Tartu, Estonia

Reference work entry


Tartu, on the River Emajõgi, is Estonia’s second city and is home to a university founded in 1632 by Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden.


Estonian settlers erected a fortress, Tarbatu, on the city site around AD 600. In 1030 Yaroslav the Wise of Kyevan Rus seized control of the area and built a new fortress which he called Yuryev. Estonian forces reclaimed the area in 1061 but were later defeated by the Teutonic Knights, who called the town Dorpat. It joined the Hanseatic League in the 1280s.

In 1558, at the start of the Livonian war, Russian forces under Ivan the Terrible took the undefended town. Poland, Sweden and Denmark then joined the conflict. In 1582 Tartu was absorbed into the Polish–Lithuanian kingdom. It fell under Swedish control between 1600 and 1603, was under Polish jurisdiction from 1603 until 1625 and then became a Swedish possession. In 1632 Gustav II Adolphus of Sweden founded the university.

Russia briefly held Tartu from 1656–61 and in 1704 it was again seized by Russia, under the guidance of Peter I. Having sacked the city, he ordered the deportation of the German population. Three massive fires during the course of the eighteenth century (1708, 1763 and 1775) gutted virtually all Tartu’s medieval buildings, and the city was rebuilt along Baroque and Classical lines.

In the second half of the nineteenth century Tartu was prominent in the Estonian National Revival. The university was at the centre of intellectual debate and the town hosted the first Estonian song festival, the first national theatre and a leading writers’ association. Held by Soviet forces in 1919, in July 1941 it was invaded by German troops. It suffered much structural damage and up to 12,000 citizens were murdered during World War II. Re-occupied by the USSR in 1944, Tartu was prominent in Estonia’s anti-Soviet nationalist movement during the 1980s.

Modern City

Important industries include food processing, textiles and the manufacturing of agricultural equipment and consumer goods. There are good road, rail and air links and buses run within the city.

Places of Interest

The university has an observatory, art collection, library and botanical gardens. The university has sporadically been in exile and is currently trying to recover many of its treasures from Voronezh, where it was situated in the early twentieth century. Other major sights include the town hall, the thirteenth century Gothic cathedral, the fourteenth century St John’s church and several museums and galleries.

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© Springer Nature Limited 2019

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