A twist in Estonia's history

July 24, 1998

IN AN age of global markets, it is well to recall that the university is the greatest "export package" of all. No sooner were they established in a few important cities of the 12th century than universities and colleges appeared all over Europe. The expansion of European power (and powers) was always accompanied by universities. The North American story is familiar, university colleges such as Harvard and William and Mary emerging in the 17th century under the inspiration of denominational Protestantism. That religiously plural history has had important genetic implications for academic freedom.

Ecclesiastical and royal authority are, however, more evident. Spanish American colonies imported home models, especially those based on the flexible constitution of Salamanca. The Dominicans were at work in Hispaniola in 1509. Universities appeared in Lima and Mexico City in 1551, established by the authority of the Spanish crown. The University of Santiago de la Paz came in the same decade, San Fulgencio in Quito, Ecuador, some 30 years later, and so on through the 18th century and into the next, when Nicaragua acquired the University of Le"n.

A superb synthesis of models and trends appears in what must be regarded as a landmark scholarly enterprise, the four-volume History of the University in Europe, of which two volumes have now appeared under the learned guidance of Hilde de Ridder-Symoens of Ghent and the Free University of Amsterdam.

The University of Tartu in Estonia is another export, if over a shorter haul. Long known under its German designation of Dorpat, the university was founded as the Lutheran Academia Dorpatensis in 1632 when Sweden ruled that part of the Baltic. It therefore qualifies as the second oldest Swedish university after Uppsala. Abo (Turku) in Finland, the third, came only a decade later.

Dorpat was created in a notable period of royal absolutism, which included policies designed to keep Swedish students from migrating to other European locations. During the calamitous thirty years' war, German Protestant students fled there (and to Uppsala), introducing customs associated with their tavern camaraderie. In time, local Estonian customs were introduced. Now every year students apply a champagne shampoo to the scalp of the statue of the founder of embryology, K. E. von Baer, which stands on a hillock separating lay and academic buildings. Men and women undergraduates serenade one another from two opposing arches, the Angel's and Devil's Mountain Bridges, in an annual ceremony.

The university lay dormant for a century after 1710, but its fortunes revived under Russian suzerainty. Beginning life on the Swedish frontier and marking the boundaries of its Baltic triumphs, Dorpat was now tzarist, part of Russia's movement west. But the institution had become German, reflecting the influence of German settlers such as the great Baltic landowners and the leftover memory of the Hanse.

According to Wolfgang Drechsler, professor of public administration at Tartu, the university, like the one in Basle, was derivative in its academic culture, its language of instruction and its links to the scholarship of the German states.

Tartu was often a way station for people seeking more prestigious appointments elsewhere. On leaving, the professors took with them a retirement income earned from Russian service. Did they also take with them the uniforms of the Russian imperial bureaucracy worn (proudly?) to lectures?

The tzarist empire tried to exert greater cultural influence over the university towards the end of the century, but Estonia was independent between the two world wars. In 1940, the Russians came back as Soviets. There followed the Nazi occupation, with Moscow returning yet again in 1944, destroying much of the city of Tartu. Brutalities recommenced, including a horrifying "ethnic cleansing".

Not until the collapse of communism did the university emerge again as part of the independent Republic of Estonia.

Dorpat-Tartu now belongs to the people of Estonia, its library claiming more than five million volumes, but in keeping with the international heritage of universities (a heritage in which national and international identities still contend for internal mastery), the university seeks ties and strengthening from the world community of the higher learning.

Each "Day of Liberty", according to the Soviet (now Russian) calendar of commemorations, is when victories over the Nazis are celebrated. Every May 9, small sprays of flowers are stuck into the soil of a prominent street corner park in Tallinn, the confluence of many streets and hard by a substantial church, where an oversized statue of a Soviet warrior is surrounded by blossom. For ethnic Russians it is a celebration, but for Estonians it is now seen as the beginning of a near half-century's captivity.

Let us hope that Estonians, pleased with their unaccustomed role as a "majority" population, will not in turn be oppressors themselves. Some pressures are being applied to ethnic Russians, notably in laws and regulations stipulating the learning and use of Estonian in schools, but nothing yet resembles the terrors of the triumphant armies of the night.

And yet in their eagerness to denounce Soviet crimes, do the Estonians recall those of the Nazis, and do the professors of the ancient University of Tartu, those of an age to do so, admit their complicities and sympathies and those of predecessors with presumably unwelcome invaders? Has the long period of past German intellectual and cultural influence left an uncomfortable residue of antiSemitism, quietly present (or not so), as is the case throughout central and Eastern Europe?

There is some evidence of that. It has been said that in the early 19th century, when the University of Tartu enjoyed a brief Enlightenment phase, Jewish students felt relatively welcome, that is to say, they encountered discrimination but not violence. The 20th century tells a different story.

The export of the university also involves the import of unholy thoughts and practices. Even when their numbers were small, universities have been significant enough to warrant intrusion by powerful governments and state churches. Lackeys have always been found to obey overbearing masters.

There is one parallel implied in these remarks. In an era of productivity gains, managerial styles and markets, it is essential to consider the real measure of a university's health, possibly one of the few over which it has genuine control. And that is a willingness to tell the truth about itself.

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor of history at the University of California.

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