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« Tuna 3 / 2020

The Era of Notifications on the Right of Ownership at the Estonian National Archives, 1989–1996

This article examines an exceptional period in the history of Estonian archives, when the practical interest of members of society in information found in archives was unprecedentedly great. This period is worth remembering on the one-hundredth birthday of the National Archives. People’s interest in information found in the archives grew in connection with the winds of liberation and the restoration of the independent Republic of Estonia in 1991. The Republic of Estonia chose the path of restitution in questions regarding property ownership, this means the path of restoring legal continuity. Property that had been confiscated in the course of the Soviet occupation started being compensated and returned. It was necessary to apply for a right of ownership notice from the archives in order to prove the existence of property. While the number of enquiries in the archives remained at more or less the same level in 1986–1988, it tripled in 1989, and state archives issued a total of 13,400 notices in that year.

In the History Archive’s record year of 1992, the archive received 15,822 enquiries and the queue for answering them grew to seven months. The liquidation of the backlog required exertions on several levels. First of all, the leadership of the archive had to make sure that a normal temperature was maintained in the archive building, which was languishing in the heating fuel crisis, and to liquidate the causes of bursting water pipes. Additional employees were hired, and a financially motivating piecework system was implemented. The organisation of the work that was to be done was simplified and bureaucracy was reduced.

The number of enquiries received in 1995 decreased approximately 2.5-fold, yet their content became considerably more complex. Those submitting enquiries were often no longer citizens, but rather law firms that represented applicants. Courts that citizens had turned to in order to solve legally complicated matters also submitted enquiries. In addition to a more thorough review of the materials of the land registry office, information had to be sought from other archival sources in order to draw up responses.

The financial situation of the History Archive had changed fundamentally by 1996 compared to the time when the issuing of right of ownership notices began. The depositories were warm and brighter, many of the workrooms had already been modernised, there were telephones in the offices, an electronic security system had been installed in the archive, a computer network had been created and most employees had a computer on their desk.