Cultural History of Tartu

A brief historical overview of the city of Tartu and its cultural development

Tartu is the second largest town of Estonia, but is widely considered its intellectual capital city vitally significant in developing the educational system, culture, science and literature in the Estonian language. Throughout the centuries, the versatile artistic and academic communities of Tartu have intellectually benefited from the countrys geopolitical position between the Nordic and Southern Baltic countries on one hand and between Russia and the West on the other. Thus, Tartu is like an experimental laboratory where global ideas, academic knowledge, artistic creativity and a broad variety of lifestyles are being synthesised.

Although habitation in the area has been recorded from as early as the 6th to 8th centuries A. D., Tartu was first mentioned in annals of 1030 A. D. Alike the whole current Estonia, Tartu has been under the reign of different foreign powers throughout its history. During the reign of the German Order (in the 1280s), Tartu became a member of the Hanseatic League; during the Polish reign, a Jesuit gymnasium was opened here in 1583; during the Swedish reign, a new gymnasium was opened in 1830 and Academia Gustaviana (the University of Tartu) in 1632. Bengt Gottfried Forselius founded his Teachers Seminar here in 1684, providing literacy to nearly 160 Estonian young men. Many of them forwarded their knowledge to others as teachers, thus establishing solid ground for general literacy.

In 1802, the revived university became one the most influential centres of education and scholarship in the Russian Empire. In 1816-1855, the university astronomer F.G.W. Struve conducted a research for defining the dimensions and the shape of the Earth, which had a profound impact on the scientific development of astronomy, geodesy, and cartography. A result of these studies was the Struve Geodetic Arc: a chain of survey triangulations of 2820 km, stretching from Hammerfest in Norway to the Black Sea and passing through the Tartu observatory. In 2005, the Geodetic Arc was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

In 1839, writer and physician Friedrich Robert Faehlmann introduced Kalevipoeg legends to Learned Estonian Society with an intention to create the national epic for Estonia. His work was completed by another medical man-of-letters, Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald. The epic has been translated into many languages; in 2011, a new English translation was published with the illustrations of Gunnar Neeme, uniquely blending Estonian folk art with exoticist modernism; and in 2012, a Hindi translation was launched. Although the epic has also been a subject of heated critical debate, it continues to inspire current writers who reinterpret it in the contemporary context. For example, "Kalevipoeg" features significantly in Valdur Mikita's "Lingvistiline mets" ("Linguistic Forest"), an essay collection boldly reconstructing Estonian identity through mysticism and magical thought (the book was awarded with the prize of Cultural Event of the Year 2013 in Tartu).
By the middle of the 19th century, Tartu had become the driving force of Estonian cultural life: a pioneering newspaper Tartu Postimees boosted the emergence of professional media; the Vanemuine Society was founded, later turn into the first Estonian professional theatre; and the first major song festival was held in 1869. The tradition of Estonian song festivals exerted a major impact on building national consciousness, urging it towards the establishment of an independent state. Song festivals are now listed in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.


Several hugely influential societies were founded in the early 1870s: among them, Estonian Students Society, Estonian Farmers Society, and Estonian Society of Writers. Estonian Literary Society was established in 1906 and in the same year, the first issue of the journal Eesti Kirjandus (Estonian Literature) marked another major advancement in the national literary history. More publications as well as literary prizes were introduced in the following decade. In 1909, Estonian National Museum was created in Tartu (also the very first museum in Estonia). It is still a vitally important treasure trove and research institution of the nations memory and heritage; recently, it has also featured several internationally attractive exhibitions on late 20th century everyday and alternative culture. For example, the 2013 exhibition of Estonian hippie movement received enthusiastic coverage from the renowned visionary writer Bruce Sterling as he was visiting the Prima Vista Literary Festival.

