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Ivory Tower of Babel: Tartu University and the Languages of Two Empires, a Nation-State, and the Soviet Union


This is the history of a remarkable multilingual university and university town on the edge of Europe under four different states: the Swedish Empire (1632-1710), Russian Empire (1802-1917), National Republic of Estonia (1919-1940), and Soviet Union (1944-1991). In every incarnation Tartu University was founded in the throes of a war that reconfigured political boundaries, intellectual ideals, and languages of Europe: the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, World War One, and World War Two. Tartu's ever changing political and linguistic identity makes the University that once held the most powerful telescope in the world a good observatory upon the history of Europe and Russia as well as the globe and the cosmos. But ultimately, this is as much a tale of continuity as transformation.

At a skeptical distance from all the metropolitan capitals that founded and funded it (Stockholm, Saint Petersburg, Tallinn, Moscow), Tartu stood for an ideal of Europe that was at once more universal and more particular than that of any state that laid claim to its academic culture. In fact, its actual role approximated the Biblical myth of the Tower of Babel: intended each time to help build a new state in a new language (both literal and ideological), Tartu University ended up cultivating other languages for remembering the past, understanding the present, and imagining the future. This was especially true of the Soviet period--the focal point of my dissertation--when Tartu taught Bolshevik ideology in two official languages (Estonian and Russian), but became known throughout the Soviet Union as an "oasis of Europe" with numerous communities of linguistic and cultural study that seemed to stand apart from the state, but from each other as well, each in the bubble of its own literal and academic language.

The most famous of these communities was the "Tartu School of Semiotics" led by the Professor of Russian Literature, Yuri Lotman. By situating Tartu University's most famous scholar of the twentieth century against the background of his everyday life among Estonian-speaking strangers rather than his scholarly ties with Russian-speaking friends, I want to show what Lotman's theory of culture--especially the binary divide between Europe and Russia at its core--owes to Tartu. Lotman's idea that universal knowledge cannot be found in any one universal language, but must be sought in translation between particular ones, is thus both my method and my argument. Juxtaposing numerous perspectives composed in multiple languages, I show how Tartu University's uncomfortable position in space and time between languages and states (rather than firmly embedded in any one) allowed its scholars to see the world in terms (and languages) well beyond those imagined by any official ideology or discourse. Thus, Tartu became for them--as it can be for us--an excellent observatory on the relationship between the particular and the universal, the national and the cosmopolitan, and Russia and Europe.

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