Five Reasons To Visit Tartu

The unpredictable summer weather in Estonia often makes people travel to faraway southern countries during their holidays, when in fact there are exciting tourist attractions here to enjoy on your days off should you wish to spend a memorable holiday in Estonia. Ildika Siimon, Marketing Manager of the newly opened Hektor Design boutique hostel in Tartu, introduces the most attractive locations in the City of Good Thoughts.

  1. Black Dog Garden and Tartu Organic Gardens

Tartu green thumbs actively contribute to urban gardening by creating spaces where people can distance themselves from the city noise and enjoy fresh air, while doing some gardening if they wish. Visitors have planted herbs and other plants in urban gardens such as the Black Dog Garden and Tartu Organic Gardens. “Organic gardens like these attract more and more green-thumbed people, as well as those who crave the countryside idyll and sometimes just want to feel like they are at granny’s, in the middle of flower beds”, says Siimon.

Black Dog Garden. Photo by:

Black Dog Garden. Photo by: (in Estonian) (in Estonian)

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Was the Moth Really Attracted to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Tears?

Cristiano Ronaldo and Silver Y. Photo: Screenshot

Cristiano Ronaldo and Silver Y. Photo: Screenshot

People watching the Euro 2016 final last night were excited by the moth that landed on the face of the Portuguese captain, Cristiano Ronaldo. Social media channels, especially Twitter, are making the most out of mocking the incident. Several accounts with the name “Ronaldo Moth” have also been created.

Was the fragile winged creature really so touched by the tears of the injured footballer and his suffering that it came to offer the star friendship and consolation? 

Unlikely, but it is quite possible that the moth was looking to feed on salty tears and sweat.

“Some species of butterflies really feed on tears”, confirms UT Research Fellow in Entomology Juhan Javoiš. He adds that tears are probably complementary and not basic food for these species.

“These species are interested in sodium, which is regular salt, but probably also the proteins that tears contain”, said the research fellow. However, he is not sure whether the so-called Ronaldo moth seen in yesterday’s final is among the species specialised in tears. “I doubt it, although it can be seen in the video that it is especially interested in the eye”.

“The moths probably gathered to the stadium because of the bright lights, and they were definitely attracted by the smell of sweat, which should be plentiful in the football stadium. Upon closer look they also found some more nutritious, protein-rich food — tears”, Javoiš explains with a clever smile. “Entomologically it is definitely a very entertaining case”, he added.

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A Letter to Tartu Students from a Moscow Prison

Piotr Pavlensky's action "Fixation"

Pyotr Pavlensky’s famous act in Moscow on November 10, 2013, when he nailed himself to the pavestones of the Red Square by his genitals as part of an art performance in protest of what he saw as apathy in contemporary Russian society which could lead to a police state.
Image credit: Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters / Scanpix

In the beginning of May the notable Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky addressed a letter to the audience of my lecture course entitled “Soviet and Post-Soviet Russian Culture”.

The letter arrived from a Moscow prison: Pavlensky was arrested in 2015 after carrying out the performance “Threat“. The artist doused the wooden front door of the Russian Federal Security Service’s (former KGB) headquarters with gasoline and set it on fire with a cigarette lighter.

Here is the translation of Pavlensky’s letter by Helena Bassil-Morozow – see the photo of the Russian original below.

Hello Roman,


I will talk about what, in my view, is the most definitive aspect of both modernity in general and Russian culture in particular. As your student audience will be international, you can ask them how the situation in Russia compares to how things are back at home.

In my view, the entire history of Russian culture is determined by the conflict between the individual and the state. This dynamic is paradoxical as well as irresolvable. Russian literature waded into this conflict way before all other art forms. Meanwhile, up to the beginning of the twentieth century, Russian painters were prepared to be mere court servants whose task was to render the greatness of God, the Tsar, and the State. Even the most idiosyncratic of them resorted to merely illustrating the influential texts of the time.

‘The Word’ truly dominated the Russian cultural sphere; an almost religious importance was attached to it by the culture. That’s why the lives of Radishchev, Ryleev, Herzen, Chernyshevsky, Tolstoy, Mayakovsky, and later also Malevich, Filonov, Mandelstam, Kharms, Vvedensky, Oleinikov, Punin, Platonov, Shalamov (and many other writers whose names I cannot immediately recall) have proven that the conflict between the individual and the state is irresolvable.