Collecting folklore and memoirs has been crucial in shaping the self-consciousness and literary culture of Estonians. The archives of Estonian Literary Museum in Tartu store one of the most voluminous folklore collections of the world, initiated by Jakob Hurt at the end of the 19th century. The archive also contains the memoirs of hundreds of Estonians from the time of the Soviet occupation. Those materials have inspired several writers, among them poet and novelist Ene Mihkelson, the winner of the Herder Prize and the Baltic Assembly Prize; and Sofi Oksanen whose novel Puhdistus (Purge, 2008) became the greatest international bestseller of all ages written on an Estonian theme.

In 1912, Johannes Pääsuke made the first ever Estonian film in Tartu. Therefore Tartu also became the centre of Estonian Film 100 celebrations a hundred years later, in 2012, in the course of which a large thematic mural was created by the students of the Higher Art School of Tartu. The mural brings together the key figures of Estonian filmmaking throughout its history and also a number of film characters, many of whom were first introduced by Estonian literary classics. Thus, it magnificently signifies the status of Tartu as a melting pot of various arts on the basis of literature, as well as its double identity as a memory centre of the country and as a pioneering experimenter with art in public space.

On 2 February 1920, when the Estonian War of Independence ended, the peace treaty between Estonia and the Soviet Russia was signed in Tartu. The town continued to be the intellectual capital in the young Republic of Estonia. Although in 1922 Estonian Writers Union was founded in Tallinn, Tartu remained the centre of literary life. Here, one of the leading figures of the union, Friedebert Tuglas, started to publish the literary magazine Looming in 1923. In 1927 the tradition of the national novel contest was started here. And even though the larger magazines and publishing houses have moved to the capital city, 21st century Tartu is still the primary launchpad for the new cultural media, such as the youth literary magazine Värske Rõhk, independent cultural newspaper Müürileht and the Estonian/English twin journal ELLA/JESS for short stories.

In 1940 Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union and the town was severely damaged in the course of the World War II. The international contacts were sharply reduced as the town was declared a closed zone because of its military airport. However, the intellectuals were all the more eagerly learning of the current Western trends of thought and artistic creation, blending them with the input of Russian intelligentsia, Oriental philosophies and Estonia's own cultural heritage. The Tartu-Moscow school of semiotics emerged to exert worldwide influence; the works of Juri Lotman have had a major impact on Umberto Eco, a leading contemporary public intellectual who was inaugurated as the honorary doctor of the University of Tartu in the course of the 2009 Prima Vista literary festival.

The 1960s were the time for groundbreaking innovations in literature, art and theatre, and also the formative years of Estonian alternative rock culture. From 1979 to 1991, Tartu hosted the country's only major rock festival which was trailblazing for the whole Soviet Union, introducing the more artistic trends of global pop culture while also preparing the ground for the Estonian national renaissance (many rock songs took their lyrics from Estonian poetry).

In 1980, the literary self-consciousness of a small nation delivered a painful blow to the occupation powers when the action of the "letter of forty intellectuals" was initiated in Tartu. A public letter from the Estonian SSR, the first version of which was drawn by poet Jaan Kaplinski (a latter-day nominee for the Nobel Prize) was a protest of the Estonian creative and intellectual elite against the Russification policy of the Soviet Union. In Estonia, the manuscript copies of this document spread quickly, thanks to the already well developed resistance culture of underground almanacs and subversive research groups. This letter became a breaking point for the national self-consciousness. The rapid public intensification of civil courage made Estonia one of the most progressive reorganisers in the Soviet Union of social life and the state apparatus during the "perestroika" period at the end of the 1980s, also supporting similar processes in other Soviet member states.


Restoring the town's international contacts got under way in the early 1990s, after the restitution of Estonian independence. The compact urban space and presence of the university have fostered intense communication between intellectuals and artists from various fields of life and of various regional backgrounds, and this creative hybridity has proved appealing to people from larger cultures where different artistic coteries tend to become more secluded. A few Tartu-based intellectuals have also been active in supporting the cultural and linguistic self-consciousness of the Finno-Ugric peoples and the members of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.