On the 1st January 2011, Estonia will join the Eurozone, and its currency the Kroon will fade into the realms of history. For some this is a cause for great celebration, as Estonia becomes ever more integrated into the European economy. Andris Vilks, Latvia’s Finance Minister is thus reported as saying that “The introduction of the euro in Estonia will foster long-term economic development in the entire region”. Likewise, as the official Estonia.eu site comments, “Estonia’s accession to the euro zone will be in the country’s own interest despite the current crisis gripping the monetary union. The changeover to the euro, a world currency, will boost business confidence, investor confidence, and also the well-being and confidence of the Estonian people.”
However, life is about very much more than mere economic development. Banknotes are thus not only a medium of economic exchange, but are also a fundamentally important symbol of national identity. On their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, all of the Baltic States thus embarked on a diversity of programmes to reassert their own individual identities. One of the most visible of these expressions was the creation of new currencies and banknote designs that drew on their rich cultural heritages.
In the case of Estonia, the banknotes focused especially on the nation’s original ‘awakening’ in the 19th century, drawing on themes associated with the countryside, small family farms, and the deep significance of a very particular link with nature.
In summary, the pictures shown were as follows:
- 1 Kroon – front: image of the graphic artists Kristjan Raud, who illustrated the epic saga Kalevipoeg; back: Toompea Castle
- 2 Kroon – front: the scientist Karl Ernst von Baer; back: the main building of Tartu University
- 5 Kroon – front: Paul Keres, an international grand master in chess; back: the towns of Narva and Jaanilinn
- 10 Kroon – front: Jakob Hurt, the Estonian folklorist who played a major role in the 19th century national awakening; back: the Tame-Lauri oak tree in southern Estonia
- 25 Kroon – front: Anton Hansen-Tammsaare, author of the saga Truth and Justice; back: Tammsare’s farm at Varagamae
- 100 Kroon – front: the Estonian poetess Lydia Koidula; back: the northern Estonian limestone cliffs at Panga Pank
- 500 Kroon – front: Carl Robert Jakobsen, journalist and promoter of agriculture; back: a barn swallow, the Estonian national bird, flying over a rural landscape
Designed by Vladimir Taiger and printed by Thomas de la Rue, I find these banknotes to be exceptionally beautiful, capturing with great insight the aspirations of some of those who strove to create a new Estonia following the Soviet occupation. To be sure, this vision of a rural heritage did not sit well with those who were determined to turn Estonia into a thriving capitalist urban economy, and it is perhaps symbolic of the shift in political power within the country that it was at the vanguard of those knocking on the door of Europe, both in terms of its original incorporation into the European Union in 2004, and now with its rejection of the Kroon in favour of the Euro. As I predicted back in 2000 when writing about the creation of these banknotes, “This efflorescence of artistic representations of national identity in the 1990s therefore reflects a brief and poignant moment in these states’ development”.
Let us celebrate the short history of the new Estonian Kroon and hope that its replacement by the bland, anodyne and utilitarian commercial instrument of the Euro will not reflect the complete submersion of Estonia’s proud identity within the selfish, individualistic capitalist mentality that drives the Eurozone and its arrogant bankers.
[I was fortunate enough to speak with many of those involved in the original design and production of these banknotes in the course of a British Academy funded research project with Virginia Hewitt, the results of which were published as:
- Hewitt, V. and Unwin, T. (2004) Reconstructing national identities: the banknotes of central and eastern Europe in the 1990s, in: Green, E., Lampe, J. and Stiblar, F. (eds) Crisis and Renewal in 20th Century Banking, Aldershot: Ashgate, 254-275.
- Unwin, T. and Hewitt, V. (2001) Banknotes and national identity in central and eastern Europe, Political Geography, 20, 1005-1028.
- Hewitt, V. and Unwin, T. (2001) Vidurio ir rytų Europos šalių Xxa dešimtujo dešimtecio banknotai, Pinigų Studijos, 3, 88-100
- Unwin, T. (2001) Banknotes and national identity in central and eastern Europe, The British Academy Review, 46-48]
For further comment, see also this BBC report published on 23rd December 2010 that captures the diversity of opinion in Estonia surrounding the ditching of the Kroon.