Tartu in Estonia Offers Window into Country’s Culture and Spirit

Updated on January 25, 2023 by Meg
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The city of Tartu in Estonia is often referred to as its "Culture Capital", with Tallinn being the political and financial epicenter. Tartu is 116 miles southeast of Tallinn and the country's second largest city. It's a beautiful, historic, and highly walkable place that is home to two cultural gems, the nation's oldest and most respected university and an excellent museum that pays homage to the powerful role of song in Estonia's identity. Spending time at both of these landmarks provides meaningful context for appreciating the development of Estonia's rich culture.

In what became known as the “Singing Revolution,” residents of this Baltic state wielded a long-held cultural practice as a weapon of change, without a drop of blood spilled. Over the four years between 1987 and 1991, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered publicly in a series of spontaneous events to sing prohibited patriotic songs, risking their lives to proclaim their desire for independence from the Soviet Union, culminating in a choral event that close to one-third of the country’s citizens attended.

Expressing their national identity through song has been an Estonian tradition for as long as memory serves — the Estonian Literature Museum contains more than 1.5 million pages of folk songs and there are continual competitions and festivals around the country. The country’s “choir culture” is flourishing, with music continuing to serve as the force that unites Estonians as they enter the third decade of their fledgling democracy.

Estonia is a window into how one small country moved from living in fear under a totalitarian system to an environment of such openness that today it is known as one of the most “wired” nations in the world.

Visiting the University of Tartu

If I had to find myself in a cell, there were certainly worse, especially in a former Soviet bloc country. Like some of the more brutal prisons that had been run by the Communists when they were in power in Estonia, this locked ward was reserved for intellectuals. I hardly qualified, but I was pretty sure that claiming not to belong here had been tried unsuccessfully by many who had gone before me.

University Of Tartu 19th Century 'Lock-Up' Cell. Photo: Meg Pier

With plenty of time on my hands, I scrutinized my new surroundings, where the walls could and did talk. The sightless eyes of a finely-sketched skeleton stared back at me, an anguished soul protested from a self-portrait and the silhouettes of full-figured females floated on the crumbling white plaster. The vivid graffiti in a range of artistic skills spoke of the spectrum of human emotions experienced by those held captive here: yearning, boredom and frustration.

Despite the language barrier that barred me from understanding the words scrawled on the walls, the legacy left by all the others who had landed here was clear. You can imprison people physically, but you can’t shackle their minds. Happily, I was not enslaved at a frozen Siberian gulag but in the sun-filled attic of the University of Tartu’s main building, and visiting entirely by choice - although there had been moments I wasn’t sure I would survive the march up the eighty steps to the fourth floor. And rather than at the mercy of a cruel captor, I was the guest of my patient guide Uku Peterson, who offered a window into life in the University’s 19th century "Lock Up".

The Lock Up

"The Lock-Up was meant for students who misbehaved and the space has been preserved to offer insight into the period,” said Uku. “If students did something that was forbidden, such as smash somebody’s window or insult a lady, they were punished with time in the Lock-Up. Maximum imprisonment was three weeks and that was when students held a duel, deceived a shopkeeper or were seen fighting by university police."

University of Tartu's Lock-Up’s graffiti was drawn with coal and by candlelight and most of it was written in German. Photo: Meg Pier

Uku said it appears the Lock-Up was most often populated by students from the upper echelons of society, and he dryly observed that in the 1800s, like today, often “the rich kids partied and the poor students studied.” He went on to say that life in the Lock-Up was hardly hard labor, and in fact “it was like living in a penthouse.” Students could come and go to lectures and had the liberty to go out to lunch every day.

Uku is pursuing master’s degrees in both art history and education. While himself a young man, he did not need an advanced education to know that oppression has been a fact of life for Estonia for much of the past 700 years. Despite this history, I found many Estonians to have a sly good humor, and Uku was no exception.

He told me there are many stories about how students ended up in the Lock-Up, saying his favorite tale is about a student in the early 1800s, an era when it was forbidden for students to have facial hair, believed to symbolize revolutionary thinking. A student with a full beard was called before the rector to explain his disregard for the rule. The young maverick defiantly claimed that he had just shaved that morning. The rector sputtered that the hirsute radical should shave twice a day and sentenced him to three days in the Lock-Up.

Another story in the Lock-Up lore is that of a student who was on the run from Tartu’s city police. As the ne’er do well sought an escape, he found himself on the edge of the university campus, with a city cop grabbing his ankles and a university officer tugging on his hands. After a tussle, eventually, the university police had the culprit and city police had his trousers.

Uku told me that the Lock-Up’s graffiti was drawn with coal and by candlelight and noted that most of it was written in German. He pointed out a line and translated, “Two weeks sat behind this table student Edgar Frisch.” In fact, instruction at the university took place in that tongue until 1893, despite the fact that Estonia had become part of Tsarist Russia after the Great Northern War with Sweden. Under both the Swedes and the Russians, German was the language of mostly all official documents, commerce and government business for more than seven centuries.

