The spiritual capital of Estonia

You might be tempted say that Tartu is a likeable small university town in south-eastern Estonia (in the old historical province of Livonia), and the second largest city (pop. 100 000) in Estonia. This would be a gross understatement, however. Tartu is much more than that. It is, and has always been, the spiritual capital of Estonia, having played a leading role in the cultural and ideological development of the Estonian nation.

It is no coincidence that the peace treaty between Soviet Russia and the Republic of Estonia in 1920 was not signed in the capital Tallinn, but in Tartu. Estonia’s largest daily newspaper Postimees, the par excellence most influential liberal publication in Estonia during nearly 150 years, is still published in Tartu. Estonian democratic and liberal ideas have always emanated from Tartu, the City of Learning, Ideas and Initiative. “Tartu Spirit” is a well-established expression that sums up its influence.

Three guises: Tartu, Dorpat, Jurjev

When Tartu was founded is anybody’s guess – the ancient Estonians didn’t keep written records or even have a written language. Archeological evidence indicates that Estonians have inhabited this land for several thousand years, so the city of Tartu is in all probability very old. But the first time Tartu is mentioned in written records is as late as 1030, when the Russian prince Jaroslav of Kiev overran the city, renaming it Jurjev (= City of St. George) in Russian. Giving it a Russian name was perhaps a bit premature, because the Estonians soon retook Tartu and kept it for the following 200 years –- until the next successful foreign onslaught, this time by the German Teutonic Order.

The German conquest was to be more enduring, 700 years of serfdom and suffering under the new Christian masters. And of course the Germans also saw fit to give Tartu their own particular name: Dorpat. So the city sometimes -- particularly in historical treatises -- appears under three different guises: Tartu, Dorpat, Jurjev.

Defensible topography

The attraction of Tartu to ancient military men is quite obvious to any hopeful Napoleon-to-be. The city is dominated by a steep hill, Toomemägi, which in turn is situated rather close to the western bank of a small river, Emajõgi (= “Mother River” in Estonian). The hill is only some 80 m high, but because it is the only significant elevation in an otherwise flat landscape, it gives, together with the Emajõgi river, the defenders of Tartu a decisive tactical edge.

Subsequent occupations by ancient German, Swedish, Polish and Russian forces and their fortification experts have turned the inside of the hill into a Swiss cheese, pierced by old fortifications, tunnels and armories. One such armory, “Püssirohu kelder” (= “The Gunpowder Cellar”), a huge brick-clad cave, reminiscent of a subterranean cathedral, has actually been converted into a very popular restaurant. But from the outside Toomemägi today is a lush, green and somewhat mischievous park, with its share of delightful surprises for the visitor.

Catherine the Great

Immediately below the Toomemägi hill is the University and the Old Town, which stretches down to the Emajõgi river. Because of the frequent wars in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the present buildings of the Tartu Old Town are rarely built earlier than in the 18th century. After the peace treaty of 1721, following the Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia, Tartu was to be under Tsarist Russian rule for the next 200 years. Russian Empress Catherine the Great visited Tartu in 1764 and ordered the city rebuilt, in her favorite architectural style. The best preserved part of the old city is around the Raekoja Plats (= Town Hall Square), exhibiting the neo-classicist look favored by Empress Catherine II, the Great.

The general who beat Napoleon and his Leaning House

Among the many neo-classicistic buildings around the Square, a little closer to the Emajõgi river, is one of the most curious sights in Tartu, the Leaning House of General Barclay de Tolly. Barclay de Tolly, who had an estate outside Tartu and a large house in the city, was the foremost planner of the successful Russian strategy of constant retreat in Russia’s 1812 war with Napoleon. About a century-and-half after it was built, Barclay de Tolly’s 3-story townhouse suddenly started leaning heavily westward –- the wooden pilework on one side of the foundation was beginning to rot. Using modern constructional technology, the tilting was stopped at the last moment. The present Barclay Leaning Building, now housing an art gallery, stands on a firm foundation, offering a curious and amusing Pisa-like sight.

Kissing students

Right in front of the Town Hall, in the Square (Raekoja Plats), stands (since the late 1990’s) a fountain with a sculpture of two kissing students (of mixed gender) under an umbrella, a symbol of Tartu as a student city. Tartu University was founded by the Swedish king Gustav II Adolf (Gustavus Adolphus) in 1632, making it the second university in the Swedish Empire at the time (after Uppsala). It’s still the largest university in Estonia, with some 17 000 students. Among the notable savants who have worked at Tartu University are Karl Ernst von Baer, the father of embryology, and Juri Lotman, an important figure in the field of semiotics.

The Chechnian connection

One more internationally known figure connected to Tartu is Dzhohhar Dudajev (alternative spelling Jokhar Dudayev), the elected Chechnian president whom the Russians assassinated in 1996. During the Soviet occupation of Estonia Dudajev was a general in the Soviet Air Force and the military commander of Tartu (there was a large Soviet air base just outside town).

When Gorbachov’s glasnost and perestroika brought new hope of liberation to the Estonians, people started demonstrating their will by hoisting the forbidden blue-black-white flag of independent Estonia. All over the country the Soviet authorities were quick to tear the flags down and arrest the culprits. But not so in Tartu. Here the military area commander, general Dzhohhar Dudajev, regarded it as a natural right of the population to hoist their own national flag and immediately gave his permission.

This courageous act has never been forgotten by Estonians. Estonian parliament has repeatedly taken resolutions in support of the Chechnian cause. For a period Estonia was the only country in the world that permitted a semi-official Chechnian representation on its territory. The parliamentarians also expressed their official condolences when Dudajev had been assassinated by the Russians. Such pro-Chechnian activity of a Lilliputian nation may also be regarded as rather courageous (or diplomatically stupid, depending on the perspective), as it was sure to anger the Russian Dinosaur just across the border. One expression of Russian anger is the special stiff Russian customs tariff applied on goods imported from Estonia –- twice the tariff applied on goods from other countries.

The old Soviet Air Force headquarters building in Tartu has been converted into a hotel (Barclay Hotel). Here you can, for a small extra charge, stay in the “Dudajev room”, the old office of the revered Chechnian general. The building itself is adorned with a marble tablet bearing an inscription in three languages, Estonian, English and Chechnian, commemorating Dzhohhar Dudajev and his time of office in Tartu.


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