Tartu: Student-Friendly and Open-Minded. There Is History Here.

Reportedly, it only takes one-tenth of a second to make a first impression. It might take a bit longer to make an impression about a new city or country, though. We asked our new international students about their first impressions from Estonia, Tartu, and the university. Here is what Václav from Czech Republic, Rūta from Latvia, Elena and Ivan from Russia, Ilona from Finland, Desiree from Canada, Connor from the USA, and Michael from Kenya shared with us on Twitter.

New international students at the University of Tartu

New international students at the orientation week events in August 2014. Image credit: Andres Tennus.

What are your first impressions about Estonia and Tartu?

What is your biggest surprise in Tartu?

Any myths about Estonia that appeared to be false (or true)?

Do you have a favorite place in Tartu yet?

What do you expect from your studies in Tartu?

Are you scared of winter?

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In Search of an Estonian Narrative

Mari-Liisa Parder is a project manager at the Centre for Ethics at the University of Tartu.

In the shadowy summer evening of 15 August one hundred Estonians gathered together to discuss what the story or greater narrative of the future Estonia would be. We were all brought together by one question: “Towards which Estonia are we working?” This discussion concluded the first night of the two-day Festival of Opinion Culture (in Estonian: Arvamusfestival).

Why are Estonians looking for such a story? This topic has been at the centre of media attention since the spring of 2014, after the prime minister of Estonia declared that Estonia does not need a greater narrative. This statement triggered discussion on where Estonia is going and what is the greater aim for us as a free country.

The main organisers of the “In Search of an Estonian Narrative” discussion, volunteers Ruti Einpalu and myself, outlined that this discussion had two sides – strong proponents and critical opponents. Furthermore, in listening to both sides it emerges that they all tend to agree with the statement: “If we do not have our own story, we might discover that we are part of someone else’s story!”

So the aim of this discussion was to think as a group on how we are building our unity as a nation, and what are the combined values and the joint story that brings together Estonians all over the world. We were not looking for one story for all, but rather the unifying elements.

Festival of Opinion Culture in Estonia

Searching for an Estonian narrative in circles around bonfires. Image credit: Festival of Opinion Culture

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Are We Worth Saving?

Martin Noorkõiv, a fresh bachelor of economics, is the head of the University of Tartu Student Council. This is the English version of Martin’s speech at the opening ceremony of the new 2014/2015 academic year  at the University of Tartu.

Martin Noorkõiv

Martin Noorkõiv: “It’s up to us whether Estonia is worth protecting. It’s our business to build such a country where there is world-class activity going on in all kinds of fields”. Image credit: Andres Tennus

Dear Rector, Mayor, Governor! Dear students and the entire academic family!

Please raise your hands if you have read a Harry Potter book or watched a Harry Potter movie (most hands raised). Nice, I have too. I have read all the books – the first one seven times, the second six times, the third five times, etc. When a new book came out, I always had to return to the previous ones first…

My favorite character was Dumbledore. Some of my favorite parts of the books were the speeches by Dumbledore, especially the ones given at the beginning of a new school year. I always wished that the real-life beginnings of school years would be as exciting as the ones in the books: the principal would stand up and warn everyone against entering the third floor, as one could get killed there… or a really dangerous criminal had just escaped prison and now dementors were guarding the schoolhouse. It would have been much more thrilling.

Today I have prepared a speech just like that, the kind of speech that I would have wanted to hear all these years. But today, knowing the content, I don’t want it anymore.

Instead, I wish I could talk about how to take maximum advantage of the time spent at university: how to study the night before a test, meet the most awesome people in the world, find a boyfriend or a girlfriend, join some student societies… Today I’d much rather talk about how the university days just might the best days of our lives.

But alas, I cannot. Unfortunately, we live in a different world. This is a world where Putin’s Russia has started invading Ukraine and a similar danger is threatening all the other former Soviet countries, including us. By now, over 100,000 people have had to leave their homes in Eastern Ukraine. This number is comparable to the population of Tartu. 2,600 persons have been killed in their own homes in Ukrainian territory in a war that has not even been declared, with weapons that aren’t even supposed to exist, by thousands of Russian soldiers that just accidentally happened to spend their “vacations” in the area. And if they never return from the vacation, they never existed, too, in spite of their mothers’, wives’, and small children’s grief. Continue reading

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The Second Crimean War: When Decaying Empires Strike Back

Rein Taagepera, recipient of Skytte Prize 2008, is Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Tartu, and the University of California, Irvine, USA.

Cole Thomas. The Course of Empire Destruction. 1836

“Destruction”, the forth painting in a five-part series of paintings entitled “The Course of Empire”, created by Thomas Cole in the years 1833-36. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Crimean War began 160 years ago, 80 years after Russia seized Crimea from Turkey. The war theater covered all of northern and eastern Black Sea coast, and even reached the Gulf of Finland, but its focus was Franco-British-Sardinian siege and capture of Sevastopol. Why on earth would West European allies wish to get stuck on the Black Sea? They tried to keep Russia from cutting off too large a slice of the decaying Ottoman Turkish Empire. This empire kept on decaying, anyway. Counter-attacks by the empire and its opportunistic allies barely slowed down the process. Turkey did not recover Crimea.

