Leeni Ploompuu was one of a small number of Estonian women to receive secondary education in Finland at the turn of the last century, in preparation for attending university. In Finland, women had the legal right to matriculate in university on par with men, while in Estonia and elsewhere in the Russian Empire, women were admitted to parallel courses and were not awarded degrees. Access to higher education on the part of women did not change in Russia until Tsar Nikolai II’s directive in August of 1915.
Studying in Finland was expensive, and Leeni’s opportunities were largely due to the connections and financial support of her brother, Jakob Ploompuu, a bookseller and director of a home economics school in Tallinn. During summer holidays in Tallinn in 1906, Leeni met the writer and journalist Eduard Hubel (whose pen name was Mait Metsanurk), and the two young people began taking long walks along the seashore while avidly discussing intellectual topics, and their own ideals and aspirations. That fall, when Leeni returned to her university studies in Helsinki, a lively correspondence began which continued until the late spring of 1908 when Hubel married.
This article accompanies a selection of letters from Leeni and Eduard’s correspondence, which in its entirety consists of 92 letters, 54 from Eduard to Leeni, and 38 from Leeni to Eduard. The archive is incomplete, in that Leeni’s letters from 1906 are missing. One of Eduard’s first letters to Leeni from that period is included to illustrate the tonality of the beginning of their correspondence. Eduard and Leeni wrote to each other about cultural events, books, the theatre, but most often about the need for furthering general education among Estonians, not only institutionally, but through an enriched, intellectually vital public world. Both journalism and literary works were of great significance to these goals, keeping in mind that after a brief period during the 1905 Revolution, the press in the Russian Empire was censored. Both Leeni and Eduard were active in organisations: Leeni in the temperance movement, and in groups of Estonians who met regularly for conversation and Finnish lessons; Eduard in the Estonian Education Society and the committee seeking to found the new Literary Society in Tallinn. In Helsinki, Leeni’s paths crossed with other Estonian expatriates who had either participated in or supported the 1905 Russian Revolution, and who had to flee from the brutal repressions that followed in 1906. Unlike Hella Murrik (Wuolijoki), another of the female Estonian students at the University of Helsinki, Leeni was not socialist-minded, preferring a more conservative nationalism in keeping with temperance ideals. Eduard was also sceptical about socialism, though his comments on the topic in his letters are laconic.
One of the frequent themes of Eduard’s letters is his regret that he was unable to attend university for financial reasons. Struggles to fill the gap through reading and studying on his own could not match the intensity and focus of university studies, particularly on a low journalist’s salary. In addition, Eduard had written plays, one of which was staged at the new Estonia Theatre in 1906, and was writing his first prose works. Eduard’s feelings of inferiority and jealousy at Leeni’s advantages cast a shadow over their correspondence. These two young people clearly had romantic feelings for each other, and talked about future plans for a life together, but Leeni was inclined to postpone them until she had a chance to make a public contribution in the field of education: her dream was to found coeducational schools in Estonia along similar lines as the secondary school she had attended in Kuopio. Eduard ran out of patience, and in April of 1908, he abruptly informed Leeni of his upcoming marriage. The two correspondents remained friends throughout their lives. Leeni married Emil Vesterinen, a forestry specialist, and remained in Finland for the rest of her life, where she taught the Estonian language and was active in promoting the Estonian cause. Eduard Hubel (Mait Metsanurk) became a prominent writer of realistic prose and also wrote several plays.
Two facets of the correspondence make this archival material particularly useful in research on the early 20th century. One of these is the problematics of the „new woman“, as can be seen in Leeni’s long letter from October of 1907 about emancipated women and their life choices, and in Eduard’s response. The other is that the language of this correspondence is Estonian at a time when most letters between educated Estonians were still written in German. Leeni and Eduard’s letters provide a fascinating glimpse of an era of transition in the language practices of educated Estonians.