Yet – paradoxically – these enemies of monarchy and Bolshevism have formed the core of the school curriculum. That’s how the existing political order undermines itself by planting the seeds of social conflict into the minds of each new generation of individuals. This seedling of a conflict is then either split off and rejected by the fragmented psyche of the obedient citizen or, alternatively, it grows into the next rebellious movement.

To be completely honest, I have no idea why the social order maintains the model of culture based on this continuous dynamic.

Let’s keep in touch,
Best wishes,

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A Discovery Puts the Brakes on a Cancer-Inducing Virus

“Almost everyone becomes infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) during their lifetime, but in many cases it happens in a relatively harmless way. Often the symptoms never manifest at all”, says Mart Toots, a fresh PhD in biomedical technology at the University of Tartu. His doctoral thesis focuses on the oncogenic types of the virus.

Mart Toots

Fresh PhD in biomedical technology Mart Toots discovered novel inhibitors of the cancer-causing papillomavirus. Photo by Mart Ustav Junior

During his study, Toots half-incidentally discovered many previously undescribed chemical compounds which can hinder the viral infection.

By now, we know about 205 or more types of HPV, 13 of them considered dangerous. The virus is spread by contact transmission, including sexual transmission. Unlike infections with most HPV types that may result in benign growths – typically manifesting as warts and disappearing, thanks to the immune system, by themselves – when a malign type of the virus is present, the persistent, long-lasting infection might lead to cancer.

HPV most frequently causes cervical cancer. More than half a million women receive the diagnosis each year, most often in Africa and South America, where there are up to 60 cases per 100,000 women. In Estonia the number is 20 on average. The virus can cause genital cancers in men as well, but it doesn’t happen nearly as often.

the spread of papilloma virus

On the left: The global number of cervical cancer cases per 100,000 women. 
On the right: The percentage in the grey circle shows the proportion of women infected with viruses causing cervical cancer. The circles represent various regions. The small circles represent the three most wide-spread cancer-causing virus type per each region.
The figures are from Mart Toots’ PhD and are based on the following sources: Ferlay et al. 2010, Crow 2012, Jung et al. 2015.

HPV infects the basal dividing cells in the deepest layer of epithelial tissue through microwounds or abrasions.

HPV infection can be prevented with vaccination, but until now there’s no efficient cure that can stop the disease once the infection has caused it. There are three vaccines available, but they work only when the vaccination happens before sexual initiation. In Estonia, the vaccine is allowed for girls aged 9–12 and boys aged 9–15. Continue reading

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Genetic Mutation Influences Mental Disorders and Alcohol Addiction

a depressed young woman

Mood disorders are hereditary. Image by Mary Lock / Creative Commons

Why is it that a warm hug from a friend makes some of us really happy, while for others it registers as nothing, as they are unable to find any enjoyment from their surroundings? The latter case quite likely indicates a depressive mindset or depression.

There may be a breakthrough in curing this, as well as many other psychic disorders, after the potential discovery of drugs that would impact a certain transport protein in the brain – the one that a group of scientists from the University of Tartu have, figuratively speaking, put their finger on.

“Putting their finger on it” means that Marillis Vaht, a junior researcher of neuropsychopharmacology, lately demonstrated something important about a gene that encodes the activity of the molecule moving around brain chemicals related to feeling well and alert. It turns out that the gene influences impulsivity, anxiety, depressiveness, neuroticism, as well as addiction to and abuse of alcohol.

The existence of the aforementioned molecule was discovered just at the turn of the century. In the 1990s, scientists still believed that the VMAT1 transport protein was present in the human gastrointestinal tract and the blood vessels, but not in the brain.

VMAT1 performs the task of organizing the communication between nerve cells. It might seem simple: neurotransmitters related to feeling well and alert, such as serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline, noradrenaline, are sent from one nerve cell to another at the right time and in the right amount. But the protein does its work with different levels of success in different human beings, depending on hereditary factors. In addition to other benefits, knowing this helps to explain why a warm hug from a friend produces a pleasant feeling in some people and nothing in others.

