Tartu History: Locals Offer Lessons Spanning 13th Century Hanseatic League – 21st Century Life Post-Communism
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It was a mere two-hour journey of only 174 kilometers to cross the country from its “Summer Capital” of Parnu on the coast of the Baltic Sea to its “Culture Capital” of Tartu, not far from the Russian border.
The road cut through long stretches of dense pine forest, and then, the landscape began to change. Leaving behind a forest that seemed endless, my route brought me to the outskirts of the city of Viljandi, a populated area. I caught a glimpse of an impressive church and swung off the road for a closer look. Nearby, a monument had been erected on an embankment above immense fields of grain. It was carved with the names of those who lost their lives during the war of 1918–20 and adorned with a ribbon in Estonia’s colors of blue, white and black. At its feet lay a fresh bouquet of roses in remembrance.
Further down the road, I came upon a leafy wooded area and saw flashes of white amidst the greenery, which I realized were crosses. On impulse, I stopped to explore this cemetery so altogether different than any I had ever visited before on my numerous treks through such sacred spaces. Instead of the typical treeless expanse, a well-trod path wended through family plots under a cooling canopy of broad leaves. Bushes were in abundance and ferns flourished; these acres dedicated to the memory of the dead were alive and lush, yet utterly calming and peaceful. As I meandered, a handful of people arrived to walk purposefully toward a gravestone.
Tartu’s Old Town Square
The next morning, reality returned. I had slept hard, was still exhausted by the drive, and now my body needed caffeine before I was to meet my guide, Elina, in an hour. Emerging from the centuries-old apartment building on Tartu’s Old Town Square, I was stopped fast in my tracks by a dense fog so thick I felt condensation on my cheeks.
I gingerly put one foot in front of another, carefully treading on the uneven cobblestones I couldn’t see as I made my way to the Werner Cafe. An employee opened the doors and I was soon gratefully slurping a steaming cup of coffee. In 1895, confectioner Johann Werner opened this cafe, which has served as a meeting place for Tartu’s educated elite, writers, poets, actors, chess players since.
Sufficiently charged to begin my day, I ventured back into the mist. Nearing the entrance to my apartment, I did a double-take. In front of me, a small woman in medieval garb seemed to look right through me. She wore a gold hat that resembled a crown, and a shimmery cowl fell below to encircle her chin. Her velvet, full-length gown flowed around her as she took a step toward me and hesitantly spoke my name as if a question: “Meg?”
I stood dumbfounded and then the apparition laughed and stuck out her hand, saying in a charming accent, “I am Elina.”
I laughed with relief and she good-naturedly joined in.
“As I started my guiding business in Tartu, it was clear that I would create a personality and give the tours in character,” Elina explained. “The Medieval time period gives the best general overview of the town’s history.”
Tartu was first mentioned in ancient Russian chronicles in 1030, and Town Hall Square has been its center since the Middle Ages. Yet while the city is ancient, its buildings are relatively new, the result of numerous devastating wars and fires.Elina told me that the present Town Hall building was erected in 1782; it is a delicious confection in sherbet shades of peach and tangerine, frosted with white columns. At the time of construction, Early Classicism was reaching the Nordic countries, including Estonia, to replace the earlier styles of Baroque and Rococo.
The three-story Town Hall reflects the transition, with a high hip-roof and a ridge tower that follow the traditions of Baroque urban palaces in the Netherlands, and interior walls done in Neo-Classicist.
Elina told me about her own dramatic transition before coming to call Tartu home.
A Walk Through Tartu’s History
“Twenty years ago, I was a millionaire in my home land of Finland and then lost everything in one night in a fire,” Elina told me. “I was looking for new opportunities and had a chance to go for a weekend trip to Estonia. I had visited the country seven years earlier and had said that I would never go back, it was so Soviet. But on my return in 1995, everything had changed — Estonia had been independent for four years at that time.”
“When I got out of the car at Tartu’s Town Hall Square, I immediately felt I had come home,” she said. “Over the prior 33 years, I had lived in 17 different countries, and I had always missed that feeling of being at home — it was very, very funny feeling. I think it was the aesthetics of the town, and the atmosphere. It was so civilized, so beautiful, calm. That weekend I decided to move to Tartu.”
Medieval tradition has continued here; while centuries ago the square was important for shopping and getting water, today people gather to have coffee and take part in all sorts of events, Elina said.
“We have two “living rooms” in Tartu — this square is one of them, with many of the city’s 4,000 annual cultural events taking place here. The other Tartu “living room” is the park on the top of the hill with the ruins of the old cathedral — we will go there now. That is the place where people go to relax, to have lunch.”
