Bird Droppings from Estonia: Arts season in full swing
Archived Articles 01 Oct 2007 Hilary BirdEWR
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Autumn is coming on apace. There's mist in the morning, late summer sun and the evening air is chilly. The sycamore outside my window is a glowing yellow and orange with green holding on in and brown beginning to muscle in. This has all happened so quickly! I started to write this letter a week ago and the tree was still mainly green. There are clear signs that summer is over in my block of flats. The pile of logs (for use in the country cottage) that always greeted me on the first floor every Friday is no longer there and a cat basket has taken its place. Tiddles, it would appear, is back from a summer of vole and field mouse chasing to be tucked up indoors for the winter.

School is back after beginning-of-term parties, the president's address to the youth of the nation and the flying of the flag on the first day of term. The iconic film Kevade (Spring, 1969) about rural Estonian elementary schools in the early 19c was broadcast on ETV. It's a beautiful, remarkably unsentimental work based on the Oskar Luts' novel about his own school days. The film is shot in black and white, filmed at a stately pace and with a resonant score by Veljo Tormis. The children were not actors but grew into their roles in the sequels Suvi and Sügis, 'Summer' and 'Autumn'. The brooding (Jõgevamaa) landscape as it turns from winter to spring is marvellous.

The Tartu autumn Arts season is in full swing. We've already had the film festival (Tartuffe), with films projected in the Town Hall Square, the Vanemuine theatre has had it's opening concert, opera and ballet and, for scientists, there are Pan-European Science and Technology (24 September - 15 October) events. Tartu is sporting a giant inflatable orange ancient Greek in a white tunic (Archimedes?) who bends dramatically with the autumnal gusts and tonight there's a telly show with music (rather bad) and smart sorts showing off inventions and theories. Jelly the cat is not interested. She's exhausted after playing feline footy with the hazel nuts fresh from the forest.

Tartu has had yet another round of smartening up this summer. There's a new, fanciful round tower block of flats down by the river; it's rather like an ice cream cone with a twirl on the top. Nearby there's another mall and the AHAA science centre going up in what I strongly suspect will be another dreadful neon box development. The argument for building these eyesores is that the centre was always a hive of activity and that it's present green spaces only came about as a result of the pounding that poor old Tartu took in WWII. Ergo, the area is returning to its traditional role as a centre of mammon. There's even talk of heightening the ghastly Kaubamaja (the department store and original neon box). I still think the development is nasty and like my grass and trees; everyone I speak to seems to have the same view so who's getting the back handers?

Vanemuine, the street I live in, has been dug up and new sewers have been installed. Eesti is behind with it's kanalisatsiooni programme and has had a rap over the knuckles from the EU, who are paying for the works as part of the funding of infra structure projects (along with roads and railways). Bye, bye smelly soviet sewers. The 1922 Ateena (Athena, because Tartu was once 'the Athens of the North' - thus the inflatable Archimedes, one supposes) cinema is now open again as an art cinema and restaurant. The archaeological dig that uncovered the oldest playable flute in Europe has been filled in. The 'Tartu Recorder' was found in what was once an outside privy of (probably) a house of a wealthy Hanse merchant. The 246.7 mm maple and birch instrument is only slightly cracked and, although range is reduced due to shrinkage and damage it can still raise a peep. Amongst the artifacts found with it was a 14c stoneware jug from Saxony, presumably a Hanse trade import, so it's probably German. Another of the only four extant early flutes was also found in a lavatory. Hmmm. Perhaps the stone jug contained a drop of the hard stuff and the flautist dropped his recorder down the hole while peeing and peeping in the privy .

