History of Tallin    History of Estonia

Introduction to Tartu

Tartu, the capital and largest city of Tartu County, is Estonia's second largest city after the national capital, Tallinn. The estimated population of Tartu was just over 100,000 people in 2009. It is known as the most important cultural and intellectual hub in Estonia, mainly due to the presence of the renowned University of Tartu. Its nickname is "The City of Good Thoughts." Tartu, like Estonia as a whole, has had a long and eventful history.

Medieval History

Tartu's beginnings have been somewhat shrouded by the passage of time, but evidence suggests that it has been inhabited since the middle of the first millennium A.D. It came under Russian domination during the reign of Yaroslavl the Wise, the greatest ruler of Kievan Rus, around 1030. The Estonians retook the town a few decades later, however. As the Middle Ages progressed, Tartu became an important point of contention between the Estonians and the Christian warriors coming from the west during the Northern Crusades.


UK business people may need business insurance including employers liability insurance and public liability insurance. What about looking into short term car insurance or perhaps consider short term car insurance uk ?

The city was captured by the Germanic crusading force known as the Livonian Brothers of the Sword in 1224. Tartu was called by its new rulers Dorpat and evolved into an important commercial center, with a number of German merchants settling there. But German rule did not go uncontested, and in 1263 a Russian army sacked Dorpat. However, they were unable to gain permanent control over the area, and the Germans reoccupied and rebuilt Dorpat. Soon after, the city joined the powerful Hanseatic League, a commercial network of Baltic cities which dominated regional trade. Germans continued to be the predominant force in shaping the culture of Dorpat/Tartu for centuries, but soon the city would fall under the rule of various neighboring powers.

16th and 17th Centuries

By the mid-1500s, the Crusades had ended, the culture of Europe was changing, and the Livonian Order was breaking apart. The area now known as Estonia became a point of contention between the rising power of Russia and a coalition of western powers. This rivalry led to the Livonian War from 1558-1583, which ended in Russian defeat. Tartu (still known as Dorpat) fell under the rule of Lithuania, which in turn was in a personal union with Poland.

Polish-Lithuanian domination was not to last, however. During the early 1600s, the great Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus turned his backwater country into one of the great powers of Europe. Tartu became one of his conquests in 1629. For several decades, the Swedes held onto Tartu despite the Russian threat. This period saw the founding of the city's famous University, under the patronage of Gustavus Adolphus, as well as Tartu's first printing house.

18th and 19th Centuries

Following the Russian victory in the Great Northern War (1700-1721), Tartu/Dorpat, which had been conquered by a force led by Russia's Emperor Peter the Great, became part of the Russian Empire. It would remain so until after the Russian Revolution. At the time the city changed hands, it was nearly depopulated, but with the peace came an era of re-growth. Three fires devastated the city in the 18th century, resulting in the destruction of much of the older medieval architecture. A new city, in the baroque and classical styles of the time, was built over the ruins of the old.

As time passed, the Russian government attempted to exert more cultural control over the city. As part of this effort they renamed the city "Yuryev," in honor of Yaroslavl the Wise, in the late 1800s. They also forced the University to teach Russian to its students. At the same time, however, the city became an important center of Estonian culture, with theaters, festivals, and associations that celebrated the Estonian nation. This helped spur dreams of Estonian independence.

20th Century

Following World War I, the Russian Empire fell into revolution and civil war. As a part of this larger conflict, the Estonians declared independence from Russia and won their freedom. As a symbol of Estonian independence, Yuryev/Dorpat was officially given back its Estonian name, Tartu. The new Communist Russian government acknowledged Estonia's freedom in the 1920 Treaty of Tartu. Tartu was also the sight of a treaty-signing later that same year between Russia and Finland.

The Soviets, however, eventually betrayed their promise to Estonia and, as part of their agreement with Nazi Germany, reconquered the country. Soviet troops entered Tartu in 1939 and began a program of oppression. Thousands of residents were deported to labor camps. Matters only grew worse when the Nazis betrayed the Soviets shortly thereafter, and Tartu became part of the Eastern Front of World War II. When the war was over, the Nazis were defeated, but Soviet domination of the Baltic states, including Estonia, was assured. Under Soviet control Tartu grew quickly and became a manufacturing center, as well as remaining an important university town.

The Soviet Empire controlled Tartu for most of the 20th century, but in the end, it crumbled like its tsarist predecessor, leaving Estonia a free country once again in 1991. Although Estonia's capital remained the city of Tallinn, the Supreme Court was established in Tartu.

Tartu Today

Tartu remains an important center of education and culture, as it has for many centuries. The University of Tartu is still probably the city's most notable feature. It is considered Estonia's top university and one of the most prestigious institutes of higher education in Eastern Europe. Currently, there are about 17,000 students enrolled in the University. Tartu is also the home of the Vanemuine national theater, many museums, and a number of high-tech corporate headquarters.

Copyright Roy Mason 2010