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International Influences on Estonian Singing

That tradition is traced to the 13th century, when Germans colonists and crusaders settled on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, in the region that today is Estonia and Latvia. While never more than 10% of the total population, the “Baltic Germans” formed the social, commercial, political and cultural elite in that region for over 700 years until 1919, despite being an ethnic minority. The special class privileges and administration rights of the Baltic Germans were allowed to continue when the Swedes and then the Russians folded the provinces into their respective empires.

The University of Tartu is one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in Northern Europe and was established by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in 1632. Its history is a microcosm of the political upheaval that characterized Estonia from the mid-17th century until the early 1990s. Founded when Estonia was part of the Swedish Empire, the school closed its doors in 1710, collateral of the Great Northern War between the Swedes and the Russians, not to re-open for almost a century.

When classes resumed in 1802, Georg Friedrich Parrot led the University as rector and he is fondly remembered even today. Parrot was committed to the ideals of a burgeoning period of social change on the horizon in Estonia. The very first chords of a new movement were reverberating at about this time. In 1804, under Tsar Alexander I, the common folk were given the right of private property and inheritance and in 1816 a bill abolishing serfdom was passed.

Parrot openly talked about equality of people, irrespective of their social status and heritage. He prized academic freedom and fought to preserve the university’s autonomy from the political pressure of Baltic German barons who were keen to maintain the status quo. Addressing students in his inaugural speech at the opening ceremony of the University he said:

“While you are using with a laudatory diligence all that science and art are able to provide for the benefit of your culture, the countryman is working for you on his field; he is devoting his toil for you, working in the hardest conditions all his days, even part of the nights, and because of that he is enforced to fall behind you in his cultural development. . . . You understand that those who feed you are entitled to much more than merely a miserable existence, that they have every right to expect your gratitude, your respect.”

I learned that Uku began working at the University Art Museum a few years earlier as a freshman — his first job was as an exhibition attendant for the summer. Today, his title is project manager and it’s a position that calls for wearing many hats — literally. One of his roles is playing the part of the esteemed rector for an ongoing cultural heritage tour called “Soiree with Parrot.”

Uku Peterson wears many hats in his work for the University of Tartu. Photo: Uku Peterson

Despite a personality that lends itself to being a goodwill ambassador, it was only with persistent questions that I learned that Uku curated the impressive photo exhibition displayed prominently on the building’s first floor. Entitled “Culture in Tartu — through the eyes of a student,” the exhibit’s 37 photos featured Tartu’s architecture, events, people and cityscapes and many of them were about Tartu as a University town. The installation showcased a cross-section of moods — from pensive to playful — and demonstrated both creative and technical merit.

“My aspirations are definitely related to museum work, photography and Tartu history,” Uku said. “I am interested in some symbiosis of those three things, particularly the history of photography. I am intrigued with how it evolved to something that is now in our phones and computers, how it became a regular part of everyday life. The other thing I find fascinating is the opportunity to capture one second in a frame.”

Descending from the moment in time that is the Lock-Up, Uku and I reached the University’s Assembly Hall. He pointed out a sculpture by artist Jaan Koort of two students carrying their wounded comrade off the battlefield in the Estonian Freedom War. Fought in connection with the Russian Civil War from 1918–1920, this bid for freedom resulted in the country’s first period of self-governance in almost a millennium — a 22-year epoch that is of monumental importance to Estonians’ self image. With the signing of the peace accord known as the Treaty of Tartu, Russia renounced in perpetuity all rights to the territory of Estonia, an agreement that lasted until 1940, when Soviet troops marched in.

University of Tartu Assembly Hall. Photos: Meg Pier

In a wry observation about the ever-irreverent nature of students, Uku shared the underground mythology about the Koort statue — that it’s really about two students are carrying their exhausted classmate out from exam-room, where he had collapsed after studying so much. Uku casually mentioned that during the Soviet years, the Koort sculpture was banished to the basement and replaced with a Lenin bust.

From the Assembly Hall’s balcony gallery, supported by gleaming white neoclassical columns, I looked down upon an airy, elegant room where lectures, graduations and important ceremonies have been held since 1809. A white baby grand piano graced a corner of the room and young men in shorts set up chairs for a recital. The acoustics of the Assembly Hall are said to be the best in Estonia, making it a popular venue where audiences have been enjoying performances since Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann played here in the mid-19th century.

Song Festival Museum Curator Explains Power of Song

In fact, speeches and music made in Tartu changed the course of the country’s history, heralding an era known Ärkamisaeg or Estonian National Awakening. This epoch marked the establishment of a distinct Estonian identity and a sense of unity among those who shared it. The evolution of a uniquely Estonian culture amidst generations of invaders was inspired by a remarkable father-daughter duo — who I was about to meet, courtesy of another young historian.

