Viljandi is a little town in Central Estonia. The ruins of the mighty castle of the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order on the picturesque ridge overlooking the lake, and the lake itself, one of the loveliest in Estonia that bounds the town from the southeast, are the symbols of the town. The wooden architecture, cobblestone streets and the atmosphere typical of a small Baltic town also bring to mind the town’s past.


Viljandi. Aerial photo (Photo: Heimar Lill,


Lutsu street and water tower in Viljandi old town (Photo: Mikk Mihkel Vaabel)

History of Viljandi until the 19th Century

Viljandi (Fellin in German) was settled in prehistoric times already. It was one of the centres of Estonian resistance in the first quarter of the 13th century, when Estonians fought against German, Danish and Swedish crusaders who had invaded the land. The town capitulated to the Order of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword in 1223 and the construction of a stone castle in place of the former Estonian wooden fortress began immediately on the orders of Volquin, the order’s Grand Master. The castle became one of the mightiest fortification complexes in Livonia for the next 300 years.


A view to the ruins of the castle (Photo: Rein Grünbach)

Viljandi was conveniently located on the trade route from Pärnu via Tartu to Pskov in Russia. This was a waterway running along the Pärnu River and its tributaries through Lake Viljandi to Võrtsjärv Lake and from there along the Emajõgi River to Lake Peipus and Lake Pskov. This waterway has been cut off by the present time due to the intervening rise in ground levels. Trade and handicrafts began to develop rapidly in the town after its capture. Viljandi was granted town privileges in the mid-13th century and belonged to the Hanseatic League from the 14th century onward.

The military campaign of Russia’s Tsar Ivan III in 1481 interrupted the town’s peaceful development. The Russians captured the town but did not succeed in taking the order’s castle. After receiving the ransom paid by the order, they returned to Russia. However, many buildings, including the town hall together with its archive, burned down as the town was being stormed.

The medieval system of governing the Baltic provinces perished in the 16th century. The Reformation replaced the Catholic faith with Lutheranism. The Livonian Order that had ruled the land together with the Archbishopric of Riga, and the dioceses of Tartu and Bishopric of Ösel-Wiek (island Saaremaa and Western Estonia) in Estonia subordinated to Riga, was destroyed in the war fought between Sweden, Poland, Russia and Denmark in 1558–1583 for control of Old Livonia. Viljandi was completely destroyed in that war: the Russians captured the town in 1560 and it was burned to the ground. The castle was initially successfully defended, but soldiers started rebelling against the Grand Master Wilhelm von Fürstenberg, who was in command of the defence of the castle. The rebels blew up the castle’s main tower and the castle was subdued. Thereafter Viljandi remained under Russian rule for the subsequent 20 years. Part of the town was rebuilt, some of the townspeople returned, and trade picked up.

After Russia and Poland signed the Treaty of Jam Zapolski in 1582, Viljandi was placed under Polish rule. Under Polish rule, the castle’s fortifications were restored and the Catholic faith was re-established. The Jesuits started up their own school, a hospital and a poorhouse in Viljandi. One of Viljandi’s best known Jesuits was Dionysius Fabricius, who paid a great deal of attention to Viljandi as well in his chronicle. The oldest surviving source describing Viljandi Castle, the so called Polish audit, dates from 1599.

Sigismund III, the son of King John III of Sweden and his first wife, the Polish princess Katarzyna Jagiellonka, was elected King of Poland in 1587. When John III died five years later, Sigismund III also became king of Sweden. Protestant Sweden’s Riksdag impeached its catholic king in 1599 and his uncle Charles IX came to power in his place. War that was to last the next 30 years began between Poland and Sweden the following year. A large part of this war was fought on the territory of Livonia. The town of Viljandi changed hands several times. Of the 600 peasants that belonged to the castle at the outset of the 17th century, only 50 remained 25 years later when the Swedes finally captured the town once and for all. The town was in ruins.

Under Swedish rule, Viljandi lost its town privileges and the castle lost its military importance. In 1624, King Gustav II Adolf enfeoffed Viljandi together with its surroundings to the Lord High Constable Jacob de la Gardie, who at that time was also Governor General of Livland. The town stagnated. In 1682, there were only 43 houses in Viljandi with 55 families. Livland and Estland were battlegrounds for the military conflicts between Russia and Sweden in the Great Northern War that began in 1700. The knighthoods of Estland, Livland and Saaremaa capitulated to the Russian Tsar Peter I in 1710 and swore allegiance to him. Estland and Livland were incorporated into Russia. The local nobility retained their landed estates and their power in local government. The Lutheran faith remained the local official religion and German remained the local official language.


