Estonia: Tartu Song Festival Museum

This is the fourth installment in a series on my experience of Estonia on the occasion of its 20th anniversary of re-independence from the Soviet Union. In what became known as the “Singing Revolution,” residents of this Baltic state wielded a long-held cultural practice as a weapon of change, without a drop of blood spilled. Over the four years between 1987 and 1991, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered publicly in a series of spontaneous events to sing prohibited patriotic songs, risking their lives to proclaim their desire for independence, culminating in a choral event that close to one-third of the country’s citizens attended.

Expressing their national identity through song has been an Estonian tradition for as long as memory serves — the Estonian Literature Museum contains more than 1.5 million pages of folk songs and there are continual competitions and festivals around the country. The country’s “choir culture” is flourishing, with music continuing to serve as the force that unites Estonians as they enter the third decade of their fledgling democracy.

Estonia is a window into how one small country moved from living in fear under a totalitarian system to an environment of such openness that today it is known as one of the most “wired” nations in the world. In my journey across this small country, I met a cross-section of people whose experiences tell the story of Estonia’s past, present and future — and provide powerful lessons in how the irrepressible human spirit can overcome bondage. While there, I had my own awakening, realizing that repression can also be self-imposed and that freedom sometimes is simply a choice to cast off old chains of ancient history and embrace today.

If I had to find myself in a cell, there were certainly worse, especially in a former Soviet bloc country. Like some of the more brutal prisons that had been run by the Communists when they were in power in Estonia, this locked ward was reserved for intellectuals. I hardly qualified, but I was pretty sure that claiming not to belong here had been tried unsuccessfully by many who had gone before me.

University of Tartu Lock-Up

With plenty of time on my hands, I scrutinized my new surroundings, where the walls could and did talk. The sightless eyes of a finely-sketched skeleton stared back at me, an anguished soul protested from a self-portrait and the silhouettes of full-figured females floated on the crumbling white plaster. The vivid graffiti in a range of artistic skills spoke of the spectrum of human emotions experienced by those held captive here: yearning, boredom and frustration. Despite the language barrier that barred me from understanding the words scrawled on the walls, the legacy left by all the others who had landed here was clear. You can imprison people physically, but you can’t shackle their minds.University of Tartu Lock-Up (Meg Pier)Happily, I was not enslaved at a frozen Siberian gulag but in the sun-filled attic of the University of Tartu’s main building, and visiting entirely by choice — although there had been moments I wasn’t sure I would survive the march up the eighty steps to the fourth floor. And rather than at the mercy of a cruel captor, I was the guest of my patient guide Uku Peterson, who offered a window into life in the University’s 19th century “Lock Up.”

“The Lock-Up was meant for students who misbehaved and the space has been preserved to offer insight into the period,” said Uku. “If students did something that was forbidden, such as smash somebody’s window or insult a lady, they were punished with time in the Lock-Up. Maximum imprisonment was three weeks and that was when students held a duel, deceived a shopkeeper or were seen fighting by university police.”

Uku said it appears the Lock-Up was most often populated by students from the upper echelons of society, and he dryly observed that in the 1800s, like today, often “the rich kids partied and the poor students studied.” He went on to say that life in the Lock-Up was hardly hard labor, and in fact “it was like living in a penthouse.” Students could come and go to lectures and had the liberty to go out to lunch every day.

Uku is pursuing master’s degrees in both art history and education. While himself a young man, he did not need an advanced education to know that oppression has been a fact of life for Estonia for much of the past 700 years. Despite this history, I found many Estonians to have a sly good humor, and Uku was no exception.

He told me there are many stories about how students ended up in the Lock-Up, saying his favorite tale is about a student in the early 1800s, an era when it was forbidden for students to have facial hair, believed to symbolize revolutionary thinking. A student with a full beard was called before the rector to explain his disregard for the rule. The young maverick defiantly claimed that he had just shaved that morning. The rector sputtered that the hirsute radical should shave twice a day and sentenced him to three days in the Lock-Up.

Another story in the Lock-Up lore is that of a student who was on the run from Tartu’s city police. As the ne’er do well sought an escape, he found himself on the edge of the university campus, with a city cop grabbing his ankles and a university officer tugging on his hands. After a tussle, eventually the university police had the culprit and city police had his trousers.

University of Tartu Lock-UpUku told me that the Lock-Up’s graffiti was drawn with coal and by candlelight and noted that most of it was written in German. He pointed out a line and translated, “Two weeks sat behind this table student Edgar Frisch.” In fact, instruction at the university took place in that tongue until 1893, despite the fact that Estonia had become part of Tsarist Russia after the Great Northern War with Sweden. Under both the Swedes and the Russians, German was the language of mostly all official documents, commerce and government business for more than seven centuries.

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