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Adam Peterson’s Political Activity in Livland

The aim of this article is to raise the person of Adam Peterson (1838-1918) to a merited place of honour. The importance of his activity in the history of the emergence of the Estonian nationality is underestimated in contemporary historical literature. The article introduces the career and activity of this man who did a great deal to foster the rise in self-awareness of Estonians.

Adam Peterson was born as the sixth child in his family on Kipi Farm on the lands of Holstre Manor. His father was a farmer and a member of the United Brethren of the Moravian Church, and served as a churchwarden. Peterson studied at the Pirmastu village school, the Paistu parish school, the Viljandi district school (kreiskool) and the Pärnu tertsia school, which he graduated from in 1857 with the rights of a graduate of an 8-grade kreiskool. After leaving school, Peterson worked as a manor administrator at the manor that his uncle Mart Strahlberg had rented in Pärnu County until he had a falling out with his uncle. In the early 1860s, he established contact with Krišjānis Valdemārs and other figures in the Latvian nationalist political movement. Through Valdemārs he also became acquainted with Friedrich Dankmann, an Estonian from St. Petersburg.

When he returned to his home neighbourhood in 1863, Peterson set about holding peasant meetings to encourage the local community to rent Holstre crown manor themselves collectively. Possibilities for improving the living conditions of the peasantry in more general terms also emerged as a topic of discussion at these meetings. As a very good orator, Peterson succeeded in convincing his audiences to go along with his ideas. Using a new approach to history, which he disseminated in his speeches and in songs distributed among the people in handbills, he succeeded in getting the peasantry to stand up for their rights more than they had in the past.

Adam headed a 15-member delegation that travelled to St. Petersburg in the spring of 1864 to deliver a petition to the tsar at his palace in Tsarskoje Selo. The delegation did not succeed in meeting with the tsar in person. On 25 May, the delegation left the petition in the hands of aide-de-camp Count Keller. At a meeting held at the farm of Köler’s father in Lubjasaare in August of 1864, Adam Peterson was assigned to draw up a petition consisting of the clauses that had been jointly adopted at the meeting, to gather the signatures of the representatives of as many communities as possible for the petition, and to assemble a delegation to travel again for an audience with Tsar Alexander II.

Regardless of the fact that he was under police surveillance, Adam was up to the task he had undertaken. Overcoming all difficulties, he stepped forward before the tsar at Tsarskoje Selo on 9 November at the head of a delegation consisting of 17 Estonian farmers and handed he tsar salt and bread, the general petition, a summary of that petition, and 95 individual petitions.

The Baltic German knighthoods paid him back painfully for his enterprising spirit and courageousness to meet and speak with the tsar in person and to make proposals to the central authorities demanding improvements in the living conditions of the peasantry. He was imprisoned repeatedly and held in jail in very poor conditions. He was released after his own protest declarations or those of his supporters were sent to the Senate. After numerous imprisonments, Adam Peterson fled to Russia in 1871, where he worked as a manor administrator. At the same time, he wrote articles for both Russian and Estonian journalistic press publications. He admittedly succeeded in publishing writings in the Estonian press only until he had a falling out with Carl Robert Jakobson in 1881.

Jaan Tõnisson wrote to Adam Peterson in Russia in 1899 and told him that only rumours were in circulation in Estonia concerning Peterson’s activities. Tõnisson urged Peterson to write down his recollections in detail of historical events that he had participated in. A considerable portion of Peterson’s written biographical and historical records that are found in the Cultural History Archive are probably the result of Tõnisson’s request.

Peterson returned to his Estonian homeland in 1900, where he lived in reclusion from political life, and died in 1918.