A marvellous new sepia painting of the 19c university has appeared on a wall in University St. Its one of the innovations celebrating the 375th anniversary of the founding of the first university by the Swedes in 1632. There are celebratory events from 4-6 October and the pillars of the portico of the main building and the street lamps have been garlanded in blue, white and white ribbons. These are the colours of the first all-Estonian university students association that later became the colours of the flag of the nation. There's a new plaque at the site of the location of the Swedish uni (Jakobi & Jaani St 8), an oak will be planted in honour of the Queen of Sweden, there's a 'Mystery' in the cathedral ruins, learned events such as the second Wetland Pollutant Dynamics and Control Symposium (places still available for interested parties) and the unveiling of a monument to Yuri Lotman, the university's most famous Soviet son, at the Library, across the way from me.

Yuri Lotman (1922-93) was the son of a Leningrad (St Petes) lawyer and a Sorbonne-educated dentist. His older sister (Ina Abraztcova) became a composer and lecturer of musical theory at the Leningrad Conservatory, his younger sister was a prominent cardiologist, and his third sister was a Ph D. specialist in 19c Russian literature. In the late 1940s, the Soviet press launched a campaign against 'cosmopolitanism,' largely targeted at the Jews. Lotman, who was Jewish, was unable to find employment as a researcher in Russia proper and moved to Tartu in 1950. He worked first as a teacher of Russian language and literature at Tartu Teacher Training College, and in 1954 he became a lecturer at the Department of Russian language and literature. Later he became head of it. Lotman taught theory of culture, Russian literature and history but his specialty was semiotics - the study of signs and symbols and the analysis of communication systems embodied in language, gestures, clothing, etc. 'Nowadays Hamlet is not just a play by Shakespeare, but it is also the memory of all its interpretations, and what is more, it is also the memory of all those historical events which occurred outside the text but with which Shakespeare's text can evoke associations.' (from Universe of the Mind).

Lotman founded the Tartu-Moscow School of Semiotics. Demand for his work caused a boom in Russia and international Slavic philology centres and he was the only Soviet scientist whose work was translated into dozens of languages. Scientific articles were published until paper ran out. This success was suspicious. There was little official enthusiasm and accusations of 'formalism' (a cardinal Soviet sin) were pervasive. Despite a party card, a war medal, election to one of the four Vice-Presidencies of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, membership of the Social Sciences Council of UNESCO, honourary memberships of academic societies in the USA, Finland and Estonia, the first time that Lotman was seen on TV in the West was during perestroika, in 1986. On a micro level, Lotman's family thrived in Tartu. His wife Zara Mints, who he married in 1951, was a distinguished literary historian and a scholar of Russian symbolism. The younger Lotmans are now very active in the public affairs of the second republic of Estonia. One son is a publicist, academic and MP for the centre-right Res Publica and the other is a biologist and an MP for the Estonian Greens. Hmmm, I expect family meals are frisky .

Although the Swedes were the first to found a university here, they were not the first to use Tartu as a centre of learning. During one of my recent rummages, I picked up a book about the Polish Jesuits in Tartu. Immediately after I discovered the site of the first Polish college; I've been searching for it for years and found it on a small green where the grass had just been cut. It's a stone that says Siia rajatakse Tartu teadlaste aumüür - loosely translated 'Here was founded the glory of scholarship in Tartu.'

After a Russian-Polish peace treaty ended the Livonian War in 1582 Tartu was occupied by Rzeczpospolita (Poland-Lithuania) until1601. Religion was paramount in Polish imperial politics at this time and a Jesuit residence was immediately established in Tartu to spearhead the Counter-Reformation in North Europe. Livonia (modern south Estonia and Latvia) was seen as a key location, being between protestant Scandinavia and, according to Rome, schismatic (Orthodox) Russia. The re-conversion to Catholicism was led by Antonio Possevino, Jesuit legate to Sweden and Moscow. When Possevino tried to discuss a union of the churches with Ivan the Terrible the mad Tzar flew into a rage and tried to kill him. Later, after Ivan had calmed down, Possevino the Tzar confounded him with questions concerning the shaving of beards (the Orthodox didn't shave).