The cathedral is situated on a hill (Toomemäegi or “cathedral hill”) along the Emajõgi River, a strategic site for centuries of culture clashes and power struggles. Elina regaled me with historical snippets about one of the most important strongholds of pagan Estonians.
In 1224, the German Brethren of the Sword captured Tartu. Less than forty years later, in 1262, the army of Russian Prince Dmitri captured and destroyed the town — but was unable to capture the bishop’s fortress on Toome Hill. The event was recorded both in Old East Slavic chronicles, which also provide the first record of a settlement of German merchants and artisans arising alongside the bishop’s fortress.
The construction of the Gothic cathedral on the north side of the hill was probably begun in the second half of the 13th century. It was one of the largest religious buildings in Eastern Europe at the time.
In the 1520s, the Protestant Reformation reached Tartu, and the iconoclasts badly damaged the cathedral, which fell into decay and was eventually abandoned. In the early 17th century, an invasion by Russians troops and a fire compounded the damage. By 1629, the main building of the derelict church served as a barn.
Today, the cathedral is an imposing ruin overlooking the lower town. As Elina and I wandered among walls of rosy brick with only the now- blue sky for a ceiling, a strumming of mournful chords reverberated in the still air. Looking up, I saw a bearded man in medieval attire perched on the wooden stairs that climbed the ancient building’s shell. He began to sing a slow song of yearning in a strong, commanding voice, while clearly gazing at Elina, who returned his look with obvious affection.
In the 14th century, she explained, European troubadours came to Tartu.
“My character is the wife of a wealthy businessman — unfortunately he is fat, old, and too busy with his business to have time for his wife,” Elina explained with a broad smile. “So I have taken a troubadour as a lover.”
I told Elina that I understood that the man must also be a historical re-enactor like herself, but I got the strong impression that the connection between them was not an act. Elina’s face flushed and she smiled even more broadly. With just a little more encouragement, she told me their story.
After moving to Tartu in 1995, Elina became active as a volunteer with the Orthodox Church, conducting humanitarian aid on behalf of Estonians. That’s how she met Jyrki, who was working as a vicar for an Orthodox parish in the middle of Finland.
“Slowly, we got to know each other, and he says he fell in love with me immediately, but I didn’t have the slightest idea,” Elina recalled. “It took nine years before he told me. Of course, it was like a shock to me that the man who I always respected as a priest suddenly was the man who loved me. That was in April 2009; the Bishop gave him the freedom from his job as a priest that autumn, and we married 2010. We’re the happiest couple in the world.”
Like Elina, Jyrki has found that life’s ever-changing course presents opportunities to explore new vocations. Inspired to become an Orthodox priest in 1996 after the death of a son, he had earlier enjoyed stints as an executive manager for a baseball team and a 25-year career as an officer with the Finnish Air Force. He had honed his vocal talents by directing choirs and operas and he now serenades visitors to Estonia.
Elina and Jryki live in an apartment in a 250-year-old manor that originally belonged to a Baltic German family. A member of the Russian nobility bought it in the 1830s. During the 1920s and 30s, it was an orphanage; throughout the war it was a military hospital and quarters of the German forces; and in the Soviet era, the building served as a student dormitory. In 1996, a private family bought it; the matriarch became a conservator and has been working on restoring the property for many years. Her efforts merited an award in 2007 for being the most beautiful home in Tartu County.
A Brief History of Ancient Antonius Guild of Hanseatic League of 13th – 19th Centuries
While Tartu’s geographic location put it in the crosshairs of conquerers, being on the trade routes was a great advantage for local merchants. The city became a member of the Hanseatic League, an economic alliance of cities and merchant guilds that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe from the 13th–17th centuries.
In 1980, an international consortium revived the Hansaetic tradition, honoring the spirit of former League’s political, economic and cultural cooperation with festivals held by member cities. In 1995, Tartu joined the forum and two local artisans began resurrecting the ancient Antonius Guild. Today, located in the Jaani quarter of Old Town in Tartu’s historic center, Saint Anthony’s Courtyard is home to 20 open studios of member artisans who specialize in stained glass, leather, gold, painted porcelain and textiles. There are makers of hats, dolls, furs and historical costumes, as well as a pottery studio.
Elina is a customer of seamstress Sirje Reinoja, well-known in Tartu for her specialized knowledge of medieval clothing. With the revived Hansa tradition capturing the public’s imagination, medieval clothing became very popular. Sirje responded by focusing her business on costumes from different historical epochs, giving rise to the name of her workshop, Period Costume House.