Arriving at the Estonia Song Festival Museum, I was greeted by its curator. Kadi Kähär made me realize that as open-minded as I like to think I am, I do in fact carry baggage around with me in my travels — preconceived ideas left over from earlier legs of my journey, ones that often need refreshing. Somewhere along the way, I had picked up the notion that a curator, as steward of a piece of the past, had to have at least a few wisps of gray hair. Kadi was the antithesis of my stale stereotype with an exuberance that was a breath of fresh air. As we got acquainted, I found her to be a youthful “old soul” who had an impressive grasp of human nature — which is perhaps the very essence of history.

Kadi Kähär explains the Estonian Song Festival Museum's "Power of Song" exhibit. Photo: Meg Pier

I asked Kadi about what had led her to her role with the Estonia Song Festival Museum.

“There was an announcement that the museum was looking for a curator—the former curator had a baby and is now on “maternal vacation” which can last up to three years in Estonia,” she replied. “I decided to compete because I felt I had the needed background for the museum — I was studying history and I had the interest in 19th and 20th century society and culture. I had sung in a youth choir Mitte-Riinimanda and of course participated in the song festivals. I sent my CV and got elected. I’ve been working here now since September of 2010 and have met some really interesting people thanks to my job and have enjoyed hearing their stories.”

Kadi Kähär performs. Photo: Kadi Kähär

The heart of the museum is an exhibition called “Power of Song,” that tells the story of the Estonian song festival tradition, conveying the feelings of a national awakening and the formation of a nation. “Power of Song” is an exhibition of national survival through decades of oppression and occupation.

As I wandered through the museum with Kadi, I learned about the very origins of Estonian identity and how song is at its very core. In 1857, Johann Voldemar Jannsen, the founder of the longest-running Estonian-language newspaper Perno Postimees, broadened the definition of what it meant to be Estonian from a popular reference to country folk to a moniker representing a nation with a viable and valuable culture.

As Estonians began to develop their own culture, they co-opted a long-held Baltic German practice that they had become acquainted with in rural churches and schoolrooms, and made it their own. When the Germans had settled in Estonia, they had brought with them their Protestant religion and its choral tradition. In the 1860s, Estonians brought that music outside the confines of the church and gave it wings, establishing non-sectarian choirs and creating new non-religious songs for their fledgling flock to sing together.

“In 1865, J.V. Jannsen established the Vanemuine Society as a men’s choral organization,” Kadi explained. “It was named after the old Estonian god of music and poetry in the romantic pseudo-mythology of 19th-century national awakening. Vanemuine soon diversified its field of activity and started to offer cultural and educational activities for Estonians.”

“This building was home to the Vanemuine Society between 1870 and 1903 — it is an architectural monument and of great cultural importance to Estonia,” she continued. “Other groups who had a significant influence on the shaping of national culture also operated in the building and organized events here: the Estonian Farmers Society of Tartu, the Estonian Literary Society and the Estonian Students Society.”

Exterior of Estonian Song Festival Museum in Tartu. Photo: Mihkel Lemberi

“The first Estonia Song Festival was held in 1869, and it was planned for June — the timing was chosen specifically so that farmers could come during the pause between their spring and summer work,” Kadi explained. “More than 15,000 Estonians attended the first Song Festival. The significance of the occasion is evidenced by the hardship many endured to get here — for many of the performers, it took a journey of almost a week to get to Tartu.”

In my mind’s eye, I saw contingents from the far corners of the region, traversing dirt roads through the deeply forested countryside, either walking, or on horseback and wagons, making their way to Tartu to assemble as a people and raise their voices in song. It was only six years earlier that a law had given peasants their first identification documents, establishing their right to move freely about the country.

J.V. Jannsen’s eldest daughter Lydia Koidula was also one of the leading figures of the Estonian national movement in 19th century. She was closely involved with organizing the first song festival and her poems were the basis for two songs that premiered there. Those pieces have remained among the most beloved of all Estonian music.

“Speeches were very important during the first festivals,” Kadi said. “Pastor Jakob Hurt made a remarkable speech at the first Song Festival, speaking of three wishes for his young country. His first wish for Estonians was an appreciation for knowledge, saying that for small nations like Estonia, the only way to become great is through education.”

“His second wish was that Estonians would stay Estonians whatever status or education they had,” she continued. “Before the national movement, it was common that Estonians who gained a better education or became wealthier considered themselves as Germans. The word sakslane in Estonian means “German;” saks is a person with higher status. Jakob’s last wish was that Estonians would establish their own institution of higher education.”

“Jakob had a deep interest in folklore and after he gained a doctor’s degree of in linguistics he started a campaign to collect folklore,” said Kadi. “Over 1,400 correspondents from Estonia and Estonian settlements in Russia sent him stories. His collection — about 114,500 pages — is extraordinary.”

