In the service of the empire

Among outstanding doctors-clinicists in Tartu in the 19th century, Nikolai Pirogov (1810-1881) should be mentioned first. He was a disciple of the so-called Professors’ Institute, which existed in Tartu from 1829 to 1839. The institute was intended to educate, in the environment of German science, professors for the universities of Russia. The education of pharmacists was a phenomenon of its own: beginning in 1844, the Institute of Pharmacy of Tartu University was the only place in Russia which offered training for pharmacists.

It is interesting that the idea of Tartu as a place where the Russian and Western academic worlds would meet, with a view to contributing to the developments in Russia, appears in the plans of Russian authorities even as late as in the second half of the 19th century and in the 1920s. In the latter case, it was suggested by Americans who believed that Estonia, with its population of merely one million was too small for Tartu University. Estonia was regarded as the ‘front room’ of Russia, where our Eastern neighbour would acquire Western influences from the university. This view was held by the Rockefeller Foundation, which pursued the idea of a democratic and free society and found a kind of reflection in the initiative of George Soros at the end of the 20th century.

In the 19th century, numerous scientists of Estonian origin had become members of the Academy of Science of St Petersburg. People with an academic education moved to Russia because of the possibilities offered there, but also to flee from the nationalist repression by local Baltic German colleagues and competitors, which often proved fatal for a future scholar of Estonian origin in Tartu.

Quite a few outstanding Estonian men of science of the 19th century left their homeland to work in Russia: the linguist Mihkel Veske (1843-1890) and Doctor Aleksaner Rammul (1875-1949) in Kazan, Doctor Peeter Hellat (1857-1912) in St Petersburg, the philosopher Aleksander Kaelas (1880-1920) in Moscow and Irkoutsk, and the chemist Michail Wittlich (Vitsut) (1866-1933) in Riga.

From 1894 onwards, in connection with Russification, the domination of the Russian power and spirit was intensified in the educational institution which bore the name ‘Jurjev University’ (Tartu was renamed Jurjev). This was accompanied by a decline in the level of science. At the outset of the First World War, the university was evacuated from Tartu to Voronezh, Russia. Thus, a number of scholars who had connections with Tartu continued their work in Russia. The historical art collection of Tartu University has remained in Russia up to the present day. The University of Tartu is currently holding discussions with its Russian colleagues to establish if the University of Jurjev, and consequently the University of Voronezh, are legal successors of the historical Tartu University and how to handle, in such a situation, the claims of the educational institution which is situated in Estonia to be returned the art objects that for the most part are gifts from alumni.

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