St. John’s Church (Photo: Mikk Mihkel Vaabel)


Viljandi in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Viljandi’s town privileges were restored in 1783, when Empress Catherine II reformed Russia, and Viljandi became the administrative centre of Viljandi County. The first stone buildings after the end of the Middle Ages were built: the court and pharmacy building, and the house of the Justizbürgermeister Johann Nicolaus Otto. The latter building became the Viljandi town hall after its reconstruction. The population of the town and its standard of living grew stably in the 19th century. According to the 1881 census, 5325 people lived in Viljandi, including its suburbs. By 1897, the population already numbered 7736. Handicrafts and retail business remained the primary fields of activity of the town’s residents.

As was the case elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the barriers separating the classes corresponded to language boundaries also in the Baltics: the nobility, clergy and burghers were Baltic Germans, while the peasantry and the lower strata of the towns were Estonians and Latvians. Serfdom was abolished in Livland in 1819. In the mid-19th century, the Estonian peasants of Viljandi County were among the most progressive. They purchased their farms outright and prospered in the 1860’s primarily through cultivating flax, the demand for which increased in Europe due to the decrease in cotton shipments from America caused by the American Civil War. Carl Robert Jakobson, who formulated the Estonian nationalist programme at the end of the 1860’s, began publishing the Estonian-language newspaper Sakala in Viljandi in 1878. His monument currently stands in Viljandi’s town centre.


Monument of Carl Robert Jakobson in Viljandi (Photo: Mikk Mihkel Vaabel)

General Johan Laidoner, the Commander in Chief of the Estonian Armed Forces in the Estonian War of Independence in 1918–1920, was born in Viiratsi near Viljandi in 1884. Estonia’s only equestrian statue has been erected in his honour on the slope of the castle’s ridge.


Monument of the General Johan Laidoner (Photo: Mikk Mihkel Vaabel)

Viljandi was also an important centre for Baltic Germans. Alongside Baltic German burghers, Baltic German rural nobility were also part of society in the town: they had houses in the town where they lived in winter. Their sons studied here at the private grammar school founded in 1844 by Gustav Max Schmidt, which became the provincial grammar school of Livland’s knighthood in 1875. A knighthood boarding school (Stift Fellin) for girls of the nobility was also established here. The boarding school and provincial grammar school buildings are city sights to this day. Both Lutheran churches also still stand today – the Church of St. John at the edge of the castle ridge was the church for the German congregation, while the Church of St. Paul less than a kilometre away was and is the temple of God for Viljandi’s large rural parish.


Former residence of the family von Helmersen, 19th century (Photo: Rein Grünbach)


Former boy’s grammar school of the Livonian Knighthood (Landesgymnasium zu Fellin (Photo: Mikk Mihkel Vaabel)


St. Paul’s church (Photo: Mikk Mihkel Vaabel)

Construction of the narrow gauge railroad reached Viljandi in 1897 and the town has been connected by railroad to Pärnu, Valga and Tallinn since the beginning of the 20th century. The railroad was converted to wide gauge in the 1970’s.


Railway station (Photo: Viljandi Museum)

The Republic of Estonia was declared on the stairs of Viljandi’s courthouse, among other locations in Estonia, on 24 February 1918. The Bolsheviks had fled the town the previous day. German forces captured the town the next day. Estonia remained occupied by the Germans until November of 1918.

Viljandi was the fifth largest town in the Republic of Estonia. According to the census of 1934, nearly 12,000 people lived here and Viljandi fell short of Tallinn, Tartu, Narva and Pärnu in terms of population. Viljandi’s most important industrial enterprise was the match factory established in 1904, which the Swedish concern Svenska Tändsticks AB acquired during the Great Depression. Viljandi was also an important summer resort with its lake, beach club and castle ridge. Viljandi’s Ugala Theatre became a professional theatre in 1926. The school teacher August Maramaa was Viljandi’s mayor in 1919–1921 and 1927–1939, and a monument dedicated to his memory was erected in 2007.


Main building of the match factory (Photo: Viljandi Museum)

After the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed on 23 August 1939 and its secret protocol assigned the Baltic States to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, the Baltic Germans resettled in Germany upon Hitler’s appeal to them (Umsiedlung). The Soviet Union occupied the Baltic States in the summer of 1940. Severe political repressions struck Viljandi and Viljandi County as one of Estonia’s more prosperous regions and they culminated with the deportation of 14 June 1941, when 750 people were taken to Russia from Viljandi and Viljandi County alone. Just three weeks later on 8 July 1941, German forces captured the town. The battle for Viljandi lasted 12 hours. The 22nd NKVD Rifle Division under the command of Colonel Andrei Golovko was retreating from Latvia through Viljandi and fought against a German reinforced battle group the size of a regiment under the command of Major General Ferdinand von Selle.