She works in co-operation with the Estonian National Museum to make the costumes as authentic as possible. In creative a fur vest for Elina, she researched literature and talked with archeologists to ensure its authentic 14th century look. She studied sewing and design in Tallinn in the 1970s at a technical college, which were prevalent under the Soviets.
Wandering from studio to studio within the Antonius Guild, where Sirje rents a workshop, we came to a hat-makers shop. I was intrigued by a selection of felt caps in different colors stitched with elaborate insignias. These were made for members of “corporations,” social organizations similar to groups known as fraternities in the U.S., Elina told me.Each corporation in Estonia has a specially-designed cap, most of which feature the initials of the corporation, along with the letters VCFC — an abbreviation for the Latin phrase Vivat, crescat, floreat corporatio, meaning “Live, grow, prosper together.” The caps of first-year members — known as “foxes” — are always black.
According to folk tales, Saint Anthony protected against fire and plague — a powerful ally to have at the time the Guild was formed in 1449. The custom of the times called for handicraftsmen of a medieval town to join a guild — anyone who practiced a trade within the city walls needed to be a member. Anyone else was not allowed to sell their products within a town’s borders — those handicraftsmen were scornfully known as bunglers.
Trade guilds existed to protect the interests of their members and allowed only a certain number of craftsmen so as to ensure sufficient work and pay for all. The guild checked the quality of products, and advertising and competition between members was forbidden.
Through regulations known as skraa, the guilds not only penalized members for poor quality work, but also regulated other aspects of members’ lives. There were penalties for undignified behavior such as being drunk or insulting. At guild meetings, fines were imposed if a member spilled on a table a puddle of beer bigger than he could cover with his hand. Skraas determined what kind of wife a master handicraftsmen could marry — being “duly married” meant proposing to a master craftsmen’s daughter or a widow.
Apprenticeship usually began at age 14, serving without pay for four or five years, earning only food and clothing. Working with the same master craftsmen, the apprentice then became a journeyman — a period of training often included one or more years of travelling to learn the skill of craftsmen in other regions. Each master was allowed only so many apprentices and journeymen, based on what the local economy could bear. For example a “joiner” or carpenter could have a staff of eight, but a hatter, only two.
Becoming a master craftsman was not an easy process. To receive the designation, a journeyman had to create a “master piece.” For a carpenter, that was an oak cupboard with two doors, drawers and other accessories. A future tailor had to sew a pair of trousers, a coat and a woman’s jacket and skirt within eight days — under the supervision of four masters, and in the house of a guild elder.
When a master piece had been duly completed, a “master treat” was expected to complete the initiation — for example, a shoemaker was expected to give the trade guild a fatty pig, a good piece of ham, a barrel of beer, as well as contribute rye to the poor and “a gift for the men and women.” The criteria for becoming a master was often an impossible one, and journeymen who lost hope of achieving the designation in towns would often find work at a manor in the country.
Two Tartu Artisans Share Their Story of Fulfilling a Communist-Era Dream
My last stop at St. Anthony’s Guild was the workshop of artisans Kaido Kask and Piret Veski. Two decades ago, after years of frustration and despair under the Soviet Communist regime, the couple had felt a sense of fresh possibilities. As the political climate began to shift, they enjoyed a new liberty to travel, which ultimately led them to what is now their home.
“At the beginning of ’90s, we had our first opportunities to participate in exhibits in Finland, in Germany, in Sweden,” Kaido recalled. “We had more hope because we felt the winds of freedom had begun to blow. Piret and I were working a lot; we were young, we had more energy, we felt that, ‘Oh, the world is open now for us.’ ”
“The first place we travelled was Germany in 1991, when the Berlin Wall fell,” Piret remembered. “Kaido went first, in August. I followed later, travelling by train. As I made my journey, it was evening and the radio was playing, describing the mess in Russia — Yeltsin wanted to remain the leader and the KGB wanted power. Yeltsin wanted the support of democratic countries and so he knew he must do one or two good things in the face of the free world.”
Piret recounted that as her train moved toward Berlin, she continued to listen to the radio and follow events unfolding in Estonia. Russian tanks crossed the border and Soviet troops marched toward the TV station in Estonia’s capital of Tallinn. Thousands of Estonians made their way to the tower to protect it, declaring their desire for independence. Yeltsin flew to Estonia and then gave freedom to the Baltic Republic.
