A good child has many names says an old Estonian proverb and the town’s important strategic position on the road and water routes to Russia has meant many changes of rulers and names. The ancient Estonians called it Tarbatu, the Russians called it Yuryev, the Germans called it Dorpat, and the Poles and the Swedes were there too. Now its just Tartu.
Archaeological discoveries date from 7-6000 BC, but most histories start around 600 AD when an Estonian fortress called Tarbatu existed on Toome Hill (Toomemägi). The first written information comes in a Russian chronicle and tells how prince Jaroslav the Wise burnt Tarbatu in 1030 and built a fort named Juriev on the site. Tarbatu-Yuryev changed hands several times during the next two centuries but the adversaries were evenly matched. It was only when the crusading Swordbrothers (Order of the Brethren of the Sword. ed.) arrived from Germany in the early 13c that there were major changes. The Brothers captured Tartu in 1224; the gory details are recorded in the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia. The Brothers were a rather disreputable lot and in 1232 Bartholomew the Englishman described them as ‘rich merchants, banned from Saxony for their crimes, who expected to live on their own without law or king’.
Tartu became the HQ of a bishopric, one of a loose union of provinces called ‘Old Livonia’. During the 13-14c the town, now known now as ‘Dorpat’, was fortified and migrants from Germany developed commerce. These became the rulers and Estonians and other ‘un-Deutsch’ (mostly Russians) were excluded from any opportunity to better themselves. Dorpat became an important member of the Hanseatic merchant league whose wealth was conspicuously demonstrated in the town by the largest cathedral in the Baltic. Squabbles with Russia that never gave up its territorial claims persisted but the border gradually settled in the 15c. The prosperity of Dorpat was based on trade with Novgorod. Important commodities included fur and wax; until the reformation many English monasteries were lit with candles of Russian wax, whilst the fashionable garments of the rich were trimmed with Russian fur, a good part of which would have passed through the tollgates of Tartu. Prestigious visitors included, in 1475, Zoe Palaiologina, the niece of the last Emperor of Byzantium on her way to Moscow to marry Ivan III. Zoe fuelled Ivan’s grand ideas, and his court adopted the elaborate ceremonial etiquette of Constantinople and the imperial double-headed eagle (and all that it implied).
The reformation reached Tartu in 1525 in an outburst of violence, the first in a century destined to see the town decline. The Russians, led by Ivan the Terrible, took the town in 1558 at the start of the Livonian War and the last bishop died in a Moscow dungeon. Old Livonia was finally carved up by Poland, Sweden and Denmark in 1582 with Tartu falling to Poland. The Polish interregnum was short but important. The Catholic Poles planned a spearhead of the Counter-reformation here and founded the Jesuit teacher training school that became the university. They also bequeathed their red and white flag.
Sweden and Poland were again at war by the turn of the 17c and Tartu finally became Swedish in 1625. It would remain so, bar a short Russian interregnum, for the rest of the century. The ‘Good Old Swedish Time’ saw Tartu emerge as a major centre of learning. A printing press was built in 1631 and, in 1632; King Gustav II Adolph founded the University. Newton's Principia (published 1687) was taught as part of the curricula in the 1690s, one of the first places in Europe to do so. It wasn’t just the rich that benefited from reforms – Sweden was zealously protestant and keen to promote literacy for the purpose of reading the bible. During the 1680s the energetic Bengt Forselius trained 160 schoolmasters at his school for Estonian peasant boys near Tartu. By the time of his death in 1688 there were 46 elementary schools and 1,000 pupils learning in Estonian. The Forselius elementary school system, although it faltered and nearly died in the hard century that followed, enabled basic skills and made possible a custom of learning in the peasant home. A moving monument to Forselius, the early Estonian pedagogues and their Baltic German supporters now stands at the pretty village of Kambja, well worth a trip, just outside the town.
An uncertain century
Tragedy accelerated during an uncertain century. In 1667 a third of the town houses were destroyed in a catastrophic fire. The lot of the Estonians worsened – in 1671, despite the opposition of the Swedish king, serfdom was officially sanctioned by binding the peasant to his place of birth. The Great Famine of the 1690s killed more than 20% of the townsfolk, rich and poor. And on the heels of famine came the Great Northern War – a titanic struggle between Sweden and Russia during which the Baltic States were a major theatre of war. Tartu was razed by Peter the Great, who came in person to capture it, in 1704. The first poem in Estonian by an Estonian was written at this time about the destruction – Oh, ma waene Tarto liin (Ah, me, Poor Tartu Town) – no ‘Dorpat’ for the Estonians you will note, even after four centuries. In 1558, before the Livonian War the population of Tartu had been about 6000; by 1721 the population may have been as low as 21!
Peace came with the consolidation of Russian power. The town slowly recovered and by 1789 the population was over 3,000, but repeated fires destroyed the little that was left of old Tartu. But it’s still there! The material was used to build the late-baroque or neo-classical town that we see now. After a huge conflagration in 1775 Catherine the Great, who had visited in 1764, allocated the town an interest free loan. Reconstruction was managed by the Governor of Livland (today’s south Estonia and north Latvia), George von Browne. His family had been supporters of the last Stuart king of England, James II but after the Battle of the Boyne, the Brownes of Camus, County Limerick, saw no future for their son in Ireland, and sent him abroad. He joined the Russian army and began a life of adventure during which he was imprisoned three times, sold as a slave to the Turks and made a Field Marshal by Peter the Great. Catherine would not let him go, so he remained in Russia, dying there at the age of 94.
But you can’t keep a good town down! Tartu rose, once again, like a phoenix from the ashes, in the 19c. The agent of change was, indirectly, the French Revolution. The Tzars became nervous of their citizens picking up seditious ideas from western Europe and thus the Imperial University of Tartu was opened in 1802. The staff were almost all German and the town was known as the ‘Athens of the Emajõe’. The town boomed. The population grew from (approximately) 3500 to 13 000 during 1802-54 and a new maternity hospital became a priority. By 1900 the population was over 40 000.
(To be continued.)
Tartu: what’s in a name? (1)