A Joyful River, An Awakening & Some Serendipity

We paused before an exhibit showcasing images of ecstatic processions of smiling faces.

Participants in Estonia Song Festival. Credit: Estonian Song Festival Museum

“Parades have always been an important part of Song Festivals,” Kadi said. “At the time of the first song festivals, they were joyful “commercials” to introduce the event and invite the public to the concerts. Folk costumes and choir flags were very important; it was one way to show Estonian culture, its traditions and new ideas. By wearing their folk costumes Estonians made clear that they were proud of their roots.”

“Parades are still a fun part of festivals,” she continued. “Choirs and dance groups are organized geographically and wear the folk costume and wave flags representing their county, town or village. The streets are crowded, and spectators cheer on the singers and dancers. This colorful and joyful river of music and dance flows from Vabaduse (Freedom) Square to the festival grounds for many hours and is a perfect beginning for a concert.”

I observed that just days earlier, Estonia had celebrated the 20th anniversary of overthrowing Communism peacefully with its “Singing Revolution” and asked Kadi what her country’s history meant to her today.

“As a history student, it is interesting to see how the second half of the 19th century influenced the Singing Revolution. For example, ärkamisaeg, or “awakening time” was a term used for the 19th century, but in the 1980s it was used again. People were realizing what kind of power they had. The other word that was used for the time of Estonian national movement in the 19th century was koit or “dawn” and that was also used to describe events of re-independence.”

“The 1988 Night Song gatherings have sort of romantic feeling for me, after all — I am the child of the Singing Revolution generation and was born that year,” Kadi told me. “I’ve heard the stories of what my parents and their friends were doing at these times and what they thought of it. I’ve heard and sang the songs of the Singing Revolution and they are very emotional for me, for example, Alo Mattiisen’s songs still give me goose bumps. I am proud that Estonia regained its freedom without war and guns and that such a simple and beautiful thing as singing was an important part of our fight against occupation.”

“But at the same time the Singing Revolution and Soviet occupation are history for me,” she went on. “When I was a child I loved to browse an encyclopedia and look at pictures of different flags. I always thought that the pages where Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian flags were located had gone missing, or been ripped out. When I learned to read, I discovered that one of those “weird red flags” used to be my homeland’s flag. I was surprised.”

I was touched by this simple and poignant illustration of all the small details that shape identity. While I had not grown up with a legacy of invasion and oppression, my own sense of self had gone missing for a period of time, the cumulative result of too many bad choices made for the wrong reasons. I had been drawn to Estonia because I admired the patience, resilience and spunk of its people.

Participants in Estonia Song Festival. Credit: Estonian Song Festival Museum

At a juncture when I was searching to rediscover my own essential nature, I wanted to see firsthand how Estonians’ spirit had endured when it had been so brutally negated. Through sharing their country’s history and own stories, Uku and Kadi helped to illuminate my quest, revealing resources to reawaken my own inner light, ones we all possess, however dormant. They reminded me that humor and joy are vital to a meaningful life.

Kadi and I have stayed in touch and reading a recent email from her, I drew in my breath and felt the rumble of a delighted hearty laugh rise up and spill out. Her note was a beautiful reminder of that other important ingredient to happiness, an occasional dash of serendipity. Much to my surprise, I learned that she and Uku are a couple.

“We met about four years ago at Uku’s birthday party, I came with a mutual friend of ours,” Kadi told me. “We have been together basically from the first sight — we are still joking that I was the best birthday present.”

“At the time Uku was studying at Tallinn University and I was finishing my high school studies in Rapla, a small town nearby,” she recalled. “After I graduated we decided to move to Tartu and start studying history — for Uku it is art history and for me, contemporary history. Especially in the beginning of our studies we had many lectures together.”

“It is good to have someone with whom to discuss the things one studies,” Kadi said. “I guess that all our discussions provide a bit different perspective on things and have widened our knowledge and opinions. I think that it is very important for couples to have some subject that interests both deeply and thanks to our studies and work there aren’t many subjects that Uku is interested but leave me cold and vice versa.”

Kadi had told me that the Song Festival Museum exhibition is intended to be a reflection of the country’s history through Jannsen’s eyes and the development of his ideas in the 20th century. She said, “The major theme of the whole exhibition here is based on a statement once made by Jannsen himself: “Eestimees! Jae iggas rides ja igga nime al Eestimeheks, siis oled aus mees omma rahwa ees.” Translated that is” “Estonian man! Stay an Estonian man in any clothing or under any name — by doing so you will always remain an honorable man in the eyes of your people.”

I feel certain that in Jannsen’s eyes, Kadi and Uku are the epitome of honorable Estonians.

Header photo by Guillaume Speurt

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