During the ‘National Awakening’ of the 1860s and 70s Tartu became the centre of Estonian cultural and national life. The first all-Estonian newspaper (Postimees, The Courier, 1864), the first all-Estonia song Festival (1869), the first Estonian theatre and the Society of Estonian Writers (1872) all saw first light in Tartu. This development was brought to a close by the assassination of Tzar Alexander II in 1881 and the next two decades were ones of repression. In 1893 Dorpat was once again ‘Yuryev’. Estonian moderates led by Tartu politician Jaan Tõnisson hung on to the social-democratic ideas of the Awakening and advocated constitutional reform in the period known as the ‘Tartu Renaissance’.
The repressive policy of ‘Russification’, however, stimulated a more radical response and Tartu became a breeding ground for revolutionary ideas. The first Estonian Marxist circle was formed and Lenin’s younger brother, Dmitry Ulyanov, was among the revolutionary students.
The empire-wide revolution of 1905-1907, caused by imperial intransigence, was brutally repressed but failed to prevent the second revolution of 1917. Tartu (as Russian territory) was invaded by the Germans in WWI and then, after the Germans left, the USSR. An Estonian Republic was declared and the War of Independence began. Tartu was liberated from the Soviets in 1919 and the following year Estonia and the USSR signed a Peace Treaty in the town, followed by the Finns and the Soviets. During the ‘Estonian Time’ (1919-1939) all the cultural, scientific and artistic talent of the country was focussed and thrived here. During the 1930s ‘Time of Silence’ when free speech was suppressed the ‘Tartu spirit’, led by Tõnisson, opposed government restrictions.
Occupation and deportations
The Republic did not last. After the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression (Molotov-Ribbentrop) pact of 1939 the Red Army occupied Estonia and the country was annexed to the USSR. In 1941, on June 14th, almost 10 000 Estonians were deported to Siberia. 70% of them were women, children and the elderly. Among the missing was 73-year-old Jaan Tõnisson.
At the end of July, 1941 Tartu was invaded by Nazi Germany but they, in turn were ousted by the USSR in 1944. During the battle for the town many people were Killed ot injured and thousands of buildings destroyed or badly damaged, including St John’s Church (Jaanikirik), the Vanemuine Theatre, the Estonian National Museum at Raadi Manor and the bridges. In 1941 there had been nearly 60,000 people living in Tartu but after the war the population had dropped to 7,000, and there was no electricity or piped water supply. 50% of living space, 46% of workplaces, 66% of public building and all the bridges stood in ruins. Tartu was, once again, a melancholy sight.
The Soviet police state got to work immediately. Arrests were followed by deportations in 1945/6. Men who had fought in the German army or the Home Guard, their families and country people who resisted collectivisation were all deported or shot. In 1949 the population of Tartu was around 57,00 but within a year this number had dropped to 55,500. Estonia-wide estimates of the total number of deportees ranges from 30,000 - 60,000. Many Tartu academics that remained in Estonia suffered, including Friedebert Tuglas, a lifelong moderate Socialist and one of Estonia’s leading literati. He was accused of ‘formalist decadence’ for works published in 1905! He narrowly escaped arrest, was watched by the secret police and his work was banned. A large Soviet military airfield was built and the town became closed. Nevertheless, during the years 1946-1953 the people of Tartu contributed 9.6 million hours of free labour to the rebuilding of their hometown.
Spirit of Tartu
Recovery from the ‘Terror’ began after the death of Stalin and the ‘thaw’ started by Khrushchev. By 1977 the population of Tartu reached 100 000 and the town became a city and by the 1980s Tartu was back. And kicking. The ‘spirit of Tartu’’ played a leading role in protests against Soviet power. Simmering discontent manifested itself in the spread of underground literature, the clandestine hoisting of the Estonian tricolour and the lighting of cemetery candles for the heroes of the War of Independence. In 1980, the ‘letter of 40’, signed by 40 intellectuals against Russification policies started in Tartu and in 1986 the university openly took the side of the protesters in the ‘phosphorous war’ that stopped mining in the north-east. In April 1988, at the Tartu Heritage Days, the old national anthem and other traditional Estonian songs were sung for the first time in over 40 years and the tricolour was much on display. This was the prelude to the ‘Singing Revolution’. Two months later, tens of thousands attended an all night rock concert at the Tallinn singing festival grounds. Punks climbed to the top of the beacon and hoisted the blue, black and white flag. A major Soviet taboo was broken. There was no going back. Estonia was reconnecting with it’s traditional past. In November 1988 the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR declared sovereignty and in 1991, Estonia declared it’s second Independence of the 20c. The first free elections in 50 years took place in 1992.
Things can only get better. In 2004 Estonia joined both the EU and NATO. Life is improving as the lean years recede and a new era begins. The amount of disposable income in Estonia has nearly doubled in 10 years and there is a sense that prosperity is on its way. A revival of Tartu as the intellectual and cultural centre of Estonia has meant that the city is beginning to shine once more. The neglect of ‘bourgeois’ Tartu during the Soviet era is now being redressed as the handsome 19c buildings are restored to former glory and the old street lamps and benches are repaired and painted. And before new buildings go up archaeologists dig for the past – this year the oldest functioning flute in Europe (15c) was found.
A quick glance at the statistics reveal much about the way the city is heading. Tourism is growing fast and Tartu is doing what has done best for a very long time - the academic sector is 90% up with the vocational education sector 50% up. Nearly 20% of the population is between the age of 20 and 30 and this means a thriving nightlife, with bars, restaurants, and nightclubs to complement the theatres, concert halls and open air events. The town council’s develpment strategy maps out an environmentally friendly future where traditional industries - food processing, construction and transport - will continue to develop alongside new ones - tourism, banking, insurance and high-tech products. The last is stressed, as Tartu is, once again becoming a place where East meets West, this time in the exchange of smart technological ideas. As the 17c founders of the University would say ‘Vivat, vivat Tartu!’, Elagu Tartu! , ‘Long Live Tartu!’ The future is looking good.
Tartu: what’s in a name? (2)