The Folklorist Who Reawakened a Nation

Sunday, 2 February 1890 - St. Petersburg, Russia

Today I visited St. John’s Church here in St. Petersburg at 54 Ulitsa Dekabristov, near the Mariinsky Theater. It is a rather modest brick building, but it has great historical significance to the people of Estonia.

Estonia in 1890
This is a map of Estonia as it looks in 1890. What you don’t see it? It’s the area circled. I know the map doesn’t show it, but it’s a German map. The German’s feel it still belongs to them since a band of crusading Teutonic Knights conquered it back in the 13th century, bringing Christianity and serfdom to the poor pagans. The knights also made themselves the ruling class. Then the Swedes took it away (or was it Poland, then the Swedes? It’s all very complicated. Denmark was in there somewhere, too.) The problem is Estonia is on a very strategic spot, and surrounding countries all fought over it for centuries. Finally Peter the Great grabbed it in 1710 and absorbed it into Russia.

Now all this time, there was an Estonian people with their own language and culture that managed to survive under all this turmoil. Sadly the natives were now all serfs. Luckily these serfs were freed in 1819, beating the rest of Russia by 42 years. I believe the serfs may have been freed first in Estonia because the nobles were all Germans and not Russian and thus were little political threat to the Tsar.

Many of the freed serfs decided to thumb their noses at their German overlords and came to St. Petersburg to seek their fortune. It was after all an international city, with ethnic groups from all over. By 1859 the Estonian community had enough members and money to build this fine church, with the help of Tsar Alexander II, who was kind enough to donate 50,000 rubles to the cause.

St. John's Church
My last blog I mentioned how Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, and his son Alexander III became very paranoid and xenophobic. He wants everyone to be Russians. They should speak Russian and belong to the Russian Christian Orthodox Church. Estonians speak German and Estonian and belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Estonia. Perhaps the Tsar hasn’t singled out the Estonians yet because they are mostly poor peasants and his father did help build the church.

It s doesn’t help that the present minister, Jakob Hurt, only two years ago, challenged his parishioners to resist the Tsar’s Russification Policy. Hurt isn’t really a terrorist or anything violent. He is a folklorist and linguist--a fellow anthropologist! He started a campaign to collect Estonian folktales, organizing 1400 volunteers he accumulated from a newspaper campaign to help him, and has collected hundreds of tales into six volumes. He will be known as the “King of Estonian Folklore.” He is also a theologian, which doesn’t pay much, but pays more than being a folklorist.

Jacob Hurt
Jakob Hurt gave the sermon in Estonian. I kept glancing about for the Tsar’s secret police. I think some members had eyed me earlier until they figured out I was just a curious Englishman. Britain is one country that has never tried to conquer Estonia.

I know giving a sermon in Estonian and collecting folktales, may not seem like much, but Hurt is reminding these people they have a culture and a country, even if the rest of Europe denies it. This National Reawakening will eventually lead to 40,000 Estonians marching on the Tauride Palace and the Russian Government in 1917 to demand national autonomy. The Estonian Revolution that followed will force Russia to sign a peace agreement in 1920, making Estonia a free country for the first time in 700 years.

Unfortunately the Soviets reneged on the deal, and occupied Estonia in 1940. Stalin executed thousands and sent tens of thousands of Estonians to labor camps in Siberia. Most will die. Even the dead were not left in peace as Stalin had their cemeteries destroyed. Then between 1941 and 1944 Germany once more ruled Estonia. As soon as they left, Estonia met Russia returning and once more fought for independence. Estonia lost.

As for this church, it did not fare well under the Communists who hated religion of any kind. The belfry and portal were demolished and the building, like many churches in St. Petersburg, was used as a warehouse.

Then in the late 1980s as the USSR dissolved, Estonia took advantage of the situation to grab back their independence. They are still independent and proud of their heritage in the 27th century and still reading Jakob Hurt’s Monumenta Estoniae Antiquae in their native Estonian.

The St. John Church will be returned to the Estonian community in St. Petersburg. The Republic of Estonia could not let the church Jakob Hurt taught at be demolished. After a four million pound renovation, the Archbishop reconsecrated the church in 2011 with the president of Estonia as a guest of honor. I think Jakob Hurt was there too, in spirit.

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