"Uniting" Ruhnu with the Republic of Estonia
Kaido Jaanson

On 17 January 1919 the Provisional Government of the Republic of Estonia passed the following law: "To proclaim the Island of Ruhnu as part of the Republic of Estonia". The decision, at that moment, was of a symbolic nature - the island in winter was cut off from the mainland and there was no-one able to tell the news to the islanders. Apathy towards the little island lasted throughout the spring. Things picked up only in late May 1919. The daily Päevaleht published a short article describing the dispatch of an officer to Ruhnu who reported that "the inhabitants of Ruhno have had no connection with the mainland since November. They knew nothing of the Republic of Estonia. People there have about 40 000 pounds of seal blubber that they would like to exchange for salt and cartridges."

Money was then quickly allocated to "buy seal blubber from Ruhnu island", and permission was granted to take cartridges, guns, leather, petroleum and foodstuffs to the inhabitants. The "Ruhnu Island Commission" set out for the island. The commission made a stopover in Kuressaare where its members were compelled to "turn to experts in order to obtain useful tips about the customs and traditions of the islanders so that the expedition would be an unqualified success." Having reached the island, the commission tried to convince the inhabitants, in Swedish, that the government of the Republic of Estonia was keen to fulfil their wishes and protect their interests. After a few hours of negotiations the delegation was permitted to land.

The final decision regarding the status of Ruhnu, however, was delayed - according to the Ruhnu custom it could only be given by a general assembly of all the islanders. Terms of sale and purchase were agreed upon beforehand. The islanders sold seal blubber and received cash and exchange goods (salt, wheat flour, petroleum, guns, cartridges, but also spirits and wine).

The Ruhnu people then convened in the local vicarage. In his Swedish-language report a few months later, the government representative remarked that "it was by no means easy since the Latvians had been on the island before trying to proclaim it part of Latvia, and the islanders themselves aspired to join Sweden." At that time Ruhnu was home to about 300 inhabitants, including forty men. Matters were always decided at a general assembly.

The people of Ruhnu agreed to join the Republic of Estonia, and the "expedition" returned to the mainland. Unfortunately the purchased seal blubber was of no use in Tallinn and soon went bad because of unsuitable preservation conditions.

The State Audit revealed that the republic had suffered a loss of 15 116 marks. After some deliberation, however, it was decided on 20 November 1919 to close the books on the matter. The reasons ran as follows: "1) the expedition to Ruhnu island was a political rather than economic undertaking, 2) there did not seem to be any self-interest involved on the part of the expedition members, 3) the loss suffered by the state, although in part due to the irresponsibility of the leader of the expedition, mostly arose from the circumstances."

An slightly different form of this article appeared in the magazine "Today" no 35, August 1991

ESTONIAN CULTURE 1/2003 (1) · ISSN 1406-8478