If you’ve even spent a few moments in Tartu, you’ll have noticed that students play a huge role in this city’s life. This isn’t a recent development – students have been instrumental to Tartu’s vitality since as far back as 1632 when Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus II founded Tartu University, now one of the three oldest universities in northern Europe.
Historians have very few details about the life of students in 17th-century Tartu; however we do know that in those days, when Estonia was under Swedish rule, the majority of students were ethnic Swedes or Finns, they came from wealthy backgrounds, took all their courses in Latin and were required to drink about six (yes, six!) litres of beer per day.
War and hard times kept the univerisity closed for most of the 18th Century, but in 1802, this time under Tsarist Russian rule, students filled the halls of the university once more. By now instruction was in German as the majority of the students were Baltic Germans, but students of other ethnic backgrounds, including Polish, Russian and Jewish, also attended. It was at this time that the first fraternities, or ‘corporations’ as they’re called here, were formed. The idea behind these organisations was to unite groups of students along ethnic and social lines, actively campaign for their own interests and rights, and quite frankly, have a darned good time. Some of these good times included dueling with swords or pistols, breaking windows, and smoking in the streets, all of which were punishable offences that could result in a stay at one of the university’s four prison cells (visitors can check out the remaining one housed in the University Main Building).