A good friend in Florida was instrumental in our getting together with Volli and his wife Anu in Tartu. Volli called me in mid-November and asked whether we had seen Alatskivi Castle and the Juhan Liiv Museum, both of which are located about a half hour from Tartu, going east toward Lake Peipsi. Jüri and I had been to the Castle years earlier and remembered Alatskivi as being rather run-down. It has now been beautifully restored. We arranged to meet that weekend, after Anu got back from Rome where she had been at a conference. Volli and Anu are both doctors: Volli is a radiologist and Anu, a psychiatrist who works at the same hospital where my present lab is located.
It was a rather cold, grey morning when we began our drive out of Tartu. Once one leaves the Tartu city limits, it is essentially countryside with gentle slopes of fields and forests. Suburbia is not part of the Estonian landscape. Except for areas of Tallinn, suburbs do not really exist. The countryside is generally flat as we drove east, but I find the Estonian countryside is pretty. Few people, or cars, were to be seen this Sunday morning.
We first arrived at Juhan Liiv’s boyhood home and to which he also returned as an adult to live with his brother’s family. Liiv is one of Estonian’s great poets who was born in 1864 and died of pneumonia in 1913 at the age of 49. His poems are among my favorites. I found on the web English translations of some of his poems that you may enjoy. Poems, however, always lose something in translation. Some poems have been set to music. Liiv had poor health most of his life and apparently suffered from schizophrenia and had to be hospitalized. He was destitute most of his life and as he became older he would go on long walking treks barefoot in the countryside, stopping at friends’ and relatives’ farmhouses along the way. He wrote some of his best poems on these treks.
Anu and Volli had arranged a museum guide to give us a tour. The tour guide was excellent and it was obvious, she was a Liiv scholar. Seeing the old farm with a smoke sauna, rehealune (threshing barn), and the living quarters, gave me a better understanding of feudal life and the hardships of working on the rental farms. At the same time, the tenant farmers also
had to contribute to the wealth of the manor and the manor’s harvest. It was a small farm and Liiv
returned here to live with his brother’s family, after being released from the hospital. I’ve included some images and short slideshow of the Liiv homestead. The old wooden desk at which Liiv wrote some of his poems can be seen. Sitting at the desk, one can see an old apple orchard from the window. We walked around the property and then back to the car. The fact that it was very quiet, as we were by ourselves, and it was a misty, cold day, added to the feel of walking back into history.
After leaving Liiv’s home, we drove on not more than five to ten minutes and turned into the driveway to Alatskivi Castle (Loss). This manor house is one of
the most beautiful that I have seen in Estonia and is well restored. This manor is well worth visiting. Again a private tour had been arranged for us. Anu grew up in this area and her mother still lives in that region. Between them, they had arranged for us an unforgettable trip! With this trip I gained a much better understanding of Estonian’s history and culture. I am very thankful for this family’s generosity and friendship.
Külli who gave the tour is the very person who is responsible for the restoration of Alatskivi. She has written two grants which were funded by the European Union for the restoration. As I understand a third one is to be funded. The Castle was originally designed after Balmoral Castle in Scotland (see
image). Külli was the perfect person for the job: She has an engineering degree from Tallinn Technical College and is able to understand structural engineering and then received a Master’s at Tartu University in historical restorations. The small township was initially against the idea of restoring this huge castle because of the expenses (in the milllions) involved, but after she obtained funding for her grants, the township council acquiesced. It must be realized that although substantial EU funding is involved, whenever funds are obtained the country or local organizations, townships, etc. must pay a percentage on their own. Also certain strings are attached and numerous stipulations must be met. Now the Castle is self-supporting with monies obtained from tourism to this Castle. In one summer day alone, almost 9000 plus tourists passed through the house and property. The castle also rents various rooms for parties and conferences all-year round. A very good restaurant was open the day we were there and we sat down to an excellent dinner. After dinner, Külli met us again and took us to the latest addition to the
By the time we walked out the front entrance to the Castle, it was dark. Lanterns on old lamp posts lit the way back to our car. There were still some lights on in the building and certainly near the restaurant. I almost felt, as if we had had a personal visit with the family of this lovely castle. Although these Baltic German manors must have been beautiful at their peak in the late 1700s and into the late 1800s, it was a feudal system and life was hard for the Estonian tenant farmers who led a very poor and hard life. Many of us have seen the movie “Braveheart” with Mel Gibson. The life here for the farmers was no different. The Baltic German barons sided with whoever ruled the country to maintain their status quo and during this time period, Russia ruled. The poor life eventually led to tremendous dissatisfaction by native Estonians. A similar movement was taking place in Russia in regards to opposition to the Czar and its ruling class. These events were occurring as the rest of Europe was facing World War I. During the same time period, Estonians who lived in the cities, as in Tartu with its great University, Tallinn, Pärnu and others, were literate and well-educated. They were gaining insights into their own culture and history. In a nutshell, all things came together to lead to the Russian Revolution at the end of the First World War. Educated Estonians used the ensuing disorder or anarchy in Russia to declare Estonian’s independence on February 24, 1918. Many Estonian men had held high-ranking military positions in the Czarist army and had helped to lead the fight against the Communists trying to take over all of Russia. Thus, Estonians were experienced militarily. To get Estonian men to fight for independence, the new Estonian government broke up the manor lands and distributed parcels of land as a carrot stick to men to join the fight for Estonian’s independence. This parceling out of land to returning soldiers essentially led to the end of the manor system. Thus, descendants of the people who had owned this land near the Baltic Sea a thousand years earlier, now again gained possession, albeit only until September of 1944 with the Soviet occupation during World War II. As we all know, Estonia after 47 years of Soviet occupation, regained its independence in 1991 with its Singing Revolution.