Power and Spirit

Tartu has long had the reputation of being a spiritual centre with a singular aura. There is a certain truth to this, but it is important to understand that the phrase ‘Spirit of Tartu’, so well known in Estonian cultural history, is to be taken as a certain negation. More often than not, Tartu defines itself through opposition to Tallinn (and power in general), finding justification in the University and the spirit emanating therefrom. The weak tradition of statehood gives to scholars - the alleged elite of the society - an opportunity to take on a more responsible role than simply generating new knowledge.

The relationships between scholars and state power had already intensified in the last years of the Republic of Estonia, when the first examples of the opposition of ‘spirit’ and ‘power’ appeared in the context of the authoritarian system governed by Konstantin Päts.

The tendency was even more acute in the Soviet times, but one of the parties, the ‘spirit’, had no opportunity to protect itself or initiate a debate.

At the same time it was a period when scientists began to be involved in service to society (professionalisation). The integration had already started in the 1930s in Estonia, in the form of a system of professional chambers, which included the universities (Tartu University and Tallinn Technical University were represented in the first chamber of the State Council of the Riigikogu), as well as certain science-related professions (doctors, veterinarians, engineers and druggists).

During the Second World War, the Soviet and Nazi occupations, Estonian scientists had to choose sides and there were quite a few who chose the ‘third way’, that is, emigration. Some, such as Hans Kruus, chose the winners’ side. On the other hand – Tartu University educated at least two German ‘Nazi scientists’ - one of them, medical scientist Felix von Bormann, experimented with typhus on war prisoners, and the other, Rudolf Hippius, developed a national socialist population policy in post-war Europe. The former continued professional activities after the war, while the latter was executed by the Czechs in 1945. The representatives of the so-called national sciences who remained in their homeland during the German occupation enjoyed the opportunity to research Fenno-Ugrian territories on the other side of Lake Peipus during the war.

An opportunity would open very soon to explore the life of peoples all over the vast territories of Russia, as some of those who had remained in the homeland during the war were later sent to prison camps, and even those who had collaborated with the authorities (Hans Kruus, for example) were punished. The Soviet era had begun. As the regime established in the USSR, sought justification for its activities in scientific methods, it was supposed to have influence on science.

In addition to the science of history, which was regarded as an auxiliary science of ideology, and the classical languages, which were removed from the curricula along with theology, the teaching of heredity and psychology were the two fields of science which suffered most during the Stalinist period.

Estonian scientists obviously did not realise the gravity of the situation until the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s, when a campaign was launched to implement ‘Mitchurin biology’ and the teachings of Ivan Pavlov. It was the perversion of disciplines of natural sciences which, proceeding from vulgar teaching of Marxist dialectical materialism, made it possible (and therefore obligatory) to subjugate heredity laws to the ideological will of man, in the spirit of Lamarck. This fortunately not too lengthy period ended in 1956, when the Communist Party condemned Stalinism and more favourable conditions were created for the development of sciences.

The end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s was a period when the decline that occurred during the Stalinist era in the development of science had been overcome, and the rise of those sciences began that enjoy a dominant position today. Certain fields enjoyed excellent conditions for scientific activities because scientific potential was a decisive and strategic resource for a state participating in the Cold War. In addition to the exploration of the vast territories of Siberia, Estonian scientists had the opportunity to take part in expeditions to Antarctica and in the space programmes.

On the other hand, innovations of the Soviet research organisation, distinguished by a system of research institutions under the Academy of Sciences along with universities, had been brought to a conclusion. Numerous institutes of science were established. Such a structure weakened the scientific potential of the institutions of higher education. At the same time, however, these centres, with their main focus on scientific activity, raised the overall level of science in many fields. During the Soviet period, the position of the fundamental sciences was reconfirmed. The importance of the national sciences was not necessarily diminished, but the control and restrictions imposed by the authorities were undeniably felt in certain cases. Yet in many aspects the situation was better than in other regions of the USSR. Tartu University and other scientific institutions in Estonia made a significant contribution to Russian cultural history in the second half of the 20th century, when they harboured several scientists who preferred to work outside the (Soviet) Russian environment, for example, Jews who were experiencing hidden anti-semitism. Juri Lotman (1922-1993), culture theorist and semiotician, who came from Leningrad, founded the ‘Tartu-Moscow school of semiotics’ and was elected the scientist of the century by the Estonian people in 1999.

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