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« Tuna 2 / 2016

Russia’s Ministry of Education as Myth and Inevitability. On the Theme of Education in the Letters of Grievances Drawn Up by Estonians in 1864 and 1881

The era of Estonia’s national awakening (1860’s – first half of the 1880’s) is framed by conspiratorially drawn up memoranda. The primary demand regarding local self-government of the first of these memoranda, the list of grievances submitted to the Russian government (in 1864) in the name of 24 peasant communities, was the liberation of those communities from under the power of the manorial estate. The second, the list of grievances taken to the government by 17 Estonian societies, raised broader social questions: the unifica- tion of Estonian territory into a single province based on ethnicity, and the equality of Estonians and Baltic Germans in the province’s autonomous administration.

In the field of education, the placement of village schools under the jurisdiction of Russia’s Ministry of Education was sought in 1864 in order to be delivered from the power of the local government led by the Baltic German nobility and clergy and to obtain material assistance from the state. At that time, the government’s liberal educational reforms, including the first vigorous steps in fostering Russian public schools, increased the trust of Estonians in the Russian state. The government nevertheless did not alter the administrative jurisdiction of Estonian peasant schools. Legislation was nevertheless passed in 1866 that significantly broadened the rights of rural municipal communities in the Baltic region.

By the beginning of the 1880’s, the Estonian peasantry had become more prosperous and more independent of the owners of the manorial estates. Additionally, a network of rural schools had been es- tablished and a great deal of progress had been made in the work of education. Schoolmasters participated in the nationalist movement. The modernisation of education and particularly the people’s right to par- ticipate in running their own local school had become a generally recognised part of the emancipation of Estonians. There was, however, no unified strategy of action and a heated debate broke out at the end of the 1870’s. Some nationalist activists idealised Russia’s Ministry of Education and recommended the trans- fer of peasant schools to its jurisdiction, prompting groundless expectations. On the other hand, however, many saw a threat to Lutheranism and education in the Estonian mother tongue in altering the relationship of subordination of the schools.

The people who formulated the list of grievances of 1881 took the moods and hopes of the people into account while at the same time realising that the gov- ernment, which was pursuing an ever more conserva- tive, anti-liberal educational policy, would inevitably intervene in the administration of peasant schools in the Baltic region. The section of the list of grievances concerning education reflected a complicated situa- tion that prompted Estonian activists to adopt tactics for steering a middle course. This section gave a dev- astating assessment of the local school administration that was out of touch with the people, which meant the wish to be delivered from under the power of the Baltic Germans, but at the same time there was not the slightest mention of any new subordination and the authority of the state, nor of the greater inclusion of Estonians in the administration of rural schools. Differences of opinion amongst Estonians themselves, yet even more so the still veiled tension between the expectations of Estonian society and Russian policy, were expressed in this kind of incomplete, as it were, and diplomatically non-binding formulation.