The pre-history of Estonian population censuses goes back to the 18th century when the Russian Empire organised head-count surveys to determine the number of taxpayers. The first survey of this type was conducted in Estonia in 1781/82, followed by further six head-counts on the territory of Estonia.
The first population census in a modern sense, which covered more or less the entire Estonian territory, was conducted on 29 December 1881 when the populations of Estonian, Livonian and Curonian provinces were enumerated simultaneously. The second census on the Estonian territory was conducted in 1897 in the context of the Imperial Russia Population Census. This census was organised in a centralised manner based on a harmonised programme for the entire Russia.
The first population census of the Republic of Estonia took place in 1922 and lasted for two days. The census questionnaire was much longer and, for the first time, it included questions about living conditions and enabled enumeration of dwellings and residential buildings. Two tabulating machines, designed specifically for population censuses, were ordered from Paris with an envisaged running time of 22 hours per day. Data were collected by 17,000 enumerators and the machines enabled to shorten the period of data processing by half – to one and a half years.
The planned census of 1930 was postponed until 1934 due to economic crisis and financial problems. The questionnaire of this census was mostly similar to the questionnaire of 1922. They were both rather exhaustive, were appropriate for Estonian circumstances and in line with international recommendations. For the first time, the work of enumerators was organised in a somewhat hierarchical manner to ensure better control over results. The census started with the distribution of questionnaires to the population. The questionnaires were filled out in a couple of days before the critical moment and were verified after being returned to enumerators following the critical moment.
The events from 1939 to 1941 had a major impact on the size and composition of Estonian population and, to obtain an overview of the situation, German occupation authorities organised a general registration of population in 1941, with only seven questions for each person. They needed information on resources in the country, incl. especially available workforce, and had to determine how many people required food ration cards and how many were able to feed themselves from their agricultural produce. This survey was subsequently not included among population censuses.
There were four population censuses in Estonia during the Soviet regime (1959, 1970, 1979 and 1989), and the census programme was uniform throughout the Soviet Union. The questionnaire was mainly in Russian and it was the task of enumerators, who had to speak both Russian and Estonian, to translate the questions to respondents.
All data were sent to Moscow where they were processed in a centralised manner. In 1959, computers were used there for the first time to process census data. Availability of census results was generally restricted to official use, with very few publications for the general public. A significant portion of the census results of the Soviet period has been published in Estonia in the 1990s in collections entitled “Eesti rahvastik rahvaloenduse andmetel” (Population of Estonia by population censuses).
A particular problem associated with the censuses during the Soviet period was the use of census maps, which were subject to certain data distortion requirements. For example, deviations had to be made in the vicinity of significant national defence objects and its was prohibited to mark such objects on the map. Original copies of sketch maps of urban settlements (i.e., census maps of densely populated areas) had to be sent to the headquarters of military districts for approval and verification.
A sampling survey was used for the first time in the census of 1970 – a quarter of the persons enumerated were asked additional questions. The reason for the use of samples was probably a desire to reduce the costs of data processing. By that time, Estonia had the computers required for local data processing, but their use was not permitted and the data had to be sent to Moscow.
A large amount of work was accomplished in ordering the structure of settlements and place names before the next census in 1979. Lembit Tepp, the chief organiser of the censuses of 1970 and 1979, was the initiator of this process of determining the exact boundaries of all settlements, ordering of place names and reviewing the system of house numbers. As a result, the accuracy of the 1979 census was extremely high compared to ongoing population registration records – the difference was less than 100 persons. Nevertheless, the central authorities did not permit data processing in Estonia. The data were entered in computers locally but were then sent to Moscow for processing.
Ten years later, in 1989, the organisation of the census was generally unchanged but there were more questions in the questionnaire. It now also included questions on housing, a novel development for the Soviet Union, despite being an established practice in the Republic of Estonia more than half a century ago. For the first time, Estonia was able to retain a full copy of data entered in computers and sent to Moscow for processing.
The first population and housing census in Estonia after restoration of independence started on 31 March 2000 (PHC 2000). The census was organised according to international recommendations for questionnaires and processes, incl. an evaluation of the quality of the census. There were two questionnaires – a household and dwelling questionnaire and a personal questionnaire. All questions were in Estonian language and could be translated by the enumerator if necessary. The census maps were based on aerial photographs and were significantly more accurate than before. Unlike in the previous censuses of the Republic of Estonia, enumerators were now paid remuneration.
Processing of the results of the PHC 2000 was a major challenge for Statistics Estonia, as there was no prior experience of processing census datasets in Estonia using modern computers. A special data processing system was developed for this purpose.
There have been ten full-scale population censuses in Estonia since 1881. They provide a comprehensive picture of the development of Estonian population in the past 130 years. The population and housing census of 2011 is the eleventh census and, for the first time, enumerators use laptops instead of paper questionnaires and respondents can also fill out questionnaires on the Internet.