Impact of the French Revolution

The impact of the French Revolution reached Estonia indirectly and over a longer period of time, primarily in the form of agrarian reforms and the national movement. Paradoxically, the quickest and most direct result of the French Revolution in Estonia was the restoration of Tartu University, which had closed its doors during the Northern War. The Baltic Germans had attempted to open the university throughout the 18th century, but their efforts were thwarted, firstly by the post-war economic chaos, and in the second half of the century by the political considerations of Russia’s central authorities. The reopening of the university would have raised the self-awareness and prestige of the Baltic provinces, but with her centralising policy, Catherine II had wished to curb local autonomy. Estonia’s inhabitants were nevertheless not entirely denied a university education, because the sons of the wealthy Baltic Germans studied at many famous German universities.

This was a cause of anxiety to Paul I, terrified lest the ideas of the French Revolution spread to Russia. The Tsar forbade Russian subjects to study abroad, but in return he was compelled to allow the Baltic Germans to establish their own university again. This was accomplished in Tartu in 1802 during the reign of his successor, Alexander I. The Tsar soon subjected the university to the all-Russian ministry of education, and granted it an extensive autonomy.

The language at Tartu University was German; and a large number of chairs were filled by professors from Germany. The foundation of the university, which was relatively independent of local government, meant a huge change for the Baltic provinces with their strict social structure. The university influenced both the spiritual life and social order, the political outlook and ethnic relations in the provinces. Tartu University became the mediator of European high culture in the Baltic provinces and throughout Russia. The role of the bridge-builder is most vividly illustrated by the Institute of Professors, which functioned at the university between 1828 and 1838. The Institute prepared lecturers for Russian universities. Tartu University also became a factor in nurturing the formation of a Baltic regional identity, integrating all three Baltic provinces — Estonia, Livonia and Courland. This consolidation still concerned primarily the Baltic Germans. Although studying at the Tartu University was considerably cheaper than the foreign universities, and higher education thus became available to less wealthy young men, the number of Estonians attending the university in the first half of the 19th century remained relatively small.

Details about this article