Now another decaying empire tries to strike back, and it started with Crimea. Journalists and political scientists tend to have short time horizons. Anything without precedent since 1990, or 1945 at most, may be called “unprecedented”. In this view, an international system essentially stable since times immemorial has lately become disrupted. Future has become uncertain, the past offering no guidance. This means, of course, the past since the creation of the political world, in 1990 – or in 1945, if one was born that long ago.

“New Realities in the Making” sounds of course catchier than déjà vu, but systematic political science should embed short-term new realities in a broader framework, making use a longer historical perspective. This would improve our predictive power. Some political scientists pride themselves of never making predictions, but they must mean specific predictions. Separating the possible from the unlikely also is prediction. So is separating actions that look successful, short-term, from those that actually are, in the long term.

Why should society be interested in funding an endeavor completely devoid of prediction? Historians beat political scientists in describing what endures. Journalists beat them in instant postdiction. If political scientists publish only median-term analyses – too late for daily decision-making but outdated within ten years – what would their function be?

This note focuses on the long term, offering a sketch of patterns of stabilization and destabilization of international system. It largely shuffles mentally through a high school history book, but my quantitative studies on empire growth and decay over the last 5000 years may add insights. The outcome is a mapping of the present situation in a broader historical context. Mapping alone does not get us out of the woods. But with faulty mapping we may move deeper into the woods. Continue reading

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The United Nations of Tartu: Compact Town with an Infinite Horizon

Frederik

Estonian flag in my bedroom

A few weeks ago, I was cleaning up and encountered my degree as an exchange student in Baltic studies, autumn semester 2008. It surfaced great memories, not to say the best ones in my life up to day. Indeed, my experience as a University of Tartu exchange student was amazing from the beginning until the end and left traces that still impact my present life (reaching way further than the Estonian flag in my bedroom).

Coming from Belgium, it was considered an unusual choice by my friends and family to study abroad in this “unknown” northern country. But even if I could choose for the obvious destination and hence go south like most of my fellow students, I didn’t have to think long about my choice. After doing some research, I learned about the very good reputation of this Baltic university, as well as the vibrant Tartu student life. What’s more, one of the main reasons why my exchange experience in Tartu went beyond my expectations, is the huge effort and amount of initiatives that the university implements to foster a terrific period for all its visiting students.

Living in Tartu and absorbing the Estonian life, the most striking thing for me was the exclamation of Estonian culture and habits, as well as the deep respect for nature. Altogether, this is the binding glue and oxygen of Estonians. In the many places I’ve visited during my stay (Pärnu, Viljandi, Otepäa, Tallinn, Rakvere, to name a few), the feeling of unity to be part of a distinguished population was unseen for me. That’s what made me fall in love with Tartu too, a feeling you can only understand once you’ve studied there. This is just one out of many reasons why studying abroad is much more than following interesting courses that approach subjects from a different angle. Continue reading

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How Selective Is Your Attention?

Why do we notice a remarkably beautiful person in a crowd, or pay attention to the sound of screeching car brakes cutting through the noise of traffic?

Graduation ceremony at UT

Why do we notice a remarkably beautiful person without any effort? Our affective attention leaps into action before we know it. Image credit: Andres Tennus

According to Andero Uusberg’s doctoral thesis, defended at the University of Tartu, this might be so because the brain processes emotional information in an accelerated manner.

The brain is equipped with various attention mechanisms for sorting out important stuff from potentially overwhelming sensory input. While top-down attention enables us to concentrate on the task at hand, and bottom-up attention to remain vigilant for unexpected aspects of the environment, there is also a third system that is sensitive to emotional information. This mechanism, referred to as affective attention, is responsible for spotting opportunities such as a valuable mate or threats such as a traffic accident.

Scientists still do not fully comprehend what exactly is going on in the brain when different attention systems compete with each other. As an example, consider the reader of an online news story whose eyes also capture a juicy sensational headline in the sidebar. Sometimes affective attention wins and the gossip story receives the anticipated click. But sometimes deliberate attention is able to push away the insignificant bait, so the person can go on reading the story. Continue reading

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Discover Arvo Pärt, His Music and Silence

Arvo Pärt among students of the University of Tartu

Arvo Pärt – the world’s most performed and surely most beloved living composer – amongst students of the University of Tartu after the seminar on 20 November 2013. In the background on the left: Professor Toomas Siitan. Image credit: Andres Tennus

Who doesn’t know Arvo Pärt? He is the world’s most performed living composer and arguably the most beloved as well. In late May, he accompanied the Grammy-winning Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra on their performances of his music in New York’s Carnegie Hall and in Washington, D.C. Some days before embarking on this tour, the musicians performed their programme of Arvo Pärt’s  music at the University of Tartu Assembly Hall:

It was the jewel in the crown of the year-long series of lectures on Arvo Pärt’s music by the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre Professor Toomas Siitan, with greatly awaited appearances by the famous albeit shy composer himself, who served as an invited Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Tartu last academic year.

Although Arvo Pärt has never been verbose about his work, noting that his word is the sound (in this sense, the final concert carried his most important message), the composer’s presence during the course felt essential and special. As one of the seminar participants wrote in an essay:

I don’t want to use big words, but the first seminar and meeting over the video bridge to the composer’s home created a strange and wonderful atmosphere. I felt a part of something very special, and you could see that the participants were moved. I later described this experience as the result of a great work of self-improvement. The composer has arrived to a place where many don’t even start their journey.

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