ESTONIA seems to have been summed up by the Roman Philosopher Seneca: “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” And after 700 years of occupation and domination by its neighbours, the very fact that Estonia exists seems testimony to its courage.

So, as we set out on this journey it’s important to do some basic research on where you are going, especially the history of the place you have little knowledge of. That’s why this week we’ll be looking back to Estonia’s past and how it has shaped its thinking and survival instincts during occupation and domination by its larger German, Russian and Swedish-speaking neighbours.

One important thing we should take with us on this journey and keep easily accessible is the knowledge that Estonia’s history is not comparable to Scotland’s – our journeys and experiences have been profoundly different. This historical reflection seeks only to ensure an understanding of how Estonia utilised its history and gained a foothold in the digital world, not to act as a comparison to Scotland’s long constitutional journey.

The 20th century gave Estonia little respite, with one fleeting grasp at independence during the interwar period, snuffed out by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich. It was a time in which Estonian constitutionalism survived several coups, but in which the emergent Estonians were able to participate politically and economically as equal for the first time.

Small incremental steps had allowed that to happen. Like a stone gathering moss, the simple acts of electing an Estonian-speaking mayor and the appointment of an Estonian-speaking headmistress in 1901 had a trickle-down effect on Estonian conscience. Hearing your language spoken in political debate and in the classroom is a powerful defence in maintaining a sense of self, whether that be as the individual or the nation.

That very headmistress, Marta Pärna, remained defiantly in her post till dismissed by the Soviets in 1940.

It must be noted that the interwar period saw a robust democratic constitution, full universal suffrage and a fully proportional election system. At last Estonians were able to determine their own governance and destiny – or so they thought.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed the death warrant of millions of Europeans, including at least 20% of the Estonian population through the expulsion and transportation to the gulag of 10,000 by the Soviets in June 1941. With the advance of the Nazis in summer 1941, what was left of the Estonian Jewish population of almost 1000 were murdered at the hands of the Waffen SS and collaborators.

In a world gone mad, the Soviets returned in 1944. In those years, little was said in the capitals of the free world about the lives of those in the Baltics, yet in the silence of their occupation, they sought to nurture their language and raised their voices in song. They also sought opportunities where they could find them – losing 20% of their population did not hold them back.

Utilising the very structures of occupation, Estonians travelled across the Soviet Union, accessing its universities and even founding the critically important Estonian Cybernetics Institute in 1960, putting Estonians at the forefront of Soviet Information and Communications Technology (ICT) development.

Little did the Soviets imagine that the mass return of many of those Estonians in 1991 would combine with this nascent indigenous ICT industry to set in motion a ripple effect across the USSR which many say played a significant part in the demise of the Soviet economy. Without Estonian expertise, Soviet ICT systems began to fail, and so began the economic collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 1988 the Estonian Soviet declared Estonian sovereignty and by 1990 Estonian was again the country’s official language. What Moscow didn’t see coming was a small European nation state, in all its imperfection and having surrendered its past, grasp the opportunity in the following years to become a robust yet imperfect digital nation, a member of an equal political union, the EU, and member of Nato.

Yet for all that Estonia set a different path for citizenship that we in Scotland would find problematic, we are a nation of all sorts, from every corner of the globe, and our vision is often verbalised in the phrase “A’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns”.

THE same cannot be said for Estonia. Its first citizens act excluded those Russophone Estonians without a family connection prior to 1940, something of a missed opportunity. Despite this the local Russophone population know too well the lived reality across the border and many now seek formal citizenship and full participation in Estonian society.

This from my perspective remains a challenge for Estonia. From a Scottish perspective, the benefits of inclusion and diversity are limitless, and there are opportunities for us to share our learning in this field as well as learning from Estonia of the benefits of digitisation.

And there is a key insight into making a success of independence using the Estonian model. While many of the institutions of a former regime need to be reinvigorated with a new liberal democratic spirit, it is also important to look for those which are ripe for adaptation and success for the new age. Estonia’s fortuitous legacy as a centre of Soviet ITC research opened up the tantalising prospect of it becoming the global leader it is today, and it took some courage to capitalise on that.

Scotland can, if willing, learn from Estonian digital statehood and ensure a radical digital opportunity that will be life-changing for us all. All we need is courage.