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.
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.
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
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.
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 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
Copyright Roy Mason