Students mark double anniversary with serious fun

  • 2002-05-09
  • Kristjan Teder
Tartu University recently celebrated centuries of intellectual achievement. The students marked the occasion by following the time-honored tradition of doing nothing useful, as Kristjan Teder reports.

It is not often that an institution celebrates its 370th and 200th birthdays with one party. But the students of Tartu University recently managed to give the old school a huge double bash.

Between its founding as the Academia Dorpatensis by King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden in 1732, and its reopening in 1802 after almost a century of forced closure, Tartu has made some serious contributions to human understanding. It continued the process in the first week of May with record-low attendance at lectures, boat races and the consumption of copious quantities of beer.

And these were just some of the more conventional goings on.

"If, say, someone took a horse to the fifth floor of a dorm in Tallinn, he would be considered a nuisance," said Rene Varul, a law student. "Do that in Tartu and everyone will just smile and think, 'Oh it's those students.'"

In fact, the story about the horse is actually a true one. And anyone present at this year's party would not be surprised at all by such pranks.

Youth at large

While celebrations of student life have been going on for centuries, they experienced a revival in the gray Soviet 1970s, when a spring festival was permitted at Tartu under the politicized theme of "International Friendship Days." Of course, most of the students spent more time drinking and attending concerts than reflecting on the good relations between the peoples of the Soviet Union.

And this year's celebrations were kicked off by organizations thoroughly banned by the Soviets.

Members of student fraternities wearing colored caps and ribbons led a flag-waving procession through Town Hall Square, where the mayor of Tartu ceremonially surrendered his rule to the students. The symbolic upsetting of authority continued at the main university building, where the rector sipped a mug of beer to welcome the revelers.

The next stop was at a bust of Karl Ernst von Baer, a Tartu-based physiologist credited with discovering the ovary. The students saluted this man of science by giving his memorial a colorful new tie and washing its head with champagne.

Tired from these exertions, the frat boys and girls then retired to their own quarters to wash their own throats with various fluids, before flinging open their doors to midnight so everybody could join in the songs and laughter.

In fact, springtime Tartu melts the hearts of even the straightest-laced oldies. Every year, hundreds of beer lovers congregate on the grassy slopes of Toome Hill, turning it into a massive outdoor pub.

Using their powers under a new alcohol act, last year the police tried to eradicate the tradition by fining and arresting many inebriated youngsters.

But this year the City Council declared the whole area a "café" where boozing is entirely lawful.

Every witch way

Since ancient times people have celebrated the arrival of spring in the most varied ways. And the same night of April 31, when the student fraternities march around, has seen even stranger rituals performed.

Historically, Estonians have marked this as Volbrioo Night, when there was said to be a great gathering of witches. However, despite exhortations to dress up like vampires and ghouls, most of the students were content to work their own magic this year.

"After a couple of drinks, you will feel witchy anyway," said psychology student Maiu Taidre.

And there was no shortage of the bizarre at the culmination of the celebrations on May 5, a sunny Sunday, when 100 vessels took part in a boat race on the Emajogi River that flows through Tartu.

There would have been more competitors if a number had not sunk during technical inspection or if the crews had followed orders to wear life vests. Those that made it into the race included life rafts, crafts made of water bottles, and a floating hot tub traveling under the name "Emajogi Water and Health Center."

Crewmen of an adjacent boat, holding orange snow spades instead of oars, struggled to bring their ailing vessel to the finish, taking time to splash a smaller boat with three frog-clad competitors inside.

"Healthy body, sane mind," said German language student Diana Mikita, as she stepped out of her ship with a pair of rabbit's ears attached to her head.

Of course, the result mattered little to the participants or the thousands of spectators who took getting soaked with a sense of humor.

For those who prefer it dry, there was the annual student fair and fancy dress race at Town Hall Square. The style prize in the latter event went to the Seven Dwarfs, who got worthy competition from a swimming team that plunged into a fountain.

At the fair, anything was for sale. The magnificent castles of Attila the Hun were available for a down payment of just five kroons ($0.30).

Another young man sat selling his old pajamas and one boot. "The other was bought by a one-legged professor," he announced.

Back to reality

Of course, it wasn't all just fun and games. The celebrations included many concerts and other cultural events, as befits a city that can claim to be the most important intellectual cluster not just in Estonia, but in the Baltics.

With 15,000 students and hundreds of academics out of a population of just 90,000, Tartu is the alma mater of the majority of educated people in Estonia.

Its research institutes are significant players in fields ranging from gene technology to fuel cell development, building on a long tradition of academic excellence. In addition to the renowned scientist who discovered the ovary and who received the champagne bath from the students, it also produced Yuri Lotman, the founder of modern semiotics.

And with 3,000 academic papers published every year, there are undoubtedly other intellectual giants waiting to be discovered by the world.

And the student fraternities do more than just chug beers. Their song-singing, sword-wielding rituals are based on German traditions, but they have also been instrumental in promoting Estonian culture. For example, the Estonian Student Society, the oldest fraternity in the country that led the march, was the inventor of the blue-black-and white Estonian national flag in the 19th century.

In 1919, after the first independent Estonian Republic was established, Tartu University became the first higher education establishment to provide instruction in Estonian. Yet it retains a cosmopolitan favor, with more than 400 foreign students studying there.

These complimentary traditions were marked by an academic conference during the recent celebrations titled "National University, International University."

These facts can sober up even the most jubilant students. As the party wound up, many revelers greeted the morning sun, and visitors could almost smell the hangover in the air of the empty streets.

And classes started to fill up again on Monday. After a week-long break, the prospect of an upcoming exam season was enough to focus many tired minds.