“From the big mess in Moscow, we got our freedom,” Piret said. “A week later, Kaido and I returned from Germany and when the plane landed and we entered the airport building, there were no people. Nobody wanted to see your passport because there is no new country. The old one is dead, but the new one isn’t born yet. So an empty airport without Soviet police and no Estonian police — nobody. Absolute freedom. It’s funny because people who have lived in a very secure environment never see such kind of things like the changing of power, when one power ends. It was surreal. It’s like you are in a movie.”
The scene indeed sounded like something out of a film, somewhat beyond my comprehension. I asked Kaido and Piret to help me better understand what life had been like under the Soviet system.
“My father spent about 10 years in Siberia,” Kaido said. “As a 15 year-old boy, after the Second World War, he found some weapons. There was a bang and a Soviet officer’s dog was wounded. The Soviets found my father and a couple of other young boys and took them to prison — first, here for about two or three years and then he was 18 years old when they sent him to Siberia for more seven years.”
“Somewhere around 1955–56, two years after Stalin’s death, my father got back to Estonia,” Kaido continued. “Of course it was not very good memories from Siberia. It’s pretty hard times there. He was young boy. He told many stories about how the old prisoners, they tried to kill these young boys, awful stories. He didn’t like to talk very much about, but when he’s drinking then sometimes he tells these stories.”
“My father is 81 years old,” he said. “I’m surprised he is alive because he likes to drink very much. On his pension day, it’s typical that he drinks vodka for days.”
“In the beginning of Soviet power, if you snore in the wrong place you can be sent to Siberia,” Piret said. “Very many people were deported because they don’t like the Communist party. Very many men went into the forest to fight against the Soviet power. They just sit in the forest and try to quietly kill the Soviet soldiers. It was very bad time.”
“When you see documentaries about the worst prisons in the world, for example the Latin American prisons, they are inhuman, but there is warmth,” she said. “Siberia was the worst prison in the world and there its 40 degrees. It was very awful. Most of people just died in Siberia. It was not possible to live there. In the big prison camps, their heart just died. And some people never reached Siberia because they were put in the trains, and it was cruel. No toilets. There was disease. They just died on the way.”
As I watched Piret work the clay in her hands and Kaido precisely wield a small knife on the piece in front of him, both matter-of-factly recounting these horrors, I began to get an inkling of what Piret had meant by surreal. I asked what their day-to-day life had been like as young artists under Communism.
“It was a class system, but on a different basis,” Piret said. “Not who is rich or who is poor, but who is in the party. The Communist, he gets all. You didn’t join the party, you didn’t say that you are Communist and you didn’t like Lenin publicly, then you had nothing. There was very strong class system, but on the basis of who is the friend of dictator.”
“His orders are like God’s law, and he never listens to what his conscience says, but he listens what the dictator says and does the same thing,” she continued. “Our class system was kiss the party ass, and you are the higher class. But when you don’t like them, you are like slave. You are nobody.”
“In Soviet times, all the art must be to worship the Soviet power,” Kaido explained. “In America, you probably can’t imagine that all the paintings must be about how great is your president. In Soviet times, all the art worshipped Lenin, worshipped the party, how happy are their workers. Any other art is not good art. Not only in Soviet times — in Fascist Germany, all the art was to worship Hitler. The systems are very similar when you find such a kind of dictator. The art must always say that the dictator is the god. It was the very point of art. The other art is not important.”
“But they watched our work,” Piret interjected. “For example, the Estonian flag is white, blue, and black, and even in applied art they watched to make sure that you never design a simple coffee cup in the colors of our national flag. When you do something which could remind Estonians of lost freedom, the KGB was very anxious. ‘Why is your cup is black, white, and blue?’ Such nonsense. It’s funny to think that people can live such a way, but they noticed every detail which related to your freedom.”
“For the members of Communist party, they had special shops, they had special hospitals, and they had the special possibilities to travel,” Kaido explained. For example, when you were a member of Communist party, you had the possibility to travel to Paris, to London. I remember when I was younger, it seemed impossible, because I would never dream of being a member of Communist party.”
“At the beginning of ’90s, we saw how people in the free world lived, and we started to think that perhaps that life could be possible in Estonia,” Kaido said.
He and Piret were able to buy an apartment in the second story of a decrepit building. While the property was largely in ruins, home ownership was a new and valued privilege, something not possible under the Communist regime, when all property belonged to the state.
