Tartu University in the imperial period

The university which was re-established in Tartu in 1802 developed into a centre of scientific life of the Baltic provinces of Russia that were under the influence of German culture. The importance of the German element in the development of the university should not be underestimated. In the light of the ideas of Alexander von Humboldt, a typical scientific university was established in Tartu, which stood out in the scientific landscape of its time for being the crossroads of two great cultures, Russian and German. This position guaranteed ideal conditions for both expeditious information exchange and an ‘academic migration’. Another peculiarity of Tartu in the context of Russia was that many principles of academic freedom applied here which would have been unthinkable elsewhere in the state, and certain restrictive regulations enforced in the Russian empire were disregarded. Owing to these circumstances, Tartu became an important educational centre, for example, for Jews and Poles. The history of the ‘German’ university came to a close in 1894 when, as a result of Russification, Russian became the official language of the university.

Being a centre of identity for Baltic Germans gave a certain local accent to the development of science. The founder of the Baltic school of private law (and the Baltic Private Law), Friedrich Georg von Bunge (1802 - 1897), was active in science, publishing a weighty collection of archive materials concerning local history. Research on history was important also beyond the local context. Johann Philipp Gustaw Ewers (1779-1830) became a renowned specialist of the history of the Russian state and law. Incidentally, certain tendencies of ‘culture carriers’ are observable in the works of historians, who, among other things, denied the possibility that the local antiquities had been created by the ancestors of the Estonians. For example, in archaeology, the geologist Constantin Grewingk (1819-1887) and the historian Richard Hausmann (1842-1918), whose reputation as archaeologists extended beyond their home country, revived the ‘Gothic theory’, according to which the Estonian strongholds and the culture preceding the Baltic German period in general had been founded by Goths, a Germanic tribe. This approach, in turn, occasioned the birth of the ‘official concept’ of the history of Estonians. This in its early phase, envisaged by Carl Robert Jakobson (1841-1882) was prone to exaggerations in the opposite direction, which national history writing is still trying to rectify.

For a certain time, Karl Wilhelm Bücher (1847-1930), who later, at Leipzig University, became one of the founders of journalism, was working as a teacher of economics and social politics in Tartu. Among philosophers, Gustav Teichmüller (1832-1888) found recognition in Europe.

The faculty of theology was of central importance for the university, due to its uniting function for Baltic society. Orthodox Lutheranism was dominant in academic studies. Theodosius von Harnack (1817-1889) and Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), father and son, have remained in the history of theology from the 19th century; the latter spent most of his career in Germany and, amongst other things, was active in the evangelical-social movement ‘liberal theology’.

The position of the university as a spiritual centre brought along the ideologisation of academic activities on a larger scale. The local figures were often a thorn in the side of the authorities. For example, the outstanding Germanic philologist Leo Mayer (1830-1910) was forced to leave under the pressure of Russification. The attempts to Russify the university in the middle of the 19th century were restrained only thanks to the lobbying of the Baltics in St Petersburg and much credit for that went to Karl Ernst von Baer.

More often than not, a reactionary attitude was remarkably present also in the local community. Matthias Jacob Schleiden (1804-1881), a founder of cell theory who was working in Tartu, and the local natural scientist Georg Carl Maria von Seydlitz (1840-1917), both proponents of Darwinism (the former was nicknamed ‘the first son of the old ape’ by Johan Woldemar Jannsen in Pärnu Postimees in 1863) were a problem for theologians, who were in a leading position in the university. Karl Ernst von Baer, who significantly influenced academic life in the Baltic provinces, also did not support Darwinism in the last years of his life.

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