Principal Jesuit activities were missionary work and education. The Tartu residence grew into a collegium (an organisation of clerical and lay brothers) that founded a gymnasium (a secondary school) and a translators' seminary to train interpreters. The language of tuition was Latin, but on their missionary trips Jesuits used Estonian, Latvian, Russian or German speakers to help explain the faith to the natives in their mother tongue. In their attempts to bring souls back to Catholicism (many of whom had lapsed into downright paganism during turbulent times), the Jesuits published some of the first books in (south) Estonian. The zealously protestant Swedes destroyed the catholic library when they took over in the early 17c. Thus were laid the foundations for the Swedish and Germano-Russian imperial universities.

War-ravaged Livonia was probably fertile ground for a Counter-Reformation. The missionaries claimed that they were welcomed in the countryside. The peasants liked the attractive services, Jesuit healing skills and their interest in the Estonian language. The Germans of the towns preferred Lutheranism and looked down on indigenous tongues as languages o0f the peasants. The German burghers resented Polish authority and ignored the Jesuit gymnasium; students were mostly Polish. Tartu, however, was more tolerant than Riga, the capital of Livonia, where there were 'calendar riots' against the introduction of the Gregorian calendar (the one we use now). Catholic artisans and merchants were encouraged to immigrate. Settlers were promised land and tax exemption for ten years. The colonisers were few but diverse and, in the late 16c, Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Scots, Dutch and Hungarians, amongst others, came to South Estonia. I have often wondered about such Estonian names as 'Kuido' (Guido?). Polish-Lithuanians were, usually, administrators in the pecking order, Germans were burghers, Russians merchants and the Estonians, peasants.

There is nothing left of Polish Tartu. It was all destroyed by Peter the Great in 1708. There was never much. The cathedral was already in ruins by the time the Poles arrived and, as trade with Russia, the key to medieval wealth' was no longer viable, there was no money for repair. A memorial to Stefan Bathory, (1533-1586), the Hungarian King of Poland-Lithuania stands, appropriately, on the wall of the old university church. It was donated by Poland in 2005 and records that, during the period, 1802-1918 (the years of the second university), 2,300 Poles were educated at Tartu University.

We know there was a hospital in the Polish part of town and that the Jesuits took over the 14c nunnery of St Katherine's. The shrines of Mary, Margaret and Barbara were nearby, near the St Jacob gate that led to Tallinn. All were among the fourteen most helpful saints in heaven. St Katherine was, goes the legend, of noble birth, a scholar and a Christian. Fatal! The Roman emperor sent scholars to persuade Kate to renounce Christianity but she won every debate. Some adversaries, swayed by her eloquence, declared themselves Christians and were promptly put to death. St Kate herself was sentenced to death by breaking on the wheel but it broke at her touch. Thus St Kate is the patron of theologians, scholars, pulpit orators, and philosophers - a perfect choice for the Jesuits - as well as the patron saint of wheelwrights and the inspiration for a firework. St Mary, the Mother of God, is an all-purpose saint and the patroness of Livonia that the first crusader's called 'Mary's Land.' St Babs, another learned martyr to the Christian cause, was the saint that protected those threatened by fires, thunderstorms and sudden death. An extremely useful saint, one must say, for folk living in wooden houses in a strategically important location and much prone to attack! Lastly, St Margaret was tortured after refusing to renounce Christianity. She was, amongst other vexatious trails, swallowed by Satan as a dragon but he choked on her cross and regurgitated her. A real Mag may have been thrown to a Rock Python in a Roman circus; such pythons can grow to 6 m and will attack and even swallow humans. If Mag was small, the snake could have snacked her and vomited her back up. St Mag was (before she was taken off the Vatican list of bona fide saints) the patron of pregnancy, the dying, kidney disease, peasants, exiles and the falsely accused. And I am sure that Mr & Mrs Lotman could have a field day with these saintly symbols!
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