“About 1995, I wanted to build an open studio, as I saw in Denmark,” Kaido said. “We started to talk with other artists and friends about rebuilding this area in the central part of Tartu. At that time, Tartu didn’t have a place to show the handiwork of real artists, and in 2005 the city would host the International Hansa Days. The timing of our idea was good. We had many meetings with city government, we talked with the mayor about our idea and he liked it very much.”
It was 1996 when we started renovating our home here,” he continued. “Since 2000 or 2001, we have owned the entire building and slowly rebuilt. Then there were four workshops, and it started to grow and grow, and finally in 2005 it was finished.”
“In the Soviet times, nothing like this would have been possible,” Piret said. “All the visitors who came from capitalistic countries were always with a guide. They were not allowed to talk, and they were guarded like prisoners because maybe you give a wrong answer. Maybe they notice something which the Soviet Union didn’t want to show.”
“Today, the main idea is that it’s an open area,” she continued. “You are the guest. You can go someplace which is cultural, where you meet people who are working, they are local, you can ask questions. If you go to a museum, you can only see pictures. But in our guild, you can make contact, you can talk, ask, buy.”
The next morning I met Elina in the square again, and she led me to a cafe a block away from the historic Werner’s.
“You have been to the oldest cafe in Tartu — now you are in the newest!” Elina exclaimed. “The name of this coffee shop is Armastus, which means love. The owner is a young woman who started with a pushcart on the square and built her business, hiring young people and helping them get a start.”
I later had a chance to get to know the owner, Tairi Leis, a young businesswoman who experienced the power of freedom — and the hunger that came with it.
“At the time of Singing Revolution, I was too young to understand the economic situation,” Tairi told me. “I just remember after becoming free, there was a period when I didn’t have enough food and that was completely different from Soviet times, when everybody had work, enough food and a place to stay — home.”
“This is not so any more today,” she said. “Now we have many shops full of nice stuff but many people do not have money to buy it. In Russian times, all people had some money, but shops were empty. But nobody was hungry! Now you have to take care of everything. Now it’s your own problem if you do not have job or food.”
“After Estonia became independent, people who were active became very rich quickly,” she continued. “To get more, you have to do more. And who does, gets! My idea of business is that if you work as hard as you can by giving a lot of love to your customers, then sooner or later you will be successful! Because all people need to feel that they are wanted and loved. To offer the best service to all my customers is my biggest goal. You have to dream! You have to have courage to dream as big as you want! And then you will realize your dream sooner or later!”
Tairi started by selling handicrafts in a basket on the street. “After six months, the owner of a shop offered me an opportunity to run it. I was at that time only 18 years old. My first month as manager was December — the best-selling month of the year — and I ended it with a deficit! But I took the challenge. I tried to change the shop as much as possible to make it work and there were endless challenges for years.”
“I was a student at the time at the University of Tartu, and I often paid the rent with my student loans,” she continued. “If I had examinations, I just had to close the shop for three weeks because I did not have money to pay someone a salary. I didn’t earn an income from the shop for three years. I had to study so hard at University to earn a stipend to buy food. As money started to come in very slowly, I could pay for a friend to work for me for few hours per day so I could attend class. I studied theology but after a few years working, I also studied economics. I recognized many theories in my every day practice and that gave me good feeling that I was moving on right direction. Before the studies I went just by instinct, feeling I should do this or that. It was very interesting time for me.”
“After five years, money started to come quite ok!” she exclaimed. “I could pay someone a salary and work a bit less myself. And then — a big shock! The building I had my shop did not get permission from the city government for business use. All five shops in the building had to close. So, I had to make hard decision — to move the shop or to close it and try to find a job somewhere else.”
“I did not give up,” she said. “I went to city government and begged for cheaper space somewhere in City center. But they said they couldn’t help me. So, I took the biggest risk in my life — I bought a cosmetic company in the Square that had a rental contract with the city and converted the space to my handicraft shop.”
“I now have the coffee shop, three handicraft shops — one in the Square and two really tiny shops in a big shopping center — and a perfumery,” Tairi told me. “None of them are bringing money in now because the economy is very bad. But we still have to work and give our best to keep the businesses open.”
That night, I lay awake reflecting on the stories of Elina, Jryki, Kaido, Piret and Tairi. I marveled at their resilience and courage in navigating the obstacles they had each encountered in their journeys, and that of their nation. That day, I had heard stories of loss, uncertainty, brutality, and injustice being met with determination, fortitude, persistence and love. Like Tartu’s historic structures that have endured to play an important role in the city’s character, the special people I met stand tall. Years later, I continue to be deeply moved and inspired by the ability of those Estonians to hope and dream, and believe in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.