President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid: Tartu and the university symbolically bind us all into one

At the invitation of Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, six European heads of state arrived in Tartu on the 22nd of June to celebrate Estonia`s 100th anniversary.

President of Georgia Giorgi Margvelašvili, President of Iceland Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė, President of Latvia Raimonds Vējonis, President of Poland Andrzej Duda and President of Finland Sauli Niinistö participated in the Estonia 100 celebration in Tartu, which culminated with the opening of the XVIII student song- and dance festival Gaudeamus.

At the invitation of Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, six European heads of state arrived in Tartu on the 22nd of June to celebrate Estonia`s 100th anniversary. Photo: Andres Tennus.

Dear people of Tartu and distinguished guests,

I am very glad to welcome you in the heart of the city of Tartu. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, we are graced today by the presence of good friends with whom we share common values. A century ago, they, like us, went through a crucial period in the formative years of their statehood.

I am pleased that we can commemorate our country’s anniversary here in Tartu in particular, as it is the home of our oldest and largest university. Our only Universitas. The university is what made Tartu into what it is for Estonians and the entire world.

Above all, Tartu is a key bulwark for Estonians’ and Europeans’ academic world.

For Estonians, Tartu is important as one of the centres of our national independence movement. The first Estonian poet, Kristjan Jaak Peterson, studied here in the early 19th century. His statue stands on Toome Hill, reminding us of the hope that our national language would find an enduring place in the family of the world’s languages – and this hope has been realized.

In 1869, the first Estonian Song Festival was held in Tartu. The city was also, where the first Estonian newspaper editor, Johann Voldemar Jannsen, was active. Estonians have sung melodies to verses penned by Jannsen’s daughter Lydia Koidula at song festivals for more than a century.

In the wake of the outpouring of national sentiment connected to the first nationwide song festival, Estonian students in Tartu founded a society and chose blue, black and white as their colours. This seed was planted in fertile soil. In 1919, the University of Tartu became an Estonian-language institution. The students’ tricolour is today the national flag; it flies from Toompea tower in Tallinn, on Estonian homes as well as in front of the headquarters of the UN, EU and NATO as an equal to other countries’ banners.

The University of Tartu was founded for locals by Swedish King Gustav II Adolf in 1632. The university is dear to us all. Many of us have parents or children who spent the best years of their youth here, gaining knowledge that has helped us get here today and will lead us onward.

The university is an important centre for others as well. Many Polish students enrolled here, especially when the Russian tsar closed the Polish universities after the November uprising there. Up until Poland achieved national independence, around few thousand Poles studied in Tartu, becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers and farmers. The largest Polish fraternity, Polonia, was founded here in Tartu, 190 years ago.

An increasing number of Latvians, our good neighbours to the south, began flocking to Tartu to study 150 years ago. Riga did not have a university at the time and thus both Latvians and Estonians considered the University of Tartu their own. Every Latvian knows the names Krišjānis Valdemārs, Juris Alunāns and Krišjānis Barons. Among the greatest leaders of the Latvian national awakening, they studied here and founded the first Latvian student organization.

President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid in Tartu. Photo: Raigo Pajula.


Tartu was home to a pro-independence Lithuanian student organization led by the later rector of the University of Lithuania and well-known ophthalmologist Petras Avižonis. Tartu was also the place where the Baltic Appeal was signed by 45 courageous Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians in 1979 to mark the tragic anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

By becoming the first country to recognize the restoration of Estonian independence in 1991, Iceland reminded the world of the injustice that stemmed from the pact. Incidentally, Tartu and the university have helped Estonians become closer to the spirit of Iceland and its sagas, folklore and literature.

In their memoirs, Estonian students wrote about Georgian students with glowing reverence, suggesting they were all princes. Of course, it was not exactly the case, even though the names Pavlenišvili and Vatšnadze, Tsereteli and Mheidze indeed do appear in the university’s matriculation register. They include some of the founding fathers of independent Georgia.

Finns have played a special role in the history of Estonia and Tartu. They were already studying in Tartu back in the 17th century, but relations between Estonians and Finns gained impetus after national statehood was established. The decision to change the university’s language of instruction to Estonian was a bold decision as there were few Estonian professors and faculty members. Finns came to the rescue: figures like Johannes Gabriel Granö, Kalle Väisälä and Ilmari Manninen – and there are certainly others – were there at the inception of the Estonian-language University of Tartu.

During the burgeoning of Finno-Ugric kinship, friendship agreements were signed between Estonian and Finnish student organizations, which still endure today, representing the foundation of a strong Finnish-Estonian bridge.

Thow you see, this is why we a gathered today in Tartu. Tartu and its university are a strong symbolic bond linking us all, and the spirit of freedom carries us ceaselessly forward.

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