“If the activity of the protein-transporting neurotransmitters is really low, it might mean, for example, decreased release of dopamine, a compound related to feeling well”, explained Vaht. Continue reading

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Does Frequent Lawn Trimming Reduce Species Richness?

Michael mowing

Mowing won’t harm your low-diversity cultivated lawn, but why not plant a small meadow in your garden? Image credit: Stephen Henderson / Flickr Creative Commons

Warm temperatures have finally advanced spring in a remarkable, long-awaited way: trees, bushes, and flowers are blooming; grass is growing. Alas, the annoying noise of lawn trimming has become an indispensable part of Estonian summers.

But does frequent mowing influence the richness of species in one’s garden or yard? What is the most sustainable and nature-friendly approach to lawn trimming?

According to Meelis Pärtel, UT Professor at the Department of Botany, a lawn is a very artificial ecosystem. “Few species are suitable to a cultivated lawn that is frequently trimmed – it is mostly breeded graminaceous plants, and biodiversity is very low there. At the same time, the world records for species richness on a small scale also come from a community that requires trimming – namely, from wooded meadows”, says Pärtel.

The Laelatu wooded meadow in western Estonia, near Virtsu, boasts two world records for diversity. Laelatu was found to contain 25 different plants in an area of 10×10 centimeters and 42 species in an area of 20×20 cm.

Professor Pärtel recommends planting a meadow-like lawn that only needs mowing two or three times per year in the less-trodden garden areas. These should be low-fertile sandy or pebbly areas, as plants also don’t grow very high on such soils naturally, and a low-density lawn allows for various flowering plants to thrive.

“You could plant seeds of natural meadow species: cowslips, bellflowers, buttercups, and others. Blossoms attract plant-pollinating insects, such as butterflies and bumblebees, which also help garden plants fructify. You can mow lower walking trails into your meadow grass”, advises the botany professor.

The Estonian version of this post was first published in ERR Novaator.

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Doing Practical Fieldwork in Conflict Areas: Israel

Sheltering under the Jaffa Gate during a torrential downpour, we glimpsed a snapshot of Jerusalem’s distinctive diversity. The intensity of the rain had forced at least forty or fifty people into the small medieval tower on the edge of the Old City.

A group of Christian clergymen from a range of ethnic and denominational backgrounds were huddled in one corner, several orthodox Jews were close to me on the opposite side, and there were men and women in traditional Islamic garb interspersed throughout.

A young, enterprising teenaged boy walked in and out of the rain, shouting “‘brella! ‘brella!, ‘brella!” slyly shaking excess water from his demo model onto woefully underdressed locals and tourists – myself included – hoping we’d reach the conclusion that an umbrella would be fifty shekels (€12) well spent. Smiles and glances of shared annoyance at both the weather and the intrusive sales technique were exchanged across religious lines, and in that five minutes I felt we could have been in any cosmopolitan and tolerant multicultural city.

The Dome of the Rock and Western Wall, Jerusalem

The Dome of the Rock and Western Wall, Jerusalem

In April 2016 I spent a week in Israel with nine other students and two instructors as part of an MA course at the Johan Skytte Institute for Political Studies entitled Practical Fieldwork in Conflict Areas. In previous years, Professor Eiki Berg has led fieldtrips to (among others) Cyprus, Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, and to Nagorno Karabakh in the south Caucasus – the latter making headlines recently with a flare-up of violence and rhetoric between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is enduring, highly complex and generates strong and emotional opinions throughout the world. The opportunity to get on the ground and observe the people and places first-hand, rather than through the lenses of media reports and academic writings was very appealing. Our busy and varied itinerary yielded a wealth of experiences that could fill several long blog postings, so this short account is by no means extensive!

We set foot in the Middle East at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport in the early hours of Sunday morning. Our highly hospitable hosts, Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), had a minibus waiting to take our travel-weary group the 100km south to the city of Beersheba, and to our accommodation at Ben Gurion Tower, just off Ben Gurion Boulevard. Subsequently, my first sleep-deprived observation was that David Ben-Gurion’s name is everywhere. Israel’s founding father and first prime minister is immortalised in infrastructure up and down the country in streets, schools and parks, his image even offering helpful advice at the airport in the jolly style of a Nintendo Wii avatar. Continue reading

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