I just spent a week in Tartu, Estonia, at a conference on biblical studies. I gave a paper on whether there were women mystics in early Judaism, and went to lots of other interesting papers. I also went on a couple of tours - one of a series of communities along Lake Peipsi (which forms the border between Estonia and Russia - I had hoped I could take photos of Russia on the other side of the lake, but it's actually quite large, so I couldn't fulfill my desire of saying that I could see Russia from Estonia, unlike Sarah Palin who claimed that she could see Russia from Alaska), and another in and around Tartu itself.
For those of you who may not know where Estonia is (no need to be embarrassed, I checked on the map to be sure exactly where it is), it's the northernmost country of the Baltic states, and it's right next to Russia. From 1940-1991 it was part of the Soviet Union (along with Latvia and Lithuania it was swallowed up by the Soviets as a result of the pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany that agreed to divide the Baltic states and Poland between them). Then, when the Soviet Union disintegrated, it became an independent country again. It's also a member of the EU. There's quite a bit of anti-Russian sentiment there, as a result of this history.
The tour that I took on the Sunday before the conference started first went to several small villages along Lake Peipsi that are inhabited by the "Old Believers" - a sect that split off from Russian Orthodoxy in the 17th century, when the official church enacted a series of reforms that the Old Believers rejected. The reaction against them was extremely violent - Old Believers were persecuted, their priestly leadership was murdered, their churches were burned down - so as a result many of them left Russia for other safer locations, including Estonia. They managed to survive through the years of communist rule, and the communities still exist. I just looked up the term on the internet, and discovered that there are communities of Old Believers even in Oregon!
We went inside an Old Believer church, and it was really beautiful inside. (Unfortunately, they didn't want us to take photos, so I can only describe it). The inside was painted with bright colors, and the front of the church was covered with beautiful icons, vividly painted. One of the women members of the church spoke to us about the religion and tried to explain the differences between the Old Believers and other kinds of Russian Orthodox, but frankly I didn't really understand it. She also talked about how for the most part women are the religious leaders of the community, even though according to their theology men should be - because there are so few men now left who are priests.
We then got back on the bus and went to a little museum of Old Believer life, where another woman told us about Old Believer life, including some very interesting rules that she had grown up with. When her grandmother was alive, the family would never eat with anyone who was not also an Old Believer - if a stranger came to the house, that person had to eat on separate dishes. Also, if anyone in the family went away to work far away, and then came back, he had to go through a two-week period of eating on separate dishes as well before he would be considered pure enough to eat with the family.
The rest of the tour consisted of a visit to a castle (actually, not much of a castle, it was from the 19th century, built by a German baron), where we had lunch, and then a visit to the shore of Lake Peipsi to watch the "christening" of a boat built out of local reeds. This consisted of someone reciting something in Estonian, which of course we didn't understand, then pouring some rum over the boat, and then passing around the rum to whoever was interested in drinking. Unfortunately, we didn't bring our bathing suits, so there was no possibility of taking a dip in the lake - and it was very hot!
We then returned to Tartu, rather sated with Estonian tourism, and got down to the serious business of biblical scholarship the next day.
On Tuesday afternoon I went on a walking tour of Tartu with the same guide who had taken us to Lake Peipsi, and the tour had a very interesting ending. She showed us some of the main buildings of the University of Tartu, where the conference took place, brought us to the town hall in front of which is a statue of two students kissing, had us slog up the hill behind the university where we saw the university observatory and the supreme court of Estonia, which is headquartered in Tartu, and then back to the main university building where we had started. At that point one of the people on the tour asked the guide about the Soviet occupation - because the guide was uniformly negative about the period of Soviet rule.
The guide answered and then a woman named Irena, who was also on the tour, interrupted her - saying that she had studied at the University of Tartu in the 1970s because it was one of the few universities in the USSR where Jews were freely admitted (she herself now lives in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, but she grew up in Leningrad). She also then mentioned one of the luminaries of the University of Tartu who had taught there for many years - a Jewish scholar of semiotics named Yuri Lotman who founded the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School. He was from St. Petersburg/Leningrad and was unable to find work in Russia because of antisemitism, and so began teaching in Tartu in 1950.
Irena also talked about another Jewish scholar at the university in the 1930s named Lazar Gulkowitsch. The University of Tartu established a chair in Jewish Studies in 1934, and he took up the position. He was killed when the Nazis invaded in 1941. (Many of the Jews of Estonia escaped the Nazis by going east into the Soviet Union, but about a thousand didn't, among them Gulkowitsch). A scholar at the conference, Anu Pölsdam of the University of Tartu, gave a paper about Gulkowitsch that I'll write more about here.
It was interesting to see the guide then backtrack on her uniformly negative view of the Soviet period. I guess this was just a taste of the internal politics of Estonia.