian peasants and the lower ranks of townspeople were painfully hit by the extension of the recruitment system to the Estonian territories. During the Napoleonic Wars (1806–1807), about 28 000 Livonian and Estonian peasants and townspeople were recruited into the Russian territorial army. By the abolition of compulsory service in 1874, about 100 000 men were enlisted in the Russian army. Taking into account the unborn babies, this meant a loss of 200 000 people to the Estonian population.