Viljandi was notorious during the German occupation primarily due to the large prisoner of war camp (Stalag 332) that was located here. Thousands of Soviet prisoners of war passed through this camp and a typhus epidemic that broke out in the winter of 1941/1942 claimed hundreds of victims. In 1942, some German Army Ukrainian cavalry squadrons were formed in the Viljandi prisoner of war camp. Estonian soldiers who had been mobilised into the Red Army but had surrendered in the Battle of Velikiye Luki arrived here at the outset of 1943. They were sent from the Viljandi prisoner of war camp to Estonian units of the German armed forces. A memorial erected during the era of Soviet occupation stands in the place where the prisoner of war camp was formerly located. The German military cemetery in Viljandi is another reminder of the Second World War. Monuments have been also erected in memory of the victims of Soviet political repressions.


Soviet prisoners of war in front of the Grand Hotel, the location of a military hospital during WWII (Viljandi Museum)

Estonia was once again subjected to Soviet rule in the autumn of 1944. Viljandi was the administrative centre for the county and later for the rajon. The match factory and other industrial enterprises continued to operate. The town had a population of about 21,000 in 1970 and 23,000 in 1989. The one of Estonia’s largest professional theatres, and several secondary schools were located in Viljandi. In 1960, the 4th Single Spetsnaz Brigade of the GRU was stationed in Viljandi. This unit was withdrawn from Estonia in 1992. As a trick of fate, that unit was housed in the complex of buildings of the former boarding school for girls of the nobility.


Former girl’s boarding school (Fräuleinstift zu Fellin) of the Livonian Knighthood (Photo: Viljandi Museum)

Viljandi Today

At the time of the 2011 census, 17,473 people lived in Viljandi. Nowadays, Viljandi is the administrative centre of Viljandi County. Viljandi has a separate municipal government, but the administrative centre for Viljandi Rural Municipality is also located in Viljandi. Viljandi Rural Municipality was formed in 2013 by merging the four rural municipalities around the town. Viljandi’s match factory went bankrupt a few years ago but small entrepreneurship has flourished in the city. Viljandi has the Ugala Theatre, a national grammar school, a provincial grammar school and the University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy, which is one of Viljandi’s best known institutions. Viljandi remains a resort where many Estonians spend their summer vacations, and the ski resorts in the vicinity of the city allow enthusiasts to engage in winter sports. The city’s best known event is the Viljandi Folk music festival that has been held every summer since 1993. Since 2013, Viljandi’s mayor is Ando Kiviberg, who was one of the initiators of the folk music festival a quarter of a century ago.


Estonian Traditional Music Center of the Viljandi Cultural Academy (Photo: Rein Grünbach)


National grammar school (Photo: Rein Grünbach)

Ennuksemäe forest brothers’ bunker.* From the autumn of 1944 onward, Estonia was once again under Soviet occupation. Thousands of men and women went into hiding in the woods to escape the repressions of Soviet state security institutions. Many of them put up armed resistance to the Soviet regime. The members of the armed resistance movement were known as forest brothers. Estonia’s climate is northern and many forest brothers built bunkers as dwellings for themselves, which varied from simple shelters to extensive underground building complexes.

Construction of the underground bunker complex at Ennuksemäe began in the autumn of 1944. There was a large common room in the bunker and several dozen metres of underground passages. The exits were in the form of several hatches camouflaged with branches and pieces of sod. The forest brothers slept in double-decker bunks. There was an iron stove in the room. Niches were carved into the wall of the passageway to serve as the latrine and for non-flammable waste. The bunker was mined with two airplane bombs with a trigger that could be set off from within the bunker. There was a warning system that gave indication of the approach of strangers in order to avoid unexpected visitors.

The Soviet state security forces launched a raid on the bunker in the evening of 21 February 1945. The attackers set fire to one of the bunker’s exits. The danger of suffocation forced the men to come out. The battle between the bunker’s defenders and the attackers lasted until the afternoon of the next day. By that time, seven forest brothers had been killed. The detonation of the airplane bombs protecting the bunker failed because the wires were frozen.


Ennuksemäe forest brothers’ bunker (Photo: Olev Kallas)

Lake Parika Väikejärv Bog.* Colourful bog landscapes rich in flora and fauna form one of Estonian nature’s characteristic settings. Estonians customarily gather berries and mushrooms from bogs in the autumn. This sometimes seems like a rather exotic pastime to urbanised Europeans.

Lake Parika Väikejärv Bog is famous for its heart-shaped bog lake, where visitors can also swim. The bog lake has a rejuvenating effect according age-old popular belief. A boardwalk runs through the bog and is furnished with information boards and rest areas where people can rest their legs or even have a picnic.


Lake Parika Väikejärv Bog (Photo: Olev Kallas)

* The excursions are manageable for all, including people who are no longer in the first blush of youth or in the best physical condition.

© 2016 Estonian Institute of Historical Memory