Ruhnu (Swedish: Runö; Latvian: Roņu sala) is an island situated in the Gulf of Riga in the Baltic Sea. It belongs to Estonia and is an administrative part of Saare County. At 11.9 km2 it has currently less than 100, mostly ethnic Estonian permanent inhabitants. Prior to 1944 it was for centuries populated by ethnic Swedes and traditional Swedish law was used.
The first archaeological artifacts of human activity in Ruhnu, assumed to be related to seasonal seal hunting, date back to around 5000 BC. The time of arrival of the first ancient Scandinavians in Ruhnu and the beginning of a permanent Swedish-speaking settlement is not known. It probably did not precede the Northern Crusades in the beginning of the 13th century, when the indigenous peoples of all the lands surrounding the Gulf of Riga were converted to Christianity and subjugated to the Teutonic Order. The first documented record of the island of Ruhnu, and of its Swedish population, is a 1341 letter sent by the Bishop of Courland which confirmed the islanders' right to reside and manage their property in accordance with Swedish law.
Ruhnu was controlled by the Kingdom of Sweden (1621–1708, formally until 1721) and after that by Imperial Russia until World War I, when it was occupied by Imperial Germany (1915–1918). After the war, despite some local initiatives to rejoin Sweden, and territorial claims by Latvia, the islanders agreed to become part of newly independent Estonia in 1919 (possibly in exchange for Estonian military aid to Latvia against the West Russian Volunteer Army). According to a census taken in 1934, Ruhnu had a population of 282: 277 ethnic Swedes and 5 ethnic Estonians.
During World War II, Ruhnu, along with the rest of Estonia, was first occupied by the Soviet Union (1940–1941) and then by Germany (1941–1944). In November 1943, a first group of about 75 islanders relocated to Sweden. In August 1944, shortly before the beginning of the second Soviet occupation, the entire remaining population of the island, with the exception of just two families, fled by ship to Sweden.
During the period of Soviet occupation after 1944, the island was repopulated by Estonian civilians and also served as a basis of a small Soviet military garrison. The number of inhabitants never exceeded 400, and in the 1970s, after a storm hit Ruhnu, most people were relocated.
Life on Ruhnu today
After Estonia regained its independence in 1991, buildings, land, and other property on Ruhnu Island were returned to those with ownership claims that went back to prior to the Soviet occupation of Estonia, or to their descendants. In case of Ruhnu, those descendants were mostly resident in Sweden. While most of them did not return to Ruhnu, they still occasionally visit the land of their forefathers.
The island has a quadripod tower lighthouse, which stands atop highest point of the island, Haubjerre hill. It was prefabricated in France and shipped to Ruhnu for assembly in 1877. The structure was designed by Gustave Eiffel.
The Runhu wooden church, built in 1644, is one of the oldest wood constructed buildings in Estonia. The church's baroque-style tower was finished in 1755. The stone Lutheran church next to the wooden one was built in 1912 and is currently where services are held.
Limo beach is one of the island's most popular and accessible beaches for tourists.
In the spring of 2006, a 150 kilogram brown bear arrived on Ruhnu via an ice floe across the Gulf of Riga from the mainland of Latvia, some 40 km (25 mi) away. The bear's journey and resettlement on the island became a highly publicized media sensation in both the Estonian and Latvian press, as Ruhnu has been devoid of any large carnivores for many centuries. The bear continued to evade capture for months and environmental ministry officials reported that tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive bear outnumbered permanent residents. The bear is believed by authorities to have since returned to Latvia.
In April 2007, Latvian chocolate producer "Laima" presented Ruhnu islanders with a 40 kg (88 lbs.) chocolate statue of the bear to go on display before being eaten by islanders. This chocolate bear was finally eaten on 20 December 2007.
- Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Rußwurm: Eibofolke oder die Schweden an der Küste Esthlands und auf Runö, eine ethnographische Untersuchung mit Urkunden, Tabellen und lithographirten Beilagen. Reval 1855
- There is an account of life on Ruhnu in the 1920s in Arthur Ransome's 1923 book Racundra's First Cruise (republished in 2003 by Fernhurst Books).
- A useful short article on Ruhnu appeared in Hidden Europe Magazine, 15 (July 2007), pp. 20–1.
- Taylor, N. with Karin T (2008). Saaremaa: a History and Travel Guide. Tallinn: OÜ Greif. ISBN 978-9985-3-1606-1, pp 78–83
- (Swedish) Hedman, Jörgen & Åhlander, Lars. 2006: Runö. Historien om svenskön i Rigabukten. Stockholm: Dialogos, ISBN 91-7504-184-7
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